Thursday, April 30, 2015

DOG YEARS by Gunter Grass

The recent death of Gunter Grass sent my left arm skyward toward the shelf where my paperback of Dog Years has sat unread for at least a lifetime's worth of its title. I took it down, snorted its vintage 1960s paperback scent (true madeleine for the bookish), and began reading Grass's big black shaggy hund of a novel.

My reaction to Dog Years is as tripartite as the book's structure: the first section grabbed me, the second nearly lost me, and the third impressed me deeply. (Perhaps interestingly, this mirrors my reaction to The Tin Drum, where the first section knocked me out, the second impressed me less, and the third least of all--although, as in Dog Years, there are some very good scenes throughout.) As that parenthetical comment implies, any reading of Dog Years takes place under the inescapable circular shadow of Oskar Matzerath's tinny drum. This novel was clearly Grass's attempt to make lightning strike twice, so it's not surprising that it almost fizzles out. (I suspect that many readers don't make it through the overlong 'Love Letters' section--I came close to bailing out there.) The first two-thirds of Dog Years largely tread upon soggy ground already footprinted by Oskar and his family (who make Hitchcockian cameos here), and while the sections are mostly enjoyable and the prose adventurous, there's little sense of the author pushing himself beyond his literary past. The 'Materniads' section, however, affords Grass the opportunity for a more extensive and pointed satire of postwar Germany and the 'economic miracle' than is found in the earlier novel. This section also seems imaginatively and linguistically superior to the rest of Dog Years--it's as though Grass spends 350 pages cranking his literary engine and here the sucker finally fires and we're off. Matern's picaresque journey of Rabelaisian revenge, the 'mealworm prophecy' satire of the Springer press empire, the ultra-high satire of Heidegger and Habermas, the long radio play section that satirizes the West German fetishization of 'discussion' and 'conversation' and in which Grass has a character say, "We discuss in order not to have to soliloquize"--all of this is angry, funny, bitter, brilliant; it's Grass at his best. And the 'Materniads' ends with perhaps its most impressive section of all, an extended tour de force tour de mineshaft in which Amsel's infernal underground automata Swiftianly satirize virtually every aspect of the surface society. If all 600 pages of Dog Years had been as brilliant as its last 200, the book would've blown more minds than LSD.

AT SWIM-TWO-BIRDS by Flann O'Brien

When At Swim-Two-Birds was published in 1939, James Joyce was encouraging, calling the young author "a real writer, with the true comic spirit" (a spirit in short supply in the war-birthing world of 1939), but Dylan Thomas won the battle of the blurbs when he said of this novel, "This is just the book to give your sister if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl." Decades later, Anthony Burgess called it a "funny, vital, shocking" masterpiece, Updike wrote of it admiringly, and even John (no relation) Wain climbed down from his horse, shot bad Jack Elam right between the eyes, and drawled that O'Brien's novel was "just about the only real masterpiece in English that is far too little read and discussed."

Having just finished the book, I find myself in only partial agreement with these distinguished blurbers. At Swim-Two-Birds is indeed a good, funny book; it's engagingly written, formally original and playfully experimental, a highly amusing and even more highly literary entertainment--and most importantly, it's not green. (One of O'Brien's Irish eccentrics considers all books bound in non-green covers to be a priori heretical, a surprisingly complex authorial swipe at both Irishist kitsch and the banning of Ulysses in its original more-blue-than-blue-green Shakespeare & Co. wrapper.) A good case could be made for ASTB as the first truly postmodern novel; it's so proto-pomo that it often reads more like a descendant of Barth, Barthelme and Vonnegut than one of their precursors. (Or as an old American novelty song once put it, "I'm my own grandpa...") It's at least 30 years ahead of its time. But, alas (hear the gears clunk as I shift from laudatory to critical mode), it's also quite uneven and ill-paced; it sags in the middle, some scenes go on too long with too little humor, like those tedious Saturday Night Live sketches that don't make it into the edited one-hour reruns. O'Brien probably couldn't have written a more original novel, but he could've done a funnier one. The book also has a major 'anxiety of influence' problem: the lengthy pastiche scenes (the book's most tedious sections, to me) pale before their obvious precursors in the 'Cyclops' episode of Ulysses; and the most often remarked-upon aspect of the novel, the trial scene in the final third, is too close for comfort to Joyce's 'Circe' episode. So I wouldn't call At Swim-Two-Birds a masterpiece; it's more of a minor but very amusing tour de force, the impressive early work of a Joyce-smitten young man.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Wrong on Wright : Google Autocorrect 'Erases' Novelist Stephen Wright

I just googled the American literary novelist Stephen Wright, and even though I spelled his name correctly, Google mistakenly autocorrected my request and produced a results page for the comedian Steven Wright--homophonous name, very different guy. (The novelist has more metal on his face.) I'm a fan of both Wrights, but it's damned annoying to go looking for info on an extraordinary novelist and be channeled to stand-up comedy's deadest pan. One must type the phrase 'Stephen Wright novelist' to find information on the author of Meditations in Green, Going Native and The Amalgamation Polka. Type just the man's name, and you'll find yourself staring at Gilbert Gottfried on horse tranqs. Were I in a grumpier mood, I'd call this yet another sign of cultural decline, literary apocalypse, Brunnhilde riding a horse made of Penguin Classics into an unrefining, unregenerating fire--but it's simply another example of the most powerful search engine on the web erasing literary culture and replacing it with the Jimmy Fallon kind.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Fifty Other Great 20th-Century English-Language Books: A Less-Than-Obvious List

Having recently annotated the Modern Library's list of the greatest 20th-century novels and having linked to Larry McCaffery's excellent list composed in response to the ML list, I here present my own list, in no particular order, of 50 great English-language works of fiction that appear on only one or neither of the above lists. I will avoid obvious choices (Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, Lolita, Absalom, Absalom!), not because they are not deserving (they deserve all the praise they have received), but because they tend to appear on everyone's lists, thus taking up space that might be better used to name great titles many people haven't read.
  1. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie.
  2. Cane by Jean Toomer.
  3. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (trans. by C. K. Scott Moncrieff).
  4. Babel 17 by Samuel Delany.
  5. Steps by Jerzy Kosinski.
  6. The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski.
  7. A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter.
  8. On The Yard by Malcolm Braly
  9. Downriver by Iain Sinclair.
  10. Mercier and Camier by Samuel Beckett.
  11. Crash by J. G. Ballard.
  12. Money by Martin Amis
  13. Time's Arrow by Martin Amis.
  14. Angels by Denis Johnson.
  15. The Swimming Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst.
  16. Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee.
  17. His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass) by Philip Pullman.
  18. Lanark by Alasdair Gray.
  19. Call It Sleep by Henry Roth.
  20. The Human Factor by Graham Greene.
  21. Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth.
  22. Postcards by Annie Proulx.
  23. Why Are We In Vietnam? by Norman Mailer.
  24. Lincoln by Gore Vidal.
  25. A Cool Million by Nathanael West.
  26. The Atlas by William T. Vollmann.
  27. Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon.
  28. Running Dog by Don DeLillo.
  29. Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone.
  30. Children of Light by Robert Stone.
  31. Sula by Toni Morrison.
  32. Transparent Things by Vladimir Nabokov.
  33. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey.
  34. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry.
  35. All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers by Larry McMurtry.
  36. Ancient Evenings by Norman Mailer.
  37. Rabbit, Run by John Updike.
  38. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.
  39. The World According to Garp by John Irving.
  40. The Field of Vision by Wright Morris.
  41. How To Save Your Own Life by Erica Jong.
  42. Where I'm Calling From by Raymond Carver.
  43. The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth.
  44. Omensetter's Luck by William H. Gass
  45. Murphy by Samuel Beckett.
  46. The Beautiful Room Is Empty by Edmund White.
  47. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (trans. by Gregory Rabassa).
  48. Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner.
  49. The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien.
  50. The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

THE BOOK OF KELLS Complete Text now online

Get your Irish up! Trinity College Dublin has digitized the complete Book of Kells and made it available online in zoomable high-resolution images. It can be viewed here. As far as studying the text goes, this is much better than traveling to Dublin, because at TCD only a few pages are displayed at a time--in a crowded, darkened room. Now we can look upon it at leisure, lose ourselves in its labyrinthine twists and breathtaking inventions. In the name of Joyce (the Fokker, the Sun, the intoxicating spirit), ecjoy it...

(For a quick taste of the wonders to be found herein, click on the link and scroll down the left sidebar to 'Folio 114v.' Check out the top half of this page. Zoom in on it. Keep zooming in. It's better than acid. This is the shit Joyce was smoking when he wrote Finnegans Wake.)

The Modern Library's 100 Best Novels List: An Opinionated Annotation

Back in 1998, the Modern Library board (whoever they might be...) released the following list of their picks for the 100 best novels in the English language since 1900. Below, I argumentatively annotate their list. (I was surprised at the number of these novels I haven't yet read... Life is short, lit is looooong...)
  1. ULYSSES by James Joyce. Well...what remains unsaid about the great U.? Perhaps that it's a tiresomely obvious choice for best novel of the century? Not that I disagree with the Library. Non, pas du toutUlysses tops my personal 'top shelf' of great novels; it's the Rosetta Stone of modern literature, and I'll be re-reading it for the rest of my life.
  2. THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Another novel I find myself re-reading every two or three years, with every new look revealing another facet of Fitzgerald's nearly flawless gem. My re-readings of Gatsby, if they could somehow be graphed, might resemble a fever chart of my intellectual obsessions: my early moralistic interpretation of the novel spiking into an angry Marxist interpretation that mellowed somewhat into a more Foucaultian understanding of the social construction of Gatsby's self, which in turn spiked again in a fever of Lacanian dialectical desire, only to mellow once more into an aesthetic appreciation of Fitzgerald's art that owes much to Bloom and Gass.
  3. A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN by James Joyce. Of course I identified with Stephen Dedalus. Every young litgeek identifies with Stephen Dedalus. Every glasses-wearing bulliedboy can't help but see himself reflected in little Dedalus's lost spectacles. Another book I've read multiple times, the Portrait is a more perfect work than Ulysses, a finer work of art (in the sense that Vermeer is a 'finer' painter than Rembrandt, while not a 'greater' one), but choosing between them is like choosing between the Metropolitan Museum and the Frick Collection: why force an either-or when the only sanity-preserving answer is both-and?
  4. LOLITA by Vladimir Nabokov. Surely one of the most beautifully-written books of the century, a masterpiece of lyrical modernism and bottomless irony. Lolita was the first and possibly greatest of the black comic novels America produced as a disturbing counterpoint to its midcentury high noon of political and economic power. The great beauty of Nabokov's novel may be the most tragically ironic thing about it.
  5. BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley. Now comes my first quarrel with the Modern Library. BNW is without question a landmark in the subgenre of dystopian science fiction and a fairly successful Swiftian satire of 1920s-30s trends, but it didn't impress me as a 'great' novel on a par with the first four ML choices. It wouldn't have made my list. 
  6. THE SOUND AND THE FURY by William Faulkner. No quarrel here. Faulkner's novel is unforgettable, eminently re-readable, and audaciously original. I'm haunted by that early moment when Caddy holds a piece of ice to Benjy's cheek and he feels its chill. Looking around at American literature today, I wonder: Where have all the Faulkners gone?
  7. CATCH-22 by Joseph Heller. American readers had to wait until he Sixties, with Heller and Vonnegut, for World War Two to produce a literature equal to its consciousness-shattering historical force. Heller's mad farce helps illuminate the tragic rabbit hole we all Aliced into after Auschwitz and Nagasaki.
  8. DARKNESS AT NOON by Arthur Koestler. A powerful portrait of totalitarianism, yes. But one of the century's best novels? Non. Unlike, say, Orwell's 1984, it's too much of a period piece, and today it seems largely of historical rather than artistic interest.
  9. SONS AND LOVERS by D.H. Lawrence. Too Hardy-ish for my taste. Lawrence wasn't yet entirely DHL when he wrote this, but the writing was surely a crucial step in becoming himself.
  10. THE GRAPES OF WRATH by John Steinbeck. The opening and final chapters are amazing, some of the non-narrative alternate chapters invent 1960s New Journalism long before Tom Wolfe donned his first white suit, but this is also a deeply uneven novel that can shift from corny to heartbreaking in the space of a single page. The Grapes of Wrath also risks collapsing under the weight of its internal contradictions (an ironically fitting fate, perhaps, for the great literary landmark of American Thirties leftism). Steinbeck's repeated warnings--or are they incitements?--about a coming revolution sit uneasily alongside the ultimately reactionary, patriarchal, anti-modern agrarianism of much of his text.
  11. UNDER THE VOLCANO by Malcolm Lowry. Like all novels of more than 250 pages, it has its weak spots, and upon first reading it, I couldn't get past them. A second reading a few years later left me deeply impressed by the book's dark beauty. It's a great one, and Geoffrey Firmin one of the century's greatest characters.
  12. THE WAY OF ALL FLESH by Samuel Butler. I haven't read it yet. (Mea maxima culpa...May a Robert Culp-a...)
  13. 1984 by George Orwell. It's been about 25 years since I last read this, and my intervening reading of Zamyatin's We, which enormously influenced G. O.'s novel, has taken a bit of the bloom off Orwell's originality in my mind. Still, 1984 is a damned haunting work and--goddamn it--still tragically relevant.
  14. I, CLAUDIUS by Robert Graves. Oddly, I haven't read this one yet, either. I can't imagine why not, since both of Graves' Claudius novels have been sitting on my bookshelves for over a decade. I'll get to them soon.
  15. TO THE LIGHTHOUSE by Virginia Woolf. An astonishingly beautiful novel. Like the rest of Woolf's beautifully troubling works, it needs to be rescued from the simplified, ideologically-driven interpretations imposed upon it by Woolf's self-appointed academic eulogists. Pay no attention to those professors behind the curtain; just read Woolf's novels; swim in them, float in them; try not to drown.
  16. AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY by Theodore Dreiser. Here I have a major quarrel with the Modern Library. If their list purported to present 'important' novels, then the inclusion of this one would be justified by its status as a landmark of Naturalism and an influence upon such later works as Mailer's Executioner's Song or even Capote's (overrated, I think) In Cold Blood. But Dreiser's big, bloated, badly-written novel doesn't belong anywhere near a list of 'best' books. Pick a page, any page, and you'll probably find prose bad enough to induce chuckles, giggles, even peals of laughter.
  17. THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER by Carson McCullers. Another one I haven't gotten around to reading yet.
  18. SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE by Kurt Vonnegut. Wildly original. Any reader who forgets it has probably suffered a severe brain injury and is in danger of coming unstuck in time.
  19. INVISIBLE MAN by Ralph Ellison. Another obvious choice. Ellison's only finished novel is a staggeringly impressive work of art and perhaps the greatest first novel I've ever read. Who cares if Ralph never completed another. We have a volume of very good short stories (Flying Home), a thick collection of essays, and a cinder block-size edition of the manuscript of his second novel (Three Days Before the Shooting); but even if we had none of that, Invisible Man would have been enough. Most writers never come within a hundred miles of writing a novel this good.
  20. NATIVE SON by Richard Wright. In this list and in my mind, Wright's impressive novel withers under the retrospective glare of Ellison's masterpiece. Wright's more of a Dreiserian naturalist--although he fortunately wrote better than the 'master'--and thus less to my taste than the Melvillean and studiously Modernist Ellison. In the 'cutting session' of my mind, Ellison blows Wright away, but Native Son is still, on its own terms, a hell of a book.
  21. HENDERSON THE RAIN KING by Saul Bellow. Sigh. I'm not a Bellow fan. Saint Saul and Dapper Don DeLillo are the two most highly regarded American writers of my lifetime who don't appeal to me. I'm not apologizing for this. All readers' tastes differ, and Bellow is not to mine. That said, I must add that, like all other readers who don't like Bellow, I almost loved Seize the Day. Henderson, on the other hand, didn't much impress me.
  22. APPOINTMENT IN SAMARRA by John O’Hara. Late in the 20th century there was a mini-groundswell around this novel, and now it's generally considered canonical and O'Hara's best. My opinion: It may well be O'Hara's best, but the best novel by a middling writer is still a middling novel, and this one doesn't rise above mediocrity.
  23. U.S.A.(trilogy) by John Dos Passos. Unfortunately unread today and in serious danger of being forgotten, Dos Passos' big-as-America trilogy of experimental novels richly deserves to be rediscovered. Maybe some young writer in America today will find in them a way out of the academic cul-de-sac into which our literary fiction has wrongly turned.
  24. WINESBURG, OHIO by Sherwood Anderson. The ML board is cheating here. This is a collection of related short stories, not 'really' a novel. It is, however, an excellent story collection and well worth reading. I grew up in this region about 70 years after Anderson, and the neuroses of his Ohioans seem eerily, dismally familiar.
  25. A PASSAGE TO INDIA by E.M. Forster. The only major Forster I haven't yet read.
  26. THE WINGS OF THE DOVE by Henry James. This is a long, long symphony of a novel. Longer than Beethoven, longer than Mahler. Reading it, I fall into the same sort of aesthetic trance I experience when listening to a great symphony. Late James enchants me.
  27. THE AMBASSADORS by Henry James. Another of those astonishingly beautiful novels that Americans seem to have lost the ability to write and/or the will to read. May every nonexistent god damn the MFA programs and the publishing industry for making our literature so little--and damn us readers too, for not demanding more.
  28. TENDER IS THE NIGHT by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Even I can't believe I haven't read this. Maybe I fear discovering that FSF was a one-book author. Or maybe I'm unconsciously following the dictum of Jeff Daniels' odious character in Noah Baumbach's fine film The Squid and the Whale: "Tender is the Night is minor Fitzgerald," this bearded, arrogant nonentity repeatedly growls.
  29. THE STUDS LONIGAN TRILOGY by James T. Farrell. Nothing little about Jim Farrell. He writes better than Dreiser (not to damn the man with the faintest praise) and his Lonigan novels, which were still popular about 50 years ago, deserve rediscovery. Of course they're 'dated,' whatever that means. Everything from the past is dated. Everything from the present is dated too. Its date is 'today.'
  30. THE GOOD SOLDIER by Ford Madox Ford. Critics have long loved Ford's novel, but I think they're overestimating it. It may have been new and innovative in its time, but that time  has passed, and I found it an overly obvious novel and its much-lauded unreliable narrator a bit of a dunce.
  31. ANIMAL FARM by George Orwell. A good, clever little satire, but can we really call it one of the best novels of the century? I wouldn't.
  32. THE GOLDEN BOWL by Henry James. I'm holding this late James in reserve, along with The Brothers Karamazov and Mann's Joseph novels. they'll be the 'new' books of my old age.
  33. SISTER CARRIE by Theodore Dreiser. I tried. Yes, I tried. But Dreiser is a prose artist of such astounding ineptitude that I couldn't get through the first chapter without volcanically erupting in derisive laughter.
  34. A HANDFUL OF DUST by Evelyn Waugh. I don't like Waugh. Vile Bodies turned me off; Scoop did not sufficiently amuse; I doubt he deserves a third chance.
  35. AS I LAY DYING by William Faulkner. Oxford Bill's great tour de force novel. A marvelous work of art. Faulkner, especially Thirties Faulkner, is so damn good I find it nearly impossible to criticize him. You don't touch the Torah.
  36. ALL THE KING’S MEN by Robert Penn Warren. Lush is the word for Warren's prose here. He writes in a luxuriant, bourbon-lubricated, magnolia-scented Southern voice that may be at times too lush for his subject matter. The lyrical prose often bigfoots over the political melodrama to create the effect of a massively overwritten noir novel, like a Walter Pater rewrite of The Postman Always Rings Twice. But too much beauty is a fault I can love.
  37. THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY by Thornton Wilder. Another candidate for my to-read list. One of the best uses of 'best of' lists like this is to find potentially great books one hasn't yet read.
  38. HOWARDS END by E.M. Forster. I loved this novel. The best Forster I've read, and surely one of the century's best English novels. It's a multifaceted jewel.
  39. GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN by James Baldwin. Anyone looking for the great American novel of evangelical religion need look no further. Baldwin 's powerful book is American literature's greatest examination of Christian fundamentalism. It is our Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
  40. THE HEART OF THE MATTER by Graham Greene. I've read and liked several other Greenes, from The End of the Affair to The Human Factor, but I haven't gotten to the heart of his matter yet.
  41. LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding. It didn't exactly overwhelm me, as a 'great' or 'best' novel should, when I read it about 15 years ago. In fact, Golding's instant classic left me rather indifferent.
  42. DELIVERANCE by James Dickey. Here's an ML choice that makes me want to grab the mysterious board by the lapels and say, "Oh, come on..." Dickey's little post-censorship exploitation novel doesn't deserve a place here. It's minor. Its inclusion makes me want to bend over and squeal like a pig.
  43. A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME (series) by Anthony Powell. Here's another big work I'm holding in reserve for my old (or at least older) age--the winter of my readerly content, I hope. I've spent many pleasant  moments in the Wallace Collection gazing into the lovely Poussin that gives Powell's four volumes their collective title.
  44. POINT COUNTER POINT by Aldous Huxley. Haven't read this Huxley and don't know if I ever will. Well, I probably will, now that it's on my mind...
  45. THE SUN ALSO RISES by Ernest Hemingway. It's the usual critic's choice among Hemingway novels, the best of a group of novels that constitutes a lesser achievement than his incomparable short stories. The exception to that judgment, The Old Man and the Sea, isn't actually an exception at all: it's more a long story than a novel. This 'round up the usual suspects' aura aside, The Sun Also Rises is quite a good novel, and while it doesn't rise to the aesthetic level of his best stories, I can't quarrel with its inclusion here.
  46. THE SECRET AGENT by Joseph Conrad. Sorry to say I haven't read it, even though a copy of it sits almost literally at me feet in a giant Conrad anthology.
  47. NOSTROMO by Joseph Conrad. Ditto. And I'm even sorrier. I seem to be quite the Conradian slacker, n'est-ce pas?
  48. THE RAINBOW by D.H. Lawrence. Sons and Lovers struck me as too much under the shadow of Thomas Hardy, and The Rainbow likewise seemed a little too 19th-century to me, as much or more a backward look toward George Eliot than a leap into literature's future. All literature wears this Janus mask, but The Rainbow left me feeling that Lawrence hadn't quite achieved himself yet.
  49. WOMEN IN LOVE by D.H. Lawrence. Here's the novel where Lawrence becomes Lawrence--for better and for worse. It's a lovely, disturbing prose poem of a book; and it also contains passages of dialogue so arch and unnaturalistic as to provoke a most un-Lawrencian laughter. Unintended comedy aside, it's a killingly humourless book, like all of Lawrence. The only time DHL had a funny bone in his body was when Groucho Marx fucked him in  the ass.
  50. TROPIC OF CANCER by Henry Miller. I love it. I've loved it for a long time. Happy Henry's Parisian romp, uneven and in need of editorial trimming though it is (like this sentence), remains American literature's first and least abashed full-bodied embrace of European Modernism. Miller is a literary Man Ray: an American writer who went to Paris and went completely native, became a weird mixture of Dadaist, Surrealist and Brooklyn Celine. Henry Miller, there's nobody like him. If Groucho Marx had ever fucked him in the ass, he'd have said, "Thank you, sir, may I have another?"
  51. THE NAKED AND THE DEAD by Norman Mailer. The Norman was a very young writer and too much under the influence of Dos Passos when he wrote this, and he went on to write much better books that never appear on 'best of' lists because they tend to make critics uncomfortable. The extremely discomforting An American Dream, for example, is better written; Ancient Evenings is much more original and audacious. And The Executioner's Song is the kind of book Dreiser might have written had he had an ear for prose.
  52. PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT by Philip Roth. Roth's breakthrough book, in both the popular and aesthetic senses of the word, Portnoy remains, in the long vista of Roth's career, one of the high points. But it's only one. Any number of Roth novels might have filled this slot. Portnoy's here simply because it's the first Roth title that comes into most readers' heads. (I'll let stand the entirely appropriate pornographic double entendres in those last two sentences.)
  53. PALE FIRE by Vladimir Nabokov. If you're looking for a novel unlike any other in American literature, this is the novel for you. Told in the form of a mad commentary upon a long poem (also written by Nabokov and, rather surprisingly, quite a good poem), Pale Fire is a darkly comic labyrinth in  which Dedalus-Nabokov traps himself: the whole can be read as a parodic reflection of Nabokov's own mad commentary on Pushkin's Eugene Onegin.
  54. LIGHT IN AUGUST by William Faulkner. It has its flaws, but it's still Thirties Faulkner, a great product of his best period. Still, why this instead of Absalom, Absalom!, a novel I consider one of the two greatest ever written by an American? (Moby Dick is the other.) Is Absalom too difficult for the board?
  55. ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac. Glad to see at least one Beat book on this list, even if the one they chose is the most obvious and nearly canonical of all possible choices. It's a very good book, but its position on the list probably owes more to its being the only Kerouac novel most readers have read.
  56. THE MALTESE FALCON by Dashiell Hammett. This choice is not necessarily the middle-to-highbrow Modern Library throwing a bone to a mid-to-lowbrow genre. Hammett's black bird is an excellent detective novel that deserves a seat at the canonical table.
  57. PARADE’S END by Ford Madox Ford. Ford's WWI tetralogy and his historical novel The Fifth Queen, are still on my to-read list. Something tells me I'll probably enjoy them more than The Oversold Soldier.
  58. THE AGE OF INNOCENCE by Edith Wharton. Great novel, truly great. I remember reading it over a weekend about 20 years ago and being surprisingly enthralled. Wharton's narrative voice is a witty wonder.
  59. ZULEIKA DOBSON by Max Beerbohm. I haven't read this, but it just jumped to the top level of my to-read list. Sounds pretty good.
  60. THE MOVIEGOER by Walker Percy. Percy's National Book Award winner failed to grab me; it didn't hold my attention even for its short length.
  61. DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP by Willa Cather. Another one I haven't read...
  62. FROM HERE TO ETERNITY by James Jones. I read this so long ago that I can barely remember it. It must not have greatly impressed me.
  63. THE WAPSHOT CHRONICLES by John Cheever. The Wapshot novels are not Cheever's best. I suspect that the board felt obligated to include something by Cheever and, since they couldn't list the stories, decided to list this. The big red book, The Stories of John Cheever, is the Cheever to read.
  64. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE by J.D. Salinger. Someone said that the worst thing you can do to J. D. Salinger is read him in adulthood. From experience, I tend to agree.
  65. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE by Anthony Burgess. A brilliant, clever, utterly original novel. One of the few subsequent works to do something truly interesting with the linguistic freedom Joyce claimed for literature in Finnegans Wake.
  66. OF HUMAN BONDAGE by W. Somerset Maugham. I'll read it one of these days.
  67. HEART OF DARKNESS by Joseph Conrad. Finally, a Conrad I've read! It's a great, beautiful novel and an obvious choice. I'd like to hear a recording of Orson Welles reading this one.
  68. MAIN STREET by Sinclair Lewis. I don't think anyone reads Lewis anymore. I haven't read Main Street.
  69. THE HOUSE OF MIRTH by Edith Wharton. It's well-written, of course, and probably a great novel, but Lily Bart's sad tale failed to hold my interest. I was also irked by Wharton's typically WASP-Modernist anti-Semitism (on display early in this novel), an odious little prejudice she shared with Hemingway, Eliot, Lawrence, Miller and (most egregiously) the unspeakable Mr. Pound. I can usually read past a great writer's antiquated bigotries, but I stalled out over Edie's.
  70. THE ALEXANDRIA QUARTET by Lawrence Durrell. As I type, a four-volume boxed set of the AQ stands atop a high bookshelf almost directly above my head. It's been there for several years. I'm often tempted, but I haven't read it yet.
  71. A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA by Richard Hughes. Haven't read this one  either. (Aren't my annotations wonderfully illuminating?)
  72. A HOUSE FOR MR BISWAS by V.S. Naipaul. Hey, guess what?... That's right, I haven't read this novel either.
  73. THE DAY OF THE LOCUST by Nathanael West. A great novella, as are Miss Lonelyhearts and A Cool Million. If not the Great American Novel, Locust is certainly the Great Los Angeles Novella.
  74. A FAREWELL TO ARMS by Ernest Hemingway. Not as good as The Sun Also Rises and not even comparable to Hemingway's great short stories, the Farewell is a novel I found quite easy to forget.
  75. SCOOP by Evelyn Waugh. Sadly, I was not amused.
  76. THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE by Muriel Spark. Good enough, but not great. I thought Spark's novel was a rather thin, insubstantial piece of work.
  77. FINNEGANS WAKE by James Joyce. Kudos to the ML board for choosing the most densely woven, linguistically adventurous and well-nigh impossible English-language novel of the 20th century. Every portmanteau word, every weird spelling, implies so many meanings that it would take several lifetimes to adequately plumb the depths of this text. Even most Joyce scholars stick to Ulysses and the earlier works.
  78. KIM by Rudyard Kipling. This is one I must read. Really.
  79. A ROOM WITH A VIEW by E.M. Forster. A very good Edwardian social novel. Forster's novelistic skill overcame even my distaste for good manners, a quality I find much more desirable in life than in fiction.
  80. BRIDESHEAD REVISITED by Evelyn Waugh. Finding his comic novels not to my taste, I've thus far avoided Waugh's more serious endeavors.
  81. THE ADVENTURES OF AUGIE MARCH by Saul Bellow. As stated above, Bellow's style doesn't grab me and his novels fail to appeal. Martin Amis thinks Augie is the greatest; Mr. March has never meant much to me.
  82. ANGLE OF REPOSE by Wallace Stegner. Another book that stares down at me from a bookshelf even as I type this and mocks me with the fact that I've not yet read it.
  83. A BEND IN THE RIVER by V.S. Naipaul. After a strong beginning, Naipaul's African novel lost my interest somewhere in the jungle.
  84. THE DEATH OF THE HEART by Elizabeth Bowen. Except for a single book (not this one), Bowen is a writer unread by me.
  85. LORD JIM by Joseph Conrad. To me, this one reads like Conrad's version of a Conrad novel, a too self-conscious performance with nothing unexpected in it. Beautifully performed, though.
  86. RAGTIME by E.L. Doctorow. A great American novel by a writer too often overlooked today. When Doctorow dies, we'll begin to appreciate him; until then, we'll continue taking him for granted.
  87. THE OLD WIVES’ TALE by Arnold Bennett. This one is also on my to-read list.
  88. THE CALL OF THE WILD by Jack London. I missed Jack London. In late 20th-century America he was considered a writer of boys' adventure stories, and when I was a boy at the London age, I was already reading John Le Carre and Robert Ludlum and ready to begin the leap to 'serious' literature with Updike and Cheever. I was much too precocious to read Jack London.
  89. LOVING by Henry Green. Green's distinctive prose style, although loved by many, leaves me cold. Like Bellow, like Waugh, like DeLillo, he's not to my taste.
  90. MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN by Salman Rushdie. Yes, it's derivative of The Tin Drum. So what? Rushdie's artistic exuberance quickly overcomes the debt and repays it with enormous interest. This novel is a mind-blower. It deserves all its awards. 
  91. TOBACCO ROAD by Erskine Caldwell. Another novel I read 20 years ago and quickly forgot. Caldwell seems to have slid into a similar obscurity: he's all but unread today.
  92. IRONWEED by William Kennedy. Here's a selection I can whole-heartedly endorse. Kennedy's Albany novels are marvelous, and the grim, tightly-focused Ironweed reads at times like the work of an American James Joyce who has been decisively influenced by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It's fantastic. It also, incidentally, gave Jack Nicholson his best film role of the 1980s.
  93. THE MAGUS by John Fowles. Really? They chose this over The French Lieutenant's Woman? I wouldn't have.
  94. WIDE SARGASSO SEA by Jean Rhys. This is one of those novels I've always meant to read but haven't yet. I have all of Rhys's novels in one volume, and one of these days I'll crack it open and dive in.
  95. UNDER THE NET by Iris Murdoch. A good novel, but a curious choice. Why this early and rather atypical Murdoch instead of one of the later, longer, more Romantic novels (The Sea, The Sea; The Good Apprentice) or a mid-career Nabokovian one like The Black Prince? It's not as though Under The Net is some kind of novelistic Citizen Kane that Iris was never able to equal.
  96. SOPHIE’S CHOICE by William Styron. Again, kudos to the ML for recognizing the excellence of Styron's late masterpiece. A lot of people hated this novel when it was first published, but I've admired it deeply for more than 30 years. It's one of the Great American Novels, a tragedy that stands beside Gatsby and a meditation on the narrative construction of self and history that rivals even Absalom, Absalom!
  97. THE SHELTERING SKY by Paul Bowles. The great American existentialist novel--probably the only great one--and a marvelous psychological horror story, it's a completely successful mélange of Camus, Gide, Henry James, Conrad, and the gothic novel. Bowles fits these disparate influences together with seeming effortlessness as he takes Kit and Port through the darkest heart of desert light and all the way to the end of the line.
  98. THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE by James M. Cain. From first line to final twist, this is an exceptional noir novel, but is it really one of the century's best novels? I can think of quite a few better books that didn't make this list. For example: Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!; Toomer's Cane; Morrison's Beloved, Martin Amis's Money; James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime; Alasdair Gray's Lanark; Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow; McCarthy's Blood Meridian; Mailer's Ancient Evenings; West's A Cool Million; Denis Johnson's Angels; Malcolm Braly's On The Yard; William Vollmann's The Atlas; Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, Annie Proulx's Postcards...
  99. THE GINGER MAN by J.P. Donleavy. It's been on one of my bookshelves forever, and I don't know if I'll ever read it. It looks like a dismal period piece, vintage narcissistic whine from a time long gone. 
  100. THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS by Booth Tarkington. No, I haven't read it, and I doubt that you have either, whoever you may be. Booth T., once a very well-known writer, is almost entirely forgotten today. This novel, however good it may be, is now better known as the basis of Orson Welles' second film.
After the Modern Library released this list, superhip literary critic Larry McCaffery responded with his own list of 100 books, a useful correction to the predictability, tameness and truly bizarre oversights (What, no Absalom, Absalom! !?!) of the ML list. You can read McCaffery's list here.