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Out With the New, In With the Old

Click here for Nathan Ihara's feature The Tyranny of the New.

After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931) by Jean Rhys
If your bedroom has ever felt too small, your wine too cheap, your face too old, your family as strangers, and your love affairs mere figments of your imagination, then Jean Rhys' After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, about a dissolute woman adrift in Paris, reads like the diary you never had the fortitude to write.

Bonjour Tristesse (1954) by Francoise Sagan and The Elementary Particles (1998) by Michel Houellebecq
The intoxicating allure and essential cruelty of sexual liberation has never been more purely articulated than in Sagan's naughty little best seller, written when she was 18. If Bonjour Tristesse cracks open the door to the dreamland of the counterculture, then Houellebecq's disillusioned The Elementary Particles bitterly slams it shut. Taken together, these novels capture the exhilaration and subsequent exhaustion of the human impulse toward freedom.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) by Murial Spark
No one has charted the psychosexual dimensions of the teacher-student battleground with greater wit, insight and style than Miss Spark. Her novella manages to build unbearable suspense despite a tendency to prematurely reveal all the secrets of the plot.

Chilly Scenes of Winter (1976) by Ann Beattie
Probably deserves to replace Catcher in the Rye as ubiquitous literary companion to the young and disillusioned.

The Cement Garden (1978) by Ian McEwan
Before he wrote lavish, celebrated accounts of terrorism, global warming and world wars, Ian McEwan was known as Ian Macabre for his nasty accounts of unseemly human behavior. In his first, and most piercing, novel he exposes the unleashed id and sexual experimentation of four siblings living unsupervised after the death of their parents — an erotic Lord of the Flies that is as seductive as it is alarming.

The Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father (1979) by Geoffrey Wolff
It often seems the best memoirs are biographies disguised as autobiographies. Geoffrey Wolff's portrait of his pathological liar and con-man dad, published in the predawn of the memoir explosion, is everything the genre ought to be: elegant rather than exploitative, wise, never glib, expansive not narcissistic, precise to the point of agony and laughter.

Remains of the Day (1989) and The Unconsoled (1995) by Kazuo Ishiguro
Has any author ever written two consecutive novels more dissimilar and more wonderful than Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day and The Unconsoled? The first is slim and exquisite, a tragicomedy of life wasted on the altar of false gods. The second is sprawling and dizzying; it obeys only its own uncanny dream logic yet somehow speaks directly to the hidden substructure of the human experience. Both are hilarious.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) by Patricia Highsmith
Highsmith's masterpiece and the apotheosis of her literary exploration of the human dark side. Witnessing Tom Ripley evolve (devolve?) from pathetic, lovelorn dreamer to powerful, forever-isolated sociopath is one of the most captivating and morally complex character developments to be found in fiction.

Why Did I Ever? (2002) by Mary Robison
No one captures the mind's spastic, foolish, absurd inner monologue like Robison. Chapter 183 in its entirety: "Up! Lordy! Good morning, I'm up!" I say. "What the hell has been going on?"

How to Be Alone: Essays (2002) by Jonathan Franzen
One could argue that Franzen's personal essays, with their icy directness, are superior to his carefully choreographed novels. His essay "My Father's Brain" deals with family dysfunction and mental deterioration more devastatingly than anything in The Corrections.

Every Man Dies Alone (1947) by Hans Fallada and Survival in Auschwitz (1947) by Primo Levi
In these damning works of literature we witness the step-by-step putrefaction of decency and morality.  It is as a result of this mercilessness, this dearth of sentimentality, that we trust Fallada and Levi when they speak to the essential value of human life. 

ALSO RECOMMENDED:

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: A Memoir by Nick Flynn

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Airships by Barry Hannah

Jesus' Son Stories by Denis Johnson

Ice by Anna Kavan

40 Stories by Donald Barthelme

Devil in the Flesh by Raymond Radiguet

Hunger by Knut Hamsun

Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe


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