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Irvine Welsh's Top Ten List
1. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922). Filled with convoluted plotting, scrambled syntax, puns, neologisms, and arcane mythological allusions, Ulysses recounts the misadventures of schlubby Dublin advertising salesman Leopold Bloom on a single day, June 16, 1904. As Everyman Bloom and a host of other characters act out, on a banal and quotidian scale, the major episodes of Homer’s Odyssey—including encounters with modern-day sirens and a Cyclops—Joyce’s bawdy mock-epic suggests the improbability, perhaps even the pointlessness, of heroism in the modern age.
2. Underworld by Don DeLillo (1997). A finalist for the National Book Award, this literary page-turner is about the second half of the twentieth century in America and about two people, an artist and an executive, whose lives intertwine in New York in the fifties and again in the nineties. With cameo appearances by Lenny Bruce, J. Edgar Hoover, Bobby Thompson, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and Toots Shor, it has been called a “dazzling, phosphorescent work of art.”
3. Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy (1985). D. H. Lawrence famously remarked that the archetypal American hero was a stoic, a loner, and a killer. Cormac McCarthy’s tale of the formation and dissolution of a band of scalp hunters in northern Mexico in the late 1840s embodies that dire maxim. Led by a soldier named Glanton and a mysterious, hairless, moral monstrosity known as the “Judge,” these freebooters wipe out Indians, Mexicans, and each other amidst a landscape of such sublime desolation one feels it leaching into their very souls.
4. Cities of the Red Night by William S. Burroughs (1981). This novel follows various plot strands – including 18th century pirates seeking to live lives of freedom according to articles written by Captain James Mission; a present-day detective, “Clem Snide, Private Asshole,” investigating the ritual sex murder of young boys, and the rise of a radioactive virus that may involve the CIA. An opium-infused apocalyptic vision from the legendary author of Naked Lunch, it is the first of the trilogy with The Places of the Dead Roads and his final novel, The Western Lands.
5. A Disaffection by James Kelman (1989). Patrick Doyle is a 29 year old Glasgow teacher in an ordinary school. Disaffected, frustrated and increasingly bitter at the system he is employed to maintain, Patrick begins his rebellion, fuelled by drink and his passionate, unrequited love for a fellow teacher.
6. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1880). In perhaps the consummate Russian novel, Dostoevsky dramatizes the spiritual conundrums of nineteenth-century Russia through the story of three brothers and their father’s murder. Hedonistic Dmitri, tortured intellectual Ivan, and saintly Alyosha embody distinct philosophical positions, while remaining full-fledged human beings. Issues such as free will, secularism, and Russia’s unique destiny are argued not through authorial polemic, but through the confessions, diatribes, and nightmares of the characters themselves. An unsparing portrayal of human vice and weakness, the novel ultimately imparts a vision of redemption. Dostoevsky’s passion, doubt, and imaginative power compel even the secular West he scorned.
7. Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh (1952). Meet Guy Crouchback, a 35-year-old divorced Catholic. Though the armed services really don't want him, he manfully succeeds in joining the Royal Corps of Halberdiers during World War II. There he meets Apthorpe, an eccentric African who is devoted to his “thunderbox” (aka chemical closet). Together they make quite a team. This is the first book in Waugh’s “Swords of Honour” trilogy which explores war, religion and politics. It is followed by Officers and Gentlemen (1955) and Unconditional Surrender (1961).
8. Lanark: A Life in Four Books by Alasdair Gray (1981). In the maverick Scottish author’s testy allegory, four (eccentrically illustrated) “books,” which are presented nonsequentially, trace the lives of two protagonists who are a single frustrated artist. Grim naturalism depicts Glaswegian painter Duncan Thaw’s losing battles with public indifference and chronic illness. Blakean fantasy traces the parallel sufferings of Thaw’s eponymous alter ego, whose misadventures in the dystopian city of Unthank represent Thaw’s continuing miseries in the hereafter he inhabits following his suicide. Accusatory, opaque, redundant—the novel is also, oddly enough, compulsively readable and perversely memorable.
9. Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1934). The heartbreaking, semiautobiographical story of two expatriate Americans living in France during the 1920s: a gifted young psychiatrist, Dick Diver, and the wealthy, troubled patient who becomes his wife. In this tragic tale of romance and character, her lush lifestyle soon begins to destroy Diver, as alcohol, infidelities, and mental illness claim his hopes. Of the book, Fitzgerald wrote, “Gatsby was a tour de force, but this is a confession of faith.”
10. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886). This novel might easily have become a victim of its own surpassing fame, which has removed all suspense from its central riddle: What is the relationship between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Yet as our narrator plumbs Dr. Jekyll’s descent into drug-addled, alter-ego madness, we are riveted by Stevenson’s portrait of the good and evil that lurks in one man’s heart. “This, too, was myself,” Jekyll says of Hyde. Somehow we suspect it’s us, too.