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Tom LeClair's Top Ten List
A note on the meaning of “favorite”: Although many of my top ten would be recognized as topmost books by most readers, my list is governed by both literary quality and personal influence. I have worn three hats for most of my life: professor of American literature, reviewer for national periodicals, and, more recently, novelist. So some of my favoritism is affected by my experience with these books in my classes and by my development as a fiction writer. I believe I came to love some of these novels because my students did, and I wrote three sports novels of my own because of the influence of DeLillo’s End Zone. I was even so foolish as to write a retelling of and a sequel to Absalom, Absalom! in The Liquidators. And Atwood’s Alias Grace was on my mind as I was writing my forthcoming historical novel, Lincoln’s Billy.
Tom LeClair’s Top Ten List - with his comments on each selection
1. Gravity’s Rainbowby Thomas Pynchon (1973). This is the book that has had the most profound and lasting effect on me. It frightened me with its rockets when I first read it during the nuclear age, obsessed me later with its corporate complexity, eventually conducted me to a Deep Ecology vision of the world, and continually impressed me with its prodigious inventiveness. Unfortunately for those I review, I measure every new novel I read against it.
2. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (1936). No single novel has more to say about American history than this one, and not just American history because Thomas Sutpen moved from the hunter and gatherer stage to agriculture with horrible consequences. I love the way Faulkner ranges from the low vernacular to the tragic sublime and the way he inverts the values of the Old South, raising the low-born to heroic status.
3. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851). I used to teach a course beginning with Moby-Dick and moving forward to the two novels above. The more I read Melville’s encyclopedic novel, the more I realized it was as postmodern as Pynchon’s, as self-conscious and as suspicious of itself and all language to make a lasting mark on a watery world. Ahab and Ishmael are two of my favorite characters in all of literature.
4. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922). I came to Ulysses rather late and don’t know it as well as the top three, and yet, like Gravity’s Rainbow, Joyce’s novel sits for me on the highest shelf for comparison when I read new fiction. Although I have not been willing to devote my life to it, as Joyce would have wished, I know no other novel that contains as many different voices and styles, all functioning to make Bloom an unforgettable character.
5. Endgame by Samuel Beckett (1957). I’ve seen many performances of Beckett’s play and read it numerous times, and yet I never tire of—and never exhaust—his drama of exhaustion. And repetition. At the end, the tragi-comic Hamm divests himself of everything but says “Me to play.” And the performance goes on the next night, and we go on despite all of our losses.
6. Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor (1952). I read this as an undergraduate at a Catholic college and have never been able to escape O’Connor’s tortured vision of religious faith. Like West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, Haze Motes cannot escape his religious obsession and sacrifices himself to it. Like Gravity’s Rainbow, Wise Blood is a novel to fear for me. Fear and laugh at for O’Connor’s witty satire and low comedy.
7. Paradise by Toni Morrison (1997). I respect Beloved, enjoy Song of Solomon, and often used Jazz in my classes, but I think this is our Nobel winner’s best novel, the one with the widest sympathies and greatest range—and the most original historical materials in her depiction of religion, race, gender, and class in an Oklahoma town founded by African-Americans.
8. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000). No American novel published this century can compare with the suspense of Danielewski’s horror story, its narrative games, its profound ruminations on the profound, and its play with form and format. Though bound “leaves” of paper, the book is essentially a hypertext that demonstrates the enormous potential for electronic writing, for e-books that really take advantage of their digital existence.
9. End Zoneby Don DeLillo (1972). Underworld is DeLillo’s masterwork, but End Zone is my personal favorite, probably because it (along with Robert Coover’s Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.) showed me how a sports novel could ratchet up to treat the most serious of cultural subjects, in DeLillo’s case nuclear annihilation. The novel’s first-person narrator is also the edgiest of DeLillo’s many acute and raspy speakers.
10. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (1996). This novel about a Canadian murderess is what every historical novel should be: a compendium of facts, documents, fictions, and questionable narrative reliability to suggest the great difficulty of establishing historical truth, particularly when that truth is about those, like Grace, who have been exploited because they were women or immigrants or both.