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Top Ten Land may celebrate classic books, but like Bob Dylan, we don’t look back. We look forward to new lists that bring great works to our attention. The novelist and critic Tom LeClair is happy to oblige, helping us to ring in 2015 with a list that adds six new titles to our little realm: Endgame, Wise Blood, Paradise, House of Leaves, End Zone and Alias Grace.
Tom is an American literary critic and novelist, whose fiction often explores the supple nature of identity and truth, American capitalism and terrorism. His six novels include the satiric trilogy Passing Off (1996), Passing On (2004) and Passing Through (2008) about a former professional basketball player turned businessman and writer who muddles through life by practicing the great art of deception. His other novels are Well-Founded Fear (2000), The Liquidators (2006) and Lincoln’s Billy (2015). He is the author of two critical studies of contemporary American fiction: In the Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel and The Art of Excess (on master novels of the 1970s and 80s) and co-editor of a book of interviews with American novelists (with Larry McCaffery) entitled Anything Can Happen.
He is also one of our country’s most prolific and accomplished reviewers, publishing more than 200 essays and reviews of new fiction in Atlantic, The New Republic, The Nation, the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, Book Magazine, Barnes and Noble Review, American Book Review, Electronic Book Review, and many other periodicals. His interviews have appeared in the Paris Review, The New Republic, Chicago Review, and Contemporary Literature.
I am especially pleased that Tom wrote brief descriptions for each of his selections so that we learn what he likes and why he likes ‘em. Happy New Year!
Tom LeClair’s Top Ten List
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.