Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel (1910). The masterpiece of one of France’s leading experimental writers, this novel begins with the shipwreck of a band of Europeans held for ransom in a mythical African kingdom. As they await their release, each displays a theatrical or technical skill to be showcased at a gala ball.
Independent People by Halldór Laxness (1934). The Icelandic Nobel laureate’s best novel is a chronicle of endurance and survival, whose stubborn protagonist Bjartür “of Summerhouses” is a sheepherder at odds with inclement weather, poverty, society in particular and authority in general, and his own estranged family.
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (1972). Fearing that his empire’s vastness has made it “an endless, formless ruin,” Kublai Khan asks the traveler Marco Polo to describe it to him so he might understand and thereby control it.
Island: The Complete Stories by Alistair MacLoed (2000). A book-besotted patriarch releases his only son from the obligations of the sea. A father provokes his young son to violence when he reluctantly sells the family horse. A passionate girl who grows up on a nearly deserted island turns into an ever-wistful woman when her one true love is felled by a logging accident.
Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf (1922). Woolf’s first novel to depart from a linear, traditional style follows Jacob Flanders as he goes through Cambridge, carries on love affairs in London, and travels in Greece.
Jazz by Toni Morrison (1992). In the winter of 1926, when everybody everywhere sees nothing but good things ahead, Joe Trace, middle-aged door-to-door salesman of Cleopatra beauty products, shoots his teenage lover to death. At the funeral, Joe’s wife, Violet, attacks the girl’s corpse.
Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson (1992). Although the title comes from Lou Reed’s song “Heroin,” it assumes another meaning in this collection of eleven linked short stories about a character who endures drug addiction, car crashes, and violence to learn who he is and achieve some grace.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004). At the dawn of the nineteenth century, two very different magicians emerge to change England's history. In the year 1806, with the Napoleonic Wars raging on land and sea, most people believe magic to be long dead in England—until the reclusive Mr Norrell reveals his powers, and becomes a celebrity overnight.
Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding (1742). The comic trouble starts when a naive footman rejects the advances of his employer, Lady Booby, and her servant, Slipslop. Cast out, he and the saintly Parson Adams hit England’s rough roads in search of Joseph’s beloved, Fanny Goodwill. Like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the world rewards their goodness with violent complication.