Genesis by Bernard Beckett
In this futuristic story, a smart, brave young student named Anaximander (“Anax” for short) undergoes a trial by fire, trying to join a mysterious academy that is modeled and named after Plato’s Republic. Beckett takes us through her grueling ordeal as she internally reasons out her level-headed answers to all the curveball questions thrown at her. Anax uses holograms and her own narrative to relate the tale of a young individualist hero named Adam Forde, whose sometimes questionable actions left an indelible mark on the closed society. Imprisoned for valuing compassion over the society’s safety measures and forced to “train” a simian-faced robot named Art about being “human,” Forde’s story becomes the major theme of the book. At the end, Beckett serves up a deliciously twisted irony that’s worthy of The Twilight Zone. To his credit, the sad final scenes make perfect sense, and you don’t leave Genesis feeling cheated after having the rug pulled from under you.
S P R A W L by Danielle Dutton
If any book on this list is ideal for a single-sitting read, it’s this one — largely because it’s made up of one book-length paragraph, which means that there’s no ideal place to stop. Dutton’s tome is a series of observations of a world of suburban angst, courtesy of an unnamed female narrator. We see all of her wild reveries up close, including kinky sex in a loveless marriage. She loves to write strange, forthright letters to her friends and neighbors and make up extensive lists of everything she finds around her. With an incredible eye for detail, she’s almost poetic in her flights of fancy, even though she can’t keep the same train of thought for more than a few sentences at a time (which also makes it hard to take a break from the prose). Maybe she’s neurotic (she’s way obsessive) or maybe she’s psychotic (she has problems making out what’s real sometimes), or maybe she’s a bit of both. But she’s also a thoughtful soul who knows the ins and outs of her domestic domain (she sees neat lawns as a patriotic duty and the shape of streets as a part of a sociological pattern) and has a vast, sweeping imagination. Think of S P R A W L as a sometimes desperate journal entry, full of style and insanity, almost akin to the last chapter of Ulysses. Even though you might regret inviting the narrator to your next dinner party, rest assured that she’d make it a memorable evening.
Spurious by Lars Iyer
Here we have the tale of a booze-fueled jaunt with two English scholar/writer/intellectuals, the narrator (who happens to be named Lars) and his slightly smarter companion (which he only identifies as W.). Throughout most of the book, W. tears at the narrator for being an idiot and blames Lars for dragging him down with his foolishness and laziness, specifically pointing out that he hasn’t accomplished anything worthwhile and that all of his ideas are stale. Both of them wish they could be Franz Kafka or director Béla Tarr, washing away their worries about the apocalypse with gin as they travel by train across Europe. Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, Lars finds that his house is slowly being overcome by a mysterious, inexplicable fungus (that, of course, doubles as a metaphor). As overly arty as it might sound at first blush (a sort of caustic My Dinner With Andre, perhaps), Iyer’s book is actually filled with sly humor, as Lars eventually develops the courage to fight back at his friend and nemesis, whose over-the-top insults ultimately come back to show his own frailty and weaknesses in more ways than he’d hope.
Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson
Kelison, who was 100 when he passed away on June 1st, was a Dutch doctor who joined the resistance against the Nazis by providing counseling for children affected by the war. Comedy (one of only two books that he wrote) wasn’t a success when it was originally published in 1947 and became mostly forgotten when it went out of print. Last year, though, an English translation sparked interest in Keilson’s work again, gaining him a National Book Critics Circle Award nomination.
Now, Comedy isn’t a comedy per se, though it’s full of absurdist situations. A good-hearted WWII-era Dutch couple named Wim and Marie hide a Jewish salesman (who they call “Nico”) from the Nazi occupiers. When Nico dies, they’re faced with a quandary about what to do with him, not just to be respectful to their deceased friend but to also evade suspicion for their “crime.” Because they’ve broken Gestapo laws, the couple ultimately land in the same horrible circumstances as Nico, having to hide out in someone else’s home for fear of arrest or execution. As such, Keilson shows how everyone who defies a totalitarian government with acts of humanity and kindness ultimately becomes its victim.
The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich
This West Coast author only has one novel under her belt, but she’s already on her way to becoming a mini-celeb in the literary world. Orange is her tale of teenage vampires (or are they?) in the Northwest who get off on drugs and rock ‘n’ roll as much as blood. In this surreal, Burroughs-like place, the world’s going to hell and no one seems to care or want to try to stop it. The 17-year-old girl narrator trolls along with her friends, in search of cheap thrills, trying to scare the shit out of convenience store clerks along the way. Though they’re pretty aimless in their wandering, our heroine makes the trip worthwhile by graphically recounting scenes of savagery and survival, which gets so strange sometimes that you’re not sure if she’s telling you what she sees or if she’s just in the middle of a wild, drug-induced hallucination. There’s purpose to her squalid, little life, though — through her feverish memories and ESP visions, she’s on the trail of her lost stepsister. Krilanovich doesn’t provide much resolution, but she takes you on such an exhilarating ride along the way, you probably won’t be too bothered if you can’t separate truth from fantasy. (You can also tell that she’s a real music fan by the vivid portraits of seedy club life that keep cropping up along the way.)
In the Time of Love by Naguib Mahfouz
An Egyptian Nobel laureate who died five years ago at age 94, Mahfouz had a fascinating career, stretching back to the 1930s, when he stated his goal of covering the whole span of Egyptian history in his stories. He scaled down his effort, making his mark with a series of richly textured books from 1950s that told the multi-decade story of a Cairo family. Though he was a nationalist, he had no love of religious fundamentalism, which made him the target of an attempted murder.
In the Time of Love was first published in 1980, but entered the English-language domain only last October. It’s a fascinating story that begins with Sitt Ain, an overly saintly widowed mother who at first seems to be the focus of the entire book. But eventually, the action shifts to Ezzat, her moody and selfish son, who resents his seemingly perfect mom. He falls for a young beauty who soon takes up with another childhood friend of theirs. Fate brings them all together again in the form of a theater troupe, as old passions are rekindled in the midst of betrayal and political intrigue. On one level, it’s a high-concept soap opera; it’s also a pretty stirring drama and meditation on charity and affection.
The Book of the Dead by Kgebetli Moele
This is, undoubtedly, the most disturbing book on the list. The first half of this South African story concerns Khutso, a studious guy who falls for a formerly loose woman named Pretty and then devotes all of his time to their son. Once she dies of AIDS and he realizes that he’s infected too, he turns dark, pushing his son away. Then HIV overcomes him, literally by becoming the narrator for the second half of the book, as the virus also becomes his companion and the driving force for him to (get ready to be repulsed) purposely infect a slew of women, making it into an elaborate game. Khutso and his deadly cohort compile their own “book of the dead” to detail each of their homicidal conquests. The story turns ever more sick and twisted as the virus-narrator leads Khutso into mother-daughter duos, year-long conquests, an affair with his dead wife’s sister, and assorted one-night stands, all of whom become ledger marks in their little book. As shocking as the tale is, Moele also purposes it as a powerful advertisement for safe sex, which is especially timely in a continent still ravaged by the deadly disease.
Revenge by Taslima Nasrin
The book title and the fact that it’s published by the Feminist Press at CUNY already give you an idea about what to except, but Revenge is much smarter and nuanced that you might think. Jhumur is an educated young Bangladeshi woman who falls for a smoothie named Haroon who promises her the moon and sweeps her off her feet. Unfortunately, after they exchange vows, he turns into a traditional, chauvinist pig, insisting that his new bride become a housewife who serves every whim of his family as she also gets cut off from her own relatives and friends. Jhumur recounts the early days when he romantically wooed her and heartbreakingly contrasts that past with her present life as a virtual slave. After a particularly horrifying incident, she turns against Haroon and seeks revenge. Because of her outspoken criticisms of Islam, author/poet/physician Nasrin has had fatwas issued against her; Salman Rushdie is, understandably, among her boosters.
A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear by Atiq Rahimi
Though the book spends a lot of time with the narrator dazed and confused about where he is and what’s happened to him, his disorientation becomes the perfect metaphor for the time depicted there — the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. An Afghan student named Farhad is caught in the middle of the turmoil, trying to maneuver through vicious soldiers and a labyrinth of Islamic custom. Like the characters in Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key, Farhad is in danger and hiding. His “crime” is essentially acting surly at a checkpoint, for which he’s brutally beaten. He finds temporarily safety thanks to a beautiful, mysterious woman named Mahnaz (who has a troubled past with the authorities) and her son Yahya (who keeps calling Farhad “father”). Now, his only salvation seems to be exile from his own land. Rahimi’s tale of confused nationality, indiscriminate punishment, desperate survival, and no clear way to safety depicts decades-old events, but it feels especially poignant amid the US-led war in Afghanistan that’s spanned the greater part of the past decade.
Pirate Talk or Mermalade by Terese Svoboda
If you’re sick and tired of endless Johnny Depp sequels about swashbucklers, this experimental work might be the right antidote for you. New York writer Svoboda (who’s also a poet, teacher, TV producer, and translator) weaves an early-18th-century tale of two unnamed young brothers from Massachusetts who think of themselves as daring seamen. They get a lot more than they bargained for when try to be the real thing, tangling with a quizzical mermaid, a pesky, doomy parrot, and a less-than-charitable French monk, as well as real pirates. Traveling through Boston Harbor, the Arctic, and the Indian Ocean, they try to survive dismemberment, enslavement, gender confusion, and sibling rivalry, sometimes resorting to cannibalism. Oh, and did we mention that there’s not one single word of narration in the whole book? It’s entirely made up of dialog. As such, Svoboda’s tale of bumbling, anonymous men who are literally all talk and no meaningful action is the perfect takedown of not only the glorified buccaneer life but also of male bravado at its worst.