Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard
In a lone unbroken paragraph, the Austrian master of spite conjures a Viennese “artistic” dinner party of intolerable mannerisms, endless babble and incoherent accidents — all in the wake of an abandoned friend’s suicide. Railing against the indignity of existence from a darkened corner of the room, our narrator gets drunk and silently observes an event whose snowballing absurdity outmatches his own infinite cynicism.
The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Any Dostoevsky novel could’ve made the cut, but The Gambler is a favorite for how brutally confessional it is on the topic of the author’s infamous roulette addiction. In fact, it was written under deadline to pay off gambling debts — which accounts for how nasty and short it is. Our petulant hero, Alexei Ivanovich, spirals toward rock bottom in a German casino resort, savaging the stupid wealthy tourists who pass through.
A Naked Singularity by Sergio de la Pava
Set in a bitterly cold and windy Manhattan winter, de la Pava’s sprawling tour de force concerns two public defenders who hatch a so-called perfect crime in mind-boggling detail, as well as revenge, boxing, and the heartbreaking absurdity of legal executions. The manic prose fights viciously against an ultimate collapse of good into evil — but not only is there no escape; there was never any such thing.
The Death of the Author by Gilbert Adair
What begins as a Nabokovian game about being and meaning becomes an academic murder mystery and incendiary attack on the very idea of critical thought. The book, cannily enough, even calls itself mendacious. And as it slides backward in history, toward the void at the center of 20th-century Europe, the fabric of intention itself is rent. Few works walk the nihilist line so well, or so hilariously.
The Information by Martin Amis
England’s infamous Islamophobe pulls no punches in this examination of jealousy — creative, romantic, athletic, you name it. Richard Tull labors over a fiction manuscript that gives people fatal migraines while his untalented, buffoonish colleague, Gwyn Barry, enjoys outsized success. The solution is obvious: sabotage. On tennis courts and in the drawing rooms, the bile flows freely and freakishly.
Grendel by John Gardner
Gardner also authored the controversial On Moral Fiction, though it’s not at all clear whether he followed the high-handed advice given there: Grendel is as bestial as the Beowulf villain who narrates it, though a bit more eloquent regarding what it means to be inherently sinful. The book happens in a rage, rage at a world that would permit the most exquisite torture: consciousness.
Boredom by Alberto Moravia
A chilly, neorealist account of self-extinction. “Boredom” in Moravia’s terminology is not just being heavily idle — though Dino, the pointlessly rich and frustrated Italian painter, is certainly that — but a sort of menacing gleam on the surface of things. When he encounters a strange, impudent and sexually ambivalent young girl, he pursues his darkest thoughts to their only possible end.
The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead
By now the concept of a disturbance in the brightest folds of suburbia is a well-worn American trope, but an Australian writer perfected it back in 1940. The Pollits, an enormous, dysfunctional family, inhabit a thorny nest of their own making, couching their cruelty in childish songs and rhymes. What malice they bear will make you wonder whether procreation isn’t a dead end after all.
The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq
You have to hand it to the French — from Céline to Sartre, they’ve nurtured some haute haters. Houellebecq, the country’s current standard-bearer, has never been better than in this millennial meditation on naked lust and great leaps of science. Two half-brothers, one on the edge of madness and the other unable to feign humanity, sift through the ruins of western civilization to ask what, if anything, is left to preserve.
The Living End by Stanley Elkin
This categorically insane novel takes Christian afterlife dogma at face value, then gives us an infernal tour. A poor liquor store owner named Ellerbee is killed in a robbery gone wrong — and is promptly sent to hell for keeping his shop open on Sunday. Elkin is merciless, flaying human delusions of eternity till there’s nothing left but the bones — and then destroys those too.