The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767) by Laurence Sterne
This is the one that started it all. In the mid-18th century, the question “what is a novel” was still hotly contested. Pamela , an epistolary novel by Samuel Richardson that is considered the first novel written in English, was published in 1740, marked by realism and psychological insight. Enter Sterne in 1759 with Tristram Shandy. It claims to be the memoirs of a country gentleman, but instead of his memoirs, we get digression after digression, and along the way there are black pages, marbled pages, drawings, sermons, and essays. It’s all farce with no sign of realism, controversial at the time, and still hilarious today.
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Shelley
Frankenstein begins as a series of letters from Captain Robert Walton to his sister, as he embarks on a voyage to the North Pole. Shortly after his ship becomes ice locked, Walton rescues a half-frozen sledge rider: Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein tells the story of his attempt and success to reanimate the dead (which is written down by Walton and sent to his sister). In Frankenstein’s story, Frankenstein’s monster tells Frankenstein his story (which Frankenstein tells Walton who writes to his sister). This makes Frankenstein a Matryoshka doll of a novel, narratives within narratives within narratives.
Albert Angelo (1964) by B. S. Johnson
Let’s get it said up front: Albert Angelo has holes cut in its pages. It also has text in two columns, the left as dialog, the right as the interior thoughts of the eponymous protagonist. It also has reproductions of an advertisement, and sections in the form of a play, and multiple narrative viewpoints. The story is of a young struggling architect working as a substitute teacher in a bad neighborhood while brooding about his ex-girlfriend. But it’s really about novels and writing, and it is alternately funny and very serious.
The Mezzanine (1988) by Nicholson Baker
All of The Mezzanine takes place on a single escalator ride during the narrator’s lunch break. The whole novel. And during that escalator ride, the narrator thinks about every minute detail of his break—whether going to the bathroom is part of his break or still work, which cashier at the pharmacy is faster based on how they open a roll of coins, and ear plugs, a long discussion on ear plugs. Each of these thoughts leads to so many other thoughts that there are footnotes on almost every page. Baker’s sheer amazement in the minutia of life is inspiring, insightful, and always interesting.
The Rings of Saturn (1995) by W. G. Sebald
This is my one exception to the written in English rule. I had to include it. W. G. Sebald’s books are not called novels. They are labeled fiction, yet are they? The first person narrator is almost exactly Sebald. And there are photographs embedded in the text. Lots of them. Those are certainly real. And much of the narrator’s musings lead to historical essays, which are completely factual. What is a Sebald book? Entrancing. Rings of Saturn is about a walking tour in the English countryside, but it is about the paths of history and the existential questions of life.
Mason and Dixon (1997) by Thomas Pynchon
Thomas Pynchon is funny. That should be everyone’s introduction to Pynchon: Pynchon is funny. Mason and Dixon is the historical account of the Mason and Dixon land survey that drew the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland. That sounds like it could be a boring book. But Pynchon’s language, his long sentences, their sounds, his satire, his appropriation of other period-appropriate forms, his caricatures, and energy make for an entertaining onslaught. And it’s funny.
House of Leaves (2000) by Mark Z. Danielewski
The first thing to do with House of Leaves is to flip through the pages. There are pages with columns and boxes, pages that are almost completely blank, footnotes, different fonts, words in color, and pictures. The book is the unpublished manuscript of a lost documentary written by a blind man and edited and annotated by a tattoo artist. There are also letters from an insane mother to the tattoo artist in an appendix. And the whole thing is riveting. All of it. The story is that intense, and the complex form only accentuates the suspense. This is possibly my favorite book. Ever.
The Three Pigs by David Wiesner (2001)
As a picture book author as well as a novelist, I can’t help but include one picture book on the list. David Wiesner’s Caldecott winning The Three Pigs starts as a traditional telling of “The Three Little Pigs.” However, when the wolf blows down the first pig’s house, he blows the pig out of the story, where he is suddenly rendered realistically. He then pulls his brothers out with him. They fold the pages of their own story into a paper airplane, and travel in and out of Mother Goose rhymes and knights’ tales each illustrated in a different storybook style, until they return home and their original depictions.
Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell
Cloud Atlas is six interrelated novellas, each in a different genre: a 19th Century mariner’s journal, a composer’s letters from the 1930s, a 1970s-style mystery novel, a modern day vanity publisher’s escape from gangsters, a genetically engineered person from the future who has been marked for deletion, and a post-apocalyptic islander. With each novella, we get the first half, only to be interrupted by the next one, as the new narrator is reading the novella we were just reading. We then get the conclusions of each novella in reverse order ending with the mariner again. Every genre is embodied perfectly, another Matryoshka doll novel that’s hard to put down.
Bright Shiny Morning (2008) by James Frey
In Bright Shiny Morning, James Frey attempts to capture Los Angeles in a book. There’s the story of young runaways, the story of an A-list movie star, the story of a homeless man living on the beach, the story of the daughter of illegal Mexican immigrants working as a maid, and other little stories that come and go, just as long as they need to be. Interspersed throughout are nonfiction entries: essays on highways, historical facts. And there are no quotation marks, no indented lines, no section breaks. And every story is impossible to forget.
The Twenty-year Death (2012) by Ariel S. Winter
My novel, The Twenty-year Death, is about a “Great American Author” Shem Rosenkrantz (think Fitzgerald, Hemingway) as he goes from critical darling and financial success to used up hack who can’t get work. We see him through three separate mystery novels, one set in 1931 and written in the style of Georges Simenon, one set in 1941 and written in the style of Raymond Chandler, and one set in 1951 and written in the style of Jim Thompson. I wanted to answer the question, what would a mystery series look like if the character we follow from book to book isn’t the detective, but secondary character? So, the three separate books each have a different protagonist, but through the shared characters, come together to form a larger story.