The Last Samurai, Helen DeWitt (2000)
Helen DeWitt is a genius. So, for that matter, are her characters: the resilient, frustrated Sibylla and her four-year-old son Ludo, who learns new languages like other children learn new words, and by 11 has a practical, dry outlook on life that balances his almost absurdist quest to find his father. DeWitt has estimated that she attempted some hundred novels before she wrote this one. If that’s true, boy was it worth it: formally innovative, delicious to read and full of knowledge, books rarely get better than this.
Geek Love, Katherine Dunn (1989)
Dunn’s one and only novel is a cult classic — and a classic about a cult. A cult based around a basically insane Machiavellian circus attraction with flippers for limbs, whose hunchback sister is in love with him. And that’s really just scratching the surface of this book, which is possibly the most beautifully disturbing novel about family ever written. Now if only someone would convince Dunn to give us more, more, more.
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath (1963)
Another first and only, Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel of a young woman’s descent into mental illness is devastating and, for a certain kind of reader (and not just the kind you’re thinking of), irrevocably life-changing.
The Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992)
No offense to Tartt’s recent Pulitzer Prize, but her debut novel is still my vote for the best thing she’s ever written — and well, one of the best things anybody’s ever written. Six classics majors with money, eccentricities and more secrets than you can shake a stick at draw blood in the woods. Madness ensues.
The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger (1951)
Still one of the most convincing novels about loss, teenage isolation, and the basic phoniness of the world.
The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides (1993)
Here’s another debut that I’d count the author’s best so far (though I’d happily entertain an argument for Middlesex). It’s just that here Eugenides evokes the feeling of teenage obsession so vividly, builds a thrumming magical world so completely, destroys your heart so strangely. A book that can’t be ignored.
The Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker (1988)
How ballsy is it to have your first novel span nothing more than a trip up an escalator? But of course, it covers more than that. This digressive, footnote-riddled, list-filled novel represents a whole mind, a whole life, all the dribs and drabs and narratives and memories and thoughts that we carry with us on every escalator ride (and every step) we ever take.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz (2007)
Half comedy, half tragedy, all delicious, complex storytelling and a titular character that’s hard to forget.
The Recognitions, William Gaddis (1955)
A behemoth of a masterpiece that started out as a parody of Faust and ended up a brilliant meditation on New York, art and the tenuous nature of authenticity.
Neuromancer, William Gibson (1984)
The first novel to win all three major American science fiction awards — the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Philip K. Dick award — and also the novel that put cyberpunk (not to mention the word “cyberspace”) on the map. It no longer reads quite as radically as it once did, but it’s still a damn good novel.
Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis (1954)
Hilarious, yes, but also a dry knife taken to the human (and academic) condition — and with a happy ending, no less! What more could you ask for?
The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison (1970)
A difficult, ambitious first novel that tackles jealousy, race, child abuse, and incest, among other things. As electric as her later work, if perhaps rawer. Of the novel, she said, “I felt compelled to write this mostly because in the 1960s, black male authors published powerful, aggressive, revolutionary fiction or nonfiction, and they had positive racially uplifting rhetoric with them that were stimulating and I thought they would skip over something and thought no one would remember that it wasn’t always beautiful, how hurtful racism is. I wrote The Bluest Eye because someone would actually be apologetic about the fact that their skin was so dark and how when I was a kid, we called each other names but we didn’t think it was serious, that you could take it in, so the book was about taking it in, before we all decide that we are all beautiful, and have always been beautiful; I wanted to speak on the behalf of those who didn’t catch that right away. I was deeply concerned about the feelings of being ugly.”
Speedboat, Renata Adler (1976)
It’s clear to anyone who reads this space that I’m obsessed with this novel, so I’ll just say this: sentence by sentence, it’s a delight, a thrill, a deep cut, a revelation. Yes, even now. Check it out.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson (1985)
Winterson’s striking semi-autobiographical first novel is a coming-of-age and a coming-out story, centering on a good Christian girl who decides she’s not quite like the rest of the flock. Witty and tender and sharp as they come.
Lord of the Flies, William Golding (1954)
The dystopian novel about youths turning savage and killing each other that started it all.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (1960)
Not only one of the most impressive debuts, but incessantly cited as one of the best novels ever written. Also notable for being the most notorious one hit wonder in literature.
Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, Donald Antrim (1993)
Antrim’s first novel, a semi-surrealist, super cerebral and epidemically underrated masterpiece about a suburban town’s descent into mysticism, warfare, and mystic warfare, also happens to be on my own personal list of the greatest books ever written. His other books are pretty okay, too.
We the Animals, Justin Torres (2011)
Every gorgeous sentence in this slim coming-of-age novel sears and shrieks and loop-de-loops with unbridled beauty. Can’t wait for his next one.
Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor (1952)
Count on O’Connor to give us a brutal, knife-edged novel about religion that also manages to be funny as hell. Not that hell is funny. No, ma’am.
White Teeth, Zadie Smith (2000)
Somehow it’s surprising that Zadie Smith’s first novel was only in 2000 — in a way, it seems like she’s always been with us, but this is still, to my mind, the best thing she’s ever written.
Lanark: A Life in Four Books, Alasdair Gray (1981)
It took Gray some thirty years to write this novel, which still gets far less attention than it deserves, particularly in America. Half bildungsroman, half surrealist dreamscape, with illustrations by Gray himself.
V., Thomas Pynchon (1963)
Pynchon was a bizarro genius right from the start.
Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison (1992)
Another semi-autobiographical first novel, sure — but unlike anything you’ve ever read before. A terrifying novel of abuse and legitimization told in perfect prose.
The Known World, Edward P. Jones (2003)
Jones’s first novel is a blockbuster historical novel set in a fictional county in antebellum Virginia and focusing on the life of a mixed-race slaveholder. It’s one of the most decorated books on this list, with a Pulitzer, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, not to mention a National Book Award nod.
The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks (1984)
One the most effective and horrifying journeys into the mind of a madman ever committed to paper.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson (1971)
Probably stands as the most convincing drugscape/dreamscape of the modern era. Plus, it’s a hell of a good time.
The Tin Drum, Günter Grass (1959)
Oskar Matzerath is one of the strangest and greatest unreliable narrators in literature: possibly insane, possibly a genius, definitely a person with a Peter Pan complex and a scream that can be used as a weapon. A classic.
Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson (1980)
Robinson is a living treasure, and there’s no choosing between her novels, each of them flat-out gorgeous. This one follows three generations of women as they try to keep everything in order — both literally and spiritually.
Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates (1961)
Oof. Yates’s debut is a tragic and deeply upsetting novel about the downward spiral of an American couple. Kurt Vonnegut called it “The Great Gatsby of [his] time.” Of the novel, Yates himself wrote, “I think I meant it more as an indictment of American life in the 1950s. Because during the Fifties there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs — a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price.”
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe (1958)
This classic novel of colonialism, tradition and African culture and identity is taught in every high school for a reason.
Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin (1953)
The legendary James Baldwin’s first novel is a semi-autobiographical examination of the effects and role of the Christian Church in the African American community in America in the 1950s. Filled with spiritual insight and humanity and sharp observations about the world, it remains a captivating read today.
The Edible Woman, Margaret Atwood (1969)
Trust Margaret Atwood to break onto the scene with a novel about metaphorical cannibalism — that is, a woman who begins to identify with food so much that she can’t eat anything. A work engaged with dissociation and gender, it is only the first in Atwood’s long line of great novels.
Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak (1957)
Often cited as one of the best novels of all time, never mind this debut business: a complex love story set during the Russian Revolution, with all the attendant themes of alienation and identity you’d expect from such a thing.
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison (1952)
A now-classic and routinely life-changing examination of African American life in America in the first half of the 20th century, as much social and political commentary as compelling novel, which won the National Book Award in 1953.
The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan (1989)
A book shaped like a game of mahjong, about a group of Chinese immigrant women in San Francisco playing mahjong together and telling the stories of themselves and their American-born daughters. A beauty.
Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner (2011)
The best, smartest novel about an American writer adrift in a foreign country to have appeared in recent memory.
The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco (1980)
A postmodern murder mystery, written by a semiotician and set in an Italian Benedictine monastery that features a maze-like library! I mean, really.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke (2004)
Clarke’s behemoth of a debut is an alternative history of 19th century England that charts the lives of two magicians — finding the faerie way, fighting Napoleon, arguing with each other and hiding books. It’s ambitious delight, and worth every moment.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey (1962)
Kesey’s classic investigation of manhood and madness will never quite leave your head, no matter how many shock treatments you have.
Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich (1984)
Erdrich’s debut, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in the year of its publication, tells the stories of a handful of Chippewa Indians living on a reservation in North Dakota. Multi-faced and mythic, this is a beautiful novel.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams (1979)
One of the funniest and most widely beloved science fiction novels of all time, based off Adams’ radio program of the same name. How beloved, you ask? I will only say this: I have personally been to three Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy-themed Bar Mitzvahs.
Catch-22, Joseph Heller (1961)
Perhaps the best-ever satirical war novel.
The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe (1987)
A novel about greed, politics and power in 1980s New York from a revolutionary journalist. A classic.
Carrie, Stephen King (1974)
Only the beginning of King’s relentless career, but already about as twisted as they get.
The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy (1997)
Roy’s gorgeous, lyrical heartbreaker, which won the Booker in its year of publication, weaves a temporal tapestry of a pair of twins in India suffering love, betrayal, storytelling and the struggles of the forbidden.
Casino Royale, Ian Fleming (1953)
Not only was James Bond Fleming’s first idea for a protagonist, he wrote this novel in two months. The results? Not too shabby.
In the Woods, Tana French (2007)
The book that brought a million haters of thrillers and mystery novels over to the dark side.
The Tiger’s Wife, Téa Obreht (2011)
A stunner of a first novel, vibrant and bold and deeply satisfying, especially when you consider that Obreht was only 25 at the time she wrote it.
The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri (2003)
Everything Lahiri writes is amazing, and her first novel is no different — a gorgeous examination of the lives of immigrant and first-generation Indians in America.
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, Eimear McBride (2014)
Last but not least, the book that is shaping up to be the year’s most talked-about debut: the fragmented, ferocious first novel by Irish writer Eimear McBride. Prepare to have your brain blown out.