Top 10 Greatest Novels

Sorry to those who are here for the Japan stuff – not much is happening to me right now (though I hopefully will be going to Tokyo next weekend), so I’ve decided that it’s book week here at Haecceity. It was that or B movie week and literature is at least marginally more sophisticated than John Carpenter movies. I talked about The Beautiful and Damned last night, along with my top 5 American novels, so today I’m back with my personal list of the top 10 greatest novels in the English language. It’s biased, obviously, but these are the novels I think are well and truly exceptional.

So, these are my top 10, in no particular order:

1. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald (American, 1925)
2. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller (American, 1961)
3. Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf (English, 1925)
4. On the Road – Jack Kerouac (American, 1957)
5. The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood (Canadian, 2000)
6. Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon (American, 1973)
7. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (English, 1932)
8. A Handful of Dust – Evelyn Waugh (English, 1934)
9. Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut (American, 1969)
10. Sons and Lovers – D.H. Lawrence (English, 1913)

And, just for funsies, my top 10 favorite novels, which aren’t the same:

1. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh (English, 1945) *
2. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald (American, 1925)
3. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller (American, 1961)
4. Dune – Frank Herbert (American, 1965)
5. Swordspoint – Ellen Kushner (American, 1994)
6. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami (Japanese, 1997)
7. The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde (English, 1890)
8. American Gods – Neil Gaiman (American, 2001)
9. Orlando – Virginia Woolf (English, 1928) **
10. Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut (American, 1969)

*Despite the fact that the other 9 are in no particular order, Brideshead Revisited goes at the top because it is undisputed as my favorite novel of all time. You will note, however, that while Waugh is on the first list, it’s for another one of his novels. A Handful of Dust and Brideshead Revisited are very different, but if you’re only going to read one of his books, go for the satire.

**When deciding which Woolf novel to put on the first list, I went with Mrs Dalloway because I think it arguably is a better novel. I, however, love Orlando just a bit more.

So those are my picks for the general English language category, and the books-I-never-get-sick-of category. Clearly these are not objective by any means, but there was a really wide range to choose from. Some, like The Berlin Stories (Christopher Isherwood) and White Noise (Don DeLillo), were close, but just didn’t quite make the list.

Why Yes, I did Major in Literature

Today, in a free two and a half hours at work, I read the latter 3/4 or so of The Beautiful And Damned. That would be F. Scott Fitzgerald’s second novel and, while not a tragedy on the scale of The Great Gatsby, it’s pretty fantastic. And, whether or not you find the ending sad (I both do and don’t), it is definitely tragic in its own right. Anthony Patch is destroyed by his alcoholism and idleness and weak will, and self-destruction on the part of the protagonist is one of the defining features of tragedy as a genre. He’s no Othello, but he does ruin himself pretty thoroughly.

Incidentally, most of the characters in the novel are neither likable nor sympathetic, which is interesting because the relationship between Anthony and Gloria is very much based on Fitzgerald’s own marriage, but that’s sort of why it works. A hero Anthony Patch is not, but the plot relies on him being this alcoholic failure clinging to an upper class lifestyle he really can’t afford. If he were a better person, with a healthy marriage and a proper job, there wouldn’t be a story. The Beautiful and Damned is a character-driven novel – it’s almost claustrophobic in how narrow the focus is. Unlike in Gatsby and Tender is the Night, there’s not much attention given to the what’s going on in the world around them, it’s just this story about some very dysfunctional people living beyond their means.

But in a way that also makes it a really accurate portrait of the time because it depicts the spirit of the Jazz Age, the cynicism and indolence and lack of motivation. Much like Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (my all-time favorite novel, fyi) depicts the decline of the English upper class in the period between the World Wars, what you find in Fitzgerald’s novels is arguably the slow death of the American Dream during the same era. I could probably write an essay on that, Fitzgerald’s four novels as a deconstruction of the American Dream. Because I think of things like that when I read for fun.

That aside, I’ve found that people either really like, or really hate, Fitzgerald. I’ve met a lot of people who hated Gatsby, which is the only one most people have read, while I consider it one of the greatest ever American novels. I think the hate might have something to do with how unlikable most of his characters are. But, regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed The Beautiful and Damned. Is it as good as Gatsby? For me, no, but Gatsby is also a later novel (his third) and a more refined piece overall.

And, if you’re curious, this is my personal top 5 greatest American novels (in no particular order):

1. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott. Fitzgerald
2. On The Road – Jack Kerouac
3. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
4. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
5. Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon

I might be back another day with my list of top 10 greatest English language novels. Since I’m a bibliophile and like making lists.