I have published more than 600 posts since I began Vertigo in January 2007. So if you are looking for a place to start, I suggest these eleven posts.
Dodge Rose (Dalkey Archive Press, 2016) the first novel by Australian writer Jack Cox, is a linguistic tour de force that kept me reading and Googling into the wee hours. It’s one of those rare books that will absorb and reward all the reader participation that you might want to put into it. As soon as I finished it, I started reading it again – partly to see just how much I had missed the first time and partly to admire Cox’s deft, Joycean handling of language. And what I discovered during my second reading is that there is a second, hinted-at narrative completely hidden within the novel of Dodge Rose and her family. Dodge Rose turns reading into a contact sport. Start here.
Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (Graywolf, 2004) is a powerful book-length prose poem about the struggle to find and maintain a moral position, to stave off loneliness and hopelessness, and to not fall prey to the blinding “American optimism” (she’s quoting Cornel West here), even as the rage of American racism grinds on. Start here.
In fiction, when someone is known only by the name of the place they came from, it’s often a sign that they will never be anything but an outsider wherever else they go. And that’s the case with the woman known only as Reno, the protagonist in Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (Scribner’s 2013). I had mixed reactions to Kushner’s novel, but it contains some of the best writing I’ve ever read about the 1970s New York City art scene. Start here.
One of my favorite novels is Carlos Fuentes’ The Hydra Head (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1978), a complex and sinister spy story that involves Mexican petro-politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict. It somehow marries his love Shakespeare and the noir novels and films of the 1930s and 40s. Start here.
Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (Doubleday, 1972) is a novel in which black anger and its sharp rebuke to white culture is a time bomb carefully tucked within a very entertaining noir comedy. When Reed wrote Mumbo Jumbo there was no immediate precedent for the wide range of imagery embedded in his text, nor for the diverse, quirky roles his images play, so it’s very much a ground-breaking image/text novel. Start here.
Who owns words? Can you inherit them? Do you have a special responsibility for words that have been written “to” you? These are just some of the questions raised by Joseph McElroy’s 1998 brief, rich novel The Letter Left to Me (Knopf, 1988). McElroy’s peculiar dedication is to precisely describe that which is inherently imprecise. And that is what makes reading Joseph McElroy a delight and a perpetual adventure. Start here.
The narrator of Esther Kinsky’s luscious, elegaic novel River (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017) is an unnamed woman who is living in a very liminal part of urban East London that edges up against Tottenham Marshes and the River Lea. Alone and apparently jobless, she spends her time exploring and mentally mapping her environs in an effort to find her own “provisional existence.” The book includes wonderful photographs by the author. Start here.
Great, long novels are something the reader inhabits for days, like a visit to a foreign country where the history and the customs and the social mores are different and take time to untangle. Even the sins may be different there. Chronicle of the Murdered House by the Brazilian novelist is just such a novel. Originally published in 1959 in Portuguese, this addictive book has recently been translated into English (Open Letter, 2016). Start here.
And then there are really short novels. Reading Robert Pinget’s 94-page long Passacaglia (Red Dust Books, 1978), I knew I was falling under the spell of one of those works of unsettling originality whose profundity was initially elusive and indescribable. Even as the story became more and more fractured, I found myself succumbing to Pinget’s writing, to his beautiful phrasing and masterful control of voice and pace. Start here.
Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s is a a wonderfully poetic and sometimes puzzling novella by William H. Gass about a self-described “old maid” who reads poetry to rise above the “brute dullness” of her Iowa farm life. It first appeared with beautiful photographs that seemed to have been custom-made for the story. But when it was published a second time, the photographs had disappeared. What happened? For the answer, start here.
Lying just beneath the surface of Javier Marias’s novel Thus Bad Begins (Penguin, 2016) is the troubling ethos and guilty conscience of post-Franco Spain. I thought I had this novel all worked out until just before the end, when Marías dropped two bombshells that changed everything. And instantly I began to recognize and track some of the little breadcrumbs that he had dropped along the way and which I had overlooked, thinking they were insignificant. Like a great magician, Marías had me looking in the wrong direction all along. Start here.