If you're interested in forming a Difficult Book Club, here is a potential list for you. I meet with a small group of readers and writers from New Mexico, California, New York and Pennsylvania every few weeks and we chat over Google Hangout.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Powerful and visceral book. Do not rip the opus in half as many guides suggest. The difficulty of dealing with the size and weight of the book is a big part of the point of it (reading should be hard). Definitely read it with a group because kvetching is fun. There’s also a lot to love and share about the book. They say it gets easier after page 200 but I enjoyed it way before then. Read the footnotes, especially the long plot-related ones; you can skip all the footnotes full of drug minutia. Information overload and learning what is important to know and what is not…that’s a big part of it too. Some materials we found helpful: Infinite Jest told with Legos, The Decemberists video, The IJ Wiki
White Noise by Don DeLillo
Probably felt more revolutionary in the 80s when information overload and big data were just becoming a thing but it was hard for our group to emotionally connect with the situations and the vagueness of the ending…and the whole why of it.
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
Hands down we all loved this one. Berlin is a completely passed-over talent getting a resurgence of attention long after her death. I felt she had a very southwestern sensibility, unheard of it literary fiction, not only covering California but New Mexico and Mexico.
Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion
An imperfect book structurally but a very good depiction of the Hollywood scene in Los Angeles. Didion is my favorite writer so I was primed to like this more than the rest of the group. But I love her artful and powerful sentence constructions.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Two-fifths of the group hated (with a white hot passion) the incomplete ending. Three-fifths weren’t bothered by it at all. I’ve read the book twice now and hated the ending both times. Barnes is an amazing writer and can depict long swaths of time and action in a few paragraphs. Almost every paragraph is interesting so it's crushing that the ending ruins it. Writers that create complicated plot mysteries and then cop out at the end, claiming the cop out is high art: I just don’t buy it. It's a too convenient way to back out of the corner you've written yourself into. Empty epiphanies. There is copious amounts of commentary online trying to make sense of the plot points, all to no avail.
Anna Kareninia by Leo Tolstoy
Two-fifths of us branched off to read this long Russian soap opera with some interesting Russian political history pre-revolution. I've heard the novel can be interpreted as an early feminist story but much more time is devoted to politics and housekeeping. There is apparently insight into Leo Tolstoy through the main character who is interesting but ultimately frustrating. But all that said, the final scene with Anna traveling to the train station is a glorious marvel of pre-Modernism although the book is technically classified as 1800s Russian realism. We watched The Last Station with Helen Miren and Christopher Plummer (again) after finishing the book.
The Imaginary 20th Century by Norman M. Klein and Margo Bistis (aborted)
A PDF novel with an online archive of film and turn-of-the-century magazine commentary. It's a complete overload of plot without any narrative. Interviews with Klein indicate the book is trying to be a picaresque novel (like Don Quixote) but there’s no real sense of adventure or fun or length or depth to any of the adventures. The Margo Bistis essays in the back are amazing though and worth finding. They explain the themes of futuristic imaginings more satisfyingly. The multi-media and the book’s format also don’t serve to expand your understanding of the story or digital storytelling either.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Described as a long book but it's not a difficult read at all. A very engaging story about colliding cultures, the struggles of African immigrants in America and different ways of seeing both American and African countries. We we all pretty much frustrated that the main characters has plenty of criticism for everyone else (black, African, white, British) but absolutely no self-awareness of her own flaws.
The Gormenghast novels by Mervyn Peake
Two-fifths of us have again branched off to read these three novels. It was very challenging to get going in the beginning due to the avalanche of description and it felt like a very similar experience to reading Proust’s first novel, Swann’s Way, for the first time, (I kept falling asleep as Proust took so long to describe our narrator waking up!). But you get into the rhythm eventually (like you do with Proust) and start to care about these very grotesque and over-described characters. By the end of book two, things start to fall apart plot-wise and book three is just a ridiculous slog through pointlessness. Sadly, Peake was suffering from an illness at that point. It feels like a badge of honor to get through all three. Apparently even many Peake fans don't.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans
Truly a difficult book. Almost a modernist prose poem as much as an essay. A conversation between the text and the section of photos (the photo archive?) , similar to what the Imaginary 20th Century above was trying, but easier to navigate. Some in our group missed a more conventional investigation, narrative and character setup. Other's appreciated the book as a long modernist poem. Some materials we found helpful: excerpts from the original "Cotton Tenants" article, The Atlantic article, Antioch Review article, 1978 documentary, James Agee, The Sovereign Prince of English, PBS Special, Let Us Know Praise Famous Men: Revisited.
Swann's Way by Marcel Proust (first book of In Search of Lost Time) - two-fifths of us loved this book (and have read the whole seven in the series). Three-fifths hated it utterly for being too difficult. This book is a beautiful overture to one of the most beloved novels on earth, full of complex characters evolving over many years and eloquent, musical descriptions that go on for pages. Proust tries to understand things like the nature of falling in love and how falling asleep and waking up is a metaphor for memory. Nobody does it better. Though sometimes I wish someone could.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
I thought this was a great historical-narrative enactment of the principles of Zen Buddhism, a book about grief (suffering) and sympathy...and death. Two of us liked it, one thought it was an over-praised play with flaws disguised as an experimental novel but enjoyed it nonetheless, one was ambivalent about it and one didn't care for it at all.
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
The group was divided on this book. Some thought the type-setting was gimmicky. Some of us, including me, loved the satire on academia and overthinking, the fictional enactment of informational overload and information noise. I also thought the character of Johnny was very engaging and provided the emotional aspects of the book, the alternative to over-thinking. One of my top favorites of the books we've done.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
This book is a narrative told in short stories. Characters, locations, dates all switch around from story to story. Most of us felt it was hard to connect with the characters and that the music business scenarios (especially the Orange County punk scene) didn't feel authentic enough. I wasn't convinced this was a novel at all, but a series of interrelated short stories. The cover decidedly states the book is a novel, so we had conversations about the borderline between the two and maybe the definition of a novel being a story with a slow build to a climax and resolution or at least a structural resolution. I mentioned being tired of the short story as novel experiment (the stories make use of various points of view) but I did love the one told in PowerPoint presentation. Not only was there a dramatic arc in the PowerPoint, but some emotional resonance there as well, which would seem hard to do.
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Everybody liked this story about a freak-show family. Nothing particularly difficult about it unless the subject matter and situations were difficult for you. We all enjoyed the family aspect of the book and the flashback structure, and Dunn's writing style.
A Book of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates
So this book was difficult for an entirely different reason: it's the story of a murdered abortion doctor and the aftermath of the murder between the families involved. It was a book most of us would never have read for that reason, but Joyce Carol Oates handled both sides with sympathy as she worked through the grief of the issue for both sides.