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.
A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul
This story is an epic tale of one man's life, based on Naipaul's father. The line between fiction and memoir here is interestingly vague. Some in our group didn't like the structure of a book without a traditional plot. I enjoyed thinking about how I would tell the story of a family member in a novel. A realistic saga of a family.
Possession by A.S. Byatt
We didn't love this book, for many reasons. First, the Victorian pastiche poems were a challenge for even this poet, but so was the rest of academia-speak, which offered no payoff for the learner. It felt all showing-off and ungenerous, especially when compared to the academia-speak of David Foster Wallace above. We all did think the novel did pick up in the second half. We disagreed about the movie adaptation, but two of us felt the movie solved essential problems in the novel, if sometimes creating new problems. Also, the American characters were painfully one-note, especially the New Mexican, which exposed the author to an embarrassing lack of research regarding her place. The character she was describing was more like a Texan. Two states away but the differences are immense. We were primed to love an academic love story in search of two poets. But it lacks something.
The Overstory by Richard Power
This was an interesting one. We chose the book because it was described as a story told by a tree. We thought that was structurally interesting, and possibly challenging to do. The book is not told from the POV of a tree. It's told with a big cast of characters and reminds me a lot of Stephen King's The Stand, where a lot of characters are inspired to go on a quest and convene in one place, and other characters run into each other in another place. These characters happen to be tree activists of some kind or another, from literal tree huggers to book lovers who vaguely have an inkling about their yard trees. What's an amazing thing about the book is how deftly Powers turns an issue-driven story into a good yarn. It's masterful. The ending is somewhat vague but throws hints down for a way to proceed in the future.
Life a Users Manual by Georges Perec
For half of the group, this book has become one of our favorite books. One-fourth of our group was semi-pleased with it but frustrated. One-fourth of us thought this was the worst book ever. It's awesome in the scope of its minutia and characters and stories of a group of Parisians who live in one building. I thought it was the novel about the entirety of our existence. And for those who think Perec just plays games and sets up artificial parameters for his books, the book was full of post-World War II sadness and heart. I was very moved by this book and its embrace of all of humanity.
Middle England by Jonathan Coe
Sometimes we read a book because the task of reading is difficult (Infinite Jest, Swann's Way, House of Leaves, Life a User's Manual) and other times we pick a book because the topic is difficult and one we'd rather avoid (looking at both sides of the abortion war in A Book of American Martyrs and this one looking at both sides of Brexit in the UK). Good balance of perspectives, which is what makes reading like this difficult.
The Unfortunates by B.S. Johnson
This is the famous "book in a box" from that late 1960s. Chapters come unbound in a box, every recipient receiving the stack in a different order. It's a novel about memory, friendship and cancer. We created a Google spreadsheet to track the order everyone read the book. Some really liked the book, some were eh about it. One person didn't like it at all, although found the form hard to put down.
The group took a break in early 2020 and regrouped in the spring of 2021, deciding to read less difficult books. :-( However, some book choices have been inadvertently difficult. And as those happen they will be posted here.
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Outline/Transit/Kudos by Rachel Cusk
This is a three book trilogy about a writer navigating life and the stories of everyone she meets. The best parts are depictions of writing workshops, conferences and conversations about the book publishing business. Some say you can read the books in any order, but there is definite symmetry of situations and progression of chapter formatting in their order. The books are difficult because of the deadness of the narrator (who barely responds or reacts or emotes to anything happening other than to occasionally disagree) and the redundancy of the monologues. Half the group found this liberating and half found it wanting of a point or movement. Nobody changes, including the narrator who seemed to have no core or soul as evidenced by the last scene of the three novels. Note: a lack of personality seemed to be one of Cusk's goals here. One group member disliked the anti-obese portraits of some characters. Men are more often being either villainous or self-obsessed. And the whole trilogy is a cacophony of long monologues disguised as dialogues. One member related the meandering stories akin to Proust, except his floatings are full of wonder and these meditations are full of depletion. All that said, very well written and some profound moments to be found.
Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar
For the most part, unless they choose one accidentally like the set directly above, the difficult book club has given up on reading difficult books. So I have continued with this book, a novel you can read multiple ways: (1) completely hopscotching random chapters (but then you will miss any sense of a narrative through time, but you will get a sense of the randomness of our lives); (2) read chapters 1-56 and call it a day (a choice Cortázar completely endorses, but then you will miss a lot of interesting story filler); (3) Use the hopschotched list provided in the front matter of the book, also provided in numbered prompts at the end of each chapter (this is the long way home and is full of modernist, tangential chapters and a whole thread about a fictional modernist writer that is very interesting); or (4) read it like I did: read chapters 1-56 taking notes about each chapter and then go back and read the novel again in the hopscotched list provided but when hitting the chapters already read, refer to your notes instead of fully re-reading them.
Essentially in the hopscotched form you still read chapters 1-56 in order, but the chapters will be interrupted with "more info" found in the second half of the book. You need the list, however, because the later chapters are completely randomized and delicately sewn into the correct narrative spots of the 1-56 chapter narrative. If you read it both ways, like I did, you get a sense of both the edited narrative (with modernist touches here and there) compared to a fully modernist inflation of a narrative. It's an interesting education in different ways to approach the story. The shorter version is painfully beautiful in its own way, a mostly direct-story about an love and madness, both seemingly unexplainable. The longer version tries to explain that love and madness. It's interesting to see the protagonist Horacio's life carbon-copy itself from Paris to Buenos Aires and there is an interesting comparison between three love triangles involving Horacio, some which are funcitoning and some disfunctional (Horacio, Pola and LaMaga; Horacio, La Maga and Gregorovius; Horacio, Traveler and Talita).
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
My reformed not-so-difficult-now-part-time-social book club read this one and although it's not physically taxing, there is a difficulty about it in that it is a book about a woman basically sleeping 289 pages. And for some readers in the group, this was a hard slog but I saw it as an interesting challenge for the author to keep us engaged through a year's worth of descriptions of sleep, depression and the misuse of prescription drugs. Also, some in the group did not like the ending which depicts a recent historical New York City Event (not to spoil it but you can see it coming chapters ahead).
Erasure by Percival Everett
A book that not only challenges stereotypical ideas about being a black person in America, but also criticizes how to resolve racial disparities in publishing, and a book that chastises the publishing industry for attempting to resolve disparities without having read seminal black literature, like Richard Wright's Native Son (read it, love it) and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (haven't read it; should have read it by now). Everett does this all with humorous send-ups of academia and publishing, but also interwoven with some experimental stuff and a moving, multi-faceted family drama. Important writer and I will be reading more of him.