Sunday, February 04, 2018

Top ten most difficult fiction books to read

1. Gravity's Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
Other online lists of difficult books to read contain such novels as The Metamorphosis, Catch 22, Heart of Darkness, Cloud Atlas, The Corrections, Midnight's Children, Vernon Little God and Lolita (all of which I read with ease). By comparison, Gravity's Rainbow makes these books the literary equivalent of Peter Rabbit.

I bought Gravity's Rainbow as a wide-eyed, innocent art student some twenty-five years ago. Like many, I'd started it a few times but never got further than a few pages in. Then about six months ago, I decided to read it. And yes, it took six months (I read other books in between, mind) but I finished it. I didn't say I understood it all. Or even half of it. Maybe it would have helped if I was more intelligent, with some knowledge of quantum physics, German, Latin, history, warfare, chemistry, maths and early German cinema. Helpfully, it also has lashings of sex and drugs, as well as nonsense poems, songs and limericks, and such an array of styles (making it difficult to imagine it was written by one person, like Naked Came The Stranger, the 1960s literary hoax that was actually written by twenty-four journalists) that if I didn't get one style, I might understand the next.

With a cast of over 400 characters (most annoyingly, though, the central character – well, who I thought was the central character until he vanished for hundreds of pages – Tyrone Slothrop, well, it wouldn't leave my head that Owen Wilson would be perfect to play him in the unfilmable film adaption of the novel), a prose style denser than lead, a convoluted plot that jumps backwards and forewords in time (without letting me know!), it's been understandably compared to Ulysses and Moby-Dick as one of the most difficult novels to read. (1999's Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson has also been compared to it, a Gravity's Rainbow for the digital age, or some such soundbite, which I adored and devoured in a matter of days. It has, you know, developed characters and a plot. In the 1970s, Gravity's Rainbow felt like the start of a new post-modern genre of fractured story telling, but this genre understandably didn't really take off, and books with traditional characters and plot continued to rule the day.)

It's a mostly fascinating read anyway. With some quirky facts, such as it was Fritz Lang in his 1929 film Woman in the Moon who invented the rocket countdown. Fact.

2. Naked Lunch – William Burroughs
Or anything by Burroughs. He didn't invent his cut-up technique for easy reading.

3. Under the volcano – Malcolm Lowry
Dense and fragmented. I can't remember why I went through a Lowry phase but I read all his novels (ie two, plus some short stories), and his biography (Pursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm Lowry), which was far more fun to read than Lowry's fiction.

4. Riddly Walker – Russell Hoban
This is written in English but not quite as know it, a mix of Joyce, Burgess, Chaucer and, er, Kent dialect, which takes a while to get used to, but it's well worth it.

5. A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
Like Riddley Walker, this cult classic invents its own language, a mix of English slang and Russian. At least it's short. 

6. Captain Corelli's Mandolin – Louis de Bernières
A popular book and an awful film. I found the book hard to read and tremendously dull. 

7. The Ginger Man – J. P. Donleavy
One of the funniest books I've ever read, but pretty dense.  

8. Fifty Shades of Grey – E. L. James
Don't get me wrong; difficult books to read don't have to be pretentious, weighty, 1000-page long stream-of-consciousness affairs (but it helps). They can also be so bad it's impossible to get past the first few pages. With a prose style about as exciting as a shopping list, this was apparently quite popular. The film is meant to be even worse.

9. Bridget Jones's Diary – Helen Fielding
This one does start with a list (food consumed today). Couldn't get past the first few pages. In the 1970s there was The Female Eunuch; in the 1990s we have Bridget Jones. That's progress.

10. Auto-da-Fé – Elias Canetti
I can't remember much about this one. Canetti's short travel book about Morocco, The Voices of Marrakesh, which I picked up in a secondhand bookshop in Indonesia, is far more rewarding.


Anonymous said...

Difficult to read - anything written in Japanese, especially in very small type. :) R

Barnaby said...

Unless you're Japanese with good eyesight, presumably...