If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor
If pushed for a number one favourite book, I think it might be this one. This is a pretty slow-burning novel, and nothing much really happens until the very end, but that's not to say it's boring. Far from it. McGregor's writing is absolutely beautiful and poetic, and he somehow manages to describe the everyday in a way which makes it haunting and heartbreaking. The novel is set on a summer's day in a Northern English city, focusing on the occupants of one particular suburban street who witnessed a certain awful "event". But what actually happens is more or less irrelevant; this is a novel about the characters. The characters aren't given names, but rather are described, and each description flows effortlessly into the next in an almost dream-like way. The stories of their lives are intertwined with what happened that day, focusing on the tiny, mundane details that contain so much beauty and emotion. I can understand why this novel probably wouldn't be to some people's tastes because of the unconventional writing style, but I love it and think If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things is definitely a very underrated book.
In some rare and sacred dead time, sandwiched between the late sleepers and the early risers, there is a miracle of silence. Everything has stopped. And silence drops down from out of the night, into this city, the briefest of silences, like a falter between heart-beats, like a darkness between blinks. Secretly, there is always this moment, an unexpected pause, a hesitation as one day is left behind and a new one begins.
The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis
Set in a New Hampshire liberal arts college in the 1980s, The Rules of Attraction focuses on the lives of three students, Sean, Lauren and Paul, who are caught up in - for lack of a better expression - a strange love-triangle. There aren't really any chapters and the book begins and ends mid-sentence - sort of like a neverending circle which leaves you feeling confused about what's real and what's not. Each section of the book is narrated by a different character (usually one of the main three, but some secondary characters too) and each narrator describes the same events differently, emphasising the sense of self-centred loneliness and delusion which runs throughout the book. As with all of Ellis's novels, none of the main characters are conventionally likeable, but instead are narcissistic, self-pitying, and unstable, spending the majority of their time in a hedonistic downward-spiral. Parts of the story are fairly unsettling, but it's also funny and witty and it perfectly captures the rather bleak idea that we see things as we want to see them and nothing really changes. It's blunt and graphic and definitely not your typical college-based comedy, but it's an honest and gripping study of disaffected youth which is certainly worth a read.
I tell him, 'But I want to know you. I want to know who you are.'
He flinches and turns to me and says, raising his voice at first then letting it drop softer, 'No one will ever know anyone. We just have to deal with each other. You're not ever gonna know me.'
'What in the hell does that mean?' I ask.
'It just means you're not ever gonna know me,' he says. 'Figure it out. Deal with it.'
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
I first read this novel when I was about 15, and the protagonist's obsession with music really appealed to my own belief that I should have a specific song picked out for every possible situation in life. Rob is a thirty-something record store owner who spends his days making top five lists (totes appropes) with his misfit music snob colleagues, and feeling sorry for himself because of his recent break-up with girlfriend Laura. On the surface, High Fidelity is a tale about love and relationships from a male perspective, but it also goes deeper than that, looking at how personal flaws and obsessions really affect our relationships with others and how we perceive and over-analyze the things that have happened along the way. Rob is immature, insecure and life seems to have become a bit stagnant, but looking back on his "desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups" forces him to reevaluate things and, by the end of the book, he's grown up a bit and maybe life isn't so bad after all. The characters in this novel feel very real; yes, they're flawed, but in an ordinary, relatable kind of way. They're self-obsessed and clueless, but it's endearing and you can't help but smile. It does have a happy ending, but is also filled with plenty of melancholy, cynicism, sarcasm and obscure music references to stop it from becoming sickly sweet.
People worry about kids playing with guns, and teenagers watching violent videos; we are scared that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands - literally thousands - of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
In some ways, The Secret History is quite similar to The Rules of Attraction, but in other ways it's totally different. It's also set in a liberal arts college in New England (and in fact both novels make passing references to characters/events in the other) and has a dark and twisted feel to it, but that's about where the similarities end. The novel could be described as a "murder mystery in reverse"; the victim and the culprits are revealed within the first few sentences of the book, but the reasons why and the aftermath of the murder take another 600 or so pages to explain. The novel centres around a group of six Classics students who are very close-knit and secretive, and more than a little bit weird. Richard Papen, the story's narrator, is a newcomer to the group but quickly becomes entangled in their dark world. The characters seem to struggle to separate reality and literature, their own lives and the classical arts, and the novel becomes a kind of modern Greek tragedy. At first I couldn't get into this book, mainly because I found the characters incredibly arrogant and annoying, but the writing is so good that the story ends up being completely compelling anyway.
It's a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves?
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
And finally, the top five is rounded off with a classic and cautionary tale of the American Dream. Nick Carraway narrates the events of the summer of 1922, telling of the rise and fall of his neighbour, the great Jay Gatsby. A mysterious millionaire, Gatsby is famous for his parties but he remains aloof, only throwing such lavish parties in the hope his first love, Daisy, will attend one day. Everything in The Great Gatsby feels like it's beautiful and damned (coincidentally, also a Fitzgerald novel); despite their wealth and the splendour of the lives they have created, none of the characters are particularly happy and you get a sense that everything could come crashing down at any moment. And, well, it does all come crashing down. The novel captures the glittering capitalism of the Jazz Age, at the same time as reminding the reader of the underlying discontent and tragedy bubbling away beneath the surface. The idea of love is doomed and distorted, and, despite the possibilities offered by the American Dream, the lives of the characters remain empty and unfulfilled. It's a fairly short, easy to read book, and it's beautifully written. If you've never read it before, go and do it now!
There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams - not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Have you read any of these books? What's in your Top 5?