writing that's direct, morally complex, and personal at the same time
January 29, 2010 1:00 AM   Subscribe

There's no shortage of excellent "what to read" threads around here, but I'm looking for something a bit more specific. The tricky part is I'm looking for a style and a point of view, rather than a particular genre or subject.

Three main criteria:

1. Prose that is clear, sharp, and direct even to the point of becoming astringent; generally avoids becoming florid, precious, or too self-consciously literary.

2. Presents (or suggests) a world that is morally complex. Author and/or narrator is non-dogmatic, with a reluctantance to make easy generalizations, and is bemused by, outright hostile to, or otherwise estranged from conventional morality (however that might be defined in the book).

3. Point of view is unambiguously personal, with no pretense to objectivity or universal experience, but without being self-indulgent.

I don't care about fiction or non-fiction; genre, format, time period, subject, etc., do not matter. (Although, perhaps, I would prefer to avoid books with supernatural themes.)

Depending on how loosely you interpret these criteria, a lot of books might seem to fit, but I'm really hoping to find writing that truly exemplifies these qualities.

A random sampling of books & authors that hit this target for me: Joan Didion, Elaine Dundy's The Dud Avocado, Mary Gaitskill, J. Christopher Herold's Mistress to an Age, the eXile compendium, Of Human Bondage.

Thank you, genius MeFites!
posted by TayBridge to Writing & Language (46 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Why do I always end up recommending Geek Love, regardless of the specified criteria?

Oddly enough, it has never failed to fit them :-)
posted by flabdablet at 1:07 AM on January 29, 2010

Hardboiled detective novels? I'd start with Hammett, and if you dig the style, move on to Chandler.
posted by Afroblanco at 1:17 AM on January 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Bukowski's fiction maybe?
posted by nfg at 1:22 AM on January 29, 2010

Richard K. Morgan's novel, Altered Carbon.

Delicious sci-fi that nails all three points.
posted by dualityofmind at 2:00 AM on January 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

From the Amazon review:

, one in Pat Barker's series of novels confronting the psychological effects of World War I, focuses on treatment methods during the war and the story of a decorated English officer sent to a military hospital after publicly declaring he will no longer fight. Yet the novel is much more. Written in sparse prose that is shockingly clear -- the descriptions of electronic treatments are particularly harrowing -- it combines real-life characters and events with fictional ones in a work that examines the insanity of war like no other. Barker also weaves in issues of class and politics in this compactly powerful book. Other books in the series include The Eye in the Door and the Booker Award winner The Ghost Road.

One of my favorite books of all time. The other two in the series (The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road) are also great.

I'm not a 'historical fiction' type of person. I really like moral ambiguity and conflict in characters and she does this really well.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:14 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Pluche, or The Love of Art by Jean Dutourd. You're going to have to buy it used, WAY out of print, published here in the states in 1970. A day in the life story of Pluche, a painter in 1960s Paris, going through a period of sterility, unable to paint. So he picks up a pen and begins to write about it.

A really fun read. This character is just totally wacked, so powerfully written - you really get a sense of this guy and his life and his loves.
posted by dancestoblue at 3:17 AM on January 29, 2010

Actually, you might like the second one better - The Eye in the Door - it struggles more with moral issues. But there's no reason not read all of them!
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:17 AM on January 29, 2010

Look, I realise that almost everyone who's ever finished high school has read it, but Camus' The Outsider fits your criteria pretty well (of course, there's plenty of room to argue that criterion #3 doesn't quite apply)
posted by bunglin jones at 3:47 AM on January 29, 2010

THE book for you is by Agota Kristof . . . but you're in luck, it's actually three novels published together for one low price. They are The Notebook, The Proof and The Third Lie.

To an INCREDIBLE degree, they fit all three of your criteria. They form a continuum of sorts, although each one is a weirdly different in tone to the rest. The Notebook, in particular, must be my favorite book I've read in the past decade. It's incredibly clear, sharp and direct, hugely complex on any number of moral issues and almost voyeuristically personal without self-indulgence. Even prior to your question, your criteria are the exact three which I would have used to describe these novels. You'll totally love them.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 3:55 AM on January 29, 2010

Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel.
posted by OmieWise at 4:57 AM on January 29, 2010

As for nonfiction, I can't recommend Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory highly enough. It is both a restrained cleareyed look at the Moloch-like facts of war and an extremely interesting panorama of how British officers and the general public used poetry, metaphor, literary language and euphemism to try (and fail) to transmute that ugly lack of meaning into pathos and irony.

Of the many fascinating insights in the book is how difficult is was, both emotionally and intellectually, to be a WWI British officer on the Western Front with occasional leave back to the UK. To go from rat-infested trenches and stinking death to welcome-home parties and uncomprehending hero worship, then back again, created an intellectual and emotional bifurcation of enormous tension, which this wonderful book communicates so well. One of the best, most mature, anti-war books I have ever read.

And that goes for his book on WWII as well.
posted by mono blanco at 5:14 AM on January 29, 2010

Jamie Harrison's mysteries? (Jim Harrison's daughter)

Off to try Mary Gaitskill....
posted by egk at 5:44 AM on January 29, 2010

I'd give Coetzee a try. Maybe Disgrace. It's not exactly what you're looking for, but it might tick enough of the boxes. Youth is also worth a go. They're quick reads too.
posted by SebastianKnight at 5:58 AM on January 29, 2010

That is a very tough question, as a florid prose style seems to go with moral complexity. Yet very direct writing can also seem artificially "literary" and "precious".

Kafka and Nietzsche are obvious ones. They're very paratactic.

Cioran is supposed to be aphoristic.

In fiction, of course Hemingway is paratactic. Maybe Dreiser.

Wallace Stevens' essays are excellent but very opaque, so that is not within your criteria.

Maybe WC Williams' prose.

Maybe Mencken also.

AHA. Ambrose Bierce. That's your answer.

Letters and essays.
posted by supremefiction at 6:01 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Night- Elie Wiesel
posted by Wayman Tisdale at 6:28 AM on January 29, 2010

Paul Auster's The Brooklyn Follies might be right up your alley.
posted by General Malaise at 6:48 AM on January 29, 2010

I just finished 'Set This House In Order' by Matt Ruff - I think that fits the bill. Either way, it was an excellent read.
posted by 8dot3 at 6:51 AM on January 29, 2010

I was going to say exactly what Afroblanco said.
Hammett and Chandler. In that order.
posted by willpie at 6:56 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, two of my favorite novels (which also compare and contrast nicely with each other), The End of the Road and The Floating Opera.
posted by willpie at 6:59 AM on January 29, 2010

The Little Friend by Donna Tart, An Instance of the Fingerposts by Ian Pears.
posted by chocolatetiara at 7:32 AM on January 29, 2010

Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth fits your criteria, though the protagonist is a bit of a self-indulgent jerk.
posted by hiteleven at 8:08 AM on January 29, 2010

Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy" and possibly "Sister Carrie." A bit wordy maybe for #1, but is in no way precious or particularly "flowery." 2 and 3 apply perfectly.
posted by lucky25 at 8:14 AM on January 29, 2010

David Gates' Jernigan fits your criteria almost perfectly.

Two short-story collections that might be of interest:

Adam Johnson's Emporium. Its rather quirky, but embodies a lot of the criteria you list. Try reading his story "Teen Sniper," to get a feeling for his writing.

Also, a bit out of left field, is George Saunders' Civilwarland in Bad Decline. Also quirky, and you might find it a bit precious, but might be of interest. For 99 cents, you can hear his story "The 400 Pound CEO" here.

And I second Nietzche.
posted by googly at 9:19 AM on January 29, 2010

At the moment I'm working my way through Alice Munro's most recent collection of short stories, Too Much Happiness, and I think it (and other Munro collection) might fit your criteria.
posted by drlith at 9:22 AM on January 29, 2010

One more idea: Jeery Stahl's memoir Permanent Midnight. Ignore the fact that it was made into a mediocre movie. This is that rarest of memoirs: direct, morally complex in multiple ways, without being self-indulgent in the least.
posted by googly at 9:30 AM on January 29, 2010

This screams Heinlein to me.
posted by paultopia at 9:42 AM on January 29, 2010

Perhaps Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go?

Yeah, that might fit the bill.
posted by inkytea at 9:43 AM on January 29, 2010

Might violate #1 a little, but my go-to is always Martin Amis's London Fields.
posted by feistycakes at 9:55 AM on January 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm seconding Alice Munro--she has a ton of short story collections out there, and I believe if you poke around the New Yorker website you can find some available online for free, if you want to test her style/POV.
posted by sallybrown at 10:00 AM on January 29, 2010

Ursula LeGuin's novels (fantasy)
Raymond Chandler's novels (mystery)
posted by small_ruminant at 10:58 AM on January 29, 2010

Jacques Roubaud's The Great Fire of London, which concerns the simultaneous death of his wife and of his decades-long mathematicopoetic Project. He integrates ambiguity into the structure of the book via his interpolations and bifurcations -- multi-page end notes in which he begins to set down a narrative path not taken.
posted by CutaneousRabbit at 11:13 AM on January 29, 2010

How about Catch 22?
posted by leibniz at 11:30 AM on January 29, 2010

Alice Munro, definitely.

For "clear, sharp, and direct," check out Muriel Spark: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means, and Loitering With Intent.
posted by betweenthebars at 11:39 AM on January 29, 2010

How about the Georges Simenon novels that the NYRB has been re-releasing over the last few years? "The Man Who Watched Trains Go By" is my favorite, but they're all great and they definitely meet your criteria. Also seconding Chandler & Hammett.
posted by pete_22 at 12:13 PM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I also think Chandler and Hammett fit your criteria. Carl Hiaasen might be good for modern eco-moral quandary. And I agree that Geek Love might work for you.
posted by irisclara at 12:59 PM on January 29, 2010

And Bierce.
posted by irisclara at 1:01 PM on January 29, 2010

I just mentioned him in another thread, but the author you're looking for is H.L. Mencken (also suggested by supremefiction above). He owes a lot to Nietzsche, but you don't have to read him in translation and his voice is uniquely American. Check out his essays collected in Prejudices and enjoy. Here's one of countless quotable passages:

"Perhaps the most valuable of all human possessions, next to an aloof and sniffish air, is the reputation of being well-to-do. Nothing else so neatly cases one’s way through life ... Give out the news that one has just made a killing in the stock market, or robbed some confiding widow of her dower, or swindled the government in some patriotic enterprise, and at once one will discover that one’s shabbiness is a charming eccentricity, and one’s judgment of wines worth hearing, and one’s political hallucinations worthy of attention. The man who is thought to be poor never gets a fair chance. No one wants to listen to him. No one gives a damn what he thinks or knows or feels. No one has any desire for his good opinion. I discovered this principle early in life, and have put it to use ever since. I have got a great deal more out of men (and women) by having the name of being a well-heeled fellow than I have ever got by being decent to them, or by dazzling them with my sagacity, or by hard industry, or by a personal beauty that is singular and ineffable."
posted by Mendl at 1:27 PM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

You want Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.
posted by moons in june at 2:02 PM on January 29, 2010

Anything by William Maxwell. My personal favorite is So Long, See You Tomorrow.

And while his narrative style leans towards Faulkner and Melville, you can't get more astringent than Cormac McCarthy's dialogue. My favorite is moons in june's recommendation, Blood Meridian.
posted by Paris Elk at 2:20 PM on January 29, 2010

Absolutely everything – fiction and non-fiction – by George Orwell, but particularly '1984'.
You might want to try 'Intimacy' by Hanif Kureishi, although I would argue that the protagonist is less 'morally complex' that he thinks he is...
posted by HandfulOfDust at 2:39 PM on January 29, 2010

posted by geek anachronism at 2:45 PM on January 29, 2010

Response by poster: Amazing. Thank you everyone, I'm looking forward to checking all of these out. If anyone has any further suggestions, please keep them coming!
posted by TayBridge at 3:13 PM on January 29, 2010

Coetzee - specifically Elizabeth Costello.

I love this question, by the way--Gaitskill's writing has had it's own, very specific place in my heart for over a decade now, and I love every single other thing you mentioned also. For whatever it's worth, Gaitskill put her hat in the ring for a little-known book by Scott Bradfield called History of Luminous Motion--"painfully beautiful writing," she says on the back cover blurb--as well as, famously, "J.T. Leroy" pre-hoax-unveiling.

Gina Berriault, Amy Hempel, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Penelope Fitzgerald are also all good directions to go in.
posted by ifjuly at 9:01 AM on January 30, 2010

Damn iPhone auto correct. Its not it's of course.
posted by ifjuly at 9:02 AM on January 30, 2010

I wonder if Lorrie Moore would be right, or completely wrong. I love her.
posted by DMelanogaster at 7:48 PM on September 3, 2010

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