That's right, limning and lapidary...
September 8, 2010 1:29 PM   Subscribe

What are your favorite epic, challenging, literary novels that weren't written by white males? Particularly interested in long books (400+ pages) or books with multiple voices/protagonists, but I'm open to all suggestions.

I'm trying to settle an argument with myself (related to the Jonathan Franzen-Jodi Picoult-Jennifer Weiner silliness) and also read more books. My enjoyment of a book hinges more on words and tone than on characters or narrative. I like authors who see every sentence as an opportunity to show off. My favorite authors include Colum McCann ("Let the Great World Spin"), David Mitchell, and James Joyce.
posted by acidic to Media & Arts (56 answers total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
 
The Sea of Fertility.
posted by plep at 1:31 PM on September 8, 2010


Dhalgren, by Samuel Delany.
The Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison.
Another Country, by James Baldwin.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:35 PM on September 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Beloved by Toni Morrison.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami.
posted by telegraph at 1:36 PM on September 8, 2010


A Suitable Boy

Warning: it is long. Like 1400 pages long. However, it's about the lives of three somewhat-connected families and when I finished it (both times), I really really wanted there to be an equally long sequel about the next year.

And, looking at the Wikipedia link for the book - I may get my wish (in 2013).
posted by hydrobatidae at 1:38 PM on September 8, 2010


The Emperor of Ocean Park
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 1:43 PM on September 8, 2010


"The Fresco" by Sherri S. Tepper
posted by grizzled at 1:45 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.
posted by shinybaum at 1:45 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Poisonwood Bible / Barbara Kingsolver. Long + Multiple voices.
posted by sk932 at 1:48 PM on September 8, 2010


Thanks for the suggestions so far. Quick clarification, since the vast majority of authors mentioned so far are famous men, my primary goal is actually to get a list of female novelists, particularly new or relatively unknown writers.
posted by acidic at 1:53 PM on September 8, 2010


The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot. (Though I'm partial to all her books.)
posted by bearwife at 1:54 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Man Who Loved Children, by Christina Stead. A.S. Byatt's Potter quartet (The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman), Possession and The Children's Book. The Golden Notebook. Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy. The Pillow Book. A Place of Greater Safety and Wolf Hall. More as I think of them.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 1:56 PM on September 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie is considered one of the best novels of the last 50 years.
posted by auto-correct at 1:59 PM on September 8, 2010


"White Teeth" by Zadie Smith.
Ditto A. S. Byatt and Pat Barker.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 2:00 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


No new/unknown female authors spring to mind, but I'd also recommend Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools, another of my favorites.

There are multiple great southern literary female US authors besides Porter, including Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, and Harper Lee (only one book, but what a book.)
posted by bearwife at 2:00 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


OH! Susannah Clarke! Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell is great, but the Ladies Of Grace Adieu is even better.
posted by bibliogrrl at 2:00 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji - worlds first modern novel.
posted by shinybaum at 2:01 PM on September 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Sounds like Rushdie would fit the bill: try The Moor's Last Sigh or The Satanic Verses (or probably Midnight's Children - haven't read that myself though). Full of puns and allusions. Definitely a show-off.

George Eliot (Middlemarch) wrote long and beautiful novels. Maybe a bit too traditional and character-focused for you, though.

On preview, I agree with the Zadie Smith suggestion.
posted by Infinite Jest at 2:04 PM on September 8, 2010


"...And Ladies of the Club" by Helen Hooven Santmyer. Best. book. ever. I read sections of it all of the time. I am dying to discuss it. I read it through in 1985 and then again years later to see the foreshadowing. And I've read it all through at least one more time. I cannot recommend it enough. It has lots of socioeconomic history. Even if you don't think you can make it through all 1174 pages (of the paperback edition), try sections. I buy copies of this when I see it at yard sales and so on to give to people. Apparently she cut quite a bit, and I'd love to see that material!

Also try Santmyer's Herbs and Apples, a mere 432 paperback pages. She wrote several others that I have not read.
posted by jgirl at 2:08 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie is considered one of the best novels of the last 50 years.

Yes! I came in here to recommend that. It's the ultimate modern epic.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is also good, though sort of on the depressing side.

Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood is excellent too.

Finally, some people hate The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, some people love it. Give it a shot.
posted by lunasol at 2:10 PM on September 8, 2010


Seconding A Suitable Boy. Long, but un-put-down-able. Feel free to skim or skip entirely the long passages on early Indian congressional procedure. That should save you at least 100 pages.

If you're going to Read The Poisonwood Bible (which you should), pair it with Tracks, by Louise Erdrich. Both do a similar multiple POV/unreliable narrator thing that is really interesting. Among other similarities. And Tracks is also an incredible book that should be required reading, in contrast to Poisonwood or not.
posted by Sara C. at 2:25 PM on September 8, 2010


It got mixed reviews and has an awful title but I was a big fan of Caramba! by Nina Marie Martinez.
posted by escabeche at 2:30 PM on September 8, 2010


Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nightwood
posted by Lieber Frau at 2:32 PM on September 8, 2010


Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey. It's the first book of a trilogy, and there are two related trilogies--each trilogy has its own narrator/protagonist. They are nothing if not epic, and while the writing isn't challenging in the way of a Joyce, I find the ideas in the series fascinating.
posted by epj at 2:33 PM on September 8, 2010


Joy Williams! That's who I forgot. Try State of Grace and The Quick and the Dead. Keri Hulme's Booker-winning The Bone People. Kate Atkinson's Case Histories. Regarding Margaret Atwood, people always recommend things like Oryx and Crake or The Handmaid's Tale but I actually consider Cat's Eye to be her best. Emma Donoghue! Try Slammerkin. Try some Sarah Waters also, Tipping the Velvet and Affinity.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 2:35 PM on September 8, 2010


Middlemarch, surely!
I really loved Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, but milage varies. If you like elaborate prose she might tickle your fancy though.
A left-field suggestion: The Irish R.M., by cousins Sommerville and Ross, as you like Irish writing.
posted by Erasmouse at 2:42 PM on September 8, 2010


Marguerite Young's Miss Macintosh, My Darling - which an unusually literate and handsome MeFite made into an FPP.
posted by Joe Beese at 2:44 PM on September 8, 2010


Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. Not new, but definitely epic.
posted by GaelFC at 2:55 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


my primary goal is actually to get a list of female novelists, particularly new or relatively unknown writers

I think Vanessa Place's La Medusa is exactly what you're looking for. It came out in 2008 and it's over 600 pages. It's an experimental work about multiple narratives in and around the Los Angeles area. It uses various typographical tricks and features neurology as a unifying thematic element. If you're looking for an epic, challenging work with brilliant style on a line-by-line basis, you can't do much better than this.
posted by fryman at 3:01 PM on September 8, 2010


I'm going to nth A. S. Byatt, Hilary Mantel, George Eliot (I'm a Victorianist, I would do that...), Zadie Smith, and Sigrid Undset. Kristin Lavransdatter is absolutely mesmerizing.

Other suggestions:

Vikram Chandra, Sacred Games
Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies (warning: first volume of a trilogy--it just stops)
Nalo Hopkinson, The Salt Roads

I haven't yet read Nnedi Okorafor's post-apocalyptic Who Fears Death yet, but it certainly looks interesting.

The University of Nebraska Press has a "European Women Writers" series that publishes some extremely challenging work in translation.
posted by thomas j wise at 3:32 PM on September 8, 2010


You may also enjoy the reviews at 50 books poc, they rec a lot of books by non-white non-male authors and I've had some spectacular luck following some of them.
posted by shinybaum at 3:52 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Joyce Carol Oates, Bellefleur
posted by candyland at 4:03 PM on September 8, 2010


I would say that many of the suggestions so far do not meet this requirement:

My enjoyment of a book hinges more on words and tone than on characters or narrative. I like authors who see every sentence as an opportunity to show off. My favorite authors include Colum McCann ("Let the Great World Spin"), David Mitchell, and James Joyce.

Contemporary women writers who I think hit that level of exceptional literary merit include: A.L. Kennedy, A.M. Homes, Nicole Krauss, Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, Lydia Davis. Younger writers who I think are on the way there or who I think are interesting to read for other reasons: Julie Orringer, Jennifer Egan, Maile Meloy, Lauren Groff, Vendela Vida, Heidi Julavits, Kelly Link, Yiyun Li, Kamila Shamsie.
posted by judith at 4:25 PM on September 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Annie Dillard's The Living, and another vote for Middlemarch.

(Beardwoman calls out "Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth", but thinks it's more like 300+ pages.)
posted by Beardman at 5:24 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, and Dillard totally meets the "every sentence is an opportunity to show off" condition. As does George Eliot, if we count showing off how seriously fucking wise she is.
posted by Beardman at 5:25 PM on September 8, 2010


I haven't read it, but I once had Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook recommended under similar terms (672 pages I see, and apparently lots of layers, if one voice). Someone can confirm or deny its relevance here, I hope.
posted by kimota at 5:31 PM on September 8, 2010


The Good Husband by Gail Godwin is one of my favourite books. It's beautifully crafted and weighs in at something like 500 pages.

The Eight by Katherine Neville is the book I always recommend for people looking for rather epic reads. It spans 200 years and a thousand pages and could not possibly be held together by the plot, which is vast; it's the writing that makes it so good.

Posession by AS Byatt is an excellent book; my edition is 555 pages. It won the Booker Prize and is highly regarded, making Time's list of 100 best novels last century.

But are you specifically interested in only contemporary authors? Jane Austen is well worth a read especially if you're in love with the arrangement of language. Pride and Prejudice is 382 pages.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:34 PM on September 8, 2010


Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell is truly epic.
posted by Rora at 5:40 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Geek Love by Katherine Dunn is an experience to read.
posted by Red Loop at 5:45 PM on September 8, 2010


Marilynne Robinson is known as a writer's writer. If you're looking for contemporary female literary novelists, look no further. Her 1980 novel Housekeeping was a critical success, but she didn't finish another one for 23 years.

Her 2004 follow-up Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize.

(Links are to Google Books results. You can start reading them there.)

On preview, seconding Geek Love.

Also, I know he's a dude, but I really feel like Roberto BolaƱo's 2666 is a novel you would like. Twisty, strange, and the writing is virtuosic, like he's just riffing to prove that he can write a sentence that's easy to follow and is also inexplicably an entire page long. Also, violent and borderline misogynistic. But not any worse than that Dragon Tattoo crap.
posted by purpleclover at 6:04 PM on September 8, 2010


The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt. I've heard great things about American Genius: A Comedy by Lynne Tillman.
posted by Kattullus at 6:07 PM on September 8, 2010


I second Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter. Amazing, engrossing. Sigrid Undset won the Nobel for literature in 1928 for her historical fiction.
posted by foodmapper at 6:08 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've heard great things about Susan Choi (her American Woman is in my to-read pile).
posted by Kattullus at 6:17 PM on September 8, 2010


You might enjoy Cristina Peri Rossi's Ship of Fools. It's not a long novel, but it boasts a complex, non-linear approach written in a poet's voice that may satisfy your other requirements.
posted by drlith at 6:55 PM on September 8, 2010


The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy. Superb, and I believe that she won the Booker prize for it.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:56 PM on September 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


The Waves, by Virginia Woolf. Not that long, but quite demanding.

Very, very high on lists of the most luminous English prose ever written, and described by Woolf herself (in the Diaries) as "the greatest stretch of mind I ever knew."

Her language in this book is so intense it was almost too much for me, and I had to force down a little sob just writing this, though I last looked into The Waves ~20 years ago.
posted by jamjam at 6:59 PM on September 8, 2010


Marguerite Young, Christine Brooke-Rose, Violette Leduc, Vasily Grossman (dead and white and male, but underexposed?), and Louis Paul Boone (ditto) have all written tome-ish works that are unorthodox or challenging in various ways. You might also argue Zadie Smith, though (hushed confession, now) she doesn't really do it for me personally, much as I want her stuff to.
posted by ifjuly at 7:04 PM on September 8, 2010


And if you treat Colette's novels sort of like an entire ouevre in stages of her writing career, you might argue she could at times be like a female Proust in ways.
posted by ifjuly at 7:06 PM on September 8, 2010


Leslie Marmon Silko, Almanac of the Dead.
posted by pickypicky at 9:02 PM on September 8, 2010


Dhalgren, by Samuel Delany.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:06 AM on September 9, 2010


Seconding the God of Small Things.

I haven't read it, but I once had Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook recommended under similar terms (672 pages I see, and apparently lots of layers, if one voice). Someone can confirm or deny its relevance here, I hope.


I haven't read that one, but I've read The Good Terrorist, which seems to fit (though maybe too character-focused?).
posted by Infinite Jest at 12:14 AM on September 9, 2010


relatively unknown writers

You might like to take a look at the Persephone Books catalog: Persephone Books reprints neglected classics by C20th (mostly women) writers. Each one in our collection of 88 books is intelligent, thought-provoking and beautifully written

I'd add "mostly british" but, still, I think it's a very commendable effort and so far I can't point one single one I didn't enjoy reading.

Continuing with the British Isles bent: Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark are simply brilliant.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 6:36 AM on September 9, 2010


My enjoyment of a book hinges more on words and tone than on characters or narrative. I like authors who see every sentence as an opportunity to show off.

If you're up for non-realist fiction, Catherynne Valente is all about the words. The two Orphan's Tales books constitute one of my favorite novels of all time, with gorgeous prose and a giant labyrinthine structure. Palimpsest isn't as much my thing but it's won a few awards (and been nominated for more).
posted by dfan at 6:36 AM on September 9, 2010


Iris Murdoch?
posted by wenestvedt at 7:26 AM on September 9, 2010


My enjoyment of a book hinges more on words and tone than on characters or narrative. I like authors who see every sentence as an opportunity to show off.

Definitely, definitely, Dorothy Dunnett.
posted by WidgetAlley at 8:09 AM on September 9, 2010


Bel Canto, Ann Patchett.
posted by norm at 9:53 AM on September 10, 2010


Anything by Evelin Sullivan, particularly The Correspondence and Games of the Blind.
posted by jayder at 2:15 PM on September 15, 2010


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