Help me look pretentious on the train
October 7, 2010 11:25 AM   Subscribe

I want to find more books that are cerebral, unusual, and brief.

Here are some things I've enjoyed reading lately:

Invisible Cities and Palomar by Italo Calvino
The Green Child by Herbert Read
Some of Ursula K. Le Guin's short stories
anything by Borges

These all have a few things in common - brevity, little or no dialogue, exploration of philosophical themes without being didactic, elements of the fantastic, and beautiful prose style.

I want more. Any suggestions?
posted by theodolite to Media & Arts (52 answers total) 112 users marked this as a favorite
Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine would appear to fit the bill (minus the fantastical elements). It's sufficiently philosophical that the main character talks about reading Marcus Aurelius and it comes in at a succinct and well-written 144 pages.
posted by *s at 11:32 AM on October 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red and Beauty of the Husband are beloved by lit professors everywhere, and read by nearly no one else. It's a shame, because the books are very beautiful, dense, yet easy to read in less than a day. They barely qualify as poetry because they're so damn fluid and compelling. Don't let the first ten pages of AoR put you off - the meditations on ancient Greek gives way to one of the most beautifully written love stories in modern English.
posted by zoomorphic at 11:36 AM on October 7, 2010

Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others is coming back into print this month.
posted by Zed at 11:36 AM on October 7, 2010

Response by poster: Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine

Damn it, I knew there was something I forgot to put on the list. Good answer, but I've read it.
posted by theodolite at 11:37 AM on October 7, 2010

I was going to suggest Julio Cortazar's Autopista del sur (Highway of the South, or The Southern Thruway - I've seen both titles), but I can't find an English translation to link to. Anyway, if you come across it, I think it would fit the bill. It's a book of short stories.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 11:42 AM on October 7, 2010

Everything I'm aware of by Kalil Gibran.

Knots, by R.D. Laing. The best way I can describe it is an illustration/refutation of common neuroses in the form of poetry.
posted by cmoj at 11:45 AM on October 7, 2010

A River Runs Through It.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 11:48 AM on October 7, 2010

Lying Awake by Mark Salzman is about a nun who must come to terms with her newly found ecstatic relationship with God once she is diagnosed with epilepsy. I normally can't abide books about religion, but this is extremely well written, and much more an exploration of reality and perception. Not a short story, but it's under 200 pagers.
posted by kimdog at 11:51 AM on October 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Lady Into Fox
posted by zadcat at 11:51 AM on October 7, 2010

Alan Lightman, Einstein's Dreams.
posted by googly at 11:57 AM on October 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Einstein's Dreams, by Alan Lightman is styled after Invisible Cities.
posted by ecurtz at 11:58 AM on October 7, 2010

D'oh! Well, since googly scooped me, it isn't fiction exactly, but Vehicles by Valentino Braitenberg meets all the rest of your criteria.
posted by ecurtz at 12:02 PM on October 7, 2010

Jonathan Lethem's This Shape We're In ticks off all your boxes.
posted by Skot at 12:04 PM on October 7, 2010

this is my favourite kind of book! I am just going to make a breathless list, helpful descriptions and links be damned:

Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes (in which there's a lot of speaking, but speaking that's mostly endlessly careening monologues)

The Crab Nebula and On The Ceiling by Eric Chevillard

Ocean Sea and Without Blood by Alessandro Baricco (and City too, though City is not so brief)

Samuel Beckett's plays. especially Krapp's Last Tape

everything by Jean-Phillipe Toussaint.

The Little Girl who was Too Fond of Matches, by Gaetan Soucy (and probably other things by Gaetan Soucy, but this is my favourite)

Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser

Donald Barthelme's short stories

in that vein: The Middle Stories, by Sheila Heti

and if not-so-brief is also okay, then The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov is well worth reading.

(I also really like Anne Carson. I would add Short Talks to Autobiography of Red and The Beauty of the Husband.)
posted by spindle at 12:04 PM on October 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

If you liked The Mezzanine, then I assume you've read Baker's other work, which is well worth checking out, for the most part.

My guess is you've also read Auster, but since I haven't seen his name come up, definitely New York Trilogy and Leviathan. And I hate to be obvious once again, but I will anyway-

posted by cottoncandybeard at 12:10 PM on October 7, 2010

J.G. Ballard: The Atrocity Exhibition.

I advise you to wear a helmet while reading this.
posted by Decani at 12:12 PM on October 7, 2010

The Tractatus Logico Philosophicus.

And Ishmael, perhaps.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:19 PM on October 7, 2010

Riddley Walker hits almost all of your requirements but it does have dialogue. But maybe it gets some bonus points for not quite being in English?
posted by rtimmel at 12:23 PM on October 7, 2010

And this, The Einstein Intersection. But I haven't read it in many, many years and may have been visited by the Suck Fairy.
posted by rtimmel at 12:26 PM on October 7, 2010

oooh, and I want to second Krapp's Last Tape by Beckett. I had forgotten about that play and now that spindle has mentioned it I intend to go find a copy tonight and re-read it!
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:28 PM on October 7, 2010

the hour of the star by clarice lispector
posted by changeling at 12:38 PM on October 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Philip K. Dick's Ubik, based on your mentions of Le Guin and Borges. Wonderful and easy to get through in an afternoon.

Safe when taken as directed!
posted by gimonca at 12:49 PM on October 7, 2010

Seconding A River Runs Through It.

You might try On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan. I think it meets all your criteria. (Disclaimer: I hated it, although I usually love's McEwan's writing)
posted by SLC Mom at 12:50 PM on October 7, 2010

(Might not meet the exposition versus dialog ratio you're looking for, though.)
posted by gimonca at 12:53 PM on October 7, 2010

Thirding Einstein's Dreams -- I loved it, and it fits the bill perfectly.
posted by cider at 12:53 PM on October 7, 2010

Centuria by Giorgio Manganelli.
posted by misteraitch at 1:18 PM on October 7, 2010

Marguerite Duras
posted by rhizome at 1:26 PM on October 7, 2010

Seconding, emphatically, Hour of the Star.

Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry by B.S. Johnson
Singular Pleasures by Harry Mathews
The Assignment: or, On the Observing of the Observer of the Observers by Friedrich Durrenmatt

I'm a big fan of this style myself.
posted by CutaneousRabbit at 1:34 PM on October 7, 2010

Alain de Botton comes to mind. I particularly enjoyed On Love.
posted by dfan at 1:35 PM on October 7, 2010

Oh man. How did we get this far without mentioning Robbe-Grillet? Try In the Labyrinth.
posted by Skot at 2:02 PM on October 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

The book you are looking for is

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

by Elizabeth Smart.

One long transcendent, agonised, fantastical and lyrical prose poem of migraine-inducing gorgeousness. Read in a cushioned place with a pint of something in the fridge to resucitate you afterwards.
posted by runincircles at 2:30 PM on October 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's been so long since I've read it that I'm hesitant to recommend, but it did leap straight to mind: The Pigeon
posted by kmennie at 2:34 PM on October 7, 2010

I thought this (very) "cerebral, unusual and brief" work was going to annoy the crap out of me - in fact it's ridiculously fabulous. Also funny.

The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell (2009).

164 pages!

I quote the publisher's synopsis in full because it contains the sublime - and accurate description: "a bebop solo of a book in which every sentence is a question."

"The acclaimed writer Padgett Powell is fascinated by what it feels like to walk through everyday life, to hear the swing and snap of American talk, to be both electrified and overwhelmed by the mad cacophony the "muchness" of America. The Interrogative Mood is Powell's playful and profound response, a bebop solo of a book in which every sentence is a question.

Perhaps only Powell a writer who was once touted as the best of his generation by Saul Bellow and "among the top five writers of fiction in the country" by Barry Hannah could pull off such a remarkable stylistic feat. Is it a novel? Whatever it is, The Interrogative Mood is one of the most audacious literary high-wire acts since Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine. Powell's unnamed narrator forces us to consider our core beliefs, our most cherished memories, our views on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In fiction as in life, there may be no easy answers but The Interrogative Mood is an exuberant book that leaves the reader feeling a little more alive".
posted by Jody Tresidder at 2:59 PM on October 7, 2010

Memoirs of Hadrian
posted by lex mercatoria at 3:00 PM on October 7, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your suggestions. I've read some of these, but a lot of them are entirely new to me. I think I've got enough reading material for the next year or two.
posted by theodolite at 5:46 PM on October 7, 2010

One last entry! Samedi the Deafness by Jesse Ball.
posted by dhn at 7:19 PM on October 7, 2010

Voltaire's Candide is pretty brief. It's got a bit of dialog to it, but it's also got quite a bit of philosophy criticism contained in that dialog. Apologies if you've already read it.
posted by pwnguin at 7:24 PM on October 7, 2010

Crying of Lot 49. One of the greatest novellas written.
posted by lalochezia at 8:26 PM on October 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

What an excellent thread. It looks like you have many good suggestions here to keep you reading for a while, but here are two more anyway:

Time's Arrow by Martin Amis. My recommendation is that you read it in one sitting, with no prior knowledge of the premise.

Mr. hgg recommends Ismail Kadare's Palace of Dreams.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:58 PM on October 7, 2010

Ha, I saw your question and was going to recommend Calvino straight away - but I see you're way ahead of me.

Read Kafka if you haven't already - he wrote a lot of very short sketches and stories. You might also enjoy Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov.
posted by Ted Maul at 12:32 AM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Remainder by Tom McCarthy.

More of a thought experiment than a novel, essentially a fictional rewrite of Simulation and Simulacrum.
posted by Ndwright at 7:45 AM on October 8, 2010

Diane Williams (extremely cerebral/abstracted short stories, often less than a page long), Deborah Levy, and Fleur Jaeggy (Last Vanities).
posted by ifjuly at 8:07 AM on October 8, 2010

Seconding Einstein's Dreams, by Alan Lightman
posted by Windigo at 8:48 AM on October 8, 2010

The Stranger by Albert Camus.
posted by Houyhnhnm at 12:41 PM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, and maybe Janet Frame's short stories. Or really, most of her novels aren't too long, and something about her writing reminds me of Calvino's. There is a mighty darkness to most of it (but in a fuzzy primary-childhood-colors sort of distanced way), I guess I should warn.
posted by ifjuly at 4:17 PM on October 8, 2010

The Voice by Gabriel Okara --Very short, beautifully written (by a poet attempting to capture in English the feel and rhythm of Ijaw, an African language)
posted by Bigfoot Mandala at 7:06 PM on October 8, 2010

This is one of my favorite genres! Here is a review I wrote of Remainder, the first paragraph of which I've reproduced here:

In Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder, a man suffers a traumatic injury and adopts an unusual method of recovery: a quest for authenticity. He builds enormous sets and hires actors to resurrect his life from before the accident, careful that his stagecraft not only mimics but recreates his previous more perfect life. The narrator’s form of therapy, in other words, is nostalgia, a way to reach back to a time when his life still felt whole and authentic. Yet as the narrator grows more and more obsessed with living only in these flawless moments, Remainder suggests that our fixation with authenticity may be itself a trauma. It describes the truth of representations and stars a man who erects his memories as gigantic art pieces and finds himself frustrated by how simulations can only stand-in for reality. Think here of postmodern metafictional novels and their precursor Beckett, whose plays also resemble art installations; like Krapp’s Last Tape, Remainder is a non-stop quotation of stark repetitions. But Remainder is also about another more political conception of “truth”—being true to one’s own self. Sharing some territory with the works of David Foster Wallace, Daniel Clowes, and Alexander Payne, Remainder is a story about how modern life corrodes the self’s ability to live a “right” life.
posted by johnasdf at 5:57 PM on October 9, 2010

Chance and Necessity by Jacques Monod, if Biological Philosophy is your bent.
posted by stonepharisee at 12:17 PM on October 10, 2010

Apology* and Crito by Plato. They're usually published in the same book. Try to get a newer translation for much smoother reading. I have heard that both versions of Symposium (one by Plato and one by Xenophon) are quite interesting as well.

* AKA The Apology of Socrates; AKA The Defense of Socrates
posted by clorox at 2:20 AM on October 12, 2010

4.48 Psychosis, by Sarah Kane.
The Fifth Head of Cerberus, by Gene Wolfe.
Locus Solus, by Raymond Roussel.
The Red Robins, by Kenneth Koch.
Engine Summer, by John Crowley.
Anything by Robert Aickman, Heinrich von Kleist.
posted by Iridic at 3:02 PM on October 12, 2010

Hey, this thread is still open! I just finished Omon Ra, which was recommended somewhere else on Mefi, and which was short and satirical and beautifully written/translated and mind-blowing.
posted by nonane at 1:31 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

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