Book recommendations: Zadie-Smith-ish, but not Pynchonesque.
October 13, 2012 11:28 AM   Subscribe

I'm currently loving Zadie Smith. For various reasons, I don't like most of the authors she tends to get compared to. (DeLillo and Pynchon give me hives. Rushdie and Nabokov are just okay. Etc.) Who else should I read?

1) I love me a big sprawling larger-than-life self-referential postmodern romp. David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon, Umberto Eco, Gabriel García Marquez, that sort of thing. Even Robert Anton Wilson if I start to get desperate. The Neverending Story was my favorite book as a kid. You get the idea.

2) I also love good old-fashioned psychologically insightful character writing. Characters who are just gimmicks, bundles of quirks and neuroses, walking plot hooks, or giant poster-sized Literary Symbols, all sort of bore me. A good ear for dialogue is also important. Some favorites in this department: Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, maybe also Salinger in his short stories before he went off the deep end. (It's honestly really hard to find authors who satisfy me on this point. Apparently I'm sort of a snob.)

But note that most of the authors I mentioned under #1 aren't really known for #2, and vice versa. The great thing about Zadie Smith is that she combines those two qualities, and really excels at both of them. Granted, that's not an easy thing to do. But I'm looking for other authors who manage to pull it off.

Two other caveats, to make things complicated: I don't like snideness or cynicism (which rules out DeLillo completely) or depressive self-flagellation (which Wallace hard to take, though I am a fan). And I really absolutely can't stand deliberately cryptic or tricky prose, no matter how beautiful it sounds and no matter how certain you are that I'd learn to love it if I just gave it a chance (ruling out Pynchon and the otherwise-ideal Nabokov).

What should I read next?
posted by nebulawindphone to Media & Arts (36 answers total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
Louis de Bernieres has a lot of what you are looking for. Like Smith, he has a very flowing literary style that can quickly become addictive. He has a lot of wit, tragedy, pathos, etc in his books and a lively storytelling style. Like Smith, he does big picture social novels where historical and political events are tied to personal dramas. Many of his books are set in places like South America, Greece, and Turkey, and involve a big cast of characters, many of whom are blood relatives. He is postmodern a bit. Those are just some of the similarities to White Teeth.

E.M. Forster may be another author who is easy to read and fun and that Smith based the story for On Beauty on with Howard's End. His whole obsession with "round" as opposed to "flat" characters sounds like it might fit your hankering for a real life-like set of characters. Unfortunately the postmodern version of Howard's End is just On Beauty...

Michel Faber's Crimson Petal and the White is sprawling, memorable, postmodern, and British and for some reason always available as a remainder at bookstores and online. This is an incredible book, like White Teeth a Masterpiece Classic miniseries. It has very unforgettable characters, and a very lucid, enjoyable writing style in addition to being super well researched and intertextual and literary.
posted by kettleoffish at 11:47 AM on October 13, 2012

Have you read Gould's Book Of Fish?
posted by mannequito at 11:55 AM on October 13, 2012

Jonathan Lethem, particularly "Fortress of Solitude."
posted by tapir-whorf at 11:59 AM on October 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ah I forgot Lethem. Motherless Brooklyn is another good one.
posted by mannequito at 12:04 PM on October 13, 2012

Good call, tapir-whorf! I'd forgotten about Lethem, but yeah, Fortress of Solitude is another great example of the sort of thing I'm looking for.

I've never read any of the books that kettleoffish recommends, but those descriptions sure do sound appealing. Wit, tragedy, pathos, lively storytelling, round characters, political events tied to personal dramas, intertextual and literary.... yes. Right. Exactly.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:07 PM on October 13, 2012

Though also of course keep 'em coming! You can never have too long a reading list....
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:20 PM on October 13, 2012

On the off-chance you haven't read them, try Gregory Maguire's Oz series: "Wicked," "Son of a Witch," "A Lion Among Men" and "Out of Oz." They check for good story-telling, world-building, tragedy, the ties between personal and political events, and playing with an established story.
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:22 PM on October 13, 2012

John Fowles.
posted by chinston at 12:30 PM on October 13, 2012

Have you read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides? I found it quite similar: definitely sprawling and postmodern, but with fully-realized characters.

You might also like John Irving and Jennifer Egan.
posted by lunasol at 12:32 PM on October 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

I like the same kind of stuff you like.

It's been years since I read this, but at one time T. Coraghessan Boyle's WORLD'S END was one of my favorite books. (It is much more of a big self-referential multi-century romp than the stuff he's been writing for the last ten years, so don't judge it by his more recent stuff.)

John Irving is not as a good a writer of sentences as Zadie Smith, but I remember finishing WHITE TEETH and feeling that it was a John Irving KIND of book, only better written, so why not try Irving? Most other people don't write as well as Smith does, either, so it's not much of a criticism.

Another good choice would be Paul Theroux's THE MOSQUITO COAST.
posted by escabeche at 12:50 PM on October 13, 2012

The Radiant Way and A Natural Curiosity by Margaret Drabble (the third of the trilogy, The Gates of Ivory, is good too but quite different in tone and style from the first two)
The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi
The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:11 PM on October 13, 2012

I'll third Irving with the caveat that his characters often DO have quirky neuroses; however, that is not all they are.
posted by smirkette at 1:19 PM on October 13, 2012

The thing I can't stand about Irving is that his characters are seemingly stock throughout his books--there are always the same contextually-specific archetypes. And they never get over their childhood neuroses. Even at forty, they're still pining for the woman they had suppressed sexual visions of during tennis tournaments.

I just read "Wizard of the Crow" by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, and it's hilarious and sprawling in a similar way (though much more expository) but with a much different cosmological system.

Also try "The Last Samurai" by Helen de Witt (but not her other book "Lightning Rods," which IMHO is terrible).

I can't help but suggest "Moscow to the End of the Line" by Venedikt Erofeev, though it's a little more comical/farcical and a much smaller book.

"What Is The What" has a similar quality, and so do many of Maxine Hong Kingston's books, & "The Poisonwood Bible," but without the fanciful hedonistic indulgence of Chabon. Also, have you read Neal Stephenson yet?
posted by tapir-whorf at 1:26 PM on October 13, 2012

The only Stephenson I've read is Big U and Snow Crash. Neither struck me as having especially three-dimensional characters (his women especially struck me as fantasy figures rather than complete human beings) but both books were lots of fun.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:12 PM on October 13, 2012

You might like Jonathan Franzen (specifically thinking of The Corrections, which struck me as Smith-like).

Have you read anything from Murakami?
posted by scribbler at 3:35 PM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao? Seconding Middlesex, and I think you should give Rushdie another try, maybe The Ground Beneath Her Feet.
posted by esmerelda_jenkins at 3:46 PM on October 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Haroun and the Sea of Stories might be a good choice to get going on Rushdie.

Big U and Snow Crash are probably the two of Stephenson's books most unlike White Teeth (okay, Zodiac is more unlike it than Snow Crash, but I love Zodiac). Stephenson ticks the sprawling, interconnected plots box in Cryptonomicon (and, probably the entire Baroque Cycle, but I must admit I've never made it through, despite loving Cryptonomicon) and Reamde. His stuff definitely doesn't have the literary sophistication of Smith. Reamde's basically highly enjoyable brain candy. It does have female characters driving the plot much more than in Cryptonomicon, where the female characters are sort of there as objections of desire. In Reamde, they're still kind of fantasy figures, but in the sense of being a bit too bad-ass to be believable in the way his characters generally are.
posted by hoyland at 4:00 PM on October 13, 2012

Although I wouldn't have compared him to Zadie Smith, your descriptions above made me think of José Saramago. You might take a look at The History of the Siege of Lisbon.
posted by lex mercatoria at 4:33 PM on October 13, 2012

I love me a big sprawling larger-than-life self-referential postmodern romp.
I also love good old-fashioned psychologically insightful character writing.

This is duplicating at least half my AskMe answers, because it's just my favorite book in the whole world, but seriously, with these criteria, you need to read Little, Big.
posted by Daily Alice at 6:05 PM on October 13, 2012

I love Zadie Smith, too, and the best sprawling work with a lot of focus on character I've read this year is Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose Novels
posted by 1901gunner at 6:19 PM on October 13, 2012

John Barth. You will love him. Anything really. The Lost Voyage of Somebody the Sailor will make you very, very happy indeed.

Alasdair Gray. Read Lanark. You'll dig it.

Seconding John Crowley and in the same vein, Mark Helprin's Winters Tale should do you well.

William Gass, Steven Millhauser and Cynthia Ozick might do you some good also.

Fun thread! Great question!
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 6:30 PM on October 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

Not really similar to Zadie Smith, but the list of other authors you like made me think of Robertson Davies. Give Fifth Business a shot.
posted by snorkmaiden at 6:58 PM on October 13, 2012

John Barth John Barth John Barth.
posted by broadway bill at 7:01 PM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

OH! And another fantastic author you have to read - George Saunders. Read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and you can thank me later.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 7:47 PM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Maybe Edward St. Aubyn or Kazuo Ishiguro?
posted by peripathetic at 8:27 PM on October 13, 2012

I like Jhumpa Lahiri and Alice Munro's characters.
posted by naoko at 8:34 PM on October 13, 2012

I love Smith for similar reasons, and also really enjoy Peter Carey - particularly Illywhacker. Sprawling, epic books with well-developed characters.
posted by indienial at 11:52 PM on October 13, 2012

How about Dave Eggers?
posted by miles1972 at 1:35 AM on October 14, 2012

Roberto Bolaño. Especially 2666.
posted by Acheman at 1:54 AM on October 14, 2012

I'll confess up front that I'm this book's publicist--though I'm also the reason my employers, the University of Chicago Press, published it in the first place: I was so blown away when I read the self-published edition that I convinced them that we should take it on. So take this with whatever grains of salt seem appropriate: Sergio De La Pava's A Naked Singularity, which is big and sprawling and funny and linguistically inventive and has real characters and a remarkably empathetic heart. The reviews in Slate and the B&N Review give a good sense of what it's about.

In addition, hearty seconds to a bunch of the above. Helen De Witt (though I actually did like Lightning Rods, unlike tapir-whorf) and John Crowley, wildly different from each other, but both very, very satisfying and engaging. Oh, and Bolano. Can't go wrong there. Edward St. Aubyn is hilarious and sad and even horrifying, and, by the end of his series, incredibly moving.
posted by Levi Stahl at 5:08 AM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's been a while since I read it but I think A.S. Byatt's Possession fits the bill.
posted by radiomayonnaise at 7:06 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Peter Carey's another apt comparison that never occurred to me. I've only read Oscar and Lucinda of his, but I thought it was fantastic — and you're right, it's in the same sort of vein.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:21 AM on October 14, 2012

John Lancaster's Capital is definitely worth picking up.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:00 AM on October 14, 2012

A. S. Byatt was the first person I thought of, but you might also like Felipe Alfau, or some of Alessandro Baricco's early novels (though his more recent ones do nothing for me).
posted by dizziest at 2:32 PM on October 15, 2012

You might also like Nicholson Baker-- especially his recent novel "The Anthologist."
posted by dizziest at 2:34 PM on October 15, 2012

I actually thought The Casual Vacancy (JK Rowling's new book) was very like a Zadie Smith novel.
posted by audacity at 9:05 PM on October 16, 2012

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