I like Kazuo Ishiguro. What other contemporary novelists/novels should I read?
January 4, 2013 10:07 PM   Subscribe

My taste in novels has generally tended towards the classics but lately I feel like reading some good contemporary fiction. Please recommend some recent-ish books that are well-written and well-crafted, have emotional depth and deal with human relationships in insightful and moving ways. Kazuo Ishiguro is an example of the kind of writer I'm looking for.

Things I want in a book:
- Character-driven stories about complex people with complex emotions and their relationships with other such people
- A crisp, precise narrative voice which has an ear for rhythm and cadence but which is not verbose or pretentious
- First-person or tight third-person narration
- Mastery of novelistic craft: thoughtful structure, believable dialogue, etc.
- Preferably short, 200-300 pages

Things I don't want:
- A style that calls attention to itself. No preciosity, verbal pyrotechnics, modernist affectations like pages-long sentences and lack of paragraph breaks, etc.
- Present-tense narration. I'm allergic to this.
- Choppy narrative where you get lots of short scenes written in short, punchy paragraphs without setting or scene transitions. I like to be able to sink into a story.
- Direct descriptions of extreme violence, especially violence towards children or sexual violence.
- Magic realism or surrealism.
- Stories that are relentlessly dark or bleak. I'm not looking for "uplifting" books or ones that avoid suffering, I just don't like to put down a book feeling depressed.

Other than Ishiguro, some writers I've liked are Patrick O'Brian (no longer contemporary, alas) and A. S. Byatt (though she's a bit wordy for my taste). I tend to like British authors more than American ones.

If you could briefly describe whatever author/book you're recommending or explain why you're recommending them, that would be much appreciated.
posted by zeri to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami reminded me quite a bit of Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro. The writing flows nicely and the focus is really on the characters.

Other authors you might consider are Ian McEwan, who is English, and Margaret Atwood, who is Canadian. I'm garbage at describing books but your stated preferences very closely match my own and I like those two.
posted by cranberrymonger at 10:54 PM on January 4, 2013

You might like the "Dirty Realists": Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Andre Dubus (senior, although I'm looking forward to reading AB III's recent memoir), and Tobias Wolff. Alice Munro and William Trevor are also like this.

In a nutshell, these writers focus on realism and describing psychological states - interior life.

Not really contemporary for the most part (although the themes are universal, and the modernist/minimalist prose is accessible). Alice Munro's stories for the past five years or so have started incorporating a fair amount of violent themes, which in the context of her earlier work is really, really interesting.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:12 PM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh, and rereading your question, I like Alice Munro because her writing is almost painfully, unbearably real. Richard Ford is very funny, as can be Tobias Wolff. Given his personal history, Andre Dubus' writing conveys a deep sense of pathos about the human condition. William Trevor just writes great stories.

I like all of these writers because they were writing before the current wave of homogenized, MFA-ified generic fiction.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:15 PM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

David Mitchell -- a master storyteller, lovely pacing, wonderful characters
Ian McEwan
Jonathan Lethem
Sam Lipsyte
Hilary Mantel
Lauren Groff

I assume you've exhausted Maugham and Nabokov.
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:24 PM on January 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

I like Andrew Klavan--particularly his books from the late 90's and onward...For a more classic style...Graham Greene...he can be dark but never gratuitously or sexually violent....his novels track political and cultural history of most of the 20th century and portray interior life flawlessly and brilliantly.
posted by mumstheword at 12:28 AM on January 5, 2013

Definitely David Mitchell.

Also Philip Roth, J.M. Coetzee, Peter Carey, Jose Saramago (Blindness), Anita Brookner, J.G Ballard (Empire of the Sun in particular) and Barbara Kingsolver.

I personally don't enjoy Murakami because I'm not a fan of magical realism, but a lot of people love him so YMMV.
posted by hazyjane at 12:41 AM on January 5, 2013

Thirding David Mitchell - try starting with "Ghostwritten" as opposed to anything newer.

Other authors you may like: Alan Hollinghurst ("The Swimming-Pool Library" and "The Line of Beauty"), Graham Swift, Jonathan Coe (stick with his late 1990s novels rather than anything else), Michel Faber, Pat Barker ("Regeneration" trilogy"), Rose Tremain and Julian Barnes.

A further leftfield: Iain Banks ("Crow Road"), AL Kennedy, Lawrence Norfolk, Sarah Waters ("The Little Stranger") and Robert McLiam Wilson ("Eureka Street"). I really liked Colm Toibin's "Brooklyn" too.

Literature from the British Isles has gone from strength to strength over the last 35 years and I envy anyone who's just about to dive in. Enjoy!
posted by kariebookish at 12:56 AM on January 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I recently recommended Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table in another thread, and I will also recommend it to you since I think it fits your criteria closely. It is beautifully written but not in a showy or pretentious way; the story is interesting but realistic despite the exotic setting--a steamship going from Ceylon to England in the 1950s. It is entirely about the intricacies of human relationships, and the tone is gentle, melancholy, nostalgic. The narration is first person, past tense. I think if you like Ishiguro you'll like this book. As I mentioned in the other thread, it was one of my favourite reads of 2012.

You might also like The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes. I found the writing beautiful, but again, not pretentious; in fact, it reminded me quite a bit of Never Let Me Go in that it is about recollecting and trying to make sense of the past, and so has a sort of melancholic dream-like feel to it. It's told in first person, past tense, and is very short, more like a novella.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:58 AM on January 5, 2013

Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Short and incredibly well-crafted.
posted by betweenthebars at 1:47 AM on January 5, 2013

Already mentioned: Iain Banks, Ian McEwan, Haruki Murakami, J.M. Coetzee, Barbara Kingsolver and Richard Ford.

I would also say that Jeffrey Eugenides and Khaled Hosseini tick a lot of your boxes.
posted by neilb449 at 2:09 AM on January 5, 2013

I recently started Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell. I very much love it.

I'm torn, though, because I had a PHENOMENAL viewing experience of the film, and I love love love to work hard during a movie, so I can't recommend which one you should do, first.

Lots of folks did not love this movie. I feel like it was one of the best films I've ever seen. I'm in LA, so a LOT of people I know are in film. The opinion was so polarized - people I assumed would love it, HATED it. People I thought would not like it - loved it like I did. I have no explanation. Don't judge the book by the movie version, or vice versa.

(Also, I desperately wanted the Wachowskis to redeem themselves after the last two Matrix films, and I fucking LOVED "Run Lola Run" by Tom Tykwer - so I was pretty much primed to get exactly what was going on in the film Cloud Atlas without reading the novel. I'm not far enough into the novel to say this definitively, but I'm kinda suspecting there was some tweaking of the story in the film similar to what Stanely Kubrick did with Stephen King's "The Shining." They are both GREAT, but a little different. I'm OK if this turns out to be true with Cloud Atlas, as I am impressed either way.)

Prior to this, I really love the writer Mark Helprin. He did "A Winter's Tale" in 1983 that is my favorite story about NYC (I'm from NYC, cried buckets reading this.) "Memoir from an Antproof Case" (1995) is pretty great, too.

I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez, not exactly totally contemporary. "Love in the Time of Cholera" and "One Hundred Years of Solitude." Both lovely.

I hear "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell" (2004) by Susanna Clarke is soon adapted to film, and that book was AMAZING.

I don't get to read fiction lately. I'm sad about this. Thanks for the question. I'll bookmark this thread so I might start up again with my literary pursuits!
posted by jbenben at 2:40 AM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I came to recommend Hollinghurst and Alice Munro and interestingly enough to specifically recommend against David Mitchell. In particular with Cloud Atlas, (and I realise I am in the minority at mefi here for loathing this book) I felt like the author was smirking at me off the page in a most unappealing "aren't I so clever?" manner. It made the novel a real slog to get through. I felt like he was too in love with his structure, to the detriment of the characters. (You said you didn't want a style that called attention to itself.)
posted by gaspode at 5:20 AM on January 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Couldn't put down Jeffrey Eugenides' latest one, The Marriage Plot.
posted by SinAesthetic at 6:28 AM on January 5, 2013

Lorrie Moore.
posted by DMelanogaster at 6:40 AM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Early Margaret Drabble - Jerusalem the Golden, The Middle Ground and The Radiant Way are my favorites, partly for the portraits they give of the UK in the seventies and eighties, partly for their portrayal of a certain kind of lower middle class person climbing into relative wealth and the emotional problems thereby generated. Her later novels seem to me much more conservative - perhaps because she's arrived, or perhaps just because the zeitgeist has changed. I also like The Millstone, a weirdly improbable little novel about a young woman at university who gets pregnant.

I would also recommend Sarah Schulman, although you probably want to start with her mid-period books like Rat Bohemia and People In Trouble. Shimmer, one of her later books, is more ambitious but doesn't cohere as well IYAM - I mean, I like it a lot, I love the things she's trying to do and respect her for them, but it's definitely a novel of growth and experimentation while Rat Bohemia for example shows her mastery of what she had learned in her earlier novels. She's just an excellent writer about New York, queer communities, radical culture - I love that in her books I can recognize the kind of life I've lived and people I've known, even though my version is more diluted and provincial.

And oh hey, you should totally, totally read Doris Lessing's Diaries of Jane Somers, which is two short novels published together. Those are IMO Doris Lessing's finest books - no one else agrees with me, I think, because they are smaller and more personal than her other work. But that's precisely why they are good. They're about this woman who has had an amazing, pathbreaking career in the post-war British magazine world as a fashion editor. it's the early eighties and she is widowed and has reached a turning point in her life. She meets this little old woman who was a milliner in the early 20th century and has survived some really brutal stuff...The thing is, it sounds like the most hackneyed "women's novel" ever, but it's actually this incredibly brutal reflection on aging, death and selfishness. In a way, I read it as DL's verdict on herself. It's also pretty subtle in its morality, unlike many of DL's books.
posted by Frowner at 7:45 AM on January 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Charles Baxter might be a good author for you to check out -- something like Saul & Patsy, perhaps?

Are you willing to take recommendations for short fiction?
posted by .kobayashi. at 8:14 AM on January 5, 2013

I've been recommending The News from Spain, by Joan Wickersham. It just came out, and I wouldn't have picked it up except for the fact that it was my job. I thought it was *fabulous* and fits your criteria, with one exception--it's a collection of deeply connected short stories. It's not really like typical author collections, though, because they're all on the same theme, and all bear relation to one another.
posted by RedEmma at 9:29 AM on January 5, 2013

Another vote for Ian McEwan, particularly Atonement. Two others that come immediately to mind are Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow, and Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.
posted by scody at 10:00 AM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

David Mitchell warning: I agree that he doesn't really fit your style requirement. Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which is more straightforward than Cloud Atlas structurally, is in present tense. (So is Wolf Hall, by the way, if you find yourself leaning in that direction. I also have a distaste for present tense but I don't regret reading Thousand Autumns or Wolf Hall.)

What about Vikram Seth? A Suitable Boy is really similar to a sprawling 19th century British novel, except set in India in the 50s.
posted by yarrow at 10:16 AM on January 5, 2013

I asked a somewhat similar question.

Phillip Roth's American Pastoral includes great inside-the-mind narration of a father who discovers his daughter committed a crime. He tries to absorb this fact, what it means (was it a rejection of everything he stands for?), and his loss of her presence in his life.

Jonathan Franzen's book The Corrections is about a family, its normal dysfunctions, and each character's fears and insecurities. It lacks the affectations you wish to avoid and is delightfully up-to-the-moment; I felt like maybe I knew the family.

José Saramago's Blindness is part political allegory but also a compassionate depiction of a small group of people who contract a blinding disease and are quarantined in an increasingly violent place. It is about people under stress, the us-them divisions that form, and the kindnesses that occur. (The movie does the book justice, though, if you're in a hurry.)

I completely agree with gaspode's warning against Cloud Atlas. I enjoyed the book but didn't find the depiction of the characters' inner life to be a strength. Maybe earlier Michell, which I haven't read?

In the "honorable mention" category, I also like Jim Harrison's books, particularly Dalva. Its three sections alternate between two different characters -- the adult daughter Dalva, a neurotic academic (to some extent her suitor), then Dalva again as they both look back into her family's history. The characters have clear, believable voices; you clearly hear the differences in how they see the world. If you like it, also try The Road Home, which tells the life story of her grandfather. (I'm a bit less confident these are perfect fits for you, because they're as much about relationships to history, her ancestors, and a place as they are about relationships to one another, and because some pieces of the story felt a bit romanticized to me, though not in a way that spoiled the book).
posted by salvia at 11:00 AM on January 5, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks so much, everyone! I've read a few of these authors, but only a few. Looks like I'll be off to the used book store tomorrow... (But please keep the recommendations coming!)
posted by zeri at 6:40 PM on January 5, 2013

I recently read Richard Ford's The Sportswriter and loved it.

I can also second Raymond Carver and Alice Munro.
posted by rahulrg at 8:01 AM on January 6, 2013

Seconding Julian Barnes' "Sense of an Ending". It exactly fits your criteria.
posted by Jandoe at 6:24 PM on January 6, 2013

Richard Yates.

Edit: Just saw that you're not looking for bleak. Yates is "bleak" in the sense that he writes about the darker and more painful side of human relationships, and he doesn't do happy endings, but I'm still gonna recommend him.
posted by Asparagus at 8:47 AM on January 10, 2013

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