I need a Great [not necessarily American] Novel, damn it.
February 6, 2016 3:35 PM   Subscribe

[Book recommendation filter] Must be literary. Must be wildly absorbing. Ensemble casts of characters preferred but not required. The longer, the better. Did it sweep YOU off your feet? Tell me about it!

I spent my teen and college years reading so many novels and short stories that I OD'd and, ever since, have been on a steady diet of 90% non-fiction and 10% lit.

The most maddeningly absorbing novel I've ever read - not the best, just the most unputdownable - was Murakami's "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle." It had that otherworldly combination of sadness, mystery, peculiar characters, magical realism, wit, legend, nimble dialogue, malaise... and when the book ended I felt like I'd lost a limb, or a best friend.

I'm not looking for a replica of that book. Just a replica of that experience. (As a reference, a few of my other favorite novels: Julio Cortazar's "Hopscotch", Marilynne Robinson's "Housekeeping", Yasunari Kawabata's "Thousand Cranes", Malcolm Lowry's "Under the Volcano", Damon Galgut's "In A Strange Room", Dellilo's "White Noise", everything by Patricia Highsmith, Flannery O'Connor, Annie Dillard, and Cormac McCarthy)

Please recommend gripping literary novels. Title, author, and a brief synopsis (no spoilers, natch) are appreciated.

P.S. I'm really into Hal Hartley films right now - bonus points if you know of any great novels that bear similarities to his work!
posted by nightrecordings to Writing & Language (56 answers total) 114 users marked this as a favorite
With the caveat that a) I am only a few chapters in, and b) the author is a friend of mine and I am therefore very biased, may I recommend Alex Chee's Queen of the Night?

About opera and Paris and our histories and secrets and fashion and music.
posted by gingerbeer at 3:51 PM on February 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

It sounds like we have similar tastes.. I have recently enjoyed Gary Shtenygart's "the Russian debutantes handbook", Jonathan Franzen's "Purity", and "the goldfinch" by Donna Tartt.

All three all ensemble heavy and very engaging. They will not quite hit the same magical realism spot (alas), but maybe some good inspiration!
posted by cakebatter at 3:54 PM on February 6, 2016

Have you read "Dream Park" by Niven and Barnes? When I first read it and finished it, I immediately flipped back to the beginning and read it again.

It's about high-tech LARPing. The eponymous "Dream Park" is Disneyland except with technology a couple of hundred years into our future. Things like projected holograms, for instance. It has rides and other attractions, but it also has a large area under a huge dome in which adventures are run. The main story is about the first run-through of the "South Seas Treasure Game". The side story is that there's a murder in the park, and Alex Griffin (head of security) comes to the conclusion that it must have been one of the players in the game.

But he can't just call the game off because it would cost Dream Park millions. So he has to enter the game as a player and try to figure out which other player is the perp, while not getting eliminated from the game in the meantime. Or getting genuinely killed himself.

As to the "South Seas Treasure Game", it's about cargo cults, and it's fascinating.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:54 PM on February 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Cancer Ward, Solzhenitsyn. Epic, tragic novel tracing the experiences of an ensemble cast being treated for cancers in the soviet union. Being Russian it may well be the polar opposite of magical realism (maybe grim, realistic realism?) but it definitely has that familiar feeling of a literary best friend. Based on your reading I suspect you might also enjoy Graham Greene, though I'm not familiar with any ensemble casts in his novels.
posted by mikek at 3:54 PM on February 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Neapolitan novels sprang into my head. They're not for everyone, but try out the first one. I found them tremendously absorbing. Huge cast of characters, lots of thinking about sex and class and education and Italy and friendship. Also, maybe The Goldfinch?

Both of these works have been insanely popular in the last 5 years so I imagine you've heard of them already. They are two literary experiences that have really sucked me in recently, though.
posted by town of cats at 3:55 PM on February 6, 2016 [9 favorites]

Shadow Country, by Peter Matthiessen. (NBA winner, 2008)

''Edgar "Bloody" Watson's rise to power and eventual death at the hands of his neighbors. The book opens with Watson's death - his shooting by a local posse on the shores of Chokoloskee Island behind the Ted Smallwood Store. The rest of the book pieces together first-person accounts of 12 characters who recount the story from Watson's arrival in the Ten Thousand Islands in the early 1890s until his demise in 1910. Many of the "characters" who tell the story are based on real people who lived in the area at the time.'

The Recognitions, by William Gaddis.

"The book Jonathan Franzen dubbed the "ur-text of postwar fiction" and the "first great cultural critique, which, even if Heller and Pynchon hadn't read it while composing "Catch-22" and "V.," managed to anticipate the spirit of both"--"The Recognitions" is a masterwork about art and forgery, and the increasingly thin line between the counterfeit and the fake. Gaddis anticipates by almost half a century the crisis of reality that we currently face, where the real and the virtual are combining in alarming ways, and the sources of legitimacy and power are often obscure to us."
posted by Bourbonesque at 4:05 PM on February 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace seems like an obvious choice. It is about a film that when viewed does things to people. But that barely scratches the surface. There's a huge cast of people with their own stories that wind in and around each other. The book also sucks you into massive amounts of details that contain their own stories (there's something like 400 pages of footnotes which really constitute their own sets of stories just typeset apart from the main text). It is ultra-absorbing and a classic of late 20th century literature.
posted by bfootdav at 4:08 PM on February 6, 2016 [9 favorites]

On a slight tangent, see also an amusing/interesting rant at the Millions: The Stockholm Syndrome Theory of Long Novels.
posted by Bourbonesque at 4:11 PM on February 6, 2016

China Miéville's The City & The City kind of reminds me of Murakami - similarly discombobulating, but also grounded in recognizable human experiences and emotions. It's a kind of murder mystery set in a place where there are two cities that occupy the same geographical space, but are separate political entities by virtue of the citizens' determination to not recognize the people and things belonging to the other city. Anyway, it's a weird concept but a fantastic, intellectual and absorbing book.
posted by Owl of Athena at 4:19 PM on February 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy should fit the bill.
posted by zadcat at 4:49 PM on February 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

Foucault's Pendulum - the editors at a fly-by-night independent publisher who live by scamming crackpot conspiracists decide to produce their own grand conspiracy from a collage of Christian semiotics.

2666 - a collection of inter-effected characters roving across the 20th century, alternately in search of and haunted by something that seems to undergird art, literature and civilization between the Old World wars and modern Juarez.

Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand - scifi that meditates on the nature of ... well, its tough to describe. Deals with self and isolation as seen through the lenses of chosen family versus sexual collision with a perfect (in both senses of the word) stranger.

Orlando - it's not a doorstop, but it's Virgina Woolf writing about changes between people and across centuries via a very long-lived man who becomes a woman.

Lastly, if you liked Wind Up Bird Chronicle + Dellilo and Cormac McCarthy I think you'll like Tree of Smoke, but I can't quite put my finger on why.
posted by postcommunism at 4:49 PM on February 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

the lunminaries is long and fairly literary (booker prize winner).

i'm afraid i tend to recommend the latest book i enjoyed, so i am not sure how unbiased this is, but kenzaburo oe's the changeling is more literary (imho), fairly long, and a better book. but it's a lot slower burn - you may question whether it's worth it for the first third or so.

scanning my shelves for fat books, i noticed hilary mantel's wolf hall. another booker and very good (in the same booker vein as the luminaries - very readable).

on edit: seconding 2666 (and savage detectives too, which is quite different, but not as long). also, pynchon and delillo. but foucault's pendulum is a convoluted waste of time.
posted by andrewcooke at 4:54 PM on February 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

Orhan Pamuk's The Black Book. A meditation on Turkish identity in the face of the encroachment of western influence.
posted by juv3nal at 5:07 PM on February 6, 2016

The Sunlight Dialogues by John Gardner is roughly 900 pages of fine philosophically driven poundcake.
posted by vrakatar at 5:11 PM on February 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

2666. Cannot summarize well. It's sort of a crime novel, but also about literature, and also about the horrors lurking just below the surface of modern civilization.
posted by deathpanels at 5:17 PM on February 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

that otherworldly combination of sadness, mystery, peculiar characters, magical realism, wit, legend, nimble dialogue, malaise

You want to read Little, Big by John Crowley. How much did I like it? I took my username here from one of the main characters.
posted by Daily Alice at 5:28 PM on February 6, 2016 [7 favorites]

Any fan of Murakami owes it to themself to at least explore David Mitchell. IMO he's the finest novelist writing in english these days.
Each of his works are stand alone novels, but, as with each of them, they are stories that are connected, through characters and through time. Many take place, in part, in japan, where Mitchell spent eight years teaching.
Like Murakami, his novels are marked by a tranquil, otherworldly pace, punctuated by thrilling storytelling.
Cloud Atlas is his most famous, but i would not recommend it as an entryway. Don't be put off if you've seen the mediocre film adaptation of it.
Ghostwritten is his first, and is a very good starting point, but again, it is not necessary to start at the beginning.
posted by OHenryPacey at 6:00 PM on February 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

The book you want is Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry.
posted by delight at 6:15 PM on February 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

Middlemarch, George Eliot, is the ur-example, about the lives of several residents of a Midlands town in about 1830.

Les Miz (Victor Hugo) is like this too, thoroughly engrossing, if you wanna get your French Revolution on.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:24 PM on February 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

You might want to read just about anything by Robertson Davies, especially The Deptford Trilogy. His work has a magic realism feel to it, but the magic consists of theatre and sleight-of-hand, rather than supernatural forces.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 6:32 PM on February 6, 2016 [7 favorites]

Palace Walk - the first novel of Naquib Mahfouz' The Cairo Trilogy. Fat, family/generational, political, exotic yet familiar, masterful writing.
posted by honey-barbara at 6:36 PM on February 6, 2016

Contemporary fiction:

Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games (long, absorbing novel set amongst cops and gangsters in India)

Amitav Ghosh's Ibis trilogy (fifty thousand characters and multiple plots, leading up to the First Opium War)

Jeffrey Renard Allen, Song of the Shank (complex historical novel about the fate of "Blind Tom," a.k.a. Thomas Greene Wiggins, an autistic slave who became a famous pianist)

Sarah Waters, Fingersmith (a very alternative take on Oliver Twist, with rather more sex...)

Joseph O'Connor, Star of the Sea and Redemption Falls (two slightly linked novels reflecting on identity and the Irish immigrant experience in the mid-to-late nineteenth century)

Kate Atkinson, Life after Life (a woman's life begins and ends and begins and ends and...)

Victorian fiction:

My four go-to "big" novels are George Eliot's Middlemarch; Charles Dickens' Bleak House; W. M. Thackeray's Vanity Fair; and Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:40 PM on February 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

Ugh so embarrassed I didn't think of Middlemarch
posted by town of cats at 7:10 PM on February 6, 2016

The longer the better? Sounds like you're asking for Anna Karenina. Wildly absorbing, ensemble cast, swept me off my feet. It's about adultery, family life, social stigma, the landed aristocracy of late-19th century Russia, and trains.

Longer? Proust. Ok, I admit, I've never even finished Swann's Way, but that's because it's so thought-provoking that I daydream on little tangents every five words, and my head spins. I end up only reading ten pages in a day. But wow.

Shorter? The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric. It kind of reminds me of One Hundred Years of Solitude, in that it's a chronicle of the inhabitants of a particular place over a long period of time, except that I enjoyed it. There's a real emotional punch to it that I didn't get from Marquez.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:15 PM on February 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Georges Perec Life: A Users Manual. Big tangly book, lots of characters, twisty story. It's about jigsaw puzzles, kind of.
posted by glitter at 7:42 PM on February 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
posted by warriorqueen at 8:30 PM on February 6, 2016

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Ensemble cast, intense emotions, long, un-putdownable.
posted by matildaben at 9:19 PM on February 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis. Time travel and lots of interpersonal silliness.

If you like horror/comedy, I suggest John Dies at the End, by David Wong (an alias for the real author, Jason Pargin). Back when it was hosted on for free on his website, I had a crazy night staying up reading it and couldn't stop.
posted by gloriouslyincandescent at 9:22 PM on February 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Came in to suggest Robertson Davies so seconding his books. The Cornish Trilogy is great as well. Not having any luck linking to it on my phone.
posted by BoscosMom at 12:12 AM on February 7, 2016

Seconding Cloud Atlas (though I do think you can dive right into it) -- sounds perfect for you. Also agree with A Little Life, Anna Karenina, and Middlemarch. War and Peace is also wonderful in ways I didn't expect.
posted by Threeve at 12:49 AM on February 7, 2016

Since you like Cortázar, how about his A manual for Manuel -- another group of friends hanging about in bars and apartments in Paris, this time planning leftist direct action. Also, I'm sure you're already aware of it, but Márquez' One hundred years of solitude seems to tick most of your boxes.
posted by bleston hamilton station at 1:29 AM on February 7, 2016

What a good question!

I just finished 'may we be forgiven' by a.m. homes and there was something just slightly strange about it, even more than the strange story itself - and very gripping.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (and his previous, as mentioned above). All incredible!

Michael Faber - the book of strange new things - I can't decide really if I liked it or not, but it's stuck with me. And his historical novel, the crimson petal and the white, was very compelling.

Margaret Atwood - Oryx and Crake and her new one - the heart goes last - very much a page turner set in a credible and disturbing future. Read it in a day, highly recommended.
posted by sedimentary_deer at 3:55 AM on February 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

How about The Bad Girl? I read it years ago and it's still in my head.

From the Amazon page:
"Veteran Peruvian novelist Vargas Llosa's appealing, nostalgic latest opens in the summer of 1950, as Ricardo Slim Somocurcio, a rambunctious teen in the affluent Miraflores section of Lima, meets 14-year-old nymph Lily. With her younger sister, Lily is masquerading as a wealthy, liberated Chilean girl to disguise her slum origins. She is soon exposed by a jealous schoolmate and disappears, but Ricardo is smitten. There are dashes of Vertigo and Last Year at Marienbad in what follows."
posted by Pardon Our Dust at 4:52 AM on February 7, 2016

Seconding Amitav Ghosh's Ibis trilogy. I'm almost finished the first book, Sea of Poppies, which was nominated for the Booker and I can't believe it didn't win. The story is so compelling and...full. The characters are great and I have learned so much about this part of colonialism.
posted by girlpublisher at 6:07 AM on February 7, 2016

No one mentioned Gravity's Rainbow yet with its stories within stories, detailed history, multiple puns, and general craziness which is all tied together by Pynchon's extraordinary talent.
posted by adamvasco at 7:13 AM on February 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. It's an American Dream story tied up with WWII and comic books and Judaism and is just so heartbreakingly beautiful. Don't let the comic book part turn you off, it's magnificent.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 7:21 AM on February 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

When someone asks me for a vivid literary novel with a cast of peculiar characters and heavy doses of magical realism, wit, and nimble dialogue, my mind goes to Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. It follows the ancestry and life of a boy/man born at the stroke of midnight on the day India becomes independent, with the history of the region being paralleled in the main character's own life.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:27 AM on February 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Is East of Eden too obvious? It ticks off all of your boxes.
posted by pintapicasso at 7:45 AM on February 7, 2016

A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley -- King Lear on a farm in the Midwest
posted by book 'em dano at 7:54 AM on February 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'll second The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. It's a love it or hate it puzzle of a novel, as evidenced by the mix of one and five star reviews, but I found it engrossing and fun. And, like TWUBC, it's revolves around a mystery with genuinely scary bits and humor.

Another page turner of a mystery for you: Swamplandia! by Karen Russel. Don't be put off by the blurbs- in spite of the zany sounding plot, the characters and world of this book are vivid and ring emotionally true.
posted by Lisitasan at 7:55 AM on February 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

These aren't particularly long (but they're terribly short, either), but they're epic!

House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende is a multi-generational tale of a family set in Chile spanning far before and a bit after the coup. Beautiful use of magical realism.

The Grapes of Wrath
by John Steinbeck is possibly the best but saddest road trip story and a is masterwork. Ticks the large cast of characters box as well.

Love in the Time of Cholera has language so beautiful that even in translation, I'm blown away. I can't imagine what Marquez must read like in Spanish. Anyhow, also has a large cast of interesting characters, magical realism.
posted by smirkette at 8:51 AM on February 7, 2016

Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being was absorbing and tricky, and was both an emotional and an intellectual wallop (in a good way). At the center of it is a found diary of a suicidal teenage girl who wants to chronicle the amazing life of her Buddhist nun great-grandmother, and the story spirals outwards to encompass a whole range of thoughts and stories about thoughts and stories.

Not to everyone's taste, but Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy (start with Annihilation) absolutely devoured me. Sadness and mystery, it has it. Answers, though? Not so much. Scientists venture into a land resistant to human understanding, and they find...it's resistant to human understanding. I found it extremely vivid, agile, and moving, though!
posted by mixedmetaphors at 9:48 AM on February 7, 2016

Definitely seconding Infinite Jest. TheThere are some rough patches, but they are few and far between and when the book is on, it's genius on a level that I have trouble comprehending.
posted by Fister Roboto at 9:53 AM on February 7, 2016

I'm halfway through Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels. This is exactly what you're looking for. As literature, the best thing I've read in a long time. It's really one novel, about 2000 pages, broken into four books. Two friends growing to adulthood in Naples as Naples grows up. I will say no more. Just read it.
posted by escabeche at 9:56 AM on February 7, 2016

I'll third Robertson Davies and add The Double by Jose Saramago and Satantango by László Krasznahorkai
posted by perhapses at 11:13 AM on February 7, 2016

Middlesex and A Confederacy of Dunces immediately spring to mind. Oh, and The World According to Garp.
posted by getawaysticks at 11:20 AM on February 7, 2016

I second the recommendation for David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks, and suggest Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale. They are both among my very favorite books, and hit pretty much all of your criteria: wildly absorbing, ensemble cast of characters, long, magical realism.

In lieu of a synopsis, I will quote briefly from reviewers who also loved these books:

The Bone Clocks review by Pico Iyer in the New York Times: "No one, clearly, has ever told Mitchell that the novel is dead. He writes with a furious intensity and slapped-awake vitality, with a delight in language and all the rabbit holes of experience, that no new media could begin to rival."

Winter's Tale review by Benjamin Mott, also in the New York Times: "There's far more that I would wish to say about the book - so much more that I find myself nervous, to a degree I don't recall in my past as a reviewer, about failing the work, inadequately displaying its brilliance. . . . Not for some time have I read a work as funny, thoughtful, passionate or large-souled. Rightly used, it could inspire as well as comfort us. 'Winter's Tale' is a great gift at an hour of great need."
posted by merejane at 12:18 PM on February 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Have you read The Secret History by Donna Tartt? I love that book so, so much.
posted by SisterHavana at 4:40 PM on February 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's been a while since a novel really engrossed me, especially anything long.

Rohinston Mistry's A Fine Balance

Amazon description: ". . . A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry’s stunning internationally acclaimed bestseller, is set in mid-1970s India. It tells the story of four unlikely people whose lives come together during a time of political turmoil soon after the government declares a “State of Internal Emergency.” "

Ann Marie MacDonald's Fall on Your Knees

Amazon description ". . . a tale of inescapable family bonds, of terrible secrets, of miracles, racial strife, attempted murder, birth and death, and forbidden love. Moving and finely written, Fall On Your Knees is by turns dark and hilariously funny, a story--and a world--that resonate long after the last page is turned."
posted by Frenchy67 at 6:22 PM on February 7, 2016

I'm surprised no one has mentioned The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt. One of my favorite books of all time. You can't help but get pulled head first into the story.
posted by holmesian at 6:57 PM on February 7, 2016

2 very engrossing novels that I slurped up recently:
Fates & Furies: the story of a marriage from both sides
Deathless: a nearly modern retelling of a russian folktale
posted by raw sugar at 7:14 PM on February 7, 2016

Hell at the Breech, by Tom Franklin. Sorry, can't link from phone. Also maybe The Son, by Philipp Meyer; and Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. Seconding Middlemarch, David Mitchell, and Hillary Mantel.
posted by mmiddle at 7:14 PM on February 7, 2016

I know I'm a broken record in threads like this, but if you handled & liked Under The Volcano, I doubt that you'd find Dog Years too dense. The characters are the book, really, & it's a sprawling, epic sort of thing. Very poetic.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:45 AM on February 8, 2016

The Sot-Weed Factor, by John Barth. A great comic sprawling adventure story set in 17th century America. Stories within stories, and an ensemble cast of characters that keep popping up again and again. "Rabelaisian", they say!
posted by brappi at 10:59 PM on February 8, 2016

I tend to fall more into Science Fiction and Fantasy as categories. The novels that I've read recently that I've very much enjoyed have been:
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell - a twisty novel about two men who rediscover the process of practical rather than theoretical English magic. It is set in the 19th century and feels like a novel of that time period.

The Book of Lost Things - this is a fairy tale, for sure, but I found the story gripping and loved the prose.

Annihilation - definitely a horror fantasy. Very much a WTF is happening book and WTF is happening next.

Ready Player One - Dystoptia with 80's video game nostalgia.

There was a point in my life where I was reading novels in the category of disillusionment and went through:
The Beautiful and the Damned
Less Than Zero
Bright Lights Big City
Generation X

And they're more or less the same story told in different time periods. I think I liked the quality of writing in The Beautiful and the Damned the best, which was a surprise to me because generally speaking I can't stand F. Scott Fitzgerald. From that era, I much prefer Sinclair Lewis (and I think I binge-read all of his work).

In terms of LITER-A-CHA (aka, things that were forced upon me), the novels that stand out were:
How Green Was My Valley - a memoir novel of life in a Welsh coal mining village. Come for the W's, stay for the environmental disaster!
The Jungle - my God, Chicago hates Lithuanian meat packers!
A Room with a View - or how to fall in love outside of your class
posted by plinth at 6:13 PM on February 9, 2016

Some very fine recommendations already posted here, so I'll just second that emotion:
Robertson Davies
David Mitchell
2666 by Roberto Bolano
Margaret Atwood
Hilary Mantel
Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin

And I would add Pilgrim by Timothy Findley, the mysterious story of a man who apparently cannot die, who winds up with Jung as his therapist. "..An intense, bewitching mix of mystery, religion, history, psychology and philosophy that challenges and provokes while still managing to entertain" said James Polk in the NY Times in 2000.
posted by Paris Elk at 1:29 PM on February 13, 2016

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