An Antidote to Fightin' Words
January 22, 2017 8:31 PM   Subscribe

Like many people lately, I'm feeling low about the state of things--specifically, language. My recent reading consists solely of political news and analysis as well as, for relaxation, hard-boiled detective novels. I've lost, over the past few months, all sense of language as exuberant, playful, abundant, dazzling, rich with pleasure. Can you help pull me out of my language funk with suggestions of novels, short stories, poems, essays that will delight and surprise me, that I can sink into like a warm luxurious bath?

I'm a big reader but over the past few months my focus has narrowed to such an extent that I need a fresh infusion of literary energy. While I tend toward nonfiction and the above mentioned hard-boiled style, every once in a while I bust out and really enjoy stuff like David Foster Wallace at his most linguistically dizzying, Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, Kerouac, Zadie Smith's White Teeth, crazy Dada poetry. Basically writers who revel in and play with language, really roll around in it, rather than the more descriptive or analytical stuff that has become my recent diet. I'll take suggestions in any genre--fiction, nonfiction, poetry--from any historical period, with bonus points for Kindle availability. Thanks for hauling me out of this ditch!
posted by fiery.hogue to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveler (post-modern fiction, a lot of fun)

Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch (one of the books that started the Latin American "Boom")

Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams (nonfiction, he just has a lot of fun too, although very serious fun)

Many of Roberto Bolaño's books have tremendous amount of fun with language, but the subject matter is often so depressing that I'm not sure it fits your bill. I'm still recommending him; for examples of his style you could take a look at his quotes on Goodreads.
posted by barchan at 8:51 PM on January 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

I too love a rich, playful writing style-- I'd like to recommend Bridge of Birds, and The Last Unicorn, and the Fairyland series, and The 13 Clocks-- all of these being fantasy, obviously.
posted by The otter lady at 9:04 PM on January 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A bit left-field, but --

Aesop Rock: Pigs, None Shall Pass

Piet Hein, raw sugar

Mark Leyner is a high pressure hose of DFW splattered with Palahniuk gore. Probably not the best for your literary aspirations -- but for me, he was great drunk bedtime read.

Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach has some very juicy bits like the Crab Canon.
posted by miniraptor at 9:17 PM on January 22, 2017

This is why I love China Miéville.
posted by A hidden well at 9:19 PM on January 22, 2017

It doesn't rise to the literary heights of Joyce or Rushdie, but I think PG Wodehouse might fit the bill.
posted by Tentacle of Trust at 9:29 PM on January 22, 2017 [9 favorites]

I think Oscar Wilde's Dorian Grey is great for this.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:42 PM on January 22, 2017

I have long felt that Harlan Ellison's writing begs to be read aloud, but it may just be his cadence feels good in my voice. YMMV.

I'll second China Miéville, who plays with words a lot. Un Lun Dun is like a modern Phantom Tollbooth of wordplay madness.

So I guess I'll recommend The Phantom Tollbooth, too, if you haven't read it. Norton Juster.

Douglas Adams is great fun, too.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 10:32 PM on January 22, 2017

I could really dig into Pynchon's Mason & Dixon right about now. A frame story written in some semblance of an 18th century version of Pynchon's style, with all the requisite conspiracies and perversions but also a healthy dose of fellowship and familial warmth. Much has been made of the first sentence, a good enough example of the style at its most ornate, but don't be fooled—this thing is a page turner.
posted by Lorin at 10:39 PM on January 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

My ideas:

ee cummings!
Kenneth Patchen
Reading sonnets out loud

Tom Robbins, love Another Roadside Attraction
Lisey's Story by Stephen King if you like horror
Love the suggestion of the Phantom Tollbooth
posted by fairlynearlyready at 10:49 PM on January 22, 2017

I felt the way you describe reading Woolf's The Waves.

Kelly Link short story collections would fit the bill here too, in my opinion. Very playful with language, themes, and pop culture tropes.
posted by augustimagination at 10:52 PM on January 22, 2017 [5 favorites]

I mean, have you read Lolita? Nabokov's narrator Humbert Humbert plays so many charming games with English and other languages that one tends to overlook his other, less salutary pastimes... at least at first.
posted by infinitewindow at 11:00 PM on January 22, 2017

Best answer: Oh, man. This kind of writing is where I live, and like you, I've been feeling an increasing need for it in the last few months. I could write 7500 words on this topic, easily, but I'm going to do my best to restrain myself and just give you a few of my absolute favorites, with a focus on stuff that doesn't always get mentioned in these threads:

Olga Tokarczuk is basically the most important writer in the world to me right now. Her work is deeply Polish, pastoral magic realism that manages to to feel crisp, intellectually crunchy, sensual, and emotionally true, all at the same time. It's gorgeous stuff. Only two of her books have been published in English so far, and you can start with either, though House of Day, House of Night has the added bonus of mushroom recipes.

Ben Marcus is, lord, I don't even know how to explain it. Like, did you ever read the work of one of the muscular and lapidary word salad-smiths of past decades (Mark Leyner, perhaps) and think, "Well, this is really cool, but where do you go from here?" BEN MARCUS KNOWS WHERE YOU GO FROM HERE. Read The Age of Wire and String and read it now.

Kellie Wells is another extraordinary light. Her book Fat Girl, Terrestrial scratches a bunch of itches that nothing since Geek Love has touched for me. Sideways criminal investigation, luminous prairie myth-making, dancing language, and the deliciously pugnacious conversion of what might once have been body horror into two-fisted, unstoppable dignity. I will love Kellie Wells's work until the day I die.

Karin Tidbeck of Sweden writes exuberant, bizarre, beautifully crafted stories that are at once disciplined and soaring. It kills me that only one of her books is available in English. That one, Jagannath, is an absolute gem, though. Just thinking about it, I'm damn near salivating.

Then there's JJ Amaworo Wilson. His recent book, Damnificados is revolutionary, magical, and glorious. Prior to becoming a novelist, Wilson was an ESL teacher and a developer of ESL teaching materials, and Damnificados has a delirious, Tower of Babel quality that I have never seen anywhere else. It is exceptional.

Finally, when it comes to "rolling around in language," I don't think anyone can touch Keri Hulme. If you haven't read The Bone People, you're in for an incredible treat. Her work is lush, livid, musical, and brutal. She stands alone.

And now I really want to keep going, and talk about Rikki Ducornet, Mary Caponegro, Carole Maso, Carol Emshwiller, Thomas King, Kathryn Davis, Ray Vukcevich, Edward Carey, Chris Kraus, Steve Aylett, Bertha Harris, Vi Khi Nao, Angelica Gorodischer, Alvaro Mutis, and a whole bunch of others, but I'm going to force myself to stop now and let others have a turn.

(Though on preview, gotta say, I agree veryverymuch with augustimagination. Yes, I do.)
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 11:09 PM on January 22, 2017 [12 favorites]

Cat Valente, China Mieville, Angelica Gorodischer's Kalpa Imperial.
posted by azalea_chant at 12:10 AM on January 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

I would go to Shakespeare first for such infusion. He's pretty inexhaustible. If you want your linguistic genius dark and bitter like a crime novel, try his Measure for Measure or Troilus and Cressida.

For linguistic inventiveness of more recent vintage, the sublimely playful poetry of Wallace Stevens, maybe?
posted by bertran at 12:19 AM on January 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

Oh, re-reading your post, you're looking to get away from the darkness: try Cymbeline, then, The Tempest, or As You Like It.
posted by bertran at 12:24 AM on January 23, 2017

On reflection, the list I gave you above is way, way whiter than I would have liked. So, without taking up too much more real estate in the thread, I'll just mention:

Samuel R. Delany: Dhalgren

Arundhati Roy: The God of Small Things

Kiini Ibura Salaam: When the World Wounds

Aglaja Veteranyi: Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta

Katherine Vaz: Saudade
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 12:54 AM on January 23, 2017 [5 favorites]

Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon
Hardboiled, alternate timeline, dystopic detective story. Romantic like Chandler, but Hammett's in there too. I still think about these characters years later. Such lovely loving observations on humanity in all of it's trauma, beauty, transcendence and muck. One of my favorite books ever.
posted by asavage at 1:38 AM on January 23, 2017

I have really been in the mood for poetry lately. I'll suggest Trilogy by H.D.
posted by bluebird at 1:38 AM on January 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

The essay linked in this recent post on the blue doesn't seem to have gotten nearly as much love as it deserved, if the number of comments and favorites is anything to go by. It's a brilliant, breathtaking, enthralling piece of prose and is guaranteed to lift any reader out of the slough of despondency.
posted by tully_monster at 1:43 AM on January 23, 2017

Seconding China Mieville. I read Railsea very slowly, trying to drink it in, not wanting it to end. (I see that it is listed as a "young adult" novel. Baloney. It's only a "young adult" novel in the way that Moby Dick is a young adult novel--a novel with a protagonist who is a young adult, and one that can be assigned in high school English without controversy.)

I recently downloaded the speculative fiction anthology The Weird and found all kinds of amazing, beautiful writing in it, much from authors I'd never have otherwise encountered.

Finally, Swamplandia! You will like it, I think.
posted by tully_monster at 1:52 AM on January 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren. I'm generally a plot person, but I found myself getting excited by upcoming long descriptive paragraphs. There's something to be said for novels written by poets. Also, it's a political.novel, so you can scratch two itches with one book.
posted by Ducks or monkeys at 3:04 AM on January 23, 2017

Best answer: You would like to be "delighted and surprised"? Need a pick-me-up that is "exuberant, playful, abundant, dazzling, rich with pleasure"?

I think this fits the bill exactly... Lawrence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
posted by Mister Bijou at 3:22 AM on January 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

Shakespeare is a good idea, but I would recommend tracking down DVDs of his plays, and also annotated versions so you can understand the context of the lines. The best English teacher I've ever had said that Shakespeare was meant to be watched, not read, and I agree wholeheartedly.

It's a bit out of left field, and lighter than the other recommendations you're getting, but I have rarely laughed so hard as I did reading Julia Quinn's original eight Bridgerton historical romances.

If that's not your cup of tea, I've found Oscar Wilde and Ogden Nash to be absolute delights, and masters of the English language. Ditto RK Narayan, although I don't know how well his work would resonate with a non-English audience.
posted by Tamanna at 5:55 AM on January 23, 2017

A few immersive favorites (mostly SF/F) with amazing, loopy, maximalist prose:

Ian McDonald, Desolation Road (like 100 Years of Solitude, on Mars, with trains)

Amos Tutuola, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts or The Palm-Wine Drinkard

John Crowley, Little, Big

Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (lush nonfiction)

...nthing Kelly Link & China Miéville & Rikki Ducornet here too.
posted by miles per flower at 9:34 AM on January 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

I didn't realise this was a "thing" but most of the authors above are either one I love or on my to-read list!

I would add Haruki Murakami, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (if not his fiction - which is magical realism - try his autobiography!), and Annie Dillard (swoon! slowly reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek right now). I also loved Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.

What a great question.
posted by jrobin276 at 1:39 PM on January 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Greer Ilene Gilman's Moonwise
posted by clew at 2:15 PM on January 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

I found myself smiling at the writing in William Gibson's Bigend trilogy.
posted by The Incredible Gnome at 4:39 PM on January 23, 2017

YES seconding H.D.'s Trilogy as well.
posted by augustimagination at 5:17 PM on January 23, 2017

Best answer: Wait, how did I forget this? A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (previously). It's all kinds of violent but the story & language are jawdroppingly rich.
posted by miles per flower at 7:13 AM on January 24, 2017

Response by poster: Thanks to all for your wonderful answers. I've marked a few as "best" but that's only to indicate where I've decided to start. I'm sure I'll find all this reading inspiring. Hell, I find your answers alone inspiring! Once again, Ask Metafilter FTW!
posted by fiery.hogue at 10:50 AM on January 24, 2017

Okay, I was holding off on mentioning Helen DeWitt, because she's a huge MeFi favorite, and I thought someone else would bring her up for sure. But since no one did: Check out Helen DeWitt. She writes filigreed, ecstatically academic, intricately considered novels, and suffers no fools. One reviewer called her "The best 18th century writer working today," and I think that's wonderfully apt. The Last Samurai is a good entry point.

And since I'm back here, I'm going to go ahead and mention Hal Duncan. He became internet famous a few years ago for having made one of the very best of the It Gets Better videos, but he's also a blisteringly good fantasist. Vellum is a roiling, intoxicating swirl of myth, heart, blood, and language, and it hurtles like a bullet train.

One caveat: Unless you become very committed to Hal Duncan indeed, stay far, far away from Rhapsody: Notes on Strange Fictions. It's a collection of his writings about genre fiction, and it's very poorly put together. The essays in it were originally published on Duncan's website, and without the supporting, hyperlinked material on the site (like the freaking glossary of redefined terms) they're nothing but maddening, unreadable muck. It's probably more the publisher's fault than Duncan's, but still: stay away.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 1:04 AM on January 25, 2017

« Older Chicago Trip + HAMILTON   |   Car Emergency Kit 2.0 Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.