High-falutin' novellas sought
February 8, 2018 6:58 AM   Subscribe

My book group needs recommendations - we read shortish experimentalish fiction (with our brows very elevated) and we're running low.

Basically, everyone in the group gets their science fiction, classic narrative novel and social novel needs met elsewhere (so many book groups!), so we're not really looking for those things. We're looking for books that foreground language, form or messing with voice and plot. Ideally they would not have terrible politics.

Things that we have enjoyed in the past either as individuals or in the book group: Kaddish for an Unborn Child, Senselessness, The Rings of Saturn, The Argonauts.

The ideal book would be ~150,000 words/less than 200 pages. Any era is fine - weird novels from the 18th century, etc.

The group likes to focus on the language of the book as much as the plot/content; we like to assume that the author is writing on multiple levels ("this novel is really about writing itself!"); novels by white straight cis English-speaking men need to have something really going for them and not have terrible politics but are not ruled out, as you can tell by the inclusion of Rings of Saturn; we do particularly look for books by non-Anglosphere and/or female and/or queer and/or BIPOC authors.

Many books that we all love would not be good fits for this book club - no science fiction, probably not "sprawling" novels with huge casts of characters and many subplots, probably not "women's novels" like Marge Piercy's work, probably not "classic" novels of the 19th century, since we all feel like we read and talk about those all the time anyway.

We're looking for the small, weird and sometimes difficult. (We might go for the large weird and sometimes difficult a la Luther Blissett.)
posted by Frowner to Media & Arts (43 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I love love love Wittgenstein’s Mistress, but it’s 248 pages and author was an American white dude.
posted by FencingGal at 7:07 AM on February 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Is Krik? Krak! by Edwige Danticat weird? It is a collection of stories. I vividly remember reading Danticat for the first time and being blown away by the storytelling technique.
posted by BibiRose at 7:08 AM on February 8, 2018

It isn't out yet, but I think Eleanor, or the Rejection of the Progress of Love will fit.

I'd also look into stuff at the Tournament of Books.
posted by jeather at 7:11 AM on February 8, 2018

Yuri Herrera's Signs Preceding the End of the World is great and I think would meet your needs if it's not too obvious a choice.

Salvador Plascencia's People of Paper is also really wonderful (this is one of the only books I know of that's enhanced by reading the hardcover version). This is 256 pages, so a little longer than you're hoping for, but so cool I'm putting it in anyway.

Seconding Wittgenstein's Mistress as being very fun (for certain values of fun).

For large, weird and difficult, Dhalgren is hard to beat.
posted by snaw at 7:12 AM on February 8, 2018

The Republic of Consciousness Prize is dedicated to small presses with a bent towards experimental, high literary works. The longlist this year has several very short books on it:

Playing Possum is 185 pages.

An Overcoat is 130 pages.

Die My Love is 128 pages.

Gaudy Bauble is 93 pages.

Blue Self-Portrait is 153 pages.

The Iron Age is 128 pages.

Others I would add:
Fever Dream
A Little Lumpen Novelita

Anything by Cesar Aira
posted by tofu_crouton at 7:12 AM on February 8, 2018

Niels Lyhne by Jens Peter Jacobsen
The Age of Wire and String Ben Marcus
Butcher's Crossing by John Williams (I assume most of you have read his classic novel, Stoner, already)
Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
Still Life with Insects by Brian Kitely
Speedboat by Renata Adler
Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Unset (its broken into 3 shortish books)
posted by Chrischris at 7:13 AM on February 8, 2018

Wow, I would LOVE to be in your book club!

The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington
Chasm by Dorothea Tanning
Lee and Elaine by Ann Rower
Event Factory by Renee Gladman - or take a look at other books from Dorothy, A Publishing Project
posted by 2or3things at 7:14 AM on February 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

One of César Aira's books (as tofu_crouton already mentioned) might work well: I particularly enjoyed Ghosts, Shantytown & Varamo, but there are several others available in translation too.
posted by misteraitch at 7:16 AM on February 8, 2018

Also, if you want to go with Russian, Soviet-era novellas, Bulgakov has some amazing ones - heart of a dog, morphine, the fatal eggs. All have a lot going on under the surface, for obvious reasons.
posted by snaw at 7:16 AM on February 8, 2018

The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God is pretty incredible. They are short stories, but it's nothing like I expected to read.
posted by zizzle at 7:20 AM on February 8, 2018

I just read and really enjoyed Before, by Carmen Boullosa (117 pages).

The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, by Machado de Assis, is just what you're looking for but over your cutoff, which makes me think that you'll have success with the Alienist by the same author, which I haven't read but definitely is a novella.
posted by peppercorn at 7:24 AM on February 8, 2018

Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal.
posted by BibiRose at 7:27 AM on February 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

I love this question so much, I had to come back with more.

As 2or3things reminded me, pretty much every book published by Dorothy matches your description. I would especially recommend those that 2or3things already mentioned and Vertigo and The Weight of Things.

Sphinx and Not One Day are two short works by Anne Garréta, the first female Oulipian.

Valeria Luiselli is a female Mexican author who writes many short, experimental works. Check out The Story of My Teeth or Faces in the Crowd.
posted by tofu_crouton at 7:43 AM on February 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark
The Labyrinth by Catherynne M. Valente
Weight by Jeanette Winterson
Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

(And a few by white cis English-speaking men:)
Grendel by John Gardner
My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist by Mark Leyner
The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
posted by kyrademon at 7:44 AM on February 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

I like everything by Alejandro Zambra, especially Bonsai.
posted by ferret branca at 7:49 AM on February 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Lots of Ishmael Reed might work, especially Mumbo Jumbo (1972).

Rikki Ducornet might fit the bill too (Entering Fire?). If you’re OK with translations, Pedro Páramo (Juan Rulfo, 1955) is a great ghost story of sorts. (124 pages, too!)
posted by miles per flower at 7:56 AM on February 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

At Swim-Two-Birds (239 pages) by Flann O'Brien who is a white cis English-speaking man, for certain values of "English-speaking".
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 7:59 AM on February 8, 2018

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Seconding this but it is science fiction/fantasy.
posted by fuse theorem at 8:08 AM on February 8, 2018

Things: A Story of the Sixties by Georges Perec.
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
Seconding Machado's The Alienist.
posted by TheGoodBlood at 8:28 AM on February 8, 2018

Manbug by George K. Ilsley
Ladies Almanack by Djuna Barnes

On preview, TheGoodBlood beat me to suggesting Autobiography of Red.

While you're specifically excluding sci fi, I wonder if your group might still be interested in slipstream lit? There's so much juicy cross-genre experimental writing under this umbrella.
posted by prewar lemonade at 8:34 AM on February 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)
Paris, France by Gertrude Stein (1940)
Albert Angelo by B.S. Johnson (1964)
Berg by Ann Quin (1964)
Three by Ann Quin (1966)
The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)
A Tomb for Boris Davidovich by Danilo Kiš (1976)
Light by Eva Figes (1983)
The Loser by Thomas Bernhard (1983)
The Fountains of Neptune by Rikki Ducornet (1989)
Bilbao–New York–Bilbao by Kirmen Uribe (2008)
posted by rollick at 8:38 AM on February 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh, wow, Jeanette Winterson. I was recently reminded of how much I love her by The Daylight Gate, which does have a large element of fantasy. And some people really dislike the book. But the parts of the book that are divisive might make for a lively discussion.
posted by BibiRose at 8:39 AM on February 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Instruction Paintings by Yoko Ono - I don't know if this would qualify as fiction but it is weird and awesome.
posted by prewar lemonade at 8:49 AM on February 8, 2018

Sorry for the multiple replies, I keep thinking of new ones.

Kathy Acker - Blood and Guts in High School
posted by prewar lemonade at 8:53 AM on February 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Definitely in dead white guy territory here, but I LOVE Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley.

-well written
-very, very funny and sarcastic
-public domain so the ebook is free
-full of weird and delightful side stories

Crome Yellow is one of my very favorites.
posted by phunniemee at 9:02 AM on February 8, 2018

Ivy Compton Burnett, though mostly writes about the domestic, does it in such a strange and intense way, that it would work here, I think.
posted by PinkMoose at 9:04 AM on February 8, 2018

Anders Monson's Other Electricities (224 pages) might work.

Though it's not my favorite of her works, Hilary Mantel's Fludd is under 200 pages and quite odd.
posted by praemunire at 9:15 AM on February 8, 2018

Have you read any Clarice Lispector? I think The Hour of the Star would be a great place to start.

Claudia Rankine's Plot is the most, well, plot-heavy and novella-like of her books of poetry.

Nine Island is also nice for something published more recently

I think every other Ask Mefi book question that I answer is "read Tove Jansson," but Tove Jansson is incredible and all her books are on the short side. The Summer Book is my favorite but The True Deceiver is also great.

Your book club sounds really awesome.
posted by torridly at 11:28 AM on February 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Italo Calvino. Orhan Pamuk.

Borges is probably too obvious for you.

Lydia Davis?
posted by rd45 at 11:50 AM on February 8, 2018

I asked about short books for my book club recently, though our cut-off was longer at 320 pages. hurdy gurdy girl recommended Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis - Guardian review. It's 143 pages and I think it would be a really good fit for your group. It's about language, evolution, what makes us human, the nature of tragedy, etc etc.

My group liked it with several of us thinking it was an outstanding book. I will say it's a really tough read, really brutal, even speaking as someone who's not keen on dogs! So bear that in mind.

The author is male, Canadian, originally from Trinidad and Tobago and I think he is Black. Found him writing interestingly about cultural appropriation.
posted by paduasoy at 11:58 AM on February 8, 2018

Trysting, by Emannuelle Pagano, is a beautiful read and may well fit the aesthetic of your group.
posted by JohnFromGR at 12:26 PM on February 8, 2018

I think your book club would really appreciate Tor's new novella line! Recently, it's focused on publishing experimental novellas, some of which are very queer and chromatic. All of these are speculative fiction that foregrounds language, voice, and non-traditional narrative structures.

The Black Tides of Heaven & The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson
posted by fire, water, earth, air at 1:18 PM on February 8, 2018

How about "The Interrogative Mood" by Padgett Powell, which is written entirely in the form of questions? I don't think it adds up to much, but I found it very entertaining.

"Amulet" by Roberto Bolaño is short and strange, about Latin American politics and literary subcultures. I don't think it's fantasy, but there are several sections that could not have happened or that contradict each other. Difficult, and fascinating.
posted by kelper at 2:26 PM on February 8, 2018

This sounds like my kind of book club! So many great recommendations here, but here would be mine:

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
My Paris by Gail Scott
Double Teenage by Joni Murphy
Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton

It's a bit long (I think about 260 pages), but I still think about Open City by Teju Cole a lot.
posted by SoftRain at 4:02 PM on February 8, 2018

Gabriel Garcia Marquez Of Love and Other Demons

Turgheniev Diary of a Superfuous Man

Checkhov, various short stories (a lot at Gutenberg)

I don't know how well these are translated; they are powerful in the original:

Heinrich von Kleist Michael Kohlhaas

Rebreanu Forest of the Hanged, psychological WWI novel, dark.

Caragiale Gallants of the Old Court, very writerly in the original.

Sadoveanu The Hatchet, one of my favourites, shepherd's wife goes into the world detectiving and avenging after her husband is murdered by business associates.

Dürrenmatt , who I love: A Dangerous Game, The Assignment (he has others).

These are probably on your radar already, but I'll write them down anyway:

Flaubert Madame Bovary

Voltaire Candide

I assume you've already read Kafka, ex. his Metamorphosis?

And TH. Mann Death in Venice?
posted by miorita at 5:03 PM on February 8, 2018

Forgot Schnitzler Fräulein Else, a sort of 1920 stream-of-consciousness #MeToo, Galgoczi Another Love, and Bataille Story of the Eye, quite weird, disturbing even, but very 'high-brow' (we did it at uni and I remember thinking 'WTF' throughout - Barthes defended it as 'not pornography', and it served as an ispiration for Björk).

Btw, the Amazon blurb for The Hatchet is for a completely different book, and one of the reviews only half-describes it.
posted by miorita at 5:28 PM on February 8, 2018

Seconding Clarice Lispector, but for The Passion According to G.H.
posted by book 'em dano at 9:01 PM on February 8, 2018

"Cronopios and Famas" by Julio Cortázar consists of four sets of short pieces, and you could regard each set as a novella. For your book group, I'd suggest it particularly for the "Instructions" set, where each piece gives straight-faced instructions for everyday actions (ascending a staircase, putting on a watch, crying), but the other pieces are also delightful.

Your group might also enjoy the non-fiction "How to talk about books you haven't read" by Pierre Bayard. The title makes it sound like a bluffer's guide, whereas in fact it's a fascinating discussion of the different kinds of relationships that we have with books, both with specific books and with the terrain of all-books. It's funny and perceptive, and full of great excerpts from novels about books, many of which I'd never heard of.
posted by kelper at 2:12 AM on February 9, 2018

I've enjoyed Kate Zambreno for this, specifically Green Girl (198 p.) and O Fallen Angel (224 p.) which I think might actually be the perfect next book for your club:

Inspired by Francis Bacon's Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, Kate Zambreno's brilliant novel is a triptych of modern-day America set in a banal Midwestern landscape, told from three distinct, unforgettable points of view.
posted by jabes at 9:40 AM on February 9, 2018

Mislaid by Nell Zink
posted by WeekendJen at 11:10 AM on February 9, 2018

I'm late to this, but Debra Di Blasi, Daphne Marlatt, Nicole Brossard, Inger Christensen, Carole Maso, and Jenny Boully would all go on my list.
posted by dizziest at 1:46 PM on February 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

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