Vocab Challenge
June 10, 2008 8:19 PM   Subscribe

Looking for contemporary authors that use advanced vocabulary in their novels.

I had a customer ask about this, and I came up blank. He was looking for modern novels that send you to the dictionary every page or so. I had some candidates on the non-fiction side, but anything historical was rebuffed. Unlikely that he will return, but my curiosity has peaked....
posted by ezabeta to Media & Arts (42 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
David Foster Wallace
Richard Powers
Jonathan Franzen
George Saunders
Haruki Murakami
Angela Carter [not super contemporary, but excellent]
William Gaddis [same]
Donald Barthelme [same]
posted by jessamyn at 8:27 PM on June 10, 2008 [5 favorites]

Room Temperature by Nicholson Baker
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear at 8:31 PM on June 10, 2008

Alexander Theroux, Darconville's Cat.
posted by jayder at 8:36 PM on June 10, 2008

Seconding DFW. If reading Infinite Jest keep the OED handy. (If you've read it, you'll get it.)
posted by SansPoint at 8:39 PM on June 10, 2008

Neal Stephenson - especially The Baroque Cycle
posted by birdsquared at 8:40 PM on June 10, 2008

Seconding Wallace, Powers, Carter, and Saunders. Also Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, and J.G. Ballard.
posted by googly at 8:40 PM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Must second each of jessamyn's answers, except for Saunders (his approach seems to me to derive humor from mundane, simple, or everyday diction).

Pynchon is the only conspicuous omission from her list.

I'd add Alexander Theroux (Darconville's Cat is exemplary vocab-enhancing fiction).

I'm not a particular fan of Will Self, but many people like him as much as he seems to like $10 words.

The Tunnel, by William H. Gass, is just generally erudite, word choice included.

I'll post more as I think of them.
posted by scarylarry at 8:40 PM on June 10, 2008

Wow, what a surprise to be beat to the punch on A. Theroux. He was the ace up my sleeve....
posted by scarylarry at 8:41 PM on June 10, 2008

Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun
posted by moonmilk at 8:44 PM on June 10, 2008

Umberto Eco?
posted by flibbertigibbet at 8:48 PM on June 10, 2008

Seconding Infinite Jest and seconding Book of the New Sun. The first time I read that, I assumed Gene Wolfe was making up plausible-sounding but fake words—averaging about 1/page. Then I read his book about the book (Castle of the Otter), and learned the vocabulary was all legit.
posted by adamrice at 8:59 PM on June 10, 2008

I'm shocked to be 4thing Alexander Theroux, since I know exactly two people who have even heard of him and one of those people is me. This is obviously a pretty self-selecting crowd, though...I'd say the Venn diagram of "jerks who love Darconville's Cat" and "assholes who will pop in to recommend it as a vocabulary-challenger in an AskMe thread" is basically just a circle.

Your customer will eat A. Theroux up with a spoon, in any case.
posted by crinklebat at 9:03 PM on June 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

Anthony Burgess is your huckleberry.

[And not just A Clockwork Orange, either.]
posted by staggernation at 9:16 PM on June 10, 2008

Cormac McCarthy has a stunning vocabulary, and he wields it in ways that give it a near-Biblical force. I don't have Blood Meridian in front of me to type you out a representative passage (maybe someone else does?), but pick up any of his books and flip through and you'll see what I mean.
posted by roombythelake at 9:30 PM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Damn you roombythelake, I was going to suggest McCarthy! His vocabulary is excellent.
posted by m0nm0n at 9:37 PM on June 10, 2008

Nabokov is probably no longer contemporary. But damn. Read him anyway. I second McCarthy, particularly his early works.
posted by LucretiusJones at 9:55 PM on June 10, 2008

Came in to say David Foster Wallace. Man is a genius.
posted by reductiondesign at 10:16 PM on June 10, 2008

Another vote for Umberto Eco.
posted by scody at 10:47 PM on June 10, 2008

Cormac McCarthy immediately sprung to mind too.

Blood Meridian was by far the most amazing book I've ever read. I highly recommend
Notes on Blood Meridianwhich is terribly expensive at this point, but a truly worth-while read if you are a MCCarthy/Blood Meridian fan.

Roombythelake, I don't have Blood Meridian handy -- I lent it to a friend just this morning -- but here's a couple passages from Suttree just taken at random from the first couple of pages.
"Here at the creek mouth the fields run on the river, the mud deltaed and baring out of its rich alluvial harbored bones and dread waste, a wrack of cratewood and condoms and fruitrinds. Old tins and jars and ruined household artifacts that rear from the fecal mire of the flats like landmarks in the trackless vales of dementia praecox."


"Where hunters and woodcutters once slept in the boots by the dying light of their thousand fires and went on, old teutonic forebears with eyes incandesced by the visionary light of a massive rapacity, wave on wave of the violent and insane, their brains stoked with spoorless analogues of all that was, lean aryans with their abrogate semitic chapbook reenacting the dramas and parables therein and mindless and pale with a longing that nothing save dark's total restitution could appease. We are come to a world within the world. In these alien reaches, these maugre sinks and interstitial wastes that the righteous see from carriage and car another life dreams. Illshapen or black or deranged, fugitive of all order, strangers in every land."
posted by trixare4kids at 10:49 PM on June 10, 2008

Wouldn't mention it if this wasn't a question specifically related to vocabulary, but although your curiosity may in fact have peaked at the exact moment you asked this question, the homophone most commonly used in this context is pique. As in "to cause resentment or, more commonly, to rouse, excite, or stimulate".

And another vote for Infinite Jest.
posted by sophist at 10:51 PM on June 10, 2008

Late to the party, but anyway: yes to Theroux, McCarthy, Eco and especially Wallace. While DFW likes to send readers to their dictionaries sometimes in all his work, there's something extra-special happening in Infinite Jest, where he's clearly doing it on purpose and to effect.
posted by rokusan at 12:21 AM on June 11, 2008

There are certain passages in Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves that will challenge any vocabulary.

And another angle: the English in Helen DeWitt's exquisite novel, The Last Samurai is for the most part deliberately spare, but no work of fiction has taught me more about Greek, Japanese, and other languages.
posted by scarylarry at 2:58 AM on June 11, 2008

Nthing Infinite Jest, although I'm pretty sure a few of the words are of his own invention as the only Google hits for them are lists of words people didn't know in Infinite Jest. The book is a brilliant ride.
posted by ecsh at 5:21 AM on June 11, 2008

Pynchon, yes. Surprised no one mentioned Faulkner yet.
posted by mateuslee at 6:24 AM on June 11, 2008

John Crowley (_Little, Big_, _Aegypt_ and more) has his moments when he gets going.
posted by Sparx at 6:45 AM on June 11, 2008

Stephen Fry can be quite circumfloribus too.
posted by runincircles at 6:59 AM on June 11, 2008

- Italo Calvino

- Jorge Luis Borges

- Stanislaw Lem

all are certainly modern, but not really "contemporary" - it would be hard to recommend a given work from any of them in that each wrote across a wide range of genres & styles

seconding John Crowley - he has a wide & varied vocabulary & puts it to skillful (not necessarily just dense) use - easily some of the most beautiful prose I've ever read
posted by jammy at 7:09 AM on June 11, 2008

Alexander Theroux, Darconville's Cat.

Nthing this, though I will point out that Darconville's Cat is OP. In fact all of Theroux's novels are (criminally) OP, with the exception of Laura Warholic which was published early this year. I haven't read it yet, but it's supposedly in the vein of his earlier works. In case you're looking to sell your customer a new and/or currently in print book.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 7:17 AM on June 11, 2008

jammy: not to take anything away from those authors, but unless I'm mistaken, none of them wrote in English—so unless you can read Polish/Spanish/Italian, you're getting their words as filtered through a translation. This is also not to take anything away from translators (I am one), but it causes one to ask to what extent your experience of a work in translation accurately reflects the diversity of the author's own vocabulary. I've read Umberto Eco in translation, and been very impressed by the wordplay and the quality of the writing, but I ask myself "how much of that is the translator?"
posted by adamrice at 7:25 AM on June 11, 2008

Seconding Will Self, great stories and lots of dictionary time.
posted by merocet at 7:42 AM on June 11, 2008

trixare4kids: there's a new edition of Notes on Blood Meridian just out. And it's only 15 bucks!
posted by nushustu at 8:14 AM on June 11, 2008

Oop. I take it back. It's not out yet. But soon.
posted by nushustu at 8:15 AM on June 11, 2008

adamrice: If you check out Baudolino, translators had serious difficulties translating it into English, if for no other reason than Eco wrote 10 pages in pidgin in order to capture specific meanings and sounds (something he did, as a plot point, in The Name of the Rose with the uneducated cellarer). He ain't a slouch when it comes to wordplay. Even Eco said, on the problem of translating his works: "But for many of my translations I have worked together with the translator and so I feel that even the translation is my own work. I feel confident. You understand?"

So, if you had to choose between these two either/or situations, I think that it's Eco outrunning the translator and not necessarily the other way around. And besides, it's not 'give me books that reflect the author's vocabulary,' but 'give me books that will challenge my own vocabulary.' So, OP, go with Borges and Calvino and Lem.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 8:40 AM on June 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

The only one I can add to those mentioned is Tom Robbins.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 9:54 AM on June 11, 2008

Cormac McCarthy. Specifically Blood Meridian.
posted by lilnemo at 10:43 AM on June 11, 2008

Tom Wolfe. Opening I Am Charlotte Simmons to Chapter 21, the next few pages includes: declivities, ingratiation, supplication, coifed (note only one f), obverse, picadors, taxidermy (not relating to the preservation of animals), Zeitgeist, lumpenproletariat.

Lexicographic onanism, if you ask me. Used to pique my interest, but those proclivities peaked. ;-)
posted by CruiseSavvy at 11:07 AM on June 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding Tom Robbins -- I always learn a lot of neat facts along with new words when reading his books.
posted by Flying Squirrel at 12:56 PM on June 11, 2008

Nthing Darconville's Cat. It's a qualitative step above even other modern large-vocabularied authors like Pynchon and Wallace.
posted by dfan at 3:10 PM on June 11, 2008

nushustu, bless you for pointing that Notes on Blood Meridian is being re-released. I just pre-ordered it.

I was able to borrow a copy from a generous friend a few years ago, but I've always wanted to to OWN a copy for myself.
posted by trixare4kids at 3:52 PM on June 11, 2008

Joseph Heller, Catch 22?
posted by quadog at 10:39 PM on June 11, 2008

Richard Powers' work (galatea 2.2, the goldbug variations) is eruidite and metaphor-rich.
posted by lalochezia at 11:02 AM on June 12, 2008

I'm a little late to this party, but since no one has mentioned him, T.C. Boyle is another author to check out. He once said that he tries to use at least one word per page that the average reader will not be familiar with. He's a great writer to boot, so that's a double plus.
posted by oozy rat in a sanitary zoo at 12:08 PM on July 6, 2008

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