1. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
This is the story about a boy who loved a girl who lost her will to live because she loved a boy who lost his will to live. Needless to say, this isn’t exactly Comedy Central. But amid the skillfully illustrated 20-something lethargy, the poetic loneliness, and the most realistically heartrending sex scenes ever written, you realize that you’re actually reading something beautiful, and the tragedy is only a disguise.
Norwegian Wood may lack the fantastical quality characteristic of Murakami’s other works, but it is no less magical. If you worry that you won’t be able to relate to disenchanted college students in 1960s Tokyo, don’t: this is a universal novel.
2. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan Franzen has done something incredibly cruel: he has imitated life so well that it seems applicable to every human being, then he went ahead and made that life desperate and laughable. In effect, he has ruined every single life of the modern age.
If you have the courage to find out what I mean, you should read The Corrections — the story of a Midwestern family with two deeply troubled parents, Alfred Lambert by dementia and Enid Lambert by chronic denial, and their three royally messed-up adult children. All the characters are mercilessly portrayed as comically pathetic, and the best/worst part is that Franzen’s storytelling makes you, the reader, feel just as trapped and clueless as the Lamberts themselves.
3. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Seeing as you’re reading this article on Thought Catalog, there’s a high chance that you are a 20-something experiencing the first throes of disenchantment with the world. Well, so are the characters in Jeffrey Eugenides’ latest novel, a humorous and poignant twist on the literary tradition of the “marriage plot,” traditionally meaning a story that’s driven by courtship.
Naturally, this particular plot isn’t so simple as boy meets girl plus a white dress. Instead, Eugenides’ main characters (one female, two male) are ridden with a lot of, well, muddling. Genius muddled by manic depression, ambition muddled by yuppie comfort, and the yearning for altruism muddled by very human selfishness. You could say that the characters — and we — are all just variations on a theme: the hot, hot mess of being young.
4. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
This book changed everything I thought I knew about immigrant literature. Smith needs no foreign word in italics, with translations awkwardly wedged between clauses, to illustrate these displaced lives. What’s more, she manages to take extremely specific characters — a toothless Jamaican ex-Jehovah’s Witness, her much older English war veteran husband, his friend the didactic Bangladeshi waiter with a dead hand, his much younger wife, and their motley Londoner children — and make everything about them believable. In fact, she makes their existence a matter of course. Like, why wouldn’t you meet people like them?
Smith’s debut novel is the best sort of paradox. It sides with assimilation as well as anti-assimilation; it’s a coming-of-age story and a midlife crisis story; it’s about growing into everything that your surroundings are not. It’s about not-so-white teeth, and the lack thereof.
5. Tenth of December by George Saunders
I saved this one for last because it is fitting for only the most cynical, bitter, and puppy-hating of you out there. Just kidding. There’s some hope in here too, if you look very closely. But George Saunders is certainly ruthless when it comes to pinpointing the issues of American society (including but not limited to: consumerism, failed parenting, immigration), then exaggerating and caricaturizing them in ways that make you cringe but also speechless with awe. This new collection of short stories is written in Saunders’ signature ungrammatical and slightly deranged voice — and it’s not a voice for everyone.
In fact, people tend to split into two camps. Some think: what the hell is wrong with this sad, sad man?
Others think: what the hell is wrong with this sad, sad world?