1. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket
by Edgar Allen Poe (1838)
Poe’s only ‘novel’—the result of an editor’s note suggesting that he try writing longer work—is a bizarre, sea-faring adventure full of munity and savage natives. Not the master’s best work, but it influenced others. Melville and Louis Stevenson improved upon it, while H.P. Lovecraft blatantly stole from its final pages (but only hardcore Cthulhu fans will know which bit). Watch for the singular, Poe-like encounter with a seagull.
by John Crowley (1976)
One-hundred pages jammed full of images, ideas, and apocalypse. What if genetic cross breeding succeeding in combing the DNA of animals and humans? What if the two most successful specimens were a fox and a lion? Crowley’s brainy, poetic narrative is also hard SF, but grounded in emotion and politics. How would Washington suits react to this new breed? And if a man-lion—called a LEO—wanted to sleep with you, would you hit that?
3. West of Rome
by John Fante (2002)
West of Rome comprises two novellas: My Dog Stupid and The Orgy. Both offer portraits of Italian-American families trying to make it out West. In My Dog Stupid, a washed-up Hollywood writer comes home one rainy night to find a bedraggled stray dog on his front lawn. His four grown children are still living with him and the last thing he needs is another mouth to feed. But the dog stays, and one by one, his children fly the nest. The Orgy also concerns a father and his relationship to his children, but it’s told from a child’s perspective instead of the father’s. The title pretty much says it all, but it might also have been called The Atheist, The Bricklayer’s Son, or The Importance of Holy Water.
4. The Invention of Morel
by Adolfo Bioy-Casares (1940)
The Invention in this techno-thriller is a perpetual motion machine for desire. A fugitive seeks shelter on a remote island only to discover he isn’t alone. But the band of soigné revelers completely ignore him, as if they’re actually…holograms. This 1940 novella is itself a kind of perpetuum mobile. Borrowing themes from HG Wells The Island of Doctor Moreau, Morel went on to inspire Alain Resnais’ Last Summer of Marienbad.
5. Animal Farm
by George Orwell (1945)
What I love most about George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” is that I still remember my impressions from reading it for the first time, in ninth grade English class. We’d been told about the Russian Revolution, Allegory, which pig represented Lenin, how the sheep represented people who follow without thinking. Yet reading that book at fourteen sticks with me not because of all that, but because the ending made me cry. The genius of this novella is its ability to make the reader think but also to make the reader feel. It doesn’t sacrifice its heart for its intellect.
6. Goodbye, Columbus
by Philip Roth (1959)
Roth’s debut was published when he was only twenty-five and won him the National Book Award in 1960. The title novella about a young man pre-Nathan Zuckerman is damn near perfect.
7. Death in Venice
by Thomas Mann (1912)
An aging author falls hopelessly for a young Polish boy in Venice. Mann is a clever writer and casts the attraction as artistic longing with references to Greek gods but his protagonist’s inability to turn away from the youth even as the canals turn fetid with cholera reveals the corrupting influence of human desire. English readers now benefit from Michael Henry-Heim’s brilliant translation (2005).
8. Cassandra at the Wedding
by Dorothy Baker (1962)
Themes of duality and identity play out on a sprawling California ranch in Dorothy Baker’s poignant and darkly comic novella. Baker’s prose reads like Hemmingway gone femme—sleek, sharp, no nonsense. Her protagonist—the heavy drinking, quick witted, tormented Cassandra returns home for the wedding of her beloved, less-complicated twin sister, Judith. This engaging book is filled with nuanced insight in moments when clichés are so expected they would’ve ceased to be clichés. But Baker surprises us, moving towards a dramatic climax where Judith rescues Cassandra as well as the narrative.
9. The Pedersen Kid
by William H. Gass (1968) (from In The Heart of the Heart of the Country)
This novella has it all: Frozen children. Hidden bottles of whiskey. Mysterious strangers. Hatred of family. The crush of wide open spaces. Winter’s knife at your throat. The language is taut but unconstrained, confounding and perfectly precise. You will feel snowflakes melting on your cheeks as you read it.
10. The Age of Grief
by Jane Smiley (1988)
Smiley at her delightful and profound best, and what a novella should be: As related by Dave, a possibly cuckolded husband and father, this narrative of marital unrest has the intimacy of a story and the depth of a novel. By the end, the reader too has been through a doozey of a time, even though Smiley’s material is simply everyday suburban life.
11. Sukkwan Island
by David Vann (2008) (from Legend of a Suicide)
A 13-year-old boy, his divorced father, a remote cabin in Alaska. One of these two deeply troubled characters takes his own life, setting into motion an almost unbearably suspenseful, relentlessly sustained study of human limitations – physical and psychological. The novella was made for stories like this.
12. Bartleby the Scrivner
by Herman Melville (1856)
The passive character who takes action. The symbolic symbol of our modern workplace. The first clinically depressed hero (or anti-hero) in literature. However we read Melville’s mini-masterpiece of strange, dark humor, the frail copywriter continues to haunt our nine-five routines. Bartleby lives on. If only the twenty-first century men of Wall Street had used him as role model: “Jim, would you please bet against these toxic shares?” “I would prefer not to.”
13. The Crying of Lot 49
by Thomas Pynchon (1966)
Think paranoia as muse. Thomas Pynchon’s satire is set in a sixties California filled with right wing nutjobs, military-industrial intrigue and marijuana-addled musicians–wait, wait! What decade is this?
14. The Final Solution
by Michael Chabon (2004)
What happens when you leave a genre-bending novelist alone in a cabin in the New Hampshire woods for a month with a ludicrously large baggie of Humboldt County? Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution of course. An alchemic tale of detection haunted by the ghost of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the book also serves as an exemplar of Chabon’s thesis that “genre” fiction needn’t be like country-and-western music or COMICON, i.e. a passion for some, an irritant to most.
by Renata Adler (1976)
Somewhere between a collection of short stories and a novel, Renata Adler’s cold, elliptical Speedboat is a compendium of brutal one-liners, telling details, and brief scenes, sharply described by a narrator jaded beyond her years. Plotless and often distant, the slivers of emotion it does offer and provoke, cut clean to the bone. Required reading for any young woman who’s ever felt alone or apart at a party, in a relationship, all her life.
16. Man in the Holocene
by Max Frisch (1979)
Herr Geiser, an elderly and ailing widower living in Switzerland’s remote Ticino Valley, finds himself witness to a frightening deluge of rain. The very surrounding mountainsides begin to crumble and landslides threaten to block all entry and exits from town. Herr Geiser packs a bag and strangely begins tearing pages from his favorite books, pinning them to the wall, all the while debating his escape. This is a profoundly affecting and understated meditation on mortality and one of the few works from the German master that is both in translation and currently in print.
17. Pafko at the Wall
by Don Delilo (2001)
This is the novella from which sprang the extraordinary Underworld and it remains DeLillo’s most astounding achievement. What began as a folio in Harper’s magazine and eventually became the prologue to Underworld (renamed “The Triumph of Death”) is here in all of its unabridged glory.”One of the most extraordinary performances in contemporary American fiction” (David Remnick, The New Yorker), Pafko at the Wall is a prayer, a poem, and paean to the American 20th century.
18. The Old Man and the Sea
by Earnest Hemingway (1952)
This novella is a well-known classic, and with good reason. Hemingway’s use of straightforward language evokes the proper mindset for reading Santiago’s humble story of determination and experience. Whether it’s mentioning the way calluses hold the line in place or diving into a dream about Joe DiMaggio, Hemingway’s subtle touches make the novella universally intimate.
19. Heart of Darkness
by Joseph Conrad (1902)
From humanity to heads on sticks in one (determined) sitting. Conrad conjures a festering wilderness and layers conceits to give just a glimpse of that unimaginable darkness in all of us.
20. A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens (1843)
Dickens’ seasonal novella has been adapted so many times, in so many ways, that its pop culture incarnations largely over shadow the book that gave us a new literary archetype: the Christmas villain. Forget the Grinch. Ebenezer Scrooge was the first holiday party-pooper to be scared straight. On Christmas Eve, a trio of finger-wagging ghosts transforms Scrooge from miserly grump to joyful philanthropist. Throw in a tubercular boy with a crutch and a catch phrase, and Dickens’ timeless book moves into the realm of allegory.