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Douglas Coupland's Top Ten List
1. Answered Prayers by Truman Capote (1987). Unfinished and perhaps unfinishable at the time of Capote’s death in 1984, this roman à clef was his savage chomp at the hands that fed him —the manicured, diamond-freighted hands of Upper East Side socialites and assorted New York celebrities. Bitchiness, bile, and sexual braggadocio vie in this gossipy, literary vivisection of high society.
2. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969). Part science fiction, part war story, this is the story of Billy Pilgrim, a former World War II prisoner of war who survived the firebombing of Dresden, as did Vonnegut himself. Abducted by visitors from the planet Trafalmadore, Pilgrim comes “unstuck in time” and is thus able to revisit key points in his life and even his future. Written at the height of the Vietnam War, this muscular satire reveals the absurdity and brutality of modern war.
3. The Ice Age by Margaret Drabble (1977). Drabble is a quietly dogged social novelist, and her books can be read collectively as a history of contemporary England’s soul. Here she uses Anthony Keating, a former BBC official turned failed real estate developer, to explore the gloomy interregnum between the go-go 1960s and the more seriously materialistic Thatcher era, when the cozy values of old England were growing increasingly shabby without any new values to replace them.
4. The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble (1987). While the title suggests a rational universe, this novel focuses on the jarring dislocations of three women who meet at Cambridge in the 1950s. The psychiatrist and mother Liz Headland —who ties together the trilogy The Realms of Gold, The Radiant Way, and A Natural Curiosity—is joined by her friends Alix Bowen, a do-gooding teacher, and Esther Breuer, an art scholar. Their experiences run the gamut, from comfortable wealth to family problems to labor unrest to a grisly murder, as they reflect Drabble’s interest in characters trying to reach beyond their bourgeois lives.
5. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (1919). A collection of short stories about the inhabitants of a town whose physical isolation mirrors their psychological distance. With compassion and sadness, Anderson evokes small-town life and thought through a wide range of characters who are not visited by any tragedies save their own inability to forge a bit of happiness in their lives of quiet desperation.
6. Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion (1970). So pared to the bone is Didion’s prose, so intimate her understanding of psychic pain, one pictures her writing not with a pen but a razor. In this stark novel of soulless Hollywood, Maria, once beautiful and prized, now gaunt and withdrawn, struggles to regain her footing after her mother’s death, her young daughter’s institutionalization, an illegal abortion, and a divorce. As Didion exposes with steely restraint the poisonous contempt accorded women, she turns Los Angeles’s death-defying expressways and the lethal desert beyond into stunning metaphors for alienation.
7. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (1996). An aimless insomniac, who makes his living helping an insurance company avoid paying valid claims, relieves his boredom by attending therapy groups for people suffering from deadly illnesses. His life takes a deadly turn when he and a friend start a fight club, where men gather to beat one another senseless. Soon anarchy is loosed upon the world, including a terrorist attack on the world’s tallest building, in this testosterone-fueled novel rippling with nihilistic irony and dark humor.
8. Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh (1928). This hilarious send-up of the English code of honor begins with Paul Pennyfeather’s “sending down” (expulsion) from Oxford. Reduced to teaching at a fourth-rate school, he encounters wonderfully named characters, including Lady Circumference and Lord Tangent, who prove ripe for satire. Pennyfeather also finds love with the impossibly rich and lovely Margot Beste-Chetwynde. But l’amour leads to a spell in the clink. Fortunately, Waugh says, “any one who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home” in jail.
9. Ask the Dust by John Fante (1939). This coming-of-age tale features Fante’s alter ego, Arturo Bandini: a poor, innocent, aspiring writer from Colorado, stretching out his limbo in 1930s Los Angeles. Bandini prowls the city’s dusty alleys for experience he can turn into prose, eats oranges in his hotel room, and dreams of success. Awkward with women, he falls for a troubled Mexican waitress but can’t sustain the relationship. He squanders what little money he earns. All he desires is literary glory, so that even when he nearly drowns, he thinks: “This was the end of Arturo Bandini —but even then I was writing it all down.”
10. Breaking and Entering by Joy Williams (1988). A teenage couple breaks into empty vacation homes in Florida to live “the ordered life of someone else. . . . For they themselves were not preparing for anything, they were not building anything.” This picaresque novel describes the offbeat adventures of these alienated drifters —with alcoholic aristocrats and aged female bodybuilders —in sharply observant language that evokes the sadness, loneliness, and isolation of modern life.