#20: Native Son (1940), by Richard Wright

Anger quickened in him: an old feeling that Bessie had often described to him when she had come from long hours of hot toil in the white folks’ kitchens, a feeling of being forever commanded by others so much that thinking and feeling for one’s self was impossible. Not only had he lived where they told him to live, not only had he done what they told him to do, not only had he done these things until he had killed to be quit of them; but even after obeying, after killing, they still ruled him. He was their property, heart and soul, body and blood; what they did claimed every atom of him, sleeping and waking; it colored life and dictated the terms of death.

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I had committed to Richard Wright’s Native Son being the 20th selection from this list more than a year ago, long before the summer of Michael Brown and Eric Garner descended upon us. Had I arrived at this point more expediently, say in April or May as I’d preferred, this entry likely would have followed the m.o. of the first 19: some fairly innocuous observations on the book and a little context for how the author came to write it, with some personal color thrown in.

But Native Son isn’t a book you can read quickly and throw back on the shelf. Specially designed to provoke reaction, it’s a piece of advocacy fiction squarely in that Grapes of Wrath tradition of foregoing subtlety to impart its social message. It opens with one sound effect (a ringing alarm clock), ends with another (the clanging of a jail cell), and in between tells a powerfully brutal story that moves with the propulsiveness of a thriller and the self-righteous fury of a sermon.

As Time list co-creator Richard Lacayo points out, Wright could have written a novel about an unjustly accused black man and rested on the laurels of having brought important issues of racial inequality to mainstream consciousness, but he chose the harder route: a book about a guilty man, thoroughly loathsome and without remorse, who would still command your understanding and, to some extent, your sympathy.

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#19: The Berlin Stories (1945), by Christopher Isherwood

Over there, in the city, the votes were being counted. I thought, of Natalia: She has escaped — none too soon, perhaps. However often the decision may be delayed, all these people are ultimately doomed. This evening is the dress-rehearsal of a disaster. It is like the last night of an epoch.

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Christopher Isherwood, born in 1904 to a prosperous English family, dropped out of medical school, renounced his middle-class upbringing, and followed his friend and mentor W.H. Auden to Berlin in 1929, a place synonymous with decadence, where the public attitude toward homosexuality was far less restrictive.

His four-year sojourn produced a pair of “documentary novels” that Otto Friedrich in his history of pre-Nazi Berlin Before the Deluge called “a matchless portrait of the city.” Eight decades later, those novels have retained their potency and historical value.

Even after Isherwood left Berlin in 1933, he seemed to know his window for capturing his experiences was closing and began writing with no little urgency, as Brian Finney notes in his biography of the author:

Prompted by…alarming predictions, Isherwood lived throughout most of the 1930s quite sure that war would break out at any moment. He begged [Virginia’s husband] Leonard Woolf to publish Mr. Norris Changes Trains earlier, convinced that by 1935 it would ‘no longer have any meaning whatever’ because, as he wrote to [his friend, poet Stephen] Spender in November, ‘what with Yugo-Slavia and the Saar, I have the gravest doubts whether my novel will ever see the light at all.’

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#18: Under the Net (1954), by Iris Murdoch

After the dignity of silence and absence, the vulgarity of speech.

 

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Iris Murdoch’s first novel Under the Net is a perfectly charming, shambolic escapade filled with colorful characters, whimsical romantic entanglements, and all-around good cheer.

It is also a novel of serious ideas, written by an author who produced many volumes of hardcore philosophy, and a novel of influences, unabashedly putting its literary ancestry on display. Murdoch herself called Under the Net a blatant imitation of the works of French author Raymond Queneau, to whom she dedicated it, and Samuel Beckett.

It’s interesting, then, that Murdoch’s most famous novel — not only does the Time 100 include Under the Net on its official list, but the Modern Library also includes it (Murdoch is one of eight women to make the cut), as does the coffee table book 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die — might well be the least representative novel she ever wrote.

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#17: A Death in the Family (1957), by James Agee

That’s what they’re for, epitaphs, Joel suddenly realized. You can feel you’ve got some control over the death, you own it, you choose a name for it. The same with wanting to know all you can about how it happened. And trying to imagine it as Mary was. Andrew, too. Any poor subterfuge’ll do; and welcome to ’em.

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I.

One of the great side effects of reading a lot is that you can’t help but bring all the books you’ve previously read into anything you read next. Different books about different subjects can actually start talking to each other.

After finishing James Agee’s A Death in the Family last month, I picked up David Finkel’s Thank You For Your Service, a staggering piece of immersive reportage about the “after-war” many of our returning troops are fighting and the withering toll it’s taking on their families. With the Follets still fresh in my mind, I read Finkel’s account of a woman named Amanda Doster, whose husband was killed in combat. Here, she recalls the day the doorbell rang:

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#16: Falconer (1977), by John Cheever

He needed time, but he would not pray for time or pray for anything else. He would settle for the stamina of love, a presence he felt like the beginnings of some stair.

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Q. Do you think your works will be…dated?
A. Oh, I don’t anticipate that my work will be read. That isn’t the sort of thing that concerns me. I might be forgotten tomorrow; it wouldn’t disconcert me in the least.

When John Cheever gave that answer during his Paris Review interview in 1976, broke and recovering from a legendary, decades-long alcoholism, he couldn’t have known how dramatically his fortunes were about to change in the coming years.

By the time he died in 1982, Cheever was unquestionably at his critical and commercial peak, riding the wave of a valedictory resurgence: his fourth novel, Falconer, was published in 1977 to great fanfare, and a year later, thanks to the efforts of his editor Robert Gottlieb, his epochal collected stories received rapturous reviews and a dedicated place in every bookworm’s shelf. Even a substandard final novel, Oh What a Paradise It Seems, written as his physical health was collapsing, couldn’t dim his stature as one of America’s preeminent writers.

Thirty-two years later, Cheever’s premonition that his books would be consigned to a long and yellowing future on library shelves, which might have seemed a tad disingenuous at the time, now seems prophetic.

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