Chosen by Susan Choi
The Keep by Jennifer Egan (2006). Egan’s dazzling third novel presents two cousins whose hair-raisingly awful relationship extends back to a shocking incident in childhood and forward to a wacky scheme involving an Eastern European castle. Once she has you captivated by this deadly duo, Egan cheerfully blows up the fourth wall. This is a book as moving as it is ingenious.
How to Be Both by Ali Smith (2014). Smith tells the stories of Italian Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa and present-day Cambridge teenager George as two halves of a fiction that can be read either Francesco first or George first. As critic Laura Miller noted, once you choose which way to read it, you’ll never know how it would have read in reverse, which she called a bit sad but “worth it.”
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (1962). This novel also challenges readers to decide how to consume it. Four parts—a “Foreword,” “A Poem in Four Cantos,” a “Commentary,” and an “Index”—sit atop a submerged tale of megalomaniacal revenge. It’s ridiculously brilliant and brilliantly ridiculous, Monty Python and masterwork.
Oreo by Fran Ross (1974). Ross’ wickedly irreverent novel updates the Theseus myth with a half-black, half-Jewish female protagonist, algebraic equations, French dinner menus, standardized test questions, and jaw-dropping badassery. Despite—or because of?—its originality, Oreo was initially ignored. But it has since found ardent fans, inspiring a 2015 reissue.
The Literary Conference by César Aira (1997). The delightfully prolific Argentine writer calls his method of composition “the constant flight forward”: Write whatever occurs to you as long as it advances the plot, and don’t edit. Here, what begins with the unlocking of an ancient pirate contraption ends in an eruption of giant blue worms. Aira surely had a blast writing this; we have a blast reading it.
Madeleine Is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum (2004). This nearly indescribable debut novel, a National Book Award finalist, is addictively told in bite-size morsels that overflow with sensuousness. Madeleine isn’t just sleeping—she’s also enjoying one of the most gorgeously kinky sexual awakenings ever put on the page. ■