Our Favorite Big, Ambitious Debut Novels

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Debut novels are often intimate in theme, small in scope, and under-read. When big, sprawling books seem to drop from nowhere, they usually boast, on a closer look, a small backlog of underappreciated siblings. Not so with these five knockout debuts, which span genres, readerships, countries, and eras—or, in one case, do none of these things, but that book’s too funny not to include. Here are some of my favorite big, splashy debuts:

V., by Thomas Pynchon. This time- and country-hopping novel, bristling with disparate narratives and eccentrically named characters, loosely coalesces around the search for a constantly morphing creature/concept that goes by the name of V. It opens on grade-A schlemiel Benny Profane, fresh out of the Navy and slumming around New York, and ends on the shores of Malta; what comes in between is impossible to synopsize. Prior to V.’s release in 1963, Pynchon was an unknown. What happened after (sudden fame, National Book Award nomination, pathological publicity shyness) has been mythologized to the point that for years I believed he once vaulted out a window and jumped onto a conveniently passing bus to Mexico rather than talk to reporters (I still like to think this happened).

Lanark: A Life in Four Books, by Alasdair Gray. Lanark is a literary fever dream, told out of order. At its center is the story of impoverished Glaswegian artist Duncan Thaw, who eventually succumbs to insanity and suicide. The chapters sandwiching Thaw’s sad, short life find him (or someone like him) reborn as Lanark, an inhabitant of a surreal otherworld called Unthank, where he lives, drinks, fights, procreates, and grows old, as Unthank crumbles around him. Gray started writing it as an art student in the 1950s; it became his first published novel and an immediate success in 1981.

The Rachel Papers, by Martin Amis. Rude, sexy, and seemingly unburdened by the influence of his famous father, Amis rolled up on the literary world with an acid tongue and a Kinks-style mop top. His 1973 debut novel features a weedy, self-conscious Casanova with the misleadingly “big-cocked” name of Charles Highway, who has made it his mission in the year before heading to Oxford to bed the classy, unavailable Rachel. Amis’s debut is hilarious, cruelly observant, and utterly unsentimental, and it boasts the shallowest catalyst for a breakup that I’ve ever seen in fiction.

White Teeth, by Zadie Smith. Intertwining two generations, three families, and a mass of cultural and historical influences, Smith’s book was begun when she was an undergrad, and released when she was just 24. It focuses primarily on Irie, the awkward offspring of a May-December marriage between a once-suicidal World War II vet and a young Jamaican woman. It’s funny, rangy, and crowded with characters, all of them with assured, distinctly rendered voices.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl. This geeked-out, heavily annotated thriller turned Pessl into a literary superstar overnight. It’s narrated by Blue van Meer, the daughter of an itinerant, larger-than-life professor. The story takes off when Hannah, a witchily compelling teacher at Blue’s new school (and the supremely unmotherly den mother of a group of clannish high schoolers) forcibly takes Blue under her wing. It opens with a mysterious death and ends with a devastating twist, and deploys a million red herrings, possibly crucial flashbacks, and cleverly fabricated literary references along the way.

What’s your favorite debut novel?

  • Regina Corley

    Thirteenth Tale (Diane Setterfield), Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)

  • Chris Ferguison

    The Story Of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski.

    • patricia666

      hard to believe I got a superb Dodge Grand Caravan Minivan just by part time work from a macbook. right here w­w­w.J­A­M­20.c­o­m

  • Hillary

    The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan. United States to Italy or Germany and several places in Europe. I can’t necessarily remember the spaces. I just liked it.

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