The author of Cartwheel picks five inexhaustible works of fiction.
Wronged innocent or heartless monster? Cartwheel, Jennifer duBois’s portrait of a young woman accused of murder on her semester abroad turns a case from the headlines into one of 2013’s most wonderfully twisted tales. The novelist talked with us about five works of fiction — some classic, some contemporary — that keep her coming back.
By Vladimir Nabokov
“Pale Fire is structured around an epic poem of the same name; from its extensive scholarly commentary emerges the story of a mysterious land called Zembla and its deposed, fugitive king. But nothing in this recursive, multidimensional narrative is straightforward, including the roles of king, scholar, and poet. Pale Fire turns out to contain not only a mystery within a commentary within a poem within a novel — but also a treasure map, a trompe l’oeil, and finally a trick floor. If we can’t quite reach the bottom of this dizzyingly brilliant book, it might be because there isn’t one.”
By George Eliot
“The older I get, the more amazed and grateful I am that Middlemarch was taught to me in high school — and instead of staging a mutiny over being assigned an eight-volume account of the life of a provincial town in 1830s Britain, my class and I actually read the thing. In its kaleidoscopic sense of empathy — its robust challenge to narcissism, its decisive articulation of the notion that everyone around us is living a vivid inner life we cannot see — Middlemarch is, I think, especially precious to encounter while young. It breaks our hearts by showing us the full sweep of its characters’ lives: the opportunities they almost discover, the devastations they nearly escape, their intentions, their vulnerabilities — all that Eliot called ‘that roar which lies on the other side of silence.’ This is one of the most devastatingly powerful things a novel can do. It’s also, perhaps, the one devastatingly powerful thing that only a novel can do.”
By Jennifer Egan
“Egan’s first novel follows Charlotte Swenson, a model who emerges from a devastating car crash with an unrecognizable face. But as Charlotte attempts to semi-anonymously re-enter her life, she soon finds she isn’t the only person in hiding; her world, it turns out, is populated by doppelgangers and self-inventors and people wearing masks of all sorts. With characteristic wit and verve, Egan offers keen insights about the past, eerily prophetic predictions about the future, and a wise meditation on some of our most conflicted impulses: the wish to command a gaze vs. the need to avoid one, the thrill of keeping a secret vs. the terrified hope of its discovery, and the desire to be looked at vs. the ambivalent longing to be seen.”
By Heinrich Böll
“The eponymous clown of Heinrich Böll’s 1963 novel is Hans Schnier, a 27-year-old traveling performer who is down on his luck. He spends most of the book smoking and calling people to ask them for money. Along the way, he offers a mordant account of postwar Germany that is smart, surprising, and darkly funny.”
By Arthur Phillips
“Arthur Phillips’s Prague is set in 1990 Budapest, where a bunch of young expats befriend and betray each other — all while haunted by the sense that life is elsewhere; that Prague, perhaps, is where the real action is. Prague is that rare book that manages to weave its intellectual and emotional threads into something that is both profound and affecting; in my favorite scene, a Canadian scholar making an academic study of nostalgia finds himself riding the funicular over and over on a Proustian quest to reclaim the brief sense of joy he’d felt the first time. I read Prague the same year I went to study in (the real) Prague as a college student — though I am told it was the early nineties when you really had to be there — and at the end of my program, I went traveling by myself. It was the first time I remember consciously knowing that I was creating my own future nostalgia. And it was in spite of this — or maybe, really, in honor of it — that I found myself heading to Budapest. I wanted to ride the funicular.”