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A while back, a friend asked everyone for lists of 5 books they should read. I kind of went a little overboard in making my choices and explaining them, and ended up with a list of the 5 books which had the biggest impact on making me who I am. This is basically the same list, though with a lot more explanation. It also took me about 3 months to write, so, ugh, dopey.   Spoilers follow, but I probably got a lot of details wrong. I only returned to the texts and Wikipedia articles to find names and such; In the process, I discovered that I got quite a few things wrong about some of them. I didn’t bother to fix those errors, because I feel like they reflect me best!

So in any case, here’s the short form list for those curious who don’t want to risk spoilers:

The Plague by Albert Camus

Nausea by Sartre

At Swim-Two Birds by Flann o’Brien

Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson

Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett

 

The Plague by Albert Camus

Most people would surely choose The Stranger as Camus’s best novel. Most people have probably never read The Plague. The Plague is an exploration of men’s reactions to crisis, and their interactions with duty and such things. What struck me most about the novel is how it does not judge those different responses, or the men who make them, taking Camus’s treatment of the apathetic and – to me – sympathetic Meursault a step further.

The focal character is Dr. Rieux, a man with a sick wife who he loves dearly, and who does not appear directly in the novel. He stays in their home city of Oran when an outbreak of Bubonic occurs, being among the first to recognize the signs of its coming; specifically, dead rats filling the streets. Eventually, the city is put under quarantine, partially due to his urging. Dr. Rieux, without open complaint, treats the ill, obeys the quarantine, and works for the best; despite separation from his beloved wife, and despite the total unpleasantness of the situation and the work, he obeys his duty stoically. He refuses his pity for his patience, because if he allowed himself to feel it he would not be able to continue.

Rieux is a man I would call a hero, though my dad gets pissed when I say so. Both of us say what we do because Dr. Rieux is an ordinary man, who fulfills what he must fulfill, despite its dlm chances of working and its total separation of him from what he loves. Rieux is the embodiment of “we must imagine Sisyphus happy” – like Meursault, Rieux loves to swim, taking great pleasure in simple acts of everyday life. The scene where Rieux gets to swim with his friend is one of the most touching.

Other characters react in different ways to the crisis, though. Cottard, a reclusive depressive man who tries to hang himself early, delights in the quarantine. He becomes the social life of Oran, for partially uncertain reasons. He fears arrest by the police for his attempted suicide, but under quarantine, he is downright jolly.  The town preacher tells everyone this is a punishment at the start – and a test later on. He is the only character that the text or Rieux really express a dislike for. Everyone else is treated by the text as fully acceptable. Including the journalist who was in the city at the time of the quarantine, who attempts to escape and break quarantine, is treated as acceptable. Dr. Rieux even goes so far as to help his efforts one or two times.

There are, of course, a number of others, but these three stuck with me the most. Varied characters, with varied approaches to the plague, to the horror of the situation – delighting in it, trying to flee it, fighting it, others simply continuing their own lives as before as much as possible. The book also goes on to explore how these very same people deal with the aftermath when, super spoilers, the plague is eventually cured.

This book is important to me for when I read it, too. An early sign of the outbreak in the novel is rats dying in the streets; shortly after I started the book, my father (A Camusian himself) and I both noticed a huge number of dead squirrels in the streets, apparently unassailed by cars.  It had us pretty nervous.

Nausea by Sartre

Let’s get this out of the way first: Sartre was a dickbag. He was a bag of dicks. Self-important, and — Just a sack of phalluses, okay?

But his writing is brilliant. No Exit. The Flies. That one about Revolutionaries – well, it was okay. And especially, Nausea.

Nausea is a perfect description of a particular form of depression.  A disaffection, a complete disinterest in everything you care about – an abject hatred for it, even, caused by the fact that it exists and it’s invading yourself, it’s being where you are and it isn’t letting you be you. A loathing for everyone, including yourself. A paralytic weariness which you try to flee by going to the theatre, or seeking out carnal pleasures, but it’s within you, it’s caused by everything, absolutely everything.

Nausea captures this feeling, one that I know all too well, the way I never could. And that’s in translation. In the original French, I can’t imagine how brutally accurate it must be.

At Swim-Two Birds by Flann o’Brien

O’Brien was cool. He wrote letters to newspapers, had them published, and then replied to them in violent disagreement under pseudonyms. He held control of letters columns in this way. This wicked humor shows through in his writing with astounding clarity.

At Swim-Two Birds tells the story of a layabout college student who fancies himself a writer. I’m not 100% clear on how his college works, though it apparently isn’t that much different from American colleges. He drinks, sleeps, and wastes his time and money away, not once attending a lecture, rarely attending an exam, (and never not hungover), and writing the worst bit of cross-genre rip-off tripe ever conceived.  That is, until the story he’s writing instead becomes about a writer, whose cross-genre stolen characters (including a pair of cowboys and version of a mythical Irish figure who adopts ) rebel against him, alongside – and you may not be able to follow me here – the (fictional) writer’s son, born of the (fictional) writer’s rape of one of his own characters.

The book is intentionally a jumble of layers and clumsy allusions, and is so internally metatextual that I cannot help but love it. Everyone who has ever styled themselves a student, a writer, a slacker, or a drunkard must read this novel.

(I also recommend the Third Policeman, because the 4th chapter is entirely a footnote.)

Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson

You should probably read Illuminatus! before picking up this one. It’s not absolutely necessary, and I didn’t read Illuminatus! first, but this is technically a sequel to that conspiracy classic.

SCT is a romp through a number of different universes. The first book, “Book I – The Universe Next Door” explores a couple of very similar universes as a radical cynical environmental group and their political twin, the People’s Ecology Party, gradually take power of Unistat (the name given to The United States by the apparent narrators of the book, who Wilson would have us believe are alien or future or both archaeologists), due to the Revolution of Lowered Expectations – a sociological event wherein most of the population are becoming more cynical, expecting less, and wanting more. Both primary universes end in a nuclear war, destroying civilization.

The second book  “Book I – The Trick Top Hat”, follows the growth of Unistat into a Utopia as the Resolution of Raised Expectations takes root. This book contains some of the more memorable individual sections, including in particular the trend of stamping empty 18-wheel trucks with the logo “Cocaine Importers, LTD.” Crime is eventually outlawed (a really interesting sequence, which I want to discuss with a political scientist, so someone read this damn book), and eventually Unistat becomes a shining utopia of the arts and intellect, culminating in a very confusing New Age Ascension. The book ends with the entire population of the world seeing — something?

The third book, “Book I – The Homing Pigeons”, jumps around a lot more between various ‘verses, starting with a version of a key scene from Illuminatus!  in which a key character decides that he’s in a very terrible novel, and walks out of the situation to wake up. The Unistats of this book tend to be most similar to our United States, some of them going so far as to actually be named The United States on occasion, other than some significant differences in swear words – our curses have been replaced by the names of Justices of the Supreme Court.

All 3 books cover a set of some 20-odd main characters, many of whom appeared briefly in Illuminatus!, exploring their various circumstances in different universes. The biggest glue throughout are 3 distinct concepts/characters: The Cat, of course, shows up fairly often; Markoff Chaney, the midget who hates normal-sized society and so sows discord with bizarre pranks (such as replacing signs in stores, changing them from “Sales Associates may not go to the bathroom without supervisor permission” to “Sales Associates may not go to the bathroom or look out the window without supervisor permission”); and the removed penis of Epicene/Mary Wildbloode, which is repeatedly stolen and passed around amongst the cast. The text insinuates that the penis seen in each of the universes in the book is the same one; having the same “Quantum Signature”, as Star Trek would put it. There is only one Ithyphallic Eidolon in the book, unlike Markoff Chaney and Simon Moon.

I actually wrote my IB Program Extended Essay on the Midget and the Penis. My advisor was our little old lady English teacher. I got the diploma, so….

 

Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett

Crazily more mainstream than the rest of this list is my final choice, Red Harvest. It’s my second favorite detective novel. The first is Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which I considered choosing instead. Red Harvest informs the Gently series, though, so I went with this one.

Red Harvest is my ideal straight detective novel. Its “hero,” Hammet’s nameless Continental Operative, is a gruff, clever man, who uses every trick in the book to play people against each other and come out ahead. Basically, he’s Tyrion Lannister with a Private Investigator license.

He is hired by a rich man in the town of Personville, who is murdered before he can meet with The Continental Op. The Op becomes embroiled in a complex war between the people who run the show in Personville –called Poisonville by the locals – and becomes committed to cleaning up the town, apparently more out of spite than anything.

The book is all about the character and the intrigue and the atmosphere. The plot is impressive, but secondary to all of those things. The book was also – probably – a partial inspiration for the classic samurai flick Yojimbo, and The Op is an avowed inspiration for the similarly nameless “Sanjuro” of that movie.

And the Op appears in the Schrodinger’s cat Trilogy, so it has that going for it too.

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