What links book-burning, ultraviolence, and Québécois radicals? Famously banned, and notoriously cynical, Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel is part of an anti-tradition of books that ask us to be a free thinker in a world full of drones. Weaving science fiction and dystopia, metafiction, cynical gloom, and absurdist humor, these are the kinds of books which Guy Montag would have had been ordered to torch. Unconventional, disillusioned, and at times darkly funny, we have compiled a list of books that, in the spirit of Fahrenheit 451, break all the rules.
1. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
“All of this happened, more or less,” our narrator tells us before plunging into a riotous, non-linear narrative that takes us from WWII Europe to Cold War America and an alien planet. In 1944, optometrist and reluctant US soldier Billy Pilgrim is captured by the Germans and becomes a prisoner of war. The following year, he and his fellow prisoners are held in the deep cellar of a slaughterhouse, (Schlachthof Fünf) during the infamous fire-bombing of Dresden. Following this horror, Billy variously becomes “unstuck in time”, and experiences both time travel and abduction in a series of absurd adventures. Slaughterhouse-Five defies categorization, spanning satire and science fiction, and its dark humor captures the absurdity of a cruel and fractured world.
2. American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis
Patrick Bateman works on Wall Street in 1980s Manhattan. He is handsome, charming, and desired by women. His life appears perfect. His apartment and clothes certainly are. But with every workout, every purchase, status anxiety looms like a frantic existential dread, and all is not what it seems. Bateman is a psychopath. The sexual violence in the book is so graphic that Easton Ellis received death threats before the book was even published. Dark as pitch and excessive to the point of humour, American Psycho is a compelling satire on American consumerism.
3. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
In a future North American superstate, a fringe group of Québécois radicals plans a violent coup. In suburban Boston, various addicts go into recovery at “Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House”. Just over the hill from the recovery center, students train at an elite tennis academy run by James and Avril Incandenza, and a history of the Incandenza family unfolds. Connecting these stories is the search for the missing copy of “the entertainment,” the final and greatest work of avant-garde filmmaker James Incandenza. The film, called “Infinite Jest” is so entertaining that anyone who sees it loses all interest in eating, bathing or resting, anything other than watching it over and over again until they die.
Infinite Jest has a famously eclectic structure, and many of its extensive footnotes have their own footnotes. Spanning the themes of national identity, sports, film and addiction and incorporating cultural criticism and linguistics, Infinite Jest was a phenomenon when published in 1996 and has had a deeply dedicated following ever since.
4. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
In a city in the near future, 15-year-old Alex and his gang of “droogs” rob, rape, and kill their way through the nights. The youths speak a slang dialect called Nadsat and are part of a subculture that engages in nightmarish orgies of “ultraviolence.” Alex himself is a sadistic psychopath who enjoys only “sweet and juicy criminality” and classical music, specifically Beethoven. When he is apprehended by the police after a series of particularly monstrous attacks, the State has to find a way to contain the menace they have on their hands. Famous for its invented dialect and for its notorious Stanley Kubrick adaptation, A Clockwork Orange explores violence, teenage delinquency, and the question of behavior and intent.
5. Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
At the end of WWII, the German military produce long-range V-2 missiles. But also in production is a mysterious device installed in a rocket with the serial number 00000. This device is known only as the Schwarzgerät. An ambitious sprawling novel, Gravity’s Rainbow boasts a cast of over 400 characters who, in intersecting narratives, investigate this secretive device. Distinctly postmodern, it is a tough but rewarding read. Variously learned and obscene, generously referencing high and low culture alike, Gravity’s Rainbow spans quantum mechanics to metaphysics to human extinction, grappling with the issues of war and man’s essential nature.
6. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
In World War II, U.S. Army Air Squadron bombardier John Yossarian is stationed on the Italian island of Pianosa. Darting between the antihero Yossarian’s various storylines, Catch-22 jumps about in time, taking us from basic training at Lowry Field in Colorado, Air Corps training at Santa Ana Army Air Base in California, and the “Great Big Siege of Bologna.” Farcical coincidences bring about tragic consequences, as seemingly random connections link Yossarian’s experiences of the horrors of war. Held up as a great anti-war novel, and an example of postmodernist writing, Catch-22 uses paradox and farce to highlight the absurdity of war.
7. 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami
1Q84 became a global sensation when its English translation was published in 2011. Aomame is a personal trainer who assassinates abusive men. Tengo is a mathematical genius who writes ad copy. The two soul mates find themselves in distorted realities, forced to navigate parallel worlds. Meanwhile, a fringe religious cult known as the Sakigake tries to reconnect with Earth spirits known as the Little People. Mystical and dreamlike, 1Q84 has Murakami’s characteristic mood of loneliness and magical realism. Like Infinite Jest, it became a cultural phenomenon with its own cult following.
8. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
In a ravaged post-apocalyptic landscape, a father and son journey across what is left of America with just each other and a few bits of salvage in a shopping cart. The land is scorched, the air filled with ash, and everything completely plundered. All that is left of the land and people is desolation and atrocity. With nothing left to eat, most of the remaining survivors turn to cannibalism. With no hope, no sanctuary, and nothing in the world but the love they have for each other, the father and son journey to find somewhere where they might survive the winter. The Road imagines a dim light of love amidst unimaginable, nightmarish horror and was celebrated with the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.
9. Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk
“You don’t talk about Fight Club.” This is the first rule of the club, where disaffected men find an outlet for their ennui and rage in underground bare-knuckle fistfights. The unnamed narrator of Fight Club suffers chronic amnesia, finding only intermittent relief by fraudulently attending support groups for the terminally sick. His life takes a sharp turn when he meets charismatic nihilist, Tyler Durden. When the narrator’s condominium is destroyed in an explosion, he asks to move in with Tyler, who agrees, with a request. Hit him–he’d never been in a fistfight before. Fight Club is born. The group attracts like-minded men. They reject consumer society and lash out against corporate institutions. But when fight club becomes a national movement, things get out of hand and the narrator is forced to question who exactly it is he has been working with. Palahniuk’s wild and transgressive cult classic tackles the question of modern masculinity.
10. Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
In a futuristic world, nuclear war has devastated most plant and animal species. Much of humanity has emigrated to off-planet colonies where they are served by androids. Built by humans for servitude, these androids are virtually indistinguishable from humans. Rick Deckard is a hardened San Francisco bounty hunter tasked with exterminating escaped androids. But when he is assigned to kill six highly advanced “Nexus-6” android fugitives, he discovers that the challenge is vastly more complicated than he had originally thought. First published in 1968, Philip K. Dick’s novel was retitled in later editions to Blade Runner: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? As the title suggests, it was the inspiration for the better-known 1982 film Blade Runner, widely regarded as a sci-fi classic.
11. The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen
Enid Lambert has been a dutiful wife and mother in the midwestern suburbs for 50 years. Her three grown children have long since left their hometown of St. Jude and now have families and problems of their own. But when her husband Alfred’s sanity begins to slip, the family is forced to confront the cruel secrets and failures that haunt them, while Enid looks forward to one last family Christmas. With a clear eye on American society’s ills, The Corrections takes the reader from a kitchen table in the Midwest, to a sinister Philadelphia biotech company, a liberal arts campus, a midwestern railroad company, and onto Wall Street. It captures the mood and concerns of American family life.
12. Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis
At the end of a man’s life, a spark of consciousness, our narrator, is born. Time’s Arrow is a novel written backwards. Odilo Unverdorben is a doctor living in comfortable retirement in the northeast United States. Time passes in reverse. The narrator struggles with his confusion as everybody walks and speaks backwards. Odilo practices medicine, giving money to patients for making them feel worse, then seeing them sit in the waiting room after being examined. Growing younger, Odilo travels to Portugal in 1948, eventually making his way to Auschwitz. It is there that the world finally starts to make sense. Living in reverse, the doctor heals the sick and creates life, ultimately creating a whole new race. Amis drew his inspiration from Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five when Billy Pilgrim watches the Dresden firebombing backwards, seeing Americans retrieve their bombs from the burning city. Through the concept of reversed time, Time’s Arrow explores the darkest chapter in human history.
13. We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin
In the 26th century in the One State, citizens live under near-constant surveillance. They have identical state-controlled routines and are known only by a number. D-503 is a mathematician and engineer working on the Spaceship Integral. He takes pride in the spaceship’s glorious mission to conquer other planets and bring them under the purview of the One State. He has a state-assigned lover who visits him on assigned nights and a friend assigned to read his poetry at state executions. D-503 lives life by a code of rationality and adherence to the code of the One State until one day his regimented life is disturbed when he meets the beautiful rebel, l-330. In this totalitarian dystopia, We explores the philosophical question of individuality.
14. Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
When a group of boys is marooned on a desert island following a plane crash, they try to organize themselves into some semblance of order. They elect a chief, form a hunting group, and ordain in meetings that whoever holds the conch shell may speak. The boys give themselves three main rules: to have fun, to survive, and to keep a smoke signal burning. Finding themselves without a single adult on the island, and far from modern civilization, the schoolboys quickly descend into savagery. Lord of the Flies maintains a huge place in the popular imagination, as a parable for humanity, civilization, and innocence.
15. The Catcher In The Rye, by J. D. Salinger
Holden Caulfield is a depressed 16-year-old attending boarding school in Pennsylvania after the end of WWII. He fights with his peers, and rails against the “phoniness” of society at large. He is told that having failed every class but English, he won’t be allowed to return after the Christmas holidays. Holden decides to leave the school early and catches a train to New York. There he finds himself on aimless adventures around New York, taking us from the Edmont Hotel Rockefeller Center to Central Park, Grand Central Station, and Fifth Avenue. There he meets tourists, a prostitute, a former classmate, a date, and a teacher, and eventually the one person with whom he can communicate.
The Catcher In The Rye has a certain mystique around it from its astonishing fame, the reclusiveness of its author, its reputation as the novel of teenage angst, and its history of censorship in American schools. This reputation was incensed when John Lennon’s killer Mark David Chapman was found by police reading Salinger’s novel at the scene of the fatal shooting. Though colored with 1940s New York slang, Holden’s is the voice of alienated and disillusioned youth everywhere.