18 (More) Amazing Novels You Can Read in a Day
Some brilliant novels to read on your next long flight or lazy afternoon read
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Who loves short books? Just about everybody, as we can tell. Over the past couple years, one of our most frequently read posts is our list of 17 Brilliant Books You Can Read in a Sitting.
If you’ve read your way through those, here’s a new list of some of brilliant short novels. I went with 18 this time because, well, it’s one more. As with the last list, I’m avoiding the most famous short novels that everyone is familiar with. You don’t need me to tell you about Jesus’ Son or Ms Dalloway. “Short” here is defined as under 200 pages. Just long enough to read on a short flight or a long ride.
The Nonexistent Knight by Italo Calvino
Calvino’s most celebrated books are probably Invisible Cities and Cosmicomics. Both are brilliant, but for my taste the best work Calvino did was his “heraldic trilogy” of fabulist historical novels: The Baron in the Trees, The Cloven Viscount, and The Nonexistent Knight . My favorite is The Baron in the Trees, about a, well, young baron who runs up and lives his life in the trees. But it is slightly over 200 pages. So I’ll list The Nonexistent Knight, a novel about, well, a knight who doesn’t really exist yet who is summoned out of “goodwill and faith in the holy cause” of Charlemagne. As a bonus, most editions include the equally brilliant short novel The Cloven Viscount about a, well, 17th century viscount who gets cloven into his good and evil halves by a cannonball.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
My favorite book of 2016, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is a dark and haunting novel about a woman who suffers horrible abuse from her family after she decides to stop eating meat. The book is told in a three part structure, each part from the point of view of different character — but never the woman herself.
Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra
Multiple Choice is a book that really shouldn’t work. The novel is composed of short prose pieces in the style of a multiple choice test. But instead of being gimmicky, the book is a simultaneously moving and humorous meditation on language, family, and history.
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh
Moshfegh has gotten a lot of accolades for her recent novel Eileen and collection Homesick for Another World. Those books deserve the attention, but so does her overlooked debut — a drunken nautical novella called McGlue. We have an excerpt of the book in our Recommended Reading archives.
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
Johnson’s short quasi-novel Jesus’ Son is his best work, and his long novel Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award, but don’t overlook Train Dreams. This historical novella about the early 20th century American West is proof that a novel doesn’t have to be long to be epic.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
Offill’s 2014 book is one of those impossible to define yet impossible to forget novels. Seeming to mix memoir and non-fiction with fiction, aphorism, and fragments, Dept. of Speculation is lyrical and philosophical book about marriage, motherhood, art, and life.
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
Like the previous entry, this novel is a thrilling mix of different forms: poetry, scholarship, mythology, and fiction. The core of the book is a modern retelling of Geryon, a monster from Greek mythology who interacts with Hercules. If you love poetry, mythology, and fiction, you simply have to read this.
The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker
Baker’s 1986 novel The Mezzanine is a sort of literary answer to the Seinfeld question: can you write a novel about nothing? While the novel basically just follows an office worker walking on a mezzanine one day, Baker’s lengthy digressions turn a boring stroll into a poignant and often hilarious read.
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli
Like several books on this list, The Story of My Teeth is a surprising combination of forms. The book is written in several different parts, and includes a meta-non-fictional note on the writing process, which involved a interstate collaboration between Luiselli and workers in a juice factory in Mexico. The story itself is about a man named Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez who auctions off the teeth of celebrities and dead writers. (You can read Electric Lit’s review here.)
Sula by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison is one of the living geniuses of American letters, and one capable of putting all of life into a novel — even a slim one. Sula is only 190 pages, but it has everything from comedy and tragedy to love and hate and beyond.
Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov
What would happen if scientists implanted human organs in a dog? Why, he’d become a slovenly bureaucrat of course. Bulgakov’s SF satire of the “New Soviet man” and attempts to change human nature is still relevant and hilarious today.
The Literary Conference by César Aira
Argentina’s Aira is the master of short, weird books, so many of them could fit on this list. And in truth, The Literary Conference is so short that it is more like a long short story than a novel. But I love it, and it’s published individually by New Directions so it goes on this list. Despite the banal title, this insane tale features everything from buried treasure and mad scientist to gigantic worm monsters.
The Box Man by Kobo Abe
Kobo Abe is one of my favorite authors, a master of blending different genres into his surreal Kafkaesque view of the world. The Box Man is a kind of postmodern thriller about a man who rejects modern life to go live inside of a box. He writes his story on the inside of said cardboard box as a mad doctor hunts him trying to take the box for himself.
The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto
On the other end of the spectrum from the surreal fantasy of Kobo Abe, Yoshimoto’s The Lake is an introspective and moving novel about an artist who falls in love with a former cult member. (The cult is inspired by the real life group who poisoned the Tokyo subway in 1995.)
Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell
You may have seen the movie, but definitely don’t miss out on the book. A stunning work of country noir, Winter’s Bone mixes a Southern Gothic lyricism with a mystery set in the contemporary meth-infested Ozarks.
The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
No less than Jorge Luis Borges said that this was a “perfect” novel. Of course, he and Casares were friends, but this slim 1940 novel is definitely a wonder. This early science fiction story with a twist I won’t give away here is a must for fans of speculative fiction.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
If you know Shirley Jackson from her infamous short story “The Lottery” then you know she can do creepy. But nothing will prepare you for The Haunting of Hill House, which is simply one of the best horror novels ever written. (And the 1960s film version is pretty great too, but, as always, read the book first.)
Enjoy these recommendations? Check out the first list, 17 Brilliant Short Novels You Can Read in a Sitting.