top ten by Lincoln Michel

Reinventing how we tell stories.

reading time 5 minutes

Write what you know. Show don’t tell. Make your protagonists likable, your characters round, and your adverbs disappear. Writers are constantly told these rules, and others. Bookstores are filled with detailed guides to the rules of writing mysteries or science fiction or horror. MFA workshops critiques debate if Chekov’s gun was fired at the right time. But the simultaneously thrilling and terrifying part of writing fiction is that there are no rules. Anything can happen, and it can be written in any form. The rules of novel writing are really just guidelines for what typically works, most of the time. Here are ten amazing novels that thumb their noses at the rules while creating utterly unique stories.

1. Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra
A novel must have A) plot B) characters C) setting D) a beginning, middle, and end. Unless you’re Alejandro Zambra, in which case the answer is E) none of the above. Zambra’s brilliant 2016 novel is both simple and impossible to describe. Simple to describe because the novel is composed entirely of a series of multiple choice questions (based on the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test of Zambra’s childhood). Impossible because that description hardly captures the emotion, humor, and mystery that Zambra is able to create out of what seems like a gimmick. Multiple Choice is a slim volume, but it contains multitudes. Zambra revels in the joys of language while also pulling surprising feeling from his fictional test questions.

2. Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
If you go to a bookstore, different types of writing are physically separated. Fiction over here, poetry over there, nonfiction on the far wall. Anne Carson’s 1998 “novel in verse” blows all those borders up, mixing scholarship, translations of ancient poetry, verse, and prose narrative all together to create the utterly unique Autobiography of Red. The story of the book is a retelling of the myth of Geryon, one of the monsters that Herakles (or Hercules) faced on one of his famous 12 labors. In Carson’s retelling, Geryon is reimagined as a modern (albeit winged) teenager who falls in love with his mythological enemy.

3. The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker
Most novels cover more time than they take to read. We experience a month or a year or an entire life of a character over the course of a few hundred pages. Baker’s joyful 1988 novel The Mezzanine takes the opposite approach, covering the time it takes a man to walk across a mezzanine and take an escalator. A few minutes at most. Instead of anything resembling a plot, Baker dives deep into the thoughts of his character, from his observations of the objects around him on the escalator to musings about everything from paper towels to life. Maybe nothing happens, but Baker somehow covers everything.

4. Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard
The famously cranky Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard’s novels are like dark, angry versions of Baker’s The Mezzanine. Most of his novels are structured as bitter rants by jaded men, who speak with disgust about the people around them. In Woodcutters, the narrator sits in a wing chair at a dinner party, mocking the rich artist phonies in the room that are ostensibly his friends (albeit with plenty of self-loathing). Bernhard’s acerbic narration is both biting and hilarious, and a great example of how anger can be turned into art.

5. The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Han Kang’s haunting and brilliant 2016 novel—which won the Man Booker International Prize—tells the story of a Korean woman, Yeong-hye, who suffers abuse and humiliation from her family after she decides to become a vegetarian. What’s strange about the novel is that we never get the protagonist’s point of view. Instead, the novel is told from the perspective of three different characters—each “unlikable” in their own way—who don’t understand Yeong-hye at all, or even really attempt to, as she spirals into darker and darker places.

6. If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino
A member of the experimental Oulipo group, Calvino’s novels play by their own invented rules. Invisible Cities is almost entirely composed of descriptions of invented cities. The Castle of Crossed Destinies is structured around the tarot deck. If on a winter’s night a traveler might be his most inventive book though. The novel tells the tale of you (i.e., the reader) trying to read Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. Yes, it’s meta. In the novel’s narrative, the reader discovers that the copy of his book only contains the first chapter. As you hunt down the missing chapters, you end up reading wholly unrelated chapters from completely different books (each of which parodies a different literary genre). Basically, the novel is as postmodern as postmodern can get, but it’s also a complete joy to read.

7. Speedboat by Renata Adler
Renata Adler’s 1976 novel is a loose collection of fragments and thoughts without much in the way of anything tying them together. Luckily, Adler is a legitimate genius. The sheer poetry of her prose and the wit of her observations is more than enough to hold the book together. You can read the fragments and vignettes as their own little aphorisms, or consider it a reflection of the fractured nature of modern consciousness. Either way, just read it.

8. Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
Science fiction legend Samuel R. Delany’s best-selling novel is also his strangest. Breaking all the rules of “worldbuilding” that are so popular in the science fiction world, Dhalgren is a surrealist masterpiece set in the fictional city of Bellonia. A catastrophe (but what kind?) has struck the city, and the characters experience a series of bizarre occurrences in a shifting, unstable world. The prose is lyrical, the sex graphic, and the mysteries without end. If James Joyce had dropped acid and watched 2001: A Space Odyssey before writing Ulysses, maybe he would have written something like this. But really Delany is an utterly unique writer, and Dhalgren is a book all it’s own.

9. The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli
If there’s one thing most critics can agree on, a novel is written by an author. Then again, not always just an author. Luiselli’s 2015 novel about a tooth auctioneer was written in collaboration with workers at the Jumex juice factory in Mexico. Luisielli was commissioned by a gallery connected to the factory, and Luiselli sent chapters to the workers who discussed them as she wrote. Additionally, the novel is translated into English by Christina McSweeney, who adds her own elements to the book. The story itself, about a man named Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez who auctions off his teeth, is about storytelling and mythologizing, making the process of its creation even more interesting.

10. The Box Man by Kobo Abe
In Kobo Abe’s 70s novel, The Box Man, a nameless man decides to give up on contemporary life and live inside of a large cardboard box. As he wanders around Tokyo, he scrawls his thoughts and observations on the inside of the box—ostensibly the narrative you are reading. But as the narrator erases himself, the nature of reality starts to get confused. A doctor starts hunting the box man, intending to steal his identity. Different handwriting inside the box may indicate different people writing at different points in time. Somewhere between Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground and Kafka’s The Trial, and with a healthy touch of postmodernism, Abe turns a cardboard box into a lens to see the bizarreness of modern life.

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