The trend toward maximalism in literature reached its apex in the 1970s when John Barth and Umberto Eco introduced audiences to a new brand of novel that was immersive, playful, and ultimately more like a game than a traditional novel. These novelists found themselves out of fashion as the minimalist style of the 1980s took hold—but a new generation of writers like David Foster Wallace and Roberto Bolaño rediscovered the joys of prolixity, even as they looked back on masters of the form like William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon. Below are nine giant novels that contain whole worlds of imaginative prose, each one well worth the considerable time it takes to read.
Infinite Jest is a well-known quantity at this point, a staple of book collections worldwide. But the posthumously published The Pale King presents David Foster Wallace at his most beguiling, the work of a mature and imitable writer who manages to instill his trademark wordplay and wit into the most challenging of settings: an IRS Center in Peoria, Illinois, whose employees struggle to retain their individuality amid crushing routine.
The ultimate reference point for American postmodernity, William Gaddis’ wordy and technically ingenious The Recognitions delves into the world of art forgery while introducing an enormous, unforgettable cast of characters plucked from the thriving New York art scene of the 1950s.
Helen DeWitt’s debut, The Last Samurai, is the magnificent tale of a single mother raising an erudite son who ultimately searches for his father with Kurosawa’s classic film The Seven Samurai as his central reference point. The book channels DeWitt’s capacious intelligence, with fragments of Latin and Greek punctuating prose as sharp as a well-honed katana blade.
The two-volume Man Without Qualities is perhaps the greatest of European Modernist novels. It features Ulrich, the “man without qualities,” as he confronts an Austria on the verge of the horrors of the 20th century, channeling Enlightenment-era philosophy, mathematics, and the lurking darkness beneath a “jubilee” in honor of the Emperor that goes righteously, hideously wrong.
Anything there is to say about the American Century winds up on the page in Don DeLillo’s massive Underworld, which follows an advertising exec and a willful artist in Nixon-era New York. But it soon branches out to include phantasmagorical cameos by figures from the American mythos, including Frank Sinatra, J. Edgar Hoover, and Lenny Bruce, whose refrain “We’re all gonna die!” becomes a byline for the nihilistic Cold War era that Don DeLillo brings so vividly to life.
2666 is Chilean author Roberto Bolaño’s final masterpiece, a gnomic and digressive work of genius that opens with a group of academics searching for an elusive novelist. From this premise, Bolaño departs into a variety of genres, including historical adventure story and surrealism, as well as (most shockingly) a seemingly endless and vivid investigation into a string of murders in the Mexican desert.
Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami has probably written better novels than the gigantic IQ84, but it is definitely the book that features every one of Murakami’s trademarks—star-crossed romance, patient worldly detail, and Lynchian dread—in one place. The story begins with a woman named Aaomame crossing over into a parallel universe version of Tokyo, while a ghostwriter named Tengo discovers a mysterious power that will eventually bind him to Aaomame.
Still considered one of the most emblematic and powerful novels of the 20th century, Gravity’s Rainbow is reclusive author Thomas Pynchon’s stunning wartime adventure story, introducing characters like Tyrone Slothrop, who discovers that a string of bombings matches perfectly with the locations of his sexual conquests. What follows is insane, riotous, weird, and ultimately a tremendous journey into the heart of history written in prose that balances an enormous amount of technical/scientific knowledge with an impish 1960s comic book sensibility.
Initially self-published, A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava has come to be recognized as one of the ultimate novels of the 21st century. We begin with a public defender named Casi whose sense of justice leads him to start a mad quest well outside the law. Featuring unforgettable characters and morally observant, puckish prose, it sets the bar extremely high for the new postmodern novel.