Sarah Gerard's incredible debut novel Binary Star follows a damaged young couple (she's suffering from anorexia, he's suffering from alcoholism) on a fateful road trip across America. While technically just longer than 150 pages, it nonetheless packs a big punch in a short amount of time. Gerard picks her favorite books under 150 pages.
Nothing against sprawling, 700-page novels, but I tend to like little books that make a big noise. These novelists work on a small scale because they make their works with exceptional power, grace, and complexity and don’t need to belabor a strong point. The books on this list mix forms and genres, or eschew categories altogether. They are dark and philosophical, witty and profound, and they’re short—all under 150 pages. They are many of my favorites. I hope you enjoy them.
1. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad - I’ve read this novel several times and each time I’m astounded by its intricacy, lyricism and—especially today—contemporary resonance. Marlowe descends into unknown country to confront true depravity. He’s surrounded by darkness, literal and spiritual, and danger surrounding. This is a dense and psychological story about colonialist greed and what it means to be “civilized”. The mere recollection of it terrifies me in a way that I can only describe as exquisite.
2. Train Dreams by Denis Johnson - I feel so deeply for Robert Grainier, the protagonist of this gorgeous period novella. He’s a beautifully drawn and thoughtful character who takes his time laboring in a turn-of-the-century America where nothing stays the same for long, and people who don’t have much can lose everything in an instant. Johnson’s spare but vivid realism roots the reader in the landscape while time is as slippery as memory, or slippery as a disappearing era.
3. The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector - I’ve made no secret of the fact that Lispector is my favorite writer. Her work transcends all categories and gets at the core of what it means to be alive, writing, in time, in this present moment. The Hour of the Star was one of two novels she wrote simultaneously in the months before she died, which seemed to foreshadow her death. It tells the story of a young woman who plays out the process of her own creation in the real time of the novel. Its final scene is tragic and beautiful and heartbreaking, and Benjamin Moser’s translation is excellent.
4. Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick - It seems almost impossible to explain the density and precision of Hardwick’s prose without quoting her directly. Nonlinear and essentially plotless, this highly autobiographical novel is held together by the sheer power of the writing, the occasionally returning characters, and the candid emotion of its alternating narrative and reportorial style. Slowly, the story of a woman’s life emerges against the backdrops of Kentucky and New York City, and captures the anxiety and solipsism of writing, loving, and aging during a truly historic moment.
5. The Plains by Gerald Murnane - Murnane’s work reads like a philosophical proposition. The “plains” in his third novel have the value of all of the following and more: the landscape of the mind, the practice of an art form, a geographical area, memory, an imagined place, the unknowable mind of another, an unread book, and anything that is unknowable but demands exploration. All of his books, but especially this one, are multilayered, puzzling, elegant, and fascinating. He is undoubtedly one of the most interesting living writers.
6. The Beauty of the Husband by Anne Carson - I’m taking a chance by placing this book in the category of “novel”, or in any category. It’s fictional, but Carson also calls it an essay, though it’s written more like a series of poems, which Carson actually calls tangos. It tells the story of a first marriage falling apart, complete with grief and betrayal, nostalgia and longing, and allusions to several other literary works in a seamless essay on Keats’s idea that beauty is truth. Needless to say, Carson’s writing is so original it defies summary.
7. Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West - This Depression-era tragicomedy sets all the grotesque suffering of Dante’s Divine Comedy in motion around a New York newsroom on the day its titular protagonist’s faith begins to show cracks. Miss Lonelyhearts is an advice columnist whose colleagues don’t take him seriously, but who carries the weight of the world, or his readers, on his shoulders. West’s background having been in newspapers, his style is lean and to-the-point, getting out of the way for the story, which will rip your heart out.
8. The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra by Pedro Mairal - This is a simple mystery constructed very cleverly in the pattern of Juan Salvatierra’s scrolls: the story flows across from one chapter to the next, like the movement of the Uruguay River bordering Salvatierra’s hometown of Barrancales, Argentina. The river also flows through the paintings on the scrolls, literalizing the flow of the story. But the story reverses as Miguel Salvatierra delves into his family’s past—like the movement of pages turning right to left—a reminder that the scrolls tell a story that can be retraced. The Missing Year is an atmospheric and understated book with vivid settings and characters, a true delight to read.
9. Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark - Few writers have achieved the incisiveness and wit of Muriel Spark in this oft-overlooked gothic novella about servants implicating themselves in a murder being carried out currently (and audibly) by their Baron and Baroness in a room they’re not allowed to enter. It has all the trappings of Spark's best work: rich literary reference, scandal, clever wordplay, slapstick humor. It’s also very naughty, and includes one of literature’s strangest and most hilarious impromptu weddings.
10. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton - It’s hard to imagine a more poetic tragedy than Ethan Frome or a writer more poetic than Edith Wharton. It’s probably been twenty years since you read this book, so I implore you: go to your local independent bookstore today and read it again. You will slip inside Ethan’s desperation as if it were your own, and you will want him to find the sweet love he deserves with Mattie, and you will cry, cry, cry when he meets his fate. Oh, Ethan! I understand you! I really do.