Rachel Kushner is the author of Telex From Cuba, The Mars Room, and The Flamethrowers, which New York magazine named one of the 21st century’s new classics. Her new essay collection, The Hard Crowd, compiles 20 years of journalism and criticism.
The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen (1967–71).
Ditlevsen was a 20th-century Danish writer who died by her own hand. Her trilogy of short memoirs, Childhood, Youth, and Dependency, is becoming the subject of a literary craze. As soon as you sink your teeth in, you’ll understand why. The books are riveting. The problem is they bite back. I’m still recovering.
Agostino by Alberto Moravia (1944).
When my son turned 13, my mother said to me, “You have to read Agostino.” My mother had previously recommended Moravia’s Woman of Rome, so I trust her. Agostino is a perfect novella and perhaps the best literature ever written about being a 13-year-old boy. It’s painful and tender and funny. A masterpiece.
Star by Yukio Mishima (1960).
There are a lot of Mishima novels that haven’t been translated into English. This novella about a movie star losing touch with reality only recently was. “A true star,” Mishima writes, “never arrives. Showing up is for second-rate actors who need to seek attention.” Want to seem glamorous? Stay home. Attending things is for the second-rate.
Child of God by Cormac McCarthy (1973).
Cormac McCarthy’s early novels are repulsive works of utter and utterly strange genius, and basically no living writer can hold a candle to his wild streak of high art in the early 1970s. “A child of God much like yourself perhaps” is how he describes the protagonist of this one, Lester Ballard. Lester is a necrophiliac hillbilly who outsmarts the local sheriff by living underground — much like yourself.
The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes (1963).
Donna Tartt once recommended Hughes to me. I’m so glad she did. While Hughes’ most famous book, deservedly so, is In a Lonely Place, The Expendable Man has one of the best opening sequences of any mystery novel: A man driving from L.A. to Phoenix picks up a hitchhiker — a dirty and delinquent teenage girl — with grave consequences.
The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1984).
If Liza Minelli was Liza with a Z, Marguerite is Duras with an S. Don’t do it silent, it’s wrong. All her books are great, but The Lover, so sexy, stark, sleazy, and poetic, is perfect.
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.