The best American novels that mess with time

Jim O'Loughlin Author Of The Cord
By Jim O'Loughlin

The Books I Picked & Why

A Visit from the Goon Squad

By Jennifer Egan

Book cover of A Visit from the Goon Squad

Why this book?

Jennifer Egan’s 2011 novel (and its 2022 sibling novel, The Candy House) take readers back and forth through the recent past and near future as we drop in on the lives of characters at different turning points in their lives. Each chapter takes readers in a new direction that deepens, complicates, or thoroughly upends our sense of characters. It makes for breathtaking reading.

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By Octavia E. Butler

Book cover of Kindred

Why this book?

In some ways, Octavia Butler’s 1979 novel is a conventional time travel narrative, but Butler’s investigation of American slavery and its lasting impact was prescient. Moving between the antebellum south and 1970s Los Angeles, Kindred implicitly asks us to consider the similarities and differences between the two worlds. Butler is both perceptive and generous in her ability to create and help readers understand flawed characters.

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By Kurt Vonnegut

Book cover of Slaughterhouse-Five

Why this book?

Vonnegut’s breakthrough 1969 novel does not respect the rules that govern most novels. He combines memoir and fiction, uses humor to describe grimly serious wartime conditions of WWII Dresden, and shatters the boundary between literary fiction and science fiction. Vonnegut’s protagonist also regularly slips in and out of time, appearing in different parts of his own life without warning or apparent pattern. All this sounds like it should be confusing, but Vonnegut’s accessible prose and careful craftsmanship make it a surprisingly accessible read.

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The Sound and the Fury

By William Faulkner

Book cover of The Sound and the Fury

Why this book?

While no one would call Faulkner’s 1929 masterpiece “a surprisingly accessible read,” it remains a landmark of modernism and one of the finest examples of stream of consciousness prose. Faulkner takes readers deep into the minds of his perspective characters, showing the ways they think in real-time as they navigate a day while consumed by past traumas, unstable identities, and inherited historical burdens.

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My Ántonia

By Willa Cather

Book cover of My Ántonia

Why this book?

This may be the most surprising pick on my list. While Cather’s 1918 novel has been celebrated as a classic of midwestern literature and as an insightful feminist critique (rightly, in both cases), but it is also a book that is obsessed with memory and time. How, if at all, do we preserve memories of the times that shaped us? Does the passage of time diminish memories or give them iconic status? Does writing preserve or distort that which has happened? This is a book that can be read at any age, but the more you think about it, the more complicated it becomes.

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