The best massive modern/contemporary novels that create their own worlds

Neil Baldwin Author Of Man Ray: American Artist
By Neil Baldwin

Who am I?

I have been a biographer going on five decades now -- from William Carlos Williams to Man Ray to Thomas Edison to Henry Ford to Martha Graham. I am above all else a student of the human condition as well as a devotee of narrative at its most burnished - the kind of narrative that imposes its voice upon me at the end of a long day of quotidian interaction when all I want to do is get into bed and “pick up where I left off”. Biography is, indeed, storytelling - but it is restrained, or perhaps I should say tamed, by factual fidelity, a point of pride with me as a conscientious practitioner of the craft. 

I wrote...

Man Ray: American Artist

By Neil Baldwin,

Book cover of Man Ray: American Artist

What is my book about?

The quintessential dada/surrealist figure of the 1920s arts worlds in NYC, Paris, and Hollywood, Man Ray (born in Brooklyn (yes, that’s right!), 1890; died in Paris,1976) appealed to me because his first invention was his own persona, the entree to his life’s work in photography, painting, film, sculpture, essays, assemblage, etc.

From outset to conclusion, his story is one odd, quirky, unexpected episode after another, strung together with anecdotal fibs, romanticised relationships, and obfuscating quotes with questionable provenance. I was willingly trapped by Man Ray and I want the reader to be as well.

The books I picked & why

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Anna Karenina

By Leo Tolstoy,

Book cover of Anna Karenina

Why this book?

I first read this book when I was in grad school ‘way back when - I was so transfixed that as soon as I finished, I turned back to the first page and reread it again - and then -- came back to it last year during the height of COVID, seeking solace in a masterful tale of aching love and aspirational romance. I agree with Matthew Arnold: “We are not to take Anna Karenina as a work of art; we are to take it as a piece of life.” This sprawling tale is for those who crave complexity that explains itself as it goes along - the fateful affair between Count Vronsky, a dashing officer; and Anna, an exquisitely beautiful married woman - in nineteenth-century Moscow and St. Petersburg.  

Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.

By Joyce Carol Oates,

Book cover of Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.

Why this book?

A powerful parent dies and each of his adult children reacts in startling and unexpected ways -- and his grieving widow in the most surprising way of all. This is an “everything” book. It took over my life. It overwhelmed my brain and mind. The utterly believable characters so generously intermingled and interwoven, familial and dynamic in their pushing and pulling, loving and hating - ignited by a precipitating event so abrupt yet simple, with consequences that spin out of control. Reading this tale, you feel as if you are drowning in a fever dream - Joyce Carol Oates once again as she has since Them (1969), offering innumerable reasons for wonderment.

Tree of Smoke

By Denis Johnson,

Book cover of Tree of Smoke

Why this book?

Even if you did not “live” through the Vietnam War and its domino-effect cultural disasters, this book will penetrate your consciousness as “tragic and uncannily familiar” (Michiko Kakutani). William “Skip” Sands is ostensibly a CIA officer engaged in Psychological Operations against the Vietcong. From the moment Skip lands “in country,” we are sucked into a vortex of violence, sardonic humor, camaraderie that’s six degrees from pathology, and paranoia -- all told through the lens of a singularly hallucinogenic yet gorgeous and poetic prose style that forced me from time to time to put the book down so I would avoid overdosing.  

The Magic Mountain

By Thomas Mann,

Book cover of The Magic Mountain

Why this book?

This 700-page epic flies by as quickly as the twisting, turning train ride taken by our young protagonist, Hans Castorp, up into the Swiss Alps for his (assumed) brief visit to an exclusive sanatorium to recover his health, take the air and soak in the baths, stroll through well-laid gardens, breathe deeply, dine in leisurely fashion -- until, before he knows it, seven long years have ambled by, and his world-view, within and outside his mind, has blown up beyond all imagination. This is Thomas Mann, the profound paragon of narrative, at his most ironic, erudite, impassioned, insidious, and erotic.

Invisible Man

By Ralph Ellison,

Book cover of Invisible Man

Why this book?

I fell in love with this book before I even read it; I came upon the author’s acceptance speech for the National Book Award: “There must be a fiction which, leaving sociology to the scientists, can arrive at the truth about the human condition, here and now, with all the bright magic of a fairy tale.” On the surface, Ellison’s novel is about one Black man’s power struggle to achieve equilibrium -- albeit unrealistic -- in a world “owned” by others. This symbiotic relationship turns from ennobling to pernicious in the flip of a page. The undercurrent simmers with anger, bursting forth into redemptive acts of violence -- which feel chastening to the white reader as if the author were trying to teach me an overdue history lesson. Ralph Ellison is the virtuoso player upon his readers’ pressure-points; his intuitive prodding, into awareness, is sustained through an inexhaustible parade of metaphors along Harlem highways and byways.

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