By Matt Singer | Criticwire February 26, 2013 at 10:03AM
A great number of books have influenced who I am, both as a person and as a writer, but these are the five I come back to time and again or see evidence of in my own stories. What I futilely grasp at in my own writing can be seen done brilliantly in these works, which follow in no particular order.
By William S. Burroughs
"Tacitus describes a typical scene…'If a woman or good looking boy fell into their hands they were torn to pieces in the struggle for possession and the survivors were left to cut each other’s throats.'
'Well there’s no need to be that messy. Why waste a good looking boy? Mother-loving American Army run by old women many of them religious my God hanging American soldiers for raping and murdering civilians…'
Old Sarge bellows from here to eternity.
'WHAT THE BLOODY FUCKING HELL ARE CIVILIANS FOR? SOLDIERS PAY.'"
While "Naked Lunch" and "Junky" are considered Burroughs’ masterpieces, this is the book of his I hold the dearest. It’s one of Burroughs’ truly experimental works, a mosaic of short stories that weave in and out of each other slowly painting a bizarre picture of a science fiction fantasy wonderland of the depraved. It’s like "Dr. Strangelove" on mushrooms if you can imagine such a thing.
"'No Exit' and Three Other Plays"
By Jean-Paul Sartre
"Garcin: I should have guessed as much. Where’s the light-switch?
Valet: There isn’t any.
Garcin: What? Can’t one turn off the light?
Valet: Oh, the management can turn off the current if they want to. But I can’t remember their having done so on this floor. We have all the electricity we want.
Garcin: So one has to live with one’s eyes open all the time?
Valet: To live, you say?"
Sartre wrote a number of great plays, but this long dog eared copy of four of them has followed me around for twenty years. "No Exit" is a work of sheer brilliance, laying out Sartre’s thesis that "Hell is other people.” And while I disagree with his overall conclusions here, it’s hard to dispute his view of the worst and most selfish among us. Rather than loading three of the most despicable characters Hell could collect -- murderers, rapists or despots -- he instead introduces us to three mostly likable, ordinary people (at the outset) who slowly reveal their flaws and crimes and the reason they’ve all been brought together -- they are three people who can never, ever be happy in each other’s presence. A wickedly wonderful examination of human frailty, this afterlife comedy stands with Edward Albee’s "A Zoo Story" as tied for my favorite play.
"Pride and Prejudice"
By Jane Austen
"There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense."
If there is any book on this list likely to raise eyebrows, it’s this one. Long seen as a book for girls, if you will, it stands as history’s greatest romantic comedy -- the model upon which hundreds of films have been built. Austen weaves two tremendous characters, so far up their own asses trying to be both moral and socially acceptable, that they are blind to just how perfect they are for one another. There is no more delightful and desirable a literary character in my mind than Elizabeth Bennet. And Fitzwilliam Darcy is the model of the stoic hero, both intensely loyal and dedicated to the notion that it is better to suffer in silence doing the right thing than to draw attention to his good works. Despite my intense love of genre and dark fiction, I find myself returning to this story both on the page and through film (Joe Wright’s more often than not) more than any other.
"The Complete Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse"
By Hermann Hesse
"Only when the west wind came, and he saw the far circle of the blue mountains and the flock of clouds over the stream and the yellow reeds, and when he heard the tall trees rocking themselves during the evening in the old park, did he think up long poems. These, however, had no words and could never be written down. One of them was called 'The Breath of God' and concerned the warm south wind, and one had the name 'Consolation of the Soul' and dealt with the colorful meadows of spring. Floribert could neither sing nor recite these poems because they were without words, but he dreamed and felt them sometimes, especially in the evenings."
No single work influenced "Dreams and Shadows" more than this book. A collection of truly dark and mournful tales, Hesse -- best known for his books "Steppenwolf" and "Siddhartha" -- tries his hand at Grimm-style fairy tales, adding both his talent as a poet and a philosopher to stories that have true depth and meaning. Where Grimm tales often end in macabre ways for the sake of effect, Hesse’s tales each contain lessons about the human condition, wrapped in magic and metaphor. This was the book that taught me that fairy tales could be more than just children’s stories and led to the ideas that formed the basis of my own book.
By Franz Kafka
"One must lie low, no matter how much it went against the grain, and try to understand that this great organization remained, so to speak, in a state of delicate balance, and that if someone took it upon himself to alter the dispositions of things around him, he ran the risk of losing his footing and falling to destruction, while the organization would simply right itself by some compensating reaction in another part of its machinery – since everything interlocked – and remain unchanged, unless, indeed, which was very probable, it became still more rigid, more vigilant, severer, and more ruthless."
The original paranoid thriller, Kafka’s masterpiece, while unfinished upon his death, stands as one of the great influences of the 20th century. It’s hard to imagine there being an Orwell or a Dick without it. Kafka’s protagonist K. is every bit a mystery to the reader as the world he is lost in, and that keeps you turning, page after page, trying to find out, along with K., just why he’s been locked up to begin with. It’s a perplexing maze of a book expounding on Kafka’s feelings on the society he tended to lock himself away from and the fear every person shares of inexplicable persecution by those of a different moral and ethical code.