Literary Links: Debut Novels

Chris Siebeneck, Library Associate

“InvisibleThe beginning of a new year is a fine time for considering past successes and failures, reflecting on their lessons and setting goals. Reading provides an efficient way to absorb lessons from numerous lives over a short period of time. In addition to offering lessons, the books listed below are populated with memorable characters and written with panache. They are also debut novels, and therefore examples of someone reaching a goal and, in all but one sad case, reaping the rewards. Whether your “debut novel” is about shedding weight, conquering a vice or writing a novel, one should remember that every lofty accomplishment is preceded by, if not staggering amounts of failure, years of practice.

Invisible Man” (Random House, 1952) by Ralph Ellison is an attempt to reveal, in Ellison’s words, “the human universals hidden within the plight of one who was both black and American.” In the estimation of those who voted for the National Book Award in 1953, it succeeded. The novel’s unnamed narrator has holed himself up in a forgotten portion of a building that only allows whites. His aim is to write his life story. The reader will be outraged at his experiences and enthralled by his talents with language and plot.

A Confederacy of Dunces” (Louisiana State University Press, 1980) by John Kennedy Toole shows what life was like in New Orleans circa 1960. Telling the story of a slovenly and often insufferable intellectual, this novel squeezes unfathomable amounts of comedy out of the workings of a pants factory and a hot dog cart. The novel was published 11 years after Toole’s suicide, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981.


Geek Love” (Random House, 1989) by Katherine Dunn warns of the dangers of carnival life, particularly as it relates to manipulating the genes of your children via drugs and radioactive material for the sake of enhancing your freak show. Sure, sometimes you come away with Siamese twin piano virtuosos, but for every set of those you’ll also get a megalomaniac cult leader with a flipper.

The Secret History” (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992) by Donna Tartt manages to be one of the most gripping page-turners I’ve ever read, despite centering on a group of affluent college students studying Ancient Greek, and not featuring a single mutant, plague or amorous vampire. One act of violence leads to a second, and their consequences make up the bulk of the novel. It serves as a stern reminder not to reenact ancient rituals without supervision.


Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World” (Viking Adult, 1993) by Donald Antrim is set in a small town where the citizens become convinced it’s necessary to surround their homes with moats filled with broken glass and reptiles. You will learn moats are rarely necessary. The novel opens with the titular mayoral candidate supervising the drawing and quartering of the current mayor. It gets more disturbing.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” (Bloomsbury, 2004) by Susanna Clarke is a fantastically dense novel about magic in 19th century England. It turns out magicians had tremendous influence on the Napoleonic Wars, and you probably shouldn’t strike bargains with mysterious fairies. Clark packs a staggering amount of story into this novel (a hundred novels could have been mined from its footnotes alone), and the magic makes for some of the most indelible imagery ever published.


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” (Riverhead, 2007) by Junot Díaz tells the life story of a young science fiction and fantasy aficionado who struggles with ladies, his weight, and the curse that has followed his family for generations. The novel’s unique, bilingual and profane voice is the real star though. As a bonus, readers will learn of the horrors of Dominican life under the dictator Rafael Trujillo.

The Instructions” (McSweeney’s, 2010) by Adam Levin is narrated by an impossibly brilliant 10-year-old. The child believes he is the messiah and “The Instructions” is his scripture. Fortunately for the reader, his scripture is fast, funny and worth every last one of the thousand plus pages he fills. Unfortunately for many of the characters surrounding him, his troublemaking builds to a brutal climax. The reader shouldn’t follow many of the character’s instructions, but Levin’s first ambitious novel is a lesson in and of itself.


Swamplandia!” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011) by Karen Russell tells of a family in crisis. Mom, the star alligator wrestler, has died of cancer. Grandfather has dementia. Sister has fallen in love with a ghost. Brother has taken a minimum wage job at the new cutthroat corporate amusement park opening nearby. A strange man hangs around. Reading this novel will teach you to reconsider opening your swampland attraction.

Now let’s turn the page on the old year and turn the pages of some debut novels!

Literary Links, compiled by library staff, appears monthly in the Ovation section of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Each article contains a short list of books on a timely topic.

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