Lyrical

The author of "White Oleander" picks four novels and one memoir that read like poetry.

Topics: Readers and Reading, Books,

Here are five books of prose in which language itself is the experience — submerging us, seducing us, transfusing us with a luxurious expression of unbridled imagination — the perfect antidote for our sound-bite, “just the facts, ma’am” culture. You read these books for the rapture that one word placed after another can still generate.

The Winged Seed by Li-Young Lee
A family memoir, published in 1995, written by the Chicago poet, which he rewrote until he could write the entire thing in a night, a single seamless creative exhalation. A sensitive, subtle book that works like a symphony of rhythm and resonance, this nonchronological memoir weaves the story of Lee’s Chinese family and their expulsion from Indonesia in a form where dreams are given equal weight with events, and imagination informs as much as stated history. Gorgeous beyond belief. I pray Lee turns his hand to fiction some day.

Palinuro of Mexico by Fernando del Paso
The joyful exuberance of del Paso’s language cannot be equaled short of Joyce’s “Ulysses” — no kidding. The story of this 1997 novel concerns young Palinuro, a medical student in love with his cousin Estafania, with whom he shares a world inside a small room in Mexico City. Story? This is not so much a story as a Mardi Gras of the imagination. Del Paso is a world-eater, and whole galaxies are born and die within these extravagant sentences, which sometimes continue for a half-page or more. Product of an irrepressible imagination, Palinuro’s language is fecund enough to repopulate any dead planet.

Sleep Has His House by Anna Kavan
If Palinuro is the extreme yang of lyric prose, muscular and energetic as the equatorial sun at midday, the equally surrealistic “Sleep Has His House” is a frost flower on a moonlit window, the delicate spell of a British recluse, extreme yin. Often compared to Kafka and De Quincey, Kavan wrote some 11 books, and any one of them would do, though this 1947 novel is my favorite, describing the development of a psyche through the night language of dreams with only the slightest window on “reality.” Its form is the nocturne — obsessive, submerged, a continuous whisper from the unconscious — and like all her work, it is an assertion of the icy triumph of Thanatos over Eros.



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The Last Bongo Sunset by Les Plesko
The story of a young man known only as College who falls under the spell of two heroin addicts in Venice Beach, Calif., in the ’70s. This unlikely and very Beat triangle, soon to become a quartet with the addition of a young runaway, is observed and transformed by a jazz language reminiscent of Billie Holliday at her most creative. Savor this first novel for its sheer virtuosity, the magical transformation of waste into a thing of transcendent beauty. You’ll find yourself reading aloud just for the jazz riffs of it.

Palm Latitudes by Kate Braverman
Three aspects of womanhood, three distinct voices, rise from the pages of this 1988 novel in a tidal wave of stylized prose. Set in the barrios of Los Angeles, a whore, a housewife and an elderly bruja speak in highly charged melodies of desire, rage and knowledge. This is a language both fluid and combustible, like a river on fire, flavored both by the sensuality of the tropics and the harshness and sudden violence of its urban lives.

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