Columns > Published on June 16th, 2017

The Top 10 Transgressive Novels of All Time

What is transgressive fiction? Well, if you find yourself saying "damn, that's fucked up" more than three times but keep on reading, there's a pretty good chance the book in front of you is a work of transgressive literature. But that's a pretty wide net. So for the purpose of this list, we will not be including hardcore horror or splatter punk (otherwise Ed Lee and Wrath James White would make an appearance) or Bizarro (like Carlton Mellick's Haunted Vagina or Matthew Stoke's Cow). What we are left with are ten novels that made me question my reality and look for beauty in the most unexpected places.

10) 'I Miss the World' by Violet LeVoit

I remember finishing this book and thinking, 'Jesus Christ, that was one fucked up conversation.' LeVoit pulls off a hell of magic act with 95% of the book being a dialog between a brother and sister. Imagine if Chuck Palahniuk wrote a really fucked up episode of the Franzenesque TV show, Casual, and you'd have something similar. I've seen some fucked Facebook conversations, but nothing competes with the artful transgressive storytelling of I Miss The World. I felt like I got punched in the gut during the final pages. (Note: LeVoit could have also made this list for her transgressive short story collections, I Am Gengis Cum and I'll Fuck Anything That Moves and Stephen Hawking.)

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9) 'Crash' by J.G. Ballard

Ugh, the sex scenes describing the character's car crash scars still give me an uneasy feeling. In the hands of a less talented writer, this novel could have been a disaster, but instead, it's a meta-transgressive novel about lost souls with auto accident fetishes. It's been a good ten years since I last read it, but I can still remember the book's brutality. I looked at people differently afterwards, wondering if they had their own destructive fetish and what it might be. I also looked at cars differently and thought, "I want to move to a place that has a good subway system." 

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8) 'Geek Love' by Katherine Dunn

I remember when Dunn passed away, an author I respect said something along the lines of, "I took a writing class and they asked that stupid question, about having any major goals for your writing, and I answered that for me it was to write a unique book like Geek Love that was also a perennial seller." Any writer that feels passionate about writing something that doesn't fit into mainstream tastes looks to Geek Love as the great literary hope. We'd all love to put out something strange, transgressive, and unique with a mid-size press that finds a larger audience. Hell, most of us just want to write something as good as Geek Love.

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7) 'Choke' by Chuck Palahniuk

With this book, transgressive fiction reached the mainstream. Some readers would say Fight Club should be here instead, but Choke was the Palahniuk book I found to be the most satisfying and transgressive from beginning to end. Chuck's info dump and background chapters add to the sense of dread, mingling with a crazy story of sex addiction, time traveling, safety codes, and Jesus’s foreskin. It all adds up to a great conclusion and gives the reader something to contemplate besides Chuck's nihilistic outlook on life.

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6) 'Audition' by Ryu Murakami 

It's a shame that most Americans only know this story as a foreign film. Don't get me wrong, it's a great film, but the book is almost always better, and Ralph McCarty wrote a solid translation. Audition is a transgressive novel about two souls needing love and foregoing all morality to hold on to that love. It also draws on other genres like noir and splatter punk, which adds a nice flavor. 

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5) 'The Sexy Part of the Bible' by Kola Boof

I give major props to Akashic Books for putting this excellent and unique novel into the world. Out of all the books on this list, this one was the most punk rock and fun to read. It is also a serious book with a strong message about African pride and feminism. A very entertaining story that transgresses with glee. I can't wait to see what Kola Boof does next.  

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4) 'Suicide Casanova' by Arthur Nersesian 

Another knockout  for Akashic Books. A lot of Arthur Nersesian fans would want The Fuck Up on this list, but Suicide Casanova is a masterpiece of sexual transgression and obsession. Neresesian uses a  Lost type TV show structure, going from the past to the present, then into a thrilling and tragic climax. It is a love letter to unsavory love and to the Times Square of the 1970s, full of decadent sex and drugs.

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3) 'Tampa' by Alissa Nutting 

The one act that is still truly transgressive is engaging in a sexual relationship with a minor. I have difficulty reading books on the subject, but some great literary novels like Little Children and The Lost Memory of Skin have dealt with that subject matter respectfully and artfully. Tampa is not trying to be respectful, but it sure as hell is artful. Nutting created a character in Celeste Price that is probably the most horrifying on this list, and that's really saying something. But the prose and voice are so good they almost hypnotize, and I kept on reading, going deeper into the dark hearted psyche of Mrs. Price. 

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2) 'American Psycho' by Bret Easton Ellis 

Patrick Bateman is one of the most interesting, despicable, and fascinating characters of the Twentieth Century. Especially when his obsession with murdering animals and children starts to blend with monologs about Whitney Houston and bettering humanity. What makes this such a great book is there are moments where you just have to laugh. The horror becomes comical and Ellis is like the Marquis De Sade of his day, battling with humanists writers like Wallace and Franzen, showing them and the other heavyweights that man is a shallow animal trapped in a society with ‘No Exit.’

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1) 'Lolita' by Vladimir Nabokov

There would probably be no Tampa without Lolita, and Nabokov still remains one of most talented wordsmiths of the past 100 years. There is reason why Lolita makes this list while still being considered a classic. Humbert Humbert is one of the best non-reliable narrators that has ever graced fiction. To build and gain empathy with readers even as he shares what he does, we can’t help (even if it feels wrong) falling for this hypnotic voice. It is a story of strange and forbidden love, and Nabokov uses the magic of language to make us feel almost complicit. This is not just one of the best transgressive novels ever, it is one of the greatest novels of all time.

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Well, what do you think? Am I way off the mark? What did I miss that you would include? Let us know in the comments.

About the author

Christoph Paul is the Managing Editor and owner of CLASH Books, who have published over 60 books and have been covered by NPR, Poets & Writers, Rolling Stone, Believer Magazine, Oprah Magazine, The Observer, Fangoria, and Publisher's Weekly. The press has had books translated into Spanish, French, and Italian. He has been editing books in almost every genre for over a decade. As an author, he won a humor award and had viral cult success under a pen name. He is the lead singer and bass player of the rock band The Dionysus Effect, who have received positive reviews in Loudwire, EARMILK, and Red Rock Magazine. He sometimes writes songs about the books he publishes because even artists are inspired by their day jobs. Follow him on Twitter @christophpaul_ @clashbooks @dionysuseffect.

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