These novels have confused and perplexed readers for years. If you want to lord it over others, expatiating on any of these titles will do the job.
I’ll let you know what it is about each novel that makes it difficult.
Novels that are Challenging, Hard, Tough, Complex, or Difficult
The Bone People | Keri Hulme
Kerewin, who lives in an isolated house, finds a young boy, Simon, with an injured foot. She bandages it and has him stay for lunch. He cannot speak; he communicates with gestures and notes. It is the next morning before someone comes for him, his father’s cousin, Piri. Simon’s father Joe visits Kerewin to thank her for the help, and he tells her Simon’s story. He was the only survivor of a shipwreck, he gets into trouble a lot, and Joe took him in. Kerewin witnesses Joe get angry at Simon and threaten to beat him. Despite this, a closeness develops among them, and they make plans to see each other more.
This novel has sudden shifts in setting, moves from inner dialogue to dreams to narration, and has non-attributed dialogue. It also contains poems, reflections, and journal entries.
Ulysses | James Joyce
This narrative follows the life of Leopold Bloom, a reserved, caring married man in his late thirties, and Stephen Dedalus, an educated, aspiring poet.
This is written in steam of consciousness style with thousands of literary allusions, many of them to Hamlet and Homer’s Ulysses making explanatory notes a necessity.
Absalom, Absalom! | William Faulkner
Thomas Sutpen arrives in Mississippi with a group of slaves and builds a plantation home. He is known for wrestling with his slaves. He marries Ellen Coldfield, the daughter in a poor family, and they have children. When the Civil War starts, father and son go to fight, along with Charles who is courting the daughter. The narrative continues through the war and return home.
This novel features long sentences, flashbacks, four narrators plus an occasional omniscient point of view for good measure, and a non-linear presentation of events.
The Waves | Virginia Woolf
Six characters relate their thoughts and life experiences thru stream-of-consciousness monologues. A prose poem about waves coming in to shore begins each chapter, giving insight into the characters’ lives.
Complex to the point that it might not even be a novel (Woolf called it a playpoem), The Waves contains six interior monologues and various allusions.
To the Lighthouse | Virginia Woolf
It’s a September evening before World War I. The Ramsay’s are at home discussing the possibility of going to the Lighthouse the next day. The narrative then covers a ten year period containing the war and major changes in the family.
Several narrators tell the story in steam of consciousness style sometimes shifting quickly from one to the other, and one omniscient section. There isn’t much plot or dialogue.
Gravity’s Rainbow | Thomas Pynchon
I’m not really sure what this novel is about. Something with a rocket and a mystery device that’s going to be installed on another rocket. I don’t want to think about it anymore.
This long narrative has a huge cast of characters, several narrative voices, covers a large variety of subjects, and contains allusions to 1940s pop culture.
Finnegans Wake | James Joyce
I’m not going to try to give any kind of summary; even critics don’t agree on what the plot is.
This one has it all – stream-of-consciousness, dream-like shifts in people and places, non-linear presentation, lots of allusions, non-standard grammar and, best of all, made up words.