Thursday, August 20, 2009

Five Books of the ’oughts

In writing about Richard Russo’s Empire Falls the other day, I described it as “easily one of the five best American novels” from the first decade of the twenty-first century. Which raises the question, naturally: what are the other four?

They are all by women:

(2.) Francine Prose, Blue Angel (2001). A send-up of creative writing—the best ever written—Prose’s tenth novel is a harrowing account of sexual slavery. Like Professor Raat of Heinrich Mann’s 1905 novel and Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 film, Ted Swenson falls under the spell of a woman, but Angela Argo is not a cabaret singer; she is one of the students in his writing seminar, and his passion for her sweeps him away against his interests. Not because of Angela’s physical charms, however; she is a skinny redhead with multiple body piercings. What holds him in thrall is her novel. The distance between the most powerful literary art and what goes on in creative writing classrooms has never seemed greater.

(3.) Cynthia Ozick, Heir to the Glimmering World (2004). An incredibly difficult book, not in formal experimentation nor in language—for, indeed, Ozick compares self-referential fiction to idolatry—but in its meaning. Her fifth novel is as thickly layered as a page of the Talmud, and equally as elusive. In 1935, a young orphan, herself a Jew, goes to work for the Jewish family of Professor Mitwisser, the scholar of Karaism. He insists upon the definite article. The household is soon joined by James A’Bair Jr., son of the late author-illustrator James Philip A’Bair, whose series of Bear Boy books will remind more than one reader of Winnie the Pooh. As Hillel Halkin wrote in Commentary, “Heir to the Glimmering World advances slowly, its progress delayed by the mysteries that block its way and must be dismantled.” Each step of the way is fascinating in its own right, though, and written in the sort of prose that converts readers to a lifelong devotion to books. The mystery of the novel’s meaning lingers for nearly as long.

(4.) Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2004). Written in the form of a letter from a 76-year-old small-town Iowa preacher whose heart is failing to his six-year-old son, Robinson’s second novel traces the family’s history—but also the career of Christianity on the prairie—from the Civil War to the late ’fifties. John Ames seeks to instruct his son to become “a brave man in a brave country,” and no previous American novel had succeeded in demonstrating so clearly and convincingly the share of religion in the settling of the land. And except perhaps for Frederick Buechner’s Godric (1980), about a medieval Anglo-Saxon saint, no better account of the religious life, as it is experienced from the inside, has been written in America.

(5.) Zoë Heller, The Believers (2009). What can I add to my enthusiastic review of this terrific novel? After finishing Robert Cohen’s Amateur Barbarians and Russo’s latest, which assume it is so self-evident as to deserve no further comment that the best minds are on the Left, I remain astonished by Heller’s novel, which anatomizes the Left without ever betraying its author’s political convictions.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Europe Central. Hands down. It HAS to be on that list.

R. T. said...

Thank you for once more adding to my reading list. At the rate you're going, I'll never catch up. Perhaps I should retire and focus on reading. Teaching has a nasty way of interfering with reading.

D. G. Myers said...

I am willing to listen to the case for Vollman, but Europe Central has defeated me the three times I have tried to read it.

D. G. Myers said...

P.S. I am also willing to acknowledge that the shortcoming is mine, not Vollman’s.

Jonathan said...

Gilead is the one novel I've ever bought, packaged and mailed across country to ensure that a dear friend actually "got around" to reading it.

It may not be one of the five best novels of the decade, but I was impressed and touched by Roth's "Everyman" of a couple years ago. I'm not proposing it for inclusion in your list, but hope that others might get around to this short, gem of a novel.

D. G. Myers said...

Roth’s best book of the decade—at least so far, because afer all who knows about The Humbling—was The Plot against America.

Two other novels deserving of mention are Gary Shteyngart’s Russian Debutante’s Notebook and Claire Messud’s Emperor’s Children, the best 9/11 novel so far.

Sing Clementine said...

Heller is a Brit, does this skew the playing field at all?

D. G. Myers said...

That’s a great question about Heller, and one I can’t answer. Is she, for instance, eligible for the Pulitzer? She has been living in the States for years (she is married, I believe, to an American), and except for its first chapter, The Believers is set on this side of the Atlantic. Except for Audrey, the characters are American too. What is more, her subject is the American Left as well as Modern Orthodoxy (a distinctly American phenomenon).

All in all, I consider her an American writer, but that’s probably chauvinistic of me.

Seth Christenfeld said...

I don't know if Heller is eligible for the Pulitzer--it only says "by an American author." Geraldine Brooks, who is Australian, won, but she's now an American citizen; Carol Shields was born in the US but lived in Canada for her whole adult life, including many years before she even started writing.

Dave Lull said...

The Pulitzer Prize FAQ inludes this:

"5. Must I be a U.S. citizen to apply for a Pulitzer Prize?

"Only U.S. citizens are eligible to apply for the Prizes in Letters, Drama and Music (with the exception of the History category in Letters where the book must be a history of the United States but the author may be of any nationality). For the Journalism competition, entrants may be of any nationality but work must have appeared in a U.S. newspaper published at least once a week, on a newspaper's Web site or on an online news organization's Web site. (Please also see FAQ #10)"

litlove said...

Oddly enough I've just got stuck in the middle of the Ozick. As it's on your list I will return to it and make it through. The stuckness was not because I experienced it as bad, but rather as weighty, demanding, episodic and oblique. I'll go back to negotiating with those elements.

D. G. Myers said...

Well, this puts paid to the question of Zoë Heller’s eligibility for the Pulitzer Prize: “She has not yet taken American citizenship, but ‘probably will at some point,’ ” according to the London Telegraph.

Nevertheless, I am leaving The Believers on my list of the five best books from the first decade of the twenty-first century, because it is so American a novel—and because, according again to the Telegraph, Heller has become strikingly “un-English” after nearly two decades in New York. “She has the English self-deprecation, but she’s very much a New York girl,” says an old friend.

NigelBeale said...

Let's hear it for aesthetic evaluative criticism. Thank you D.G. for this list!