Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The decade in review

In replying to my “realistically pessimistic” prediction that 2010 probably won’t be a great year for books, Kerry (no last name) at Hungry Like the Woolf takes the approach of asking what literary years have been great, since “most years do not produce even one ‘book for the ages,’ even if most years produce plenty of very good books.” I am not at all sure about that afterthought. Most years produce a few books that might possibly repay a rereading. At all events, relying upon the Millions’ jury-deliberated list of the Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far), Kerry nominates 2001 as a very good year.

Below is my list of the decade’s best English-language fiction. If a year’s greatness is measured by the number of excellent titles published then Kerry is surely right: 2001 was the best literary year of the decade. Seven first-rate works of fiction were published—or important works of fiction, at least—although only Richard Russo’s Empire Falls scored a place on my list of the decade’s five best. For my money, though, the most distinguished year of the last ten was 2004 when all four of the year’s most memorable fiction are keepers.

Saul Bellow, Ravelstein
Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang
Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Linda Grant, When I Lived in Modern Times
Francine Prose, Blue Angel
Philip Roth, The Human Stain

Malcolm Bradbury, To the Hermitage
Robert Cohen, Inspired Sleep
Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections
Ian McEwan, Atonement
Philip Roth, The Dying Animal
Richard Russo, Empire Falls
Tim Winton, Dirt Music

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
Michael Frayn, Spies
Gary Shteyngart, The Russian Debutante’s Notebook
William Trevor, The Story of Lucy Gault
Sarah Waters, Fingersmith

Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire
Zoë Heller, Notes on a Scandal
Steven Millhauser, The King in the Tree

Ha Jin, War Trash
Cynthia Ozick, Heir to the Glimmering World
Colm Toibin, The Master
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

J. M. Coetzee, Slow Man
Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men
Francine Prose, A Changed Man
Zadie Smith, On Beauty
William T. Vollmann, Europe Central

Martin Amis, House of Meetings
William Boyd, Restless
Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country
Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Claire Messud, The Emperor’s Children
Richard Powers, The Echo Maker


Peter Carey, His Illegal Self
Cynthia Ozick, Dictation
Richard Price, Lush Life
Francine Prose, Goldengrove
Marilynne Robinson, Home
Tim Winton, Breath

Zoë Heller, The Believers
Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin
William Trevor, Love and Summer
Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger

Update: In a feature for the Second Pass on books from the past decade that have been unfairly overlooked, Lisa Peet recommends William Boyd’s Any Human Heart (2002). Although I prefer his four-years-later spy novel Restless, which grew out of the earlier novel, a good case can be made for his 500-page journal of the twentieth century. It is the only book (so far) that I regret leaving off the above list.


americanfiction said...

Re: 2007, I'm curious if you had any thoughts one way or the other about Junot Diaz's "Oscar Wao" or Andre Aciman's "Call Me By Your Name." I'd suspect you'd be a fan of the latter; if not, I'd be interested in hearing where you believe it fell short.

D. G. Myers said...

Aciman writes gorgeously. That is, indeed, part of the problem—his prose is starched and ruffled and sprinkled with jewels. As one reviewer said when Call Me by Your Name first came out, his literary instincts are Proustian.

But I was not convinced that the love story in the novel required Proustian indirectness and deferral. And, too, the story is awfully familiar by now—even if the love is gay rather than straight. Obsessive love? Hm. Where have I read about that before?

americanfiction said...

Your point about the familiarity of the story is well-taken. Indeed, I may be cynical enough to believe that plot isn't really a make-it-or-break-it factor when it comes to my admiration of a novel. (Though unlike James Wood, I do think it's relevant.) I'm not so quick to reduce the novel to just a love story, though, in the same way that I wouldn't reduce, say, "The Believers" to a novel about the death of a family patriarch. "Call Me By Your Name" seemed to me a novel with much to say about the way adolescents sort out their emotional and intellectual needs (plus religious needs to a small extent), and that Aciman's prose served that story well. I knew it was a bildungsroman going in; the execution was ultimately what mattered.

D. G. Myers said...

Excellent points, Mark. Be honest, though. If we are going to talk about a sexual Bildungsroman in prose that makes us want to copy out passages in our commonplace books, wouldn’t the more obvious choice from the decade be Middlesex?

An anecdote, unrepresentative probably. I’ve lent out Eugenides’s novel to several friends in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood where I live. And without exception my friends have attempted the superhuman feat of reading Middlesex at a single sitting, despite its 500-page length. Given their religious commitments, they are universally wary when I offer them the book; they are universally enthusiastic when they return it.

Anonymous said...

What about Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go and Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle?

What about Peace by Richard Bausch for 2008? - a brilliant short novel about war.

And surely Sarah Waters overblown ghost story should not be included for 2009?

D. G. Myers said...

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle? Why not John Grisham or Stephanie Meyer?

So far from double-guessing my inclusion of The Little Stranger, I am wondering whether I should go back and include The Night Watch under 2006. Sarah Waters is an unflaggingly delightful novelist.

Steven Riddle said...

Dear Mr. Myers,

Thank you for this list; it gives much to ponder. I have some sharp disagreements with some choices and some demurrals with others--but I see there is much that I must read--or at least try again (for the eighth or ninth time in some cases).

But thank you for the effort and thought that this represents.



danup said...

I seem to recall liking Kavalier and Clay more than you did, but 2000 was some year, for me—Ravelstein, Blue Angel, and the overdue translation of Haruki Murakami's South of the Border, West of the Sun.

Biblibio said...

Okay, I'll have to disagree with a few books here. Apologies in advance.

First off, "Goldengrove". If there's a way to yell emphatically "no!" through the internet, this would be the time to use it. I know I'm one of few who doesn't like it, but I'm really not a fan. Nothing new here, moving along, my personal two cents...

The next disagreement is "Let the Great World Spin". It's good, not great. I get why some people like it, I get why others hate it. I enjoyed it but don't think it's anywhere near the best book I've read this year. That's all I can say on the matter.

For 2007, I rather enjoyed "Then We Came to the End", though it's a book I can see many people hating and I'm not sure I'd call it necessarily great. So I can't add much to 2007's dismal listing. If we're counting foreign lit published in its original language, 2007 was a great year, including the best novel I read in 2009. But that list would look a little different, I suspect...

Stephen said...

it seems you could have compiled this list by attending to the helpful recommendation signs found in the "Literary Fiction" section at a Barnes & Noble store. that is, your taste is so blandly middlebrow and safe as to make one's throat dry up.

D. G. Myers said...

"Middlebrow"—right. Ouch. I won’t sleep again tonight. Got to find some way to rejoin the avant garde. Perhaps then I can feel superior to genuinely great novelists like Philip Roth, Francine Prose, Malcolm Bradbury, William Trevor, J M. Coetzee, Cynthia Ozick, Marilynne Robinson, Cormac McCarthy, and Tim Winton.

Because, you know, great literature is distinguished by how few readers it finds.

Laura said...

The book that I found unforgettable that's not on this list is Edward Jones's story collection "All Aunt Hagar's Children." He's better recognized for "The Known World," of course, but I loved the stories and have not yet made it through the whole novel, though I do keep going back to it and like it very much.

D. G. Myers said...

Many thanks for the recommendation, Laura. I’ve only read The Known World, which I don’t particularly like. I’ll have to search out Jones’s stories now.

R. T. said...

Thank you for generously sharing your suggestions (re: good reading from the past decade) to which I will refer as a personal reading guide for me during a period of time when I will be in a rest-and-recovery mode. All the best to you in Texas from a like-minded teacher in Florida who is taking a not-so-serious "medical" sabbatical from teaching (and blogging) for a while but will nevertheless keep busy reading and preparing for a return to the classroom (as early as the the summer semester, perhaps).

Kerry said...

Great post, I probably should have posted my questions in your comments, but your list is what I was hoping someone would do.

2007 wasn't great, but I would include Oscar Wao.

I have not gotten to Cloud Atlas yet, but I have quite enjoyed the Mitchell works I have read so far, so 2004 gets even better in my book.

I probably would not include Dirt Music as one of the best, though I did quite enjoy it.

Mostly, I am happy to see Love and Summer as one of this years best. It is the best 2009 book I've read this year, though others I have liked less have been more highly touted.

Anyway, thanks for a great list and for sparking an interesting discussion.

D. G. Myers said...

Go back and reread Dirt Music, Kerry. Winton’s novel gets better each time you read it.

David Mitchell is overhyped, in my opinion, although the new novel about an eighteenth-century Jacob might change my mind. I’m not sure that I’ll have time to get to it right away, though.

You are the second one to mention Junot Díaz’s novel. Let me leave it at this. I am a dissenter.

americanfiction said...

I don't think I could recommend Jones' stories more highly. If I have the time next year, I'd like to revisit "Lost in the City" and "All Aunt Hagar's Children" together, after recently learning that the stories are matched pairs (i.e., the first story in "City" has the same characters as the first story in "Hagar's"). There was too much time between reading both books for me to notice, and I also read them out of order.

Anonymous said...

"Ravelstein" still stays with me almost 10 years after I first read it. It may be Bellow's greatest novel, which is saying something.

2007 did have Chabon's "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" which many dismiss as just a genre piece but which I found very enjoyable.

tombeshear said...

I'm happy to see Vollmann get a mention. "Europe Central" was an amazing performance -- a novel by a very American American that reads like it was written by an Eastern European. It's something of a project for a reader to take on, but it's very well worth the effort.

h said...

A little late to the game, but I'm thrilled to see Winton on here. After being blown away by it, I've been pushing his collection "The Turning" on every reader I know and saving up the novels for next year.

Josh said...

Why nothing at all for 2007? That little book by Mohsin Hamid was rather good.

zainuddin said...

thanks for share

Rick Richman said...

For 2003, I would add Richard Powers' extraordinary "The Time of Our Singing."