Best of the Fallen
First, those no longer with us. W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001)—published two months before the German-born author’s death in a car accident in England—was a 21st-century book about the 20th century. The writer’s fourth and final novel was told through a pastiche of memoir, invention, winding sentences, black-and-white photographs, architectural plans, and reproduced stamps. The Holocaust is the book’s central trauma, but the novel anticipated fresher wounds, too. “Outsize buildings,” Sebald wrote, “cast the shadow of their own destruction before them.”
Likewise did David Foster Wallace’s two major books in this century: Consider the Lobster (2005), a collection of casual essays, and Oblivion (2004), the late author’s third story collection. Both are dauntingly assured, though Wallace considered one a lark and the other a kind of failure; the unfinished novel The Pale King, which Wallace once hoped would redeem his dissatisfaction with his own earlier fiction, arrives from Little, Brown next year. If only two of the best critics of the last century, John Updike (1932–2009; he also wrote a novel or two) and John Leonard (1939–2008), were still around to make sense of it for us.
It opened with a Tempest reference, borrowed acronyms from Pynchon and jokes from both Amises, dreamed up a riot of characters and loved them all equally, and hid a novel almost Victorian in its concern for families, religion, race, and class behind lightshow prose. Zadie Smith was 24 years old when White Teeth (2000) was published—”the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired tap-dancing ten-year-old,” she’d later admit—and On Beauty (2005), her third novel, was even better. But by then we were already taking her for granted. She’s this decade’s undisputed debut novelist, with apologies to Helen DeWitt (The Last Samurai, 2000), Tom McCarthy (Remainder, 2007), Benjamin Kunkel (Indecision, 2005), Joshua Ferris (Then We Came to the End, 2007), et al.
Maybe the decade’s biggest novel, in terms of its scope, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001) was about family, which made you think of Tolstoy—but it was also about money, the market, big pharma, unbridled Russian death capitalism, the goofiness of academic American postmodernism, gourmet cooking, therapy, and, maybe above all else, passive aggression.
Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke (2007) topped Corrections in terms of word count, but, by comparison, had modest aims. Where Franzen wanted to write the great social novel of the 21st century, Johnson merely wanted to capture 10 years or so worth of Vietnam and spook culture and human weakness. It’s got the best ending and the best dialogue and a bunch of the best sentences in any book written in this decade, for whatever that’s worth. Only books by Roberto Bolaño (2666, 2004), Thomas Pynchon (Inherent Vice, 2009), William Vollmann (The Royal Family, 2000; Rising Up and Rising Down, 2004; Europe Central, 2005), Cormac McCarthy (The Road, 2006), and David Markson (This Is Not a Novel, 2001) reached for anywhere near as much.
“It’s okay,” said the hospital social worker to the doctor, gesturing at newly widowed Joan Didion. “She’s a pretty cool customer.” That we already knew. But that all of Didion’s instruments—the instinct for ironic detail, the tightly coiled prose, the ability to see herself as if from far away—would still function in such abject circumstances was never a given. The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), about the hospitalization of her only daughter, Quintana Roo, and the subsequent death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, is one of the most eloquent dissections of grief and loss that we have. Cold comfort.
One other memoirist—if that’s the right word—worth mentioning here: Bob Dylan, whose Chronicles: Volume One (2004) went to the other extreme. In place of Didion’s exacting clarity, Chronicles opted for a weird dadaist immersion in a singular mind—random headlines, lay history, and vivid descriptions of Gorgeous George and his entourage of midget wrestlers, circa the mid-’50s.
Best Short-Story Collections
Would you believe me if I said there were more good books this decade titled Collected Stories than there were of any other kind? Career-spanning volumes from both Lydia Davis and Amy Hempel heralded less a revival of the short-story form—whatever that would’ve meant—than the due acknowledgment of two titan stylists. Davis whittled down whole worlds of psychic disquiet into stories that often lasted only a sentence or two; Hempel, once a Gordon Lish protégée, emerged in her own anthology as a writer of such exact and funny emotional sensitivity that what once looked a lot like minimalism turned out to be a kind of encompassing honesty instead—”I leave a lot out when I tell the truth,” she wrote. Davis and Hempel had company: Volumes by George Saunders (Pastoralia, 2000; In Persuasion Nation, 2006), Mary Gaitskill (Don’t Cry, 2009), and Kelly Link (Magic for Beginners, 2005) will probably end up in their authors’ own Collected Stories before the next 10 years are done with.
Best of the Best
Slang, Marvel Comics, the motherless child, the plight of the teenage nerd, the way childhood friendship contains within it the seed of inevitable betrayal. Pop culture was repositioned as the language of the heart. One writer, Junot Díaz, dared to put Darkseid’s Omega Effect and Morgoth’s bane in the same footnote, five pages into his debut novel. The other, Jonathan Lethem, had full-on liner notes smack dab in the middle of his magnum opus. Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude (2003) and Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) were both masterpieces of a specific and achingly evocative variety: amateur regional history colliding with anthropology colliding with details you could touch. Mordor is Brooklyn and Santo Domingo and every patch of lonely sidewalk in between.