In case you missed Part I of our quick glimpses of the decade’s most noteworthy fiction, you can check it out here.
White Teeth – Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith’s first novel came out in the first month of the Aughts, and seemed to be an important, symbolic moment for literature at large. For one, it led critic James Wood to coin the term “hysterical realism,” a catch-all term for the kind of “big novel” Smith and many other young writers of this decade were writing. While the term was used pejoratively, it is an important indicator of the ambition of certain modern novelists. Smith’s novel traces two families through the entire second half of the century, covering World War II and the 1990s. The scope is an important theme, highlighting the grasp past events have on our modern lives, whether we like it or not.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers
The novelistic memoir that propelled Eggers to full-on Voice of the Generation stature, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius does its best to live up to its name. Eggers manages to be meta without being condescending and to be funny without sacrificing poignancy. In crafting a deeply personal story that resonates universally, Eggers proved—for the first time—that he is a fascinating and compelling storyteller of the highest order.
Everything Is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer
This debut novel established Jonathan Safran Foer as a writer who was unconventional and daring, including a character—and a pretty flat one at that—named “Jonathan Safran Foer,” writing in broken English from a perspective of a Russian translator, spinning absurd threads about 19th-century Ukraine. While this novel didn’t have the same impact as Foer’s second novel, it demonstrated his talent, particularly his ability to create a character like Alex the Russian translator.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer
One of many novels written in response to September 11th, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is one of few to deal with it both explicitly and successfully. Jonathan Safran Foer, dealing with elements—a nine-year-old protagonist, 9/11, losing a parent—that could very easily veer into saccharine sentimentality, instead manages to tell a story that has both historical perspective and a real, emotional payoff. Foer also uses a deep bag of tricks, including pictures and different typesets and formatting, that go beyond traditional novelistic depictions and expand the verisimilitude and resonance of Foer’s story.
Falling Man – Don DeLillo
Falling Man, Don DeLillo’s response to 9/11, is a classic example of what can go wrong when prominent novelists feel compelled to respond to current events. While recuperating at his ex-wife’s apartment, a 9/11 survivor faces the possibility of putting his family back together, but remains haunted by what he experienced in the World Trade Center. DeLillo’s prose, however, is unsuited for raw direct engagement with emotions as opposed to ideas—unlike Foer, who wears emotional sincerity on his sleeve—and so the novel feels like a pointless exercise. DeLillo highlights plenty of the feelings that were dominant after the attacks—knee-jerk racism, fear of irony, the desire to hug pretty much everyone—but fails to do anything interesting with them once they are recalled. Parts of it have some punch—it is still DeLillo—but it is, on the whole, an empty and incoherent depiction of something most remember well enough as empty and incoherent.
The Plot Against America – Philip Roth
The Plot Against America is essentially a thought exercise by one of America’s foremost men of letters that works well—if not as well as hoped—for about 300 pages, or right up until Roth has to tie all these strings together, which he does in a quick, surprisingly unorganized fashion that practically shrugs its shoulders and admits that it was all a little farfetched to begin with.
Life of Pi – Yann Martel
“Confoundingly unfulfilling” is how I described this novel to the teacher that assigned it—a designation I stand by half a decade later. In its far-reaching ambition to, as its own protagonist says toward the end, “see higher or further or differently,” Life of Pi overlooked the part where characters—and it’s the “s” at the end that I emphasize—are important. Outside of the titular Pi, the greatest bit of characterization Martel does is give a tiger the anthropomorphic name, Richard Parker. It is truly the Life of Pi and Pi alone.
Then We Came to the End – Joshua Ferris
What could have been just a stylistic exercise—an entire novel written in the first-person plural—actually turned out to be a funny and revealing look at cubicle/office life. Joshua Ferris’ voice is witty and strong enough not to be consumed by the stylistic eccentricities of the novel. At the same time, a 2007 look back at the economic troubles of the beginning of the Aughts now seems quaint. But Ferris’ concern was not really the company he depicts, but the people it comprises.
Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro
Between The Remains of the Day
The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
Perhaps you’ve recently come across the term “meta-enabling,” which describes how the purported intelligentsia discuss certifiably non-intellectual material in a necessarily high-minded way to boost page views without sacrificing its well-earned legitimacy.
The Da Vinci Code is the opposite of meta-enabling. It is a discussion of ostensibly high-art material performed in a low-art manner to appeal to the masses. The best thing one can do for The Da Vinci Code is to compare it to Angels and Demons: At least then, the former’s ending seems more plausible and less offensive to Catholics. Of course, it’s also less thrilling to get there.