In addition to our Aught-themed Sunday Book Review, which we began last week, NPI is presenting a more general look at fiction of the decade in which we look quickly and some of the most significant works of literature published during this decade. This is Part I of a two-part series.
2666 — Roberto Bolaño
The epic of the Aughts (so long as we’re not counting The Wire), 2666 affords Bolaño the posthumous chance to opine on death in all its forms: from the corporeal to the metaphysical. His characters are deep even when they are fleeting, and his style (in Natasha Wimmer’s translation) ranges from florid to hard-boiled. In contemplating his own legacy, Bolaño pretty much ensured it.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay — Michael Chabon
I’ve already expanded on my high opinion of Michael Chabon’s novel about the Golden Age of Comic Books; The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay presents a compelling portrait of what it’s like to create fantasies in an era of global turmoil—a particularly resonant story of the Aughts, even if Chabon’s novel came out in 2000. While he deals with themes like evil and fantasy, however, Chabon is adept at depicting a rich setting of New York City in the 1930s.
— John S
Atonement — Ian McEwan
After finishing a novel that started out so promisingly only to veer off into long, overly detailed musings on the value of a good story, I joked with a friend that Atonement is the only book I’ve ever read whose title accurately describes what it’s like to read it. Like its title noun, there’s some worth in McEwan’s investigation into the process of guilt; it’s just not a whole lot of fun getting there.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao —Junot Diaz
The sexiest tale of a virgin you’ll ever read, Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize winner validated the acclaim of his mid-90s short story collection, Drown. Diaz is a shrewder editor than Bolaño, leaving his work—every bit as epic in its ambition to portray Oscar’s family history, from the DR to the Jersey suburbs—more condensed and, occasionally but not ultimately, unfulfilling. But that might be the only flaw: that Diaz’s allusion- and Spanglish-infused style leaves us wanting more.
The Corrections — Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan Franzen’s story about the Lambert family may be the best novel of the Aughts. Spanning several generations, multiple cities and different continents, The Corrections always remains a well-grounded story of a Midwestern American family. Franzen’s ability to depict members of the Greatest Generation, modern middle class suburbia, the urban elite and contemporary academia with both empathy and incisiveness makes the book both provocative and touching. And despite being published on September 1st, 2001, Franzen somehow managed to foresee the dominant cultural and historical themes of the entire decade: globalization, financial and political instability, and even terrorism. The sense of the universe “correcting” itself, for the mistakes of the past that appear to catching up with those who committed them, applies starkly to the Lamberts, but could just as easily be applied to anyone who lived through the Aughts.
— John S
The Kite Runner — Khaled Hosseini
While its predominantly Afghan setting may have been what lifted a novel published in 2003 into the national consciousness, it’s Hosseini’s investigation of relationships—so heavily influenced by class—that makes The Kite Runner such a memorable read. Don’t expect a thesis on multiculturalism so much as a simple and adventurous tale of friendship and redemption.
No Country for Old Men — Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy has been writing novels for 45 years now, but the Aughts brought him into the American consciousness in an even new way, as three of his novels— All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, The Road—were adapted as films, with a fourth—Blood Meridian—in development. No Country for Old Men saw McCarthy apply his simple, dark prose, often described as Biblical, to a story that is, essentially, a thriller. Nevertheless, McCarthy lends the story a great degree of depth, creating the villain Anton Chigurh, maybe literature’s most fearsome character of the decade, even before Javier Bardem and the Coen Brothers brought him to the screen.
— John S
Pastoralia — George Saunders
George Saunders has a Kurt Vonnegut-esque (and if you know me, you know what high praise that is) ability to combine images that are both hilarious and haunting. Pastoralia, his second short-story collection, is a short but telling example. He writes about male strip-clubs and human zoos in a way that is both absurd and comical, and at the same time depressing. But Saunders skill with language—particularly with dialogue and the way speech patterns can develop characters—lends power to these brief stories.
— John S