A few months ago, I got a poke to do one of those silly “do this now” things on Facebook. We were asked to pick up the book lying nearest to us and quote a sentence from it on a particular page–I think it was page 58. The book near me at that moment, though I’d read it sometime prior, was Junot Díaz’s The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I grabbed it, flipped open to the directed page–and found there one perfect sentence. I remember thinking, “Damn, you can flip this book open anywhere and find perfection. Wow.” This book has gotten tons of attention–major prizes, big reviews, bestselling status–but it’s nice to see that a novel so well-crafted, so funny, so idiosyncratic, so…wondrous, can still capture the imagination of large audiences. If you haven’t read it yet, you should.
I concluded my voyage through Liberal Arts in May 2000—a typical fairly useless poised-to-succeed-and-doomed-to-fail twentysomething of a hazy new millennium, and a less typical city-sluck Irangelite-turned-Brooklynite with no concept of the country I’d lived in for nearly two decades—when George Saunders’ second collection came out. I was of course was many universes and still many years removed—it took me a few years to discover him—from the five stories plus title novella of Pastoralia. But I was already lovedrunk on American stylists and dark humorists and determined to only follow writers who turned my world upside down—still, I don’t think I had ever read anyone as revolutionary as Saunders. I certainly didn’t know of a writer with a world as fully realized as his, that America that I wholly dreaded and yet came to grasp more tenderly after going through Pastoralia’s psyche-of-below-average-to-average-America rollercoaster ride. Immediately I fell in love. First reason: the humor that was earth-shattering; best reason: the humanity that was something else. Saunders is in many ways our most contemporary writer, the voice of the Boomers/Gen X-ers/Millenials world we currently inhabit, the scribe of Saracuda-crazed Jerry-Springerian Red America of the Eighties/Nineties/Aughties. But it’s not just the scenarios but the sentences—especially the seamless coexistence of high and low that only reminds us their segregation in art is actually what’s shocking—that in themselves tell me Saunders isn’t simply one of our best writers, but one of our best humans. Even in the lowest and lowliest Saunderian universe—"Winky's" self help seminar, perhaps, to combat those “crapping in your oatmeal”—there is the infusion of an entirely genuine authorial affection. His America, our America, is of course horrible but without the horror. Is he funny? Is he wacky? Saunders is mostly observant. The average man in Pastoralia works as a caveman at a theme park ("Pastoralia") or male stripper at an aviation-themed-strip club ("Sea Oak") to make ends meet. Does life look like this? Actually in our America of Reality™ and color-coded neverending War(s?) on Terror, of Parables of Joe Plumber and Tales of Tito The What-Did-He-Do-Again, I’d say we’re more there than we might wish... and maybe closer than Saunders even guessed while writing Pastoralia just before the end of a decade and millennium, and the beginning of a rather Unbrave New World. Read an excerpt from Pastoralia. The Millions review of Pastoralia George Saunders Year in Reading More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers
Below is a list of all of the titles nominated by our "Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far)" panel that did not appear on our Top 20 or Honorable Mention lists. Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart American Purgatorio, by John Haskell Among the Missing, by Dan Chaon Atomic Aztex, by Sesshu Foster Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon Be Near Me, by Andrew O'Hagan The Beauty of the Husband, by Anne Carson The Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction, edited by Álvaro Uribe and Olivia E. Sears The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood The Book Against God, by James Wood The Bridegroom, by Ha Jin The Bright Forever, by Lee Martin Brookland, by Emily Barton By the Light of the Jukebox, by Dean Paschal The Cave, by Jose Saramago Censoring an Iranian Love Story, by Shahriar Mandanipour Cheating At Canasta, by William Trevor The Children's Book, by A.S. Byatt City of God, by E.L. Doctorow The Cold Six Thousand, by James Ellroy The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel Confessions of Max Tivoli, by Andrew Sean Greer Contagion, by Brian Evenson Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn De Niro's Game, by Rawi Hage (Our review) The Death of Sweet Mister, by Daniel Woodrell The Diviners, by Rick Moody (Our review) Do Everything in the Dark, by Gary Indiana The Dog of the Marriage, by Amy Hempel The Dying Animal, by Philip Roth The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers Eclipse, by John Banville Elizabeth Costello, by J.M. Coetzee The Embers, by Hyatt Bass The End, by Salvatore Scibona The Epicure's Lament, by Kate Christensen (Our review) An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, by César Aira Erasure, by Percival Everett Europeana, by Patrik Ouredník Everyman, by Philip Roth Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, by Carrie Tiffany Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, by Wells Tower (Our review) Evidence of Things Unseen, by Marianne Wiggins Falling Man, by Don DeLillo The Farther Shore, by Matthew Eck Fieldwork, by Misha Berlinski Farewell Navigator, by Leni Zumas The Gathering, by Anne Enright God Says No, by James Hannaham Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Our review) The Haunting of L., by Howard Norman The Horned Man, by James Lasdun The Human Stain, by Philip Roth I Looked Alive, by Gary Lutz I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company, by Brian Hall In Persuasion Nation, by George Saunders Indecision, by Benjamin Kunkel The Indian Clerk, by David Leavitt It’s All Right Now, by Charles Chadwick Jamestown, by Matthew Sharpe Jane: A Murder, by Maggie Nelson Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanisi, by Geoff Dyer Jim the Boy, by Tony Earley Last Evenings on Earth, by Roberto Bolaño The Last Samurai, by Helen DeWitt The Lazarus Project, by Aleksander Hemon (Our review) Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name, by Vendela Vida Like You'd Understand, Anyway, by Jim Shepard The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst (Our review) Love Creeps, by Amanda Filipacchi Lush Life, by Richard Price Magic For Beginners, by Kelly Link Man Walks Into a Room, by Nicole Krauss The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard A Mercy, by Toni Morrison (Our review) The Most of It, by Mary Ruefle My Happy Life, by Lydia Millet My Revolutions, by Hari Kunzru The Name of the World, by Denis Johnson Natasha and Other Stories, by David Bezmogis Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill (Our reviews) The Nimrod Flipout, by Etgar Karet An Obedient Father, by Akhil Sharma Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout On Beauty, by Zadie Smith P, by Andrew Lewis Conn The People of Paper, by Salvador Plascencia A Person of Interest, by Susan Choi Personality, by Andrew O'Hagan Pieces for the Left Hand, by J. Robert Lennon The Pink Institution by Selah Saterstrom The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth The Question of Bruno, by Aleksandar Hemon Runaway, by Alice Munro A Seahorse Year, by Stacey D'Erasmo The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, by Peter Orner Servants of the Map, by Andrea Barrett The Singing Fish, by Peter Markus The Slynx, by Tatyana Tolstaya (Our review) Snow, by Orhan Pamuk (Our review) The Story of Lucy Gault, by William Trevor The Surrendered, by Chang-Rae Lee The Terror, by Dan Simmons The Thin Place, by Kathryn Davis (Our review) Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris 31 Hours, by Masha Hamilton Brothers, by Yu Hua The View from Castle Rock, by Alice Munro Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson (Our review) True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri Vanishing Point, David Markson Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill Wanting, by Richard Flanagan What is the What, by Dave Eggers (Our review) What Was She Thinking? : Notes on a Scandal, by Zoe Heller (Our interview) When the Emperor Was Divine, by Julie Otsuka When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro Yonder Stands Your Orphan, by Barry Hannah You Shall Know Our Velocity, by Dave Eggers Zeroville, by Steve Erickson
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I read Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 on the beach last winter, and when I think about it now, there are still children running around at the edges of the book, burying each other in the sand. It seems only fair that memory should encroach on Bolaño’s magnum opus, the novel which he left uncorrected when he died in 2003. 2666 encroaches on memory; it encroaches on reality itself. Centered, loosely, on the murders of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, the novel creates a vast and nearly plausible planet inhabited by academics, sportswriters, petty criminals and their rich bosses, lawyers, victims, and, at the center of it all, two very tall Germans. Wait for them. Everything is how it is and everything is a little wrong: how does a little magazine in Harlem have the budget to hire a full-time boxing correspondent? Why doesn’t that house in the desert have any windows? A greater mystery: how is it that Bolaño is able to make writers seem so interesting? There’s a chilling moment near the end of the book, when Bolaño has one of his characters say, “Every work that isn’t a masterpiece is, in a sense, a part of a vast camouflage. […] Every book that isn’t a masterpiece is cannon fodder, a slogging foot soldier, a piece to be sacrificed, since in multiple ways it mimics the design of the masterpiece.” I don’t know if Bolaño himself believed that, but I’m of the opinion that 2666, for all its David-Lodge-style academic hijinx and its saggy ending, is a masterpiece. Given that there are basically no books like it, 2666 isn’t especially well camouflaged, unless it’s by those children, that sand, the fronds of memory that cover up a book which seemed, for a few days, more real than the world. Read an excerpt from 2666. A Bolaño Syllabus More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers