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
Lydia Davis was doing Lydia Davis before doing Lydia Davis was cool. That is, before colleges offered courses in "flash fiction," Davis was patiently crafting sentences "as clean as a bone" (to crib from James Baldwin) and joining these sentences together in small, miraculous assemblages. Here's one from Varieties of Disturbance called "Collaboration With Fly": I put that word on the page, but he added the apostrophe. Here's another, called "Lonely": No one is calling me. I can't check the answering machine because I have been here all this time. If I go out, someone may call while I'm out. Then I can check the answering machine when I come back in. Like the color fields of Mark Rothko or the sculpture of Donald Judd, Davis' stories give off a disarming appearance of simplicity. However, as anyone who's ever tried to work in her manner without collapsing into mannerism will attest, there is tremendous art behind the artlessness. These assemblages are, in fact, tools, their purpose to wrench us a little bit out of our habitual ways of moving through the world. The word Disturbance is characteristically apt and elegant - le mot juste. As is "Variety." Like Davis' other sterling collection of this decade, Samuel Johnson is Indignant, Varieties of Disturbance intermingles stories in the classic Davis mode with longer and more unusual experiments. Several of these - "We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders," "Mrs. D and Her Maids," "Cape Cod Diary" - are among my favorite pieces here. In Davis' hands, things are both exactly what they are and not quite what they seem, and after an hour or so, Varieties of Disturbance starts to look less like a collection of experimental fiction and more like an adventure story: there's no telling what the next page will bring. (It's also worth mentioning that this book has one of the best covers of the millennium.) Read an Excerpt from Varieties of Disturbance. More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers
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I read Cloud Atlas with two contradictory impulses: first to let loose a yodel, dance a fandango, wrestle an alligator, seize strangers by the hair and hold them firmly until they, too, read this shockingly beautiful Matryoshka doll of a book; second, to pout alone in the darkness under my desk. My first reaction was as a dazzled reader who saw each movement of the book as David Mitchell one-upping himself with his genre-bending (historical, mystery, science fiction), his sublime prose, his broad and breathtaking ideas. The other was as a writer who was intimidated almost to petrification by the mere idea that such a book exists and was written by someone of my generation. It is hard not to make sweeping pronouncements after having lived this book, and, still under its spell three years after I read it, I would say: yes, yes, yes, this is the way novels should be written, with such electric ambition, with such exhilarating sweep. Read an excerpt from Cloud Atlas. More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers
The story of hapless CIA functionary Ray Finch's midlife unraveling in Botswana is uproarious and deadly serious, ruminative and suspenseful, psychological and philosophical. Think Graham Greene as written by Saul Bellow. Or Thomas Mann as written by Jonathan Franzen.