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.
The Bourdieuvian posture - I've come to think of it as the Who-Are-You-Going-to-Believe,-Me-Or-Your-Lying-Eyes? school of criticism - may be as much an infection as a diagnosis. It seems to have invaded, unexamined, online discourse about books, movies, music, and art.
There are, in Cormac McCarthy’s impossibly affecting novels, details that simultaneously open up his dismal universe and draw in the reader. In Blood Meridian, it’s the Apache wearing the wedding dress. In All the Pretty Horses, it’s the bullet hole in the wallet. In No Country for Old Men, the glass of milk, still sweating on the coffee table. In The Road, it’s the can of Coke, pulled from the guts of the vending machine. No, it’s that the soda has somehow stayed carbonated after the cataclysm. No, it’s that the father lets his son drink the whole thing. Surely this is one of the most humane and deeply inhabited moments not just in fiction from this millennium, but in all of literature. And yet the book is rife with such moments, replete with such deep empathy for the father and son that some of the bleakest passages will turn your stomach as only love can. This is perhaps the most shocking aspect of The Road: what remains, what you remember years after you’ve read the book, is the beauty, the compassion, the relentlessness of possibility that burns on the colorless horizon. You understand—much in the way that you first understand poetry, through feeling and syntax and imagery rather than logic—that no matter how desolate the story, it is made bearable through language. There is, the novel asserts, something like triumph in the very telling of a tale, a commitment to the act of witness, and to receive a story is to exalt the imagination, to participate in the process of faith, to accept deliverance. Why else, then, would the father in the novel—when his son is too scared to sleep, when the noise of the world dying its cold death keeps him awake—comfort the boy with narrative? They’ve been stripped of everything except voice, but even on the darkest path words can retain their meaning, their promise of light that will lead lost travelers home. Read an excerpt from The Road. More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers
Ah, 1999... We laughed along with Chandler and Phoebe, invested our surplus Benjamins with Lehman Brothers, danced a national macarena. Those days seem like the distant past now, and in many ways, the first decade of the 21st Century has been quite different from the giddy future we might have projected. In one way, though, the new millennium has delivered: we've gotten great fiction, often from unexpected quarters. When The New York Times named "The Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years" in 2006, none of the finalists was younger than 69, and the most recent publication date was 1997. But the '00s have introduced us to new voices, spurred others to new levels of achievement, and ushered in the late masterworks that have capped distinguished careers. It's a bit early, of course, to pass definitive judgment on the literary legacy of the '00s, or how it stacks up against that of the 1930s, or 1850s. Who knows what will be read 50 years from now? But, with the end of the decade just a few months away, it seemed to us at The Millions a good time to pause and take stock, to call your attention to books worthy of it, and perhaps to begin a conversation. To that end, we've conducted a poll of our regular contributors and 48 of our favorite writers, editors, and critics (listed below), asking a single question: "What are the best books of fiction of the millennium, so far?" The results were robust, diverse, and surprising. We've finished tabulating them, and this week, we'll be counting down the Top 20 vote-getters, at a rate of five per day. Each book will be introduced by one of the panelists who voted for it. On Friday, we'll reveal Number One, along with the results of a parallel reader poll conducted via our Facebook group. And next week, we'll run follow-up posts including Honorable Mention and "Best of the Rest" lists. This page, updated as we post the list, will become an index. You can use it to navigate the series, or can check back at our home page; we also invite you to consider subscribing to The Millions via RSS feed or Kindle. We hope you'll share your thoughts here or on the entries for the individual books throughout the week as our list is revealed. The List #20: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson #19: American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman #18: Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link #17: The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem #16: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides #15: Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis #14: Atonement by Ian McEwan #13: Mortals by Norman Rush #12: Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg #11: The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz #10: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro #9: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro #8: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson #7: Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald #6: The Road by Cormac McCarthy #5: Pastoralia by George Saunders #4: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño #3: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell #2: The Known World by Edward P. Jones #1: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen The Panel Sam Anderson is the book critic for New York Magazine. Rosecrans Baldwin is the author of the forthcoming You Lost Me There and a founding editor of The Morning News. Elif Batuman is the author of the forthcoming The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them Mark Binelli is the author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die and is a contributor to Rolling Stone. Elise Blackwell is the author of Hunger and other books Patrick Brown is a contributor to The Millions. Sonya Chung is the author of Long for This World and is a contributor to The Millions. Elizabeth Crane is the author of You Must Be This Happy to Enter and other works of fiction. Ben Dolnick is the author of Zoology. Ben Ehrenreich is the author of The Suitors. Stephen Elliot is the author of The Adderall Diaries and other books and is founding editor of The Rumpus. Scott Esposito is the founding editor of Conversational Reading and The Quarterly Conversation. Joshua Ferris is the author of Then We Came to the End and the forthcoming The Unnamed. Rivka Galchen is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances. Lauren Groff is the author of Delicate Edible Birds and The Monsters of Templeton. Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of A Field Guide to the North American Family and is a contributor to The Millions. John Haskell is the author of Out of My Skin and American Purgatorio. Jeff Hobbs is the author of The Tourists. Michelle Huneven is the author of Blame and other novels. Samantha Hunt is the author of The Invention of Everything Else and The Seas. Sara Ivry is a senior editor of Tablet. Bret Anthony Johston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories and is director of the Creative Writing Program at Harvard University. Porochista Khakpour is the author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects. Lydia Kiesling is a contributor to The Millions. Benjamin Kunkel is the author of Indecision and is a founding editor of N+1. Paul La Farge is the author of Haussmann, or The Distinction. Reif Larsen is the author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. Dorothea Lasky is the author of Awe and other books. Edan Lepucki is a contributor to The Millions. Yiyun Li is the author of The Vagrants Margot Livesey is the author of The House on Fortune Street and other books. Fiona Maazel is the author of Last Last Chance. C. Max Magee is the founding editor of The Millions. Sarah Manguso is the author of the memoir The Two Kinds of Decay and other books. Laura Miller is the author of The Magician's Book and is the book critic at Salon. Meghan O'Rourke is the author of Halflife: Poems and is a founding editor of DoubleX. Ed Park is the author of Personal Days and is a founding editor of The Believer. Emre Peker is a contributor emeritus to The Millions. Arthur Phillips is the author of The Song is You and three other novels. Nathaniel Rich is the author of The Mayor's Tongue and is a senior editor at The Paris Review. Marco Roth is a founding editor of N+1. Andrew Saikali is a contributor to The Millions. Mark Sarvas is the author of Harry, Revised and is the proprietor of The Elegant Variation. Matthew Sharpe is the author of Jamestown and other works of fiction. Gary Shteyngart is the author of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante's Handbook. Joan Silber is the author of The Size of the World. Martha Southgate is the author of Third Girl From the Left and other books. Lorin Stein is a senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Felicia Sullivan is the author of The Sky Isn't Visible from Here and is the founding editor of Small Spiral Notebook. Jean Thompson is the author of Do Not Deny Me and other books. David Ulin is book editor of the Los Angeles Times Amanda Eyre Ward is the author of Love Stories in This Town and other books. Dan Wickett is executive director and publisher of Dzanc Books. John Williams is founding editor of The Second Pass Anne K. Yoder is a contributor to The Millions. Todd Zuniga is the founding editor of Opium Magazine Methodology Each panelist could name up to five books available in English with an original-language publication date no earlier than Jan. 1, 2000. We then tabulated the votes of our panelists, along with those of our contributors. Books were ranked according to number of votes received. In the few cases where more than one book received the same number of votes, our contributors, believing firmly that ties are like "kissing your sister," voted to break them. Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers
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