Middlesex, like a girls’ locker room, is crowded and noisy, with smells. The novel combines the respective hysterias of two fraught traditions–the Greek and the mid-century American (one produced the professional lady mourner, the other produced Saul Bellow). At the center of this story, which, like many family histories, is at once tremendously unlikely and perfectly plausible, Jeffrey Eugenides has placed the two great standards of the human race: a pair of genitals, and a heart. And while the genitals of Middlesex’s intersex hero are of an unusual sort, with them Eugenides conveys not only the singular misery of gender and sexual confusion, but the universal lumpen misery of adolescence, and the pain of young love. These, and the goofy relatives, and the historical vignettes, are relayed as a kind of artful schmaltz, which doesn’t stray too far into parody. The novel seems carefully researched and written; and its numerous set pieces (Smyrna burning, Detroit burning, penis stirring) are controlled. It’s a wonderful novel. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
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.
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I. In the aftermath of the Best Fiction of the Millennium series – given that none of my own favorite five made the list, either the “professional” list or the readers list – I am thinking about awards, recognition, popularity; and how reading (and critiquing) fiction is, on the one hand, a communal activity; but also a highly personal one. Of the Pros' 20 (the list to which my votes were applied): I’d read seven; two were on my serious to-read list; two were on my "if I can get to them or if a strong personal recommendation comes my way" list; three I’d heard probably way too much about, and so had decided to pass. About the remaining six, I had no particular feelings one way or another. Among the seven I’d read: two were among my favorites, though not my top five; one I found “just fine;” one I had strong negative feelings about; one I found disappointing relative to my expectations; and two I struggled to get through, for reasons I’ve yet to precisely identify. So much of the joy of reading is, I think, what the reader brings to the work, and the particular alchemy that happens when reader and book collide. I myself would be hard pressed to ever pursue book reviewing in any serious way, because I could see each review devolving into maudlin hand-wringing and tedious qualifying, the prose overwhelmed by appositives and parentheticals, detailing how most of the reasons for why I did or did not connect with the book have to do with my station in life, my mood this week, the book I read previous to this one, the way in which the protagonist reminds me of my cousin Josephine, etc. II. My Top Five works of fiction since 2000, for the record: Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living by Carrie Tiffany The Name of the World by Denis Johnson The Maytrees by Annie Dillard Last Evenings on Earth by Roberto Bolaño Jim the Boy by Tony Earley My #6 (a backup, because initially I didn’t know if short fiction (my Bolaño choice) would qualify) was The Tutor of History by the Nepali novelist and essayist Manjushree Thapa. Published by Penguin UK, Tutor -- the first major English-language novel by a Nepali writer – was not released in the U.S.; and so not many American readers know of it. But this was a book that got me out of a reader’s slump (as described by Lydia Kiesling in an essay earlier this summer)—a slump that was composed, as it turned out, of three award-winning novels. IV. Why did Rachel Kushner’s Telex From Cuba, Lily Tuck’s The News From Paraguay, and Ali Smith’s The Accidental all come to feel more like required classroom reading than the vivid and continuous dream (in John Gardner’s words) we hope for when we read fiction? Here, after all, I had a triad of major award-winners – National Book Award finalist, National Book Award winner, and Whitbread Award winner (and Booker Prize shortlisted), respectively. And yet I found myself, midway through each, trudging through, sighing deeply, and saying to myself like a quarterback who’s been sacked one too many times, “Ok. I’m going back in.” It struck me that the three books happened to share a common feature: shifting point-of-view. By my count, Telex, which takes place in the American expat community in Cuba during the years leading up to Castro’s revolution, is narrated via eight different points of view — four of which are major characters, the others minor — alternating chapter by chapter. One of these is a first-person voice, that of KC Stites, the bland younger son of a United Fruit Company executive. In Paraguay, which is also based on historical events, point-of-view shifts from paragraph to paragraph, in clipped, episodic fashion, among a wide-ranging cast of characters, including Francisco Solano Lopez (Franco), Paraguay’s heir-dictator at the middle of the 19th century; his Eva Peron-esque mistress, Ella Lynch, an Irish beauty; Ella’s wet nurses and maidservants; Franco’s fat and petty sisters; a self-righteous American minister; a disgraced American doctor; and dozens of other characters including assorted diplomats, soldiers, and Franco's Brazilian and Argentine adversaries. Ella is the one character who comes to us in (pseudo) first-person, via her diary entries. The Accidental tells the story of the affluent, discontented Smart family, on holiday in contemporary Norfolk, England. Again, sections are narrated from alternating points of view, by each of four angst-ridden family members—two adults, two teenagers—as their lives are disrupted by Amber, a seductive hippie-girl stranger, who, in a familiar trope, shows up out of nowhere and Changes Everything. Amber is the one character (the fifth point of view) who narrates in first-person – an abstract, sinister voice that may or may not be hallucinatory. “Ambitious” shows up frequently in reviews of these novels, along with “heady” and “inventive.” Each aims to bring to the reader not a conventional journey-through-transformation-with-protagonist, but rather a kind of collective psyche of place and time; hence, the diverse points of view on a single set of events. As readers, we’ve become accustomed to this fragmented, collaged approach to narrative (Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction arguably brought this expectation fully into the mainstream), embracing the notion that truth is relative, and thus the more versions and perspectives – i.e. the more prismatic the presentation – the closer we come to the whole truth. But the overlay of a complex point-of-view structure onto an already thorny narrative canvas seemed to generate too much static in the reception. And by the time I came to the end of my summer reading, I was tempted to think that the plural-main-character device just doesn’t work (note: apart from my disappointment with the reading experience, this was an especially low moment, since my own forthcoming novel features an ensemble cast and shifting points of view). In each case I felt that the sort-of main character – the one first-person narrator – was the least compelling; and that there was too much competition between character-as-protagonist and setting-or-ethos-as-protagonist. Ultimately, place and time and culture wreaked havoc, while characters became mere casualties of the battle of ideas and historical forces, chewed up and spit out with marked detachment. As Joanne Omang of The Washington Post wrote in her review of Paraguay: The sheer sprawl of Tuck's subject matter seems to have overwhelmed her; she has put it all into her story without focus, rather than pruning away the undergrowth… We emerge with neither a grasp of the historical period nor any feeling for its shapers, real or fictional… Perhaps this frustrating approach is meant to evoke the disjointed nature of human experience, the measuring out of lives in coffee spoons, the inadequacy of memory, the sheer coquetry of chance and life and death, etc. If so, it is certainly just as frustrating as real life can be -- for example, when one is hoping to sit down with a vivid story and learn a little something about how to be a full human being while yet surviving during violent and turbulent times. A strong protagonist, I thought; that’s the bottom line. Likable, unlikable, whatever; we – emotionally-ravenous readers (which is a redundancy, really) – we need a through-line, not just a complex or dynamic set of circumstances. In stories of and about shapelessness, we need a primary shaper. Maybe, I thought, as readers, we are fundamentally monogamous. V. But then. The Tutor of History raised the lid off of my airless resignation. In Tutor, Thapa has done what I had longed for Kushner, Tuck, and Smith to do—what seems deceptively simple but clearly is not, given the caliber of these writers—which is to bring us both the story of a society in chaos, i.e. the bustling Nepali town of Khareini Tar (circa late 1990s); and the beguiling individuals who people that society. She has sacrificed neither a sense of political-societal complexity, nor depth and sympathy of character. In the end, I wanted to both visit and study this obscure and politically turbulent corner of the Subcontinent, and to sit down with each character over tea. The book blurb identifies four main characters; I would cite eight: Rishi, the eponymous tutor, a rebellious drifter and disillusioned communist who gives private lessons in history for his livelihood; Giridhar, the alcoholic chairman of the People’s Party’s district committee and an administrative man who suffers from thwarted political ambition; Om Gurung, a large-hearted former British Gurkha, who works along side Giridhar on the campaign; Binita, a reclusive young widow on the margins of society as a result of her manlessness, who runs a small tea shop where the campaign committee congregates; Binita’s beautiful and fatally prideful niece Sani, and her brother-in-law, the famous cinema actor Nayan Raj, who becomes the Party’s well-meaning if a bit misguided candidate for the local parliament seat (driving Giridhar deeper into drunken misery); Harsha Bahadur, the ugly, undernourished Khadka boy who ruins Sani’s reputation by declaring his love for her; and Chiranjibi, a successful businessman who undergoes a quiet conversion to community organizing and political idealism. There is something here for everyone – idealism, petty corruption, personal rebellion, despair, ambition, beauty, ugliness, opportunism, loneliness, family, feminism, even romance. There are numerous characters, a slate of political parties and bureaucracies, and unfamiliar (to Westerners) cultural references to keep track of. And yet the novel never feels crowded nor impenetrable. How has Thapa accomplished this? I dare say, by keeping it simple. No stylish tricks of narrative episodism, or ambivalent structural gestures toward a sort-of main character, or experimental abstraction. The Tutor of History, while equal in ambition to these other “inventive” and “heady” novels, and sharing their broad goals, succeeds, at least partially, by virtue of fidelity to old-fashioned narrative omniscience. In a brief conversation with Thapa recently (over coffee, not tea – this was in New York, after all), she laughed at herself good-naturedly and confessed: “When I was studying fiction writing, I was doing all this avant-garde experimental stuff; and here, I ended up writing essentially a Victorian novel.” VI. The comparison is not far off in that Tutor imagines and renders the human experience as one of both self-determination and connection—each of the character’s fates is intimately entwined with that of the others—and in this sense is also concerned with inviting the reader into the novel’s moral world. It is, I suppose, a bit of a throwback in contemporary literary fiction to envision the reader not as detached auditor but rather as moral investor. Is it valid to evaluate books based on the writer’s awareness of the reader at all? Perhaps not. But I’ll say that I came away from my summer reading triad feeling distinctly stiff-armed by a kind of insularity of intelligence. These books seemed to me written by the writer, for the writer—more of an intense conversation with self (and, in the case of Telex and Paraguay, with history) than with reader. Stephen Elliott said recently in an interview, “Some readers read to escape; I read to connect.” My summer reading efforts afforded neither escape nor connection, but something more like chin-stroking, head-nodding reverence. Well-played; yes, indeed. Remarkable oeuvre you have there. There is certainly something to be said for heady novels written by women, when so much of “women’s fiction” is about inner emotional lives and domestic relationships. But it does make me ask the question of why we write and why we read; and what it means when a book strikes you more as an intellectual feat than an experience. The Tutor of History is a novel I will likely revisit, again and again. And like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books, I believe that each time I read it, a different character, a different storyline, will come into relief as my protagonist and through-line; depending on what I am obsessed with or trying to understand at the time (I say it again: reading is highly personal). In the shadow of the Victorians, Thapa employs a bit of EM Forster-ism here (“only connect”), adhering to mature realism (Thapa is also a journalist who’s written extensively on Nepali society and politics and thus sees her characters and their context with unsentimental eyes), while lacking the contemporary Western novelist’s relative disregard for the enduring organism of community. An Irish mistress in Latin America, American expats in Cuba, bourgeois Londoners shuttling between city and country – they ultimately come and go at will, once upheaval has run its course. But for the townspeople of Khareini Tar, this is it; this is where their lives will be lived out. Some characters are handed their place in the community, others must make their own; societal position is no doubt a persistent source of hardship. And yet, we understand in the end that it ain’t nothing, this placeness, this connectedness. There seems even to be a place for the reader.
Growing up in Scotland, I knew several farmers who pronounced with Delphic confidence on the weather. On a clear December day they would forecast a blizzard; in the middle of rain they would claim a drought was coming. In the spring and summer of 2001, people who were listening could hear The Corrections coming. This oddly titled novel, by this interesting writer, was finally about to emerge. It was published on September 1st. and, despite everything else that happened that autumn, there was an unusual degree of excitement around the book, not just among critics but among readers. People read it, people talked about it, people registered that something important had occurred. The novel itself opens with a storm. “You could feel that something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder.” In the gorgeous, cascading pages that follow, those gusts blow through the Lambert family. Illuminated by Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant prose, bill paying, grocery shopping, depression, Christmas holidays, a walk to the corner shop become subjects of breathless interest and, often, wild humor. Over and over he gives us the deep pleasure of seeing the world around us - and the world inside us - in new ways. For once, the prophets were right. Snow on the mountain. The winged horseman is coming. Read The Corrections. Read an excerpt from The Corrections. More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers
One thing I know after working on The Millions for all these years is that the site has some incredibly knowledgeable and avid readers, the sort of book people I loved working with back in my bookstore days and who are the lifeblood of literary culture. And so, even as we were polling our distinguished panel of writers, editors, and critics, we wondered, what do Millions readers think? We polled The Millions Facebook group to find out. The list our readers came up with was very interesting, and deviated in noticeable ways from that of the Pros. Before I get into the details. Have a look at the two lists below (Links in our panel list go to the writeups we published throughout the week. Links in our reader list go to Amazon): Panel Readers 1 The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen 1 The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz 2 The Known World by Edward P. Jones 2 2666 by Roberto Bolaño 3 Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell 3 Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides 4 2666 by Roberto Bolaño 4 Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell 5 Pastoralia by George Saunders 5 The Road by Cormac McCarthy 6 The Road by Cormac McCarthy 6 Atonement by Ian McEwan 7 Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald 7 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon 8 Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson 8 The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen 9 Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro 9 Gilead by Marilynne Robinson 10 Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro 10 White Teeth by Zadie Smith 11 The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz 11 Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami 12 Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg 12 The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini 13 Mortals by Norman Rush 13 Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro 14 Atonement by Ian McEwan 14 Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald 15 Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis 15 Empire Falls by Richard Russo 16 Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides 16 Runaway by Alice Munro 17 The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem 17 The Master by Colm Tóibín 18 Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link 18 Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 19 American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman 19 Unaccustomed Earth ** by Jhumpa Lahiri 20 Gilead by Marilynne Robinson 20 Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke While everyone seems to agree that The Corrections is a great book (it was the panel winner by a landslide), Millions readers put seven books ahead of it, and anointed Oscar Wao the top book of the decade. Our readers have always loved Oscar, so that wasn't a huge surprise, but it was also interesting to see that the readers had a high opinion of Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, rectifying probably the biggest snub on our panel list, (along with White Teeth). But then, the readers snubbed The Known World, so who knows. With a massive field of potential books, snubs were inevitable. Left off both lists were both of Jonathan Safran Foer's novels, David Foster Wallace's Oblivion (his only fiction of the decade), and Denis Johnson's much praised Tree of Smoke. Voters were also dying to include Bolaño's The Savage Detectives. It was ineligible because it was published in Spanish in 1998, but it makes one wonder, what books will seem like shoo-ins for this type of exercise 10 or 11 years from now but are completely under the radar (or still untranslated) today? Moving back to the books that did make the list, I also loved that the readers included Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a book that I've been hearing about from our readers for years, and Half of a Yellow Sun, a book that's always had a lot of support in the online literary community. Also intriguing is the appearance of mega-best seller The Kite Runner. Finally, if we try to look for a consensus among the two lists, several titles appear on both, but the two with the most support across the entire spectrum of respondents are 2666 and Cloud Atlas, which, if you had to pick just two books to define the literary decade now coming to an end, would make for very interesting selections indeed. We'll be publishing follow-up pieces in our Millennium series over the coming weeks, so look for those. I also wanted to thank our panel and Millions readers for taking the time to participate in the series. If you enjoyed the series and value the coverage that The Millions provides, please consider supporting the site.