The Known World, Edward P. Jones’ gorgeously written novel, turns the world of race relations as we know it upside down. The lines that divide the races in his antebellum are not so much blurred as crooked, doglegged, and doubling back on each other. And race is only one vector: family, power, history. and love are also in play here. Jones’ refashioning of antebellum history is profoundly subversive and profoundly satisfying. In his telling, our nation’s story is one of contradictions and cruel ironies, halting progress and lost opportunities. I hope that someone, some day, will write a novel just as good about race relations in our current vexed era. If they do, I imagine they will conclude that Mr. Jones had it right all along.
Starting Lynne Tillman’s American Genius, A Comedy, I was led to assume by the confessional intimacy of the voice that this would be a story on a scale small enough to match the closeness its first-person narrator’s tone made me feel to her. But then I began to notice how many physical locations she was taking me to on a given page, or even in a typical supple and quicksilver sentence, and how many temporal locations, and how many of the novel’s vast range of themes and motifs she was advancing, and how many different -- often contradictory -- attitudes toward a given assertion she was adopting or testing out. Another way to describe this narrator’s propensity to make an assertion and then to iterate a number of alternative and mutually opposing points of view about it would be to say that the novel she inhabits, even at the level of a single sentence, is polyphonic, that its central voice contains many voices. So, while tracking her protagonist’s mental and physical peregrinations in time and space to and from the mysterious retreat-like communal living space that is the novel’s core location, Tillman composes and arranges in syntactical harmony a great many people and places and things: mothers and fathers, dogs and cats, the Empire State Building, Eames chairs, textile mills, China and Poland, 1733 and 2006, John D. Rockefeller and Jean Genet, coumadin, lanoxin, chocolate pudding, farting, murder, the Revolution and World War II, shoes, bikes, cars, a lost brother, a City upon a Hill, worry that does not hinder exuberance or vice versa. In American Genius, a Comedy, Tillman becomes, in effect, a dozen Ellingtons conducting a monumental symphony played by an orchestra consisting of a single multifarious instrument. Read an excerpt from American Genius, A Comedy. The Millions review of American Genius, A Comedy. More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers
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I think of Jonathan Lethem as the poet laureate of gentrification. This is true in the literal sense -- in the case of the subject of this piece, The Fortress of Solitude, and to a somewhat lesser extent with his follow up to it, You Don’t Love Me Yet -- in that he writes about neighborhoods in transition: Gowanus in Brooklyn and Echo Park in Los Angeles. But Lethem is also an author gentrifying genre fiction – noir thriller and sci-fi – as he did in his earlier novels Gun with Occasional Music and Girl in a Landscape. Perhaps it’s a kind of reverse gentrification, in that case. The Fortress of Solitude is the tale of Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude, friends across the color line in the evolving neighborhood of Gowanus or Boerum Hill, as it would come to be called. Their racial difference hangs over every interaction in the book, despite their shared tastes in comic books and music. Split into multiple parts, divided by something that already seems incredibly ancient – a liner note – the book is shot through with pop culture, punk rock trivia and super powers. At its best moments, the book perfectly describes a time and a place in near constant transformation, and in realizing two great characters, in Dylan and Mingus. At its worst, it leaves itself open to charges of a kind of forced exotification, as the adult Dylan seems to have collected artifacts of African-American culture – most notably an African-American girlfriend – as one might the relics of a lost civilization. You have to admire Lethem’s bravery -- he fearlessly addresses race in a way that most white writers wouldn’t dare. At the same time, he embraces his geek origins, blending together hip-hop, punk, graffiti art, avant guard film and comic book culture into a dazzling pastiche. While it will likely be his earlier book Motherless Brooklyn that solidifies his reputation, The Fortress of Solitude remains his “biggest” novel to date, a book that tries to stand next to the other greats of the decade. That it doesn’t entirely succeed does little to diminish Lethem’s stature as one of the decade's great writers. Read an excerpt from Fortress of Solitude. A Fortress of Solitude literary soundtrack. More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers
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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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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