Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is a small miracle, a novel in the form of a letter from the Reverend John Ames, 76 and dying, to his 7-year-old son. There are strands of plot in the book — flashbacks involving Ames’ abolitionist grandfather; the explanation of how Ames met his young wife and became a father so late in life; and the story of his friendship with his neighbor Reverend Robert Boughton. But Robinson is really interested in extended rumination, charting Ames’ thoughts about mercy, mortality, forgiveness, grace and doubt in great detail. The pace of these thoughts requires an initial patience from the reader that is amply rewarded. The book’s modest, carefully planed language and its concern with primary human needs make it timeless, but it’s hard not to also marvel at and appreciate the way it functions as a timely corrective. While the proudly ignorant hardcore religious right and arrogant preachers like Richard Dawkins shout past each other, Robinson addresses faith in a way that is both spiritually generous and intellectually serious. Here is religion not as a political cudgel or a claim for moral superiority but as a thoughtful balm for an attentive individual soul.
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
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
Of Lists, Generally Most Emailed Articles. Most Beautiful People. 100 Best Singles. 50 Greatest Novelists Between the Ages of 31 and 33. Verily, as William H. Gass observes in his wonderful essay collection Tests of Time - which made the New York Times Notable Books List even as it missed Bestsellers by a mile - we are nowadays "obsessed by hierarchies in the form of lists." The etiology of this obsession is elaborate enough that a list of the Top 10 causes would not begin to exhaust it. Still, near the head of such a list, as Gass suggests, would have to be "our egalitarian and plural society," which renders questions of value both vital and vexed. And somewhere nearby (just above, or below, or beside?) would be our access to a venue where the itch to list can be almost continuously scratched: the Internet. Online tools for the gathering and measuring and dissemination of data have made list-making so ridiculously easy as to be ubiquitous. Kissing listservs and bookmarks and blogrolls goodbye would be something like turning your back on the Internet altogether. Still, for a certain kind of mind, the lists Gass is referring to - lists that not only collect objects but rank them - would seem to give rise to at least three problems (which appear here in no particular order): They are always incomplete - either arbitrarily circumscribed or made on the basis of incomplete information. Who has time to listen to every Single of the Decade? To gawk at every Beautiful Person? They present a false picture of the world, wherein "best" appears to be a fixed and ascertainable property, like the color of money, rather than, like its value, a contingency. What does "Third Best Living Drummer" mean, exactly? They involve judgment, and therefore judges. Who has the authority to say what makes the cut and what doesn't? Who has the audacity? Who has the right? Thus, every list carries with it, as a built-in feature, the seeds of its own refutation. Indeed, it's probably its hospitality to debate that makes the "Best Of" list so popular in the first place. In a familiar online dynamic, passions get stirred - one can agree (yes! great list!) or dissent (Where is x? Why no y?) or inveigh against list-making itself - but nothing is finally settled. In any case, the list, like the broader medium, holds up a mirror to one's own preoccupations. As with any mirror, it is fearsomely hard to look away. Of One List, More Particularly We at The Millions have experienced first-hand what one might call "the fascination of the list." (Fascination, n. From the Latin for bewitchment; same root as fascism.) For the better part of a decade, we've watched other venues trot out their literary lists, and, in addition to grumbling about the arbitrariness and banality of the results, have wondered why they didn't resemble more closely the lists we ourselves would have made. A more principled (not to say puritanical) editorial posture might have led us to eschew the whole list-making enterprise. Yet when we noticed that the first decade of the Aughts was drawing to a close, we decided, rather than leaving the "Best of the Decade" cataloguing to institutions we didn't quite trust, to do it ourselves. Almost immediately we discovered, or remembered, what may be the number one reason for the proliferation of lists. Making lists, - as Gass knows - is fun. We realized from the get-go, of course, that listing the best books published in the first 10 years of the 21st Century would be an act of hubris. Why not soft-pedal it? We decided, however (and tried to state explicitly in our introduction to the series), that the spirit of the exercise was not to put to rest a conversation about taste and literary merit, but to provoke one. "Some More or Less Recent Books Some People Like," an accurate if unwieldy title, was less likely to generate debate than "Best of the Millennium," so we braced ourselves and went for it. Our next challenge was figuring out how to assemble the list. Being the little-d democrats we are, we decided that any list of "The Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far)" should be arrived at by voting. This meant - logically, unfairly - that books a lot of people had read were more likely to appear on our list than the unjustly neglected classics-in-the-making some other list might discover. But it didn't mean, as the omissions of Zadie Smith, Claire Messud, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Peter Carey, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Chabon attested, that popularity alone was sufficient to get them there. Notwithstanding this constraint, we hoped to honor works in translation. However, because our readership is overwhelmingly English-speaking, we chose to restrict our list to books available in English. This raised a whole set of issues about the speed and frequency of translation - natürlich. On the other hand, readers who elected to call us on it would also be calling attention to the parlous state of translation in the U.S. And perhaps someone better equipped than ourselves would undertake a list of the untranslated books that should have appeared. Now for a starting point. Jan. 1, 2000 seemed a nice, round number, but proved to have odd properties. It eliminated from contention The Savage Detectives and The Elementary Particles, which found their way into English after that date, but not Suite Française, which seemed somehow less millennial. To assemble a panel of voters, we contacted novelists, critics, novelist-critics, and editors who knew The Millions well enough to return our emails. (We forbid them from voting for themselves.) The resulting panel was destined to be demographically skewed in all sorts of important ways. It skewed coastal, it skewed white, it skewed thirtysomething and fortysomething, and it skewed toward writers and reviewers working in the genre of literary fiction. It skewed, that is, much as our site and our readership skews. This seemed to us both a minus and a plus. We also decided, doubtless due to some unexamined numerological prejudice, to limit the number of votes each panelist got to five. Can Anything Be Learned from a List? For all that, the results of our survey pleased us in three ways. First, the ballots were more heterogenous than anything we'd have come up with on our own. Roughly 160 titles got mentioned in the balloting, a number of which none of us had heard of. The most frequently mentioned book by a substantial margin, The Corrections, only received a plurality of votes. Appearing alongside it among the Top 20 vote-getters were three works in translation (from three different languages), four paperback originals, five short-story collections, and five books originated by independent presses. From the point-of-view of the possible, rather than the ideal, our Top 20 and Readers Survey and Honorable Mention and Best of the Rest lists seemed evidence of more diversity and life in the novel than has been widely rumored to exist. Where it was homogeneous (70% of the writers have been published in The New Yorker), the Top 20 list seemed to document a number of tendencies that have been noted elsewhere, and to mark them as worth discussion. Perhaps most interesting was the preponderance of titles that cross-bred the realist patrimony of literary fiction with elements of other genres - science fiction, detective novels, and fantasy. Less widely noticed was how many of our top 20 titles made free - for better or for worse - with techniques that would as recently as the Clinton Administration have been considered avant-garde. Moreover, the Best of the Millennium lists sparked conversations, both in our comment-threads and elsewhere. Conversations about translation. Conversations about corporate publishing. Conversations about who the hell did we think we were. Where these conversations were in progress already, the proximity of a list - a piece of potential evidence to mull over - seemed to increase the volume and the heat. Among these conversations were, as we had hoped, many about books that didn't make the Top 20. Some readers took up the gauntlet we'd thrown down and compiled their own lists. Others supplied overlooked titles: Gould's Book of Fish; Tree of Smoke; The Last Samurai. (I would have liked to vote for these last two myself. And The Line of Beauty. And Against the Day. And The Wire. And True History of the Kelly Gang.) I can't speak for our readers, but I don't think there's a single Millions contributor whose personal "To Be Read" list wasn't shaken up as a result of this series. Even some readers who rejected outright the listing impulse couldn't resist commenting at length, as a lengthy debate between Andrew Seal and Edmond Caldwell (later continued at Dan Green's The Reading Experience) illustrated. This back-and-forth, which had proceeded from the suggestion that our Top 20 reflected a certain parochialism, grew more and more parochial itself. It seemed by turns to confirm the theory that lists offer a mirror of the beholder's preoccupations, to demarcate the narrowness and/or breadth of online literary discourse, and to do all of the above at the same time. Yet it was impassioned, and alive. Of Lists, Personally As the "Best of the Millennium" discussion went on, however, I began to think that the most interesting datum to arise from the whole project spoke volumes about our current understanding of aesthetic experience. It was this: while I could grant dissenters their passions, some of them were unable to grant mine. "The panelists can't possibly have felt the way they claimed to have felt The Corrections" was the tenor of these comments. It was not the first time I'd heard this line of reasoning, if that's the right word. As Carl Wilson notes in Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, there's a tendency among the commentariat to view aesthetic experience through the prism of Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction - to assume (brace yourself: I'm about to vulgarize this) that people mostly love the things they love for what loving those things says about them. This may be true, in a sense broad enough to be almost tautological. People who responded to The Corrections - people who were, yes, moved by it - may have been united, among other things, by their desire to be united by a novel that moved them, and moved by a novel that united them. But to push this anodyne observation into an accusation of illegitimacy or blindness is to fashion it into a boomerang: it redounds upon the one hurling it, and promptly plants itself in her forehead. That is, it makes her appear far more attuned to where a work sits on the popularity-backlash curve - and far more anxious about what her own position thereupon may say about her - than the reader who simply allows herself to be, or not to be, seduced. To put it another way, 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. And it seems to prompt the very flocking pattern - hype, backlash, counterbacklash - it purports to expose. At any rate, insofar as it annihilates its own object, it is transparently poor ground for any debate about value. I prefer Kant's definition of aesthetic experience, which, being unequal to The Critique of Pure Reason, I've nicked from another Gass essay: the experience of purposiveness without purpose - either in the look of a utility that has been retired or in an accidental object that seems rationally shaped to perform an undefined task. That last bit - an object "rationally shaped to perform an undefined task" seems to me a fair descriptor of the five books I've loved the most this decade: The Corrections, Twilight of the Superheroes, The Known World, Mortals, 2666. And, to the extent that our "Best of the Millennium" experiment has proceeded by accident and happenstance, it seems a decent sketch of the series itself. Perhaps we gravitate toward lists because they are themselves a kind of aesthetic experience, whether pleasurable or infuriating. At any rate, we hope you've found ours useful, though for what we wouldn't presume to say.
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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. The Millions review of The Known World. The Known World tops The Millions Prizewinners list. More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers
Months before Ian McEwan's Atonement was published in the U.S., the galley was being passed from bookseller to bookseller at Book Soup, where I worked at the time. My usually jaded coworkers were effusive, and by the time they had passed the book on to me, my interest was piqued. Atonement introduced me to McEwan, one of the leading literary lights of the last 25 years, a prolific and sometimes controversial novelist. It proved to be quite an introduction. Atonement is told in three parts, nestling the mannered charms of an English country house up against an arresting tale of Britain at war, and it has an ending that turns an admittedly accomplished but conventional novel into a gut-punch of a book that toys with the idea of the reliable narrator and gets one thinking about the ethics of story-telling and the power that a writer has to bend history to his will. McEwan was a Booker winner in 1998 for Amsterdam, but it was Atonement that cemented him as that rare thing, the literary superstar. Read an Excerpt from Atonement. More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers
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