John Haskell’s fiction is like little else. Or is it non-fiction? Or is it just magic and not something to be too greatly dissected? In one collection and three novels, he explores the mind’s torsions in an uncommon, questioning manner within a first-person sense of orality, like being around a campfire with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. At times, the wending way of Haskell’s narrators—who include a Steve Martin impersonator, a ghost, and those disembodied voices who talk about films and artists in I Am Not Jackson Pollack—are incredible chess-like gambits and logic-chopping suppositions both pre- and post- to frustrate (in a good way), embolden, and prod the reader. In his new book, The Complete Ballet, Haskell again presents a first-person speaker who is trapped by a real-life threat, based on a John Cassavetes film, but muses on the great figures of ballet in an effort to right his present trouble and past grief. We talked about the book, his process, and the Internet, through the Internet, this summer.
The Millions: As in American Purgatorio, death lurks in this new novel, the death of a child. Since you have a young daughter, I imagine there was more than a little mining of your day-to-day life. Something along the lines of Julia Kristeva’s “The speaking subject gives herself away.” I felt an inkling of that in this book, like the earlier one. Your narrators approach death and grieving obliquely, almost erasing themselves in the process of grieving. The subtitle of this book is A Fictional Essay in Five Acts. Which leads me to ask a naive question, Who is who? Or better, How close are you to your main characters? Do you feel you give yourself away when writing? And if you do, which self do you give away?
John Haskell: The whole idea of identity is slippery. It’s not a slope because there is no actual place where a person might slip, or if there is, it’s the place of having no identity, which to me seems similar to inhabiting multitudinous identities, and so, getting around to your question, yes, everything is real because once I’ve pictured it and once I’ve lived inside whatever event might be happening, it feels as real as so-called reality, so that who is who, meaning who am I, becomes a different question. Who I am is everyone. I’m both Haskell the ballet critic and Nureyev the dancer. I’m Cosmo, the character in the Cassavetes movie who kills the Chinese bookie, but I’m also me, the writer and character, and having said all that, the character of me in the story isn’t me.
TM: I noticed in this book a breaking up of narration within the sentence, a unique and fast way of pushing across action and scene, as in this sentence, “Whatever chemical causes elation, I was feeling a surge of it, looking around at the men at the table, all of them older than I was, most of them smoking cigars, drinking amber-colored drinks which turned out to be whiskey, and I’ll have one too.” That last clause, a brush of dialogue, of which there is barely any in the book, adds a sort of grace note to the details before it. How did you go about writing this way? Was it a conscious choice?
JH: Ah, the idea of conscious choice, or unconscious choice. Again, not to seem opaque, I’d have to say that conscious and unconscious, although they’re obviously not the same, seem the same when I’m writing. And maybe that happens because of rewriting. Going over and over, smoothing and simplifying and clarifying, and if I’m not listening to Bach then I’m listening to the continuity of thought that gets sucked into the language, creating a language that, I hope, makes sense of what I’m thinking.
TM: Do you mean you listen to Bach when you write?
JH: I don’t remember what I was listening to when I wrote The Complete Ballet but lately I’ve been listening to Bach. At the moment I have a flute concerto playing. When I say Bach I’m talking about what is almost a metaphorical music, with phrases that expand and collapse, which join and separate, not beginning because there was no ending to begin with, just flowing, an overused word but like a river flows the words of a sentence or thought can get carried along, sucked into the larger river that comprises the language itself.
TM: This book is made up of some plot points of John Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie from 1976. I know you have a love of film (and certainly Cassavetes) and have plumbed other great works from Psycho to Pickpocket to the film noir Detour. What made you take this film as template? Is there a special affinity for Cassavetes’s take on an old film noir standby, the gambler who loses and has to make up the mark for the mob? The film itself isn’t even a neo-noir really, with its examining the life of the striptease club Cosmo runs. Its cult reputation has grown, with many saying it was Ben Gazzara’s best performance.
JH: I’d been thinking of working with that movie, partly because of the mood of the movie and partly because of the narrative. And partly because of the way the movie disrupts that narrative. But I had trouble making it work for me. I kept writing and rewriting it, altering my version and getting farther away from the Cassavetes version, my character becoming less and less like Ben Gazarra and more like Cassavetes himself, and when I still couldn’t get it to work for me I thought it was because of the color, the sharp, saturated, contrasty reds and blues, that the color was messing with my plan. So I set it aside. But it didn’t go away, and eventually, after many transformations, I found myself inside the story in a way that started to make sense. And the milieu of ’70s Los Angeles started to make sense. Of course it made no sense to juxtapose that story with essays on Romantic ballet, but as I kept revising all the various incompatible elements the more it did make sense, or seemed to, and that’s why I called it Complete, which is slightly tongue-in-cheek because it would never be complete.
TM: I cling to what you say about the contrasty reds and blues in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Maybe because there is no color Cassavetes film that seems so memorable in terms of color, which may have to do with the nightclub scenes, but also those eerie daylight scenes. Did the ballet crossover come out of the nightclub act? What is your history with ballet?
JH: Not much history with ballet, but it started, I think, with some research I did, many years ago, on Joseph Cornell, an artist and balletomane who worshipped ballerinas with a perverse kind of nostalgia. Then, a few years ago, an ex-ballet dancer started telling me some of the stories of the ballets. That got me thinking, as did conversations I had with a choreographer friend about George Balanchine’s relationship with his dancers. Then, when I was rewriting the book, my daughter, who was about three years old, became a ballet fanatic. Together we watched the videos on YouTube and I began to see the stories of the ballets, including the stories of the people who made them and danced in them, as mythic. And I’m interested in how a story, especially a personal story, becomes mythic.
TM: Tooling around the Internet the other day, I found a Goodreads review of your novel, Out of My Skin. “I am not sure about this book. The language isn’t offensive-the writing isn’t bad-but it just made me feel really awkward. The weirdest part for me was when the main character goes into the impersonator’s house to meet his parents and gives them a tour of the neighborhood. It just seemed like too many boundaries were crossed.” The “it just made me feel really awkward” piqued. Are you adverse to writing in a way that would not make people feel awkward? Often we hear about people who avoid a book or movie because they think it will “depress” them. Do you think art can make one feel a certain way?
JH: Well, it often makes me feel a certain way. But I don’t have a design for what a person should feel. Only that something happens, a thought or emotion or…and speaking of Cassavetes, I remember the first time I saw Faces, or possibly it was Shadows, another early movie, and afterwards I walked out of Lincoln Center into Central Park, feeling a sense of excitement in my body, and it wasn’t directly about the movie but more about the art that had been revealed in the movie. I could call it beauty or honesty, and as my daughter said when she took her first swimming lesson, I feel excited and nervous, and I certainly don’t mean to make anyone feel awkward, but maybe being awkward is a kind of excitement and nervousness and maybe it was what the person needed. Or maybe that person preferred a different kind of book.
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.
#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
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
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.