At Pie ‘n Burger in Pasadena, the local ladies gossip over their lunch, the wooden swivel chairs date back to the diner’s opening in 1963, and the waitress brings you dairy creamer for your coffee. Michelle Huneven knows the place well enough to request real milk for her decaf, and she orders boysenberry pie (she calls it “boy pie”), not warmed up, with only a touch of ice cream. We met at this venerable establishment because it’s one of the many real-life settings in her third book, Blame, a beautiful and masterful novel that was recently nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Within a few pages, I had fallen in love. It opens with twelve-year-old Joey Hawthorne, whose mother is dying of cancer. One afternoon, her rakish Uncle Brice retrieves her from summer typing class in his Studebaker pickup. Huneven writes:
Joey loved him thoroughly and irrationally and planned to marry him the moment she turned twenty-one and came into her own trust fund. (She’d heard there were states in the Deep South where uncle and niece might wed.) Joey dreamed of restoring Brice to the lifestyle and financial bracket where he rightfully belonged, although she also imagined dispatching her money with the same profligacy with which he’d already flown through his, if only for the sheer, exhilarating blur of it.
Aside from depicting the moneyed world of Southern California in the early 1980s, this chapter also introduces us to Patsy MacLemoore, Brice’s blonde and leggy girlfriend who gets Joey drunk that night, and then pierces her ears. Structurally, the book is quite daring, for although we begin with Joey, it’s Patsy we follow for the remainder of the narrative. A year after this night, she wakes behind bars after an alcoholic blackout. She has run over two people–a mother and daughter–and killed them. The rest of the story is about Patsy negotiating this tragic event, and her “incredible burden of guilt,” as Huneven calls it. She goes to prison, gets sober, and tries to be good. And then, after nearly twenty years of being good, she discovers that everything she thought about herself was wrong. Huneven started this book with a single question: What if you led a life according to some fact, and then you discovered that fact was wrong? “Would that still be a good life worth living?” Huneven pondered. She told me:
There’s a self-awareness in sobriety that’s good and important. There’s some fear in it, too, that I don’t think is really healthy. As in, “Oh my God, if I take a drink, then I’ll end up in the morgue, or a hospital, or jail.” Which strands of her life will Patsy keep, and which ones will she relinquish? I wrote the book to find out.
What I liked most about Blame was how much of Patsy’s life we get. The narrative distills time deftly, pausing to show us important moments, and skating smoothly over others. It’s rich characterization; the book captures so well the everyday struggle to be alive, and, in this way, it felt real. It reminded me a little of Stoner by John Williams, which I’ve praised before. Both novels take characters through vast swaths of time, and we see how they are changed–and how they aren’t. As Patsy ages, we witness her absorption of new values–whether they be from AA, or from her therapist, Silver, or from various relationships. I found the evolution of these relationships the most compelling; she and Brice, for instance, remain connected throughout the novel, although they are no longer romantically involved after the first chapter. “I’m really interested in how long term relationships change over the years,” Huneven told me. “I live next door to a woman I met on the very first day of high school. Our lives are intertwined in such a funny way. I’m always so interested in how everyone is interrelated, how people come back into your life. I used to think everything would be lost, but maybe because I’ve stayed in one place, or come back to where I live, it’s not lost—it’s just rearranged. I wanted to write about that.”
Perhaps the fact that Huneven lives where she grew up, in Altadena, explains why she is able to capture life in this way. “I’m interested in the swerves of time, in the adjustments people make,” she said. She calls Patsy’s story “a slow life-orientation,” and adds, “If you think of the life Patsy would have in the first chapter, if you met her, you’d think she’d eventually settle down but she’d always be wild and a wise ass. But then this big thing happens and it really changes who she is.” This, I think, is what makes Blame so fascinating. As a writer–and maybe as a human, too–I’m intrigued by the idea that a single event can alter character so drastically, that the self might be mutable. In my classes, I tell my students to think of scenes as dominoes, each one falling into the next, a ripple of influence. In Huneven’s novel, the single event of the accident–or as it’s imagined by Patsy–forces every moment in her future to fall a certain way. “The guilt made her want to be good,” Huneven said of her main character. And was she good? And does it matter? I turned these questions over and over in my mind as I read.
I wanted to meet with Huneven for selfish reasons; I hoped she’d tell me her magic. How does one treat time in this way? Alas, she did not reveal to me her secret powers. “I go a little ways, and then I get stuck,” she explained. “And then I go a little ways, and then I get stuck.” She had a general road map of Patsy’s life, she admitted, and the everyday aspects were always in place. For instance, during the novel’s climax, Patsy is grading. Even as she must reconsider her notion of self, Patsy continues to do her teaching work: she writes marginal comments, wills that stack of exams to decrease, and, all the while, wrestles with the past and the life she’s made for herself. The grading was there from the first draft, Huneven said. This juxtaposition, of the life-changing and the mundane, is powerful in its authenticity–but it’s not abject naturalism, either. The narration is nimble in what it shows and dramatizes, and what it merely alludes to. I asked Huneven if she had used other organizational techniques to capture Patsy’s life. “There is a pulse of sobriety and her whole relationship to AA,” she said. Huneven pointed out that, although it isn’t always shown on the page, Patsy is going through the 12 steps. Huneven doesn’t dramatize them, scene by scene, but they are there, humming in the background. In this way, the characterization of Patsy feels both monumental and incremental. “I’m really interested in a woman who is not the most privileged citizen,” Huneven said. “How much of the world can manifest around her?”
When I pushed further, asking how Huneven prepared and worked through this story, both its smallness and its bigness, she laughed. “I’m always making calendars,” she said. “The difference between short stories and novels is, with a novel, sooner or later you’re on the floor with a pad of paper making timelines and calendars and family trees.” Our conversation turned often from writing Blame to writing in general. “What’s wrong with you, is wrong with your writing,” Huneven told me. “It really behooves you to find out what that is, so that you can disguise that in your writing. Or compensate it, or cover it up. Or cure it, if you can.” With Blame, Huneven said she worked to cut out the unnecessary, to not “hammer everything home,” as she thought she’d done in her previous books. “With Blame, I tried to be more swift.” Then, Huneven turned her bad-ass gaze on me, and said, “Now tell me what’s wrong with your writing.” Clearly, she’s a terrific teacher.
I asked Huneven how the Southern California in her novel compared to the one we lived in. She gave me a funny look, as if they weren’t different–and in a way, she’s right. The world Patsy moves through is so carefully detailed and described, it’s as vivid and real as the room I sit in right now. Take this description, for instance:
They drove west to an area near the Rose Bowl where, at the turn of the century, wealthy midwestern industrialists built enormous family homes on one-acre lots along curving treelined streets. Together the houses formed a kind of architecture beauty pageant, the Swiss chateau, the Craftsman, the Mission revival, the shingled Cape Cod, not one matching its neighbor. The long, graceful limbs of the bayberry trees overhung the streets, filtered the sun through bright green leaves. The pea-sized berries, crushed by tires, mentholated the air and made the whole neighborhood smell like a cough-suppressant rub.
“Setting gives birth to character,” Huneven told me. She’d wanted to write Blame for three years, but couldn’t because she didn’t know where it was set. “I thought Boise, and then Sacramento,” she said. “I wanted some place with an old downtown hotel. Vestigial country club, parochial, Eisenhower Republican wealth. Once I decided to write it in Pasadena, I started cooking.”
I asked her if she could imagine Patsy dining at the Pie ‘n Burger–not in the world of the book, but the one we sat in currently. Huneven nodded to the counter. “Yeah, you could see right over there,” she said, smiling. Honestly, the idea exhilarated me. Patsy MacLemoore! “The best thing is when people talk about your characters as if they’re alive,” Huneven said. Amen to that.
The finalists for the annual National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award are now out. The fiction list includes four books by women, three of which have already gotten some award love from the National Book Award and the Booker Prize. The other two books have received strong notices from reviewers and buzz from bloggers. Here are the finalists for fiction and non-fiction with excerpts and other links where available. As a side note, the NBCC award is particularly interesting in that it is one of the few major awards that pits American books against overseas (usually British) books.
Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage (excerpt, NBA shortlisted)
Marlon James, The Book of Night Women (excerpt)
Michelle Huneven, Blame (excerpt, Huneven’s writing at The Millions)
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (excerpt, Booker winner)
Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite (excerpt, NBA shortlisted)
Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History
Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (excerpt, NBA shortlisted)
Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (excerpt)
Tracy Kidder, Strength in What Remains (excerpt)
William T. Vollmann, Imperial (excerpt, a Millions Most Anticipated book)
For more on the NBCC Awards and the finalists in the other categories, check out the NBCC’s blog.
The end of another year (and decade) offers many amusements and diversions, chief among them the inevitable, retrospective lists. We made our own attempt in September, with our Best of the Millennium (So Far) series, which proved to be an instructive and contentious exercise. Among the chief arguments leveled against such “best of” lists is the way they posit an illusory pinnacle of achievement and quality. By means of a grand consensus, the list smooths over natural and exciting variations in individual taste. But true discoveries are often made not by finding out what everybody liked, but by getting from one trusted fellow reader a recommendation that strikes a nerve or piques an interest.
It’s also true that the reader who reflects on a year will find a thread of reading experiences to parallel the real-life ones…and particularly sublime moments alone (even in a crowd, alone) when a book has taken the reader out of her world and into its own. This experience transcends the cold qualitative accounting that names one book better than another.
And so amid all the lists (even our own), to round out the year, we offer a new installment of our annual “Year in Reading” series – an anti-list, as it were. Acknowledging that few readers, if any, read exclusively newly published books, we’ve asked our regular contributors and distinguished guests to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these considerations, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help your year in reading in 2010 be a fruitful one.
As we have in prior years, the names of our 2009 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.
Hari Kunzru, author of My Revolutions
Julie Klam, author of Please Excuse My Daughter
Phillip Lopate, author of Notes on Sontag
Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Mark Sarvas, author of Harry, Revised, proprietor of The Elegant Variation.
Diane Williams, author of It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature, editor of NOON
Jonathan Lethem, author of Chronic City
David Gutowski, proprietor of Largehearted Boy
Jesse Ball, author of The Way Through Doors
Deb Olin Unferth, author of Vacation
Edan Lepucki of The Millions
Michelle Huneven, author of Blame
Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End
William H. Gass, author of The Tunnel
Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet
Victor LaValle, author of Big Machine
Dana Goodyear, author of Honey & Junk, New Yorker staff writer
Rosecrans Baldwin, founding editor of The Morning News and author of You Lost Me There
Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
David Shields, author of Reality Hunger
Stephen Elliott, editor of The Rumpus and author of The Adderall Diaries
Brady Udall, author of The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint
Rick Moody, author of The Black Veil
Kate Christensen, author of The Great Man
Marco Roth, a founding editor of N+1
Maud Newton, proprietor of maudnewton.com
Patrick Brown of The Millions
Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen
Scott Esposito editor of The Quarterly Conversation and of Conversational Reading
Ben Fountain, author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara
Joe Meno, author of The Great Perhaps
Elizabeth Kostova, author of The Historian
Emily St. John Mandel, author of Last Night In Montreal
Jennifer Egan, author of The Invisible Circus
Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances
Samantha Peale, author of The American Painter Emma Dial
Lan Samantha Chang, author of Inheritance
David L. Ulin, book editor of the Los Angeles Times
Jerome Charyn, author of The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson
Jon Raymond, author of The Half-Life
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, author of Ms. Hempel Chronicles
Ken Chen, author of Juvenilia
Mark Haskell Smith, author of Moist
Brad Watson, author of Last Days of the Dog-Men
John Williams, editor of The Second Pass
Carolyn Kellogg, of Jacket Copy and www.carolynkellogg.com
Anne K. Yoder, of The Millions
Tim W. Brown, author of American Renaissance
Traver Kauffman, of Rake’s Progress
Jeff Martin, author of My Dog Ate My Nobel Prize
Ed Park, author of Personal Days
Cristina Henríquez, author of The World in Half
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, contributor to The Millions
Motoyuki Shibata, author of American Narcissus
Robert Lopez, author of Kamby Bolongo Mean River
Masatsugu Ono, author of Graves Buried in Water
Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica
Dan Kois, author of Facing Future
Michael Fusco, of Michael Fusco Design
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.