The Elementary Particles

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Nihilists Have Feelings, Too: Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory

A “sick old turtle” named Michel Houellebecq appears in Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, The Map and the Territory. Drawing by Bill Morris

Few living writers have generated as much snark as Michel Houellebecq. Of all the rivers of bile that this dyspeptic bad boy of French letters has inspired, here is my absolute favorite sentence: “Like Haruki Murakami – in some ways his gentler (and far more gifted) Japanese counterpart – Houellebecq writes about the sulky crises of middle-aged male protagonists confronting existential superfluity while dealing with the destabilizing presence of alternately willing and withholding nubiles.”

Anyone who can keep a straight face while writing such a sentence – especially the bit about the destabilizing influence of alternately willing and withholding nubiles – is a writer you simply cannot ignore. So meet Rob Horning, who wrote the above for the on-line magazine The New Inquiry, in his review of a new book called Anti-Matter: Michel Houellebecq and Depressive Realism by Ben Jeffery. Horning gives a full inventory of what he finds offensive about Houellebecq’s fiction: its self-loathing, misanthropy, pessimism, cynicism, and hopelessness in the face of a life that is pointless and only made moreso by the hollow seductions of sex and consumer capitalism. “Houellebecq’s indiscriminate cynicism is not especially hard to get a handle on,” Horning writes. “He seems to operate on the assumption that the more mercilessly pessimistic or debasing an observation, the more titillatingly truthful readers will take it to be. He yearns to sound transgressive but more often than not comes across as petty and self-parodic.”

Horning bases this verdict largely on three of Houellebecq’s fictional gloomfests, The Elementary Particles (1998), Platform (2002), and The Possibility of an Island (2006). That’s a shame, because since then Houellebecq has published two books – a collection of correspondence with Bernard-Henri Levy called Public Enemies, and a new novel called The Map and the Territory – that reveal something Horning would likely find impossible to believe.

Namely: Michel Houellebecq may be a petty misanthrope and an average prose stylist, but he can also be drop-dead funny.

Here he is writing to his pen pal BHL in Public Enemies: “We are both rather contemptible individuals…basically I’m just a redneck, an unremarkable author with no style…a nihilist, reactionary, cynic, racist, shameless misogynist.” After pleading guilty as charged, Houellebecq points out that nihilists have feelings too: “The fact remains that I am uncomfortable and helpless in the face of outright hostility. Every time I did one of those famous Google searches, I had the same feeling as, when suffering from a particularly painful bout of eczema, I end up scratching myself until I bleed… In the end I stopped counting my enemies although, in spite of my doctor’s repeated advice, I still haven’t given up scratching.”

Granted, this isn’t exactly thigh-slapping material, but the Gallic wit is undeniable, as is the refreshingly gentle air of self-deprecation. These virtues are the centerpiece of The Map and the Territory, Houellebecq’s least violent and most tender novel, winner of France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt.

The book opens with a contemporary French artist named Jed Martin struggling to finish a painting he calls Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market. Here’s Houellebecq’s take on the art world’s two reigning superstars: Koons had the slippery appearance of “a Chevrolet convertible salesman,” while “Hirst was basically easy to capture: you could make him brutal, cynical in an ‘I shit on you from the top of my pile of cash’ kind of way; you could also make him a rebel artist (but rich all the same) pursuing an anguished work on death…” This deft lampoon of the art world is marred by those random italics, a pointless stylistic tic that will recur, maddeningly, on every page.

The novel’s brashest and best gag is the introduction of a character named Michel Houellebecq, the famous French writer, who Jed enlists to write the catalog copy for his break-out exhibition, a series of altered photographs of Michelin road maps that give the novel its title. The author describes this Houellebecq character as “a sick old turtle,” a “tortured wreck,” and “a loner with strong misanthropic tendencies: it was rare for him even to say a word to his dog.”

The novel is most alive when we’re in the presence of Houellebecq, who loathes his native France so much that he has moved into a “banal” bungalow on the west coast of Ireland, where he putters around amid unpacked boxes, fretting, not getting much writing done. When Jed visits him there, a spark ignites between the two and the story begins to sing. Jed confesses that he expected the novelist to drink more than he does, and Houllebecq pounces on this opportunity to unload on some of his eczema-inducing enemies: “You know, it’s the journalists who’ve given me the reputation for being a drunk; what’s curious is that none of them ever realized that if I was drinking a lot in their presence, it was simply in order to put up with them. How could you bear to have a conversation with a twat like Jean-Paul Marsouin without being almost shit-faced? How could you meet someone who works for Marianne or Le Parisien libere without wanting to throw up on the spot?”

This has the ring of dark truth and it’s fun to read and I don’t doubt that it was fun to write. Unfortunately, there’s entirely too little of it, and the fun comes to an abrupt end when Houellebecq returns to France, buys the rural house he grew up in, and gets brutally murdered there.

There are only two nubiles in the book, both of the willing persuasion and both doomed to disappear without a trace, a fate common to many of Houellebecq’s characters. Much more interesting is the presence of a middle-aged woman named Helene, who is attractive, sexy, and happily married to Jasselin, the lead police investigator in the Houellebecq murder case. But this is an author who can’t stand prosperity. Soon after shocking us with a grisly murder and introducing us to this intriguing married couple, Houellebecq wanders off on a wheezing disquisition on the history, temperament, and health complications of their bichon dog (“the introduction of the Bolognese bichon to the court of Francois I came as a present from the duke of Ferrara…”). Such disregard for the reader goes beyond cynical; it’s vicious. And it has all the poetry of a Wikipedia entry. In fact, after weathering charges that he’d copied entire passages of the novel from the online encyclopedia, Houellebecq has added an acknowledgement in the American edition, thanking Wikipedia for being a “source of inspiration.”

Houellebecq has been compared, not unfairly, to everyone from Camus to Celine, William S. Burroughs, and Charles Manson. If I read him correctly, his lack of artistry is a conscious indictment of artistry, of prettiness, of writers bowing to readers who yearn for such cheap niceties as fluent prose, shapely narratives, and three-dimensional characters. Such things are both beneath Houellebecq’s contempt and beyond his powers, which is lucky for him. His stance means he’s free to demean something he’s incapable of producing. Nifty.

Which is not to say this is a wholly bad book. It’s full of clunky writing, but it has a few interesting ideas and engaging moments, some actual suspense, and a delightfully twisted sense of humor. That’s not nothing. And any writer who can call himself a “sick old turtle” and serve us his own severed head – well, that’s a writer you simply cannot ignore.

A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg

This was the year my son became a toddler — which is to say, the year I surrendered the keys to my attention span to a traveling companion by turns delightful, dilatory, and insane. Among the casualties of this shift was an essay I had planned to write, called “How Having a One-year-old Will Change Your Reading and Writing Habits” … along with several hundred other essays, reviews, articles, and epic poems that got interrupted partway through. But the kid has just gone down for a nap, which should buy me an hour or two, provided all goes well. And I do have my notes. (My notes! How optimistic that phrase now sounds!) What follows, then, is a kind of museum of my failures, an atlas of incompletion, a tour of the ruins of a future that never came. I call it “Reviews I Did Not Write This Year.”

1. Game-Changer
The single best thing I read in 2011 was Steps to an Ecology of Mind, a career-spanning nonfiction collection from the late anthropological polymath and proto-hippie genius Gregory Bateson. This may sound forbidding — and it is, in a way. Bateson is an artist of abstraction on par with Derrida or Kant. (What the hell is an “Ecology of Mind”, e.g.? Something like a way of thinking about thinking. Or thinking about thinking about thinking…) But Bateson’s method is inductive; each essay builds lucidly from some specific subject — alcoholism, Balinese art, the conversation of porpoises — toward a larger concern with form, communication, complexity, and how they inform systems of all kinds. After 400 pages of this, “Systems Theory,” which is another, uglier name for “Ecology of Mind,” comes to look like the great Road Not Taken of Western Thought. Or maybe a road gone partway down, backed out of, blocked off, and erased from the map, in favor of the road that got us to where we are today. In short, this book changed my brain. I don’t think it’s too strong to say that it changed my life.

2. Novels
Of the novels I read this year, my favorite was probably Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, but I’ve written about that elsewhere, so I guess there’s no room for it here. Equally captivating were a pair of books from that nebulous period just before Joyce and Eliot and Woolf arrived to put their stamp on literary history. The first was Lucky Per, the magnum opus of the Danish Nobelist Henrik Pontoppidan. First published in 1904, it’s either a late masterpiece of 19th century Realism, or an early masterpiece of 20th century Modernism … or maybe the missing term between them. Pontoppidan gives us both a Balzacian examination of a society on the cusp of cosmopolitanism and a Kierkegaardian x-ray of the vacant place where we once imagined the individual soul. Filling that vacancy is the hero-journey of the eponymous Per, and it culminates in one of the great, strange endings of world literature. But don’t take my word for it. Take Fredric Jameson’s. (Inexplicably, by the way, Lucky Per remained untranslated into English until a dear friend of mine took this mitzvah upon herself. In a just world there would be a nice Oxford World Classics edition of this available for $10, but as it stands, it’s a pricey import.)

The Forsyte Saga, which I read this summer, covers some of the same historical territory, but in England, rather than Denmark. You won’t catch me saying this often, but I think Virginia Woolf and V.S. Pritchett missed the boat on this one. Galsworthy’s style — his “port-wine irony,” as Pritchett puts it — looks pretty tasty a hundred years later, when the cultural palate tends to run either to near-beer or Jägermeister. And though he lacks the psychological penetration of a Pontoppidan (or a Woolf, for that matter) Galsworthy’s astuteness as an observer of the bourgeois mores that formed him is unimpeachable. You can almost read The Forsyte Saga as a spy novel, the work of a double-agent that both informs on and sympathizes with his class.

3. Addendum
I’d be remiss, too, if I didn’t mention David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which is just as amazing as everyone says it is. This had lingered on my list for years. If it’s done the same on yours, promote it to the top, post-haste.

4. Best New Fiction
As far as newish fiction, my favorites were David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow, and Haruki Murakami’s IQ84. The first two I wrote about here and here, so: disqualified on a technicality. But that’s a good thing, because it gives me more space to talk about The Pregnant Widow. This one struck me as a hetero version of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, only set in the go-go ’60s rather than the go-go ’80s. (If that description had appeared on the jacket, it would have been enough to get me to buy the book, as there are few things I love more than Hollinghurst, the ’60s, and books about sex.) Amis being Amis, the writing is fantastic. More importantly, though, this book shows off the heart everyone says he doesn’t have. It’s a wistful little f–ker, at that. In fact, The Pregnant Widow would be Amis’ best book … were it not marred by an abominable coda. (Trust me on this: just stop on page 308. Bind the rest of the pages shut with glue, if you have to. Rip them out. Burn them. They never happened.)

IQ84 is, similarly and just as surprisingly, also full of heart (though Murakami’s temperament here runs more toward Tin Pan Alley than Let it Bleed). And, now that I think of it, IQ84 could likewise have used a nice strong edit at the end. But who’s going to complain about a thousand pages of assassins, “simple meals,” crazy religious cults, and “little people”? There are a million billion holes I could poke in this book, but for me, IQ84 bypassed questions of good taste entirely, en route to being often within shouting distance of the great. Just in terms of the massive tractor-beam effect it exerted on my attention, it was the most pleasurable reading experience I had all year. Away from it, I couldn’t wait to get back.

5. Brief Books With European Pedigrees
A wonderful new discovery for me was Lore Segal, whose Lucinella couldn’t be more unlike IQ84. It’s short, for one thing — I read it back during the time I thought I would read only short books. It’s wickedly funny, for another (writers’ colonies may be easy game, but it takes chutzpah to make sport of the gods). Also: it’s just exquisitely written. Here, the pleasure is less in the narrative burlesque than in every beautifully turned sentence. A New Year’s resolution: I will read more Lore Segal in 2012.

Another short, funny, weird novel I loved this year was Ludvíc Vakulíc’s The Guinea Pigs, now back in print in English. Vakulíc is like Bohumil Hrabal without the soft-shoe, or Kafka without the metaphysics. Here he writes about (in no particular order), bureaucracy, family, totalitarianism, money, and guinea pigs (natch). These emerge as aspects of the same phenomenon — an idea that struck me as weirdly apposite in America, circa 2011. At any rate, Vakulíc’s comedy is relentless, disconcerting, clear-eyed, and strange.

The last in my troika of great short books was Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness. This is simply the best novel about the Holocaust I have ever read: the most meticulous, the most comprehensive, the most beautiful in its scruples, the most scrupulous in its beauty. To say that it, too, is disconcerting doesn’t mean what you’d think it means. Basically, you just have to read it.

6. Omissions
Somehow I’ve gotten through the “shorter books” section without mentioning Skylark, Never Let Me Go, or The Elementary Particles, as I somehow managed to get through the last decade without reading them. I hereby rectify the former error, as I rectified the latter in 2011. You should read these, too.

7. Nonfiction
Earlier this year, the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides inspired me to pick up John Lewis’ memoir Walking With the Wind. This seems to me the very model of the as-told-to book, in that you really feel the cadences of Lewis’ voice and the force of his insights. That this book is morally stirring is obvious. A couple things that often get lost in the narrative about the Civil Rights Movement, however, are what brilliant tacticians its leaders were and how widely their visions varied. You feel both here, powerfully. Occupiers, and for that matter Tea Partiers, could learn a lot at the feet of John Lewis.

8. Pulphead
Finally: everyone is required to read John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead. I know a lot of other people are saying this, but it’s true. The debt to Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again will be obvious even if you haven’t read Sullivan’s beautiful essay on Wallace, but the subtle subterranean orchestrations of these pieces, the way they press on and palpate the things they’re really about without ever naming them, remind me more of the great Joseph Mitchell. Most of them are practically perfect on their own, and collectively they comprise something greater. If you ever feel like the breach between journalism and anything of lasting consequence is getting wider and wider, let this book be your balm.

I should also say, it being the holidays and all, that Pulphead is a perfect stocking-stuffer, perfect to read on airplanes (also on subways and on park benches in cold weather), perfect for dads, perfect for moms, perfect for musicians, perfect for college kids, perfect for people with small children and a concomitant inability to concentrate. In short, a perfect gift. Oh, crap. I didn’t get to talk about The Gift! But the child is stirring in the next room, the laundry is almost done, I have apparently forgotten to eat lunch. Given that my pile of half-written essays now rivals the size of my pile of half-read books, I can’t say when you’ll next hear from me. Next December, probably, when it’s time for another Year in Reading piece. I promise that one will be shorter and more disciplined. Comparatively, haiku. But I hope this mess above will, if nothing else, give you some books to check out in the meantime.

More from A Year in Reading 2011

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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A Year in Reading: Keith Gessen

At the beginning of 2010 I was in Ukraine, and trying to understand what was going on there. Two contemporary historians, both dissidents, helped explain. Georgiy Kasianov writes in Ukrainian, Russian, and English; his history of post-independence Ukraine (in Russian) is a great and funny book that bravely resists the nationalist narrative pushed forward by the Ukraine-for-Ukrainians lobby. In English his edited volume, A Laboratory of Transnational History, is recommended. It includes an essay by John-Paul Himka, a Canadian historian of Ukrainian origin who has for a number of years kept up a lonely moral crusade against the nationalist elements of the Ukrainian diaspora in North America. You would think the margin for historical error in a territory and period as finite as Western Ukraine during the Second World War would be pretty thin; you’d be wrong.

I tend to read books in spurts. After Ukraine, I read a number of dystopian novels for an article I was writing. The best were Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island. I preferred the Houellebecq. In fact, though Elementary Particles is still his best book, this one is his funniest. “In order to pass the time I told him the story of the German who ate the other German whom he’d met on the internet.” Very funny.

At this point, having settled again on American soil, I decided to figure out what was going on with our foreign wars. I read Rory Stewart’s amazing and funny book about walking through Afghanistan in the wake of the American defeat of the Taliban in late 2001 (The Places In Between), and then Megan Stack’s Every Man in This Village Is a Liar, which begins with her entering Afghanistan a bit earlier, right on the heels of the American invasion, tagging along with an Afghan warlord who will eventually try to sneak into bed with her. Stack’s book was so good that I could hardly believe it, so I read Dexter Filkins’ Forever War just to check. It was also very good. Forever War has more bombs exploding; Every Man has more of a comparative sweep.

At this point, almost without intending to (I was waiting for someone to give me their copy of Freedom), I read Ian Frazier’s funny, epic, surprising Travels in Siberia. Then I read Freedom, which is as good as everyone says it is. Reading Frazier and Franzen back to back underscored, first, that they have quite similar names, and, second, the deeply Midwestern quality of Freedom. There’s a great passage at the end of the Siberia book in which Frazier talks about how his father used to berate him, back in his Ohio childhood, for living such a sheltered existence and knowing nothing about the rest of the world. This is a uniquely American, perhaps American-suburban, prejudice–the idea that Ohio couldn’t possibly be further away from, say, Siberia. What Frazier points out, in his quiet, uninsistent way, is that the center of the most economically powerful nation on earth can’t pretend that it’s far away from anywhere, much less one of the world’s largest oil-producing regions, which is what Siberia is. It seems that a deep awareness of the truth of this–of the interconnection of the American suburbs and the rest of the world–is one of Franzen’s important contributions to American fiction and American self-understanding over the past ten years.

In June, my book of interviews about the financial crisis with a hedge fund manager was coming out, and I realized I still knew nothing about the financial crisis. I read as fast as I could to avoid humiliation. Many of the books were bad. Their authors had the difficulty of writing from another country–like the Ukrainian historian Kasianov, who writes partly for Russians–but in a language that the people in that other country (that is to say, us) didn’t know. So they could either pretend that we knew it already, or treat us like idiots. They did a bit of both. The Michael Lewis books–his newest, The Big Short, and his oldest, Liar’s Poker–stood out among all these for their clarity and wit, although I should add that I haven’t yet read John Lanchester’s I.O.U. or Yves Smith’s ECONned, both of which are supposed to be good.

When the HFM book came out, I did mostly manage to aovid humiliation–for example, by sleeping through a scheduled radio interview. But non-humiliation was not enough. I decided to get to the bottom of things by reading Capital. But I couldn’t understand it. I began to read around Capital–David Harvey’s Limits to Capital; Peter Singer’s Marx; Immanuel Wallerstein’s Historical Capitalism; Michael Harrington’s The Twilight of Capitalism; Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station. The only one I really got through (aside from the Wallerstein book, which is like 100 pages long because he uses no examples) is To the Finland Station. I’d inherited the notion somewhere or other that Wilson’s book wasn’t first-rate as intellectual or political history. This is untrue. Of all the secondary sources on Marx, it has been the most valuable to me. It will certainly always be the most entertaining. It gives a different kind of genealogy of Marx, through the French historians rather than the German idealists, and also it has a beautiful and sympathetic account of the relationship between Marx and Engels. Just a lovely book, almost as good as Parallel Lives.

At around this time, about a month ago–and still stuck about a third of the way through the first volume of Capital–I concluded that I would never understand Marx’s obsession with the concept of “price” until I went back to Adam Smith and the original formulation of the theory of price that Marx is taking issue with. So that is where you find me today, about a fifth of the way through the first volume of The Wealth of Nations. Maybe a quarter of the way.

Other great books I happened to read that came out in 2010 were Elif Batuman’s The Possessed; Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask; and Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey. I recommend all three without reservation; they are instant classics. Another book I think everyone ought to read is Thomas Chatterton Williams’s Losing My Cool. It’s a complex, very honest, very entertaining memoir about a young man’s education that has not received anything like the serious consideration and discussion it deserves. And a final book I recommend from 2010 is And the Heart Says Whatever, by my very witty girlfriend, Emily Gould.

More from a Year in Reading 2010

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions

Dissecting the List: An Excursus

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.

Ask a Book Question (#59): Books for Recent Graduates

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Bryan wrote in with this question:I’m a 2007 graduate of Columbia. I majored in American Studies with a concentration in 20th century American literature. I’m a huge fan of the Millions. I’m attaching a recent reading list, if there’s any chance you’d be interested in giving a book recommendation [based on it], that would be totally awesome. Here goes:Currently reading:Heart of Darkness by Joseph ConradRecently read (sep 07 – april 08):Elementary Particles by Michel HoullebecqA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave EggersMan In The Dark by Paul AusterPortnoy’s Complaint by Philip RothWhat We Should Have Known – n+1The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLook Back In Anger by John OsborneThe Road by Cormac MccarthyPages From A Cold Island by Frederick ExleyUltramarine by Raymond CarverThe Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan KunderaThe Country Between Us by Carolyn ForcheLiterary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice by Charles BresslerA Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’ConnorGoodbye, Columbus by Philip RothWinesburg, Ohio by Sherwood AndersonThe Big Sleep by Raymond ChandlerMeditations In An Emergency by Frank O’HaraSwann’s Way by Marcel ProustThe Sound And The Fury by William FaulknerLife Studies and For The Union Dead by Robert LowellFor Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest HemingwayIncidences by Daniil KharnsJourney To The End Of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand CelineBryan’s recent reading list is an interesting one, and in discussions among Millions contributors, several interesting observations were made. Emily noted, for example, that it is a “very testosterone-y” reading list and added, “I think all testosterone diets are bad for the soul. (as are all estrogen diets).” Her prescription? Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Ben, meanwhile, noted several “upgrades” that Bryan might consider to the books above. Instead of Goodbye, Columbus, read Saul Bellow’s Herzog. If you’re going to read Exley, read A Fan’s Notes, and “Infinite Jest should be on there, probably the greatest work of 20th century literature,” Ben adds. Garth said that Bryan “needs urgently to read is Mating by Norman Rush, which is like an amalgam of Conrad, Roth, Proust, F. O’Hara, and Hemingway,” all authors featured on Bryan’s list.In thinking and discussing Bryan’s list, we also hit the idea of a “staff picks” for recent grads – a year out of school, Bryan qualifies, and with another round of graduates set to be expelled from academia, we figured that it might be both timely and useful. Below follows a handful of suggestions. This list is woefully incomplete though, so we ask you to help us out with your own reading suggestions for recent graduates in the comments.Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson recommended by EdanThis novel-in-verse is a contemporary retelling of the myth of Geryon and Herakles. In the original myth, Herakles kills Geryon, a red-winged creature who lives on a red island; Carson’s version is a kind of coming of age story, in which Geryon falls in love with Herakles. If the form intimidates you, don’t let it: this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams recommended by EdanThree teenage girls, a bitch of a ghost, and the apathetic desert. The Quick and the Dead is an odd and very funny novel that has pretty much no narrative drive but is nonetheless a joy (no pun intended!) to read because of its wondrous prose.Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy by Dave Hickey recommended by EdanThis is a fun collection of essays that will feel far more entertaining than any criticism you read in college (though maybe not as mind blowing). The best piece in the book, I think, is Hickey’s argument for why Vegas (where he lives) is so terrific.George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London recommended by AndrewSo you’re holding your degree in one hand and, with the other, you’re untangling a four-year growth of ivy from your jacket. All the while maintaining that cool, detached air that you’ve been carefully cultivating. Well, before you join the real world and settle into the routine that will destroy your soul bit by bit, each and every day FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, take a breath, find a copy of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, and shake your foundations one last time.Orwell was probably about your age – mid-twenties or so – when he found himself out of the army and living in the underbelly of Paris and then in London, living in poverty, working as a plongeur and doing other assorted subsistence-level jobs, and scraping by. A largely autobiographical account of those years, Down and Out in Paris and London exposes Orwell’s social soul. “I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny.”Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway recommended by MaxTo me, the post-college years are characterized by two often warring desires, to become a contributing member of society despite the horrifying drudgery of those first post-college jobs and to extend the second childhood of undergraduate life for as long as possible. Lucky Jim riotously encapsulates the former, as junior lecturer Jim Dixon finds himself surrounded by eccentric buffoonish professors and overeager students at a British college. He wants what many of us want: to escape the dull life before it traps us forever. The Sun Also Rises famously depicts the pitfalls of the other path. Brett and Jake and their burned out gang live life in a perpetual day-after-the-party fog. The Pamplona bullfights, aperitifs, and camaraderie may be tempting, but the attendant spiritual weariness gives pause.

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