This year was a year of catch-up reading: I found myself busy with books that I really should have read years ago. But without a doubt, when it comes to adventures in gorgeous and transformative literature, better (much better) late than never.
Top of my list is Fools by Joan Silber. Silber’s first novel, Household Words, won the PEN/Hemingway in 1980, but I—many of us younger writers, I think—didn’t come to know her work until Ideas of Heaven, her fifth book and a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award. The “ring of stories” form rocked my world back then, and Silber’s ability to inhabit first-person narrators of such widely diverging identities, time periods, and voices was a revelation. With Fools, that same form, now sometimes referred to as a “story cycle,” is intricately crafted, and the stories are arguably even more satisfyingly, thematically linked (When is it wise—or not—to be a fool for something?).
For me though, what caused a Silber-reading marathon (Household Words, The Size of the World, Improvement, Lucky Us) is the wisdom embedded in each story, each character’s journey: These are stories about—simply put—the deep and wide messiness of a life’s arc. People are complicated, and life happens to us and at us more than we ever hope/imagine when we set out as young people. There are no cheap seats in life, and even so, it’s all meaningful, and it matters, and those are the echoes I most want vibrating in me when I put down a book.
Two short novels that seem to me under-read specifically because they were ahead of their time: Ed Lin’s Waylaid and James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. In the department of literature by and about people of color, the challenges and pitfalls are too often framed in terms of the either/or versus both/and conundrum: Is the book primarily “about race/racial identity” or about human beings living whole human lives inside their skin in a specific American setting? Both these novels so clearly do not concern themselves with this artificial question.
Beale Street, published in 1974, is a love story: Tish and Fonny are a young woman and man whose circumstances and racial identities make it extremely difficult for them to live happily ever after, and the journey toward that possibility is entangling and profound, much larger than just the two of them.
Waylaid (2002) takes place in the ’80s and features a 12-year-old Chinese-American, male protagonist who lives in and manages his parents’ seedy motel on the Jersey Shore: His first and ostensible problem is that he desperately needs to get laid, but really he’s figuring out how—as a big-for-his-age, smart, horny kid and the only Asian-American kid around—he’s going to grow into a manhood that is his own and find hope in humanity while surrounded by sad, lonely adults (his immigrant parents included). Both Waylaid and Beale Street render powerfully this truth: For people of color, racism is everyone else’s problem; we are just trying to live the fully human lives we are entitled to. The freedom to write character-driven stories that engage racial experience as essential but not essentializing may seem basic to us now, but as an Asian American writer-friend said to me recently about Waylaid: “No one was writing Asian Americans like that back then.” And the same could be said about Baldwin/Beale Street in the ’70s. (Note: I’m mad excited about Barry Jenkins’ film adaptation, but I also encourage all to read the book first if you can!)
I’ll close with two poetry collections—The Wilderness by Sandra Lim and There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker. I tend to read poetry in a more sensory than cerebral way and am not very good at writing “about” poems or poetry collections. So I’ll just say that both these are provocatively and aptly titled and hope you’ll be thus compelled to immerse mind and senses in the work of these fierce, gifted poets.
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Literary awards please almost no one. As William Gass famously complained, “any award giving outfit is doomed to make mistakes and pass the masters by in silence.” Each year, nominees are announced and each year readers and critics love to grumble. The 2004 National Book Award Nominees for fiction, however, inspired a level of grousing rarely seen in the last decade.
Each nominee for the shortlist was a woman, and each woman lived in New York City. Immediately, both the mainstream press and the literary blogosphere started throwing about terms: Elitist. Insular. Sameness. The New York Times gleefully reported that none of the women nominated had sold more than 2,000 copies of their books and quoted the literary editor of The Atlantic as saying, “I thought this was a really weak year for fiction, but I still wouldn’t have guessed that any of these would have been strong contenders.” Major newspapers that had not reviewed the books attempted one-fell-swoop pieces in which they treated the five disparate works as some sort of literary quintet, complete with facile pronouncements about their collective shortcomings. Chairman of the judges panel Rick Moody took a good deal of criticism for imposing his aesthetic with too heavy a hand. Caryn James of the Times searched (and claimed to find) common links between all the nominees, writing: “all five are built on compressed observations that easily veer into precious writers’ program language, too woozy and poetic for its own good.”
Of course, this was a stretch. Five books by five women from the same city of eight million souls do not make for a uniform aesthetic. Anyone who reads one sentence written by 2004 nominee Christine Schutt, a former Gordon Lish acolyte known for her attention to the sonics of language, repetition, and rhythm as well as unusual and stunning verb choice will immediately see the folly of James’ claim. Joan Silber, another one of the five nominees has a strikingly different prose style, a much more straightforward and unadorned mode that could not be further from Schutt.
Lost in all the befuddlement about these relative unknowns and their supposed similarities were the actual merits of the books nominated. Among the crop of nominees was Joan Silber, nominated that year for her “ring of stories,” Ideas of Heaven, a work that explores the long-term impact that a single choice can have on a life. In every chapter/story, a Silber character is faced with a decision that takes decades to reveal its true repercussions, and often the actual impact of this decision will lie unrealized, producing subtle and destructive consequences for the rest of the character’s life. Whether Silber characters inhabit 16th century Italy or contemporary America, all of them are similarly preoccupied when it comes to life-choices and whether the passage of time allows for any sort of lesson at all when it comes to reflecting on the lives they have chosen (or been forced) to live.
In both Ideas of Heaven and her 2008 work, Size of the World, Silber utilizes nearly identical structures to portray the universality of this condition. Regardless of time period, Silber employs strikingly similar narrative voices for all of her characters, with few allowances for age or gender. In the same way that Silber’s characters from different countries and time periods have nearly identical emotional concerns, the consistency of voice in Ideas of Heaven and Size of the World is yet another Silber technique employed to demonstrate the shared humanity of these disparate characters in the most varied of circumstances.
What, you might wonder, is the “ring of stories” referred to in Ideas of Heaven? How is the ring related to the linked short story, the novel-in-stories, and the plain old-fashioned novel? Though there is no sport more boring and useless than literary classification, when Silber’s Ideas of Heaven is paired with Size of the World, one can see how little this question matters. (Even the author may not be the most authoritative in this case. In an interview with The Millions, Silber herself calls Ideas of Heaven “a hybrid between the novel and linked stories” and refers to the structure of Size of the World as simply, “this form.”) Billed on the front as “a novel,” Size of the World utilizes almost the exact same structure as Ideas of Heaven, the “ring of stories.” In both works, Silber has pioneered a distinct form, a crowd-told tale of multiple first person narrators, each chapter building on the next, but with each narrator’s story containing a dramatic structure traditionally associated with short fiction. In fact, chapters from both Ideas of Heaven and Size of the World were published in journals and anthologies as standalone short stories. However, the Silber-applied “ring” in question likely refers to the fact that as the reader progresses through the work, the newer stories alter understanding of the earlier stories, until by the very end they have eventually circled back and all affected each other.
Silber utilizes passage of time like few of her contemporaries. Most interesting is Silber’s usage of what she herself calls, “long time.” In each story or chapter in Size of the World and Ideas of Heaven, decades pass, often in one sentence. “We went through all our savings, such as they were, in those five years in Ohio,” from Ideas of Heaven, or “In the third year we were together, the band had such a long dry spell that Randy got side work with a friend’s combo that did weddings and bar mitzvahs,” from Size of the World. But Silber’s “long time” is not merely about summary and exposition.
Silber herself has laid out the blueprint for how what exactly “long-time” is and how she accomplishes it in her craft book, The Art of Time in Fiction. Though ostensibly an exploration of how authors manage and explore time in their work, Silber glides over “classic time”, “slowed time” and others to get to the passage of time she clearly finds most engaging: long time.
The most consistent Silber technique in long time is to utilize habitual action as though it were a single event. Examples abound in every chapter or story in both Ideas of Heaven and Size of the World as well as many of Silber’s earlier short stories. In Size of the World, Corrina, who eventually spends six years in what is then Siam, narrates her gradual comfort with the land around her:
My walks got longer, along the roads going inland, with paddies and forest on either side. Often I wanted to bring back a flower or a leafy stalk, but the stem were too fleshy to break, and I had a rational fear of sticking my hand in the foliage. I knew about snakes.
Silber discusses the benefits of this method in The Art of Time in Fiction, naming Flaubert and Chekhov as masters of this technique and claiming that “even in a story that leaps over long spans of time,” such a move allows for “the intimacy of the close gaze.”
Though other contemporary authors often deal with extended periods of time, few do so in the manner of Silber. Alice Munro, for instance, also often chronicles decades in the lives of her characters. Munro, however, utilizes shifting perspectives and frequently jumps forwards or backwards in time. Though Silber often credits Munro as a major influence, Silber’s work is much more constrained. Once a Silber character begins narrating a chapter or story, you can be sure that she will remain the sole narrator. In Munro, this is far less likely. Additionally, Munro is much more likely to experiment with tense, with stories completely told in present tense, (“Walker Brothers Cowboy”) or alternating between past and present (“Accident”). Silber characters all narrate their past from a usually undetermined later period in life. Where for Munro, time may be elastic, for Silber, time is guaranteed to be a linear progression that is difficult to make sense of. Though sole incidents often deeply affect Silber and Munro characters for the rest of their lives, the two authors differ in their illustrations of these effects. Unlike in Munro stories, a Silber character may think about the past, but they will never do it in scene.
Though the first person narrators who populate Size of the World and Ideas of Heaven are of distinct genders, nationalities, time periods, and generations, Silber uses the same technique of long time in each of the stories/chapters. Silber seems to utilize the long form in order to allow the weight of an action to fully inhabit its impact on the character. That is, time passes in Silber stories so the reader can fully understand the effect a seemingly unimportant decision or unforeseeable event (a car crash, a hurricane) can have on the rest of a character’s life. To truly demonstrate the impact of these events and how they change the character(s) in question, a good deal of time must pass.
Unlike Alice Munro and other contemporary authors, Silber rarely withholds information. Before a reader begins a story/chapter in Size of the World, a heading makes the reader aware of the narrator’s name, as well as an encompassing emotion that will be present in the story (envy, lust, paradise, loyalty, etc). In addition to her titles, Silber’s beginnings ground the reader immediately. For example, “Paradise” from Size of the World, begins as follows: “We moved to Florida in 1924, just as the land boom was taking off. We were not a young family—I was already twenty-one and my parents were in their forties and fifties.”
With assistance from the title, we already know from the first two sentences that our narrator’s name is Corrina, as well as her age, the time period, and geographic location.
A consistent Silber sub-theme within her explorations of time and its effects is uprootedness and migration. As time passes, Silber characters tend to repeat both the process of falling in love with a new place and being upended and wishing one was back in the place that was once unfriendly. This pattern is a constant in Size of the World as well as Ideas of Heaven. Even when Silber characters are unhappy with the geographic location in which they find themselves, they rarely find the place overwhelming for very long. If they do, they soon—via Silber’s habitual time rendered as scene—become acclimated in several paragraphs that may span years.
This is not to say that Silber characters are always happy where they are. Quite often, they would simply rather be elsewhere, or are visitors in the place that they call home. It is only the passage of time that dulls their sense of dislocation. Silber’s Annunziata, in Size of the World, uprooted from Sicily: “I didn’t really want to get better at knowing Hoboken, things—deep in my heart they didn’t interest me—but I learned them, inch by inch, in spite of myself.”
For Silber, the decades passing allow the reader to recognize the long-term impact of decisions on the characters. In her project of exploring the devastating or healing effects of time, Silber has created a rare formula, exploring very large questions through the tiniest and most specific of lives.
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.