The Song Is You: A Novel

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The Notables: 2009

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This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well:

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker (a most anticipated book)
Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli (my review, Millions Top Ten book)
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon (a most anticipated book, The Millions Interview with Dan Chaon, Best of the Millennium Longlister)
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem (a most anticipated book, The Kakutani Two-Step)
Do Not Deny Me by Jean Thompson (Jean Thompson on Edward P. Jones)
Don’t Cry by Mary Gaitskill (Best of the Millennium Longlister)
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower (Wells Tower’s Year in Reading, a most anticipated book, my review, Best of the Millennium Longlister, Millions Top Ten book)
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore (a most anticipated book, Edan’s review)
Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers (a most anticipated book)
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin (Manil Suri’s Year in Reading selection, National Book Award Finalist)
Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips (National Book Award Finalist)
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (a most anticipated book, my review, National Book Award Winner)
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (Booker Shortlister)
Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Lion, The Witch and Ishiguro)
Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead (a most anticipated book)
The Song Is You by Arthur Phillips (Anne’s review, Arthur Phillips’ Year in Reading, Arthur Phillips on Kelly Link)
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (Booker Prize Winner)
Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (a most anticipated book)

The Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far): An Introduction

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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.

The List
#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

The Panel

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.

Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers

Honey Pie You Are Making Me Crazy: A Review of Arthur Phillips’s The Song Is You

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If Arthur Phillips’s fourth and latest novel, The Song Is You, were to spontaneously transmogrify into music, I’d wager a bet that it would take the form of a pop-infused iPod playlist. The two are kindred spirits for the most obvious reasons. The fortysomething Julian Donahue roams Brooklyn streets, dog runs, and subway cars always with earbuds attached. Popular song lyrics are embedded and alluded to within the text. And while music plays a constant background role, it also provides the foreground’s milieu. To begin: Julian inherits his enchantment with music from his father, who met his mother at a Billie Holidayconcert, after shouting a song request that Holiday honored – an act later immortalized on a live album. When Julian first moves to Brooklyn, his frequent walks along the Promenade are accompanied by the score on his Walkman; during one of these strolls, on an auspicious day (after directing his first television commercial), he experiences “the sensation that he might never be so happy as long as he lived. This quake of joy, inspiring and crippling, was longing, but longing for what? True Love? A wife? Wealth? Music was not so specific as that.”

Fast-forward many years, and Julian has married and separated, and has seen his young son die. His hope and vibrancy dissipated but his connection to music remains a consolation. And then one day at a local bar, he stumbles upon a band destined for larger venues and greater media attention. The singer, Cait O’Dwyer, acts a siren to Julian’s solitary soul; his fascination with her develops as he listens to her songs. While Cait’s catchy tunes play and replay in his mind, and on his Ipod, thoughts of her repeat on a loop.

Music fuels Julian’s obsession, and he attempts to woo Cait with advice, anonymously and somewhat accidentally at first, in the form of ten illustrated coasters upon which he writes tenets to enhance her rock-star persona. Julian knows nothing if not how to wield the power of an image, knowledge acquired from his work directing television commercials. He has perfected his ability to use images to evoke longing – for hair conditioner, floor cleaner, and the like – and now Cait O’Dwyer. With Cait, he’s motivated by his desire, as she is both the source of his desire and the raw material he hopes to refine.

Obsession and longing preoccupy Julian as he falls deeper into his infatuation. Cait returns the admiration, but to a lesser degree. She’s smart enough to recognize the wisdom of his advice, and to value his counsel. And yet, Julian’s desire to know her leads him into a series of escalating attempts to if not meet her at least to see her. He finds her apartment, observes from a bench as she walks her dog, and snaps candid photos that he later sends to her. By the time he lets himself into her apartment using the key she leaves under her doormat (a location she reveals in song lyrics), one would think he’s stepped over a line. He sifts through her apartment and cooks her dinner but she never shows. He thought she’d invited him with her lyrics, and it seems that she did, but all the same, by this point, how is it possible to consider the narrator entirely reliable?

Isolation also plays a role in the confusion as well. As the opening lines of the first chapter state, “Julian Donahue’s generation were the pioneers of portable headphone music, and he began carrying with him everywhere the soundtrack to his days when he was fifteen.” Much of the time he is plugged in to music, and much of the novel resides within Julian’s mind. As his obsession grows, he has a few encounters with other people, but mostly he ruminates and reflects and observes. There is a meeting with his estranged wife, Rachel, as well as conversations with his genius though socially awkward brother, Aidan. But throughout, Julian remains mum on all fronts regarding his obsession with Cait, to whom he writes notes and about whom he drafts defenses of on messages boards till the wee hours.

As a voyeur, Julian is impenetrable: he reveals his infatuation with Cait to no one, and he lurks like a stalker, watching her from afar, fantasizing about her, but never meeting her. This becomes more interesting when it seems he may be devolving into obsessive madness. Still, for all that Phillips does to lead the reader to wonder whether Julian has truly lost his mind, at the last minute there’s a quixotic save, which makes the story tie together so nicely, unbelievably so.

At times Julian’s interiority and inscrutability evokes a Proustian inwardness as well as one of Robbe-Grillet’s voyeurs, and yet these allusions are superficial; neither conceit is employed to great effect within this narrative. And so, after the contrived climax, the narrative resolves into a somewhat expected although rather abrupt end. Page-by-page the novel is immensely readable – the scenes limned of Brooklyn streets and city life are vivid, the members of Julian’s family are compelling, at times fascinating – but the sum of the parts doesn’t add up to much. This is another way the novel evokes a pop song. Phillips’s writing is descriptive, compelling, proficient, but there’s little substance anchoring the scenes. The end result is akin to the disquieting feeling I get after eating half a box of Krispy Kreme donuts – the anticipation and consumption, though delightful at points, has delivered me into a stultified malaise.

Surprise Me!