As regular readers of this site know, I contributed to the “pro” list of The Millions Best Books of the Millennium (So Far). You can read what I had to say about one of the books chosen by popular decree, Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, here. As I stated on this blog, however, I didn’t actually choose Fortress as one of the best. It might have made my list of 20, but perhaps not. It is, I think, an interesting book, but its flaws hold it back. Still, I was happy to write it up for The Millions, and I was happy to contribute to a project that has attracted a lot of attention and, even better, a lot of dialog.
Much of the conversation on the list has focused on the choice of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections as the best book. In short, a lot of people disagree. I thought I should probably come clean and admit that I was one of those terrible people who thought Franzen’s novel was among the five best books of the last ten years. In fact, I’m going to post my entire five book list right here. Why? Because I’m crazy and have nothing to write about today that doesn’t involve delayed ebook releases, and who wants to read about that, right?
As I compiled my list, there were a few near misses. You’ll note that none of the thick books of the last ten years made my list. No 2666. No Europe Central. These are both great books, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to discover that a hundred years from now, these two books are still being read and being discussed. And in some way, I think that’s why I didn’t pick them. I can’t say I completely understand either work, and I don’t think I’m alone. Maybe it will take a subsequent reading to crack each of them, and God knows when I’ll get around to that. As such, I couldn’t justify choosing either of them. When push came to shove, I felt the books on my list were better novels. It could be argued that I prefer somewhat tidier novels, or something. I don’t know. I would argue that several of them set out to do less, but I think they succeed at what they aim for more than either of the big heavyweights I listed above. It’s a testament to how incredibly flexible a form the novel is that it can include a book like 2666 and one like The Epicure’s Lament, a book that made my list. (And don’t ask me about Tree of Smoke yet. I’m saving that for the autumn of my years, or some other time when I’ve got a long stretch of reading time ahead of me.)
The unifying principle of my list, as my wife pointed out, is that all of the books include a profound helping of humor. They might not all be described as “comic novels,” but they’re all rife with levity. Every reader brings his or her own prejudices, and I suppose mine is a predilection toward humor as a way of addressing nearly every situation. I should probably work on this. Anyway, here’s my list:
The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen. I read this book in 2001 or maybe 2002, and its characters and situations have stuck with me ever since. I think there are certainly valid criticisms of this book (what on earth was happening during that hallucination sequence on the boat, for instance), but many of the arguments against it presented in the comments on The Millions seem motivated by something deeper than the content of the book. Yes, it’s a family drama. Who could ever relate to something like that? It doesn’t revolutionize the form of the novel, but neither do dozens of other great books. It’s the simplest thing, really: it’s a good story well told, or at least it was for me. The thing about writing about a theme like family life is that it’s evergreen. There are always going to be novels about families, and Franzen, for my money, perfectly captured an anxiety about life that existed at the end of the 1990s in America. He does some things that Don DeLillo does, but I think he does them in a more subtle, nuanced way. Plus, the book is very, very funny. I mean, it features a character who makes the first ten pages of his screenplay difficult and turgid because it’s a classic modernist conceit. How can you not love that?
Home Land, by Sam Lipsyte. Wakey wakey, eggs and bakey! I was heartened to see that Home Land received multiple votes, and hence made the honorable mention list. Sam Lipsyte is a writer’s writer, and this is his finest work to date (I just received a galley of his new novel The Ask). Lewis Miner, aka Teabag, writes a series of caustic, achingly vulnerable letters to his alumni newsletter. In these missives, he discusses his fate and that of his fellow classmates and their now-disgraced principal, as well as his abiding love of legwarmer-themed porn. This is a book that captures the decadence of modern American life and does so in a profoundly entertaining way. That it does so in the wake of the largest outpouring of patriotism (Home Land!) since WWII cannot be ignored. The great triumph of the novel is its ability to render a consciousness, and here, my friends, is a wonderfully disturbed consciousness. As I think about it, this might be the only epistolary novel I’ve ever read. Not sure whether that’s a reflection on me or the form.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. I thought this was the best book of last year. Again, we have unforgettable characters and a voice that rings completely true. The story of both an overweight Dominican sci-fi and comic book loving geek and his college roommate, a lady’s man of some repute, this novel manages to say meaningful things about geekdom, the immigrant experience, dictatorship (for a funny novel, there’s a whole lot of sadness here, too) and more. Diaz succeeds at incorporating pop culture into his narrative in a way that many others fail. He doesn’t use pop culture as mere artifacts, something to mark a time or place or as quick tells for character type, but rather to illustrate a point. For instance, at one point a character likens the fear and paranoia of life under a totalitarian regime to this Twilight Zone episode. The effect is instantly understood and perfect. This book topped the Readers’ List on The Millions, and I can’t find fault with that.
The Epicure’s Lament, by Kate Christensen. Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a big fan of Christensen’s work, and I think this is her best novel to date. Again, it’s just a perfect character conjured on the page. Hugo Whittier retires to his familial home on the Hudson River to smoke himself to death. His only companions are the works of his literary soul mates, Montaigne and MFK Fisher, some whiskey, and his brother, who joins him in the mansion while fleeing his disintegrating marriage. This book reads as a protracted rant, and Hugo is among the decade’s great lovable misanthropes. Christensen wrote this book in the grips of a depression or sadness following 9/11, and while it’s clearly something of an angry novel, there’s a lot of beauty and humor to be had as well.
Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris. Here’s a book that most people would say is a classic comic novel. It’s certainly funny — to this day, I can’t say the word “bookshelves” without giggling a little inside — but I would argue that it’s more sad than it is funny. There’s a lot of heartbreak in this book about the downsizing of a Chicago advertising firm. When I read the book, I kept thinking about how funny it is, but looking back on it, it’s the humanity of all the characters that I remember. And as for the “big” themes that so many want in novels, I think this one covers the bases. Here’s a book about the soul-stifling world of corporate labor, about our “second families” at work, about the inhumanity of the world and how all of us struggle daily to overcome it, and finally about life in our tumultuous economy. I think this is one of the novels of our time.
So that’s my list, as of right now. I recognize that it’s American-centric, largely male and largely white. I’m a terrible person. What would be your five books? What is it that you look for in a great novel? Also, is it possible to hate something and think it’s well-written and worthwhile at the same time? In other words, should preference play any role in criticism? These are the questions I leave to you, good reader.