Friday, January 23, 2015

The 21st Century's Best

Its taken a while, but as we enter into 2015, the first "best of the century" list has been produced (or at least the first I've been aware of.) The BBC's international culture site asked a number of American critics what the best noels of the century so far were. Its an intrigueing, if somewhat populist list - populist in that most of these novels had won prizes. I was surprised that Zadie Smith's engaging, but adolescent debut "White Teeth", is still being gushed about, even if it's probably - just about - her best novel (though not her best writing: some of that's in "NW" and her recent "Emperor of Cambodia"). Its a very Anglo-centric list - I guess translated novels take a while to come through - though the late Robert Bolano is included for his "2666." I've read only 8 of the top 20 (or is that quite a good showing?) so can't comment on alot of them. I was surprised to see "The Road" so low, as for a moment it seemed to be the exemplar novel of our times.

A couple of things are of interest I think. Firstly, that the "new novel" has made a good showing. Whatever you think of them, the books by Junot Diaz, Jennifer Egan, Bolano and Smith's flawed but adventurous "NW" are novels which play around with form.  They are tricksy sons and daughters of David Foster Wallace or grandchildren of Vonnegut and Barthes, rather than a new new realism. In fact, that kind of techno age knowingness, Brett Easton Ellis - Jay McInerney, has disappeared (and their own books are no longer like that either.) Perhaps there diminishing returns from a certain kind of brash zeitgeist surfing - so, no Douglas Coupland for instance. Not so many older novelists in there either. It seems particularly negligent that Roth's "The Plot Against America" isn't in there - but neither is that other great counter-history, Stephen King's "11.22.63." The British novels that have crossed the ocean, with the exception of New York based Zadie, are, somewhat predictably, of the Merchant-Ivory persuasion; so great as "Wolf Hall" and "Atonement" are, one can't help wish that America would look to us for something other than prettied up history. I'm not particularly keen on Hollingsworth's "The Line of Beauty", its let down by the Jamesian nature of his prose, elegant but somewhat defeated by his subject material I thought (I preferred "The Stranger's Child", though some sections of that book were much better than others.)

Secondly, British readers will not be that aware of a couple of books on the list. Edward P. Jones "The Known World" and Ben Fountain's "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" are both new names to me. Similarly if this was talking to a wider pool of reviewers I kind of think that writers like David Mitchell, Kate Atkinson and David Peace might have made the list - never mind outliers like Tom McCarthy or A.L. Kennedy.

Thirdly, there does seem a little bit of inertia in the choices. Franzen's "The Corrections", McEwan's "Atonement", even the Junot Diaz, strike me as books we may well like now but tire of, or not return to. Time might tell. 

I'm sure I've missed some and there are books that I really should have read but haven't (for instance I've been carrying "Gilead" with me for a month now without having had a chance to get into it) and my number one choice is a personal favourite, that nobody else seems to have read or been as enchanted by, but I'm convinced will grow in stature over time.  So here's my off the cuff list for now....

1. Three to see the king - Magnus Mills
2. A Visit from the Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan
3. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet - David Mitchell
4. Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel
5. A Girl is a half formed thing - Eimear McBride
6. The Damned United - David Peace
7. 11/22/63 - Stephen King 

8. The Plot Against America - Philip Roth
9. The Road - Cormac McCarthy
10. Life after life - Kate Atkinson
11. Five Miles from Outer Hope - Nicola Barker
12. The City and the City - China Mieville
13. A Long, Long Way - Sebastian Barry
14. Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
15. The Sisters Brothers - Patrick De Witt
16. Summertime - J.M. Coetzee
17. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz
18. Lunar Park - Brett Easton Ellis
19. Platform - Michel Houellebecq
20. Vernon God Little - DBC Pierre

(rather than alter the list above I'll add any ones I've forgotten here with relative position....)
4 - The Book of Dave - Will Self. 

Other Thoughts 
The Junot Diaz novel began life as a long short story which was then expanded. "NW" and "A Visit from the Goon Squad" could both be seen as collected shorts in some ways. Maybe the renaissance in the short story is as much about revitalising what can be done with the  novel as anything else? 

Also, looking back to see when things were published I had to dump "The Savage Detectives", "Atomised", "Enduring Love", "Wide Open", "American Pastoral", "How I Came to Marry a Communist", "Disgrace" and "The Poisonwood Bible" because they were all published in the nineties. I haven't the time now but maybe its time to sit down and write an essay about the stunning fiction of the last decade of the 20th century?  


Dan Holloway said...

Lists may be overdone but they do provoke very interesting discussion. I find it interesting that you mention Tom McCarthy but do not include him in your list. Men In Space would be on my list but he is a tricksy author, the kind to get a Booker late in his career, because any one of his books always somehow feels less important than him as an author.

I would have avoided Lunar Park because it's a book that glimpses at former glories rather than sparkling in its own right. Teju Cole's unctuous Open City would be a good replacement. Looking through what I thought would be obvious choices, I was surprised to see that I can't find a Murakami from this century worthy of a place.

Of the books I haven't seen mentioned, I'd include Veronique Olmi's Beside the Sea. But for the number 1 spot I'd struggle to see past 2666, which feels like the kind of book that not only now but in decades' time will feel head and shoulders above anything else

Adrian Slatcher said...

Its a good point about McCarthy - I've still only read Remainder, which was interesting but perhaps lacked something, so its interesting you'd plump for Men in Space. Yes, you're right about Lunar Park, but its still a good novel I feel, and actually does something interesting and different. I realised that I'm still to read "2666" so couldn't include it, and the same goes for "Open City" - so yes, its good for the discussion. Both will inch up the to be read pile on your recommendations! I was surprised to have read a good % of the "best list" to be honest as I have relatively little time these days. And I just realise I've missed out "The Book of Dave" by Will Self which should be in the top ten! Darn!

Dan Holloway said...

"lacked something" is a very good description of Remainder's problem. All the boxes are ticked but it doesn't quite pull together. Men in Space is where he first develops what I guess would be called McCarthyesque tics, such as the obsession with radios and tuning and untuning to strange radio signals.C takes these things further but feels like Pulp Fiction to Reservoir Dogs (or, indeed, American Psycho to Less Than Zero) - bolder, more accomplished but lacking the originality and rawness of the original.

Yes, Will Self should be on the list