Omni Decade Crush: From Barbery to Whittemore, Barry to Vollmann
Wait! The decade's best lists aren't quite finished. Below find mine.
In general, “Best of Decade” book lists are arbitrary and too close to the period they pretend to cover. At point of impact, the pool of visible worthies has been reduced due to environmental factors that (sadly) include lack of the right push by the publishers, lack of charisma or some other quality on the part of the author, or a writing style or subject matter that bravely pushes against the grain of what’s acceptable for the time. A decade from now many “best of” books will no longer be seen as such, while some lucky few will be re-evaluated and resurrected—becoming visible in a way they did not upon publication. Hype and the ever-greater domino effect of commentary on the internet will fade and the excited crushes of yesteryear will give way to a more mature and lasting love.
For this reason, I haven’t applied anything approaching a scientific method to my picks for the books of the decade. This doesn’t mean I didn’t have a process, however. First, over a period of days, I thought about the books I’ve read that I still intensely remember. Second, to supplement my memory, I went back over a good many of the reviews and features I’ve written over the past decade. As I re-read these pieces, some elicited an emotional reaction and some did not. More than a few connected with me on several levels—as a reader foremost, but also as a writer whose principal accomplishment in the aughts was to finish the Ambergris Cycle: City of Saints & Madmen, Shriek: An Afterword, and Finch. Thus, there was a weird doubling effect of seeing the books from several angles, because many of them made me think about my own fiction in a new way.
The resulting list I present here is in alphabetical order by author. Some of these books received the appropriate amount of attention upon publication. Some did not. Some choices readers will easily see as legitimate and other choices, due to their obscurity or to the perception of the genre in which they are categorized, they will not. But each, it seems to me, does something unique and not easily replicated by other books. Each, in its own way, creates its own universe...
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (2008) – Delightful and bittersweet, this translation of a bestseller in France creates lovely portraits of an eccentric concierge and a melodramatic but gifted twelve-year-old girl. It lazes along at a leisurely pace, interjecting bits of philosophy and character background until the arrival of a Japanese gentleman at the apartment complex. From there, the plot begins to quicken and the various pieces of the story become luminous and at times devastating. It’s the kind of novel that could easily have become precious, and it’s a testimony to Barbery’s strengths as an author that instead it’s a quietly effective and lasting achievement.
What it Is by Lynda Barry (2008) – As I wrote as part of an Omni feature, Barry’s extraordinary book is “An exploration of the imagination, an invitation to create, and a moving autobiographical account… one of those rare books that offers solace for the soul and brilliant commentary on the artistic impulse. The images by themselves would be amazing, the text by itself wise and luminous yet pragmatic. The combination of text and art provides new insight that feels three-dimensional and oddly soothing. I cannot over-emphasize the therapeutic effect of What It Is.”
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (2007) – In this story of her dysfunctional family, Bechtel perfects and showcases the ways in which graphic novels can offer as much or more than novels or movies. It is the perfect synthesis of image and text, with the visual impact of a film and the easy ability to slip through time, double back, and return to the present that typifies the best fiction. The illustration style is perfect for the subject matter, making the settings, from old gothic house to funeral parlor, evocative and real.
2666 by Roberto Bolano (2008) – Powerful, haunting, profane, political, and simultaneously wide and personal in scope, 2666 may well prove to be the novel of the decade. Bolano keeps turning inward and outward, his narrative riddled through with ancillary stories that seem to digress but in some luminous way hint at hidden patterns. The recitation---the endless and unrelieved repetition ---of the details of murders of women in a Mexican city is unsettling, brilliant, and makes the crimes impossible to ignore, or, ultimately, to comprehend. Most impressive, perhaps, is how equally comfortable Bolano is writing from such varied perspectives as a former Black Panther, a Mexican congresswoman, or the German novelist whose mysterious life provides just one of the many puzzles of human existence explored in 2666.
Observatory Mansions by Edward Carey (2001) – As I wrote in a review for Locus at the time, this novel is “simply the best Gothic fantasy of the new century…stunning in its use of a dark fantasy atmosphere even though, as in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books, nothing fantastical happens. Francis Orme narrates this story of an ancestral mansion converted to apartments, of a place in the country become a virtual island, surrounded by urban traffic. But Carey, at every step, raises the stakes; he isn't interested in just portraying eccentric characters in an eccentric setting. He wants nothing less than Mastery — of technique, of characterization, of setting, of memory, of resonance. “ Observatory Mansions, with its critique of our modern attachment to things, its portraits of damaged but sympathetic characters, and its beautiful, incisive writing, is another novel that deserves more attention.
About Writing: 7 Essays, 4 Letters, and 5 Interviews by Samuel Delany (2006) – One of the best books on writing I read in the aughts, About Writing features a few reprints from books like The Jewel Hinged Jaw, but mostly collects previously uncollected nonfiction. The letters, which I thought would be slight turn out to be one of the best things about the book--insightful, focused, and consistently fascinating. The interviews are sometimes a little too detail oriented, but still wonderful to read, and the essays are, of course, magnificent. I love that when Delany talks about even the most basic details of writing, it resonates with me in a way that makes me see certain technique and approaches in a totally new light.
One Day the Ice Will Reveal All of Its Dead by Clare Dudman (2004) – A closely observed, passionate, and complex historical fiction centered on the discoverer of continental drift, Alfred Wegener, Dudman’s novel delivered a perfect blend of science, characterization, adventure, and pathos. As I wrote in my review of the book for Publishers Weekly, “Dudman…displays an astute gift for characterization. Wegener's complex relationship with his brother Kurt and his love for his wife, Else, as measured against his lust for meteorological expeditions, is expertly, often heartbreakingly portrayed. The emotional yet understated final scenes are particularly fine. Above all, Dudman shows us one incontrovertible truth about her Wegener: he loved the world, in all of its riotous complexity. Some may say the same of Dudman after reading this wise, beautiful novel.” Criminally underrated, this book deserves much more attention.
Zeroville by Steve Erickson (2007) – Erickson is a writer whose sense of history and the absurd suffuses his books. Zeroville, about an eccentric, damaged man who stumbles into film directing, is primarily set in the Los Angeles of the 1970s and 1980s. As I wrote in my Washington Post Book World review, “Over his entire career Erickson has challenged readers with a fiercely intelligent and surprisingly sensual brand of American surrealism that can, at times, seem impenetrable. For this reason, it surprised me that almost everything in Erickson's Zeroville entertains so readily without seeming watered down or slight. Zeroville is funny, sad and darkly beautiful, built around short chapters that allow the author to capture the essential moment and move effortlessly through time.” In his decisions about what to reveal and what to leave hidden, Erickson's novel shares powerful sympathies with the approaches in Bolano's 2666.
The Book of Prefaces by Alasdair Gray (2000) – The great Scottish writer who produced such classic novels as Lanark and Poor Things endeavored early in this decade to publish…a book of prefaces. The eccentric, brilliant result is nothing less than an exploration of the evolution of the English language. Divided into sections including “The First English, “English Reforms,” “A Great Flowering,” and “Between Two Revolutions,” The Book of Prefaces reprints prefaces from books by everyone from Chaucer to Darwin---all of it annotated and illustrated by Gray. In the groupings and analysis, we learn more about language than from any more conventional history.
Light by M. John Harrison (2002) – Winner of the James Tiptree Award, Light shares some similarities with Bolanos’ 2666 in its willingness to give sometimes brutish depictions of human behavior while also demonstrating mind-blowing depth of vision. A present-day thread involving a killer meshes with a future narrative centered around the mysterious Kefahuchi Tract in deep space. As I wrote at the time in a SF Site review, “Light is a book to make both Iain M. Banks and Vladimir Nabokov blush with envy, a book that uses hard SF concepts like poetry and is merciless in its assault on the irrelevant. I cannot think of a SF novel in recent memory that has both mocked the stereotypical ‘sense of wonder’ and yet simultaneously created a sense of wonder.”
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (1976, 2008) – The reprinting of this sublime classic about a girl’s adventures under the tutelage of her grandmother on an island off of Finland confirmed Jansson as one of the twentieth century’s greatest humanists. Wise, touching without being sentimental, intensely magical, and vibrant, The Summer Book refreshes and restores the reader at every turn. It succeeds at that most difficult of tasks: to build interest and depth without resorting to conventional conflict. The depictions of nature, wedded to great characters, are also phenomenal. (The reissue of Jansson’s Moomin comics by Drawn & Quarterly also deserves mention.)
Tainaron by Leena Krohn (2004) - A translation from the original Finnish, this short novel consists of thirty letters written by an anonymous narrator visiting the city of Tainaron, a metropolis populated by human-sized intelligent insects. Krohn is a writer of the first rank, comparable to Kafka, and the novel contains scenes of startling beauty and strangeness. Krohn also effortlessly melds the literal with the metaphorical, so that the narrator's explorations encompass both the speculation of science fiction and the resonant symbolism of the surreal. In addition to the sometimes horrifying images--self-immolating insects; a funeral subculture centered on dung beetles--Tainaron contains a strong undercurrent of emotion. Krohn's genius is to use the homesickness and oblique personal information in the letters to substitute masterfully for more conventional character development. While Tainaron received good reviews upon publication, the novel has been criminally ignored since. Hopefully some publisher will republish and relaunch Tainaron, as it deserves resurrection.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004) – Spanning 200 years, Mitchell’s brilliant novel concerns nothing less than the end of history using several diverse storylines. The virtuoso stylistic performance would be pointless, however, if not for the complexity and compelling nature of the characters---some of them doomed, some of them hopeful, some of them deluded about their place in the world, and some of them, like the vanity publisher in one section, possessing a keen sense of the absurd. Cloud Atlas is a sprawling yet tightly controlled novel that manages to explode the traditional structure of the novel without being gimmicky or merely clever. (In a similar vein, Jeanette Winterson’s lesser but still worthy The Stone Gods echoes these concerns.)
Dungeon Twilight, Vols. 1 and 2: Dragon Cemetery and Armageddon by Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim (2006) – The French geniuses Sfar and Trondheim delivered perhaps their most sublime reading experience in the guise of a swords-and-sorcery graphic novel about an immortal lizard king’s relationship to his mother and father. Stunning visuals are matched by exciting and compelling plot lines about the end of the world and its rebirth. But none of this would mean anything without the compelling characterization.
The Arrival by Shaun Tan (2006) – As I wrote in my Bookslut review: “Wordless yet containing worlds, Shaun Tan's The Arrival demonstrates the power of fantasy to show us our reality. The story is simple: an immigrant arrives in a strange city and tries to make a life for himself so that one day he can send for his family. He encounters strange, fantastical creatures that are as natural as breakfast, lunch, and dinner to the native inhabitants. He learns the stories of other immigrants who have come to the city….The complexity and the richness of The Arrival come entirely from the painstaking and effortless execution of the central idea, using a myriad of panels that, mostly in warm sepia tones, convey not just movement but the moment. “ A wordless classic as central to the the concerns of a new century.
Far North by Marcel Theroux (2009) – Theroux’s post-apocalyptic novel provides a good example of critical reevaluation, even in the short term. When I first read it, I had reservations about some of the plot devices used by the author; to some extent, I still feel the structure is flawed. However, the protagonist, Makepeace, has haunted me ever since I read Far North; I can’t shake her, and therefore I can’t shake the novel. Ultimately, that immersive experience—of deeply believing in a fictional person—means I cannot shake Far North from this list, either. As I wrote in the New York Times Book Review, “Deep into this unbearably sad yet often sublime novel, Makepeace says: ‘Everyone expects to be at the end of something. What no one expects is to be at the end of everything.’ There’s nothing left to say after that--yet Makepeace keeps going, and the reader follows her, if not hopefully then in the hope that she will win out and that her life will have meaning to someone, somewhere.”
The Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong'o (2006) – Chaotic and absurd, satirical and wise, The Wizard of the Crow is set in the imaginary African country of Aburiria. The plot concerns, among many other things, a sick tyrant with a ridiculous plan to create the tallest building in the world to celebrate his glory. Scheming minister and, a rebel group called The Movement of the Voice of the People figure prominently. So does the wizard of the title, an unemployed man named Kamiti who joins the rebels. He’s not a wizard, even though many mistakenly think he is, but the author is definitely a wizard for juggling all of the elements of this madcap romp of a novel. The sublime and the silly coexist within The Wizard of the Crow, but ultimately the message is as serious and cutting as the text is nimble and uproarious.
Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer by Peter Turchi (2004) – This brilliant exploration of creative writing through the metaphor of the map makes you see craft and form from a different perspective. Chapters like “Projections and Conventions” and “A Rigorous Geometry” provide insightful analysis of various short stories and novels in the context of topography. The copious illustrations not only enliven and explicate the text, they often suggest new approaches to fictional structure, characterization, and description.
Rising Up and Rising Down by William T. Vollmann (2004) – Even in the abridged one-volume version, what I call Vollman’s history of violence is a formidable and eccentric accomplishment. This exploration roams from the first world to the third, from an image outside his apartment window to the catacombs beneath Paris. Vollman’s clear-eyed analysis, his continual questioning of ideas and of situations results in a fascinating and essential guide to both violence as barbarity and as one of the pillars of our so-called civilization.
The Jerusalem Quartet by Edward Whittemore (1977-1987/2002) – Old Earth Books did the world a tremendous favor by reprinting the four novels of Whittemore’s Jerusalem Quartet: Sinai Tapestry, Jerusalem Poker, Nile Shadows, and Jericho Mosaic. As I wrote in an article for Locus Online at the time: “With his Jerusalem Quartet, Whittemore set out to do nothing less than map a secret history of the world, focusing on the Middle East, where a welter of religions converge, sometimes with tragic results. The novels are loosely related, in that several memorable protagonists appear in all four, slipping in and out of the narrative as walk-on, secondary, and main characters. Inasmuch as The Jerusalem Quartet tells one story, it follows the exploits of a man named Stern Strongbow, who hopes to create peace in the Middle East. It also covers the years 1900 through 1975, weaving together different times and places for a thematic resonance that far exceeds anything Thomas Pynchon accomplished in his excellent book V.”