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.

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