Best fiction of the millennium

Over at The Millions, they’re revealing the fiction they feel is the best of the millennium so far.

What they’ve come up with:
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

I’ve only read four things from this decade (variety of reasons), and only really liked one (sorry, Wallace fans, Oblivion is not my favorite…a few pieces are outstanding, but overall I didn’t get attached to many of the stories, and my favorite chapter within is from the early 90s.) I’m beginning to think I need to go back to Modernism where I belong. But I will reenter this decade with the new Margaret Atwood, then venture one by one down this list from The Millions.

Here’s the problem. I’ve read The Corrections. Liked it. For a lot of reasons was compelled by it. Didn’t love it. But that’s the best this millennium has to offer? Uh-oh. 2666 is on my stack, and I’ll willingly tackle it this month (okay, next month, and only if I finish my conference paper which is woefully behind). But I want to hear from you about whether I should tackle this list out of order or not at all or…

What do you think of them? The books, I mean. Anything missing? Anything on this list rock your world?

[Update, years later: from this list I've finished 2666 and Cloud Atlas. The former is impressive and not my cup of tea. The latter rocked my world and I will read it again soon. Awesome book.]

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35 thoughts on “Best fiction of the millennium

  1. I can vouch for the high quality of the Saunders and the Mitchell. I wouldn’t have put Franzen so high. I liked Oscar Wao okay, but I loved Middlesex.

  2. Thanks, Trevor! Middlesex to the top of my stack, then……do you think maybe it was simply that everyone included The Corrections that it got more votes and wound up at Number One, not because many people thought it the hands-down best, but because it was read by more people? Maybe?

  3. Really liked Middlesex. I agree with Trevor, Oscar Wao just okay. Started The Corrections, never finished it.

    Atonement? Meh.

    Munro collection was very good.

    Am I the only person on the planet who thought The Road was a total f-ing BORE?

  4. Save 2666 for January, 2010 (Infinite Summer reading)!

    I liked The Road. I read it in a “meta” sort of way, as a confrontation between language and the total eradication of meaning and experience. Can love survive through language when the world ends?

    Which is not a reason anyone else has to like it.

    • Hey, Tasks! Great to hear from you.
      I tend to find McCarthy too violent, but I’ll try it. I can only read books I loathe for the interplay of language and social forces, though have never tried a whole Lacanian/Sauseurrean experience of just watching how language and meaning never actually hit anything near truth. I get caught up in plot and characters. Way old school.
      I’m not a fan of lists, either. But when someone posts one, I have less to write that night and I’m happy to open it up to those who’ve actually read more than I. They used so many panelists that I thought it would be a fair list of what I’ve been missing whilst reading everything but contemporary, now that I seem to be shifting into a millennial fiction mode.
      @John Are you a McCarthy fan or have you just heard universally pleased reactions to The Road? Tell me why you appreciate the novel.
      So now I’m moving Never Let Me Go and Middlesex up, as well as Fortress of Solitude. I have to tackle 2666 soon because I have much going on early next year and may not be ready to keep the Infinite summer pace again. I only could this time because it was a second read and I got way ahead in the middle.
      What else, fair readers?

  5. Never Let Me Go was one of the greatest books of all time. Absolutely perfect.

    Loved both The Corrections and the Fortress of Solitude. But I’m not much of one for “lists” or “rankings” so I have no opinion as to whether they are “best of” millennium or even if there is such a thing.

  6. I loved The Known World. Also the Corrections, though I know you only liked it. Middlesex I didn’t like quite as much as I thought I would (enjoyed it, absolutely, but something didn’t stick with me). Fortress of Solitude is a good, fun read. Oscar Wao: pretty good. I always like Munro, but haven’t read this one. 2666 I’m a little daunted by — read the Savage Detectives and ended up both wowed by what he put together and a little let down by what it added up to. Lots more reading to do from this list, though…

  7. Hmmmm. How to put this?

    *drops to knees, shakes fists at sky*

    Nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnooooooooooooooooooooo!!!

    I… do not agree with this list.

    1) Gilead is at the wrong end.

    2) Where is Zadie Smith?

    3) I loathed The Corrections. For a variety of reasons, not least of which is that my contempt for all the characters was exceeded only by the author’s contempt for them.

  8. I guess I’m a McCarthy fan. I hadn’t thought of it before you asked me the question. I read The Road, All the Pretty Horses and Child of God in quick succession but not necessarily in that order. I liked the Road the least of those three but I love his arias of language. The first few pages of Child of God are pure poetry; a delicious tight-rope walk, just giving the reader enough to hang on, and maybe that’s it. I think I like that the plots and characters are genuine and fully drawn but you’re not told what to think or feel. Maybe story-wise he feels like Hemingway’s progeny, but I feel like there’s more at work than just Hemingway’s spare, stoic self-righteous so-called manliness. Maybe there isn’t but maybe that theme is more appropriate now than it was then. And I think McCarthy’s men are deeper.

  9. PS> I agree about Oblivion. I loved “Good Old Neon,” but the rest lacked the warmth and hopeful nature (even if said hope is wan and weak) of Infinite Jest. Have I mentioned that I love Infinite Jest?

  10. I think you (and we all) need to post a picture of our pending book stack. THAT would be a fun discussion.

    “Don’t read that, it sucks!”
    “No it doesn’t!”

    Infinite Jest? I love Infinite Jest. Naptime NEVER mentions IJ.

  11. naptime, please do not skip Cloud Atlas. Same author’s Black Swan Green also is highly recommended, esp. if you enjoy plot & character & the speculating minds of young teens dealing with social challenges. That was poorly put, but you get the drift, no?

    Why, O why was there not a single title by Marianne Wiggins? Evidence of Things Unseen & Shadow Catcher are splendid works. This is when the local library, which works so very well for me most of the time, does not work well at all: I can’t show a virtual picture of my simulacrum of a “to read” stack!

    -verisimilitudinously yours

  12. bfs, consider The Known World and Fortress of Solitude moved closer to the top. You’re the fourth lukewarm Oscar Wao review so it’s going to the bottom.

    Dan, Gilead’s misplacement duly noted. And has now been resorted with Corrections. Sorry the list drove you to your knees. I feel better that I had nothing to do with producing it. i was wondering about Smith, too, but haven’t read anything but the incidental article by her. Heard her name a lot, though, so I figured she’d be here.
    And I will NEVER forgive Mr. Wallace Incarnations of Burned Children. I have let that man into my mind and he violated the softest, most unprotected part, damn him. My. Squishy is one of my favorites. But I’m a former ad/focus-group research type and sugar fiend so it’s all of my favorites. Minus the ricin.

    John, “Hemingway’s spare, stoic self-righteous so-called manliness” make me want to hang out with you all the time. My diatribe against him last year sounded something like that. I’ll try McCarthy again, I guess.

    Itza, I won’t skip Cloud Atlas and I’ll add Evidence of Things Unseen. You people are killing me here, but a good book is a good book.
    My local library sucks eggs and I have to go support the local bookseller who, thankfully, carries some books used. then I give the crappy selections (90%) to the library. Losers probably sell them for a nickel instead of shelving them.

    Why can’t I just stick with turn-of-the-century Industrializing/Urbanizing American lit? Everyone is pretending, depressed, then dead. It’s easy.

  13. I’m with itzadrag–you ARE priceless. And I know…Gatsby falls in there…but I still like it.

    If you don’t like brutal, The Road is not the McCarthy novel for you….and I happen to really like dialogue, and hardly anyone is alive in that novel to speak with…if you think Hemingway is spare, get a load of this one! I do VERY much agree with John that McCarthy’s characters are deeper.

    And true, while The Road is very cruel and sad, and it seems like McCarthy gives humans/human nature very little credit or faith…I think, in the end, it has a softer landing than a Hemingway novel. And for that I was thankful.

    Started Gilead and thought…eh? Maybe I just don’t hang in there long enough, but life’s too short to hang in there 70 more pages than you want to…Last time I did that was Poisonwood Bible…no wait, it was Confederacy of Dunces. WTF?

  14. Well, Kitch and Itza, I just like turn of the 19th/20th. What can I say? (And Kitch, I can claim Gatsby is a whole diff. ball of wax because 1920s Modernism from an expat is WAY not Dreiser or Howells or James. Phew, got out of that one.)
    See, now, that’s why I don’t do McCarthy. I’ll take violence if there’s a HUGE payoff in terms of deeply touching humanity. Hence my Wallacephilia. But my attempts at McCarthy have left me scared and cold and I really need less of that in my life.
    Oh, oh, oh, O’Toole. Classic debate between my brother and me: Confederacy is terrible because I want to throttle Ignatius. No, Confederacy is wonderful because we’re all Ignatius and we should all be throttled. (I think that’s one part of his argument. Ask him. I stopped listening to him when he decided he disliked DFW and when he told me I could still make homemade sourdough while an eighteen-month old terrorized my house.)
    That book (Confederacy) was the last time I pushed on through something I didn’t like. Since then I’ve dropped half-read books (a sin I never committed earlier in life—Witness Moby Dick and Sun Also Rises) because life is too short and I have too few brain cells left.
    And I’d rather read all y’all’s blogs than irritating lit.

  15. Yes, I see your point – don’t read The Road. As DFW said of The Simpsons: “(it) is great art but also corrosive to the soul.” You may not feel that way about that show but the point is still valid. I always felt that way after watching the Sopranos on Sunday nights. I tuned in wanting to know ‘what happens next’ but by the end I felt disturbed and scared for humanity with nothing but a long work week ahead of me–a depressing way to hit the hay. But McCarthy doesn’t go that far for me. Not to get too far from books but I can watch No Country for Old Men (which closely tracks to the novel, near as I can tell) over and over only because the Tommy Lee Jones character is so human and decent. And even though he gives up in the end and, in the end, is only haunted by dreams of his own mortality, there’s a certain nobility to his having carried the torch for his time, his turn, and to having been at least a conscious witness to the seemingly unconscious slide of society toward oblivion – toward the world of The Road – a slide that mirrors the relentless slide toward death. Battered and bruised and defeated, we soldier on. There’s something Wallace-y about it for me. McCarthy’s characters are humorless though and DFW’s can’t help but howl at the fantods.

    Incidentally, I too was unimpressed by Confederacy of Dunces and mostly because Ignatius was so unappealing. I read a non-fiction book after CoD, something about codebreakers in WWII, and I found the authors voice so annoying that I set aside my (C)catholic guilt and stopped reading a book for the first time in my life and then actually said so in an Amazon review for some reason. I think I currently have zero out of nine ‘helpful’ votes. Screw them.

  16. @ John: I want to hold your hand. CoD was the first book I ever stopped reading, put down, and gave away.

    @ naptime: McCarthy can be gorgeous, the language rhythms are straight from my (mythic) family past; even so, he is too violent for me to sustain any more bedtime readings. I salute your resolve to spare yourself for finer things. Like TV and wine. Or cookies. ;=)

    @ Ink: While we’re at it, which Atwood do you recommend; and, where o where is Richard Powell in these lists? Does no one love him?

    • @Dr. No, anything that has you doing herkies is a-okay by us.
      @John the sooner we all accept having zero votes on Amazon reviews, the sooner we acknowledge that our place in the world is (thankfully) not defined by what most of the losers think of us. See the most popular books and items on that site and ask yourself if you want those people hanging out with you.
      Also, I feel about MadMen the way you did about Sopranos (which I could only see once…I really am a wuss about violence. Not like itzadrag about profanity, but still…
      Love that you Cap-uncap catholic guilt. Love it. I so way beyond blasphemy but still can’t say some of the things that the nuns (proverbially but not physically) beat out of me.
      @itza and ink, is there any millennial Atwood other than the new novel that just came out? I’m not familiar with how often she publishes. And I’m still physically nauseated from a reread of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is brilliant, and the afterword of which is PHENOMENAL. Great book but turned my stomach. But most things do these days.

  17. Which Atwood do I recommend? Pretty much everything! Alias Grace is my all-time favorite. Freakin’ brilliant. You already read Handmaid’s Tale so skipping that. Other awesome novels: Lady Oracle, Cat’s Eye, Robber Bride, Blind Assassin, Edible Woman. I would say Oryx and Crake too but maybe later, (like HT, it will make you uncomfortable/sad). Any/all of her poems, short stories, prose poems, essays. Haven’t read Year of the Flood yet. Maybe we should read it together and chat as we go. (I was going to try to wait for the paperback but I feel my resolve slipping daily.)

    • I will totally read Year of the Flood with you. Sold. In hardcover is fine, though I vote we wait if we can. Cuz I’m a cheap bastard.
      So I will put Penelopiad and Alias Grace on the top of my Atwood pile, fit them into the larger pile, and move them ahead of the most of the Millennial pile.

      [I tried Oryx and Crake but only got a page or two in and decided I needed to start somewhere else. Not opposed to it, but I'll agree to later.]

  18. I forgot The Penelopiad! *That’s* what you should read first. (Alias Grace is a real commitment, but The Penelopiad can be finished quickly.) LOVE that.

  19. OK, folks. Got Never Let Me Go on hold at my local branch library; Year of the Flood is reserved for shipping; Penolopiad is not available (yet); and, I’ve just finished The Savage Girl (Alex Shakar) and just begun Oblivion (DFW stories, of which stories I may skip [unheard of!] “Incarnations of Burned Children” on your doubtless excellent advice).

    Alert us when are you starting Year of the Flood, and I’ll chime in. Con su permiso, of course.

  20. ps–

    Thanks, Ink, for link to Atwood site. I’ve read most all her fiction since the 70s, but was unaware she had published so much poetry and nonfiction as well. What a great prompt to discover more! Gracias.

  21. *sigh*

    John, I am so bummed by that DFW quote about “The Simpsons.” Because, much as I love his writing, dude is just wrong about that. (At least the early seasons.)

  22. I got the impression when I heard him say it that he meant his own soul. I don’t know if that makes it better, and I would never, ever presume to think that I could know what he was thinking but I doubt that he would ever impose his opinion on anyone. The point was that we need to spend more time on the things that uplift us and that was the gist of my message to naptime–that if McCarthy makes her sad then he’s probably not worth dedicating precious time to. The Simpsons makes me happy but not as happy as South Park which is just my brand of evil satire. I don’t think it would be hard to find someone who finds South Park ‘corrosive to the soul.’ Throw a rock…(“and do me a favor Fink, throw it hard.”)

    • Dan, I have no idea what I think. I can see corrosive, but only because I find it so sad. I love The Simpsons, and I laugh, and then I get really sad because I think Homer is America. And America is Homer. And I’m not happy about that. But I think John, your point is probably right on, that Wallace was more expressing how he felt about watching TV in general, about which he talked and wrote, and how that cynicism and ironic distance evokes for him that whole Hal anhedonia/Kate black billowing depression paradigm. That being hip and cool by laughing at cynicism is just corrosive.
      And South Park is hilarious. And also sad, because the people who need it the most don’t get that their ideologies are being mocked. Except Scientology. They get it. Except they don’t…clearly.

  23. I’ve read Middlesex and loved it, highly recommend it. Atonement was the only other one I read. Sheesh, I’d better get to work.

    Also, I read Atwood’s Blind Assassin, it’s a keeper.

  24. Go read Middlesex. What a fabulous tale. Fabulous.

    Other recent favorites (because my “all-time” list is logged somewhere in the back of my brain and I just can’t access it at 6:14 am with H1N1 more alive in my house than I am):
    The History of Love, Nicole Krauss. God that book has really stayed with me.
    Plainsong, Kent Haruf.
    Peace Like a Rive, Leif Enger

    And that’s all I got at this time of day. But these are all beautifully woven tales. And seriously, if you somehow manage a shit ton of free time and need more reviews to consider, send Jen an email. Talk about people who read. Oh, and Momalom’s Mom…holy christ you can tell that woman is firmly retired. Pretty sure it’s a book over day in her house. See? We Clearly Have SOMETHING To Look Forward To!

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