Ten Best Books of the Decade

17 12 2009

Let the Great World Spin

10:

Let the Great World Spin (2009)

Colum McCann

I’ve become quite impatient with the symbiosis of art and war. Iraq and Afghanistan war themed movies got shoved down everyone’s throats and for the most part, they all floundered. It’s not that I’m not deeply moved or distressed by the events going on in the East – I just haven’t been able to connect with anyone’s vision of the impact that 9/11 or the two aforementioned wars have had on the American public. September 11th, 2001 was a day that no one will ever forget and everyone has that story of where they were when they first heard the news of the attack on the towers. 9/11 and the consequent two wars have become fodder for major artistic crap and I don’t think it was until I read Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin that I was finally able to emotionally connect with another’s vision on the subject. The novel revolves around a group of characters that are all connected by the fateful August day in 1974 when Philip Petit walked eight times across the World Trade Center on a tightrope. Philip Petit is never named in the novel and that’s because he is not more important than any of the other characters in this book. The New Yorkers a quarter of a mile below his tightrope are also walking a tightrope of their own, in the time while the Bronx is burning, while the first emails are being sent out, while America is still trying to recover from the evils of the Vietnam War. The novel is a masterpiece, but even its smaller parts, like a chapter called “Miro, Miro on the wall” could stand apart as one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. Reading it I felt like I was reading the Wandering Rocks of New York City. The book definitely has a Ulysses effect, which I’m obviously going to get all ridiculous about. How typical that an Irishman ended up penning the defining 9/11 novel.

The Road

9:

The Road (2006)

Cormac McCarthy

The cover for The Road pretty much tells you what you’re going to see on this journey through Apocalyptic America: pure blackness, gray ash falling from the sky, and red blood blood blood. I don’t know that an author has really slapped me in the face with the darkness in the soul of man as forcefully as Cormac McCarthy has. His crowning achievement, Blood Meridian, is constantly hailed as the bloodiest book in American literature and let me tell you, they’re not lying. McCarthy has to be an alien from outer space or something. You read McCarthy and you’re awakened to the possibilities and the miracles that can be performed with the language you thought you knew so well. We’re so used to reading the great masters of the form like Joyce and Faulkner and you wonder what has happened to the world – why don’t people write like that anymore? When I read Cormac McCarthy I revel in the fact that there is a living, breathing master still amongst us. Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy will be the two authors that in a hundred years time will be regarded as the masters of the American novel. The Road is McCarthy’s easiest book, to read that is. It’s his most accessible, being nowhere near as hard to follow as say, Suttree. The Road contains some of the most beautiful language you’ll ever read in your life; it’s also one the most harrowing and deeply distressing pieces of fiction you’ll ever come across. The America that ‘The Man’ and ‘The Child’ walk through is beyond anything I’ve ever thought could be possible. This is not some Roland Emmerich extravaganza, where Noah’s Ark lays perched on the tip of the Empire State Building after a giant tidal wave or anything like that. This is a world where the toxins of years before have finally managed to cloud the sun from the Earth, leaving it in total darkness – the only light being the white you can see from the ash falling from the sky. McCarthy presents an incredible display of man’s degeneration, and as compelling and visceral an experience as it is, I pray that the closest I ever get to a world like this is solely through McCarthy’s artistry, but seeing how things are going, that’s probably not going to happen.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

8:

Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006)

Marisha Pessl

Special Topics in Calamity Physics gave me the great pleasure I once had, especially when I was in high school, of picking up a brick of a book and tear it to pieces in a day or two. My roommate at the time would come home and find me on the couch laughing my brains off, when she caught me crying my eyes out was when I had finished it.  It presents a murder mystery in the coolest, freshest, most original manner (each chapter titled after a great work of fiction [Othello or Howl for example]) and concludes with a whimsical conceit of a Final Exam. It felt like a hodgepodge of Mean Girls, Six Feet Under, American Beauty and The Da Vinci Code. It’s a book that is as fun as it is intelligent and funny. It didn’t get as much praised as I had originally expected it to receive, but nonetheless, I think it was the most fun I think I had in reading a book this decade. Its conceits tickled me in such a great way and I really never ever had any clue where it was going to go. I feel bad for Marisha Pessl. This was her debut novel and I can only imagine that coming up with something to follow this must be stomach-turning for an author. But whatever, that’s her job. So churn it out good woman! I need more Pessl!

The Year of Magical Thinking

7:

The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)

Joan Didion

I didn’t know a thing about Joan Didion when I picked up this small memoir. I’ve never been one to gravitate towards a memoir for that matter. It just didn’t seem like my cup of tea. But, seeing how heavily praised a work it was, I obviously picked it up. I saw that National Book Award stamp and I called it a day. I didn’t know what I was in for. Ms. Didion’s recollections of her life with her husband, the writer and poet John Gregory Dunne and their daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael and of her husband’s subsequent death has now beome a classic of what could be called “mourning literature”.  The way she mourns her husband, all the while trying to keep strong for her dying daughter, who will eventually die just short of the novel’s publication, is absolutely heartbreaking. I was a real mess when I read this book. Ms. Didion lets us see her without any of the glamour. We see her at her very worst, when she just wants everything to just crash and burn. She bears her soul in these pages in the most uncompromising way. It’s terribly sad what happened to Ms. Didion and it’s not hard to feel for her, but it’s presented in the most stunningly beautiful language. It’s not the kind of book you can finish and then just move on to the next one. You mind and your emotions need time to repose once you’re done reading this memoir. It’s one hell of a cathartic experience.

Middlesex

6:

Middlesex (2002)

Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex has a narrative arc that I just go gaga for. It’s the same exact paradigm used by Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children: Three parts, titled chapters, a family saga that starts with the grandparents of the particular third generation member in question, who typically has a magical power or is just a band apart from the rest in its own unique way. I knew when I read The Virgin Suicides that Jeffrey Eugenides was someone to follow; someone whose works I should know and register. Middlesex is the story of Cal and his Greek immigrant family. Cal is an “intersexed” person who only learned of his undescending testicles at the age of fourteen, when he was still Calliope Stephanides. Middlesex starts in Greece, ships us across the Atlantic, to Detroit, Michigan and all the way to San Francisco. I really appreciate and connect to Eugenides’ sensibilities. His stories are romantic and very dark and his writing is always very calculated and powerful. Middlesex is taboo in the way One Hundred Years of Solitude is taboo about incest and the apprehensions behind making a life, about reproduction. In ways Middlesex is an amalgam of many great stories (the correlations in narrative between Middlesex and Midnight’s Children or One Hundred Years of Solitude are hard to dismiss) but Eugenides still managed to give us a gorgeously inspired piece of work. The second read was even more powerful too.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

5:

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2006)

Junot Diaz

So when I was living with my ex-roommate, she had a galley copy The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. She thought it was brilliant, shoved it down my throat, but I told her I was busy with who knows what at that moment. So she shoved it down our other roommate’s throat and he ended up thinking it was brilliant as well. Still, for some reason, it wasn’t grabbing me. I had to wait, once again, for it to win the Pulitzer for me to do the obligatory Scooby-Doo “urf!?” to finally read this book. It’s one of those brilliant books that everyone loves. I see someone reading this book on the subway all the time and it always makes me smile. I want to scoot people off their seats just so I can sit with the person reading the book so we can talk about it and how I love that part, and has she read that scene?” I can be intolerable and this book made me really intolerable. Its nods to science-fiction, its geekiness, its use of Spanglish and its inherent beauty just floored me and made me jealous that Diaz had written something like this first. I’d be proud of myself if I were Junot Diaz. This is a book to covet, it’s so good. I hadn’t loved a character and been so honestly frustrated by one and felt so connected to a fictitious character in so long that when I finally came to the end I didn’t know what to do with myself. I couldn’t read anything else for a little while. I was so wrapped up in my feelings about Oscar Wao. As someone who likes to write fiction on the side, this book immediately made me look inward and made me pick up and a pen and start writing a little bit again. It’s a very passionate book and surely destined to become one of the great works of American literature, not just of this decade, but of the entire canon.

The Savage Detectives

4)

The Savage Detectives (2007)

Roberto Bolaño

Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

The Savage Detectives is unlike any book that has ever been written. It presents a style and form that has a writer’s stamp all over it. Once cracked, you’re immediately in the Bolaño world. You’re immediately introduced to The Visceral Realists, a gang of poets that include Chilean poet Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, both founders of the resurgence of this poetic movement which was first started by “the mother of visceral realism” Cesarea Tinajero. The first part of the book is narrated by Luis Sebastian Rosado, a seventeen year old who is introduced to the poets and is eventually taken along on the quest to find Cesarea Tinajero, who had disappeared from world long ago. The second part, “The Savage Detectives” is 400 pages of vignettes, consisting of the dozens of voices of people that Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano meet in the consequent 20 years after their trip into the Sonora Desert to find Cesarea Tinajero. I couldn’t believe how original this book is. This guy juggles what feels like a hundred voices in these four hundred pages and he keeps everything he’s working with in the air. One thing about Bolaño that I really loved and respected was how well he wrote gay men. The relationship between Luis Sebastian Rosado and Luscious Skin is just as truthful and erotic and funny and adventurous as any of the fiery sexual explorations that pepper this novel. It’s a very erotically charged, but it’s very sexy. And I’ll NEVER forget Barbara Patterson, the American hippie chick with the mouth of a sailor, or Amadeo Salvatierra, who keeps trying to shove mescal down your throat every time you come back to his story. How can someone map 20 years in the lives of these two people so precisely and with such gusto? It’s a head-spinning book that really wrapped its fine web all around me till I felt like I belonged in its pages. I lived and breathed this book and it was so sweet to discover it all on my own. It was there at The Strand and I took a chance on it, especially considering that I got it hardcover and that I really never do. Well, it was the discovery of the decade for me. I can’t think of a single contemporary writer that I’ve read this whole decade that has impacted me more than Bolaño.

House of Leaves

3:

House of Leaves: (2000)

Mark Z. Danielewski

The first thing that grabs you about House of Leaves is its size. It feels and looks like a fat movie script. The cover says “A Novel” but once I flipped through its pages, I didn’t see your typical everyday novel. Boxed-in words that you can read only when projected onto a mirror, sentences in the shape of snapped ropes, appendixes, photographs, letters, film reels – pretty much a typographical labyrinth of mad genius that even with its hyper-intelligence, manages to also be highly accessible. I never felt as if the book were leaving me behind, sucking up its dust. There are so many secrets, puzzles, anagrams, acronyms, references that entire websites have been created – discussion boards, blog commentaries and conspiracy theories all of them trying to put the pieces of this puzzle together. At the start we meet Johnny Truant, a young L.A. scenester who moves into the first floor apartment of a blind man named Zampano who has just died. Inside the blind man’s mausoleum of an apartment he finds a pile of manuscripts, pictures, film reels that pertain to a certain project called The Navidson Record. This report is supposedly some Blair Witch kind of underground movie spectacle – a real life family home movie of shot by the Navidson family as they try to fight off…their own house. Slowly, but surely, we start thinking just like Johnny, getting so sucked in to this story that we start believing it’s real. The house on One Ash Tree Lane, as the Navidson family soon learns, bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, well – actually it grows on the inside. Eventually, their children get lost in the house and what ensues is one of the scariest and most thrilling reading experiences I’ve ever had. We hear about theories on sound and echos, parallax, we walk down a 5 ½ minute hallway, and we’re taken down Yeat’s winding gyre – Dante’s ever-turning path down to the bottom of Hell. As terrifying as the experience is, at its true core, House of Leaves is a love story. It’s about fear, definitely, but more specifically, the fear of losing your family to forces that seem out of your control, whether its madness or from random chaos. Bret Easton Ellis’s review on the back cover of my copy asks himself ‘Will I ever recover?’ In my case – any day now.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

2)

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2001)

Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a book I’ll never forget. I keep wanting to reread it for a third time, pretty much all the time. There are so many books I want to read, but all I want to do is read this again. So many images from this book stay with me, that just come in flashes every once in a while. The entire premise is so exciting. It’s more than 600 pages and you never feel encumbered. Joe Kavalier was a character I truly fell in love with. Just like I fell in love with Aladdin when I was a wee homo, Kavalier was the fake man of my dreams. I wanted to be around him all the time. I can relate to Sammy Clay in so many ways and there are few love stories that move me the way Sammy Clay and Tracy Bacon’s relationship affects me. The scene at the airport at night and their walk through the abandoned World’s Fair site are some of my favorite scenes in any book I’ve read. It’s a book that contains multitudes too. It’s an immigrant story, a love story, a gay love story, about the birth of comic books, a post-World War II novel and it succeeds on every level.

2666

1)

2666 (2008)

Roberto Bolaño

Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

I discovered Roberto Bolaño at the perfect hour. I had picked up The Savage Detectives and was instantaneously addicted to his polyphonic style. I was hungry for more and I started shopping around for some Bolaño, when I heard, who knows where, that 2666 was coming out and that it was a near thousand-page monster. I immediately Googled this said monster and found the cover art and synopsis on Amazon. First off…the cover designs by Charlotte Strick and Jonathan D. Lippincott is without a doubt the best I’ve ever seen. I love book design and it honestly is a big factor in which book I chose to read next. I crumble for a good cover, or overall book design, like Danielewski’s books, as well as Chabon’s on some occasions, Kavalier & Clay to be precise. So, when I saw Gustave Moreau’s “Jupiter and Semele” behind that red demonic typography I knew there would be a real and true universe contained behind that cover. Like a psychopomp, it showed me the way to hell. It also showed me that hell is palpable and that we’re all living in it.

Reading a book like The Savage Detectives can be exhausting, and I sure as hell was weak from retaining so many lives in such a supersonic speed at such an incessant rapidity. I figured it was the incredible and inspired triumph of a writer that just wrote his masterpiece. Surely if I was exhausted, the guy that conceived of what was probably hundreds of characters must still be gasping for air years later. But no, it was just like a regular Tuesday afternoon of jotting stuff down for him. He seemed to inhabit a Shakespearian madness of filling the transparencies of others and the way it reads, so fluid and naturally propelled, it only feels as if it is spilling out of him as he’s writing it – consulting no books, no manic marginalia, no tape-recorder. His prose feels like immemorial knowledge, like the scrolls of a parallel universe. The entire book, in one way or the other, centers around the factory town Santa Teresa, based on the Mexican town of Juarez, where hundreds upon hundreds of women’s murdered bodies have been recovered from the streets and in the deserts on the outskirts of the city.  Although a technically uncompleted novel, 2666 is comprised of five parts: “The Part about the Critics”, “The Part about Amalfitano”, “The Part about Fate”, “The Part about the Crimes” and “The Part about Archimboldi”. It is 893 pages of some of the craziest prose I’ve ever read. “The Part about the Crimes” itself is 280 of carnage, nihilism, rape, shooting, strangulations, murder. We meet all of Santa Teresa’s victims as well as some of their respective families. We learn their daily regimens, the friends they’ve made in their lives, and most shocking, or startling of all – we meet some of the men that killed them, men they knew, and even some they loved.

It was an epidemic; it wasn’t a slasher roaming the streets for a span of more than a decade, but an entire city that seemed borne out of some plasmatic violence. I’m talking about both Santa Teresa (the fictional) and Juarez (the real), for they are separate entities. Bolaño had heard about the murders from an article in a newspaper and wanted to conduct a further investigation, but as luck and the cosmos would have it, he never got much or real information to work with. The lives of all the women in “The Part about the Crimes” are pure Bolaño fancy. But when we read it, it’s as real as knowing your own name. And that’s just one of five parts (but lucky for us, a sixth part has surfaced amongst Bolaño’s papers in Spain).

In 2666, Bolaño takes us through North America, Mexico, and all across Europe in one rhetorically maniacal fell swoop. The worlds created here are so fully-fleshed, so seamlessly drawn from every angle that it’s hard to not accept that Florita Almada, the psychic force of the novel, doesn’t really make those television appearances, or that Archimboldi is a real person that lives or had lived in a universe that wasn’t automatically legitimized by Bolaño’s word. We learn so much from reading 2666, and it doesn’t matter whether any of it is true or not in the physical world. We learn about the various species of seaweeds and sponges, about post World War II science-fiction, that a starfish won’t survive in a normal fish tank and what it might feel like to know you’re crying underwater. If you’ll allow me, this is what we have to learn about ‘stars’ according to 2666:

STARS – (Seaman) said that people knew many different kinds of stars or thought they knew many different kinds of stars. He talked about the stars you see at night, say when you’re driving from Des Moines to Lincoln on Route 80 and the car breaks down, the way they do, maybe it’s the oil or the radiator, maybe it’s a flat tire, and you get out and get the jack and the spare tire out of the trunk and change the tire, maybe half an hour, at most, and when you’re done you look up and see the sky full of stars. The Milky Way. He talked about star athletes. That’s a different kind of star, he said, and he compared them to movie stars, though as he said, the life of an athlete is generally much shorter. A star athlete might last fifteen years at best, whereas a movie star could go on for forty or fifty years if he or she started young. Meanwhile, any star you could see from the side of Route 80, on the way from Des Moines to Lincoln, would live for probably millions of years. Either that or it might have been dead for millions of years, and the traveler who gazed up at it would never know. It might be a live star or it might be a dead star. Sometimes, depending on your point of view, he said, it doesn’t matter, since the stars you see at night exist in the realm of semblance. They are semblances, the same way dreams are semblances. So the traveler on Route 80 with a flat tire doesn’t know whether what he’s staring up at in the vast night are stars or whether they’re dreams. In a way, he said, the traveler is also part of a dream, a dream that breaks away from another dream like one drop of water breaking away from a bigger drop of water that we call a wave…Really, when you talk about stars you’re speaking figuratively. That’s metaphor. Call someone a movie star. You’ve used a metaphor. Say: the sky is full of stars. More metaphors. If somebody takes a hard right to the chin and goes down, you say he’s seeing stars. Another metaphor. Metaphors are our way of losing ourselves in semblances or treading water in a sea of seeming. In that sense a metaphor is like a life jacket. And remember, there are life jackets that float and others that sink to the bottom like lead. Best not to forget it. But really, there’s just one star and that star isn’t semblance, it isn’t metaphor, it doesn’t come from any dream or any nightmare. We have it right outside. It’s the sun. The sun, I am sorry to say, is our only star.

For someone so consumed with the lives of writers and poets, it’s interesting that Bolaño fails to mention the span of the literary star, who unlike the movie star and the athlete, can live for hundreds or thousands of years in the minds and the hearts of his devoted followers, of his or her readers. Bolaño for one, I expect, will be read and remembered for a very, very long time. We know that Bolaño is gone, but his light keeps reaching us, and I’m grateful to have looked upon semblances of his making such as that of 2666.

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