Sunday, 22 November 2009

50 best novels of the 2000s - 30 to 21

Here we are. The business end of the list starts in a couple of days...

30. The Quick and the Dead – Joy Williams (2000)

I read this book for three reasons. It had a quote from Don Delillo on the front, the jacket image was a David Hockney painting and on the back was a quote from Raymond Carver. I devoured it in two sittings. It’s funny, heart wrenching and just that kind of tear-stained Americana that I just can’t help but fall for every time. Williams writes immediate sentences, sentences that are effortless yet superbly crafted. It’s a book more people should discover.

29. A Fraction of the Whole – Steve Toltz (2008)

Novels that strive to be funny are so often like those people who claim to be zany or mad: they are often neither of those things, but instead intensely irritating. A Fraction of the Whole manages to sidestep this pitfall by being genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. Toltz understands the frustrations, annoyance and dispiriting nature of family life – particularly for the male relationships within that unit – and sets it as springboard to explore everything from the wisdom of crowds to the necessity of hatred. It is the heir to A Confederacy of Dunces in its blend of high intentions and superb humour. It may be a touch overlong, but every page holds a joy all of its own.

28. Gilead – Marilynne Robinson (2004)

At an event at Foyles in late summer, Adam Foulds gave the assembled crowd something to gasp about when he said that Gilead wasn’t such a great novel. I could sort of see what he was getting at, even though he was hopelessly wrong. The reviews both here and in the States suggested that this was a masterpiece, a worthy companion to her debut Housekeeping. At first I wasn’t convinced. It is slow, workmanlike even, and I put it down several times before picking it back up again. And then it sort of worked its magic on me, somehow illuminating just how subtle and yet passionately written it really is. John Ames is a rich character: rich in detail, in emotion and in faith. And for him alone, it would be remiss not to read this superlative novel.

27. The Crimson Petal and the White – Michel Faber (2002)

I fear historical fiction – and there is something about faux-Victoriana which particularly sticks in my craw (blame AS Byatt: I do). But the very opening paragraph of Faber’s dense, consistently inventive novel immediately sets the record straight. He tells us we think we know what to expect, but we do not. That we are aliens from another time, set to spy on the sins of the past. And how right he is! This tale of tarts with hearts, of pornographic libraries and cunning plots is what historical fiction should be like: fresh, light on extraneous period detail just for the sake of it, and instructive both of its time and our own.

26. The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga (2008)

After about 50 pages of Adiga’s first novel, I thought it didn’t have a hope of winning the Booker. Basically because it wasn’t the usual smoke and magic realism mirrors that we’ve come to expect from Indian novels, and because I loved it so much. It is feisty, idiosyncratic, compelling and slightly unnerving. I believe that Adiga has the same passion, fire and insider/outsider eye that elevated Orwell’s best novels from merely good to the truly great. When people have long forgotten the novels of DBC Pierre and Arundhati Roy, the only question raised about Adiga’s books will be why so many people found the award a surprising decision.

25. What is the What – Dave Eggers (2006)

I imported a load of copies of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius at Charing Cross Road Waterstone’s when I heard about it from an American friend. I read it and thought it was interesting and annoying. I read You Shall Know Our Velocity and thought pretty much the same. What is the What, however, just came out of nowhere, a non-fiction novel (but still a novel, just as much as the next book on the list is) that simply staggered me with its depiction of another man’s life, another man’s long and dangerous journey. It’s the novel that delivered on all Eggers’ promises to be something more than a Zeitgeist jumping hipster.

24. Dancer – Colum McCann (2003)

I remember talking to someone from McCann’s publishers the day after the Booker shortlist came out in 2003. He couldn’t understand why Dancer hadn’t been nominated; neither could I. Dancer is simply divine; a real tempest of a novel that combines beauty, sexuality with history and politics. It is unflinching as a portrait of Rudolf Nureyev, but also as a portrait of a time.

23. GB84 – David Peace (2004)

I wanted to ensure that authors only had one book on this list. For the most part, this was easy: in the case of three authors it was agonising. In only one case did I ignore this rule because I couldn’t imagine the decade without them. For David Peace it was a straight fight between The Damned Utd and GB84 – and to me, Peace’s novel of the Miner’s strike is simply too powerful, even up against the force of nature that is Brian Clough. The comparisons to Ellroy are justified, but as no one has had the balls to take on the underside of British life like Ellroy has about the American, it seems to me that we should applaud Peace all the more. I read it in Memphis, Tennessee, and GB84 brought back that time with such clarity it seemed to shut out the humidity and everything else that was going on.

22. The Human Stain – Philip Roth (2000)

I read the revealing part of The Human Stain in Congleton library. I had to read and re-read the paragraph over and over again. Coleman Silk is black? Roth, now you’re just shitting me. But he hit a home run with The Human Stain, a novel that could perhaps have been his masterpiece if he hadn’t already written American Pastoral. Funny, rude, politically suspect and with some of his great ancillary characters (the crushed Vietnam vet especially) The Human Stain is Roth wagging a finger at an America that he recognises only tangentially.

21. The Confessions of Max Tivoli – Andrew Sean Greer (2004)

I rejected Greer’s first novel (The Path of Minor Planets) for publication in the UK. It was interesting but all over the place. The Confessions of Max Tivoli wasn’t looking good either. The conceit of a man aging backwards had been done by Fitzgerald, and also a few years earlier by Gabriel Brownstein. But Greer’s book is so lush, so powdered and decadent the similarity of the plots becomes utterly immaterial. This is stunning writing, stunning plotting, with a yearning sense of romance that runs through the narrative like a heavy perfume. His later novel, Story of a Marriage, is also a wonderful novel, but I would not take back my time spent with Max Tivoli.


  1. Damn. I've had What is the What on my bookshelf since last Christmas and still haven't managed to bring myself to read it - mainly because I was really quite irritated by Velocity and the thought of it still irks me. Must get on to it one wet and windy weekend before it's been sitting there gathering dust for a full year...

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