NYR iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Anis Shivani

GET UPDATES FROM Anis Shivani
 

The Best Books of the Decade

Posted: 12/09/09 12:37 PM ET

1. Orhan Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence (Knopf, 2009). From 1866 to 1872, Dostoevsky published Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and The Possessed. In this decade, Pamuk has written the three most fully realized novels of ambition, an astonishing productivity -- he also published Istanbul: Memories and the City, one of the decade's most remarkable autobiographies--that leaves an indelible mark on world literature for the foreseeable future. Many of the writers of the coming decades will be measured against this legacy. Pamuk's books have been exploring all along the labyrinths of Istanbul, that great seat of two world empires, and now a city of ruins (as Pamuk sees it), a city of pervasive melancholy, but in The Museum of Innocence we get his first sustained view of Istanbul's high society follies. The book will be interpreted by clueless reviewers as one about "obsession," just as they might view Nabokov's Lolita to be about "pedophilia." What is the nature of Kemal Basmaci's alienation from the rest of his class of people? Why can't he be satisfied with the urbane, educated, respectable Sibel, his betrothed from a similarly elevated family, and why must he "ruin" his life over the memory of his first happiness with Füsun, his distant relative of modest means? It is the kind of thing Dostoevsky was after, as Russia found itself in an uncomfortable position between the modernizers and the traditionalists; why must Kemal fall in love with Füsun so completely, to the exclusion of the rest of his interests? The aestheticization of politics is really another name for fascism; the aestheticization of personal life is -- what? Is it just short of the accomplishment of art itself? What is Orhan Pamuk saying about himself as a writer -- the state of his art, the art of his state--as he builds a museum of objects in Istanbul, much as Kemal does to commemorate Füsun? What is authentic emotional life? How independent can it be of class and origin? A more important question, handled by a more astute writer, cannot be imagined.

2. Orhan Pamuk, Snow (Knopf, 2004). This is the most important political novel of our times; no other book takes us to the heart of the dispute between fundamentalists and secularists as does Snow, with anything remotely approaching its philosophical sophistication. And to the extent that this dispute is central to world politics, so is this book. The false divides between "us" and "them" are quite erased in this book, so that the mirror is presented as a conundrum of existence; as soon as we start looking closely, as Pamuk does in Snow, we find that identity is a matter of great contingency and flux. Today, the process of assumption and shedding of identities has acquired greater speed than ever before; Snow captures this blinding-speed momentum perfectly. Nationalism is the ultimate theater, liberalism's sugarcoated sacrifice to the gods, a pill we are all forced to swallow at some time or another. In the eastern Anatolian town of Kars, religious girls start committing suicide for not being allowed to wear the headscarf. Ka, a poet exiled in Frankfurt, visits to investigate this phenomenon for a liberal newspaper -- though his real motivation is to try to spark up an old fire with İpek, whose sister is one of the leaders of the religious girls. Atatürk had the dream of revolutionizing Turkey from the top down -- as, to a lesser extent, did the other modernizing leaders of the Muslim world; but what is at the bottom refuses to subside. What happens if, for a short snowbound period of time, the convoluted manifestations of these two tendencies are allowed to collide? The state's central authority, frozen in a pastiche of nationalism, will intervene after a time, of course; but in the meantime, everyone is forced to make a choice about their identity. Which camp does one belong to? What if such allegiance has immediate life-and-death consequences? Kafka's Castle was about a bureaucratic nightmare whose controlling authority we can never understand; we have now reached a stage of history where we are our individual controlling authorities: escape into other dimensions is always possible.

3. Orhan Pamuk, My Name Is Red (Knopf, 2001). Why did Islam never modernize? Is it something about the religion? But Islam would seem to fit well with Max Weber's thesis of the Protestant ethic -- it is a very protestant, not catholic, religion, with emphasis on practicality and success as their own rewards. Did Islam already have its reformation -- or is it going to have one? Journalists keep themselves occupied asking such hollow questions, while Pamuk offers us, in My Name Is Red, a look at how a great culture is always in transition, always constitutes the sum of its parts, so that to ask such questions, as though cultures were laboratory experiments, is the height of silliness. The writer, at his most successful, writes from inside a culture, as though he were an outsider; Pamuk does this one better, by fully enfolding his outsiderness, his observer status, into the rhythm of the narrative. In the sixteenth-century Ottoman empire, a group of miniaturist painters (borrowing their art from Persian masters) find themselves caught in a cauldron of envy and suspicion, to the extent that two of them get murdered. Who among the painters is the murderer? At issue is the degree to which Western perspectivism -- following from the West's emphasis on individuality and style -- will be allowed to encroach upon received notions of idealism, which purportedly shun any expression of individual observation of reality. The range of philosophical investigation -- including disquisitions on the art of painting, according to varied ideologies -- is unparalleled for a novel published in this decade; whereas Sterne attempted digression in the service of a lighthearted escape from the burdens of banality, Pamuk makes us believe that digression itself is a misnomer. We start pondering a different set of questions about tradition versus modernity -- if that is even the matrix we should be operating along -- and that is a very great accomplishment. Pamuk has enormously expanded the range of elasticity attributable to the novel; at this late stage in time, to be able to do so, beggars belief.

4. Zadie Smith, White Teeth (Random House, 2000). Smith finished writing this book at the preternatural age of twenty-two, while still a student at Cambridge. Not surprisingly, her follow-up books have not measured up to the exuberant crescendo of White Teeth, but then, we never expected that. White Teeth was the summation of the spirit of openness, trial and error, experimentation, and hybridity that marked the multicultural age of Western civilization in the last decades of the twentieth century. Two outcomes were possible at the turn of the millennium. One, which seemed very likely at the time, was that multiculturalism would continue apace, until race separation would collapse entirely, and a new mélange (such as Smith hints at in White Teeth) would come into being; the second, which actually came to fruition, was that the experiment would fall apart, collapse under its own weight -- manipulated by demagogues to resume a world of suspicion and hatred. Even if there is a return to multiculturalism, it won't be innocent as it was in White Teeth. Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal are the two parents -- and best friends -- in working-class London; they have a shared history fighting for the empire in World War II. When Archie remarries, it is with a young Jamaican girl, whose offspring is Irie; while the Bengali Samad has twin sons with his wife Alsana, Millat and Magid. Magid is sent to Bangladesh to learn the homeland's cultural values, but returns a pucca Englishman, while -- predictably -- the son who stays at home, Millat, joins KEVIN (Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation). The offspring are also involved with the scientific Chalfens family, who design the genetically engineered FutureMouse. Scientific fundamentalism, then, is in clash with cultural fundamentalism, while the earlier generation of Archie and Samad stands by in bemusement. It is a little painful to read the novel now; its comic endearments generated faint unease even a decade ago. Everything ends happily; the threats are not real threats, people will in the end come to their senses. White Teeth now feels archival, documentary, illusory -- it is the necessary progenitor of a great deal of multicultural fiction, especially by writers of South Asian extraction in the U.S. and Britain, that has the feel of desperation about it; but an honest desperation. We really are only dealing with KEVIN still; we just can't see that anymore.

5. William Boyd, Any Human Heart (Knopf, 2002)
. This is the best book of the twenty-first century to take full measure of the dearly departed twentieth century, an unparalleled effort of elegiac imagination. Before the "Great War" of 1914-1918, belief in progress and enlightenment reigned strong, given great impetus by Darwin in the late nineteenth century. The disillusionment of the interwar years was followed by some false exuberance, in turn succeeded by a weary exhaustion that began half a century ago and shows no signs of abating. Entropy, in other words, which Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and John Updike busily chronicled on our side of the ocean -- entropy which finds its most aesthetically sensitive expression in Boyd's novel. As the century unravels into war, then weak passions, then finally enervation and meaninglessness, so does the life of its protagonist, an Everyman who finds himself inserted, Zelig-like, in some of the key situations of the century. Much of the greatest twentieth-century literature was written in the elegiac mode -- Eliot, Waugh, Nabokov, Anthony Powell -- which is entirely appropriate for a century that fell so flat on its face, while accomplishing unprecedented technological breakthroughs (perhaps two sides of the same coin), but Boyd's book possesses an intensity of melancholic pain that mid-century writers could not possibly have accessed. Logan Conzago Mountstuart (1906-1991) is Boyd's protagonist, and the novel is told in the form of his intermittent diaries, as he encounters Joyce, Hemingway, Picasso, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Ian Fleming, and the New York art world luminaries of the 1950s and 1960s. His hijinks at prep school and Oxford are a form of unearned confidence, as is his early success as a marginal writer (starting with Shelley's biography, and unraveling into more and more derivative forms). Mountstuart spies for England in the Naval Intelligence Division during World War II, and loses his wife and daughter during the Blitz. Power having shifted to America, it is natural that he should find his way after the war to New York, to run an art gallery, which he does quite successfully, until he has to escape for fear of facing charges of statutory rape. In London in the seventies, he lives in straitened circumstances, joining the Socialits Patients' Kollective, which is supportive of terrorist activities. Throughout his life Mountstuart writes minor books, unable to get around to creating a literary masterpiece. Mountstuart finds a reconciliation of sorts in his last days in France; the twentieth century is often understood to have ended (with the Soviet Union's collapse) in 1991, so it's not coincidental that that's when the novel ends. This is the saddest story ever told.

6. Joseph O' Neill, Netherland (Pantheon, 2008). Cricket--the ultimate gentleman's sport, perhaps the British empire's greatest cultural legacy--is O'Neill's metaphor for a world of peaceful cultural coexistence, a world of hope erased in America, and to a lesser degree in Europe. This book captures the post-9/11 zeitgeist of paranoia, identity flux, self-persecution, unbound guilt, passive indifference, and perpetual low-grade violence better than any other. One has the feeling that other books that follow in its wake will not be able to supersede its utter penetration of the new psychology of the master race. Hans van den Broek is a Dutch immigrant to New York, whose wife Rachel leaves him to return to London along with their young son Jake soon after the 9/11 attacks, to avoid living in the "ideologically diseased" United States. Hans finds consolation in a friendship with West Indian immigrant Chuck Ramkissoon, an entrepreneur who has risen far enough to dream of building the New York Cricket Club, reminding America that the game was played on these shores long before baseball ever originated. Ramkissoon dares to dream that cricket, even in these fraught times, can bring Americans together, impose a different rhythm of time and space. Indeed, O'Neill's prose style shares some of the languorous rhythms of cricket, an indication that this Irish-born writer finds something inescapably lost about the American dream. Ramkissoon may be engaged in questionable activities, but compared to the massive ongoing crimes against humanity, his transgressions are besides the point. O'Neill's book is the most severe fictional indictment yet of America's lost place in the world, an early epitaph for not only empire, but whatever elusive substance it was that brought dreamers like Ramkissoon to try out their woolliest (and most sensible) ideas on the American terra firma.

7. Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (Doubleday, 2003). American reviewers mostly misjudged this novel as flawed "science fiction," unfairly comparing it to The Handmaid's Tale. Upon rereading this book at the end of the decade, it feels even more powerful than it did at the beginning: it is clearly the finest dystopian fiction of the decade. What is shocking now is the degree to which some of the near-future predictions of Oryx and Crake have already come true. Jimmy (Snowman), the student at the decrepit Martha Graham Academy, and his friend, the mad genius scientist Crake at the Watson-Crick Institute, watch live beheadings at hedsoff.com (which we can do now), while playing such internet games as Three Dimensional Waco and KiwkTime Osama. In the current decade the American liberal arts college has traveled a long distance to making itself a quaint relic, like Martha Graham Academy. Snowman presumes himself to be the last man alive on earth, after Crake lets loose a plague -- embodied in the pill BlyssPluss -- to replace the human race, overbreeding its way to extinction anyway, with a placid, green-eyed, grass-eating, ultraviolet ray-immune race of humans called the Crakers, whom he has produced in his Paradice Labs. As in the genre-establishing twentieth-century dystopian novels, the classes are sharply separated: the pleeblands are where people breed like crazy, and live impulsive, sensuous lives. Atwood's concern with genetic engineering gone haywire -- pigoons (bred to have multiple organs for transplant), wolvogs, and more benignly ChickieNobs (chickens consisting entirely of succulent breast, lacking a head) -- is typical of worries earlier in the decade; the insatiable lust for violence, combined with an equal urge to disappear into innocence, is the thing that has been realized already. At the beginning of the age of enlightenment, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels mocked the naïve scientific imagination; Atwood does the honors at what looks like the approaching end of this age, at least in its centers of origin.

8. Philip Roth, The Plot Against America (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). This is the most problematic book on this list, displacing a more deserving book like V. S. Naipaul's Half a Life or Laila Halaby's Once in a Promised Land or David Rhodes's Driftless. Roth posits counterfactual history, an alternative America where Charles Lindbergh won the 1940 election on an America First policy against Franklin Roosevelt, and for a couple of years allowed Hitler to get stronger in Europe and anti-Semitism to rage in America. Roth was at pains to say at the time of publication that his book was not meant as a commentary on the Bush administration's decimation of civil liberties, that the book was what it was: a reflection on anti-Semitism in the 1940s, and nothing more. A second reading suggests that we must read the book this way; Roth meant no more. Roth's blindness means that he can't see that when America explicitly became an empire, with a global policeman role managed by the world's best-financed military and a state of near perpetual war for sixty years, it would eventually lead to conditions of near-fascism at the turn of the millennium -- and persecution of a very different set of Semites at home. The "isolationism" of the period had a very intellectually respectable pacifist element, which Roth completely ignores; this is further reinforced by the happy outcome, as all is set straight at the end, and America defeats Hitler after all, to assume leadership on the world stage. But what magnificent blindness! Herman Roth is the patriarch of the family, whose child Philip Roth watches his secure New Jersey bourgeois world collapse around him. Philip's brother Sandy eagerly joins the Office of American Absorption's program whereby Jewish youth are temporarily relocated to rural parts of the country, like Kentucky. Young Philip Roth's aunt Evelyn marries Rabbi Bengelsdorf, the arch-collaborator who wholeheartedly supports Lindbergh's policies toward American Jews. The greatest novel of the fascist personality is Heinrich Mann's Der Untertan; Roth's novel partakes of some of this forerunning novel's deep psychological insight into how the authoritarian personality takes over; a skeptical Herman Roth is always easily outmaneuvered by a juvenile Sandy.

9. Aleksander Hemon, Nowhere Man: The Pronek Fantasies (Nan Talese/Doubleday). In Josef Pronek, displaced to Chicago in the early nineties as the war in Bosnia rages on, Hemon has created the most endearing immigrant in American fiction since Nabokov's Pnin. Josef's parents still live in Sarajevo, and as he joins various activities -- taking ESL classes, volunteering for Greenpeace, even thinking about becoming a detective -- he constantly has to explain to naïve Americans who he really is. It is the most difficult thing he is asked to do. His friend Mirza, a Muslim, writes him letters from Sarajevo about the mutual annihilation in progress there. As Hemon describes his hero's earlier years as instigator of the band Blind Josef Pronek and Dead Souls, nostalgia becomes irrelevant for someone so badly caught out by history. Various do-gooding liberal Americans take to Pronek -- as they always do -- enchanted by his Bosnian accent and his lack of guile. A typical exchange: "Where are you from?" she asked him. "Bosnia." "I am sorry." "But I live here now, for five years." "I am still sorry." "It is not your fault." Hemon is attempting to talk about the impossible--guilt when there is no cause for guilt (Pronek escaped just before war started). Pronek's sadness--embodied in sevdalinka, the Bosnian blues--makes novels of immigrant assimilation and adaptability utterly superficial by comparison. Hemon's fragmented form, and his use of the motif of the scurrying mouse used throughout the book, make it an open-ended book, a classic riposte to the banalities of realism. A memorable incident--told not from Pronek's point of view--occurs in 1991 when Pronek is touring the Ukraine, and meets George Bush the First at the site of the Babi Yar massacre. George Bush says, "This place is holy ground. May God bless your country, son." "It is not my country," Josef said. "Yes, it is," Bush said, and patted Josef on his shoulder. "You bet your life it is. It is as yours as you make it." "But I am from Bosnia..." "It's all one big family, your country is. If there is misunderstanding, you oughtta work it out." An immigrant such as Pronek comes across as cheerful most of the time. Hemon takes the dreamlife behind the dream apart to reveal the person the immigrant never likes to talk about; yet it is all out there in the open. Hemon writes the most energized prose of any American author today; reading him is a constant rebuke to the energies we have frittered away.

10. Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Harcourt, 2007)
. It is after the onset of the new American wars of empire. Changez, a Pakistani from a shabby genteel Lahore family, who once found success at Princeton and on Wall Street, has returned to Pakistan, believing that for its own good the American empire must be stopped cold. How he plans to do this, as he conducts a novel-length monologue with his unnamed American interlocutor at an Anarkali restaurant in Lahore, is not clear; it is not even clear if Changez is about to be assassinated, or if perhaps the American is about to meet this fate. In any event, they are locked in mortal conflict, a zero-sum game with no winners. Changez had met all the criteria of the immigrant's success story in America (lacking the shadier dimensions of Chuck Ramkissoon's character, from O'Neill's novel), fulfilled the requirements of the Princeton meritocracy, duly fallen in love with a Wasp princess Erica (an Upper East Side blonde whose parents have pretensions to art and culture), and was eagerly recruited by his mentor Jim at the valuations firm of Underwood Samson, another fellow from the wrong side of the tracks who can see the chip on Changez's shoulder. But Erica (allegorically substituting for America) succumbs to unsustainable grief over the loss of her first boyfriend to cancer, and Changez comes to understand his real role in the larger scheme of things as Underwood Samson downsizes companies around the world in search of greater short-term profitability (one of Changez's assignments is to figure out how to cut down a Chilean publisher). Changez comes to see himself like the Ottoman Janissaries, recruited to do the dirty work -- but with what benefit to himself? It is not necessary for Hamid to elaborate what sort of fundamentalism Changez has fallen into; that is besides the point. What is important is that from a position of false harmony, the two sides have irrevocably locked horns -- and these two sides are not necessarily geographical or religious entities, but the sides of reason and madness. Changez is a fundamentalist of reason, which, at the present moment in history, appears to some (among the overlords) as madness.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

FICTION:

Ha Jin, The Bridegroom: Stories (Pantheon, 2000)

Doris Lessing, Ben, In the World (Harper Collins, 2000)

Tom Perrotta, Joe College (St. Martins, 2000)

Mohsin Hamid, Moth Smoke (FSG, 2000)

George Saunders, Pastoralia: Stories (Riverhead, 2000)

Saul Bellow, Ravelstein (Viking, 2000)

Pat Barker, Border Crossing (FSG, 2001)

Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (FSG, 2001)

Walter Kirn, Up In the Air (Doubleday, 2001)

Richard Yates, The Collected Stories of Richard Yates (Holt, 2001)

Casares, Oscar, Brownsville: Stories (Back Bay, 2002)

J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello (Viking, 2003)

Ismail Kadare, The Successor (Arcade, 2003)

Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (Pantheon, 2003)

T. Coraghessan Boyle, The Inner Circle (Viking, 2004)

E. L. Doctorow, Sweet Land Stories (Random House, 2004)

Chang-Rae Lee, Aloft (Riverhead, 2004)

Don Lee, Country of Origin: A Novel (Norton, 2004)

Harry Mulisch, Siegfried (Penguin, 2004)

Tom Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons (FSG, 2004)

Richard Burgin, The Identity Club: New and Selected Stories (Ontario Review, 2005)

Alicia Erian, Towelhead (Simon & Schuster, 2005)

Dana Spiotta, Eat the Document (Scribner, 2006)

Claire Messud, The Emperor's Children (Knopf, 2006)

Richard Ford, The Lay of the Land (Knopf, 2006)

Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (Ecco, 2006)

Laila Halaby, Once in a Promised Land (Beacon, 2007)

Ha Jin, A Free Life (Pantheon, 2007)

Aleksander Hemon, The Lazarus Project (Riverhead, 2008).

Carolyn Chute, The School on Heart's Content Road (Atlantic Monthly, 2008)

David Rhodes, Driftless (Milkweed, 2008)

Eric Miles Williamson, Welcome to Oakland: A Novel (Raw Dog Screaming, 2009)

NONFICTION:

Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture (Norton, 2000)

Gore Vidal, The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000 (Doubleday, 2000)

Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Metropolitan, 2001)

William Logan, Desperate Measures (University Press of Florida, 2002)

Immanuel Wallerstein, The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World (New Press, 2003)

Thomas Frank, What's The Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (Metropolitan/Holt, 2004)

Andrew Bacevich, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced By War (Oxford, 2005)

James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century (Atlantic Monthly, 2005)

Chris Hedges, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (Free Press, 2006)

Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (Penguin, 2006)

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone (Knopf, 2007)

Charlie Savage, Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy (Little Brown, 2007)

Patrick French, The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul (Knopf, 2008)

Kevin Phillips, Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism (Viking 2008)

Matt Taibbi, The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire (Spiegel & Grau, 2008)

Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World (Norton, 2008)

POETRY:

Marilyn Hacker, Squares and Courtyards: Poems (Norton, 2001)

Campbell McGrath, Florida Poems (Ecco, 2002)

Tony Hoagland, What Narcissism Means To Me (Graywolf, 2003)

Franz Wright, Walking to Martha's Vineyard (Knopf, 2003)

John Matthias, New Selected Poems (Salt, 2004)

Kevin Prufer, Fallen From a Chariot (Carnegie Mellon, 2005)

Rita Dove, American Smooth: Poems (Norton, 2006)

Elaine Equi, Ripple Effect: New and Selected Poems (Coffee House, 2007)

H. L. Hix, God Bless: A Political/Poetic Discourse (Etruscan, 2007)

Derek Walcott, Selected Poems (FSG, 2007)

Philip Whalen, The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen (Wesleyan, 2007)

Clayton Eshleman, Grindstone of Rapport: A Clayton Eshleman Reader (Black Widow, 2008)

Judy Grahn, love belongs to those who do the feeling (Red Hen, 2008)

August Kleinzahler, Sleeping It Off in Rapid City: Poems New and Selected (FSG, 2008).

George Oppen, New Collected Poems (New Directions 2008)

Ron Silliman, The Alphabet (University of Alabama, 2008)

Patricia Smith, Blood Dazzler (Coffee House, 2008).

C. D. Wright, Rising, Falling, Hovering (Copper Canyon, 2008)

Dave Brinks, Caveat Onus: The Meditations (Black Widow, 2009)

Geoffrey Hill, Selected Poems (Yale, 2009)