In V, Thomas Pynchon says you always have a certain fondness for the decade you grew up in. And he's right. And I grew up in the seventies and eighties. But in 1990, I was an undergraduate freshman archeology major sneaking over to the English building and unearthing an amazing repository of books I'd never even suspected. By 1998, I'd have my PhD. These are the novels and collections from those years that I hold accountable. I'm not lying that I read every single one of them during those years. But I should have.
And of course these books didn't just burst on the scene unheralded, either. Coming out of the end of the eighties, we'd just seen Silence of the Lambs, The Dark Half, Misery, The Tommyknockers, Hyperion, Love in the Time of Cholera, Ketchum's The Girl Next Door. Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis Trilogy had just wrapped, and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was threatening to. We were all still reeling from Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns and Maus. We were in the middle of the Bourne trilogy. We were one book into John Grisham. Clive Barker and Peter Straub owned our nightmares. We were wishing William Goldman would write some more novels. Louis L'Amour had just ridden into the sunset. We'd heard that an even bigger The Stand was on the way. And, in the background, pro wrestling was fading out, hair metal was dying, Michael Myers wasn't as scary as he had been, monster trucks weren't getting as much attention. Sting's "Russians" song was complicating what had been our feelings, and AIDS was still not going away, in spite of everything Robin Cook insisted medicine could do. There were fewer rhinos in the world than there had been before. The tabloids weren't selling like they had been. "School shooting" was becoming a term we all knew. Soon we would know about chupacabras.
The world I'd grown up in was changing. Into the next world I was going to grow up in. The nineties. These are the books from then:
Jurassic Park (1990): I distinctly remember how amazed I was to find that you could write a book that was a thriller and had "science." I'd been into Crichton for a while, of course, since Eaters of the Dead and Westworld, probably--off the used shelves at Mrs. B's in Midland, Texas--but this one had some chaos theory, and in 1990 we were all fresh off Gleick's Chaos and In Search of Schrodinger's Cat and all those, so were primed for something like Jurassic Park. That its parts were called "iterations" was just the icing on that cake. This book was smart. These dinosaurs were possible.
The Things They Carried (1990): What else can I say about this one, I know. It's true lies, without Arnold Schwarzenegger. It's like Captain America's shield: We don't know exactly what it's made of, and we can't make it again, either. But hold this book in front of you, and you can walk into anything. If I had one book I could be buried with, and It was too big to fit in the coffin with me, then it might be this book.
American Psycho (1991): You always want to read something that everybody says has gone too far, don't you? That's supposed to not just be charting our decline, but embodying it? That's the first draw to this one: the gore, the transgression. But then scurry through your plastic tunnel into the belly of this book and find that Bret Easton Ellis is a rarely talented writer. All I knew him for at this point was Less Than Zero. I hardly remember that book now, though. Or, I don't remember it like this one, anyway. And his Lunar Park is just as good, except scarier.
The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991): This is John Barth in absolute control, and having fun, his head just sparking, setting the whole landscape of literature on fire. Which is nothing new for him, of course. This particular novel, though, it's got so much heart under all the tomfoolery. So, go for the intellect, for the literary pyrotechnics, but stay for the wonder, for the tenderness. This books pays back your time better than just about any other book.
Boy's Life (1991): This is the perfect novel to read when you're 20 years old, I suspect. It makes childhood equal parts magic and terrifying, and allows you to feel nostalgic about those days without leaving that saccharine aftertaste, that guilt of living back in the glory days, instead of now. This book was a turning point in Robert McCammon's career, too. He had to fight for it, as it wasn't Swan Song, or Wolf's Hour. As good and necessary as those are, though, this one's better.
The Secret History (1992): This book is flat-out amazing. And, I can't even tell you what happens in it, really. It's like Fowle's The Magus or Straub's Shadowland: Something cool and kind of terrible is going on, but it's not actually about the content, the events that take place. It's about the experience of reading this story, of engaging this world. And it's not that The Rule of Four exoticness that pulls you in (well, "exotic" to someone raised in West Texas). It's the writing. And it doesn't let you go.
All the Pretty Horses (1992): What so impressed me about this book, it wasn't the "manly" style--that's the boring part of Pretty Horse, really, the "muscular prose" and unconventional punctuation and all that--it was that it was opening a door I thought was shut: You mean you can tell the same old horse opera story, while using all the writing tricks and workarounds you're so in love with? Also, this novel feels like a part II to most of the Marty Robbins songs I grew up on. And it's set where I grew up. Of course I was going to fall for it. Of course I wanted to be John Grady Cole. And it cracks me up that this novel and So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish might have been on a New Releases shelf together. I'll take both, please.
A Simple Plan (1993): I would like to submit this as the single best thriller ever written. And that's taking into account Thomas Harris, and Firestarter, and Preston and Child's Thunderhead, and even Ira Levin. Stephen King was spot-on to blurb this, to bring it to our attention. Thank you. If I could just write this book once, I might stop writing. What other worlds would there be to conquer?
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993): This is the book that told us all the Native American Renaissance was over, and maybe had been for a while. It doesn't use House Made of Dawn as a model. It's irreverent and bloody and it's even funny. Indian stories don't have to be all noble and tragic and End of the Trail. Indian stories can go off-Trail. Such an important book. And such a perfect title.
Virgin Suicides (1993): This is the book of the nineties, for my money. The elegiac tone, the innovative form, the brevity, the elliptical narration, the feeling in the dark after something that can at least please feel true, Fox, that's exactly what being alive and aware in 1993 was all about. When you read this book you hold your eyes like you imagine these girls are, the moment before they kill themselves. And then you miss having held your eyes like that. The Virgin Suicides feels like an accident, but it's the same kind of accident The Crying of Lot 49 was: an accident that births something strange and new into the world.
Bastard Out of Carolina (1993): And this book changed me, too. You mean, if I wanted to, I could just write about where I grew up? And I don't have to sell it as exotic or weird, I can just tell it the way it is? For some reason I had never considered that. And, Dorothy Alison has one of the four or five best scenes in all of bookdom in Bastard: her uncle's out there driving the backroads, seeking justice but really it's just a gesture. It's a gesture we all find ourselves making. I would like to erase my mind, please, and read this one all over again for the first time.
Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories (1993): This is the "They're Made out of Meat"-guy--yeah? You've probably read that story. The rest of these are just as good. Terry Bisson was doing the George Saunders shuffle before it was cool. And some of these stories, they kind of implant in your head and infect everything you look at. For the rest of forever. It's weird, and it's good. This is writing because writing is fun. The closest analogue in literary circles would probably be Lee K. Abbott.
The Bingo Palace (1994): There's a moment in this book where Lipsha smiles his wolf smile that can, I think, shatter just about any scene from any other book, it's so pure. And, when this came out, everybody thought this is it, what started with Love Medicine is over now. Far from it. June Morrissey lives on. June Morrissey can never die. If I carried a purse, it would have a doorknob in it.
Altmann's Tongue (1994): Everybody who thought they were writing horror before Brian Evenson had to think again, with this book. And, though its release coincided with the Splatterpunk movement going on right around that time, Altmann's Tongue wasn't part of that. Brian Evenson wasn't part of anything, really. He was just writing the fiction that fascinated him, that allowed him to ask questions. Altmann's Tongue leaves you suspicious about people, and the world, and yourself. All books should leave us like that.
Northern Lights (1995): Okay, I didn't read this--as The Golden Compass--until well after it was out. Until the trilogy was complete. And only then because teachers at my kids' school were finding their jobs in jeopardy for introducing it. And, yes, it got eclipsed by a certain bespectacled boy a couple of years later, and rightly so; Rowling brought it and brought it well. But still. This novel, this trilogy, I consider it perhaps the single greatest feat of imagination on the page of the twentieth century. More than Time's Arrow, more than A Clockwork Orange, more than, dare I say it: Tolkien. What Philip Pullman does here is flat-out amazing, and gripping, and wonderful. Required reading, I say.
A Game of Thrones (1996): This idea of not following a single sword-wielding hero on a righteous, providential path to save a realm--was this even fantasy? George RR Martin was giving us something altogether different: a story with nuance and grit we didn't necessarily associate with the commercial shelves. I was coming from Salvatore to this, I mean (I had yet to discover Gene Wolf, somehow). Martin raised the stakes on the whole industry. And, near as I can tell, he's keeping them raised.
Sandman (1996): This is just when it stopped. It had started in 1989, though. And in those seven years, it gave us both some of the best single-issue comic books we'd seen, and it took us down the path with the Endless, through all the narrative undulations Neil Gaiman found worthwhile. And, just when it seemed the story had to be getting away from him, he reeled it all in, made it matter. Sandman is a model for how to write a comic book series. We won't see its like again, I don't think. Not that I'm going to stop looking.
Infinite Jest (1996): I bought this because the bookseller was ringing up my Mason & Dixon, and asked if I knew that there was this new guy out there, out-Pynchoning Pynchon? After a hearty (and haughty) laugh of dismissal, I bought this footnoted book as well, just to prove him wrong, and then I read Wallace and Pynchon at the same time that week (this is back when I was much tougher). And I was never the same. Wallace didn't just have a peculiar intelligence and very focused set of fascinations, but he also had a way of articulating all that that invited you to think like him, if you could. And, granted, I couldn't tell you exactly what-all went down in this book. But easy synopsis is something Wallace was specifically writing against, I suspect.
Bad Chili (1997): This is Joe Lansdale doing series characters as well as anybody since Charles McCarry with Paul Christopher (or maybe Pratchett's Discworld is the better comparison). Except Lansdale's Hap and Leonard are far more irreverent, and so fun to listen to, and watch. Joe Lansdale is one of the few writers able to write in whatever genre or mode he wants on any particular day. How? He doesn't ask permission. He just steps in, outwrites everybody in the room. This is the fourth installment in the series, but it's where I started. The rest are just as fun. You read them and you wonder why you've ever bothered reading anything else.
Cryptonomicon (1999): Neal Stephenson handles exposition better than anybody else. I keep trying to learn his tricks, but every time I duck into his pages, I get lost in the stories all over again, and forget that I'm a writer. Neal Stephenson turns me into a reader, and only a reader. And, I've cherry picked this book out, but Snow Crash and The Diamond Age--also nineties books--are just as impressive.
And, I know: Haruki Murakami? Denis Johnson? DeLillo? Trainspotting? What was I doing in the nineties? Aside from those 20 above and a thousand others, I was rereading VALIS and The Relic every chance I got. And discovering The Illuminatus Trilogy, reading it like gospel. I didn't even know it, either, but I was also getting ready for all the wonder 2000 was about to deliver: Lord of the Barnyard, The Bottoms, House of Leaves, Perdido Street Station, The Life of Pi, Everything is Illuminated, Erasure, Embers, Y the Last Man, more Louise Erdrich, Christopher Moore still being Christopher Moore, and on and on and on, up through Lisey's Story (King's best, for my money) and Da Vinci Code and World War Z and the end of Hogwarts, washing us up on the shore with The Pines, with Dare Me, with George Saunders, with NK Jemisin, with The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
It's a good time to be a reader. It's always been a good time to be reader.