Today the NY Tiimes pubbed the results of their "What is the best American Novel of the Past 25 Years." They asked 125 writers to weigh in. Sad, isn't it?
In his accompanying essay, AO Scott writes:
They are - the top five, in any case, in ascending order - "American Pastoral," with 7 votes; Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian" and Updike's four-in-one "Rabbit Angstrom," tied with 8 votes each; "Don DeLillo's "Underworld," with 11; and, solidly ahead of the rest, Toni Morrison's "Beloved," with 15.
Bullshit. Bullshit bullshit bullshit. With the exception of Beloved, which easily belongs in the top ten (keeping in mind that Toni Morrison's best book is actually Sula and that she hasn't written much else that's any good at all) , I didn't expect such prosaic and careful selections by a panel of writers.
Cormac McCarthy? Hack of hacks. Redundant, repetitive, unbelieveable. As hokey as Anne Rice, but he gets away with it by writing about cowboys instead of vampires.
Updike? Are they kidding? He writes comic books.
DeLillo's Underworld is his worst book. How his Mao II missed their radar boggles the mind. Underworld begins with a fantastic novella that should have remained a novella - it was pubbed separately, later on, I think -- and then the book suffocates under a gazillion subsequent pages that are so punishingly mundane that one can hear DeLillo whispering the hardback's list price while one reads. As Capote said about Kerouac, "That's not writing, that's typing."
As for Philip Roth, a very careful choice, considering his weight in the lit world, but his best books were before 1981, really, and I agree with Scott that Operation Shylock is a much better - and much more politically important book than American Pastoral. Maybe it lost votes because it's set largely in Israel.
Let's call it fair: writers voted for writers, not books. None of the top five are dead (uh, Saul Bellow?) and none are younger than 60, I don't think. All are high profile, with maybe the exception of DeLillo, but he sure has a good publicist. None are one-off materpieces, of which there are a few since 1981.
So let's say we had to pick the best 5 or 10 American novels since 1981. I'd include Beloved from the Times' list, but that's about it. And I can't avoid thinking that non-Americans, especially women, have been leaving this country's novelists in the dust. So why try a list? Compulsion.
In no order, and just what I can think of right now:
Rifles -- William Vollmann How do they leave this guy off the list? He won the National Book Award this year, and it was a makeup call. Kindred -- Octavia Butler Masquerading as science fiction may be one of this novel's drawbacks, at least for some people, but transcending genre is what we have genre for; one could argue Vonnegut was an SF writer, but one does not. In Kindred, Butler uses an inexplicable timewarp to drop a modern day black woman in the middle of the east coast south circa 1848. With one book, she invents the political-horror-historical novel. It hasn't been done since. Mason & Dixon -- Thomas Pynchon Methinks-y many people didn't read it. It's a masterpiece. It just takes effort. All Souls Rising -- Madison Smartt Bell You won't find a more exhaustively researched historical novel except in its two sequels, equally good. Bell uses the successful Haitian slave rebellion of the late 18th century to to comment on race like a mofo. The Lost Scrapbook -- Evan Dara A pseudonym to this day, my only proof that Dara is a male American writer is a phone call I received soon after reviewing this; unless the call wasn't from Dara at all. Someone will try to keep this in print, intermittently, for the next 100 years. A town threatened by chemical poisoning confronts its fate; Dara allows the town to narrate the story itself via the internal diolagues of the town's consistently changing characters. Galatea 2.2 -- Richard Powers Powers moves the Casey Jones folk tale to lit-professor Vs. intelligent supercomputer fed with literature; love ensures. The Sweet Hereafter -- Russel Banks So good he's probably really Canadian. Took a Canadian director to make the movie. Blue Angel -- Francine Prose A sinful, dirty, and quick read, but why so important? Because Prose renders a spot-on skewering of the MFA writing program (as we and I, unfortuantely, know it) which, in its proliferation in this country, has probably destroyed American literature for eons to come, not to mention being responsible for the infestation of the memoir since 1980. A Frolic of His Own - William Gaddis Seen as a minor Gaddis work, it's still better than most from 1981 onward. And it's funny.
What'd I forget? Where am I off? Thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat's what the comments are for.