The New Canon: The 21 Books from the 21st Century Every Man Should Read
These are GQ's hands-down, most emphatically favorite works of fiction from the new millennium, numbered, but not ranked, plus all the books from the past thirteen years the authors want you to read
April 8, 2013
Anyone who's been handed a high school diploma can tick off the classic novels from the twentieth century: The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, The Grapes of Wrath. But cross into this millennium and things are suddenly murkier, Kindle-ier, less classed up with age. Then again, it's been an affirming thirteen years, enough time to breed a whole new body of post-2000 lit we're happy to call the new classics—and we're not afraid to name names. We spent months chiseling down a list of not just our favorite books from the 2000s but also the works of fiction that we most readily recommend to our fathers, brothers, and non-blood-related bros. Then we asked a bunch of those authors to pick an overlooked book—stories, poetry, memoir—from that same period of time. Dig in quick: This is your chance to right some wrongs and hit the new musts you missed the first time around.
JONATHAN FRANZEN (2001)
BECAUSE: Let's be real, he wrote two of the very best books (Freedom's the other) of the millennium—or, if you're guzzling haterade, at least the two best books on, among other things, family, anti-anxiety drugs, marriage, fate, songbirds, and Minnesota.
AUTHOR'S PICK: "Ms. Hempel Chronicles (2008), by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, is a deftly constructed novel masquerading as a collection of linked stories; you don't even realize it's a love story until you read the last chapter. Its heroine, Ms. Hempel, is a young private-school teacher whose troubles include haziness about the distinction between student and teacher. Chapter by chapter, as you watch her interact with her pupils, you realize that she's as lost and confused as they are, and the result is an extraordinary sympathy for all concerned. Bynum seems incapable of writing a sentence that doesn't have something fresh or funny or true going on in it. She gets you laughing and then she whacks you in the heart.
The Human Stain
PHILIP ROTH (2000)
BECAUSE: he's written eight pretty great novels since the turn, but only one masterpiece. Beginning in the summer "that Bill Clinton's secret emerged," it's the best book on sex, scandal (Roth coined the famous phrase "ecstasy of sanctimony"), and political correctness in the Lewinsky Moment.
CORMAC MCCARTHY (2006)
BECAUSE: While plugging this book is sorta like plugging a weekend getaway to Pittsburgh in February, it's irresponsible not to, for the sheer tactful feat of turning a post-apocalyptic skin-crawler into both a critical stick of dynamite (the Pulitzer Prize) and a commercial windfall (Oprah's Book Club). McCarthy, who rarely lifts a fingernail to promote his work, is better than hermetic: Doesn't care about the fame or money but isn't such a nutbag that he frantically hides from it. He's operating in the new millennium as actively as the younger generation, this prime-time gunner, now 79, who so clearly has still got it. Notice, on the other hand, the absence of those other stalwarts of the 1960s—1990s: Updike, DeLillo, Morrison, Pynchon, Ford, et al.
ZADIE SMITH (2000)
BECAUSE: Smith's debut (published when she was just 24!)—about the friendship and family fates of two polar-opposite and yet instantly identifiable British men—is better than any recent book at answering the question: What was life like in London last century?
True History of the Kelly Gang
PETER CAREY (2000)
BECAUSE: the voice in this fictional autobiography of Australia's most famous outlaw—Ned Kelly, bushranger—is so convincing that you'd swear it came from his own dirt-and-blood-soaked hands.
AUTHOR'S PICK: "Kent Haruf is one of the great poets of the modern novel. He has an extraordinary capacity for love. He will give you the smell of the dirt and grasses of the High Plains of Colorado. He will never fail to engage your heart, but because he is an honest man, he will have you grasp the nettles. If you have never entered his beautiful singing sentences, I envy you your first time. If you do already know that Plainsong and Eventide are masterpieces, get ready for Benediction, out this year. This is why writers write and readers read.
ROBERTO BOLAÑO (2008)
BECAUSE: Big novels always arrive with an aura of ridiculousness, overpraised by critics, under-read by readers, slowly eroding an indent into the bottom shelf of your bookcase. Worse is a posthumous publication (which usually requires someone to defy the author's last wishes) that's as rickety as improperly assembled Ikea furniture. This book was both: the English translation of 898 pages showing up five years after Roberto Bolaño's death from liver failure. But pick it up with two hands and you'll find a masterpiece just swarming with stories, of hapless critics and too many murdered women; earnest, haunted investigators who don't find the answers they need; and vanished geniuses who don't want to be found.
Tree of Smoke
DENIS JOHNSON (2007)
BECAUSE: The best book about Vietnam took thirty-odd years to brew—resulting in the finest first few pages (and subsequent 600) written on the subject.
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
WELLS TOWER (2009)
BECAUSE: This is the voice lots of writers are most excited about today, the one whose story collection they'll hand you, dog-eared, if you ask for an urgently ass-kicking must-read. Spend a few hours with these damaged, defiant, uncomfortably familiar men (yep, including Vikings) and watch as Tower unravels and stitches up their lives. There's no way you're giving this book back.
AUTHOR'S PICK: "Haven Kimmel's A Girl Named Zippy (2001) is a joyous, humane memoir of a midwestern childhood, wrought in sentences whose epigrammatic hilariousness makes you want to applaud at each period. Recalling her early years, Kimmel writes, 'If I could have gotten my nose close enough I would have inhaled leaded gasoline until I was retarded.' For my money, this whups Proust and his doughnut any day of the week.
Fortress of Solitude
JONATHAN LETHEM (2003)
BECAUSE: A lot of people write about Brooklyn—but Lethem's epic take on gentrification and racial tension is the first and last word on the subject.
AUTHOR'S PICK: "The appearance in 2010 of What Is All This?—a 600-page career-spanning anthology of stories from Stephen Dixon—was a welcome reminder of the continued existence of a literary cornucopia still steadily blurting out nourishment and fascination, now for fifty years and counting. Dixon's surely a candidate for the most prolific short-story writer of all time. Every one of his hundreds of tales long and short hinges on the singular miracle of his voice—as sprung and uncanny as Donald Barthelme's, yet as rooted in the urban vernacular as Bernard Malamud's—and from there takes nothing besides that voice for granted, promising constant surprise. Read Dixon to be staggered by his humanity, fearlessness, comic despair, and formal genius. In my opinion he ought to get the Nobel Prize.
GEORGE SAUNDERS (2000)
BECAUSE: The title story alone—the depressive ramblings of an employee in a vaguely dystopian caveman-themed amusement park (trust us)—was proof that we had found a new king of literary tragicomedy.
AUTHOR'S PICK: "Stuart Dybek, an American master, is the literary embodiment of essential Chicagoness: deep emotion expressed in language that is street-smart, lyrical, and full of heart. The stories in I Sailed with Magellan are technically amazing, but always to emotional purpose. The book is full of the romantic, exotic, ethnic, story-rich Chicago I remember from my childhood. His story 'Hot Ice,' from the amazing earlier collection The Coast of Chicago, was the first contemporary story that ever completely cleaned my clock.
ALICE MUNRO (2004)
BECAUSE: In any of the five collections she's put out since 2000, but especially in this one, she so totally nails the short story that one could be forgiven for thinking writing them is easy. It ain't.
W.G. SEBALD (2001)
BECAUSE: Austerlitz is possessed of a form all its own. It's long been in vogue to blur the lines between fiction and non-, between novel and memoir, and W.G. did that before it was cool. But Austerlitz, which is basically about Sebald wandering around Europe, doesn't do it as a gimmick. You get the sense that this is simply what he had to write. Austerlitz is about the intricate, horrifying, inhuman destruction upon which all societies, certainly Western ones, are built. An understandable thing for a German to have been obsessed about. Its message is that we all live in the silent, beautiful ruins of sadistic disaster. And it falls to Sebald to uncover those ruins. To read it is to stop and smell the roses, except, you know, roses that smell like sadistic destruction.
DAVID MITCHELL (2004)
BECAUSE: Forget the endless movie: Mitchell's original novel—six rollicking story lines connecting disparate-seeming characters through reincarnation—was big without being dense, and ambitious without being overbearing.
MARILYNNE ROBINSON (2004)
BECAUSE: Conversation about religion in America in the twenty-first century is so batshit insane that when someone tries to strip it down to the parts that were interesting to people, like, 2,000 years ago, it's worth listening. While Robinson's novel—a long, elegiac, wisdom-bleeding letter from a much older father to a much younger son that's also a meditation on just about every question of God and humanity—sure ain't easy, it socks you in the face and then hands you some ice to cool the bruise. Which is what religion's supposed to do, right?
AUTHOR'S PICK: "I've read a book that comes out this month. It is Christian Wiman's My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. Wiman is the editor of Poetry magazine and has now accepted a professorship at Yale. His book is a memoir, his coming to terms with cancer and a very dark prognosis—which he has outlived. The thing that is exceptional about this book, aside from its intelligence and its language, is the quality of its theological reflection. It is very lucid and not at all simple, a book in the great tradition of truly serious thought.
The Art of Fielding
CHAD HARBACH (2011)
BECAUSE: Bros will never not love baseball and bros will never not love college—and together, that pairing made us love reading a book more than the sum of our love of baseball and college. (Also: For guys who get through max two books a year, this is the surest rec on the list.)
AUTHOR'S PICK: "Sam Lipsyte's The Ask, from 2010, is my favorite novel of the past few years, and his new story collection, The Fun Parts, out this year, is just as good. Since 2000, the battle for Funniest Writer in America has been a mano a mano mountaintop clash between Lipsyte and George Saunders, and everybody else just stands around laughing.
JOSEPH O'NEILL (2008)
BECAUSE: Shoveling down the language in this book—about a man's lonely assimilation in New York after his wife and kid leave him to move back to London in the wake of 9/11—is like dining out gourmet for a week straight. Plus: murder, banking, spanking, and—seriously, this will work on you, as anyone from the former Colonies has long insisted—the awesome draw of cricket.
AUTHOR'S PICK: "Skeletally, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), Ben Lerner's first novel, is the chronicle of a young American poet's fellowship in Madrid. In substance, and not to mince words, this is a very intelligent, very funny, verbally brilliant, relentlessly perceptive investigation of the ethical-linguistic-political morass in which the American abroad must wade. Truly tip-top.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
JUNOT DIAZ (2007)
BECAUSE: We've never heard a book talk like this one: "Dude, you don't want to be dead. Take it from me. No-pussy is bad. But dead is like no-pussy times ten."
AUTHOR'S PICK: "I guess I'll go for two. Aracelis Girmay's landmark poetry collection,Kingdom Animalia, because of 'Oh, body, be held now by whom you love. / Whole years will be spent, underneath these impossible stars, / when dirt's the only animal who will sleep with you / & touch you with / its mouth.' And Alexander Chee's incomparable Edinburgh, because of its bravery, its wisdom, its vitality, and because it's a novel that never stops haunting.
The Line of Beauty
ALAN HOLLINGHURST (2004)
BECAUSE: Although the story is simple—a recent grad spends the summer of '83 stumbling into his attraction to men while living in the home of a member of Parliament—Hollinghurst tells it with the metronomic consistency of early Cheever, the wide-eyed sexuality of Updike's Rabbit series, and the bloodlust for men of wealth and class that launched Fitzgerald. And because Hollinghurst easily carries the torch for all three.
IAN MCEWAN (2005)
BECAUSE: No novel, by McEwan or anyone else, so precisely and gorgeously conjures the thought processes of its protagonist. Here the synaptic crackle and fizz of Henry Perowne's formidable brain as the neurosurgeon absorbs a body blow from a street thug: "The blow that's aimed at Perowne's heart...lands on his sternum with colossal force, so that...there surges throughout his body a sharp ridge, a shock wave, of high blood pressure, a concussive thrill that carries with it not so much pain as an electric jolt of stupefaction and a brief deathly chill that has a visual component of blinding, snowy whiteness."
The Yellow Birds
KEVIN POWERS (2012)
BECAUSE: What happens when poets write novels is you get sentences with chiseled precision, chapters with an elliptical swirl. What happens when a soldier-poet writes a novel is you get the best book yet on the post-9/11 wars.
AUTHOR'S PICK: "It's not exactly underrated—it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2006—but then again, poetry collections aren't exactly overplayed. Elegy on Toy Piano, by Dean Young, is a sad and vibrant shock of a book. Moving between the ridiculous and the sublime, often within the same poem, this collection is a perfect introduction to the reckless humanity of Young's poetry.
JHUMPA LAHIRI (2003)
BECAUSE: No other novel this century has so fully, meticulously described the life of a man, from birth to middle age, and all the choices and obsessions that guide him through it.