The Best Novels of the Past Decade

Let’s be honest: the last decade has not been particularly good for the book business. But thankfully, books continue to be published in paper form and people continue to read them. Each year the New York Times (and a host of other media outlets) comes out with its “best of” list. So, following their lead, I thought that I would come up with my own best of list. However, instead of a best of 2010, I started thinking about my favorite books from the last decade. Realistically, this is an impossible list for me to compile as I have doubtless forgotten much. Yet, there are some books that have left a particularly deep influence on me. So, in order of publication, here are my favorite novels of the last decade.

The Jardin Des Plantes: A Novel by Claude Simon. Hydra Books, an imprint of Northwestern University Press, published this novel in 2001. Jordan Stump, who was awarded the 2001 French-American Foundation Translation Prize for this particular book, translates it. It’s incredibly difficult to say what this book is about; it’s typical Simon. The novel is a segmented examination of eight episodes in a life. It’s lyrical, cerebral, and brilliant. Simon’s genius won him the Nobel Prize for Literature 1985. I spoke with Jordan Stump via email after I read this and he recounted to me a wonderful story of going to visit Simon in Paris while he (Stump) was working on the translation. The two men had lunch at Simon’s Latin Quarter apartment and proceeded to drink late into the night. Just the type of story we would expect from a writer of this caliber. This “novel” isn’t really a novel at all, but a series of impressions that will leave you bewildered and spellbound.

Shadow Country: A New Rendering of the Watson Legend by Peter Matthiessen. Published in 2008 by The Modern Library. Although this big book constitutes a reorganization of three earlier novels, Matthiessen has stated in interviews that he always thought of his project on the Watson legend as one big work. The clever publishers are responsible for breaking the book down into three separate novels. Shadow Country is told in three parts, each dealing with the murder of E.J. Watson in Florida at the turn of the twentieth century. Basically the three parts are going over the exact same events, but from different perspectives. Book I is told from the various perspectives of those who witnessed the assassination of Watson. Book II is told from the perspective of Watson’s son Lucius, and Book III is told from Watson’s perspective. This is a brilliant American epic in the sprit of Moby-Dick. Themes include the destruction of the environment, land speculation, the frontier, and the violence inherent in the American spirit. For me, this is the most important American novel to come out in the last decade.

2666 by Roberto Bolano. This book was published in 2008 by FSG and is translated by Natasha Wimmer. This is perhaps the most important world literature novel to emerge from the last decade from perhaps the most important literary voice. The novel was published posthumously. Bolano, dying from liver cancer, was working feverishly to finish the book before he died. He thought the book important enough to put off getting a liver transplant to finish it. The novel is broken into five parts, each dealing in some way with a series of murders that happen in the fictional town of Santa Teresa, Mexico. The murders are all of women. This novel challenges, in every way, our traditional conceptions of the novel. Moreover, it challenges the reader by asking a lot from him or her. However, one can read any part in any order and put it down for a while without fear of losing the thread. 2666 is a novel that is exhaustive and beautifully translated by Wimmer. If one has not yet read Bolano, this is not the novel to begin with. However, this is one of those special works that, although immense (it’s nearly 1000 pages), leaves us wanting more. Bolano continues to haunt the literary and cultural landscapes of the twenty-first century in a way that no other author (with the possible exception of J.K. Rowling—for obvious reasons) has.

The three novels above are all “big” books that demand a lot of time and patience from their readers. Yet, after reading these novels one feels as if one has undergone a fundamental intellectual and emotional event. These books have changed by life and have changed the way I think about thinking and existing in the new century. All three novels explore the theme of security as a false concept in our lives. If we want to find out what the twenty-first century has in store for us I can think of no better place to start than with these three novels. The conceptions of our humanity continue to change and evolve as we make our way through this century of torture and fanaticism. These three novels chart a geography that is, in many ways, still foreign to us.

Winter is almost upon us. Why not spend it with three novels that will challenge the way you think and feel?

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