consent not to be a single being, by Fred Moten (2017–2018)

At a time when both theory and criticism are frequently and convincingly attacked as exhausted forms, Moten’s trilogy has reinvented both. Reading hip-hop and jazz musicians through and against philosophers and visual artists, he interrogates aesthetic, political, and social phenomena through analyses of blackness. He offers a profusion of arguments and deconstructions to create a coherence that nonetheless remains open to active reading and interpretation. In its mixture of theoretical complexity and disarming directness, Moten’s beautifully written trilogy offers the sheer pleasure of art. —Lidija Haas

Best Of The Rest Of The Canon            

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon (September 19, 2000)

The star creation of the comic-book whiz kids Joe Kavalier and Sammy Klayman is the Escapist, a superhero cloaked in a midnight-blue costume emblazoned with a golden key. The Escapist lacks physical might, but like the novel, he possesses a shrewd intelligence, courage, and an insatiable appetite for adventure. As Clay puts it, the Escapist doesn’t just fight crime, “he frees the world of it. He frees people, see?” In this novel of Houdinis, femme fatales, and comic book villains (including Adolf Hitler) — a novel about the American genius for self-invention, in all its glorious and hideous manifestations — Michael Chabon proves that the strongest superpower of all is the ability to tell a great story. —Nathaniel Rich                                            

The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman (October 10, 2000)

The concluding volume of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy takes its teenaged heroes, Lyra and Will, across universes, up to heaven, and deep into the shadowlands of the dead. But intertwined with their epic tale is the quiet, odd story of physicist Mary Malone, one of the greatest of Pullman’s creations, who uses the rational tools of the scientist to untangle the trilogy’s cosmological mysteries. The Harry Potter series may have launched children’s books into the commercial stratosphere, but it was this book — a stew of Milton and Blake, rich with allusion, kind and fierce — that made clear the imaginative and literary heights to which books for young people could ascend. And the ending: Oh! The ending! My heart breaks again just thinking of it. —Dan Kois                                            

True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey (January 9, 2001)

There isn’t a novelist alive shy of Toni Morrison who can forge sprung poetry from the speech of mere mortals quite like Carey. In True History of the Kelly Gang, which won him a second Booker Prize in 2001, he conjured the clang and twang of Australia’s infamous bushranger, Ned Kelly, telling his life story from beyond the grave to a daughter he left behind. Here’s all the adventure of robbing banks to give to the poor, but also the shame and rage of a convict long gone turned into eternal narrative. An ecstatic and furious book. —John Freeman                                      

The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos, by Anne Carson (February 6, 2001)

Among the most immediate, most poignant, and funniest of Carson’s works, Beauty tells the story of a marriage to a vampiric, manipulative narcissist, and explores some of her favorite themes: frustration over what cannot be understood or communicated; power struggles enacted through language; erotic longing. The sharp, fragmentary collision of essay, poetry, fiction, and memoir is arguably becoming a dominant form in 21st-century literature so far, and Carson created a compelling template for it that won’t be easily surpassed. —Lidija Haas                                      

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, by Louise Erdrich (April 3, 2001)

In our age of fake presidents and wished-for miracles, I’ve begun to long for a rediscovery of Erdrich’s novel. The book tells the tale of Father Damien, a woman who for 50 years disguises herself as a man so she can serve an Ojibwe congregation. Damien’s anguished, searching voice is the book’s oaken rudder, as she steers through currents of moral dilemma. Is a lie a sin if it preserves her work? Should she instigate against a false prophet, or dedicate herself to highlighting humans’ capacity for good? Perhaps the last question is eternal, but Erdrich makes it feel freshly so. —John Freeman                                            

Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald (October 2, 2001)

Austerlitz bears all of Sebald’s hallmarks: a saturnine narrator, a love of archives and depositories, and a series of chance encounters with someone who has a story to tell. That someone, Jacques Austerlitz, was brought to England aboard a kindertransport as an infant, and he is in the process of recovering the truth about his parents — he first learns that his mother, an opera singer, was killed at Theresienstadt. The sweep of European cultural history is laid out like an enormous map in order to precisely locate the circumstances of the crime. The sentences are long, the paragraphs cyclopean, the pacing leisurely, and yet it’s all hypnotically gripping. —Luc Sante                                            

Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters (February 4, 2002)

You know a twist is coming. About ten million friends have hinted about the twist. “You haven’t read Fingersmith?” they said. “Oh man, that twist.” But it doesn’t matter that you know the twist is coming because when it arrives in this page-turner about a shifty ladies’ maid and her neurotic, beautiful lady, you will still cackle with glee. I myself threw the book to the ground, shouting, “Holy shit!” You have never had a reading experience quite as propulsive and enjoyable as barreling through Sarah Waters’s sordid, sexy saga of swindlers and smut-peddlers screwing each other all across Victorian England. —Dan Kois                                            

The Time of Our Singing, by Richard Powers (October 3, 2002)

Powers revisits the civil rights struggles of the last century from an unexpected angle, illuminating some of the deepest rifts and tensions in American life via an often exhilarating meditation on time and music. The novel follows a German Jewish physicist; his African-American wife, whose ambitions as a singer are thwarted early; and their children, two of whom become classical musicians. Few writers have captured the experience of listening to music the way Powers does, and his evocations of historical events have the same vividness. The book’s scope and grandeur make clear that the realist novel can still embody ideas as few other forms can. —Lidija Haas                                            

The Book of Salt, by Monique Truong (April 7, 2003)

Based on a passing reference to a Vietnamese cook in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, Truong’s first novel reimagines the domestic life of Gertrude Stein and Toklas through the eyes of Binh, whose rich and caustic voice makes him one of the great fictional narrators of the last quarter-century. It’s a miraculous paradox — a novel that lovingly reproduces the atmosphere of European modernism in order to reveal its racist and imperialist underpinnings. —Jess Row

Mortals, by Norman Rush (May 27, 2003)

A novel of adultery and conspiracy, of Americans in Africa on the morning after the end of the Cold War, Mortals follows a CIA agent (and Milton scholar) in Botswana in 1992. Rush is the most politically committed and engaged of contemporary American novelists, and Mortals is the most sustained and well-informed fictional account of U.S. meddling in countries that rarely feature in our headlines. The human story of a faltering marriage merges with the geopolitical in the form of a boiling civil conflict. Rush is Joseph Conrad’s heir in the era of globalization. —Christian Lorentzen                                            

Home Land, by Sam Lipsyte (February 16, 2004)

What would a Gen-X Notes from Underground look like? In Lipsyte’s version, it comes in the form of letters written to a high-school alumni newspaper, confessing to the nightmare of the American meritocracy: “I did not pan out.” Lipsyte’s Underground Man has a name and a nickname, both of which mark him as pathetic. Lewis “Teabag” Miner is the embodiment of the loser under late capitalism. Location: New Jersey, a place just across the river from the precincts of power, but in fact a wasteland of strip malls, fast food, dive bars, and work-from-home content-generation jobs. Teabag has graduated into a world of bullshit, and what he has to tell his high-school classmates is that they were living in a land of bullshit all along. —Christian Lorentzen                                      

Oblivion, by David Foster Wallace (June 8, 2004)

Oblivion was the final book of fiction Wallace published before his life was cut short by suicide. Although a great writer of nonfiction, Wallace’s idea of fiction was of another order of magnitude. As Oblivion showcases, one of the things that made Wallace so necessary was his insistence on formal inventiveness: None of the eight stories in Oblivion resembles any other, each a kind of experiment that never has the whiff of the lab. Rather, these stories attempt to find new ways of getting at the deep, dark difficulty of being a modern human, a predicament so funny it could make you weep, as these stories themselves are likely to make you do: in rage, in sorrow, in gratitude. —Wyatt Mason                                      

Honored Guest, by Joy Williams (October 5, 2004)

Joy Williams is one of the contemporary masters of the American short story, and her 2004 collection Honored Guest finds her at her most bizarre and profound. It is easy to be wrapped up in Williams’s sentences, in lines of dialogue like, “‘I’m Priscilla Dickman and I’m an ex-agoraphobic. Can I buy you a drink?’” But Honored Guest is much more than its delightful surface. These are stories of lonely characters on the rim of tragedy — a girl living with her terminally ill mother, a woman whose boyfriend is gravely injured in a hunting accident — probing the eternal with hilarious detachment and moving, sorrowful confusion. —Alice Bolin                                            

Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky (October 31, 2004)

Enough time has passed that the astounding story of this posthumous, unfinished novel — which Némirovsky wrote in secret in Nazi-occupied France and was discovered by her daughters six decades after she was killed at Auschwitz — can cede center stage to the book itself. And what a marvel Suite Française is, an incisive, heartbreaking portrait of a small French town under seige, and the people trying to survive, even to live, as Hitler’s horrors march closer and closer to their doors. Even incomplete, it’s a masterpiece of observation and character study, a standout of Holocaust literature. —Sarah Weinman