Zone One, by Colson Whitehead (October 6, 2011)
In a century marked by the erosion of the high-low divide that once separated “literature” from genre fiction, Zone One is the exemplary hybrid, the paragon of what each mode offers the other. Whitehead’s post-apocalyptic experiment — a zombie novel that’s also a 9/11 meditation that’s also a cultural satire — delivers both moving psychological realism and satisfying gore. (The moment when hero Mark Spitz discovers his undead mother feasting on his dad’s corpse will stay with me until the day a zombie chows down on mine.) Whitehead has written terrific novels that more directly address the horrors of American history, but never one that more accurately portrays the horrors of the American present. —Dan Kois
DISSENT: Sag Harbor (April 28, 2009)
Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn (May 24, 2012)
Six years, a film adaptation, and many, many imitators later, it can be difficult to recall why Flynn’s third thriller was such a genre game-changer. But I’ll never forget how loudly I gasped at the now-infamous mid-novel narrative twist, as audacious as Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (both of these play fair with the reader, by the way). Flynn’s writing, always Ginsu-sharp, leveled up here, especially on the stress of a marriage under strain in the wake of 2008’s economic collapse. We’re playing by Gone Girl rules now.
NW, by Zadie Smith (August 27, 2012)
Zadie Smith is maybe the most important British novelist of the 21st century (yeah, I said it). She unpacks layered cultural identities in the tradition of Dickens, Eliot, and Austen. If Smith was in E.M. Forster mode in the wonderful On Beauty, she went full Virginia Woolf in NW, her fourth and maybe her best novel, undertaking a Mrs. Dalloway–esque journey through London. NW is not only about the intersecting lives of characters who grew up together in a Northwest London housing project, but also leveraging the complexity of the modernist project to ask difficult questions about race and social status.
White Girls, by Hilton Als (January 1, 2013)
En route to the airport, I ask one of my boyfriends to tell me, in his own words, why White Girls belongs here. As it happens, the boyfriend has, stored on his phone, favorite lines from the book. Here are some: “Other people are always our parents.” “I cannot bear to imagine unraveling my mother, her hair, her retribution.” “Nowadays, no one leaves the house without some kind of script.” “I’d like to fuck some truth into Suicide Bitch, if I could get it up.” “We hate white girls because we are white girls and that’s what white girls do.”
My Struggle: A Man in Love, by Karl Ove Knausgaard (May 13, 2013)
What was it about this thoroughly Gen-X Norwegian man that caused so many readers to plunge into his struggle — an epic stretching over nearly 4,000 pages — as if it were their own? Was it the agony of his relationship with his alcoholic father? Was it the tribulations of parenthood, so many hours at kiddie parties and not the writing desk? Or was it the passion that seized him when he first met his future second wife and cut up his face when she rejected him? With its digressions within digressions, A Man in Love — book two of My Struggle — is the most formally thrilling in the series. In its pathetic way, it’s also the funniest.
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt (September 23, 2013)
Tartt seems to have inhaled the complete works of Charles Dickens and magically exhaled them into a thoroughly original narrative that reinvents the old-fashioned social novel, while capturing our anxious post-9/11 age with uncommon fervor and precision. Like Great Expectations, it concerns the sentimental education of an orphan as well as a mysterious benefactor. The story takes young Theo from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a bomb kills his mother, to sojourns in Las Vegas and Amsterdam and dangerous encounters with drug dealers, mobsters, and other sinister types. In the hands of a lesser novelist, such developments might feel contrived, but Tartt writes with such authority and verve and understanding of character that her story becomes just as persuasive as it is suspenseful.
Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill (January 28, 2014)
If the novel exists to help readers reconcile themselves to the disappointments of adulthood, Dept. of Speculation ranks up there with Balzac’s Lost Illusions. Its narrator is a type relatively new in literature — a female writer who is also a mother. (The book is written in fragments, reflecting the temporality of motherhood and depression, that are alternately wry, bereft, tender, furious, despairing, and joyful.) Before having a baby, she had dreamed of being an “art monster.” But this book is proof that great art does not require a spouse who licks your stamps. It requires only what Offill possesses in abundance, and what her narrator knows is the highest wisdom: “attention.”
All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews (April 11, 2014)
There have been bigger, splashier novels featuring suicidal characters published in the 21st century, but none so resonant as Toews’s stunner — the story of two sisters, one of whom is kind of miserable while the other is accomplished, talented, and determined to kill herself. A profoundly tender love story about deep despair, Sorrows also brims with jokes that are real and plentiful and well-earned, as well as a keen sense of what joy looks like even in the darkest of times.
Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine (October 7, 2014)
Rankine’s compilation of lyric poems, micro-essays, snatches of cultural commentary, and startlingly direct descriptions of her everyday experiences as a black woman became the essential literary complement to Black Lives Matter and probably the most important work of American poetry in the 21st century. Fiercely eccentric, refusing any easy resolutions, Citizen’s success represents a redefinition of the conventions of American literature. —Jess Row