The Sluts, by Dennis Cooper (January 13, 2005)

Once upon a time, in the prelude to the plague years, gay male desire invented its most mesmeric and unbearable object: the twink. Blond, white, underweight, and user-friendly, he was a plastic icon of inverted, Aryan masculinity. As AIDS destroyed a population, as the internet quickened and anarchized our pornographies, the twink took off. Dennis Cooper hit this crepuscular intersection of web and death with effortless genius. A series of online rent-boy reviews describe the discovery, torture, and maybe murder of a barely-legal, no-limits hustler named Brad. Call it the twink cri de coeur — all surface, and so, perversely impenetrable. It is a dangerous fantasia, slipping so easily into the mouths and minds of homophobes. But go ahead, let them taste it. They want it as much as anyone. —David Velasco                                      

Voices From Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexievich (June 28, 2005)

The Belarusian Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize in 2015, ostensibly trades in oral history. Her books do not, however, bear much resemblance to the form as it is usually practiced. Here the accounts of witnesses and victims are orchestrated, arranged in counterpoint and as fugues and descants, with purposeful ellipses and repetitions, and edited to make every voice sound like a poet. Alexievich is clear about the extent to which she reshapes her material, and her books are only nominally about facts — they are concerned with impressions and feelings, and they remain in your ear long after you’ve turned the last page. —Luc Sante

Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link (July 1, 2005)

Any collection of Kelly Link’s stories will do. They shimmer in the borderlands of myth, genre, and literature. A convenience store caters to the mild-mannered zombies who emerge from a nearby gorge and clumsily attempt to shop. A group of teenagers bond over an elusive TV series. A suburban family becomes slowly and methodically alienated from every possession they own. Link’s stories can make you shudder, then laugh, then feel like a god has just walked past your window. —Laura Miller                                            

The Afterlife, by Donald Antrim (May 30, 2006)

A book of fierce love and heartbreaking shame, Antrim’s memoir of his mother, written in the wake of her death from lung cancer, was a radical departure from his wild comic novels of the 1990s. It was also an artistic breakthrough. Antrim’s mother was an alcoholic. Her marriage to his father, an English professor who left her for another woman and returned years later, was happy in neither of its incarnations. The emotions in this book are raw, the writing exquisite, and the family pain shattering. —Christian Lorentzen                                      

Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell (August 7, 2006)

Can a film adaptation be too good? I worry that Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout performance in the 2010 film has overshadowed this outstanding novel, which features what one critic called “the character of a lifetime.” The story of 16-year-old Ree Dolly trying to save her Ozark family is at once intimate and mythic. Woodrell’s language has a spiky beauty, he also uses localisms carefully. His depictions of violence are first-rate, vivid, and essential to the story. Oh, and it’s a glancing look at the methamphetamine scourge, largely forgotten but far from gone as the country now focuses on opioids. —Laura Lippman                                            

Wizard of the Crow, by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (August 8, 2006)

Thiong’o, often talked about as a Nobel Prize contender, was among the first celebrated post-independence African writers, along with Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. Imprisoned and then exiled from Kenya, he has been writing his memoirs and is now on his fourth volume. Wizard of the Crow, a fantastic (in all senses of the word) novel written in his native Kikuyu, is his masterpiece, published when he was 68. No novel has ever so profoundly mixed oral tradition, novelistic gamesmanship, serious political critique, literary meta-analysis, and every genre under the sun, from farce to tragedy. —Tom Lutz

American Genius, A Comedy, by Lynne Tillman (September 25, 2006)

A modernist adventure for a new century: You spend the novel roaming around inside the mind of a woman who has taken refuge in a Magic Mountain–style sanatorium-cum–artists’ colony. Her compulsive digressions and recurring preoccupations mostly take the place of a conventional plot, and Tillman’s beautifully constructed sentences create their own propulsion, able to take a reader in any direction at any moment. From the opening pages, a singular consciousness emerges, both porous and radically isolated, and by stripping out most other elements, the book confirms the ultimate primacy of literary voice, of which this is a rare triumph. —Lidija Haas

Eat the Document, by Dana Spiotta (November 28, 2006)

If Don DeLillo is a sage of 20th-century American politics and popular culture, Dana Spiotta is the author who has carried the torch into the 21st. Her prose is as catchy and melodic as the music she describes in so many of her novels with the insight of a rock critic, and her fiction often illuminates the way we distort our memories. Eat the Document is the story of a woman who goes underground in the 1970s after participating in violence with a radical group, and her son who uncovers her past in the 1990s, when the ideals of the leftist movement have been romanticized and perverted. —Maris Kreizman                                            

The Harry Potter novels, by J.K. Rowling (1997–2007)

With her seven Harry Potter novels, J.K. Rowling has created a fictional world as fully imagined as Oz or Narnia or Middle Earth. Each volume grows progressively darker, and as more responsibilities are heaped on Harry’s shoulders, the Boy Who Lived becomes the leader of the Resistance. Grounding his story in the mundane Muggle world, with its ordinary frustrations and challenges, even as she conjures a wildly inventive magical realm, Rowling has crafted an epic that transcends its classical sources as effortlessly as it leapfrogs conventional genres. In doing so, she created a series of books that have captivated both children and adults — novels that hold a mirror to our own mortal world as it lurches into the uncertainties of the 21st century. —Michiko Kakutani

Sleeping It Off in Rapid City, by August Kleinzahler (April 1, 2008)

August Kleinzahler is such a good poet, such a master of English vernaculars and a variety of modernisms, with such a gift for observational detail, that I think he gets overlooked or underpraised, partly for his consistency. Sleeping It Off in Rapid City is one of the great collections of American poetry, from the opening title poem, which exudes the bleak vastness and kitsch of midwestern landscapes, to the various blues lyrics and seemingly offhand evocations of San Francisco weather, as classical as the Tang Dynasty greats they recall. —Nikil Saval                                      

The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga (April 22, 2008)

The White Tiger promised “you will know everything there is to know about how entrepreneurship is born, nurtured, and developed in this, the glorious 21st century of man,” launching a relentless attack on the myth of a “new” capitalism, and not just in India. Adiga’s comic monologue and many-voiced testament follows Balram Halwai, naïve servant and caged spirit, to the climactic “act of entrepreneurship”: braining his master with an empty bottle of Johnny Walker Black in Delhi, then stealing his bag of politicians’ bribes to conquer the tech world of Bangalore. Spiritually the equal of Wright’s Native Son and Balzac’s Père Goriot, this Booker Prize–winning debut was how a major writer announced himself — in fury. —Mark Greif

The Lazarus Project, by Aleksandar Hemon (May 1, 2008)

A fictional Bosnian writer (and Hemon doppelgänger of sorts) travels to Eastern Europe to retrace the footsteps of Lazarus Averbuch, a Jewish immigrant who survived a pogrom only to be gunned down in the home of Chicago’s police chief in 1908, while in alternating chapters Averbuch’s story unspools. Hemon transmogrifies the smallest details into strangely vivid prose: Gunsmoke moves slowly “like a school of fish” while a character hears “straw crepitating” in her pillow. Hemon’s verbal effects accumulate into a haunting portrait of immigrant life. Hemon is Nabokov’s heir, in a more perilous time for American newcomers. —Edward Hart

Home, by Marilynne Robinson (September 2, 2008)

Grace suffuses this novel, and not just its prose. Twenty-four years after her debut, the magnificent Housekeeping, Robinson returned to fiction with Gilead, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. But its sequel, Home, is the more sublime realization of her vasts gifts, the masterpiece of what’s so far a trilogy (Robinson’s Lila appeared in 2014). A retelling of the prodigal-son parable set in 1950s Iowa, Home is also something rare in American literature these days: a meditation on Christian transfiguration. It derives its power from family pain and the radical nature of forgiveness. —Christian Lorentzen

DISSENT: Gilead (November 4, 2004)      

Fine Just the Way It Is, by Annie Proulx (September 9, 2008)

The short story is often offered the kiddie table when seated beside the novel. Annie Proulx the novelist is and will remain one of America’s greatest, but here she elevates story to a category that tips over the word fiction. Proulx’s Wyoming is a brutal, raw life and landscape, characters battered and isolated; and she is so unafraid of the dark that these stories become like religious parables not just of a region or nation, but of existence. Add to that her pitch-black humor — she got the chuckles writing these gigantic stories. —Dagoberto Gilb                                      

Scenes From a Provincial Life: Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime, by J.M. Coetzee (1997–2009)

In this autobiographical trilogy, Coetzee forged a clinical way of writing about the self and raised the meta stakes. Are these memoirs or novels? (The last one kills off the author, among other departures from the facts.) Boyhood presents a detached account of growing up an English-speaking Afrikaner in apartheid South Africa, a sickly boy with imaginings of greatness and a mounting sense of shame about his cruel society. Youth moves to London, where Coetzee worked as a programmer for IBM, and plumbs the anguish of the aspiring, exiled poet. The form is broken in Summertime, which combines diary fragments and a fictional biographer’s interviews of the dead writer’s acquaintances. The self-portrait that emerges from these (very funny) books is pitiless and unforgettable. —Christian Lorentzen                                      

Notes From No Man’s Land, by Eula Biss (February 3, 2009)

Biss’s insanely good collection has been instrumental in fostering a new generation of essayists. She writes poignantly on racism, gentrification, home, and identity, probing the proximity of white and black in America. She also forges new styles for the personal essay, braiding literary quotations, academic research, ironic anecdotes, and scenes from her own life to construct arguments that are complex and profound. The medium is the message here: The title essay connects Laura Ingalls Wilder, a gentrifying Chicago neighborhood, and swimming in Lake Michigan to understand the American fixation on — and fear of — borders and frontiers. —Alice Bolin

Spreadeagle, by Kevin Killian (March 1, 2010)

Killian is a poet as well as perhaps the most experienced society novelist of the gay demimonde since John Rechy, but Spreadeagle is like Rechy meets Robert Walser. It’s both comically droll and ardently, deeply noir. The plot feels kind of British fin de siècle — a menage involving a confused young art student and an older couple, one an activist and the other a gay pulp-novelist, all of whom collide with a pair of pornographers and drug dealers, the entirety taking place under the shadow of AIDS. It’s a quintessentially California novel as well as simply an occasion for Killian’s flawless poet’s ear to roll out for us pages of the most memorably dank, swift, and knowing gay dialogue I’ve ever read. —Eileen Myles

Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart (July 27, 2010)

Gary Shteyngart’s best novel (so far) virtually invented its own literary category — near-dystopian satire — and it has indeed proved shockingly accurate. It’s set in a future New York where the dollar is pegged to the Chinese yuan, inequality has transformed Central Park into a protest camp, and phone apps display your potential date’s credit score. But the real key to the novel is the hopeless relationship between its protagonists, Lenny Abramov and Eunice Park, whose relatively small age gap — Lenny is in his late 30s, Eunice her mid-20s — measures the difference between the last generation to grow up before the internet and the first generation to grow up saturated in it. —Jess Row

Seven Years, by Peter Stamm (March 22, 2011)

Whatever it is that flattens so much American MFA fiction is blissfully missing from this Swiss novelist’s haunting European realism. Seven Years employs strong and supple sentences evocative of Camus to tell the all-too-recognizable story of a successful man, Alex, who ought to be happily married to his beautiful and accomplished wife, Sonia, but is silently exploding. Through Stamm’s deft strokes of observation and insight, the bizarre affair Alex pursues with a woman who physically repulses him somehow seems not only plausible but revelatory — shedding light on the extent to which we can never really figure out another person or even, maybe, ourselves. —Thomas Chatterton Williams                                      

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes (August 4, 2011)

This is an elegant, deceptively simple little novel, a quietly devastating, deftly plotted moral mystery that hinges on the unreliable juncture of memory, time, and history, with aging and remorse thrown in. Its title invites dual interpretations — the feeling that something has ended, and making sense of an ending. The story centers on a retired divorcé for whom an unexpected bequest leads to a reassessment of his memories and a painful recognition of how much he’d gotten wrong. “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” —Heller McAlpin

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami (October 25, 2011)

Murakami’s magnum opus (though probably not his very best novel — I would still vote for The Wind-up Bird Chronicle) brings together a haunting love story with the sinister manipulations of a personality cult not unlike Aum Shinrikyo. Like many writers of his generation, Murakami is preoccupied with the aftereffects of the 1960s, and though on the surface 1Q84 appears concerned with the mundane lives of disappointed and awkward lovers, the novel represents something like a Grand Unified Theory of Japanese life over four decades. —Jess Row                                      

The Gentrification of the Mind, by Sarah Schulman (January 7, 2012)

Sarah Schulman is a first-class thinker who upholds our duty to preserve the marginal, the complicated history. This memoir maps out how the razing, via AIDS, of queer, diverse communities in New York and San Francisco paved the way for “urban transformations” that in fact led to suburbanized experiences and cramped intellectual lives. She protests sophistry and demonstrates the saneness of radical notions. When she points out that “very few children actually grow up to make the world a better place,” you may feel not only doubtful about reproducing, but also sorry you yourself were born. It’s unforgettable — which is the point. —Sarah Nicole Prickett                                      

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain (May 1, 2012)

No novel better captures the first decade of this century in a certain sector of America — pro-Bush, pro–Iraq War, pro–free-market capitalism, and steeped in evangelical Christianity and Fox News — than Fountain’s satire of heartland jingoism and the one-percenter cynicism that exploits it. It’s seen through the eyes of a young but increasingly disillusioned soldier being honored for heroism in a football stadium extravaganza. Both savagely funny and heartbreaking, Billy Lynn scrutinizes a facet of the American character that has since slid into an unsatirizable sump of excess, but like all great novelists, Fountain was able to locate the humanity in it all the same. —Laura Miller

Capital, by John Lanchester (June 11, 2012)

In a world where people write porny fan-fiction about the Property Brothers — no, seriously, they do — why aren’t there more great novels about real estate? Capital has a simple set-up, telling the interconnected stories of a single block in South London in 2008, where house prices are going up, up, up, and residents find themselves receiving mysterious postcards stating, “We Want What You Have.” Lanchester employs a bird’s-eye view that sweeps in for dazzling close-ups, then swoops out again, until you see not only the entirety of Pepys Road, but the city, the world — and the economy that’s crumbling under the weight of everyone’s aspirations. —Laura Lippman