books

A Premature Attempt at the 21st Century Canon

A panel of critics tells us what belongs on a list of the 100 most important books of the 2000s … so far.

Illustration: Tim McDonagh
Illustration: Tim McDonagh
Illustration: Tim McDonagh

Why Now?

Okay, assessing a century’s literary legacy after only 18 and a half years is kind of a bizarre thing to do.

Actually, constructing a canon of any kind is a little weird at the moment, when so much of how we measure cultural value is in flux. Born of the ancient battle over which stories belonged in the “canon” of the Bible, the modern literary canon took root in universities and became defined as the static product of consensus — a set of leather-bound volumes you could shoot into space to make a good first impression with the aliens. Its supposed permanence became the subject of more recent battles, back in the 20th century, between those who defended it as the foundation of Western civilization and those who attacked it as exclusive or even racist.

But what if you could start a canon from scratch? We thought it might be fun to speculate (very prematurely) on what a canon of the 21st century might look like right now. A couple of months ago, we reached out to dozens of critics and authors — well-established voices (Michiko Kakutani, Luc Sante), more radical thinkers (Eileen Myles), younger reviewers for outlets like n+1, and some of our best-read contributors, too. We asked each of them to name several books that belong among the most important 100 works of fiction, memoir, poetry, and essays since 2000 and tallied the results. The purpose was not to build a fixed library but to take a blurry selfie of a cultural moment.

Any project like this is arbitrary, and ours is no exception. But the time frame is not quite as random as it may seem. The aughts and teens represent a fairly coherent cultural period, stretching from the eerie decadence of pre-9/11 America to the presidency of Donald Trump. This mini-era packed in the political, social, and cultural shifts of the average century, while following the arc of an epic narrative (perhaps a tragedy, though we pray for a happier sequel). Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, one of our panel’s favorite books, came out ten days before the World Trade Center fell; subsequent novels reflected that cataclysm’s destabilizing effects, the waves of hope and despair that accompanied wars, economic collapse, permanent-seeming victories for the once excluded, and the vicious backlash under which we currently shudder. They also reflected the fragmentation of culture brought about by social media. The novels of the Trump era await their shot at the canon of the future; because of the time it takes to write a book, we haven’t really seen them yet.

You never know exactly what you’ll discover when sending out a survey like this, the results of which owe something to chance and a lot to personal predilections. But given the sheer volume of stuff published each year, it is remarkable that a survey like this would yield any kind of consensus—which this one did. Almost 40 books got more than one endorsement, and 13 had between three and seven apiece. We have separately listed the single-most popular book; the dozen “classics” with several votes; the “high canon” of 26 books with two votes each; and the rest of the still-excellent but somewhat more contingent canon-in-utero. (To better reflect that contingency, we’ve included a handful of critics’ “dissents,” arguing for alternate books by the canonized authors.)

Unlike the old canons, ours is roughly half-female, less diverse than it should be but generally preoccupied with difference, and so fully saturated with what we once called “genre fiction” that we hardly even think of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road, Colson Whitehead’s zombie comedy Zone One, Helen Oyeyemi’s subversive fairy tales, or even the Harry Potter novels as deserving any other designation than “literature.” And a whole lot of them are, predictably, about instability, the hallmark of the era after the “end of history” that we call now.

At least one distinctive new style has dominated over the past decade. Call it autofiction if you like, but it’s really a collapsing of categories. (Perhaps not coincidentally, such lumping is better suited to “People Who Liked” algorithms than brick-and-mortar shelving systems.) This new style encompasses Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels; Sheila Heti’s self-questing How Should a Person Be?; Karl Ove Knausgaard’s just-completed 3,600-page experiment in radical mundanity; the essay-poems of Claudia Rankine on race and the collage­like reflections of Maggie Nelson on gender. It’s not really a genre at all. It’s a way of examining the self and letting the world in all at once. Whether it changes the world is, as always with books, not really the point. It helps us see more clearly.

Our dozen “classics” do represent some consensus; their genius seems settled-on. Among them are Kazuo Ishiguro’s scary portrait of replicant loneliness in Never Let Me Go; Roberto Bolaño’s epic and powerfully confrontational 2666; Joan Didion’s stark self-dissection of grief in The Year of Magical Thinking. They aren’t too surprising, because they are (arguably as always, but still) great.

And then there’s The Last Samurai, Helen DeWitt’s debut: published at the start of the century, relegated to obscurity (and overshadowed by a bad and unrelated Tom Cruise movie of the same name), and now celebrated by more members of our panel than any other book. That’s still only seven out of 31, which gives you a sense of just how fragile this consensus is. Better not launch this canon into space just yet.

Boris Kachka

The Best Book of the Century (for Now)

By Christian Lorentzen

The Last Samurai, by Helen DeWitt (September 20, 2000)

Ask a set of writers and critics to select books for a new canon, and it shouldn’t come as a shock that the one most of them name is a novel about the nature of genius. It is also, more precisely, a novel about universal human potential.

Like many epics, Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai charts the education of its hero and proceeds by means of a quest narrative. A boy undertakes rigorous training and goes in search of his father. What makes it a story of our time is that the boy lives in an insufficiently heated London flat with a single mother. What makes it singular is that his training begins at age 4, when he starts to learn ancient Greek, before quickly moving on to Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Japanese, Finnish, etc. That’s not to mention his acquisition of mathematics, physics, art history, music, and an eccentric taste for tales of world exploration.

Is this boy, Ludo, a genius? Sibylla, his mother, is of two minds about it. She recognizes that she’s done something out of the ordinary by teaching the kid The Iliad so young, following the example of J.S. Mill, who did Greek at age 3. She knows he’s a “Boy Wonder” and she encourages him in every way to follow his omnivorous instincts. But she also believes that the problem with everybody else — literally everybody else — is that they haven’t been properly taught and have gone out of their way, most of the time, to avoid difficult things, like thinking. Otherwise we’d be living in a world of Ludos.

So a novel that appears on the surface to be elitist — concerned as it is with great works of art, scientific achievement, and excellence generally — is actually profoundly anti-elitist at its core. DeWitt’s novel is infused with the belief that any human mind is capable of feats we tend to associate with genius. But the novel’s characters, especially Sibylla, are aware that youthful talent can be thwarted at any turn. She knows it happened to her parents — a teenage-whiz father who was accepted to Harvard but made to go to seminary by his Christian father; and a musical prodigy mother who never went back to Juilliard for a second audition — and to herself. Whatever the world had in store for Sibylla changed forever the night Ludo was conceived.

The 12 New Classics

Per our panel.

$10 at Amazon

The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen (September 1, 2001) | 6 votes
Arriving in bookstores ten days before the September 11 attacks, The Corrections recounts the tragicomic breakdown of a 20th-century American dream of middle-ness: midwestern and middle-class. The Lamberts, with their mentally disintegrating patriarch, Christmas-obsessed mother, and grown siblings tackling depression, professional failure, adultery, and celebrity chefdom, may not seem as universal as they once did, but the sensation of certainties evaporating as we pitch headlong into this still-young century has only gotten stronger. —Laura Miller

DISSENT: Freedom (August 31, 2010)
I prefer this in large measure because it focuses on a feature of human life that has gotten less fictional coverage than family and love: male friendship. Sure, it’s a love story between Patty and Walter and then between Patty and Richard, but it’s also a love story between Walter and Richard, two friends fiercely at odds and no less fiercely close. To say that the emotional high-note, and the real shocker, of this nearly 600-page novel is a gift that one man makes for his friend is to say that Franzen, who too many people say gets too much credit, doesn’t get enough for what he actually manages to do: reveal the tender, unexpected workings of human animals. —Wyatt Mason

$11 at Amazon

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro (March 3, 2005) | 6 votes
You can think of this as Ishiguro’s The Road — his haunting masterpiece. The ratio of taut plot to ghastly subject matter is disturbingly effective. Kathy H.’s multidimensional but methodical storytelling of this adolescent Gothic horror show is indelible (and difficult to review without spoiling). The questions it raises are perfectly of-our-century. Never Let Me Go is a prime example of an author with impeccable taste in ideas and the control to execute them. Most authors are lucky if they have one of those things going for them. This novel is a rare symphony of both. —Sloane Crosley

$9 at Amazon

How Should a Person Be?, by Sheila Heti (September 25, 2010) 5 votes
Heti doesn’t get enough credit from her advocates for being funny or from her critics for being serious. Slipping imperceptibly from ironic to earnest, challenging to chatty, her voice is sui generis and ideally suited to capturing the experience of making art — and decisions — in the modern world. The concerns of her breakout work of autofiction include sex, self-documentation, aesthetics, and friendship, as well as the titular question. The title is a perfect joke, a mission statement of deranged grandiosity, straight-faced and self-aware. Isn’t this what every book, ever, wants (in its own way) to ask? —Molly Fischer

From $10 at Amazon

The Neapolitan Novels, by Elena Ferrante (2011-2015) | 5 votes
Elena Ferrante’s Italy is where the personal is political, the male gaze is visceral, and the past clings to the present with potent force. Across four books and over the lifetimes of its two unforgettable main characters, the Neapolitan quartet explores female rage, agency, and friendship with a raw power. (All that over a decade when women have begun to express their anger and agency in new ways.) Lila and Elena grow up inured to the violence and corruption that defines their hometown of Naples in the 1950s, even as they yearn for something better: beauty amidst the ugliness, and intellectual fulfillment, which can be as heady as romantic love. Ferrante fever struck readers all over the world, captivated by Lila and Elena’s complicated relationship. —Maris Kreizman

$6 at Amazon

The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson (May 5, 2015) | 5 votes
Around the time it was published, Maggie Nelson read aloud the opening of this book — an extremely graphic and surprising sex scene, awkwardly lighting up that New York room and clanging a bell that people had just not heard before. Her 21st-century classic is structurally just that kind of awoke re-shuffling. It’s not that you don’t know about anal sex, childbirth, or even about a partner’s transition or a parent dying, but Nelson puts each next to the other in a manner that changes our perception of each and all. I’m always glad to have never had a baby, yet Maggie has writ birthing so deeply that I’m grateful to say I’ve missed nothing in this life, thanks to this uncanny saint of a book. —Eileen Myles

$15 at Amazon

2666, by Roberto Bolaño (November 11, 2008) | 4 votes
Bolaño’s final legacy to the world before his death in 2003 is a labyrinthine mystery taking in three continents and most of the 20th century. Its playful first part might make you think you are stepping into a steady old-fashioned cruise ship of a novel, à la Victor Hugo, but the tone shifts as abruptly as the locale. At its center is the book-length fourth part, a mercilessly clipped recital of some of the hundreds of femicides in Ciudad Juárez, which is both integral to the story and a direct confrontation with the reader. The book is a world: teeming, immeasurable, unplumbable, materially solid but finally enigmatic. —Luc Sante

DISSENT: The Savage Detectives (March 4, 2008)
I have always preferred this precursor to 2666, which is its closest (though much slimmer) competitor in scope. The polyphonic tour de force is peak Bolaño, the purest distillation of its author’s disparate obsessions: the collision of the Old World with the New, mezcal, road trips, Surrealism, sacrifice in lifelong pursuit of art (and the authoritarian urge seeded in creative failure), fraudulence, unrecognized genius, and the maddening and fleeting allure of youth. —Thomas Chatterton Williams

$12 at Amazon

The Sellout, by Paul Beatty (March 3, 2015) | 4 votes
It takes a master of language, culture, and comic timing to create a satire that excoriates contemporary American life, with jokes coming at a furious pace, almost line by line. The novel takes on the idea of living in a “post-racial” society, which even during the Obama administration was ridiculous. The Sellout details the trials of a black man charged with reinstating slavery and segregation in his California hometown, in a voice that is unabashedly profane; so unflinchingly silly and smart that it’s impossible to look away. —Maris Kreizman

From $12 at Amazon

The Outline Trilogy (Outline, Transit, and Kudos), by Rachel Cusk (2014–2018) | 4 votes
In its basic contours, Cusk’s trilogy is a masterpiece of rigorous denial: The books, mostly plotless, follow a British writer named Faye about whom we learn little. Yet Faye is less a protagonist than a character-shaped black hole, pulling stories and confessions out of everyone she encounters as if by inexorable gravitational force. Their disclosures allow Cusk to examine the ways we try (and fail) to make meaning out of life. The result is fiction like ice water, cold and clear, a mirror of our time. —Molly Fischer

$11 at Amazon

Atonement, by Ian McEwan (September 2001) | 3 votes
At once a war story, a love story, and a story about the destructive and redemptive powers of the imagination, Atonement pivots around a terrible lie told by a 13-year-old girl that will shatter her family. At the same time, the novel opens out into a deeply moving portrait of England careerning from the quiescent 1930s into the horrors of World War II. A bravura account of the 1940 Allied retreat from Dunkirk stands as one of the most indelible combat scenes in recent literature, slamming home the confusion, terror, and banality of war with visceral immediacy. It is only the most memorable sequence in a brilliantly orchestrated novel that injects many of the author’s favorite themes — the hazards of innocence, the sudden intrusion of bad luck into ordinary lives, the blurring of lines between art and life — with a new resonance and depth. —Michiko Kakutani

$13 at Amazon

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion (September 1, 2005) | 3 votes
This is often referred to as Didion’s “departure” — the underbelly everyone always longed to see after reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem and thinking: But surely she’d pick me. Surely we’d live happily ever after, observing the world with our cool eyes. In short: No, she wouldn’t. And The Year of Magical Thinking is actually not her “personal” anomaly. It’s the Didion that’s been there all along — funny, humane, trenchant — transformed by tragedy and grief. The 21st century is young, but this one will be on this list 50 years from now. There’s something so reassuring about a bar that can never be surpassed. —Sloane Crosley

$14 at Amazon

Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner (August 23, 2011) | 3 votes
When our alien overlords want to know what was new in the novel in the first quarter of the 21st century, give them Atocha Station. Some will contend that Lerner’s second novel, 10:04, is a more mature work, but this one is leaner and shapelier, and more directly explores the disconnect between our hopes for art and our actual experience of it. The narrator, a self-loathing stoner American poet on a fellowship in Madrid, is a privileged jackass trying to appear deep. The trick, of course, is that he’s brilliant, and his anxious stream of thought is philosophically rich. What is the average person’s role in history? How can we live with our own fraudulence? Why should we make art, and what kind of art can we make now? To all these questions Atocha Station is an answer. —Christine Smallwood

DISSENT: 10:04 (September 2, 2014)
10:04 is the story of a poet and novelist (the author of a book very much like Leaving the Atocha Station) as he contemplates in vitro uncoupled parenthood, radical politics, fleeting love, and a looming, potentially lethal arterial condition. Lerner moves from touristic escapism and the question of artistic fraudulence to the deeper burdens of settling, reproducing, and creating something great. On top of that he gives the much bemoaned Brooklyn novel a good name. —Christian Lorentzen

$14 at Amazon

The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner (April 2, 2013) | 3 votes
This fever-dream of the 1970s would make a spectacular movie — if anyone had the budget to make a picture that takes in speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats, vast street riots in Rome, escapes through the Alps, and intrigue in the international art world. Kushner sets her heroine, Reno, in the middle of all of it, usually astride her battered Moto Valera; passionate, vulnerable, relentlessly curious, and only a little bit compromised. The book is a feminist action-adventure, a love note to the last decade before neoliberalism choked the world, and a monument to sheer gumption. —Luc Sante

The High Canon

Books endorsed by two panelists.

$16 at Amazon

Erasure, by Percival Everett (August 1, 2001)
The University of Southern California English professor has published some 30 volumes, mostly fiction, and Erasure is among his best. A comic romp through academic pieties and perversities, it centers on a literary hoax gone bad, in ways that predicted our current higher-educational climate. Everett is always, in a sense, writing about race, and always not. (He also writes about himself — and not — with a Hitchcock-like cameo in the form of a derelict-in-his-duty, wastrel of a literature professor by the name of Percival Everett.) —Tom Lutz

$18 at Amazon

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides (September 4, 2002)
“Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome,” proclaims Cal/Calliope Stephanides, Middlesex’s pseudo-hermaphroditic protagonist, recounting his family’s long hereditary slide towards her mixed-up gender identity. And then: “Sorry if I get a little Homeric at times. That’s genetic, too.” Eugenides packs so much richness into this Classical saga-cum-bildungsroman-cum–paean to the American Dream that Dickens would be proud. Starting with the burning of Smyrna and winding its way through Prohibition to the 1967 Detroit race riots, Middlesex does what any viable candidate for the Great American Novel should; it broadens the definition of “American.” —Hillary Kelly

$13 at Amazon

Platform, by Michel Houellebecq (September 5, 2002)
Houellebecq’s second novel (after his incendiary debut, The Elementary Particles) is full of loathsome, corrosive wit; it continues his savagely pessimistic project exploring the future of France (and, by extension, Europe and the West), caught between the distractions of late capitalism and the amorality of a post-1968 society. Houellebecq is abrasive, offensive, and in many ways obviously wrong, but his grim outlook on globalization and his anger at his parents’ generation make him one of the essential European novelists of the 21st century. —Jess Row

$16 at Amazon

Do Everything in the Dark, by Gary Indiana (June 1, 2003)
A working title for this novel was “Psychotic Friends Network.” Composed in 74 short sections, it follows a group of loosely bound friends — artists, actors, writers, and careerless people who once had other plans — into the damaged state of middle age. Downtown Manhattan is their center of gravity, but these characters have been scattered, before waking up to find themselves so much human debris in the wake of personal failures, betrayals, and AIDS. A literary descendant of Renata Adler’s Speedboat and a forerunner of recent autofiction, Do Everything in the Dark concludes on the weekend before 9/11, and demonstrates that American wreckage wasn’t something invented on that sunny Tuesday morning. —Christian Lorentzen

$12 at Amazon

The Known World, by Edward P. Jones (August 14, 2003)
This intimate portrait of the great national nightmare of slavery comes disguised in the britches and mourning dresses of an antebellum historical novel. It was widely praised upon publication for revealing an obscure chapter of American history — free people of color who owned slaves — but the history itself was largely invented. The Virginian county of Henry Townsend’s plantation, the reference citations, and many of the period details are made up. Having denied the consolations of historical distance, The Known World forces a reckoning with a moral horror that lives still. —Nathaniel Rich

$13 at Amazon

The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth (September 30, 2004)
It can be easy to forget that The Plot Against America, which today reads as a parable for Trump’s America, was widely received as an allegory for W.’s — an interpretation that Roth encouraged by insisting the opposite. The novel begins in a buzz of fear and the pitch increases steadily, unbearably. But it’s Roth’s doomed hero, Walter Winchell, whose speeches have the uncanny urgency of prophecy: “How long will Americans remain asleep while their cherished Constitution is torn to shreds by the fascist fifth column of the Republican right marching under the sign of the cross and the flag?” —Nathaniel Rich

DISSENT: The Human Stain (April 2000)
This was the first Roth title that came to mind, which surprised me because I wouldn’t list it if the parameters were widened from “21st century” to “ever.” But it’s really a marvel of racial politics and suspense. And who doesn’t love Nathan Zuckerman? Don’t answer that. —Sloane Crosley

$11 at Amazon

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst (October 1, 2004)
Sometimes a book just feels monumental. The Line of Beauty follows a young gay man, Nick, who lives with the family of a Tory MP under Thatcher — who makes an unforgettable cameo appearance. This is the story of two initiations. It’s about a loss of innocence coinciding with social success, but also about a coming in of sorts: Nick’s entrance into London’s gay subculture. He is always seduced by beauty, but as AIDS looms — along with the threat of discovery by his conservative hosts — Nick can’t outrun the politics of his aesthetics or the contradictions in the social structures to which he clings. —Alice Bolin

$13 at Amazon

Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill (October 11, 2005)
Like her first novel, Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991), Gaitskill’s second revolves around a friendship between two women. Alison Owen, a former model living with hepatitis C, reflects on her complex closeness with Veronica Ross, a woman we learn died alone with AIDS. How we care for people in pain is at the heart of this moving, unsentimental look at our fragility, written with remarkable metaphorical and lyrical power. In a book not about living through hardships but about living in their aftermath, Gaitskill’s Alison is indelible, as is her memory of her lost friend. —Wyatt Mason

$14 at Amazon

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (September 26, 2006)
Here is the author of Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men still trafficking in his primordial themes — good vs. evil — but locating it tenderly within the relationship between a father and son (as they journey through a post-Apocalyptic hellscape). The father knows he is dying and, in a world overrun by cannibalism and violence, he’s trying to teach his son how to tell the “good guys” from the bad. This is McCarthy at his most restrained, and consequently most resonant. There is no fiction subject more trendy (and more urgent) than the multifarious possible ends of the world; McCarthy led the way, and might be impossible to surpass. —Edward Hart

$14 at Amazon

Ooga-Booga, by Frederick Seidel (November 14, 2006)
“The title is Kill Poetry, / And in the book poetry kills.” The poems in Frederick Seidel’s 12th collection, Ooga Booga, don’t kill but they come awfully close. Some poets are easy to love; Seidel is so good you revere him despite yourself. Born in 1936 and still living in New York, he’s the heir to a family coal fortune, a famously dapper dresser, and a writer of odes to Ducati motorcycles. He also captures the absurd melancholy of modern existence in dark, crystalline stanzas. “The poet the 20th century deserved” is how one critic put it, and it’s not clear if that’s a compliment or not, or if it matters. At 82, he’s the poet the 21st century deserves, too, and still desperately needs. —Adam Sternbergh

$10 at Amazon

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz (September 6, 2007)
Junot Díaz’s first novel not only affirmed the vitality and the talent displayed in his first book, Drown, in a resounding way, it expanded the idea of what is possible, and what American literature could be. It could be written for an audience in ascendancy, told in vernacular but expertly formed and composed. It could concern the intensely personal, but telescope out to the historic and the political. The astounding Oscar Wao did all of that, leaving us with a lasting understanding of the American experience as encompassing lives beyond our blinkered borders. —Oscar Villalon

$11 at Amazon

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel (April 30, 2009)
Any writer could have done the research that informs this remarkable historical novel. But only genius, gimlet-eyed, wicked Hilary Mantel could have created the animating intelligence at the heart of it: Thomas Cromwell, adviser to Henry VIII, antagonist to Thomas More, brilliant and ambitious, heartbroken and ruthless. “As some men have an eye for horseflesh or cattle to be fattened,” Mantel writes, “he has an eye for risk,” and as a novelist she shares this quality, taking unlikely narrative leaps that always pay off. No book this learned should be so wildly entertaining. —Dan Kois

$10 at Amazon

The Possessed, by Elif Batuman (February 16, 2010)
The best essay collections are about the writer’s strange and hungry mind groping around the contours of the world, but this one is also a hilarious book on a famously grave subject: Russian literature. Batuman creates a memoir of her time in Stanford’s PhD program obliquely, writing about authors first and herself second. She mimics the forms of fiction — a Sherlock Holmes–style detective story in “The Murder of Leo Tolstoy,” an old-school travelogue of studying abroad in Uzbekistan — to better comment on them. The Possessed and Batuman’s novel, The Idiot, together form a body of work that queries the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction — and between books and their readers. —Alice Bolin

$14 at Amazon

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender (June 1, 2010)
All of Bender’s stories are written in a mode that is not quite fantasy, certainly not realist, and somewhat fairy-tale-ish (in other words a style that is all her own), offering beautiful, profound stories about, for instance, a six-inch-tall man who lives in a bird cage in his wife’s house; or, as in the title of another collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. It really doesn’t matter which of her books you pick up first; you’ll be immediately hooked and read them all. —Tom Lutz

$9 at Amazon

Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi (June 1,
2011)
Not since Angela Carter has a writer subverted classic fairy-tale tropes the way Helen Oyeyemi does, to transformative effect. Mr. Fox is perhaps the first brilliant work of romantic metafiction, a novel that tells the story of a few characters over and over again in pitch-perfect iterations that reveal volumes about love and loneliness and violence. Undeniably clever — but not so clever as to obscure the sentiment embedded in Oyeyemi’s shrewd structure — Mr. Fox has the brains and the heart to win over both those who enjoy unraveling how fiction works and those who just seek pure enjoyment. —Maris Kreizman

$14 at Amazon

Lives Other Than My Own, by Emmanuel Carrère (September 13, 2011)
The sui-generis French author of fiction, nonfiction, and works that bridge the two has published many excellent books, among them the true-crime account The Adversary (2000) and The Kingdom (2014). My favorite by a nose is Lives Other Than My Own, a book that defies tidy summary, but which, though preoccupied with the very saddest human experiences — the deaths of a young child and a sibling — is also believably a book about happiness, one which earns its happy ending. —Wyatt Mason

DISSENT: The Kingdom (August 29, 2014)
I left the Catholic Church at 13 and have not spent much time thinking about religion since then. But this book kept me pinned to its pages until the end. It is personal and rigorous, skeptical and open, casual and profound, and its speculative portrait of Saint Luke is as compelling as any fictional life I’ve read lately. —Luc Sante

$13 at Amazon

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)
This thoroughly uneventful but linguistically dazzling autobiographical account of an upper-middle-class black holiday enclave accomplishes what very few books attempt: to remove the contemporary black experience from the realm of extremes. Unlike the more zeitgeisty Underground Railroad, this is neither a lament about subjugation nor a tale of individual escape. It neither denies the persistence of racism nor revels in the lingering wound. In this book as in real life, anti-blackness is but a single facet of the black experience. It is genuinely fresh. —Thomas Chatterton Williams

$10 at Amazon

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. —Sarah Weinman

$14 at Amazon

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. —Alice Bolin

$16 at Amazon

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.” —David Velasco

$15 at Amazon

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. —Christian Lorentzen

$12 at Amazon

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. —Michiko Kakutani

$7 at Amazon

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.” —Christine Smallwood

$11 at Amazon

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. —Maris Kreizman

$10 at Amazon

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

$27 at Amazon

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

The Rest of the (Premature, Debatable, Arbitrary, But Still Illuminating) Canon

$13 at Amazon

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

$7 at Amazon

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

$10 at Amazon

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

$13 at Amazon

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

$10 at Amazon

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

$30 at Amazon

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

$13 at Amazon

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

$13 at Amazon

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

$15 at Amazon

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

$18 at Amazon

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

$16 at Amazon

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

$11 at Amazon

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

$15 at Amazon

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

$8 at Amazon

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

$15 at Amazon

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

$16 at Amazon

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

$13 at Amazon

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

$11 at Amazon

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

$2 at Amazon

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

$14 at Amazon

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

$15 at Amazon

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

$14 at Amazon

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

From $7 at Amazon

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

$16 at Amazon

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

$10 at Amazon

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

$14 at Amazon

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

$9 at Amazon

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)
Marilynne Robinson’s writing through the lens of religious faith can make even the most unspiritual reader feel blessed. Yes, both Home and Gilead are set within the same time and place, but I’m loyal to the latter because it came out first — and the first discovery of grace is the most thrilling. —Maris Kreizman

$9 at Amazon

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

$19 at Amazon

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

$9 at Amazon

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

Request price at Amazon

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

$14 at Amazon

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

$24 at Amazon

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