Here are 10 of GQ's hands-down, most emphatically favorite works of fiction from the new millennium, plus books from the past thirteen years the authors want you to read.
Anyone who's been handed a high school diploma can tick off the classic novels from the twentieth century: The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, The Grapes of Wrath. But cross into this millennium and things are suddenly murkier, Kindle-ier, less classed up with age. Then again, it's been an affirming thirteen years, enough time to breed a whole new body of post-2000 lit we're happy to call the new classics—and we're not afraid to name names. We spent months chiseling down a list of not just our favorite books from the 2000s but also the works of fiction that we most readily recommend to our fathers, brothers, and non-blood-related bros. Then we asked a bunch of those authors to pick an overlooked book—stories, poetry, memoir—from that same period of time.
Dig in quick: This is your chance to right some wrongs and hit the new musts you missed the first time around.
Because: Let's be real, he wrote two of the very best books (Freedom's the other) of the millennium—or, if you're guzzling haterade, at least the two best books on, among other things, family, anti-anxiety drugs, marriage, fate, songbirds, and Minnesota.
Author's pick: "Ms. Hempel Chronicles (2008), by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, is a deftly constructed novel masquerading as a collection of linked stories; you don't even realize it's a love story until you read the last chapter. Its heroine, Ms. Hempel, is a young private-school teacher whose troubles include haziness about the distinction between student and teacher. Chapter by chapter, as you watch her interact with her pupils, you realize that she's as lost and confused as they are, and the result is an extraordinary sympathy for all concerned. Bynum seems incapable of writing a sentence that doesn't have something fresh or funny or true going on in it. She gets you laughing and then she whacks you in the heart.
The Human Stain : Philip Roth (2000)
Because: He's written eight pretty great novels since the turn, but only one masterpiece. Beginning in the summer "that Bill Clinton's secret emerged," it's the best book on sex, scandal (Roth coined the famous phrase "ecstasy of sanctimony"), and political correctness in the Lewinsky Moment.
The Road : Cormac McCarthy (2006)
Because: While plugging this book is sorta like plugging a weekend getaway to Pittsburgh in February, it's irresponsible not to, for the sheer tactful feat of turning a post-apocalyptic skin-crawler into both a critical stick of dynamite (the Pulitzer Prize) and a commercial windfall (Oprah's Book Club).
McCarthy, who rarely lifts a fingernail to promote his work, is better than hermetic: Doesn't care about the fame or money but isn't such a nutbag that he frantically hides from it. He's operating in the new millennium as actively as the younger generation, this prime-time gunner, now 79, who so clearly has still got it. Notice, on the other hand, the absence of those other stalwarts of the 1960s—1990s: Updike, DeLillo, Morrison, Pynchon, Ford, et al.
White Teeth : Zadie Smith (2000)
Because: Smith's debut (published when she was just 24!)—about the friendship and family fates of two polar-opposite and yet instantly identifiable British men—is better than any recent book at answering the question: What was life like in London last century?
True History of the Kelly Gang : Peter Carey (2000)
Because: the voice in this fictional autobiography of Australia's most famous outlaw—Ned Kelly, bushranger—is so convincing that you'd swear it came from his own dirt-and-blood-soaked hands.
Author's pick: "Kent Haruf is one of the great poets of the modern novel. He has an extraordinary capacity for love. He will give you the smell of the dirt and grasses of the High Plains of Colorado. He will never fail to engage your heart, but because he is an honest man, he will have you grasp the nettles. If you have never entered his beautiful singing sentences, I envy you your first time. If you do already know that Plainsong and Eventide are masterpieces, get ready for Benediction, out this year. This is why writers write and readers read.
2666 : Roberto Bolaño (2008)
Because: Big novels always arrive with an aura of ridiculousness, overpraised by critics, under-read by readers, slowly eroding an indent into the bottom shelf of your bookcase.
Worse is a posthumous publication (which usually requires someone to defy the author's last wishes) that's as rickety as improperly assembled Ikea furniture. This book was both: the English translation of 898 pages showing up five years after Roberto Bolaño's death from liver failure. But pick it up with two hands and you'll find a masterpiece just swarming with stories, of hapless critics and too many murdered women; earnest, haunted investigators who don't find the answers they need; and vanished geniuses who don't want to be found.
Tree of Smoke : Denis Johnson (2007)
Because: The best book about Vietnam took thirty-odd years to brew—resulting in the finest first few pages (and subsequent 600) written on the subject.
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned : Wells Tower (2009)
Because: This is the voice lots of writers are most excited about today, the one whose story collection they'll hand you, dog-eared, if you ask for an urgently ass-kicking must-read. Spend a few hours with these damaged, defiant, uncomfortably familiar men (yep, including Vikings) and watch as Tower unravels and stitches up their lives. There's no way you're giving this book back.
Author's pick: "Haven Kimmel's A Girl Named Zippy (2001) is a joyous, humane memoir of a midwestern childhood, wrought in sentences whose epigrammatic hilariousness makes you want to applaud at each period.
Fortress of Solitude : Jonathan Lethem (2003)
Because: A lot of people write about Brooklyn—but Lethem's epic take on gentrification and racial tension is the first and last word on the subject.
Author's pick: "The appearance in 2010 of What Is All This?—a 600-page career-spanning anthology of stories from Stephen Dixon—was a welcome reminder of the continued existence of a literary cornucopia still steadily blurting out nourishment and fascination, now for fifty years and counting. Dixon's surely a candidate for the most prolific short-story writer of all time. Every one of his hundreds of tales long and short hinges on the singular miracle of his voice—as sprung and uncanny as Donald Barthelme's, yet as rooted in the urban vernacular as Bernard Malamud's—and from there takes nothing besides that voice for granted, promising constant surprise. Read Dixon to be staggered by his humanity, fearlessness, comic despair, and formal genius. In my opinion he ought to get the Nobel Prize.
Pastoralia : George Saunders (2000)
Because: The title story alone—the depressive ramblings of an employee in a vaguely dystopian caveman-themed amusement park (trust us)—was proof that we had found a new king of literary tragicomedy.
Author's pick: "Stuart Dybek, an American master, is the literary embodiment of essential Chicagoness: deep emotion expressed in language that is street-smart, lyrical, and full of heart. The stories in I Sailed with Magellan are technically amazing, but always to emotional purpose. The book is full of the romantic, exotic, ethnic, story-rich Chicago I remember from my childhood. His story 'Hot Ice,' from the amazing earlier collection The Coast of Chicago, was the first contemporary story that ever completely cleaned my clock.
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