The British literary journal Granta has been prescient in picking the finest writers of a generation, beginning in 1983 when the editors fingered Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and Martin Amis in their first "Best of Young British Novelists" edition.
Its first "Best of Young American Novelists" issue appeared in 1996, and included Lorrie Moore, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Edwidge Dandicat and Sherman Alexie. The editors also missed a few, as Ian Jack points out now in his introduction to the 2007 issue - such writers as Nicholson Baker, David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon, Richard Powers and Donna Tartt. Ouch.
I cannot say that I began reading Granta 97: Best of Young American Novelists 2 with an entirely open mind. Like many writers of my acquaintance, I approach "best of" lists that I have no chance of appearing on with a tinge of resentment. Beyond that, I'm aware that the editors and judges who compile these lists have their own tastes and sometimes axes to grind, and while reading thousands of stories each year undoubtedly qualifies them to spot the freshest writing, it also disposes them to reject very fine work that has the misfortune to reflect themes and motifs they've seen a lot of in recent memory.
All that said, I've rarely read another collection of stories featuring so many authors - 21 to be exact - that has left me more exhilarated. Some shift is afoot in this generation of writers, and it bodes well for the present and future of fiction.
Reading these pieces, I caught myself thinking about the indie musician Sufjan Stevens, and about bands like the Decemberists, the National, the Postal Service and Canada's Arcade Fire. Not that these artists sound in any way alike. The connections are more about expansiveness in the music of this generation (like the writers, they are roughly 25-35 years old), and the hugeness of their ambitions: complex instrumentation, references to historical or classical forms, lyrics of disarming honesty with heady flights of imagination. It struck me that this new batch of novelists is working with the same sort of lush ambition, and a straight-ahead clarity of observation that can cause a reader to look up from the page and grin in surprise.
The work of these young writers reflects an America that is searching, aware, and opened at last to the world. Several of the stories (some are actually novel excerpts) are set in history, others in Thailand, China, Paris, Peru and in diverse American settings that may be real or fantastical or futuristic. Five of the authors were born outside the U.S., while another two were born here of immigrant parents. They grew up largely in cities and suburbs - many in New York and suburban Washington, D.C. - and now mostly live in California, New York and the D.C. area, with a few scattered over the West. More than half attended Ivy League colleges, reflecting, one presumes, privilege as well as a high standard of education. Though two were born in the Midwest - Christopher Coake in Indiana and Anthony Doerr in Ohio - none make their homes here, though some may remember Doerr from his year as a UW-Madison Creative Writing Fellow, 1999-2000.
It is an interesting question, why none of the writers on this list have roots in the upper Midwest. Chicago and Minneapolis and, to a lesser extent, Milwaukee and Madison have large to medium-size writing communities. When I asked writer friends about this, one suspected coastal bias, citing the fact that one of Granta's judges, Slate culture editor Meghan O'Rourke, advocated to include Dean Bakopoulos on the list ("Please Don't Come Back From the Moon is a really incisive and clear-headed portrait of class boundaries in America," she wrote), but failed to convince the other judges (novelists and memoirists Edmund White, A.M. Homes and Sigrid Rausing; O'Rourke of Slate and Paul Yamazaki of City Lights bookstore in San Francisco; and Ian Jack). Another writer friend just shrugged and said, "The coasts: That's where the industry is, right?"
Tom Kuplic, a UW-Madison Ph.D. in comparative literature currently teaching at UW-Milwaukee, offers the perspective that the Midwest has always had a strong presence in journalism and radio production, which might influence the career paths of those verbally inclined. "Growing up, our models for writers were journalists, not novelists."
There may be something, too, in our regional character. Midwesterners take pride in being a grounded people, and the sort of outsized ambition required to establish an artistic career early in life is often frowned upon. Possibly more of us here come seriously to work like novel writing a bit later.
Anyway, regional thinking might be moot in the transient world we now live in. To work as a novelist these days demands a certain amount of uprooting. College, graduate school, fellowships, and often a string of short term teaching gigs, writing retreats or other work-related moves characterize the careers of most of today's young writers. Few people still live where they were born and raised, and large urban centers tend to provide more options for work, as well as more stimulation and cultural diversity.
Who are the standouts in a list of outstanding writers? The stories that stayed with me longest, Christopher Coake's "That First Time," and Dara Horn's "Passover in New Orleans," have little in common besides straightforward storytelling and moments of astonishing insight. Coake's story is a nautilus of a character study of a man struggling to cope with the end of his marriage. Each twist of plot takes us deeper into the stunning lack of self-awareness that has led him to grief. The end is a small, sad moment of selflessness that is satisfying, if not exactly redeeming.
Horn's piece is a Civil War adventure, an episode from her novel in progress, in which a young Jewish soldier in the Union Army is tapped for a secret mission to assassinate his cousin by marriage, a slave owner and successful Confederate businessman. The first-person narrative is compelling, but what makes the story work so well are its moments of emotional acuity - Jacob's memory of his target's hands lifting him up as a boy, the startling moment when he meets the wife, his mother's cousin, looking so much like his own mother, and whom he realizes now he must widow. It is a terrific story, but these careful details give it resonance, along with all the ironic undercurrents of Jewish outsider status in both the Union Army and the Confederacy.
The historical and political appear as undertones in several of the other pieces. ZZ Packer offers a novel excerpt, "Buffalo Soldiers," about black U.S. Cavalrymen in the Southwest. In Daniel Alaron's deceptively simple "The King Is Always Above the People," a young Peruvian man's dream of making the life he wants for himself in the city is confounded by his own youthful foolishness, but also hopelessness and the lack of opportunity created by the new government regime. Jess Row's story, "The Answer," is the most overtly political, centering on a Yale student's interactions with a José Padilla-like student who has converted to a fundamental sect of Islam.
My feelings about fabulist writing are ambivalent at best, but I loved Kevin Brockmeier's "Parakeets," about a city "where everyone had the gift of song," and one of its citizens, a mute who raises parakeets. It is, quite simply, beautiful. And for reasons I'm not sure I can articulate, I was thoroughly tickled by Karen Russell's "The Barn at the End of Our Term," in which several past presidents are reincarnated as horses, and end up in the same barn in the grasslands of Kentucky. Rutherford B. Hayes is our protagonist, and in a highlight of the piece, he convinces himself that one of the sheep is his long departed wife also reincarnated. The other horse/presidents don't think so.
There is tremendous irony in most of these works, plenty of ambiguity, often terrible sadness, but happily, very little cynicism. Uzodinma Iweala, born in Washington, D.C., of Nigerian parents, offers "Dance Cadaverous," a story of a suburban teenager, facing the death of his best friend - a possible suicide - and his parents' discovery that the boys had to some extent been lovers. The teenager narrates at the end: "I want to tell him I hate him. I taste the drizzle on my tongue, feel it on my face and mutter to myself, 'I love you with all my heart.' I want to tell him that I want my heterosexuality back, but I don't know if I ever lost it. And if I did, I don't know that I miss it so much."
This is a terrific collection of short fiction, and in spite of my inherent resistance to lists, I'm glad to have this group of writers to keep my eye on. I'll be looking at some of their past publications, and looking forward to what comes from them next.
All reports of the death of the novel to the contrary, there has never been a better time to be reading them. I can hardly drag myself and my credit card out of the bookstore of late. Aside from this group of young writers, we have enticing new works by Nathan Englander, Peter Ho Davies, Sherman Alexie and Michael Chabon. Lauren Fox's Still Life With Husband and Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics are calling from my nightstand. This week saw the release of Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero and Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach.
If Americans believe they don't have time to read anymore, it's obviously time to do something different. Slow down, work less, cut out a few hours a week on the Internet. Join a book club. Curl up in a chair or stretch out on a chaise beside the pool. The fiction is that good.