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She Likes Big Books and She Cannot Lie
This year’s best-book ruminations got me thinking about massive, lose-yourself-in-them novels rich in both intimate moments and panoramic vistas of life and history: lengthy, big-picture novels in the mode of War and Peace or Moby-Dick; books with heft, weight, complexity, and consequence; books that require some sort of scaffolding because you get tired of holding them up, even as you hate to wrench yourself away. Limiting my choices to the twenty-first century, here are some great big (in every way) reads.
Against the Day, by Thomas Pynchon
Famously elusive Pynchon has been writing clever and funny crime fiction; namely, Inherent Vice (2009), which has been made into a movie, and Bleeding Edge (2013). But erudite and exuberantly imaginative Pynchon’s renown is rooted in his colossal novels, from Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) to Mason & Dixon (1997) to the world-encompassing, many-voiced Against the Day, which may well be his finest. He clues readers to the vast reach of the novel’s perspective when he brings us on board a hydrogen sky-ship, Inconvenience, and introduces us to the Chums of Chance, a fabled, if quarrelsome, do-good aeronautics club. The Chums are flying to Chicago for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and throughout the novel, readers have a bird’s eye–view of humanity’s follies, innovations, compassion, and atrocities during the galloping nineteenth century. But Pynchon comes down to earth, too, portraying characters of depth and moxie in settings as varied as the Balkans, London, Venice, Mexico, and the wild Wild West. From humor to suspense, philosophical musings and satire, this is an epic of phenomenal magnitude.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Macarthur fellow Adichie’s deeply humanistic and scathingly witty novel is about a smart, tough, and forthright Nigerian immigrant taking measure of race relations in America, while her one true love endures similarly appalling adversity in London. Americanah is writ large in its substantial page count but, more importantly, in the evocative and gorgeously articulated details and nuances that create her richly dimensional characters and the profound paradoxes they face. It’s a book to dwell within and push back against as one tests the remarkable authenticity of its observations and insights. Americanah was a finalist for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, and it landed on nearly every “best of the year list.” Now a movie version is in the works, starring Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o and Selma star David Oyelowo.
Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe
Wolfe’s novels are big, brash, and cutting. In this fleshpot satire, the devilish author takes on Miami in all its sizzle, excess, divisiveness, and sleaze. He revels in the decadence of the rich and pretentious, and takes measure of the struggles of the poor while telling the stories of two young and ambitious Cuban Americans. Nestor is a sweet-natured cop who becomes famous when he daringly rescues an illegal Cuban immigrant from atop a ship’s mast. Beautiful Magdalena is a nurse working for an Anglo psychiatrist who treats wealthy patients addicted to pornography. Wolfe indulges in too many mechanically explicit sex scenes, but with the whole Fifty Shades thing raging on, this may be a strong point for readers who wouldn’t otherwise be all that interested in a shrewd if lengthy novel of blazing social critique.
Great Neck, by Jay Cantor
Cantor is positively Tolstoyan in this capacious novel rooted in prosperous Great Neck, New York, where the shadow of the Holocaust brings guilt and despair to a new generation. Billy Green manages to exorcise some of the horror by making comic books, which eventually evolve into sophisticated works based on the increasingly tumultuous and dangerous lives of his Great Neck friends as they join the civil rights and antiwar movements. Cantor parses the psychology of radical dissent, reimagines this time of time of violent struggle for necessary change and justice, and pays homage to the genius and power of comics.
Europe Central, by William T. Vollmann
Vollmann is a brilliant if notoriously prolix writer, but he has so very much to say because he knows a lot, he’s done a lot, and he cares a lot. In this monumental yet psychologically intimate National Book Award–winning novel, Vollmann draws on his passion for history as he offers a unique look at the horrific war-within-WWII between Russia and Germany through the eyes of luminaries caught up this catastrophe of hate, fear, and hellish violence, such as the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, the poet Anna Akhmatova, and the German artist Käthe Kollwitz. A writer of oceanic compassion, Vollmann not only imagines a genocidal war from the inside but also explores the nature of conscience and survival and the power of art during a near apocalypse.
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
Franzen turns the stories of each member of the Berglund family––Patty and Walter and their children, Joey and Jessica—into a spiraling tale that pulls into its gravitational orbit everything from the private dramas of unrequited love, sexual enthrallment, marriage and its demise, to the ups-and-downs of obscurity and fame, mountaintop coal mining and the fate of the cerulean warbler, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and war profiteering, and many variations on truth and lies. A grand and exacting satire that strips bare our paltry understanding of what freedom is, and how carelessly we squander it.
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
Tartt combines literary artistry, social critique, and thrilleresque suspense in the episodic, high-stakes story of New Yorker Theo Decker, unmoored and in shock in the wake of a terrorist attack. A lost young soul on a survival quest tied to the fate of an exquisite if sinister seventeenth-century Dutch painting, he wanders into many realms, from Park Avenue wealth and dysfunction to a Greenwich Village antique shop to the heat of Las Vegas to the watery chill of Amsterdam to the bewitchment of drugs and danger. Tartt infuses Theo’s adventures with stunning insights into what we treasure and what we trash.
A Moment in the Sun, by John Sayles
In his most spectacular work of fiction to date, an enormous and passionate nineteenth-century historical novel of hard facts and deep compassion, filmmaker Sayles, whose nearly 20 films include Eight Men Out (1988), Lone Star (1996), Sunshine State (2002), and Amigo (2010), captures the tumult and conflicts of such American undertakings and crises as the Yukon gold rush, hobo life, New York’s sweatshops, a North Carolina race riot, and the covered-up crimes of the Philippine-American war. Sayles brings historical figures in to anchor each milieu, but his own compelling characters carry this grand, dramatic, often shocking, always entertaining saga spiked with caustic humor, rare historical details, and seething protest against injustice.
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