A group of American critics has named Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, an ingenious take on the life of an overweight Dominican-American nerd, as the best novel of the 21st century to date.
BBC Culture, the arts section of the international BBC site, polled “several dozen” US critics to find the greatest novels written so far this century, with 156 novels in all named by experts from papers including the New York Times, Time magazine, Newsday, Kirkus Reviews and Booklist. Díaz’s first novel was top of the list for the most critics, said BBC.com, with the Latino author’s Pulitzer-winning creation Oscar Wao, a “hardcore sci-fi and fantasy man” desperate to get laid, compared to Philip Roth’s Portnoy and John Updike’s Rabbit by one respondent, the critic and playwright Gregg Barrios.
“Díaz’s deft mash-up of Dominican history, comics, sci-fi, magic realism and footnotes totally rocks,” found Barrios, while critic and author Rigoberto Gonzalez said the debut “re-energised these questions: Who is American? What is the American experience?”
Second for the critics came Edward P Jones’ 19th-century-set novel The Known World, in which a slave turned slave-owner lies dying on his plantation, with Hilary Mantel’s reimagining of the life of Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall, third. “I have never felt so completely catapulted into a character’s mind, not to mention a long ago and far away place,” said Mary Ann Gwinn, Seattle Times books editor. Wolf Hall’s sequel Bring Up the Bodies, which also won the British author the Booker prize, drew votes as well, but failed to make the top 12, said the BBC.
Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s tale of small-town Iowa minister John Ames, was fourth – it “will be read in 100 years”, said Anisfield-Wolf book awards manager Karen R Long – and Jonathan Franzen’s look at the life of the Lamberts, The Corrections, was fifth. It was described as an “astonishing third novel – a masterpiece of voice, character, and storytelling” by New York Times columnist Carmela Ciararu.
The list also includes Zadie Smith’s debut novel White Teeth, Jeffrey Eugenides’ tale of hermaphrodite Calliope Stephanides, Middlesex, Ian McEwan’sAtonement, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, set amidst the Biafra conflict. Adichie’s Americanah, and Smith’s NW, also feature in the overall top 20, which includes three works in translation: Austerlitz by WG Sebald, My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, and 2666 by Roberto Bolano.
But it does not feature some of the last 14 years’ most acclaimed works, from Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom, to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Instead, BBC Culture’s critics completed their line-up of “The 21st Century’s 12 greatest novels” with Ben Fountain’s award-winning debut Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, distinguished by its “sheer wise merriment”, according to critic Steven G Kellman, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. “Chabon’s capacious, propulsive and many-storied novel is exquisitely written, emotionally rich and historically and morally profound,” said Booklist senior editor Donna Seaman.
1. Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)
2. Edward P Jones, The Known World (2003)
3. Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (2009)
4. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2004)
5. Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (2001)
6. Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000)
7. Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010)
8. Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)
9. Ian McEwan, Atonement (2001)
10. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006)
11. Zadie Smith, White Teeth (2000)
12. Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002)
The runners-up were:
13. Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
14. WG Sebald, Austerlitz
15. Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend
16. Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty
17. Cormac McCarthy, The Road
18. Zadie Smith, NW
19. Roberto Bolaño, 2666
20. Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire