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Monday, March 26, 2007

Man or Machine

posted by on March 26 at 11:07 AM

I have a goofasaurus book worm friend in town, and last night he made me take this quiz.

You are given a line of text and you have to say if it’s a quote from William Faulkner or if it’s a computer-generated translation of some German writer.

Oh, he’s also an English teacher at a fancy private school, and he’s starting a class next year on 21st-century literature—fiction and nonfiction. He’s drawing up a reading list of books that are distinctly 21st-century either stylistically (graphic novels? digital lit?) or thematically (we concluded that so far, with catacalysmic examples like 9/11 and Katrina jarring our sense of well-being, the 21st century is about impending End Times: global warming, pandemics, and terrorism).

He didn’t ask me to, but I thought it’d be fun see if Slog land had any suggestions for books that fit the bill. Seems to me he needed fewer white American men on his list of writers. Oh, and keep in mind: The readings should be appropriate for upper-level high schoolers.

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Some recent reading that seems to fit the thematic bill (although white and male, sorry!):
Will Self - Book of Dave
Cormac McCarthy - The Road
Max Brooks - World War Z

I swear there have been more, but I'm drawing a blank. I wish the library kept a list of the books I'd had out.

Posted by Levislade | March 26, 2007 11:15 AM

Technically, 2000 is not the 21st century, but White Teeth is all about the apocalypse. Heavily Dickensian but not by a white man.

Posted by annie | March 26, 2007 11:15 AM

Octavia Butler, who was neither white nor male (and lived in Seattle!) is all about this. Russell Hoban's 'Riddley Walker' (1980) is entirely age-appropriate, of the highest literary quality, and mind-blowing. McCarthy's 'The Road' is possibly the best of the genre.

Posted by Grant Cogswell | March 26, 2007 11:26 AM

Also, Deborah Eisenberg's 'Twilight of the Superheroes' (maybe a little much for the kiddies, though), and Denis Johnson's 'Fiskadoro' (coming-of-age novel, like the Hoban).

Posted by Grant Cogswell | March 26, 2007 11:28 AM

a.m. homes

Posted by Laurel | March 26, 2007 11:34 AM

white n' male but otherwise, really fits the bill: Speciman Days by Michael Cunningham.

Posted by becca | March 26, 2007 11:40 AM

I'll just recommend two books from Germany here that I'll assume nobody has read (or quite possibly even heard of):

Frank Schätzing - The Swarm
Daniel Kehlmann - Measuring the World

They were both massive hits in Germany, and the first is quite apocalyptic. "Measuring the World" has been a Potter-sized hit and a critical success. White and male, but not American.

Posted by Andreas | March 26, 2007 11:43 AM

@1, will self also wrote an excellent alternate reality themed book that would fit right in: "great apes," a mind bender.

Posted by ellarosa | March 26, 2007 11:50 AM

Oh yes, I love Great Apes; one of my all-time faves. Unfortunately not of this century, though.

Posted by Levislade | March 26, 2007 11:52 AM

I'll toss in two upcoming Warren Ellis projects:

"Black Summer", published by Avatar Press, first issue due out May/June.
It's a superhero GN, but it deals with a very 21st Century issue: if morality is defined not by universal absolutes, but rather by personal and societal perspective, then what are the logical limits to moral actions? How far is one allowed to break the rules in the name of justice?

Secondly, "Little Black Vein", published by William Morrow, due out August 2007. In his first novel, Ellis turns the detective genre on its head, by sending his protagonist on a cross-country search for the "real" U.S. Constitution, encountering a veritable menagerie of social freaks along the way. He claims nearly every behavioral abnormality in it is true; and that the story would have been impossible to construct, if not for the existence of the internet.

No doubt both of these are going to be decidedly age-unapprpriate, but if the students (and their parents) can handle the subject matter, I can't think of a better writer currently working in any media, who would have their thumb more firmly pressed down on the carotid of where literature might be going in the New Century.

Posted by COMTE | March 26, 2007 11:53 AM

Absulutely, no question about it: GEORGE SAUNDERS. If you want to peer into the strange subconscious of 21st century America, Saunders is your man. I recently finished "In Persuasion Nation," and loved it, but any of his three collections of short stories fit the bill. And Saunders is darkly funny on top of it all, which makes him perfect for the high schoolers who used to get off on Vonnegut stories.

Posted by Gurldoggie | March 26, 2007 12:01 PM

Can we see your friend's list?

Posted by Gurldoggie | March 26, 2007 12:09 PM

With deep embarrassment I believe that the most recent books I've read were written in 1997, unless you count cook books.

Posted by elswinger | March 26, 2007 12:16 PM

You've got me distracted now.
Another powerful view of the 21st century comes from Nuruddin Farah, from Somalia. His book "Maps" is incredible, and definitely addresses key 21st century issues, but it was published way back in the 1980's. His newest book, "Links," deals specifically with black Americans who return to a gruesome and cruel African "homeland." The scenes of heavily-armed children seem particularly 21st century. Not as good as "Maps," but pretty damn fascinating.

Posted by Gurldoggie | March 26, 2007 12:19 PM

As a Northwest Londoner I'm amused that two of the suggestions (by Self and Smith) are set in that locale.

I'd like to note that some of the characters in White Teeth - such as the spitting homeless woman known as "Mad Margaret" - are real. When I was growing up, there was a street to avoid, because that was where "Mad Margaret" lurked. She spat at my father once.

Posted by jez | March 26, 2007 12:36 PM

Gurldoggie @ 12,
I don't have his list, but man, these suggestions are great.

Posted by Josh Feit | March 26, 2007 1:09 PM

Take the books on your checked out list and click mylist at the library website. It'll keep em there, and then you can email them to yourself.

Posted by Tiz | March 26, 2007 1:14 PM

Thanks for the tip, Tiz; I'll do that in the future. I swear they used to keep track of previous holds, but they don't anymore. Maybe that's for our own privacy in case the gummint comes knocking, I don't know.

Posted by Levislade | March 26, 2007 1:23 PM

Why do they have to be published in this century? Why ignore prescient books that anticipate the apparent themes of the 21st century (so far) just because they happen to have been written in the 20th? In fact, one could argue that the authors of those books -- precisely because they weren't yet influenced by real events like 9/11 and Katrina -- had an advantage when exploring the broader ideas of a dystopian future.

There was a lot of millenialist fiction written in the 1970s under the influence of Rachel Carlson, for example, that still haunts today with the threat of climate change and global pandemics.

Posted by Joe | March 26, 2007 1:40 PM

Frances Johnson by Stacey Levine. Sort of similar to George Saunders in how future culture is tweaked to absurdity, but with more fully fleshed out personalities.

Posted by Cary | March 26, 2007 1:55 PM

Joe @ 19,
I'm not teaching the class, but I would guess that all the dystopian lit and prescient lit says more about the time that it was written... the 70s, 80s, 90s...

And the goal of my friend's class is to look at what people are writing now to get a beat on what it says about the 21st Cent.

In short, it's not a class on lit about the 21st Century. It's a class on lit written in the 21st Century.

Our stab at prerequisites was just a way to get the list started.

Posted by Josh Feit | March 26, 2007 1:57 PM

An excellent 21st Century graphic novel is Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan. It's about a city worker who gains the power to communicate with machines, transforms himself into a "superhero," then gives up crimefighting in the streets to be the mayor of NYC. It also has a slight alien life/big government coverup theme. There are lots of 9/11 references (in the story, he stops the second building from collapsing) and discussions of things like school vouchers and gay marriage are worked in. If you combined Heroes and , and drew the result, it might be something like this comic.

Posted by Aislinn | March 26, 2007 2:15 PM

I'm with Joe @ 19. The Postman by David Brin, although written in the past century, is quite relevant when considering the 21st.

As far as non-fiction, I'd suggest:

* Spanking the Donkey by Matt Taibbi
An excellent deconstruction of the vapid and disastrous 2004 election.

* 102 Minutes by Kevin Flynn and Jim Dwyer
A carefully researched, minute-by-minute stepping through the events of 9/11 at the WTC site.

* Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser
Another carefully researched view into industrial food production.

As far as fiction:

* Obliviously on he Sails by Calvin Trillin
Some wonderfully fun poetry about the Bush administration.

Posted by golob | March 26, 2007 2:16 PM

... all white men, of course... ;p

Posted by golob | March 26, 2007 2:19 PM

That said "If you combined Heroes and The West Wing," I'm not sure what happened to it. It should also be noted that I mean TWW before it started sucking.

Posted by Aislinn | March 26, 2007 2:20 PM

*Angry Young Spaceman by Jim Munroe

*Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

*Bruce Wagner's cell phone trilogy (I'm Losing You, I'll Let You Go, Still Holding)

Posted by chrisdiani | March 26, 2007 3:00 PM

Things You Should Know and This Book Will Save Your Life (forgive the bombastic titles) by A.M Homes would both be solid choices, as well as My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum.

Posted by Bettina | March 26, 2007 4:49 PM

It's been said before, but I really think The Wire is some of the best narrative work done this century.

Posted by former_seattlite | March 26, 2007 5:11 PM


I thought of suggesting it, but it is almost too good for a high school class. One would need to devote at least 12 hours of watching (or so) just to make it through one season. Further, the series is clearly based on the early to mid-90's Baltimore.

I'd suggest _The Corner_ or _Homicide__ -- the non-fiction basis for the Wire-- but both are creations of the 90's.

Posted by golob | March 26, 2007 5:31 PM

The Omnivore's Dilemna by a white American man.

Posted by Rene | March 26, 2007 8:38 PM

Oh hey, what about Black Hole, by Charles Burns? It's half from this century . . .

Posted by Levislade | March 26, 2007 8:39 PM

I'm not all the way through it yet, but I'm really enjoying Surveillance by Jonathan Raban. Also Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore could be a good mindfuck for high schoolers.

Posted by joel | March 26, 2007 9:56 PM

I'm going with octavia butler, parable of the sower. Not only has the northwest devolved into chaos, but a new religion, god is change is created by a woman...who is a feeler. one who is so empathetic to others that they experience others pain... children of mom's who took antidepressants. Now if that doesn't grab a teen, I don't know what would.

Posted by acuteally | March 26, 2007 11:17 PM

Dusklands, by Coetzee

Posted by liz | March 27, 2007 5:23 AM

I also posted this list on Amazon's blog, but the 21st-century books that stand out for me me are (in alpha order):

"The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" (Michael Chabon)
"American Gods" (Neil Gaiman)
"At Swim, Two Boys" (Jamie O'Neill)
"The Crimson Petal and the White" (Michael Faber)
"Empire Falls" (Richard Russo)
"Insect Dreams" (Marc Estrin)
"The Known World" (Edward P. Jones)
"Love" (Toni Morrison)
"The Master" (Colm Toibin)
"Middlesex" (Jeffrey Eugenides)
"The Namesake" (Jhumpa Lahiri)
"The Royal Family" (William Vollmann)
"Snow" (Orhan Pamuk)
"Three Junes" (Julia Glass)

Assuming, that is, that one starts the 21st century in the year 2000. And, several of these are absolutely NOT "appropriate for upper-level high schoolers."

Posted by D. Cloyce Smith | March 27, 2007 4:04 PM

Also, I agree with everyone who has mentioned Octavia Butler--but everything I've read by her was published during the last century. (I believe only "Fledgling" was published after 2000.)

Posted by D. Cloyce Smith | March 27, 2007 4:11 PM

Parable of the Sower -- Octavia Butler
Almanac of the Dead -- Leslie Marmon Silko
Let me repeat that: ALMANAC OF THE DEAD
Underworld, Cosmopolis, or, heck, White Noise -- Don DeLillo
The End of Poverty -- Jeffry Sachs *not fictional literature, but is uncanny in its match-up with Neo-Liberal, "Globalization Party!!" values

Posted by PBH | March 28, 2007 2:36 AM

White Boy Shuffle--Paul Beatty
Eat the Document--Dana Spiotta
Erasure--Percival Everett
Fun Home--Alison Bechdel

Posted by Kathleen | March 28, 2007 7:52 AM

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