Bookplanet: Granta picks the best young American novelists
A list of young writers to keep an eye on -- by John Freeman/The Seattle Times
NEW YORK — In the ever-changing anteroom of th Great American Novel, young just got younger, and what it means to be an American broadened significantly. Last week Granta magazine announced the lineup for their second Best of Young American Novelists issue at a bookstore in downtown Manhattan.
There are no perfect crystal balls in the literary world, but the Granta list has become nearly infallible. In 1983, it launched its first salvo at predicting the future with the Best of Young British Novelists, tapping Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes as voices to watch.
The first American list, issued in 1996, contained a few names that have yet to emerge again, but there were a striking number of bull's-eyes: Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides and Edwidge Danticat among them.
This year, by dropping the age cutoff from 40 to 35, the Granta judges have culled a diverse and entirely new group of names. Five of the authors were born outside of the U.S. — two, Olga Grushin and Gary Shteyngart , hail from the former Soviet Union. Several others are first-generation Americans.
Here, according to Granta's judges, is the future of the American novel, and there are some surprises, such as ZZ Packer , an African-American short-story writer, author of "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere." And Rattawut Lapcharoensap , a Thai-American writer praised but not well-known for his debut collection "Sightseeing," will now be a name to watch.
Welcome to the global village, as it has come to be represented by — and interpreted through — a new generation of American novelists. Judge A.M. Homes, author of "This Book Will Change Your Life," sees a sea-change at work. "What it is to be American given each of the backgrounds of these people — it's not straightforward," she said. "Many of them are looking at whether you can be an American and all these other things at once."
An honored tradition
Novels about immigrant experience are hardly new to American fiction, even from the most hallowed names. Jack Kerouac, son of French-Canadian parents, didn't learn to speak English until he began attending parochial school at age 6; Saul Bellow was born in Canada and wrote about the U.S. forever as an outsider.
The tradition reaches into the short story, too. In the introduction to the "Best American Stories of the Century," John Updike wrote that "Immigration is a central strand in America's collective story."
But if the Granta list is any gauge, that storyline has shifted, with America becoming the remembering ground for the great boomerang of world events — rather than the dream itself.
Uzodinma Iweala's "Beasts of No Nation" conjures the horrific experiences of a West African boy soldier. Akhil Sharma's "An Obedient Father" glimpses the corruption and graft of modern India through a twisted father-daughter relationship.
Daniel AlarcÛn was born in Peru, grew up in Alabama speaking Spanish at home, and now lives in the Bay Area and writes in English — about events happening back in Lima. "I think what you see here is that we want our interpreters of the world to also be natives of America, too," said the author of "Lost City Radio."
But it's not just the writers from ethnic backgrounds looking outward. John Wray drew on his mother's history in Austria to create his debut, "The Right Hand of Sleep," a novel about the aftermath of fascism in Europe. Jess Row taught English in Hong Kong, an experience evident in his short story collection, "The Train to Lo Wu." Nell Freudenberger is also widely in Asia, and her stories "Lucky Girls" and first novel "The Dissident" both have a globe-trotting aesthetic. Anthony Doerr was born in Ohio; his next book is a memoir about living in Rome with his family.
Judge Meghan O'Rourke, a poet and editor at Slate.com , agrees with Homes that this indicates a big shift from fiction of recent generations. "A lot of these writers are really conscious of America not as a continent adrift on its own," she said, "but as a force being inflected by the world and inflecting itself on the world."
This sounds like heavy material, but humorists are also resurgent on the American scene. The New Yorker can be credited for discovering several writers — like 25-year-old Karen Russell — but just as many (from Kevin Brockmeier to AlarcÛn) are fixtures in McSweeney's, the journal of humor, fiction and prose started by Dave Eggers.
Many of its writers have found a way to funnel loss and political anger through laughter, even if that makes for an uneasy mixture. In "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," Jonathan Safran Foer's boy narrator tells fart jokes in one sentence and meditates on Hiroshima in the next. Two blistering satirists — Gabe Hudson and Gary Shteyngart — play recent military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan for cackles.
"All prizes are to a degree arbitrary," said contest judge Homes, "they are the mind and mood of the people making the decisions on that hour that day."
"But it's tricky with young novelists," she added, "since they're still developing. Five years from now, we'll see some of these people won't have done much — and others may be the leading lights. But all of them are on the cusp of something."
(John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.)