Triumphs and Yellow Dogs

The Best and Worst Books of 2003

by Stephen Deusner

19 January 2004


If you made a list of the authors who released new novels this year, 2003 would seem like a stellar year for literary fiction. A new book bearing the name Martin Amis or Margaret Atwood or J. M. Coetzee or Toni Morrison on its dustjacket is enough to perk up a reader’s or a critic’s season, but to have so many big-name authors publishing new works in the same span of months promises an embarrassment of riches.

Most of these promises, unfortunately, went largely unfulfilled. Experimentation is to be prized in any writer, but especially in those who’ve earned laurels to rest on. Still, many of the long-awaited books either were dwarved by the shadows of their authors’ previous works or simply didn’t live up to the high anticipation. Consequently, many of them underperformed critically and commercially. Each year has its literary disappointments, but 2003 seems to be the year of the Minor Work by a Major Author.

Not that all these novels were career killers by any means; some were mere stopgaps to fill the interval until that next Disgrace or Being Dead or Beloved or Underworld. Nicholson Baker’s Box of Matches, for instance, was simply slightly underwhelming, proving that his brand of miniature realism can be as tedious as it is charming. And Margaret Atwood’s silly and cartoonish Oryx & Crake, which made the Booker Prize shortlist but wasn’t American enough to win, does not begin to approach her best work.

Anticipation was high for J. M. Coetzee’s new novel, Elizabeth Costello, especially following his Nobel Prize in October. Unfortunately, it was a concept-heavy letdown with fascinating arguments but a thin frame. Another Nobel Prize winner, Toni Morrison, published her eighth novel, the unimaginatively titled Love, but her unmatched capacity for prose invention and her unparalleled moral authority were upstaged by the characters’ constant bickering and catfighting.

If such softly disappointing novels are the inevitable byproducts of long, productive careers, then pity the few whose careers suffered self-inflicted setbacks. Don DeLillo had noble, nervy intentions for his dot-comedy, Cosmopolis, and there are, in fact, numerous passages that support his status as one of the best American novelists working today. On the other hand, there are many more moments that fuel his detractors’ criticism that he is too heady and detached and that his characters merely cold ciphers of his concepts.

With novels like Quarantine and Being Dead, Jim Crace has proved himself an original and remarkable writer, but Genesis, which chronicles the conceptions of an actor’s six children, is too prim and proprietary to capture the passion and lust of its stiff characters. It’s far too structured and disciplined, a muzak version of “Let’s Get It On.” Ultimately, it manages the seemingly impossible feat of making sex boring.

How low could a well-respected writer go in 2003? It’s a toss-up between Harry Mulisch and Martin Amis. In his slim Siegfried, the Dutch writer roasts Hitler with a claim that the Furhrer had a son by Eva Braun, but had no soul to bequeath. Though Mulisch suffers a failure of nerve and imagination, he displays a flare for shameless self-aggrandizement. At a mere 180 pages, Siegfried feels longer than Mulisch’s vaunted 700-page The Discovery of Heaven.

On the eve of its release, Martin Amis’ Yellow Dog was attacked by fellow (and inferior) writer Tibor Fischer as an embarrassment: “It’s like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating,” Fischer wrote in the Telegraph. At first such hyperbole seemed harsh, but after hacking my way through the novel’s verbiage, I don’t think it’s hyperbolic enough. Yellow Dog is bad bad BAD: its satire is facile, its targets thunderously obvious, its characters as lively as deflated love dolls. But what pushes the novel beyond the bad-idea mark is the colossal waste of talent evident on every page. In fact, it seems generous to call Yellow Dog a minor work. Dog shit is more like it.

Fortunately, not every literary mainstay stumbled this year: Charles Baxter, Peter Carey, Louise Erdrich, Jonathan Lethem, Nadine Gordimer, Richard Powers, William Gibson, and T. C. Boyle all published books whose heralds and hosannas are well deserved. And Norman Rush and Shirley Hazzard are co-winners of the 2003 Eugenides-Tartt Award for Overdue Follow-up. Both published highly acclaimed new novels: he, Mortals; she, NBA-winner The Great Fire—after more than a decade’s silence.

If most of these big-name writers weren’t at their best, there were more than enough surprises this year to compensate. Edward P. Jones, for example, had a great year. His last book, a debut short-story collection entitled Lost in the City, was nominated for a National Book Award, but that was more than a decade ago. This year he reintroduced himself with an astoundingly accomplished—and similarly NBA-nominated-novel called The Known World, about black slave owners in pre-Civil War Virginia. This idea is enough to ensure a memorable novel, but Jones bolsters it with ambitious, intuitive, naturalistic writing that plumbs the soul of a community both created and destroyed by slavery.

Historical fiction set in the South was prominent this year. Both Tim Gautreaux and Tom Franklin have proved themselves able-minded chroniclers of the South in short-story collections like Welding With Children and Poachers, respectively. But Gautreaux’s second novel, The Clearing, which is set at a remote bayou logging camp in the 1920s, reveals a command of period and setting details and an insight for narrative gravity. In Hell at the Breech, Franklin re-creates a gang war in rural Alabama; it’s a spectacularly bloody novel, but one that is deeply concerned with the uses, justifications, and morality of violence. Together these two strong works comprise not only a compelling study of Southern masculinity but also the beginnings of what could be a Southern literature revival.

New York writer Susan Choi’s sophomore novel, American Woman, transcends regional labels and classic-rock title references. In fictionalizing the Patty Hearst story, she sticks closely to the historical timeline; almost every action is based on an actual event, and each character has his or her real-life counterpart. This adherence to accuracy, however, does not limit the novel’s scope or its power, despite its predetermined course. Rather, American Woman feels spontaneous, natural, and—most crucially—novelistic. Choi exerts such control over the proceedings that these characters become her own creations, not just ciphers of the past. In a year that saw more than its share of surprises and stumbles, this Great American Novel earned Choi the rank of Major Writer.

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