Books

Triumphs and Yellow Dogs: The Best and Worst Books of 2003

Stephen Deusner

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.

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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor
Film

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.

Music

Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.

Music

Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.

Music

Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.

Music

Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.

Music

Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.