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The Best Books of 2000

The Best Fiction Of 2000

December 03, 2000

Is literary greatness still possible? Given the implacable devolution of literary ambition, and the concurrent ascendancy of the tepid, the glib and the senselessly cruel as normative fictional subjects, what would a noble literary enterprise look like now? One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W.G. Sebald. "Vertigo" is a self-portrait of a mind: a restless, chronically dissatisfied mind; a harrowed mind; a mind prone to hallucinations. "Vertigo" is about the narrator's own afflicted consciousness. But the laconically evoked mental distress that edges the narrator's calm, knowledgeable awareness is never solipsistic, as in the literature of lesser concerns. What anchors the unstable consciousness of the narrator is the spaciousness and acuity of the details. As travel is the generative principle of mental activity in Sebald's books, moving through space gives a kinetic rush to his marvelous descriptions, especially of landscapes. This is a propelled narrator.

WHITE TEETH

By Zadie Smith

Random House: 480 pp., $24.95

Check out a map of London: The city seems to sprawl endlessly, its high streets spoking this way and that amid a dizzying patchwork of interlocking hamlets and maddeningly meandering lanes. Insatiable curiosity and the desire to make sense of it draws the eye back again and again, retracing routes, discovering patterns, seeing new colors. In Zadie Smith's dazzling intergenerational novel, "White Teeth," the Cambridge graduate offers a similarly hypnotic and multicolored experience, transforming London's outlines into an infinitely complex mandala whose true shape is, in the end, unfixed and unknowable. Against this beguiling backdrop, with its shades of Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Hanif Kureishi and even Charles Dickens, Smith's multicultural Londoners attend to pressing questions of family and fate as they navigate a treacherous maze of history, identity and, most inescapably, race. All the while, their stubborn ties to the outposts of the former Empire--the subcontinent and the West Indies--are stretched perilously taut, like rubber bands pulled to the snapping point.

WILD DECEMBERS

By Edna O'Brien

Houghton Mifflin: 258 pp., $24

Wrong. Right. Matches in Ireland's book of incendiary matches. But this is a country tale. Oh, it will end badly, all right. Times may change, but the blood never forgets. Times may change, but they bend closer toward money nowadays, everywhere. You know Bugler--the man who went away for so long, handsome as ever, back to claim his inheritance--is in the wrong. He who has purchased the fancy tractor, who has rented the land his neighbor's cattle have grazed on for generations, who trumps with money and then with love, stealing the heart of his neighbor's baby sister, a heart he does not deserve. He should not win in the small Irish village. His people were the bailiffs, much-hated guardians of the law. His neighbor's people were the first farmers. "Don't shoot!" you might exclaim, you who have never even set foot in Ireland, seduced by the loamy language. Edna O'Brien doesn't have to try that hard; she wins us simply by describing "the fugitive amethyst river," or "the gallant story of swash and buckle in Nelly's Bar on an otherwise lacklustre winter night." How easily it is told, the ancient story of two neighbors and the land.

WINDCHILL SUMMER

By Norris Church Mailer

Random House: 396 pp., $24.95

Can a woman write the great American novel? Would a woman want to? There's a village in Denmark called Skagen that has its own school of painters because the light is so eerily beautiful. In the 19th century, the men traditionally painted the sea and the boats and the horizon. The women began painting the kitchens and the people and the food and the chairs they sat on. Seen together in the village museum, they form what feels like a complete portrait of life in that village, in that light. We suspect that Norris Church Mailer has chosen her material not only from what she knows, namely, life in small-town Arkansas in the '60s, but also from what her husband, Mailer the Minotaur, doesn't know: how teenage girls felt growing up in America in that decade, what choices they faced, how they dodged fate, what it was like to kiss a man who had just come home from Vietnam. "Windchill Summer" is a carefully constructed, densely detailed, pulsing book, slightly old-fashioned, with a moral whiff of Theodore Dreiser, a Southerner's rollicking plot and the sly humor of Flannery O'Connor.

THE WISHING BOX

By Dashka Slater

Chronicle: 300 pp., $22.95

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