Excerpts from 15 Top 21st-Century U.S. Novels

quizTest your knowledge of 21st-century U.S. literature.  Alienation, 9/11, depression, lack of accountability, meditations on existence, futuristic dystopias, a hermaphrodite and a memorable turd . . .  these are part of what form the themes and content.  Have a go. The winner will receive a 30-euro (£20 / $30) gift certificate to spend at Amazon; in case of a tie, a name will be drawn. Deadline:  May 1, 2009



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Name the novel

1. It’s hard to reconstruct. I don’t know how my mind was working. A guy came along in a van, a plumber, I think, and he drove me here. His radio had been stolen, and he knew from the sirens that something was going on but he didn’t know what. At some point, he had a clear view downtown, but all he could see was one tower. He thought one tower was blocking his view of the other tower, or the smoke was. He saw the smoke. He drove east a ways and looked again, and there was still only one tower. One tower made no sense. Then he turned uptown, because that’s where he was going, and finally he saw me and picked me up. By this time, the second tower was gone. Eight radios in three years, he said. All stolen. An electrician, I think. He had a water bottle he kept pushing in my face.

 2. I was born twice: first as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.          

3. Something was loosening up, and I thought, my, maybe this “outing” wasn’t a bad idea after all.  Maybe we’re getting somewhere.  I began to throw myself into the conversation in earnest.  “Look, one of the things about this country I really can’t stand? It’s the lack of accountability.  Everything wrong with an American’s life is somebody else’s fault.  All these smokers raking in millions of dollars in damage from tobacco companies, when, what, they’re known the risks for forty years.  Can’t quit?  Stick it to Philip Morris.  Next thing you know, fat people will be suing fast-food companies because they’ve eaten too many Big Macs!” I paused, catching myself.  “I realize you’ve heard this before” . . . . Kevin was winding me up, of course, like a toy.

4. He raised his head slowly, his pistol in his hand.   He looked down at the boy and when he looked back toward the road the first of them were already coming into view.  God, he whispered.  He reached and shook the boy, keeping his eyes on the road.  They came shuffling through the ash casting their hooded heads from side to side.  Some of them wearing canister masks.  One in a biohazard suit.  Stained and filthy.  Slouching along with clubs in their hands, lengths of pipe.  Coughing.

5. But nothing feels normal to Ashima. For the past eighteen months, ever since she's arrived in Cambridge, nothing has felt normal at all. It's not so much the pain, which she knows, somehow, she will survive. It's the consequence: motherhood in a foreign land. For it was one thing to be pregnant, to suffer the queasy mornings in bed, the sleepless nights, the dull throbbing in her back, the countless visits to the bathroom . . . .. But she is terrified to raise a child in a country where she is related to no one, where she knows so little, where life seems so tentative and spare.

6. The turd had an attitude, a tone of voice, that Alfred found eerily familiar but couldn't quite place. It began to roll and tumble on his pillow, spreading a shiny greenish-brown film with little lumps and fibers in it, leaving white creases and hollows where the fabric was bunched. Alfred, on the floor by the bed, covered his nose and mouth with his hands to mitigate the stench and horror. Then the turd ran up the leg of his pyjamas. He felt its tickling mouselike feet.

7. We are here among you as seekers of refuge from our present—your future—a time of worldwide famine, exhausted fuel supplies, terminal poverty—the end of the capitalistic experiment. Once we came to understand the simple thermodynamic truth that Earth's resources were limited, in fact soon to run out, the whole capitalist illusion fell to pieces. Those of us who spoke this truth aloud were denounced as heretics, as enemies of the prevailing economic faith. Like religious Dissenters of an earlier day, we were forced to migrate, with little choice but to set forth upon that dark fourth-dimensional Atlantic known as Time.

 8. Beyond your dormitories, a world is on fire and you are kindled by underwear. Beyond your fraternities, history unfolds daily—warfare, bombings, wholesale slaughter, and you are oblivious of it all. Well, you won't be oblivious for long! You can be as stupid as you like, can even give every sign, as you did here on Friday night, of passionately wanting to be stupid, but history will catch you in the end. Because history is not the background—history is the stage! Oh, how sickening is your appalling ignorance of your own times! Most sickening of all is that it is just that ignorance that you are purportedly at Winesburg to expunge.  What kind of a time do you think you belong to, anyway? Can you answer? Do you know?  Do you have any idea that you belong to a time at all?

9. In those days, as I have said, I might spend most of a night reading. Then, if I woke up still in my armchair, and if the clock said four or five, I'd think how pleasant it was to walk through the streets in the dark and let myself into the church and watch dawn come in the sanctuary. I loved the sound of the latch lifting. The building has settled into itself so that when you walk down the aisle, you can hear it yielding to the burden of your weight. It's a pleasanter sound than an echo would be, an obliging, accommodating sound. You have to be there alone to hear it. Maybe it can't feel the weight of a child. But if it is still standing when you read this, and if you are not half a world away, sometime you might go there alone, just to see what I mean. After a while I did begin to wonder if I liked the church better with no people in it.

10. Vida stood and moved to the refrigerator. "Somebody killed him as sure as I'm sitting here. Wasn't a thing wrong with that man." Dessert was canned pineapple in sherbet glasses. Vida set one at each place. Sandler, unimpressed, leaned back. Vida caught his look but decided to let it lie. She worked; he was on a security guard's hilarious pension. And although he kept the house just fine, she was expected to come home and cook a perfect meal every day.

11. This happened in January. Me and Lola were living up in the Heights, separate apartments—this was before the white kids started their invasion, when you could walk the entire length of Upper Manhattan and not see a single yoga mat.

12. Ahmad is eighteen. This is early April; again green sneaks, seed by seed, into the drab city's earthy crevices. He looks down from his new height and thinks that to the insects unseen in the grass he would be, if they had a consciousness like his, God. In the year past he has grown three inches, to six feet—more unseen materialist forces, working their will upon him. He will not grow any taller, he thinks, in this life or the next. If there is a next, an inner devil murmurs. What evidence beyond the Prophet's blazing and divinely inspired words proves that there is a next? Where would it be hidden? Who would forever stoke Hell's boilers?

13. Seaman Houston walked over to the monkey and laid the rifle down beside it and lifted the animal up in his two hands, holding its buttocks in one and cradling its head with the other. With fascination, then with revulsion, he realized that the monkey was crying. Its breath came out in sobs, and tears welled out of its eyes when it blinked. It looked here and there, appearing no more interested in him than in anything else it might be seeing. "Hey," Houston said, but the monkey didn't seem to hear.

14. In the year 1896, my great-uncle, one of the first Catholic priests of aboriginal blood, put the call out to his parishioners that they should gather at Saint Joseph's wearing scapulars and holding missals. From that place they would proceed to walk the fields in a long, sweeping row, and with each step loudly pray away the doves. His human flock had taken up the plow and farmed among German and Norwegian settlers. Those people, unlike the French who mingled with my ancestors, took little interest in the women native to the land and did not intermarry. In fact, the Norwegians disregarded everybody but themselves and were quite clannish. But the doves ate their crops the same.

15. The costumes of the actors, the hairstyles, even the faces and  voices of the movie people change with the years, and she can remember, not clearly but in  fragments, her own lost emotions, the loneliness of her childhood only partly assuaged by  the looming screen. Another world to live in. Where? There was a day, an hour, when she  realized that the Fair Princess, who is so beautiful because she is so beautiful and because she is the Fair Princess, is doomed to seek, in others' eyes, confirmation of her  own being. For we are not who we are told we are, if we are not told. Are we?


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