Quick! If you were asked to name the best work of American fiction of the last 25 years, which novel would you name?
To save you time in making a calculation, we're talking about anything written since 1981.
That's the question that the New York Times Book Review editor, Sam Tanenhaus, posed to several hundred "prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages." The results were very interesting--both for what was included and what wasn't.
Fourteen writers were named (some several times for different books). I was a little disconcerted to find that twelve of the fourteen were male (overwhelmingly white males) while only two were women. My annoyance was eased when I realized that the book selected as the best work of American fiction in the past 25 years was Toni Morrison's Beloved.
I reacted to the news the same way I respond when someone asks for the best Mexican restaurant in Dallas. There are so many good Mexican restaurants here that I hesitate and then, when someone else answers the question, I immediately say, "Of course. Why didn't I think of that place?"
That's not to say that my relationship with Beloved is without conflict. It's not. I'm very ambivalent about the book. When I read the first sentence in which Morrison says that Sethe's house was "spiteful," I was intrigued. By the time I realized, a few pages later, that the house was haunted by a vengeful two-year-old toddler, I was hooked.
The novel isn't an easy read. Especially for someone like me who dislikes convoluted narrative and endlessly long sentences. Even so, Morrison's imagery and lyricism kept me reading. Her writing frequently left me breathless with awe.
It's not only the writer's style that was hard for me. The subject matter was excruciatingly painful. We never learn the dead baby's name because Sethe, the protagonist, had to exchange sex for the tombstone engraving, and she could only stand the man long enough to pay for the word, "Beloved."
Sethe is a runaway slave, living with her daughter Denver in Ohio during the years after the Civil War. The novel plays with time and with Sethe's "rememories," skipping around from incident to incident, past to present. The horror and degradation of slavery is recounted in such a matter-of-fact fashion that I frequently had to put the book down because I was so overwhelmed by it.
Sethe is no longer a slave, but--eighteen years after her escape--she is still enslaved by her past. When Paul D, an attractive ex-slave from the plantation where Sethe lived, turns up, you wonder if she will at last find some peace. When he seems to lay the baby's ghost, you begin to hope for her. And then, a young woman shows up at the door. She is vague about her past and gives her name as "Beloved." When she begins to seduce Paul D., your hopes for Sethe evaporate.
Beloved is an important novel. In an age when we are debating how we should respond to immigrants seeking to escape their pasts for a better life, the book is worth revisiting. In a political atmosphere when there is discussion as to whether America should import its way of life to other countries and other peoples, the novel has a lot to say about cultural arrogance and insensitivity.
I'm not even going to mention the books that first leaped to my mind when I tried to think of the best work of fiction over the last 25 years. While my choices were great, this one is better than mine for this time and this place.
If you want to read the entire list, go to: http://www.nytimes.com/ref/books/fiction-25-years.html.