Emily Temple lists Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer in LitHub‘s ten books that have defined the 2010s.
Some books are flashes in the pan, read for entertainment and then left on a bus seat for the next lucky person to pick up and enjoy, forgotten by most after their season has passed. Others stick around, are read and re-read, are taught and discussed. sometimes due to great artistry, sometimes due to luck, and sometimes because they manage to recognize and capture some element of the culture of the time.
In the moment, you often can’t tell which books are which. The Great Gatsby wasn’t a bestseller upon its release, but we now see it as emblematic of a certain American sensibility in the 1920s. Of course, hindsight can also distort the senses; the canon looms and obscures. Still, over the next weeks, we’ll be publishing a list a day, each one attempting to define a discrete decade, starting with the 1900s (as you’ve no doubt guessed by now) and counting down until we get to the (nearly complete) 2010s.
Though the books on these lists need not be American in origin, I am looking for books that evoke some aspect of American life, actual or intellectual, in each decade—a global lens would require a much longer list. And of course, varied and complex as it is, there’s no list that could truly define American life over ten or any number of years, so I do not make any claim on exhaustiveness. I’ve simply selected books that, if read together, would give a fair picture of the landscape of literary culture for that decade—both as it was and as it is remembered. Finally, two process notes: I’ve limited myself to one book for author over the entire 12-part list, so you may see certain works skipped over in favor of others, even if both are important (for instance, I ignored Dubliners in the 1910s so I could include Ulysses in the 1920s), and in the case of translated work, I’ll be using the date of the English translation, for obvious reasons.
For our final installment, below you’ll find 10 books that have defined the 2010s so far (fear not—we are almost through). For this one, I will add the caveat that it’s impossible to evaluate a moment while you’re in it, and without the benefit of hindsight, it’s difficult to make claims about which books will last and which will dissolve in our memories. I could have made another list of 10 that would have been equally convincing (this may be true of all of these lists), but I have used my best judgement from where I sit today. (Head here for the 1910s, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and 00s).
Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (2015)
Nguyen’s debut novel not only won a slew of prizes, including the Pulitzer, but somehow immediately felt necessary: as if it had always been part of the canon but only just now been written. In The New York Times, Philip Caputo highlighted the “distinct perspective” Nguyen—born in Vietnam, raised in the US, brought to the Vietnam war. “His book fills a void in the literature, giving voice to the previously voiceless while it compels the rest of us to look at the events of 40 years ago in a new light.”
But this tragicomic novel reaches beyond its historical context to illuminate more universal themes: the eternal misconceptions and misunderstandings between East and West, and the moral dilemma faced by people forced to choose not between right and wrong, but right and right. The nameless protagonist-narrator, a memorable character despite his anonymity, is an Americanized Vietnamese with a divided heart and mind. Nguyen’s skill in portraying this sort of ambivalent personality compares favorably with masters like Conrad, Greene and le Carré.
Ron Charles, too, called it “surely a new classic of war fiction,” and pointed out the contemporary relevance of some of its passages, but considered it “too great a novel to feel bound to our current soul-searching about the morality of torture. And it’s even more than a thoughtful reflection about our misguided errand in Southeast Asia. Transcending these historical moments, Nguyen plumbs the loneliness of human life, the costs of fraternity and the tragic limits of our sympathy.”
See the full list here.