Sunday, March 13, 2011

Top 10 State of the Nation Novels

Justin Cartwright, author of Other People's Money, has come up with a list of books that typify the state of the nation. Cartwright claims that financial crisis produces work for authors just as a crisis such as war does.

1. Rabbit at Rest by John Updike
The Rabbit series is stunningly observant of changing America over five novels and four decades. Rabbit at Rest stands out. It is wonderfully assured, as though after three decades Updike know had come to know Rabbit Angstrom to the depths of his being.

2. Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
India and its bewildering diversity, deployed in extravagant and beautiful prose.

3. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
Dickens lived with the dark personal knowledge that you could go up or down in society and his novels often have a dark shadow of the workhouse hanging over them. I could add at least three others, but Mr Merdle in Little Dorrit seems to come straight from one Dickens's own nightmares.

4. Disgrace by JM Coetzee
Devastating and prescient on the state of South Africa, post-apartheid. Although his take on the new South Africa was dark, his intimations both about the tolerance of violence and the disregard for high culture have proved horribly prophetic.

5. Middlemarch by George Eliot
The father of all English state of the nation novels and strangely contemporary in its multiple layers and themes, which include marriage, hypocrisy, politics and the status of women.

6. American Pastoral by Philip Roth
The best of Roth's state of Jewish America novels. It has a maturity and a lyricism and was perhaps a necessary journey away from his staple character, Nathan Zuckerman, who has only a small part in this book.

7. Money by Martin Amis
There is no question that Amis wrote one of the most influential novels of the late 20th century with Money. He was quickly on to the understanding of a new sort of society, obsessed with money, celebrity and self-gratification.

8. Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
It tends to be disparaged now, but in fact it caught the mood of the time when "masters of the universe" were a relative novelty.

9. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Mostly fine novel about contesting ideologies, whose theme was succinctly expressed 50 years ago by Isaiah Berlin: "Freedom for the wolves has often meant death for the sheep." The Corrections is also a state of the nation novel, but less obviously.

10. Home by Marilynne Robinson
This may not at first sight appear to qualify, but it would be a mistake to see Home and Gilead, the other half of Robinson's wonderful saga, as just about family: the outside world is beating like a bird against a window of the vicarage.

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