The New Yorker's latest 20 Under 40 anthology is filled with tales of American malaise - and proves that a nation's literary identity should not be defined by terms of age.
Collection that shows literature is not just for young
20 Under 40:
Stories from The New Yorker
Edited by Deborah Treisman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Everyone loves a list. Lists start conversations and arguments, prompt discussions, and force us to begin stuffing the sausage of life into its casing. What is true for new cars and Academy Award nominees goes doubly for literature, which can be overwhelming even to the most dedicated devotee. Amid the torrent of new books, and new writers, what - who - is worth reading? With thousands of new novels every year, how to devote ourselves to the ones which will still be talked about five years from now, let alone five decades?
Luckily for us, The New Yorker magazine, in its abundant wisdom, has come around once more to crown the next generation of 20 favored young American novelists and short-story writers. Before the outbursts of disgust resonate through the halls of MFA programmes across the US, it might do everyone well to acknowledge the magazine's dazzling success rate at predicting the future: the "20 Under 40" list from 1999 included such future luminaries of the American literary establishment as Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz, Jeffrey Eugenides and Michael Chabon.
The 1999 list hardly missed a trick when it came to the future eminences of American letters. Eleven years later, The New Yorker re-entered the fray with a splashy summer issue devoted to another list of 20 young writers, honouring the feted (Jonathan Safran Foer, Gary Shteyngart), the up-and-coming (David Bezmozgis, Dinaw Mengestu), and the obscure: CE Morgan? Téa Obreht? Now, their original short stories, collected by the magazine, are gathered here between hard covers as 20 Under 40: Stories From the New Yorker. Finding them all here together, rather than doled out one at a time in each week's issue, some patterns begin to emerge about the nature of the new generation of young writers: their styles, their passions, their preoccupations. Or is it just the nature of The New Yorker's favoured class of writers?
The class of 20 Under 40 shares a number of notable traits. They are, overwhelmingly, concerned with their forebears: Safran Foer ponders his Eastern European shtetl ancestors in his debut Everything is Illuminated, Nicole Krauss considers vanished European Jewish culture in her novels, and Mengestu, Bezmozgis, and Shteyngart all write feelingly, and in the latter two cases, amusingly, of their immigrant parents.
They are children, not parents; the acted upon, not actors. Their youth casts them primarily as observers: a role they prefer. Many of the stories in 20 Under 40 are familial memory-poems; Chris Adrian's The Warm Fuzzies, Alarcón's Second Lives, Morgan's Twins, and ZZ Packer's Dayward are all stories of childhood terror and dislocation, and Foer's Here We Aren't, So Quickly and Nell Freudenberger's An Arranged Marriage are reports from the matrimonial frontlines.
They are also reflective of the internationalism of even this wholly American assemblage of writers: Mengestu is Ethiopian by birth; Shteyngart and Bezmozgis, Russian; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nigerian; Yiyun Li Chinese; Daniel Alarcón, Peruvian. The subject is often the dislocation of the American immigrant: Adichie's Nigerian housewives and students are trapped behind disarmingly placid suburban white picket fences, Shteyngart's and Bezmozgis' comic antiheroes struggle with mysterious American mores, and Mengestu's bittersweet novels concern the immense separation between Ethiopia and the United States. Individual and collective memory intertwine, winding the familial and the historical around each other in a never-ending loop.
The work of the class of 2010 is also reflective of a certain hard-to-define American malaise. Ferris's novel The Unnamed and Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances are both about mysterious maladies that overcome their protagonists without warning. The subjects of Wells Tower's stories are inclined to unexpected outbursts of violence and depression; Adichie's wandering African émigrés are perpetually disappointed by the stifled promise of American life. The stories of 20 Under 40 are similarly weighed down by a creeping unease that seems emblematic of life in the United States today. Writers are the canaries in the national coal mine, diagnosing maladies they are unable to fully describe.
How did we get here from there? Who are these Americans? These are the questions which propel many of these foreign-born young writers. Even the native-born American writers often concern themselves with foreign affairs: both Freudenberger and Salvatore Scibona's contributions to 20 Under 40 concern the mutual misunderstandings of cross-national romantic relationships - as does, in slightly differing fashion, Shteyngart's super-sad-true-love story Lenny Hearts Eunice. As America thrusts itself into another epic tantrum of childish dyspepsia at the presence of unsanctioned foreign immigrants, these writers reflect an obvious truth: that the United States is, and always has been, a patchwork assemblage of mismatched parts. At their best, writers like Adichie and Shteyngart acknowledge the dizzying variety of contemporary American life - the Korean doctors in New Jersey, the Pilates-practicing Nigerian immigrants in Philadelphia. Pundits and bloviators of the right are intent on remaking this country after their own image: white, middle-American, Christian. These writers are a living rebuke to simplified, faux-nostalgic visions of America. Their very presence in the rarefied pages of The New Yorker is proof enough.
It is almost too obvious to mention that the final trait all these writers share is youth. Many of the initial commentators on The New Yorker's selection concentrated on the seeming arbitrariness of 40 as a cut-off date for inclusion, lamenting the absence of Dave Eggers, only a few months past his 40th birthday himself. But 20 Under 40 set me to thinking about another author: Julia Glass. Glass, a painter turned writer, was in her mid-forties when she published her first novel, Three Junes, in 2002. It was a kaleidoscopic portrait of Manhattan existence, bemused and large-hearted and full of the richness of life as it is lived. It was, in short, not the work of a young woman, and all the better for it.
Three Junes won that year's National Book Award and Glass was hailed as an impressive new voice in American letters. While Glass' more recent work has not always lived up to the promise of Three Junes (The Widower's Tale, published this year, while compelling in parts, also bore, in its dialogue particularly, the fustiness of the middle-aged woman attempting to capture the speech of youth) her very presence is a reminder that youth is not all in literature, and that judging writers on the basis of their age seems misguided.
Glass's career serves as something of a rebuke of the age-obsessed world of contemporary fiction, in search of potential rather than accomplishment. While there are some wonderful writers on The New Yorker's list, it is also apparent that some of the writers anthologised are still mostly works in progress, their work reeking of the MFA workshop, and mostly innocent of life itself.
In recent years, much of the best work in American fiction has been the product of an anti-youth movement: Philip Roth's astonishing burst of late novels, Thomas Pynchon's magisterial Against the Day, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and Home. The brutal honesty, shimmering inventiveness, and heartbreaking emotion of these books makes most of the work published by The New Yorker's elect seem callow and unfinished. The comparison is unfair, to be sure (what was Robinson publishing in her twenties?) but the contrast is necessary. Literature is not the province of youth alone, and the 20 Under 40 should be complemented by another, far less sexy list — the 20 over 60? It might not win its honourees any MacArthur fellowships or plum teaching gigs, but it would acknowledge that American letters has been, for some time now, as much the preserve of the downright elderly as the young.
Saul Austerlitz is the author of Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy.