In which I report on the 24th best English-language novel of the 20th century

That would be Winesburg, Ohio, as determined by the board of the Modern Library. It was recommended by my very fine commenter Col, so how could I go wrong?  (Also, it’s short!)

Let’s make one obvious point right off the bat: If I were the writer whose novel came in at position 101 on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list, I would be lodging a formal complaint with the international governing body of top 100 lists, because Winesburg, Ohio isn’t a novel; it’s a short story cycle.  I have nothing against short story cycles — The Martian Chronicles is a good one — but they bypass problems that novels have to solve — like sustaining a narrative arc, like introducing characters at the appropriate time and developing them in sufficient detail to justify their roles.  No one is going to admire Winesburg, Ohio for its plot, because it ain’t got any.

Sherwood Anderson: Does this guy look happy to you?

What it has are lots of small-town turn-of-the-century characters afflicted with “vague hungers and secret unnamable desires.”  People who go for long walks in the dark and the rain pondering the waste of their lives.  People who dream of leaving and never leave.  People who leave, then return as failures.  People who leave and are never heard of again.  People who long to make a connection with other people, but never quite manage to do connect.  Lots and lots of sexual repression.

What it doesn’t have: Humor.  Warmth.  Happiness, except in fleeting moments. Did I mention that it doesn’t have a plot?  It has recurring characters, especially the young reporter who shows up in most of the stories and (spoiler alert) finally leaves town at the end of the book. But nothing much in the way of character development.

Still, I couldn’t put the book down.  Anderson’s descriptions of small-town life and small-town characters are powerful and often moving.  The stories are mostly pretty short–they make their point, and then move on–so I never felt bogged down.  I have a feeling that some of the stories are going to stay with me.

Ultimately, I think the book gets the high ranking that it does for historical reasons–its themes and style are daring for 1919, and it apparently paved the way for American writers we remember better. Winesburg, Ohio came out early in Anderson’s career, and nothing else he wrote made much of an impression.

So, who should I try next?  Theodore Dreiser?  Sinclair Lewis?  Ford Madox Ford? James T. Farrell?  They’re on the Modern Library’s list, but I haven’t read any of them.

So many good books, so little time.

Pondering the top 100 novels

Gore Vidal’s recent death led me to the Modern Library’s list of the top 100 English-language novels of the twentieth century.  The list has been around since 1999, but I didn’t realize it was online (as of course it was bound to be).  There are actually two lists–one from the Modern Library board, the other based on votes from readers–and the latter was hilarious hijacked by Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard zealots (also Charles de Lint fans, for some reason).

Vidal isn’t on either list.  I hadn’t expected him to be, although I enjoyed the two or three novels of his that I read.  On the board’s list there is no John Updike, no Thomas Pynchon (although V and Gravity’s Rainbow are on the readers’ list), no Don DeLillo, no John Barth, Eudora Welty, Harper Lee, or John Irving.  Surprisingly, John O’Hara makes the list, as does Thornton Wilder.  I was pleased to see John Cheever represented, although he was primarily a short-story writer.  The board’s science fiction choices are standard: 1984, Brave New World, Slaughterhouse-Five, Lord of the Flies, and A Clockwork Orange.  No Tolkien. Too much D. H. Lawrence and Saul Bellow for my taste.

I’ve read a little over half the novels on the list.  In particular, I seem to have missed a bunch of early twentieth-century American novels that the board thinks highly of — An American Tragedy; Winesburg, Ohio; Sister Carrie; the U.S.A trilogy; the Studs Lonigan trilogy; The Magnificent Ambersons….  Are they worth my time?

The list-making doesn’t amount to much, I suppose, except to get me (and others) to add books to their endless readling lists.  Same for the new list of the top movies of all time.  Is Vertigo really better than Citizen Kane?  Who cares?  Seen ’em both; liked ’em both.  But I’ve never heard of Sunrise, and it’s now in my Netflix queue.  And I guess I’ll give Sherwood Anderson a try, too.