Suddenly, the 1990s seem an awfully long way off. Only a while back they were the stuff of recent memory; now one finds oneself wondering if they can really have been so long ago, and begins to sense they had something unfashionable about them. Still, with another full decade having elapsed since, we can look back on a completed body of literature from both the 1990s and the 2000s, and try and discern what the signs of the times were – or are.

Thinking back to the beginning of the 1990s, things did look very different. Saul Bellow and John Fowles still had years left in them; Angela Carter and William Golding were penning their final works; renowned binge smoker Anthony Burgess was somehow still breathing. As the decade progressed, a new generation of novelists arrived and pursued subject matter which, till then, had never been available – themselves. Semi- autobiographical novels had been around for as long as there had been novels, but confession and self-revelation now flourished on all sides, whether in fiction, newspapers’ me-and-my-life columns (and me-and-my-death columns), or the ubiquitous form of the memoir. Just how solipsistic the novel could become was shown by a debut from 1995, Tanya Glyde’s Clever Girl. Its narrator, Sarah Clevtoe, who matches Glyde in her age, physical appearance and career, is misunderstood and unappreciated at school, at university and when working for a newspaper. In the final section of the book she lives out a child’s fantasy of invulnerability and finds the public school alumni who have caused her ills – apparently by having consensual sex with her, then calling her names – and seeks vengeance on them. It’s not that Clever Girl is all bad: far from it. There is a very strange beauty to its motifs of planets, fossils, geological layers, and to the not-quite-real world in which it is set. And there are hilarious moments, such as Sarah’s feminist epiphany over the squealing companions on Doctor Who. What vexes is the way Clever Girl constantly invites us to pity her. She is ignored, dismissed, derided and insulted – by every character throughout the book, and for some reason always in the same tone. Her intellectual interests are mocked by the teachers at her private school. Two different doctors sneer at her ‘little’ career and her ‘little’ stories. Her initially-nice boyfriend Gabriel ends up hating her, and when the one pleasant guy she knows takes her to meet some work contacts, the first thing they do is make fun of her clothes. Also we are fed Sarah’s prejudices whole, and they go unquestioned. She hates short women, we are told; sure enough her short, female boss belongs to a club that has sex with sheep. On meeting another colleague we’re told at first glance that he comes from the Home Counties, plays weekend rugby and has no sense of humour. How does Sarah know any of these things? She’s only just met the guy, and they don’t come out later in the plot. In all of this we are never given any cause to doubt her viewpoint. On two occasions she tells some awful joke, then complains when those around her don’t appreciate it. Could this be a hint that she’s out of touch with other people? Apparently not: in the final section she is able to delight with her ‘gentle humour’ and wit. Perhaps Sarah should pay heed to the self-help book written near the end of the novel by her posh adversary Mirabelle Haight, which advocates getting on with life in place of complaining.

Another aspect of Clever Girl typical of its times is its concern with physical excrescences. This is neither good nor bad in itself, unlike all its self-pitying, and if Glyde aims to unsettle her reader and does so, that is a success like any other. So no type of gynaecological irritation goes undescribed, and bleeding becomes a motif which, over time, does admittedly acquire a kind of poetry. This emetico-miserablist school of description reached even greater heights a couple of years later in Seahorses by Bidisha. Here, not only is every bodily by-product alluded to, but everything else is compared to them. So one character’s shirt is ‘a menstrual explosion of burgundies, his jacket an ejaculation of translucent creams’. Bizarrely, the main character’s father reads ‘the flaking scab of the Financial Times’. Pleasant locales are made to sound revolting, even when there is no invocation of bodily mess: mould and fungus are imagined behind the shelves of a bookshop, and we hear about the ‘rat run’ of the National Gallery. The highpoint of all this comes when three dead baby hedgehogs (yes) are deliberately mashed underfoot. Similar descriptions appear at the start of each episode and seem to clog up a work which otherwise would have a pleasing economy about it: its two parallel incestuous affairs, and its action which begins in central London, then moves to the outlying districts, and then to the counties beyond. But perhaps Bidisha is wrong-footing us: one type of bodily gunk gives the decisive clue about what has really happened in the plot. Is she gambling that we’ll miss it among all the others?

Though Seahorses outdoes Clever Girl in the extravagance of its imagery, it does share another feature with it, namely that all the characters speak in the same way. They’re extremely well-educated – no one misses a chance to allude to Milton or Sophocles – and also very cynical. Of their respective spouses, two characters say, ‘He hit me, of course’ and ‘She killed herself, of course’. ‘Vibrant, bohemian, etc.’ says the main character’s boyfriend about an area where he has rented a studio. Are these over-educated, pyrrhonian types the notorious Generation X of whom we heard so much? We’re informed, though, that the same boyfriend believes in ‘the myth of true love’ – this, despite being a mouthpiece of the book’s unchanging cynicism, and the absence of any human warmth from him or anyone else. Whatever Clever Girl’s faults might be, there is, if just for a moment, love. Seahorses’ emotional tone places it in a school of 1990s writing with plays like Closer and In the Company of Men, where the more cold-hearted a relationship is, the more realistic it is deemed to be. Yet an approach like this can only ever be limiting: it can show only one side of human experience.

It would be crazy to condemn all (quasi-)autobiographical writing of the time on the grounds that other, inferior, self-indulgent stuff came out in the same period. Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) caught beautifully his sudden sense of freedom after being left as an orphan with no responsibilities – except to bring up his younger brother. He has gone on to pen numerous works: Andrea Ashworth went on record as saying that her memoir Once in a House on Fire would be a kind of purging after which she would feel free to write novels of her own. That was back in 1999 – she has yet to publish one. But if there has been one memoir whose influence has been felt in novels of the 1990s and the 2000s, it is Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, first published in 1994. Up until then, and outside of a few self-consciously working class writers, most literary references to football had been sneering or, at best, jocose. (Think of Huxley’s Crome Yellow, where Priscilla Wimbush tries to foretell a Spurs-Villa result using twenty-two astrological charts, or his comic suggestion in Time Must Have a Stop that someone as well-bred as Mrs Gamble might be a footie buff.) By the year 2000, contrastingly, when we’re told that John Lanchester’s Mr Phillips or Mel Holloway in Ben Richards’ A Sweetheart Deal (of which more below) support Crystal Palace and West Ham respectively, it isn’t to get a laugh at their expense. If football is now recognised in the novel as part of our national life, we have Hornby to thank for it.

By the late 1990s magical realism was fading after its heyday earlier in the decade. Its influence did live on, though, in books like Tibor Fischer’s The Collector Collector (1997), with its element of the supernatural and preoccupation with the business of storytelling itself. It is surprising how enjoyable a book narrated by a very ancient pot can be. Possibly this choice of main character was meant as a novelty, but even aside from children’s books with objects as protagonists, one remembers that a mattress was attributed with consciousness in Douglas Adams’ Life, the Universe and Everything. However, the real innovation comes in the way Fischer has the inanimate narrator moved from place to place so that the plot can progress, and the way it acquired the memories that form the storytelling element of the book. Described here it might sound twee, but The Collector Collector is actually a charming read that outclasses much else in its genre.

As the millennium approached, there was much chatter about exactly when it would arrive: in the year 2000 or in 2001. This question had in fact been discussed in the novel some years previously: the first reference I could find (and this is written entirely under correction) was from 1976, in The Adventures of Una Persson and Catherine Cornelius in the Twentieth Century by Michael Moorcock. It also gets a mention in Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, which, moreover, was among the first in a genre of novel which sought somehow to encompass the twentieth century itself. And, accordingly, it was one of the first to come up against a common problem. For all its ambition, and brilliance, Burgess’s six hundred page opus was published in 1980, entailing a rather unnatural cut-off point for a plot which takes in so much of the century. The following year Moorcock, with similarly grand aims, published the first volume of his Pyat Quartet, Byzantium Endures. He alerts us to his ambitions by having his deluded, anti-Semitic picaro Colonel Pyat born on 14th January 1900 – the very first day of the century, according to the Orthodox calendar. Note that he isn’t born in 1901. (Burgess’s Kenneth Toomey is born in 1890 and so witnesses the century from its inception, Earthly Powers coming to an end some time after his 81st birthday.) Perhaps if he had known that writing the series would take him through the 1990s and into the 2000s – The Vengeance of Rome came out in 2006 – Moorcock might have allowed the colonel to live the full length of the century rather than expiring in the late 1970s. But then again, the Quartet is already more than 2,200 pages long, and asserts that Pyat’s rambling posthumous papers have only yielded up his adventures up to the end of World War Two. To sustain any further a performance like this one – in which Moorcock never lets us guess if Pyat’s claims are deranged beliefs, hoary anecdotage or pure lies, but still creates drama at every turn – would have been ambitious indeed.

A kind of mirror to the Pyat Quartet is to be found in Todd Wiggins’ little- remembered debut novel. Though it had a better vantage point for surveying the twentieth century – it was not published until 1996 – its action looked forward in time rather than back. It sees no need for symbolic dates of birth and the like – within the first few pages it dispenses of the 2000/2001 question and moves on to state its ambition, to sum up the century not chronologically but thematically. When the plot starts up in 1999, a small group of young people have their car hijacked by a gun-toting priest and find themselves driving across an America beset with race riots. (These seem to resemble the real-life LA riots of 1992. Catherine Bigelow’s film Strange Days, which also imagines life in 1999, appears to draw on the same events – and the rock music she shows the young favouring is also very like something from the early 1990s.) Zeitgeist’s contemporary motifs are not hard to spot: ‘syndromes’ used to justify violence, over-educated but underemployed youths, spousal battery, Australian Question Intonation. But telling which motifs reflect the twentieth century as a whole is less straightforward than one might expect given the transparency of the author’s aims. His answer appears to lie in the line-up of his cast. The narrator of the piece is of eclectic sexuality and deliberately indeterminable race. Of those who are driving across America, one is black, one is a homosexual, one is a woman who also has homosexual tendencies. Sexual and racial politics were certainly abiding concerns well before the 1990s, but does that mean they distil the meaning of the twentieth century? If it does, one can’t help but think they do so less comprehensively than Wiggins thinks. Still, Zeitgeist makes for a stimulating read, and deserves to be remembered more widely.

One point made by Wiggins which otherwise went unraised is the idea that the 2000s – the decade, that is – began alongside the twenty-first century on the first day of 2001. His reasoning must be that if the first century AD ran from the year 1 to the year 100, the first decade AD and all subsequent decades must all begin with a ‘1’. It’s logical – but none of the other voices who protested that 2000 would not mark the millennium went on to add: ‘And, of course, it’ll still be the 1990s as well’. Maybe decades don’t need to be precise the way that centuries do.

Whether or not it saw a new decade, 2000 did see a fine crop of books. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski is a horror story concerning The Navidson Record, a Blair Witch-like film. However, it combines an account of the film’s contents and reception with the misadventures of a narrator who has chanced upon this same account, and, in addition, a scholarly apparatus. Danielewski’s book particularly deserves a mention as it takes commonplaces of the time – an unreliable narrator, hypertext, fiction versus reality – and makes them both intellectually fascinating and absolutely gripping. The process of fathoming just who wrote what, and whether they’re sane enough to be believed, is as maze-like as the pitch black corridors discovered in The Navidson Record. Yet the book is never once dense or pompous. Its typographical innovations could only be contemporary, but they also place it in a tradition going back to the modernists of seeking new forms and new techniques for the novel, and in their turn they heavily influenced Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts (2007). As well as all this it succeeds in creating, if not the sheer terror it might have hoped for, a real sense of foreboding when one takes it up from the shelf.

Less experimental but perhaps even better as a novel is A Sweetheart Deal by Ben Richards. It too harks back to modernism, with its images of blood running around the body and trains running around the city, and of London itself as a beating heart. Yet it is entirely free of pretension, and it’s the story it tells which really appeals. The unexpected death and equally unexpected love affair that form the book’s basis play with one’s feelings of hope deftly and compellingly. And the result is doubly pleasing because it is so much better than Richards’ three previous novels. It shows sympathy for a broader range of people, dares to allude to high art. Where in the past Richards made commonplace observations on the banality of daytime TV, here he gives an hilarious list of examples. But what really marks out A Sweetheart Deal is the way its message – against privatisation of railways and health – is tied up with its imagery and its plot. Too much explanation would spoil everything, but these concerns never need to be discussed by raisonneur characters: they are already embodied in the story unfolding around them. As for exemplifying its times, the book’s mature, capable female lead and her flippant, inadequate boyfriend seem to be an archetype for contemporary literature, both serious and comic. Just as typical, though, is the appearance of three female characters sitting down and talking about men. This seemed to happen everywhere: in Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996) and The Collector Collector, in films, in advertising… Quite why this should happen now, and so often with a group of three women, really is a puzzle.

Either side of the year 2000, there came a crop of novels all featuring angry, middle-aged college professors (Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee (1998), Fury by Salman Rushdie (2000), The Human Stain by Phillip Roth (2001)). Did it tell us anything that they were all so indignant about the signs of the times? Well, not much. This kind of thing goes back much further. Anthony Burgess portrayed a lecturer railing against proto- political correctness in The Clockwork Testament as early as 1974. Plato, having written his Republic with its authoritarian attitude to the young, was moved after a career spent teaching at the Academy to pen his ultra-authoritarian The Laws. All it shows is that a certain generation of eminent authors has reached a certain age.

However, later in the decade there developed a small genre which, in its strange way, might be more reflective of the times in which it arose. Cherry by Matt Thorne (2004) concerns an ill-adjusted young man who, having described her to a man from a dubious agency, is presented with his perfect woman. At first he is happy but, naturally enough, things soon turn darker and darker. Cherry might have been an enjoyable one- off, but not long afterwards Russell Hoban created his own mini-genre where idealised women are also brought into being. In My Tango with Barbara Strozzi (2007), a figure from an admired seventeenth century portrait is incarnated in a modern-day woman; 2006’s Linger Awhile has a dead starlet recreated anew via some dodgy biochemistry. This last book might be the most significant. There was much talk last decade about cloning, even of humans, and the artificial intelligence expert David Levy raised the prospect of androids indistinguishable from real people. (The title of Levy’s 2008 book, Love and Sex with Robots, might also cast some light on why male authors so enthusiastically depict dream women coming to life.) Could such possibilities have occasioned this crop of novels? After all, advances in understanding human biology, and a fashion for religious doubt, inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein.

But if the 2000s did possess such a thing as a zeitgeist, the really mysterious question is why it threw up so many novels about Henry James. The Lost Dog by Michelle de Kretser was long-listed for the Booker, Colm Toibin’s The Master reached the shortlist, The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollingshurst won. A Rope of Sand by Elsie Burch Donald remained comparatively obscure. Flicking through the index of Leon Edel’s famous biography produces no more answers than perusing a selection of James’ own works. Surely his predominant theme, of American versus European mores, can’t have had a special hold on the twenty-first century imagination? One thinks of his (disputed and apparently non-practising) homosexuality but, even though Hollingshurst and Toibin are openly gay writers, it seems doubtful this factor on its own could account for half a dozen novels by authors of all persuasions. It is mentioned by David Lodge, along with a trend for including real writers as characters in fiction, in The Year of Henry James, an account of how the publication of his novel Author, Author clashed with that of Toibin’s. Lodge concludes it was all ‘a coincidence waiting to happen’. If it was, then, like any other coincidence, it leaves one with a tantalising sense that it must mean something, yet at a loss to say what the meaning is.

To finish by choosing a Novel of the 1990s and a Novel of the 2000s, the former would have to be 1996’s The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester. It is presented by its narrator, Tarquin Winot, not as a novel at all but a cookbook. He seems rather unbalanced from the start, but his urbane and erudite observations entertain so much that one has to sympathise with him, even if it’s against one’s better judgement. Only as he digresses further and further onto his real preoccupations does the truth begin to dawn about him, his brother, the figures from their past (fleetingly but brilliantly drawn) and their fate. And even then, Lanchester succeeds in astonishing us by overturning what we still believe about Winot, and by doing so effortlessly. The Debt to Pleasure not only satirises the foodie trend of the 1990s, but outdoes so many of its contemporaries with Winot’s sobering final dictum on the meaning of the twentieth century.

And the Novel of the 2000s? The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Like The Debt to Pleasure it depicts a journey southwards, though in every other respect the two books are opposites. The Debt proceeds according to the whims of its narrator’s consciousness; The Road is a progression of events befalling a man and his son as they travel through a post-cataclysmic America where nearly everyone, and nearly everything, is dead. The Debt is compendious and enumerative; in The Road there is scarcely anything there any more, except for a grey ash spreading across the land. The Debt’s vocabulary is recherché in the extreme; in The Road the talk is of skifts, cleats, kerfs. In The Debt, above all, food is plentiful and various; in The Road the very last remaining scraps are dug out, as people resort inevitably to human flesh.

There is no way of saying if a post-apocalyptic novel is realistic, but The Road is horribly convincing. It shows how quickly civilisation can descend into a war of every man against every man, and makes the reader believe it. It is appropriate that its prose should be so spare, but it succeeds at the same time in being beautiful and even poetic. The movement of the earth around the sun with no one to witness it is ‘like a widow with a lamp’; the dead whose shoes have been stolen are ‘like discalced friars’. At one point the unnamed protagonist looks across the ocean and wonders if there might be another man somewhere on the other side. We reflect that there was once a time when communication across oceans was simple; that it has now come to an end; that anyone on the other side must be in an equally wretched predicament – all this with no prompting, just a single sentence of McCarthy’s. The Road has revived the post-apocalyptic novel as a genre, in Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World (2008) and Marcel Theroux’s Far North (2009) – but surely this is the least of its achievements. It might make for a rather sombre note on which to close, but it should remind us of the heights which the novel can attain, and make us look forward with relish to the literature to come in the 2010s.

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