In any culture the people look to storytellers to give shape to the experiences of their times. This is the ancient practice of myth-making. It helps us commemorate and come to terms with what we’ve been through. The greatest writers are often those who manage to capture the quintessence of the zeitgeist around them.
Millennials (sometimes also called Generation Y), the latest generation to come of age, are usually defined by demographers as the age cohort that was born starting in 1983 … perhaps a few years earlier, at most. This generation has not yet turned 30, and unlike poets, mathematicians, or gymnasts, novelists don’t generally flower until after that. (For instance, in the New Yorker‘s most recent “20 Under 40” list, only two authors were born in the 1980s; they’re both on our list as well). Most of the so-called young writers currently gaining reputations are still late Gen-Xers. While the bulk of Millennial masterpieces are no doubt just now beginning to be written, here, in no particular order, are the 10 best novels about the Millennial experience so far.
Citrus County by John Brandon
Brandon’s book wonderfully captures the creepy, hopeless nowhere-ness of contemporary Florida, with its swampy landscape (that may be a seascape in 100 years) on one hand, and on the other its subdivisions and strip malls, which exemplify the characterless, shoddy, race-to-the-bottom materialism of the housing boom and collapse (largely concentrated in the Sun Belt). In this milieu, teenagers bereft of guidance perform unspeakable acts, and the tone shifts masterfully from horror to hilarity to heartbreak.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Both the author and probably his protagonist are Xers, but this Pulitzer-winning novel’s themes also apply to a younger generation, perhaps because it’s largely about stunted development. Oscar is a self-proclaimed “ghetto nerd” whose struggles — with obesity, sexual satisfaction, pop-culture obsession, and globalized ethnic confusion — remain some of the defining problems of youth today.
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Karen Russell is a Millennial, or close enough, having been born in 1981, and like Citrus County, her debut novel is set in the humid depths of Florida. Swamplandia! tells the story of its eponymous island theme park (the Magic Kingdom it ain’t), where 13-year-old Ava Bigtree and her older sister Ossie dabble in spiritualism and search for the threads that connect the colorful past of their alligator-wrestling family with its precarious present.
Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin
Frustrating, off-handedly postmodern, and deadpan to the point that one wonders where to situate him on the autism spectrum, Tao Lin is perhaps the voice of his generation. It was hard to decide whether to include this book or Lin’s debut novel Eeeee Eee Eeee which, as its preposterous title indicates, contains some characters who happen to be dolphins and hamsters. The heroes of his most recent book Richard Yates happen to be named Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment, no relation to the celebrities. But the sheer cheekiness of a book called Shoplifting from American Apparel being sold in rival Urban Outfitters serves as the tie-breaker.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
While not taking it ad absurdum the way Tao Lin would, Pessl also deals in the pervasive pop-culture referentiality that characterizes both Generation X and Y. As shallow or gimmicky as it can often seem, especially in the context of “serious” literature, it’s simply the ocean we swim in, and thus the real artificiality would be to avoid it. Her debut novel’s main character, Blue van Meer, is a teenager who knows everything about literature and film … but not yet much else. If anyone could be said to be an avatar of the Millennial Generation, it’s her.
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht
The youngest literary prodigy on our list (born in 1985, blast her), Belgrade-born immigrant Obreht won the Orange Prize last year for this haunting family saga of the Balkan wars that shifts nimbly between present and past.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
In an era where mass-market young adult genre novels are one of the best-selling segments of the book trade (even for adults!), we couldn’t leave them off altogether. The dystopian world of Katniss et al. certainly resonates with contemporary concerns about inequality, culture wars, actual wars, and soul-sucking “reality” entertainment.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
One of the preoccupying literary ambitions of the past decade has been to write The Great 9/11 Novel. This may sound cynical, but it’s perfectly natural: the terrorist attacks remain, depressingly, the signature world-historical moment of the century thus far. Though Foer is yet another Xer, he writes here from the point of view of the generation most indelibly marked by 9/11, the Millennials. Oskar, Foer’s protagonist, is a nine-year-old prodigy who struggles to incorporate his father’s death and the larger tragedy into his understanding of the world.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
This sci-fi satire is set in the not-too-distant future, where Facebook and Twitter have given way to a world where people walk around displaying ratings of their hotness, personality, and credit score. Every trend from today is extrapolated to its logical extreme with hilarious and, yes, super-sad effect. It’s also, at its heart, a story about the generation gap: neither the middle-aged title character nor the younger woman he falls for may be Millennials, but the distance between them carves out a silhouette of the Millennial Generation and its aimless, anxious technological hedonism.
No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
OK, cheating twice over: this is a short story collection and July was born in the ‘70s. But she captures the vibe of American youth today better, perhaps, than any of the comrades-in-arms preceding her on this list. Even the very fragmentation of this 16-part work seems to give it more of a claim to be an authoritative overview of now, by lending it both precision and sweep.
This list is bound to be much different a decade from now. Some of these books will seem impossibly trite and useless, some will simply be forgotten. New writers, and new masterpieces from old ones, will assert themselves. The critics will fight it out, meanwhile rediscovering titles that have already been released and ignored.
One thing we don’t have to worry about, though, is that books will cease to be relevant, even in the age of e-books, Twitter, and the sea of dreck that self-publishing has unleashed. Indeed, some have found evidence to call Millennials “the most book-loving generation alive,” though surely the sales figures are boosted by the fact that many are still students. They are undoubtedly hungry, at this stage of development, for meaning, understanding, and self-definition. That hunger is bound to produce great novels, as well as the receptive audience they require.