Sunday, April 3, 2011

My 5 favorite authors 50 and under

In the last few years, several of my personal pantheon of favorite authors have died -- notably John Updike and Kurt Vonnegut, both of whom I'd followed religiously since college. Their time had come, they were in their 70s, yet it's still sad to see such lions leave us. But who will be the future Updikes and Norman Mailers in the iPad generation? Here's my 5 favorite current authors age 50 and under -- an age which might seem old to some, but frankly, I'm getting there, and most great writers don't really start cranking until well into their 30s at least. Keeping it to those under 50 leaves out a few of my most liked authors like Paul Auster, Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, Haruki Murakami or Jonathan Franzen (just over the cut at age 51).

David Eggers, 41
Eggers made his mark with the alternately funny and tragic inventive memoir of his youth "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," which went on to found the entire snarky, groundbreaking "McSweeney's" school of writing. But Eggers has gone on from just a kind of hipster icon to show amazing versatility, with the wry road-trip comedy novel "You Shall Know our Velocity!" and particularly the stunningly powerful journalism-based memoirs "Zeitoun" and "What is the What" which take the lives of real people -- a Muslim Hurricane Katrina victim abused by his own government, a survivor of Sudan's genocide -- and turn them into a story as powerful as any fiction. His work only gets better with each book.

David Mitchell, 42
Mitchell is a writer without borders whose sprawling books can take place just about anywhere. His first three novels, "Ghostwritten," "Number9dream" and "Cloud Atlas," are deftly created experimental interlocking narratives, using a variety of voices and techniques to tell his stories. "Cloud Atlas," for instance, cycles between a 19th century sailing ship to a post-apocalyptic Hawaii, World War II Belgium, a noir California, contemporary England, and a futuristic Korea. Yet Mitchell has proved more than just a trickster with "Black Swan Green," a relatively straightforward tale of a lonely British kid growing up in the 1980s that had an amazingly distinct and honest voice. His latest, waiting to be read on my bedside table, is "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet," which swerves again into a historical epic of 18th-century Japan.

Michael Chabon, 47
Chabon crafts gorgeous, dazzlingly smart prose -- the effortless quality of his work probably reminds me more of John Updike than anyone else -- but unlike Updike's narrow suburban focus, Chabon is a pop-culture influenced magpie, who can tackle academic mid-life crisis drama ("Wonder Boys"), a comic-book influenced epic ("The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay"), a florid pulp fiction homage ("Gentlemen of the Road") or a Jewish detective novel set in an alternate history ("The Yiddish Policeman's Union"). Chabon combines inventive plots with that fluid, elegant voice to make him consistently rewarding reading. He also writes some great nonfiction essays ("Manhood for Amateurs").

Jonathan Lethem, 47
Lethem is in some ways Chabon's doppleganger -- they both blend "literary" writing with "junk" culture influences like comic books and '70s soul records. But Lethem is a bit cooler in voice, more abstract than Chabon, with work that dips frequently into surrealism and sci-fi. His earlier books were science fiction with an uneasy twist, like "As She Climbed Across The Table," about a woman who falls in love with her own existential physics experiment. Reality always seems frail in Lethem's fiction -- his breakthrough, "Motherless Brooklyn," is a detective novel starring a Tourette's syndrome-afflicted gumshoe, and a book where language is subjective. Lethem's masterpiece to date is "Fortress of Solitude," a buddy-comedy tale of sorts of a lonely white kid and a streetwise black kid growing up in a vividly realized 1970s New York. Oh, and there's a magic flying ring involved.

Jasper Fforde, 50
I actually don't read a ton of hardcore science fiction/fantasy, but one author I'll let take me wherever he wants to is Fforde, whose "literary detective" Thursday Next series is one of the most madly inventive, witty worlds I've ever visited, a topsy-turvy universe where fictional creations are real and a complex hierarchy of rules delineate the crossover between realms. For a book lover, Fforde's books are full of easter eggs and clever in-jokes, but they also work well as a creative, twistily plotted adventure series. Fforde has also created fictional realms based on "realistic" fairy tales ("The Big Over Easy") and a world where society is determined by what colours you can see ("Shades of Grey"). Fforde's fiction is deeply allusive fantasy with a word-nerd bent, kind of like Lewis Carroll if he had an Internet connection.

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