We’re certainly not very far into the 21st century, but it’s not too early to take a look at which novels of the past two decades have set themselves apart as volumes likely to be remembered for many more decades to come.
These are our picks for the best novels of the 21st century, so far.
These books span many different genres and categories, and many of them make use of highly innovative techniques that find new ways to tell stories that will connect with readers.
Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
The 2004 novel Cloud Atlas was very popular even before the film version came out in 2012.
Cloud Atlas was nominated for the Booker Prize, the Nebula Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award.
This book spans several different genres as well as several different centuries, including a storyline set in the distant future.
Essentially, the book follows a specific set of characters through multiple incarnations, where they sometimes find each other again.
Even with a large cast of characters and many different setting, Cloud Atlas manages to stay exciting all the way through.
Life of Pi – Yann Martel
Published in 2001, this novel just barely qualifies for our list of 21st-century novels.
Selling more than 10 million copies internationally, the Canadian novel Life of Pi by Yann Martel tells the harrowing story of a young boy who has to survive lost at sea along with a tiger named Richard Parker.
It’s a story that gives the reader an opportunity to explore spiritual belief and the universal search for meaning.
Life of Pi was famously adapted as a major motion picture in 2012, directed by master filmmaker Ang Lee.
American Gods – Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman has secured his place as one of the darkest and inventive contemporary writers working today.
His children’s book Coraline received its own film adaptation, directed by Henry Selick, in 2009.
Gaiman’s hallmark creepy content and penchant for characters who don’t exactly know what their purpose is in life have made him a go-to for readers who enjoy the likes of Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft.
American Gods, released in 2017, also received an adaptation of its own in 2017, in the form of a Starz limited series.
The novel follows a former inmate as he travels across the country, steadily encountering modern-day gods that reflect what human beings have come to worship today.
The Pale King – David Foster Wallace
Many readers know David Foster Wallace from his most famous novel, Infinite Jest, which served as an epic tale of the search for happiness in modern-day America.
But nearly everything Wallace published throughout his career displayed his consistent inventiveness and impressive writing ability.
The Pale King is the novel that Wallace was working on at the time of his death. The manuscript remained unfinished for several years.
Finally, in 2011, the novel was released, still unfinished, but with hundreds of pages of intricate stories and complicated notes.
The novel features Wallace’s patented lengthy footnotes and disconnected narrative style.
The Pale King also gives an interesting look into Wallace’s detailed writing process and serves as an important lesson for young writers hoping to be published.
The novel also makes a pointed attempt to show the importance of paying attention to the more boring parts of everyday life.
Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee
Harper Lee’s famous 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, has become an American classic. It has even become required reading in many elementary schools.
It was a fascinating exploration of racism in America, and it elevated the protagonist’s father, Atticus Finch, as a man willing to oppose mindless ignorance.
But it wasn’t until 2015 that the novel’s sequel was published: Go Set a Watchman.
Many fans of Lee’s earlier work were disappointed by the book, and especially by the fact that Atticus was shown to be a staunch racist himself.
But the novel stands as an important commentary on the danger of placing anyone on a pedestal. Ultimately, we all have to make our own decisions and take our own stands against injustice and bigotry.
Absurdistan – Gary Shteyngart
Born of Russian heritage, Gary Shteyngart quickly became one of America’s most cutting and clever satirical writers.
He may be more well known for his 2010 novel, Super Sad True Love Story. But Absurdistan, published 4 years earlier, is a much more mature investigation of U.S. foreign policy and our place in the world.
The title country serves as a fictional background for a humorous story about a Russian man who finds himself confused and overweight in a foreign country.
The story quickly becomes a poignant metaphor for the privatization of military personnel in the Middle East and America’s apparent love for making other countries more like itself.
You Shall Know Our Velocity – Dave Eggers
The early work of Chicago-born Dave Eggers is a lesson in youthful energy and goodwill.
His first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Far from a work of fiction, it stood as a memoir that told the story of how Eggers’s own parents both died in a matter of months, leaving him and his two siblings to fend for themselves.
You Shall Know Our Velocity is Eggers’s first novel, originally published in 2002.
Its protagonist receives some windfall profit as the result of a photograph he happened to appear in several years before.
Not really needing all of the money, he decides to travel around the world with his friend Hand and give away large sums of money whenever they feel like it.
This strange premise leads to a wild, globetrotting adventure. Our hero, or possibly our antihero, quickly learns more about the world.
And all of this takes place as he tries to grapple with a death in the family, a plotline that may have been based at least in part on Eggers’ personal experiences about ten years prior.
Depending on your personal interests, you may want to explore several of these books at once.
Soon enough, you’ll be on your way to watching up on the most important books of our time.