One may as well begin with Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel Sula, since just as The Bluest Eye set the standard for debut novels, her follow-up set the bar even higher for second books. Her tale of the pariah Sula and her childhood friend Nel in Medallion, Ohio, is a masterwork of raw beauty and emotional intensity. Nominated for the National Book Award, Sula is filled with unforgettable images, like Sula’s return to Medallion after years away, “accompanied by a plague of robins.” Sula is, for me, one of the great characters in contemporary literature—exceptionally well-developed, spirited, unapologetic, and fierce. Or as Morrison puts it in the novel: “Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings; had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like any artist with no art form, she became dangerous.” Toni Morrison is one of America’s true visionaries—replete with a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize, among her many honors—and astonishingly enough, it was her third novel, Song of Solomon that brought Morrison national attention, and her fifth, Beloved, won the aforementioned Pulitzer and was also named in 2006 the best novel published in America in the previous 25 years by the New York Times Book Review. Morrison is a standard-bearer of American creative genius.
Salman Rushdie, on the other hand, had a lousy experience with his first novel Grimus, in that critics could see the brilliance and ambition of the young novelist, but felt he failed to wrangle it into something cohesively powerful. His second effort then, rather than an attempt to one-up himself, was to show that he could pull off what his imagination sent hurtling toward him. The result was Midnight’s Children, easily one of the best novels of the 20th century, an autobiographical fever dream of magical powers and India’s independence from British colonialism. The protagonist, Saleem Sinai, was born at midnight on August 15, 1947, the precise moment of India’s independence. Subsequently, Saleem and all the other “midnight’s children” develop almost super-hero-like abilities, including Saleem’s telepathy, which he uses to mentally bring all the children together for meetings. Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize in 1981, and in 1993 and 2008, for the 25th and 40th anniversaries of the award, Rushdie’s novel was named the “Booker of Bookers,” the best book to have received the award since its inception.
I Am Radar
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, Reif Larsen’s much-hyped debut, was notable not simply for its narrative imagination but its visual breadth as well. T.S., the ultra-precocious narrator, is a cartographer of everything, from the geography of his native Montana to the trajectory of his father’s whiskey glass as he takes a drink—and rather than simply describe these maps, Larsen includes them in the margins and directs the reader to them via lined trails dotting the pages. It’s a beautifully-designed book, and it’s an okay novel: the ending’s too rushed and feels almost incompatible with the more languid beginning sections. Regardless, Larsen’s skills were on full display, and it was with great interest that I read his second novel I Am Radar. Bigger and more ambitious, but also more mature and controlled, I Am Radar pops from its opening sentence to its unexpectedly thrilling conclusion. The story of Radar, a boy born during a brief energy shortage in the hospital, who inexplicably comes out with jet-black skin, and his run-ins with a mysterious cabal in arctic Norway is a wondrously imaginative masterpiece. Though it was clearly influenced by Thomas Pynchon, it reads more like the Pynchon of Against the Day and Inherent Vice: elegantly accessible prose without compromising any of the intellectual or emotional scope.
Half of a Yellow Sun
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
By now, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has become a widely-known figure: her recent novel Americanah was a bestseller and an audio clip from her talk “We Should All Be Feminists” appeared in Beyoncé’s song “Flawless.” In 2003, the year she published her first novel Purple Hibiscus, she was largely unknown, but by no means unheralded. She’d already won a BBC Short Story Award and an O. Henry Prize. Purple Hibiscus was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, but Half of a Yellow Sun, her second, won it in 2006. Grander in scope and ambition, but also just as emotionally gut-wrenching as her debut, Half of a Yellow Sun takes on Nigerian history—specifically the failed succession of the Republic of Biafra from the country in the late 60s—with bold grace, effortlessly moving from Ugwu, a poor houseboy, to wealthy twin sisters Olanna and Kainene, to various others as a bloody battle ensues around them. Some passages are hard to read, because of the inherent horrors of the Biafran War, of course, but also because of Adichie’s rare ability to describe and contextualize those horrors. Adichie never loses sight of her characters amidst her epic saga, a considerable feat considering its sheer magnitude. Again, by now we’re fully aware of Adichie’s brilliant mind and her humane point of view—but Half of a Yellow Sun shows that she’s always been one of the great writers of her generation, long before Beyoncé immortalized her in song. Not that a little Beyoncé cred doesn’t help, of course.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
It is impossible to overstate how well acclaimed Junot Díaz’s debut story collection Drown was when it first appeared in 1996. With a tough-guy prose that positively bounced and cascaded across the page, seemingly despite itself, Díaz’s stories of this young Dominican-American dude Yunior clearly wore the mark of a major talent—when, the question became, was this guy going to produce a novel? Eleven years later, we got our answer, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao proved well worth the wait. It is probably the best American novel of the new century, and will likely still be read in 20, 50, 100 years. It is a novel without parallel, and its two heroes, Yunior from the Drown stories and the titular Oscar, a lovable sci-fi/fantasy nerd who Yunior takes under his wing, as memorable together as Watson and Holmes or Butch and Sundance. But Díaz isn’t just interested in young guys trying to get laid—he manages to pack in the Wao family’s cursed history as well as the political turmoil of the Dominican Republic under the ruthless tyrant Trujillo. The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is mind-bogglingly great, a once-in-a-lifetime novel that practically demands to be reread again and again.
One of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40,” Obreht published her magical and haunting debut novel The Tiger’s Wife in 2011. Obreht’s follow-up, Inland, is her take on the American Western. In 1893, the lives of a frontierswoman and an outlaw collide in the unruly world of myth and menace.
The Lager Queen of Minnesota
J. Ryan Stradal
Stradal’s first novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, became a hit when it was published in 2015. The Lager Queen of Minnesota possesses all the same charms and insights of Stradal’s debut, and it introduces readers to a wonderfully dysfunctional family: two sisters—one a stern business mind who inherited the father’s farm, the other a struggling, kindhearted baker—who must come together despite their differences and their tense history.
The Irish literary sensation Sally Rooney, whose debut novel Conversations with Friends became an international phenomenon, delivers another psychologically acute story of millennial love and friendship. Normal People focuses on Connell and Marianne, two star-crossed teenagers whose connections persists from high school through college. Filled with adept depictions of contemporary life and uncommonly good dialogue, Rooney’s second novel is just as satisfying and subtle as her first.
The Tsar of Love and Techno
Marra’s follow-up to his widely acclaimed debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, The Tsar of Love and Techno is, unbelievably, a huge leap forward. The cover will tell you that this book is a collection of stories, but don’t be fooled by that. It’s a novel, and one of the most brilliantly structured ones at that. In order for it to succeed so grandly as a novel, the reader has to believe that it’s just stories. But after the first entry—in which a censor paints the same image into numerous paintings—the connections begin to pile up, culminating in a work that by the nature of its setup can go anywhere and do anything.
Little Fires Everywhere
A bestseller and optioned for a Hulu show by Reese Witherspoon, Celeste Ng’s second novel—after Everything I Never Told You—focuses on a family in a Cleveland suburb who rent a house to a mother and daughter. The family becomes fascinated with these two strangers until a controversy breaks out that causes a rift between them. A taut, engaging, and deeply satisfying novel give ample evidence that Ng is a talent who’s here to stay.
Okay, so now you’ve published your first novel! And, better still, it’s highly acclaimed! Your picture’s in The New York Times! You may have even won a prestigious award! All of your dreams have come true!
Now all you have to do is repeat the process all over again, except now the likeliness of duplicating the first book’s impact, receiving the same accolades, and winning more awards is basically a fraction of what it was your initial go around—which, even then was pretty remote—and if you understandably fail to achieve these things (again), you’ll disappoint people you’d never asked to esteem you so highly in the first place—and here you thought you’d made it and were finally free from the thankless work of obscurity, but these people, the very ones who lifted you from anonymity, now seem to be almost deliberately forcing back down into it.
The concept of the Difficult Second Album is a little tricky in literature since not all first books warrant the attention that makes a follow-up so seemingly insurmountable. And anyway, unless we’re strictly talking sales, the whole thing is totally subjective. I might prefer the youthful energy of a writer’s debut, while you favor the maturation of their second effort—who can really say? So for this list, I wanted to highlight some novels that came with various degrees of expectations, some from the literary world at large, and some from my own personal interest—but all of them show how even the most startling and singular your first novel is, there is nothing quite like having to start all over again with a blank white page, but this time with the heavy burden of agents and critics and readers awaiting each click of the keyboard. These incredible second novels prove that the sophomore slump didn’t affect these authors one bit.
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