December 8, 2010

The rare feat of the literary "exacta"


It's not easy to be good at two things at once

Last week, the sci-fi superblog Io9 hailed our author Jean-Christophe Valtat‘s wildly inventive Arctic fantasia Aurorarama as a top 10 sci-fi gift novel (“a wildly different take on the genre”). In this week’s New Yorker, Valtat‘s deeply introspective novel 03 was selected as a “reviewer’s favorite from 2010.”

Naturally we’re very pleased about Aurorarama finding champions in the science-fiction world and about M. Valtat’s well-deserved literary acclaim in general. But beyond that, I’m curious if this might not be an unprecedented literary triumph. Has any other author published in the U.S., in the same year, two novels more different than Aurorarama and 03, and received such praise for both? (Adding the marvelousness of the feat, Valtat wrote 03 in his native French while writing Aurorarama in English, a language he originally taught himself by listening to American rock music.) We typical talk about authors one book at a time (and typically one good book is more than enough to ask for!), but occasional there are times when an author produces back-to-back books that, though dramatically different from each other, are both marvelous successes–the rare literary exacta.

David Mitchell‘s Booker-winning Cloud Atlas, which was both formally complex and stylistically virtuosic, followed closely by his more ernest and autobiographical Black Swan Green might be another example of a literary exacta. I have often felt that Kazuo Ishiguro writing the sprawling, surreal, and brilliant The Unconsoled on the heels of his exquisite, slim, and frankly perfect The Remains of the Day was one of the most stunning exactas of recent literary history. John Banville‘s shift from the rarified lyricism of The Sea to the plot-driven hard realism of Benjamin Black‘s Christine Falls also might qualify.

What are other examples of authors (or artists) who have produced two great yet unalike works within a short period of time? I feel like there must be other classic examples of such exactas. I feel like I’ll think of other examples very soon… but in the meantime, I leave it to you–the MobyLives reader braintrust–to think of other instances of this remarkable literary creature.