The richest example of this may be the fiction that, even from this minimal distance, seems destined to define the last decade: the work of Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard. In overlapping moments, these two Europeans’ respective multivolume novels won huge rapid fame — for being highly personal, very long and perhaps more than anything for the unusual, almost guilty intensity with which people devoured them. (As The Times’s Dwight Garner memorably commented, reading the first volumes of Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” was like “falling into a malarial fever.”) Above all, they were close to identical in their most serious and unexpected offer to the reader: unmediated access, over many pages, to precisely one other consciousness.
Inevitable in retrospect, at the time it seemed like a shocking development. The novel thrives on social repercussions, and the fiction that was fashionable during the first 10 years of the century was no exception. Writers produced big, clever, glossy sagas of family and friendship, in a fretfully bravura style that reached its fullest expression in books like “White Teeth,” by Zadie Smith; “The Corrections,” by Jonathan Franzen; and “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” by Jennifer Egan. They were irradiated by the conviction that an author could observe life at the turn of the millennium and repackage it for readers with a set of decisive, fine-grained interpretations.
By contrast, Knausgaard and Ferrante promise so little. But they give it. Each recounts, in the close first person, the inside of a human life. That’s something innumerable writers have done, obviously, but they seemed to do it in a newly dangerous way — with a pitiless, dispassionate modesty of ambition. Neither narrator extrapolates larger truths from experience. Both trust themselves as far as their own fingertips; Ferrante portrays the intricate social world of working-class Naples, but in a state of constantly renewed bafflement, while Knausgaard (“He broke the sound barrier of the autobiographical novel,” the novelist Jeffrey Eugenides told a reporter for The New Republic) abandons almost all narrative pretense to describe his time on earth as straightforwardly as he can.
The effect this method had on me, and I believe on many people, was one of immediate trust and identification. Somewhere in the stretch between Sept. 11, 2001, and the 2016 election, such limited claims to certainty came to seem not unambitious, but like the only sane rejoinder to the world as it had become. And the length of the books — their uncompressed, occasionally boring plots — created a profound new version of the self-forgetting that the best stories give us. To read Knausgaard or Ferrante, or indeed other writers of what critics have called autofiction, such as Teju Cole and Rachel Cusk, was less to enter a story than to spend a while as another person.
Of course, other, equally gifted writers sought to capture the era too, and it could easily be that we will remember the 2010s for producing the lovely slipstream fiction of authors like George Saunders, Kelly Link and Colson Whitehead, a subtler cousin of magical realism, and thus perhaps more closely reflective of how truly surreal things have gotten. (People in the White House may still be trying to buy Greenland.)