Sunday Reading: A Cultural Review of the Aughts

In the fall of 1999, The New Yorker published a short piece about a twenty-three-year-old writer who had just released her first novel, in England. Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth” was due to be published in the U.S. in the spring of 2000—kicking off the millennium with a bang. “ ‘White Teeth,’ a gentle satire of migration…

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In the fall of 1999, The New Yorker published a short piece about a twenty-three-year-old writer who had just released her first novel, in England. Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth” was due to be published in the U.S. in the spring of 2000—kicking off the millennium with a bang. “ ‘White Teeth,’ a gentle satire of migration and cultural identity, concerns, among other matters, Nazi eugenics programs, the eschatology of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the DNA of mice, and a militant group called Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation, or KEVIN,” the piece, by Kevin Jackson, observes. “Smith writes like an old hand, and, sometimes, like a dream.” It can be immensely pleasurable, years later, to revisit the initial discovery of new talents and works of art, the people and projects that gave a decade its own flavor and Zeitgeist.

Don’t Look Back” and “New Frontiers,” Anthony Lane explores the mind-bending machinations of Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and the spare poignancy of Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain.” (“ ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ which began as an Annie Proulx story in these pages, comes fully alive as the chance for happiness dies. Its beauty wells from its sorrow.”) In “Flesh on Flesh,” John Updike reviews “Atonement,” Ian McEwan’s majestic novel of unfulfilled love. (“The frail, moist flesh, mutilated in war, corseted and shamed in peacetime, and subject, in the long view, to swift decay, gives this intricately composed narrative its mournful, surging life.”) In “Living Pains,” Sasha Frere-Jones considers Mary J. Blige’s accomplished career as she releases her eighth studio album. In “Under the Spell” and “Counterlives,” Joan Acocella delves into the phenomenon of the Harry Potter series and analyzes the far-reaching themes of Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America.” (“In an eerie conversion, ‘The Plot Against America’ transforms the piety-spouting, finger-shaking elders of the Roth oeuvre into prophets.”) In “Sympathy for the Devil,” Kelefa Sanneh studies the shifting musical styles of the rapper Eminem. Finally, in “Heartbreak Hotels,” David Denby examines how Sofia Coppola captures the loneliness and humor of Bill Murray’s faded movie-star character in “Lost in Translation.” “Coppola doesn’t punch up her scenes; she’s not interested in tension leading to a climax but in moods and states of being,” Denby writes. “Not much happens, but Coppola is so gentle and witty an observer that the movie casts a spell.”

Erin Overbey, archive editor


An illustrative sketch of Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan’s semi-Austenesque novel, “Atonement.”

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A portrait of Zadie Smith wearing a pink bandana and a choker necklace

At twenty-three, the author has had the nerve to ignore her misgivings and produce her début novel, “White Teeth.”

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A photograph of Philip Roth

Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America.”

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An illustration of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal wrapped loosely together in rope

“Brokeback Mountain” and “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

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A collage-like illustration of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson

“Lost in Translation” and “Dirty Pretty Things.”

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A cartoon-like illustration of Eminem performing on a yellow-lit stage

Eminem pleads his case.

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An illustration of Harry Potter being chased by young fans

Harry Potter explained.

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An illustration of a frightened Jim Carrey with a piece of technology hovering above his head

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

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A black-and-white portrait of Mary J. Blige

Mary J. Blige’s chronic brilliance.

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