If cynicism was the besetting sin of the Worst Books of 2010, we’re all the more fortunate that cynicism has a counterpart in literature as well as life. The counterpart, of course, is truth, and just as a novel born of calculation and greed can never be anything but a weak little lie, so too a novel forged of faith, a work of fiction born of the author’s best groping attempts to be true – to their own heart while writing, to the world as they see it or would like to see it, even to their neuroses – is the only thing that stands a chance of being truly great.
I read a great many novels in 2010 – far more than I usually do. The world of self-published work blossomed open for me this year to an extent hundreds of times greater than last year. When I add to that all the mainstream novels I read, all the online fan fiction I read, and the handful of manuscripts I was privileged to see, I can honestly say, for the first time in my life, that my reading now encompasses all of fiction out there being written in English. I see all kinds of it, and I work hard to maintain that spring in the mental knees, that openness that readers of fiction need. The genre has conventions, after all, and as pusillanimous critics have been pointing out for nearly 400 years, those conventions are very nearly as narrow as a sonnet’s. Things must happen, they must mean something to each other, and they must work together to move the reader. If they don’t, the book is no good. If they don’t because the author considers himself too smart to worry about it, the author is no good.
No, these are common conventions here, and they are gloriously relevant to human life, and the writers who take them seriously and excel at their manipulation can look upon ‘open-form’ avant-garde poseurs with well-earned pity. This is the game as Chaucer played it, and Cervantes, and Fielding and all the other immortals we read today, and it’s in the mastering of the game that they became immortal. Mark my words: the names here listed have a clear, certain shot at that immortality, if they don’t weaken. Some of these novels are more stylistically challenging than others, but that’s not a disqualification. I myself helped in the making of two of them, but that’s not a disqualification either – good is still good, and all these books are very, very good.
10. Witz by Joshua Cohen – Some of you were surprised that I would so enjoy Cohen’s massive, discursive novel about the Last Jew in the World, especially since on some levels (its non-stop riffing, its intentionally bratty prose, its length) it appears to resemble Adam Levin’s The Instructions, which I hated (indeed, Cohen himself wryly pointed out the similarities in a review of Levin’s book). As stated, though, the execution is everything, and Cohen’s work here is everything The Instructions could only dream of being: smart, controlled, thoughtful, and genuinely funny. This is about as bitterly wry a minority as I’ve read in fifteen years.
9. You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin – The first of the explosively good debut novels on our list, Baldwin’s story is an elegant double helix in the nature of The GoldBug Variations: middle-aged flailing memory researcher Victor Aaron is confronted after his wife’s death with a series of index cards she wrote about their life together – descriptions that are tauntingly different from his own recollections. Even the book’s occasional flaws are not born of arrogance or timidity, and the strengths are freakishly strong.
8. Calendar of Regrets by Lance Olsen – A tangled and gorgeous John Cage symphony of a novel, Olsen’s book is a virtuoso interweaving of twelve separate narratives, done much in the manner of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas but without that book’s occasionally empty grandstanding. This is another one of those novels most people would assume I wouldn’t like, until they actually read it.
7. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray – Like Witz, this is a genuinely funny novel that will make you laugh out loud at the least appropriate things – in this case starting with the single funniest death-scene since Hamlet’s. The novel is set in an all-boys Catholic prep school (in Dublin), and as a parolee from just such an institution (in America), I was perhaps destined to love this book, but the acid-yet-tender writing would have guaranteed it anyway.
6. Easy For You by Shannan Rouss – This assured, very well-written debut story collection is everything I should hate: it’s completely contemporary (it’s set in, ecch, L.A.), it’s entirely domestic (pregnancies, infidelities, divorces, etc), and it’s a story collection instead of a novel. But none of that matters in the face of prose this good and narrative this intelligent. I was surprised and wholly captivated.
5. Eddie Signwriter by Adam Schwartzman – This riveting story of a murder, an exile, and an eventual reunion has a cipher at its heart (the eponymous main character), and you’d imagine that would be fatal, but no: again, this is a fiction debut (the author is a published poet) that knows what it’s doing with a certainty and beauty that sweeps all objections away. This story of a young man who flees Africa with a cloud hanging over him could easily have turned maudlin in less talented hands, but instead it’s spellbinding.
4. Eight White Nights by Andre Aciman – Even Aciman’s wondrously good Call Me By Your Name was no preparation for the sheer heft of this story of two affected young New Yorkers in love. There are huge swaths of brilliant prose here, some of the best evocations of love’s deliriums to be written in the last hundred years.
3. Under the Small Lights by John Cotter – The pitch-perfect dialogue and fine descriptive brush-strokes of this debut novella (the author is a published poet) are only its two strongest recommendations., This story of four affluent, feckless Connecticut young people in love and lust also brims with the kind of interlinear intelligence worthy of Burgess and a handful of walk-on characters worthy of Horton Foote.
2. The Fairest Portion of the Globe by Frances Hunter – As a sage critic at the Historical Novels Review Online wrote of this frontier story of Meriwether Lewis, “The characters here leap off the page, vibrantly living their lives, reading their books, worrying their worries, and the end result is nothing less than wonderful. Urgently, wholeheartedly recommended.”
1. The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris – This second novel by Ferris – the haunting story of a man who’s occasionally compelled (by a disease? by a mania? nobody knows for sure) to walk and keep walking until he physically collapses – is a pure demonstration of the American can-do spirit. Not that the American can-do spirit has much to do with The Unnamed (although Ferris’ portrait of his main character’s desperately coping family is the best thing in the book), but it has everything to do with the open-mindedness of Stevereads, where an author whose debut was featured one year on the Year’s Worst could later feature on the Year’s Best solely by dint of writing a ferociously good novel. Is there similar hope for the wretched creatures on this year’s Worst list? Tune in next year to find out!