Plenty of slim fiction was published in 2012, and a higher-than-normal percentage of it was crap; by some unknown algebra, the balance of the fictional equation this year tipped to fat, ambitious novels, almost a defiant snoot-cocking to those nabobs of negativity who claim the Internet is destroying the reader’s ability to concentrate. This was a year of big, confident novels, books the reader can wander in, get lost in, and, wonderfully, believe in. Here are the ten best of them all:
10. Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander – Not all of them were long, of course, although most readers of Auslander’s raucous farce about a Jewish family in upstate New York will wish it were longer. That family – the Kugels – explosively embody some of the most persistent (and funniest) cultural preoccupations of being Jewish in the 21st century, from mother who’s constantly recalling the Nazi death-camps she never, in fact, saw to the spectre of Anne Frank, here given hilarious, shall we say, embodiment. Not only a funny-as-hell novel in the style of the great Joseph Heller, but also a clear indication that Auslander can go on to do anything.
9. Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon – The scrappy little record store being threatened by a new corporate rival is just the smallest kernel of Chabon’s sprawling, hyper-talky, hilarious love-note to the monomaniacs, misfits, and redeemable losers he seems to like writing about so much. Past the sprawling cast of characters (including two boys whose friendship is portrayed with aching perfection – something of a house speciality with this author), past the typical Chabonesque topical obsessions (this time with vinyl), there’s the sheer joy of profuse, ornate storytelling. A novel to read and re-read.
8. Dead Stars by Bruce Wagner - 2012 may have been the year – and Dead Stars the book – in which Wagner at last gains the broader readership which his cutting intelligence and acid-etched prose style have always deserved. If so, it couldn’t happen at a better point, since Dead Stars, with its cast of celebrity obsessers, celebrity stalkers, celebrity has-beens, and celebrities themselves, is Wagner’s most complex, most ambitious, and most successful novel to date, virtually a Dante’s “Inferno” of Hollywood.
7. John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk – Courageous profusion has always been this author’s trademark, and John Saturanall’s Feast is his most sensuous, overstuffed book so far, a linguistically wondrous tour through the worlds – and kitchens – of 17th Century England alongside our spirited young hero, a kitchen boy who climbs to the top of the ‘downstairs’ world. Far more than ‘fiction for foodies’ (or “Downton Abbey” fans), this book – Norfolk’s first in over a decade – is, like all his others, a marvellous exploration of the human heart in other eras than our own.
6. At Last by Edward St. Aubyn – St. Aubyn’s epic, diseased cycle of dysfunctional masterpieces culminates and concludes in this slim book, the final instalment in the darkly comedic (and often just dark) family strangulations of main character Patrick Melrose and his vicious family. Not for the feel-good holiday crowd, but one of the great 21st Century novel-cycles in English, full of perfectly-controlled prose that would have sickened Anthony Powell even as it turned him green with envy.
5. The Sickness by Alberto Barrera Tyszka – Also (quite literally) not a feel-good novel, Tyszka’s stunning, harrowing book about how illness and pain (both real and imagined – and indeed, often with the imagined being far worse than the real) form the inescapable, ugly counterweight to health and life just brims with sleek, merciless invention. Although born of very personal tragedy, The Sickness is wonderfully, dauntingly universal, by far the strongest and most brilliant thing this brilliant author has ever written.
4. The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson – The inscrutable land of North Korea is no more scrutable at the end of Johnson’s impressive novel about Pak Jun Do (one of modern literature’s most frustrating protagonists, as irritating and yet compelling a cipher as any of the ‘beloved’ characters found in Dickens), a young man who in the course of Johnson’s generous, incredibly self-confident narrative manages to climb his way into and out of virtually all the circles of North Korea’s social hell. In Johnson’s plot, much happens to no apparent purpose, but there’s a fierce intelligence guiding it all, shaping this into one of the year’s most memorable novels – a book that, like the best ones this year, demands careful re-reading.
3. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
2. In Sunlight and in Shadow by Mark Helprin – This enormous, gaudy throwback of a novel – rich in atmosphere, hyperbole, and heroism – is a fitting companion to the author’s immortal Winter’s Tale. It’s the story of two fated lovers – Harry Copeland and Catherine Thomas Hale – and the New York, at once factual and fantastic, that conspires to test and then validate their love. More than one critic set the pitch of their praise against some imagined opposition (“You just can’t hate this one! You just can’t!”), and they were right to do so: the bitter, clipped, arrogant hipster cynicism that afflicts so much of the literary world hates on principle all the things this grand, uplifting novel so brazenly champions. But In Sunlight and in Shadow wins all such contests easily – not through the cloy of nostalgia, but through the best, only sure way: the sheer bravura power of its prose.
1. Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman – This long, complex novel – the best of 2012 – intertwines the stories of three very different protagonists – a black janitor, an elderly Holocaust survivor, and a slightly washed-up American historian - and weaves them into an epic, unforgettable story of how things – and people – survive, how they both oppress and complete each other. There are scenes and set-pieces in these pages that could have been written by nobody else, chilling moments and moving plot-threads handled with a brilliance far exceeding even that found in the author’s own superb Seven Types of Ambiguity. Any genre that can boast this novel – indeed, all ten of these novels (and there were a dozen more almost as good in 2012)(prompting some friends to ask for a “Stevereads longlist”!) – has centuries of life left in its sacred charge of storytelling.