The year’s fiction had glorious monuments of quality and daring (you’ll have to wait a couple of days to read about them here), but they were islands in a flood-tide of timidity and preachy topicality (liberally mixed with some Terror Wars sanctimony). In some years, my main complaint has been that novelists disdainfully, arrogantly abandoned the very tenets of their genre – plot, narrative, tone, characters, all thrown out the window in order to be precious. 2012 wasn’t one of those years; almost all the authors on this list, for instance, have proven at one point or another that they have the technical skills to pull off good fiction, and the heartbreaking thing is, most of those technical skills are in evidence even in these wretched works. None of this bad fiction is bad in the way that Fifty Shades of Grey is bad – but in many ways, that just made the disappointment that much sharper.
10. Arcadia by Lauren Groff – The main weakness of Groff’s promising debut The Monsters of Templeton, a tendency toward smartest-kid-in-class obviousness, runs positively rampant in this novel about a utopian commune in upstate New York and the hapless people who live there under the cult-like sway of its leader, a man named Handy (quick, guess: will he be useless?), the young protagonist Bit Stone (quick, guess: will he be taciturn?), and the Handy’s daughter Hell, oops, sorry, Helle (quick, guess – oh, nevermind). The characters, settings, and plot developments aren’t even remotely connected to reality, but there are no elves to make that bearable.
9. Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger – Amina, the young Bangladeshi woman who comes to the United States in response to an online summons to marry George Stillman (quick, guess: will he be dull?) is the most insulting Sambo caricature to appear in American fiction since Tama Janowitz still wrote among us (if you just read her dialogue – her utter astonishment at literally everything she encounters – you’ll assume she’s from Mars, not Dhaka), but that’s only the beginning of this novel’s many condescensions and over-simplifications – a complete waste of time from an author my instincts persist in telling me isn’t one herself.
8. Home by Toni Morrison – The chief peril of the ultra-thin, ultra-oracular style Morrison has adopted in her last few books is obvious: it’s always one little slip away from fortune-cookie triteness. That style made her 2008 novella A Mercy memorably wonderful; in Home, the story of home-returning Korean War veteran Frank Money (quick, guess: will he be sound?) and his abused sister Cee (quick, guess: will she be watery?), that same style goes flat as a pancake and betrays its author into spinning a gauzy little parable without a point.
7. Beginner’s Good-Bye by Anne Tyler – All the raw elements in Tyler’s latest novel should have made me love it: handicapped small-press publisher Aaron Woolcott (quick, guess: will he be meek?) loses his wife Dorothy to an unexpected tragedy and then proceeds to encounter her ghost everywhere, leading him to confront his own grief. But what I got was an ordinarily-good novelist being intolerably lazy throughout, barely moving her materials beyond first-draft mock-up stage, as though confident that she could garner accolades from all the usual suspects without actually working for them.
6. Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver – The unbearably overpraised Kingsolver has built a prosperous career on obvious, derivative novels of no discernible literary quality, but Flight Behavior makes even that grim state of affairs just a little bit worse by mixing in a Cause: when disappointed Tennessee housewife Dellarobia Turnbow (quick, guess: will she have a change of heart?) learns about climate change (with the help of a scientist named – oh, the hell with it – Ovid), a whole preserve-jar of Cause is unscrewed and dumped into the mix, with predictably toe-curling results. Novels like this one should be listed by the EDF as one of the corollary dangers of global warming.
5. Abdication by Juliet Nicolson – You’d think it would be almost impossible to make tedious the story of a king who abdicated in order to marry the woman he loved, but Nicolson manages it in this soppy, mechanical novel about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the only stimulations of which are the spotting of heavy-handed foreshadowing and the winces induced by glass-grating one-dimensional depictions of people who, although not particularly good, were sure as Hell more interesting than this.
4. NW by Zadie Smith – Critics intent on praising Smith (as well they should be, since she’s fantastic) took the desperate tack of calling the almost immediate dissolution of her latest novel (set in the eponymous London region but really about nothing much) ‘kaleidoscopic’ or such stuff – in fact, the book is just poorly conceived and rather abysmally executed. I’m convinced that words like ‘kaleidoscopic’ were invented to spare talented authors the discourtesy of words like ‘misfire’ – and I’m chalking this misfire up to distraction and waiting with undimmed eagerness for what this author does next.
3. The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg – You spend the first 100 pages of Attenberg’s smarmy, gimmicky, patronizing novel about hugely overweight Edie Middlestein, her exasperated husband Richard, and their various friends and relatives wondering how, in what clever Writer’s Workshop way, will it somehow manage not to simply be about how fat Edie is. Then you spend the next 100 pages thinking that’s all the book’s about and wondering why it’s important. And you spend the last 100 pages gorging on Breyer’s Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream just to dull the pain of this sordid, sold-on-itself mess of a book.
2. The Round House by Louise Erdrich – The crime at the heart of Erdrich’s latest and least appealing book is the 1988 rape of a young woman on a North Dakota reservation, and the action – such as it is – revolves around the efforts of various members of her family (from her stereotype husband to her stereotype son and his interchangeable friends) to extract justice from the reservation’s tribal governmental rictus. And those tribal intricacies better interest you, because any hope of dramatic payoff is buried fairly promptly under more bland exposition than you’ll find in a whole shelf of David McCullough volumes.
1. Dear Life by Alice Munro – It’s mostly about train schedules.