Fiction was remarkable in 2013 for the way it almost constantly awarded craft. This isn’t always the case; it frequently happens that raw, relatively untested talent – or drastically but well-controlled stylistic gambles – will propel a book into a firmament more typically occupied by older stars. But this year not only are many of the names on this list well-known, but – in a twist I find both mortifying and thrilling – many of them (and many on the Fiction Honor Roll) are authors I had to one extent or another already decided I hated with the fire of a thousand suns even back when many of you were still in swaddling clothes. If you’d told me in 1977, for instance, that Joyce Carol Oates would ever be on a list like this (written on a typewriter, then photocopied and mailed to my 37 bookish friends), I’d have proudly said “I’d no sooner include her on such a list than I’d exclude Thomas Pynchon!” So we live, and, with any luck, learn. The ten best novels of 2013, then:
10. Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan (Knopf Books for Young Readers) – Yet another YA title! But I haven’t gone over to the BookTubing Dark Side quite yet: yes, Two Boys Kissing’s main plots center around the dating vicissitudes of teenagers, but two things elevate it far above most of its sub-genre: first, it isn’t written in that incredibly annoying hyper caffeinated faux-teenspeak that fills so, so many YA novels, and second, the narration of this story is done by a ghostly Greek chorus of adults – men who died of AIDS in the first flush of the disease’s US outbreak. I know I was supposed to be rooting for our spindly, listless heroes, but it was the haunting sentiments of that chorus that made the book so memorable for me. You can read my full review here.
9. The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico Garcia Lorca Ascends to Hell by Carlos Rojas (Yale University Press) – In this beautiful and heartbreaking little fantasy, Rojas imagines the poet Federico Garcia Lorca in hell, reflecting on his tumultuous life and murder in 1936 at age 38. When he’s confronted with two older versions of himself from alternate realities in which he didn’t meet his gruesome end, the narrative loops and expands in ways translator Edith Grossman captures perfectly. This was the strangest novel I read in 2013 and one of the ones I find myself thinking about the most.
8. The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates (HarperCollins) – Joyce’s sprawling, surreal high-Gothic historical novel is set in turn-of-the-last-century Princeton and environs and features a large cast of real historical characters like Jack London, Mark Twain, and a beautifully, viciously-realized Woodrow Wilson, but although those things automatically intrigued me long before I read the book, they also made me wary: I’ve been burned by Oates’ mannered, self-enfatuated prose so many times before, after all. But this hugely ambitious novel, which reads like something from a writer in her mid-30s rather than her mid-70s, amazed me and kept right on amazing me to its final pages – proving almost to a certainty that I can’t ever be 100 percent certain who will and won’t show up on these lists.
7. Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt (Macmillan) – There’ve been times over the years when I thought I might be Wilton Barnhardt’s only faithful fan (certainly I often felt lie the only fan of his huge historical novel Gospel – I’ve actually never met another person who’s even so much as finished it), so the appearance of this hugely entertaining deep-fried Southern comedy of a book utterly delighted me, not only in its own right (virtually every scene is perfect, right down to the hilarious drink-swilling family-confrontation set-piece at the climx) but because I felt certain it would do what it in fact has done: draw a lot more attention to this fantastic writer.
6. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown) – It feels almost strange to include on this list of mine a book that’s on everybody else’s list as well, and yet it happens a few times this year, and always for the same reason: even I must bow the head to stupendous books written by novelists at the peak of their powers (when I made this list back in 1902, I assure you I included The Wings of the Dove, even though I’d previously been no big fan of its hifalutin author). Donna Tartt’s two earlier novels made me eager for her new one, but even so I wasn’t prepared for the sheer controlled power of The Goldfinch (nor for its killer one-two punch of an ending, though I should have been). A perfect case of the critical chorus getting something right – will wonders never cease?
5. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf) – “Controlled power” works equally well for this book too, Jhumpa Lahiri’s powerful story of one brother absorbing the shockwaves of another brother’s life – in fact, the control here at first glance seems so cold as to be almost arctic, a Muriel Spark-like narrative trait I’d noticed before in Lahiri’s fiction but never to this great an extent. Thanks to her extraordinary storytelling ability, that reserved narrative voice actually enhanced the power of this novel, which I think I’m not alone in considering the finest thing she’s ever written.
4. Percival Everett by Virgil Russell by Percival Everett (Graywolf Press) – Every time I read a book by him, I think: “How wonderful it is to have Percival Everett writing among us!” – and this book, too, (like so many on this list) is the best thing he’s ever done. It’s the story of a son visiting his father in a nursing home where the old man is writing the story of his son, and from that already-mischievous opening premise, the narrative tangles and twists upon itself as almost every story prisms back upon its alleged teller, but all circling back and back to an old man unhappy to be in a nursing home, and all of it told with such riveting skill that I found myself wondering, not for the first time, why Percival Everett isn’t a much better-known author.
3. Harvest by Jim Crace (Vintage) – Crace’s slim historical novel about a late-feudal English hamlet waking up to very unwelcome changes to its way of life misfired with me the first time I read it. But I kept thinking about it, and when I returned to it and slackened my reading tensions to let it work on me at its own pace, I saw its strange, heartfelt beauty – and its sly power, achieved more through accretion than drama, very similar to the way Ismail Kadare’s The Three-Arched Bridge and William Golding’s The Spire achieve a similar effect. This is by far my favorite Crace novel and was #1 on this list for months, until the next two books bumped it off.
2. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (Knopf) – I’ve mentioned a few times recently that strange phenomenon, the sidereal drift of estimation, where the appreciation for a book slowly changes in the background of your mind while it’s being thoroughly digested, and so far no novel of 2013 has undergone more drift than this stunningly disturbing work by Claire Messud about a thwarted, unmarried, unhappy woman who attaches herself to a charismatic family and slowly, alarmingly works her way closer and closer into the family’s lives. When I first read it, the book struck me as extremely competent but fairly one-dimensional. Over time I found myself thinking about it and returning to it, until finally I had to acknowledge that such a response, however delayed, is also a legitimate barometer of an author’s talent. Then I finally sat down and re-read the thing and was astonished.
1. Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff (Doubleday) – Critics tended to have a field day with this one. The poets hated it for its doggerel verse (although it’s always mystified my how anybody could hate something with such a lovely name); the novelists hated it for its telegraphic narrative; and the occasional example of that unlucky symbiont, the novelist-poet, was driven to distraction by the whole bloody thing. No doubt a part of this confused reception was due to the author’s recent death in August of last year, which was bound to make some critics bridle at the expectation of reverence and others (perhaps including this one) elevate the book above its merits because they’ll so, so miss the author. But the sidereal drift of estimation works to calm the clouding agitations of the heart as well, and in their aftermath this slim book of interconnected stories scrambling hard to find hope just keeps rising in my estimation. I now believe it would be every bit as moving and funny and ultimately uplifting even if its Rakoff had done us all the favor of living to be 100. The book that became his elegy is also the best novel of 2013.