A book-critic friend of mine, contemplating the horrifying object in question, drawled, “You don’t really read a new Amy Tan.” He was right, of course, in all his unspoken implications (including the least-spoken of all, namely that you don’t really write such a line in your review either, especially if Tan’s publishers are paying $15, 000 for full-color book-ads in your paper): nobody really reads the new Amy Tan, because the actual book, the thing with a gaudy cover and pulp pages and a price tag that’s pure daylight robbery, is almost entirely ancillary to the whole rumbling process of “the new Amy Tan.” Running before it, trailing after it, and entirely enveloping it in an almost impenetrable fog is the antiquated apparatus of the 20th century celebrity author machine, arranging plush book-signings at the usual venues, arranging pro forma interviews the author can knock off ten at a time in her (comped) hotel room, never saying anything even remotely true (this time around Tan is claiming as the inspiration for her latest mother-daughter saga the recent discovery of a secret in her own family, or some such horse crap), never even really paying attention to the pre-scripted answers, and certainly never seeming to grasp that the apparatus cannot exist in the same space with any kind of creativity – if you’re engaged in the one, you have sacrificed, perhaps permanently, the other.
In such gruesome circumstances, where the book itself is very much beside the point, there can be no real hope for quality writing – and yet it’s almost invariably these authors who tend to be the most arrogant and self-entitled. Having long ago been fooled (or eagerly fooled themselves) into conflating their epiphenomenon with their actual worth, they can be relied upon to chair writing seminars, tell Brian Lamb that they lisped prose even in the cradle (“I had to be a writer, Brian – I really didn’t have a choice”), and condescend to … well, basically everybody.
Such creatures and the paginated black holes they spawn on a tellingly regular basis, are always the bane of my reading existence, and a distressing number of them crop up on the Worst Fiction list this year, alongside the bunglers and the merely arrogant. So brace yourselves! From out the teeming hordes of the year’s lowest depths comes this list of the Worst Fiction of 2013:
10. Taipei by Tao Lin – The vapid stupidity of Tao Lin’s prose has been an open secret in the publishing world for many years now, characterized by affectless lists and plodding sentences and championed by Lin’s small legion of fans, who unwittingly damn his work by saying things like “I usually hate reading books, but I love Tao!” The fact that this latest outing, full of bored, pretty people ingesting mountains of drugs, managed to garner more high-profile critical attention than anything else Lin’s written proves two things: 1) if you throw enough crap at a wall, sooner or later you’ll find a book-critic willing to call it “trenchant,” and 2) provided he remains physically healthy, Lin will be foisting this kind of garbage on the Republic of Letters for decades to come.
9. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Moshin Hamid – The only halfway clever thing this gruel-thin novel does is give a conscious nod to its own pat, programmatic nature, styling itself as a business-and-life manual for becoming an Asian millionaire in order, one supposes, to lampoon and excoriate such manuals. But that clever conceit (if it was a conceit and not just simple racism) evaporates almost immediately and is replaced by the fictional equivalent of a Catskills standup routine about how funny odd little foreigners are.
8. Woes of the True Policeman by Roberto Bolano - The latest from the prolific Bolano, producing books like his very life depended on it, is weak and self-indulgent even by the standards he himself helped to lower almost all the way to the ground. The story is ostensibly about a professor whose life is laid bare (and, in the usual Bolano twist, semi-invented) by an exhaustive police investigation, but even the furtive lunges of imagination that can sometimes make small parts of his other books bearable are missing here. In an interview Bolano gave to The Paris Review last week, he hinted that he was thinking of taking a break from writing “serious” novels and just concentrate on his poetry collections, essay collections, cookbooks, and his ongoing murder mystery series set in a Catalonian B&B. Perhaps that would be for the best. After all, you can only write so much in one lifetime.
7. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini – This wretched, gassy novel is surely an almost-perfect example of the apparatus I mentioned: in place of an actual story or actual characters (and let’s not even talk about quality prose – this thing is a flat rock on which flat pebbles are dropped at random), there’s just the huge tactical deployment of “the new Khaled Hosseini,” with a sadistically-orchestrated story of foreign misery presented in a series of syrupy readings to well-fed American audiences who like to feel multi-cultural but who used to turn off the news whenever anybody said anything “depressing” about whole villages being flattened in Afghanistan. The novel itself, lodged like a pea under so many mattresses, hardly matters – which in this case (as in most cases) is lucky, since it stinks.
6. Night Film by Marisha Pessl – When Special Topics in Calamity Physics came out, it struck me as a novel more contemptuous of its own genre than anything I’d read that year (it appeared just about at the same moment that I myself was returning to public book-reviewing after a long hiatus, so it slipped past my still-rusty reflexes), and Pessl’s latest only deepens that impression: Night Film isn’t about its plot (the death of a reclusive, cult-figure horror director and the ripples that spread out from it) – it’s about how boring old things like plot and character simply can’t be expected to keep the Netflix generation interested, hence the loading of these anemic pages with pop-visuals of all kinds – like the whole thing was a website. No concentrated attention is required to read this piece of poop, but that’s only fitting, since no concentrated attention was required to write it.
5. The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kusher – If a convenient shorthand for the kind of apparatus I’ve mentioned is “hype,” then that shorthand has an equally-convenient name: Rachel Kushner, whose advance reading copies are sent out by the cargo container, whose promotional budget is roughly the GNP of Panama, and whose books are no damn good. Her universally-praised debut Telex from Cuba was a bandwagon-jumper’s dream, and this latest misfire, about a naive young girl who comes to SoHo in the 1970s just in time to meet lots of cool people, has been talked about and written about everywhere, despite being a bland, disorganized mess of banality and pretension. I don’t know how much scotch was needed to get Robert Stone to blurb this thing, but he’s going to hate himself in the morning.
4. The Duplex by Kathryn Davis – Contrary to possible first impressions, I have nothing against experimental fiction in and of itself. I’ve seen it done very well, but that can only happen when it proceeds from an initial respect for ‘traditional’ fiction. When that initial respect is present, a talented writer’s dismantling of form and narrative can yield some thrilling results. When that initial respect is absent, an arrogant writer’s idea that ‘traditional’ fiction requires saving yields only enraged agitation for yours truly. The genre of fiction doesn’t need saving just because Marisha Pessl would rather surf YouTube than write; it isn’t rendered obsolete because Tao Lin is mentally incapable of reading Barchester Towers - and, alas, it is not resuscitated when a smart and perceptive writer like Kathryn Davis decides that readers tired of boring old plot-structure will pay in hardcover to watch her free-associate whatever comes into her head. This novella’s morphing children and hidden realities are as quick and shiny as soap-bubbles, and that’s fine – except these soap-bubbles are being called not only ‘fiction’ but ‘great fiction.’
3. The Circle by Dave Eggers – “The new Dave Eggers” is the stomach-churning summa of process over product – naturally, since lots of money and twee arrogance have allowed Eggers the condescending, talentless writer to become Eggers the Grand Old Man Publisher, a biting mould eating away at the book-world on the inside while simultaneously degrading it on the outside. The Circle is Eggers’ latest farting little assault of a novel, about an idiotic young woman (as I’ve noted before, all the female ‘characters’ in Eggers’ fiction are avatars of the author’s contempt for women) who becomes the latest foot soldier in a Google/Facebook-type Internet corporation bent on consuming its followers like so many egg yolks. As she learns more and more about the company, the book expands into one long predictable drone about all the ways voluntary surrender of privacy impoverishes the inner life – and if readers of this junk have side-noted the hypocrisy in the fact that Eggers himself has been eagerly willing to sell his own privacy to the highest bidder for the whole of his career, they’ve been mighty quiet about it while watching the Grand Old Man now sour on Tumblr.
2. Americanah by Chimananda Ngozi Adicie – 2013 saw a more virulent rash of arrogant, preening foreigners using their book contracts to sling mud ineptly on the culture that made those book contracts possible than it’s seen since the backlash the US incurred by saving the world from Hitler – only this time without the literary talent. Of the many examples of this deplorable trend in 2013, Americanah was by a wide margin the worst, not only for its many blocks of exposition about how racist everything is but for its bloated self-satisfaction that those blocks of exposition are in fact what the book’s paying customers came here for. This last may be right; they certainly didn’t come for plot, character development, or dialogue, all three of which steadfastly remain at the grade school level in this story of a pure-hearted ingenue who emigrates to horrible, racist America (where even the gated academies aren’t truly color-blind, and where no black person could ever dream of being the country’s highest-paid sports celebrity, most-beloved TV star, or, you know, President) and encounters mean people in her quest for a world as perfect as she is.
1. Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks – It’s surely not often that the worst novel of the year is both execrably bad fiction and also sacrilege, but 2013 managed it with this boring little smear on the sacred Jeeves & Wooster texts by middlingly talented but at least hitherto principled Faulks, who’s styled this crap as a well-intentioned homage rather than a commissioned act of necrophilia on the part of Wodehouse’s heirs. And since the major offense of the book’s very existence is compounded by the minor offense of it not being funny, my advice would be that you give it the mitten.