As wiser heads than mine figured out and pointed out in the public forum, 2015 was characterized by a great deal of audacity in its fiction. Most of this audacity misfired – publishing emails as a novel, straight-facedly telling your publisher that you intend to write 117 800-page novels over the next 251 years, twee collaborations, genre-snobs continuing to attempt the writing of science fiction, etc. But just look at all of it that didn’t misfire! An epic novel about the punk scene in 1970s New York! A historical novel written in fabricated Old English! Bats! 2015 was a year in which an encouraging number of writers took chances based on the most encouraging assumption of them all: that somewhere out there in the Republic of Letters was an audience of readers who’d enjoy the challenge of the books that resulted.
10 . John the Pupil by David Flusfeder (Harper) – A young monk’s Candide-style journey across 13th-century Europe forms the framework within which David Flusfeder tells a far deeper and more delicate story, one that required a couple of readings for me to see clearly, and one that’s drawn me back for yet one more reading, just to savor. You can read my full review here
9. The Luck Bringer by Nick Brown [Legend Press] – Nick Brown’s terrific debut tells the story of 5th century Athens from two tensile and illuminatingly different points of view, that of the crafty deposed Greek strongman Miltiades and of his hot-headed teenage “luck bringer” Mandrocles, each dealing with very different elements of an Athenian society under the looming threat of the Persian Empire. Brown brings his chosen slice of the ancient world to life so vividly and readably that I totally lost track of time (and forgot about his many, many predecessors in telling this story) while I was reading.
8. JD by Mark Merlis (University of Wisconsin Press) – In a year made notable by sprawling, operatic works of fiction (as we’ll see), there was something all the more remarkable – almost miraculous – about both the density and the jewel-like sharpness of this wonderful novel by Mark Merlis (who, like some other writers on our Year-End list this year, also made an appearance in the Donoghue Interregnum). It’s a multi-faceted story about a long-dead radical novelist, about his deceptively complicated widow who uncovers long-buried secrets about the man she thought she knew, and about their rebellious son – and all of it is executed with such calm precision. Like all of Merlis’s books, I’m sure this one will pull at my memory for years.
7. The Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen (Random House) – There’s a class-clown attention-desperate smarminess to this novel that should have made me hate it. It’s the story of an enigmatic all-powerful tech industry figure, a combination of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Jim Jones, who enlists a hapless young novelist to tell his life story and learn his secrets, and once I learned that the young novelist’s name is Joshua Cohen, I was ready to feed the book to the nearest basset hound. But Cohen’s chronicling of Cohen’s adventures won me over by its sheer dazzling energy (and the puckish humor didn’t hurt), until finally I was very nearly as impressed by the book as were so many of my openly-dazzled book-critic colleagues. I expect to hate this novel upon re-reading it in paperback, but for now, I’d defend to the teeth its place on this list.
6. Martin Marten by Brian Doyle (Thomas Dunne) – If The Book of Numbers trafficked heavily in the expected and still won me over, this joyful little novel by Brian Doyle took the opposite tack, using the interlinked stories of a young teenager and a young pine marten to chart a completely convincing picture of the perils of the striving life. In its perfectly-controlled whimsy, the book reminded me of William Kotzwinkle’s The Bear Went Over the Mountain, but it had a sharp intellect all its own – I was immensely pleased to see it get the judicious critical praise it so richly deserves, and I’m hoping it reaches a very wide audience in paperback.
5. The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida (Ecco) – I was very impressed by Vendela Vida’s short, bewildering novel Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, so I went into this book with admittedly high expectations – and it easily exceeded them. In this story about a woman who’s robbed of all her earthly identification while on vacation in Casablanca, Vida delves with downright poetic precision into the sense of alienation – and endless possibility – that foreign travel can bring. After thirty pages, I had not the slightest idea where the author would take the plot, and I was happy to whip along wherever it went.
4. The American People Vol 1: Search for My Heart by Larry Kramer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) – A long, long time ago, I predicted that if author and activist Larry Kramer ever actually lost his mind, he’d do it not in a quiet where-are-my-car-keys way but with the multi-spectrum extravagance – the audacity, as I’ve mentioned – of a supernova. This big, utterly insane book is Part 1 of that supernova; it’s the demented grandchild of the ersatz American historical novel at the heart of John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, the gay-fantasia obverse-history of the United States. Only Larry Kramer could have written this book, and that’s both a warning and a blessing. You can read my full review here
3. The Dying Grass by William Vollmann (Viking) – It’s the pleasing quirk of novelists not just to be able to make great matter out of odd or trivial material but to flaunt their ability to do so, to make extravagantly long odds pay off and to make it look easy in the process. I would have told you no epic of American letters could ever be fashioned out of the sordid cruelties of the whaling industry – and I’d have been wrong. Likewise I’d have spared not a single thought for the Nez Perce theater of the American Indian Wars fought by the US government in the 19th century – and yet here, at mind-boggling length and beautiful complexity, William Vollmann has crafted just such an epic. You can read my full review here
2. Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell (Ecco) – I was pleased by Mary Doria Russell’s Doc, her very well-realized fictional portrait of “Doc” Holliday, but I wasn’t overly pleased – I read it and moved on. The sensibility and devices on display in that book certainly didn’t prepare me for the gigantic, almost Homeric power of this novel, which joins the story of Holliday with that of his friends the Earps and leads everything to the Gunfight at the OK Corral and beyond. It astonished me. You can read my full review here
1. A Little Life by Hanya Yaningahara (Doubleday) – Fiction-reviewers have become patent-medicine peddlers in the last two decades, I’ve noticed. It’s not enough any longer for them to follow the example of Horace Gregory or Mark Van Doren and intelligently discuss the merits and shortcomings of the latest books. Instead, they’ve become Agony Aunts, taking readers on a roller-coaster ride of the medical and psychological traumas every new book inflicts on them. “I could feel my spleen rupturing,” “I wept openly on the subway, like a slapped child,” “I gasped in astonishment so often my wife divorced me,” and so on. It can inculcate in the average review-reader a fishy disbelief, and who can blame such a reader, with all these raw nerves parading around the place? They’d naturally start to wonder if any of these new books can really be all that moving. But in the case of this amazing novel by Hanya Yaningahara, all such patent-medicine hand-waving is justified – might even qualify as understatement. In the course of this book, our author – who seems like a perfectly nice young woman, not particularly given to twisting the heads off little kittens – puts her main character and his friends through through every torment Dante every devised and a few that even he thought were a bit much. A breviary of misery this complete should by rights be wearying and monotonous, and yet the whole novel, easily and obviously the best of 2015, positively glows with catharsis. It will exhaust you, but it will better you too – and how many novels that do the one also do the other?
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