2015 wasn’t a very good year for fiction. It had highlights, as, thankfully, any year will have, but if you think about it, highlights are all that genuine readers ever get: all years are, in aggregate, bad for fiction (as somebody who reads more self-published books than you’d readily believe, you can trust me on this) – the bulk of what’s published in any given year is dreck. But even so, 2015 batted below average. The highlights were fewer (for the first time in five years, my Top 10 Best Fiction list couldn’t have gone to 20), and the dreck slopped over the gunwales in almost every month. In any year, this will always be the fault of the authors first, since they’re the ones churning out this stuff while chain-smoking in Brooklyn. But I’ve increasingly come to see that these books are also failings of the various “support systems” these authors have in place – friends, spouses, agents, editors, mistresses – who are supposed to save them from rotten choices they might otherwise make on their own. At every step, in other words, everybody connected with these wretched books failed us, the readers. I aim my annual scorn here mostly at the authors, many of whom have by now had plenty of hints that they should change professions – but in most of these cases, a whole group should hang its head in shame. Because it takes a village to make a pile of crap.
10 The War of the Encyclopaedists by Christopher Robinson & Gavin Kotiz (Scribner) – One of the year’s most loathsome fads (may it please die a swift and painful death) was the collaboration, wherein two insufferable hipsters join forces to produce a novel at least twice as irritating as anything they could have produced separately. Such novels will have three main flaws, and the first of these is: because of the collaborative nature of the enterprise, neither author will take the book seriously. It will remain a lark, like lugging your turntable around in a carrying case or converting to Christianity. This flaw soils the very air of The War of the Encyclopaedists by Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kotiz, as is evident right from the names of the two main characters, Mickey Montauk and Halifax Corderoy. Every single subsequent detail and plot twist in this boring book is equally masturbatory; you can practically hear the authors chuckling to each other on their rotary phones.
9 The New World by Chris Adrian & Eli Horowitz (FSG) – The second main flaw of twee collaborative novels is: their pitch will defile anybody who touches them. A sad and gruesome case-in-point is this programmatic and tired novel by Chris Adrian and Eli Horowitz, about a loving wife, a loving husband, and a head-harvesting cyrongenics lab; Adrian is the amazingly talented author of The Great Night and The Children’s Hospital, but even such credentials don’t save him from the folly of this fad, any more than Laurence Olivier’s acting chops would save him from looking ridiculous on The Love Boat.
8 Read Bottom Up by Neen Shah and Skye Chatham (Dey Street Books) – The third main flaw of insipid collaborative novels is: they have the potential to trick their lazy and money-grubbing authors into thinking that their creation will be easy – which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Such is certainly the case with Read Bottom Up by Neen Shah and Skye Chatham; it’s a novel told mostly in the form of long email exchanges (hence the title), and you can almost see the light bulb of faux-inspiration lighting up over our authors’ heads while looking at some of their own emails: hey, we could make a BOOK out of this stuff! This particular book is the email marginalia detailing the courtship and relationship of two annoying New Yorkers. Take my advice and hit DELETE.
7 Under Tiberius by Nick Tosches (Little, Brown) – I read a lot of stupid books in any given year, and believe it or not, I exonerate quite a few of them on the grounds of simple ignorance: their authors acted in earnest and just weren’t experienced enough, cultured enough, or well-read enough to know that they were producing something stupid. Which is probably why I reserve a special 150-proof back-shelf Maker’s Mark of contempt for the tiny handful of authors who know they’re writing a stupid book and do it anyway, in the vicious, squinty-eyed certainty that there’ll still be plenty of readers dumb enough to buy it. I know such mental calculus is warranted (you’ll never go broke underestimating, etc.), but such knowledge just makes me hate these authors a little more – and Nick Tosches joins those ranks with this very intentionally stupid novel about the chance discovery of an explosive contemporary account of Jesus. You can read my full review here.
6 The Familiar Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May by Mark Danielewski (Pantheon) – Of the many ways a fiction writer can fail the craft of fiction-writing, by far the most widespread in the 21st century is the failure to control the story. Ever since David Foster Wallace was allowed by his editors to simply run at the mouth and, as it were, make shit up, a small number of degenerate authors have considered this a legitimate form of public fiction, and far too large a segment of the reading public, ignorant of Eliot, Hawthorne, Trollope, Dos Passos, or Welty, have indulged these authors. The result has been baggy monstrosities like Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series or George R. R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” books – shoulder-high stacks of books in what should by rights have been simple trilogies. And surely the Olympus of such monstrosities is this series by House of Leaves perpetrator Mark Danielewski; it purports to be the story of a small cast of handy fictional stereotypes as world-changing fates draw them together, and it’s billed as the first in a projected 117-volume series of 800-pagers, one appearing every six months until the author is 251. But the flat, tinny affect of the literally-unending prose makes this stoner-narrates-a-video-game mess a monstrosity to avoid.
5 Submission by Michel Houellebecq (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – The raw materials of this novel are all the more tempting because they’re so promising: a slightly-future France in which an insurgent Islamic political party comes to power, establishes Islamic rule, and tempts a sad-sack professor with advancement if he converts to Islam. I wasn’t ten pages into Submission before I was wondering how good the book would be if Michel Houellebecq weren’t such a Gawd-awful writer, but alas, he is; there isn’t a single aspect of his promising premise he doesn’t bungle with boring prose, leaden pacing, and an absolutely surgical lack of narrative energy. Thanks to his soupy ineptitude, the reader is never tempted for a moment to engage with what might otherwise have been the most prescient and disturbing novel of the year.
4 The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) – The basic plot of this novel is wan and derivative – disillusioned British veteran of Afghanistan returns to his secluded Scottish home to grapple with his memories and his family’s legacy – but it’s dependably wan and derivative; you’d think it would be pretty hard to screw up. And yet O’Hagan manages to screw it up (again, I blame the wholesale failure of his support system almost as much as I blame him): his characters are arch and weirdly unbelievable, his plot has the pace of recalcitrant porridge, and his story declines to conclude or even cast a parting glance at the mess it’s left behind.
3 I Am Radar by Reif Larsen (Penguin Press) – I admit, it would have taken the rough equivalent of The Beautiful and the Damned by this author to wash from my mind the rancid glop of his last book, The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, so there was virtually no chance this exorbitantly horrible novel would actually please me. But even so, I was unprepared for how much it would enrage me. Its plot – such as it is – centers on a young man named Radar who’s exactly the kind of Messiah-waif this author reflexively writes about (and so clearly considers himself to be), but the protracted strew of garbage that’s spun around this central character is built on the author’s apparent philosophy that books should imitate spastic video games or risk being just like the boring old things in the library. Like a couple of other items in our rogues gallery this time around, Larsen’s book is actually deeply antithetical to reading.
2 Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg (Gallery) – It’s almost predictable that a writer who produced two books as formulaic and deeply cynical as Bill Clegg’s two memoirs might then go on to write a debut novel as formulaic and deeply cynical as Clegg wrote this year. It’s the story of a small-town Connecticut woman who abruptly loses her entire immediate family and must face life without them, and although a plot like that is self-evidently pat and off-the-shelf (in a way that’s always tempting to debut novelists), its execution here bears all the stamps of Clegg’s memoirs: it’s overwrought, pretentious, and cemented in coincidences. It’s always dismaying for me to see any book this bad reap the kind of praise this one has received; its extra-dismaying to think that praise may betoken a string of future novels from this author.
1 The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George (Crown) – It would be difficult even in brief summary to touch on all the contemptible aspects of this, the worst novel of 2015. It’s about a man who runs a magical bookstore on a river barge in Paris but one day decides to take his shop sailing (with a quirky little crew, of course) in search of his long-lost love, which is offensive enough, and the characters are all the worst kind of John Green-style hyperbole-spouting mannequins. But the worst part of it, for me, is that it, too, is antithetical to reading: the owner of the little Paris bookshop is an exponent of that most noxious viewpoint that holds reading as a kind of mystic religion and bullying booksellers as its priests and priestesses – in other words, it holds reading as something that happens according to a catechism and can therefore be done wrong (in the book a grieving customer must be given Author X but not Author Y, for instance). And as enormously irritating as that is, even more irritating is the chance that some readers will believe it. I wish this particular barge had gone down with all hands.
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