Best Books of 2016 – Fiction!
The very factors that are usually the banes of my existence as a reader of fiction – stylistic eccentricities and rhetorical showing off – turn up quite often on this particular list actually helping the books featuring them, which just underscores the ideological fluidity of fiction that I, like any sensible person, find so off-putting and yet so enticing about the genre! I read a larger-than-usual percentage of novels in 2016, and although a larger-than-usual percentage of those turned out to be enraging failures, the good ones were really good. Here are the best:
10. Underground Airlines by Ben Winters (Mulholland Books) – This amazing alternate-history novel tells the story of a good man tasked with the disgusting job of hunting a fugitive slave – in modern-day America. Winters masterfully imagines an America in which the Civil War was never fought and a bitter, stubborn core of slave states still exists. It’s an illuminating performance.
9. Moggerhanger by Alan Sillitoe (Seven Stories Press) – This novel, the third installment in a trilogy I haven’t read by an author who’s long dead, shouldn’t have had a chance of making this list, even if Sillitoe did write The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. The first two books in this sequence, A Start in Life and Life Goes On, weren’t published in the US, but I read Moggerhanger with absolute delight – the book easily works as a stand-alone comic masterpiece road-trip novel.
8. High Dive by Jonathan Lee (Knopf) – Lee’s bowstring-tense novel about the four weeks leading up to the assassination attempt in 1984 on Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet in Brighton is as gripping as a thriller. He takes his readers inside the lives of a small cast of characters and then steadily, skillfully ratchets up the tension as the day of the bombing draws slowly closer. And the final 40 pages or so have stuck with me long after I finished the book.
7. Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – There’s a great deal about this big novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, his first in over a decade, that’s easy to mock, and my first time reading it, I mocked those things plenty. The main male character is just enough of a self-absorbed shmendrik to do stand-in duty for Foer himself, and the cataclysmic event at one of the book’s climaxes is rather negligently handled. But there’s a glass-sharp beauty to a great deal of the prose here, and an insight into the nature of his characters’ unhappiness (Stuart Kelley reviewing the book in the TLS called Foer “a pathologist of perished emotions”) that’s plenty brilliant enough to make up for even such major shortcomings.
6. Moonglow by Michael Chabon (Harper) – Likewise this latest novel from Michael Chabon: it too should have done nothing but irritate me, since the author explicitly maps his own autobiography onto the book’s framework of a dying grandfather telling his auditor a long string of tales about the past. And I was able to hold onto that irritation for about twenty-five pages or so – then the stories themselves swept away my objections and left me just eagerly reading. Even more than Telegraph Avenue, this book cemented my estimation of Chabon as very likely the best novelist of his generation.
5. The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (Hogarth) – This story about a naive young drama student who forms a strange and powerful relationship with an older, famous actor in 1990s London surges and ripples with experimentation in imagery and narration – just the kinds of surges and ripples that usually get my hackles up, because they usually signal an author trying to cover up weaknesses rather than display strengths. But in this case, as in all the other such cases on the list this year, the opposite is true: in these pages, McBride’s stylistic innovations are matched by the sheer gifted power of her storytelling.
4. Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings by Stephen O’Connor (Viking) – In the most astonishingly accomplished literary debut I’ve read in many years, Stephen O’Connor takes the familiar, sordid story of Thomas Jefferson and the slave woman Sally Hemings and fractures it into dozens and hundreds of stories, dozens of shards of impression and perspective, scattered across time from Jefferson’s own era to the present day. The one thing all those shards of narrative have in common is an unflagging but hard-eyed sympathy for the human flaws of tall the characters – that and an eerie readability. I can’t recommend the book strongly enough.
3. Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett (Little, Brown) – Haslett’s earlier books impressed me in their own way, but nothing in them prepared me for the brutal brilliance of this masterpiece, the multifaceted story of a tightly-knit family with a nuclear core of tragedy at its heart. All the author’s gifts are assembled here, especially his deft hand at character-shaping, but they’re keyed to such a new level of strength and persuasiveness that the novel is downright haunting.
2. Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh (Ecco) – As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m always immediately suspicious of topicality in novels, so I approached Haigh’s big novel warily, since it has natural gas and fracking at the heart of its main plot lines. But much like in Haslett’s case, in this book Haigh’s natural gifts – particularly in this case her ear for dialogue and her sense of scene-pacing – are racing along at such a high level that my reserve was conquered almost immediately. Haigh fills her book with a wide array of precisely-drawn characters in her signature little Pennsylvania town as it confronts all the complications of this rapacious new style of extracting natural gas from the ground – to the point where I didn’t mind at all how topical it all is.
1. The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown) – Emma Donoghue’s uncanny ability to create wide-scope drama in the smallest of settings won’t come as any surprise to the millions of people who discovered this author through her bestseller Room, and that ability is once again the key ingredient in her newest book, the best novel of 2016, The Wonder, in which an English nurse is called to the bedside of an 11-year-old girl in an Irish village in order to investigate the growing tale that the girl has survived for months without food, living purely on the grace of God. Much of the drama is consequently focused very tightly on the world of that girl, but the world of her adult caretakers proves if anything even more narrow, and the novel leads reads calmly and terrifyingly to an incredibly touching final act. I myself have no doubt that Emma Donoghue can top even this novel, but I can’t for the life of me imagine how.
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