Worst Books of 2016 – Fiction!
When surveying the damages in summing up fiction in 2016, the old saying “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” comes to mind, a saying tartly corrected by Wilson Follett in his epically mandarin book Modern American Usage, since as he points out, nothing could be easier than having your cake and eating it too – the more useful formulation is to eat your cake and have it too. Either way, there’s a certain lazy petulance being attacked, a certain ideological eye-crossing that’s being deplored, and that kind of cross-purpose fumbling runs through most of the worst novels of the year. These were the chief offenders:
10. Jerusalem by Alan Moore (Liveright) – Our first pick is the biggest, most monstrous example of eye-crossing on the list this year: comic book writer Alan Moore’s unreadable 1300-page sterile hybrid of autobiography (the thing mostly takes place in the seedy back-alleys of his native Northampton) and high fantasy (there are angels). In his attempt to blend these two things – really, in his attempt to defy the odds and write an autobiography that’s actually interesting – Moore epically fails to do either one well. Instead, readers who might have paid for this brick out of loyalty to Moore’s undeniable excellent comic book writing are rewarded with endless maundering and rhetorical “experiments” that are as boring as they are predictable.
9. Private Citizens by Tony Tulathimutte (Morrow) – Likewise in his debut novel Tony Tulathimutte – who’s been compared to everybody from F. Scott Fitzgerald to George Frickin’ Eliot by book-critics who really ought to switch to decaff – tries to do two things but tries both with the same underlying cynical contempt for the very process of written prose, thus guaranteeing double failure. On one level, the book is a broad-scale tour d’horizon of group of so-called Millennials in San Francisco, and on another, it’s a send-up of that group, a satirical commentary on their days and ways. But the tour d’horizon fails because Tulathimutte doesn’t know how to write scenes, characters, dialogue, or internal states, and the satirical commentary fails because Tulathimutte clearly thinks Millennials are the only worthwhile human beings currently living on the planet. It’s not a debut novel that augurs well for a career in any sane world, so I predict National Book Awards, Pulitzers, and a Nobel in short order.
8. The Nutshell by Ian McEwan (Nan A. Talese) – The central gimmick of McEwan’s latest novella, having the whole story told from the point of “view” of a baby in the womb of one of the main characters, is intriguing but would only work if the author of the gimmick really invested time and creativity in carrying it off. Instead, as with so many authors on our list this year, McEwan tries to eat his cake and have it too: he plops his gimmick on the table and then ignores it, writing the whole thing from the viewpoint of a dyspeptic author in his late 60s. And if you pose your book to be narrated by a baby in the womb and then narrate it in your own late-60s adult-male voice, your book will not only fail but stink – Q.E.D.
7. End of Watch by Stephen King (Scribner) – This is the concluding volume in King’s “Bill Hodges” trilogy, and although the previous two books have displayed to full, demoralizing effect the central, stunning fact of King’s writing career – that he still doesn’t have more than a single speck of anything resembling talent – they at least on the surface seemed to be striving for something relatively new in this rotten author’s repertoire: a tightly-controlled and relatively modest trilogy complete with an opening act, a complicating middle, and, presumably, a payoff ending. But no: in End of Watch, the concluding 100 pages of which honestly feel like they weren’t even thought about, much less revised before publication, any trust the reader might have placed in the internal dynamics of the trilogy is casually, contemptuously betrayed in ways that might be familiar to King fans but are no less revolting for that.
6. Improbable Fortunes by Jeffrey Price (Archer) – Price’s novel, set in a dilapidated Colorado mining town and half-heartedly wheeling in a murder plot, is distinguished in its pass-me-the-bourbon rhetorical hijinks only by a handful of things, and all of them are bad. The foremost of these, unmissable by even the most sympathetic reader, is how bad the prose is even on a mechanical level: subjects don’t line up with predicates, tenses wander in ways the author clearly didn’t intend, pronouns go a-begging for antecedents, etc. But the book is also marred by the fact that Price obviously had no real concerns about what to do with the thing after he’d dreamed up his wacky premise. The sum of these and all the other failings of the book summons a bane from Worst Fiction lists of years past, the specter of authorial entitlement, which is infuriating enough coming from somebody like Salman Rushdie but becomes rich indeed coming from the screenwriter of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
5. Burning Down the House by Jane Mendelsohn (Knopf) – There’s an accidental but murderously strong aura of topicality around this book, since its two plots center around a New York real estate millionaire and the Eastern European slave trade, which has present-moment resonance because the next President of the United States is a New York real estate millionaire who purchased his Eastern European third wife for fair market value back in 2005. But as with many other books on this list, Burning Down the House fails completely because its author tries to eat her cake and have it too: she attempts both to humanize and satirize the world of the New York super-callow and super-rich but a combination of technical incompetence and nonstop punch-pulling causes the whole ungainly mess to fall flat.
4. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (Random House) – As with McEwan, so too with Curtis Sittenfeld: it’s always extra tough when an author I really like shows up on this particular list – but when you think about it, they’re more likely than their less-experienced colleagues to write a real stinkeroo, and that’s exactly what Sittenfeld does here, with this attempt at a high-spirited modern-day take on Pride and Prejudice that fails in every way, even on the sentence-by-sentence level where this author usually never disappoints. It isn’t just that this is a tone-deaf and desperately dumb pastiche-response to Jane Austen – that’s common enough to be unsurprising. No, the worst part of Eligible is that it’s a tone-deaf and desperately dumb contemporary novel in its own right.
3. The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel (Spiegel & Grau?) – The main peril represented to any author having a breakout hit as huge as Martel’s The Life of Pi is self-evident: lightning, both in terms of sales and in terms of inspiration, hardly ever strikes the same author twice. The Life of Pi was a middling-effective confection of pop-spirituality and workmanlike prose, but it found a large and vocally supportive readership. Martel’s latest book, The High Mountains of Portugal, is an entirely ineffective confection of pop-spirituality and workmanlike prose that deserves no readership at all; it’s the story of three generations of men finding, seeking, or accidentally rediscovering a quasi-mystical Mcguffin, and its plot and characters are as flat and pandering as its philosophical underpinnings, as free of lightning-strikes as a boring modern novel could be.
2. The Boy Who Never Was by Sjon (translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb)(FSG) – Of all the time-wasting failed hybrids on our list this time around, this novella by “Sjon” is by a wide margin the most angering and insulting. On one hand it’s the story of a young man joylessly turning tricks for self-loathing older men in 1918 Reykjavik, an entirely vacant figure without a brain, a heart, or a soul. And on the other hand, the author’s last-second revelation is supposed to turn the whole mess into some kind of testimony about the age of the AIDS epidemic, despite the fact that the central character is essentially a heterosexual barnyard animal who turns gay tricks because those are the paying customers. There’s not a well-considered single paragraph anywhere in this travesty; if this is the state gay fiction has come to, it needs to have a long, unblinking look in the mirror.
1. Just Us Girls
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