Such a joy it is, on the other hand, to look back on a year so full of rich, ambitious storytelling – to remember a handful of genuine invigorations amidst all the garbage! The field of fiction is immensely strong, if 2011 was any sign of it, and that’s doubly comforting, since one can only presume that many of the people on the Worst list are the friends, colleagues, lovers, and drug dealers of the people on the Best list. It’s good to know the writing community is sufficiently immunologically fortified against cross-infection. These are all novels that mean it – no mere showing up here – that mean to do great things and do them. It’s a pleasure to recommend these books.
10. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami – 2011 was a year for big novels, although several of the picks on this list are slim little things. Murakami’s 800-page masterpiece of surrealism and displacement takes place in two 1980s – the one we inaccurately remember, an the one we didn’t live through, and the whole book is layered with realities only slightly at odds with each other, like a head full of memories. It contains everything I usually hate in a novel, especially its intention to be ultimately incomprehensible. And yet, it all works as nothing this author has ever done before has worked. It should have won Murakami a Nobel Prize, and it deserves to be read by everybody, especially people like me, who’ve hated his work forever.
9. We the Animals by Justin Torres and The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht – these two great debuts share a berth because they share an ethos – beauty found in exile, strangeness found in familiar memories (they’re both also, at the least expected moments, quite funny – in Obreht’s case, laugh-out-loud funny, which is no easy thing to do in a first novel). Both these young authors have a sense of form and a feel for narrative that usually comes only with years of practice. Time will tell if bodies of work form around these starting-points, but no serious reader of fiction should miss either of these books.
8. The Great Night by Chris Adrian – The unabashed yet elegant way Chris Adrian meshes perfectly-realized fantasy elements into the real-world proceedings of his novels reaches new heights of virtuosity in this book about Shakespeare’s cast of faeries from A Midsummer Night’s Dream operating in present-day New York. After a deluge of boy wizards and yuppie vampires, this is adult fantasy fiction done right. And as with most of Adrian’s work, it’s heartbreaking, beautifully-written stuff, the kind of prose that re-affirms fiction’s right to exist at all in a world so garnished with tragedy. Many of the novels on this list distinguish themselves by sheer craft of language in addition to (or in preference to) story-building, and this is certainly one of those novels, filled with gorgeous prose.
7.We the Drowned by Carsten Jensen – Yet another great big book, this one almost geographically forbidding to the casual reader (if such poor creatures still venture into the deep end of the fiction pool), a dense and digressive tome about a bleak northern coastal fishing village and the men who risk their lives and sanities to leave it and voyage out on the water. The northern ocean is a vigorous character on virtually every page of this splendid, absorbing debut novel, and the narrative itself works like an ocean, with powerful, often adversarial under-currents and quite a bit of tempting surface beauty. You get lost in this book – I did, and even after all these months thinking about it, I’m still not sure I understand it. The power of the thing is undeniable, though.
6. Moment in the Sun by John Sayles – Sayles’ book is enormous, and those few critics who managed to pay it any serious attention were clearly confused by its scope and sprawl – or else they thought Sayles was. The work has been compared to John Dos Passos’ USA trilogy, and this is apt (unless the comparisons were meant to evoke another very long book people are more fond of name-checking than actually reading): Sayles’ multi-voiced panorama of America (and a scattering of other countries, each disastrously affected by America) as it convulses its way out of the 19th and into the 20th century shares with Dos Passos’ work an encyclopedic sweep and a sharp insight into the humanity of every member of its enormous cast of characters. This is epic historical fiction as Paul Scott or Herman Wouk might have written it – it’s virtually criminal that so many critics overlooked it, and you definitely shouldn’t.
5. Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas -Talk about enormous! Nadas’ long-awaited novel is a whopping 1500 pages long, a gigantic snapshot of 20th century of the 20th century West one generation after Sayles’. The book follows four main characters through war, famine, murder, concentration camps, and sex – but it isn’t long (only 500 pages or so!) before the brave reader realizes these characters are not the point, that even the ostensible plot lines are not the point – like so many of the novels on our list this year, the point is about the song, not the lyrics. Nadas is a searchingly restless author, more prone to posing questions with the steady flow of his narrative (on one level, this is an entire book full of stuff just happening) than providing answers, and readers seeking tightly-constructed plots might be dismayed by how disdainfully Nadas provides them inside the larger swamp of his novel, as if to simultaneously demonstrate that he can do it and that it doesn’t need to be done. This is just one of the things he shares in common with Pynchon at the height of his powers.
4. The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier – This author’s previous book The Brief History of the Dead is one of those novels that sticks with you long after you finish it (in my case, this is now often manifested as a wish that I’d reviewed it), and The Illumination is even stronger, an incredibly lyrical examination of the tenuousness of attachment, all done up in prose that’s at times so beautiful you wonder how he does it. In Brockmeier’s new world, a all kinds of pain suddenly become visible to everybody, and although he pursues that conceit with a very satisfying thoroughness, the novel’s second maguffin, a tattered personal journal, makes it clear that for most people, it’s this right here – books, writing – that has always been the only way to make pain visible … and joy as well.
3. Magpie by Curt Finch – Another debut for our list, only this one might count as a pre-debut, since Curt Finch’s rollicking, hilariously Rabelaisian comedy first reached me as a manuscript. That manuscript tells the story of globe-trotting, chain-smoking, wine-swilling mega-journalist Arthur Magpie and his bedraggled personal assistant (and our narrator) Ian Swansea who stumble from one misadventure to the another in this smart, deceptively shrewd tour-de-force featuring wheedling editors, harrowing best-selling authors (most of whom, I’m pleased to report, can be recognized easily through their lampoonish disguises), stampeding cattle, mis-applied laxatives, and bumbling terrorists. Finch has since published Magpie himself, but this is manifestly insufficient – so you publishers and agents who follow Stevereads, pay heed: find Curt Finch, offer him a lucrative three-book contract, and get ready to reap ecstatic praise from every reviewer in the entire Federation of Planets – starting with this one.
2. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach -If the odds of me enjoying a Haruki Murakami novel were long, you can imagine the odds of me liking a debut novel about baseball – much less such a novel written by what we must now come think of as ‘the n + 1 guys’ … the founding editors of the almost absurdly overrated literary journal by that name, every man-jack of whom appears to think he’s got great fiction inside him. They all went and got book deals – and if a recent Vanity Fair article is any indication, they are the pseudo-literary equivalent of the pomade-haired ‘masters of the universe’ who were so insufferable on Wall Street back in the 1980s. But Harbach’s book is, mirabile dictu, the real thing – and, as has often been noted, no more ‘about’ baseball than Moby-Dick is ‘about’ whales. If anything, this novel is about the many tortures of love – and it will affect you deeply whether or not you give a rip about baseball. In fact, one of my biggest frustrations in recommending this book to people comes from just this point: they immediately ask that inevitable question ‘what’s it about?’ … and I’m stuck, because if I tell them it’s about baseball, I’ll almost certainly lose them right away – as I’m now worried I’ve lost most of you. Yes, it’s ‘about’ baseball – but read it anyway. You won’t regret it.
1. The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst – If Murakami got robbed of the Nobel, there was at least the possibility of consolation – it’s awarded, allegedly, for a body of work, not a single book – it’s at least theoretically possible to think that the winner (an Icelandic poet of some sort? Perhaps Snorri Sturlusson snagged it at last?), somewhere in his youth or childhood, must have done something good. But the Man-Booker Prize is indeed awarded for a single work each year – so if Murakami got robbed, Alan Hollinghurst got pillaged, because The Stranger’s Child, by far his best an most ambitious book and the Stevereads Best Fiction Book of the Yea, lost to a paperweight. The Stranger’s Child is every bit as snappy and lush as Hollinghurt’s other books,but it’s far more textured than anything he’s done before, with an English country-house story spreading over an entire century, a Brideshead Revisited without the daffy last-minute conversion to Catholicism (although to be fair, this book also has a daffy last-minute swerve – those wacky Brits!). Readers shouldn’t miss it.
Well! In your silent multitudes, you have made your voices heard! I confess, I’d totally forgotten the email response I got the last time I posted a book-list here on Stevereads – I’d certainly forgotten the enthusiasm, and I shouldn’t have: after all, who doesn’t love a good list? Perhaps I forgot because I’m busy preparing the Mother of All Lists, that annual Stevereads gotterdammerung, the Best (and Worst) Books of the Year, but in any case, I immediately set aside my planned week’s worth of Taylor Lautner posts in favor of another list for you all. Last time, I gave you eight very good novels – this time, I’ve moved to a slightly higher weight division: these are eight novels that are better than very good, eight novels that are richer, more ambitious, and more rewarding than your average very good novel … eight great novels. They’re all contemporary (‘eight great novels’ from the canon being perhaps a tad predictable), and unless I’m very much mistaken, they’ll all be venerated by posterity in due course!
Eustace and Hilda by L. P. Hartley (one-volume published in 1958)
This fat volume contains three long chapters – The Shrimp and the Anemone, The Sixth Heaven, and Eustace and Hilda – that come together Lord of the Rings-style to form one enormous narrative, the life-story of the two main characters, weak and squishy Eustace and forceful take-charge Hilda. Through them and their evolving relationship, Hartley is able to present the reader with almost the entire picture of his warped, incredibly complicated view of human relationships, and as if that weren’t fascinating enough, the books are also chock-full of glittering tossed-off bits on subjects ranging from Hartley’s beloved Venice:
Lady Nelly came out from the cool, porphyry-tinted twilight of St. Mark’s into the strong white sunshine of the Piazza.
The heat, like a lover, had possessed the day; its presence, as positive and self-confident as an Italian tenor’s, rifled the senses and would not be denied.
To his equally-pronounced love of sharp dialogue:
“I wish I was a writer,” said Heloise earnestly, before Eustace had time to think out a reply. “Then I could let everyone know what a wonderful time Lady Nelly’s giving us.”
Even Eustace, whose conversational approaches were fairly guileless, felt this to be an unsophisticated remark.
“She wouldn’t thank you,” said Lord Morebambe. “She likes her affairs kept private.”
But Lady Nelly did not seem to agree.
“Nonsense, Harry,” she said. “I’m only too pleased to know that Heloise is enjoying herself. How could I know if she didn’t tell me?”
“Well, you could see if she was crying,” said Lord Morecambe.
The reader cares about poor Eustace and even cares about less sympathetic Hilda, and this is one of those novel-sequences that manages to capture the feeling of time’s passage so effectively that readers will feel they’ve lived an entire life with these two characters and their fascinating supporting cast. The subject matter is resolutely Jamesian in its tight domestic focus (comparatively little actually happens in the course of the story), which makes it all the more mysterious to me why this big volume isn’t better known and more properly venerated. Nice that the NYRB people reprinted it, however.
The Car Thief by Theodore Weesner (1987)
Weesner’s cult novel is nominally about juvenile delinquent Alex Housman, the young car thief of the title who gets caught and sent away to a boys’ reformatory outside a city a lot like Detroit in its gritty desperation:
Another time, walking on the stadium field just after the game, Alex had seen a white man with a red-and-black ribboned badge on his jacket, flushed and very drunk – he might have said something – wiped out in seconds by a black handkerchief-head in a red-and-gray jacket, wearing leather gloves. The black kid, a bullet, suddenly danced and struck, hit the man in the jaw and knocked him bodily from where he had been walking. The man, fleshy and middle-aged, stumbled back a few feet, and the black kid moved after him, his leather fists flashing, hitting the man’s face s if throwing a flurry at a body bag, splattering blood from the man’s mouth and nose, until the man, as if already out and only needing room to fall, collapsed from the knees to the ground, as the black kid slipped away.
The city. Alex felt little desire to go there any more.
But really the book is about the fractured and oddly noble relationship between Alex and his hard-drinking father, who remains in the reader’s mind long after the details of Alex have begun to blur. This is a beautifully written but jagged-edged book, as painfully honest a depiction of the father-son dynamic as anything I know in 20th century fiction.
Paradise Postponed by John Mortimer (1985)
Despite its illustrious competition (Nadas!), I myself consider this lush, sharply ironic novel to be the single best item on our list today. On one level, it’s the story of the saintly and ultimately enigmatic rector Simeon Simcox, and his two sons, but in its sprawl and intelligence and compassion, it’s really about the perilous comforts of postwar England. Critics at the time of its original publication made inevitable comparisons to Brideshead Revisited – not only because the plot involves old properties and rich people, but also because Mortimer was well-known for his brilliant screenplay adaptation of Waugh’s book for the BBC mini-series. And there are plenty of moments where the comparison seems apt, both in setting:
Rapstone Manor is an old house on a hill a little way out of the village and has been, since Edward IV rewarded a steward with a sense of humour with the gift of a manor and the estates of Rapstone, the home of the Fanner family. The house was begun in the middle ages, added to under the Tudors and extended at the Restoration, when the Fanners received their reward for continued loyalty to the Royalist cause. An eighteenth-century Fanner built a new facade and a Victorian Fanner put on the ostentatious portico which gives the house the disconsolate air of a small city railway station set down in the middle of the countryside, with no trains. It’s a house shaded by large trees, approached up a long drive, set in a park where the deer are constantly on the look-out for ways of escape from death at the hands of Tom Nowt.
And in the snatches of ethos behind the novel’s many theological scenes, as when one old friend of the family muses:
“You can’t change people. You know that. You can’t make them stop hating each other, or longing to blow up the world, not by walking through the rain and singing to a small guitar. Most you can do for them is pull them out of the womb, thump them on the backside and let them get on with it”
But every time I read this incredible novel (incredible also that Mortimer wrote it at all – it’s like finding out that “P. G. Wodehouse” was actually a pen-name for Louis Auchincloss), I’m more firmly convinced that it’s a response not to Brideshead but to A Dance to the Music of Time – it’s equally full of quite ordinary characters getting caught in the rain and living their lives, and it’s got even better zingers. The two other things the books have in common, alas, are that a) they’re both amazing works of 20th century fiction, and b) they’re both not exactly well-loved by the reading public. But there’s always hoping.
The Memoirs of Christopher Columbus by Stephen Marlowe (1987)
This book is the funniest on our list – no mean feat, when that list is shared by John Mortimer! – and unlike with some of these other authors, it’s no mystery at all why Stephen Marlowe never became a household name: he wrote an early novel about Xenophon’s march to the sea, and he called … The Shining. If that isn’t enough to get you buried by the Fates, I don’t know what is – and it worked: Marlowe’s great novels (including that one) are all unknown.
This one is his best: Christopher Columbus narrating his own lavishly detailed life story, told with impeccable comic timing and, much like in Joseph Heller’s God Knows, a paradoxically full awareness of the centuries that passed after his death. In this novel, it’s no mistake to find our hero excoriating poor Washington Irving, nor is it unusual for him to take the long view of history while he’s scene-setting:
A warning about the pages to follow. The language may daunt even the stout of heart. But the English in those days, isolated on their island and unaware of the strides toward refinement and culture made by the Renaissance in Italy and elsewhere on the Continent, spoke as they lived – crudely.
They may to some degree be excused. Everyone knows what happens after a war, say your average four-or-five-year war – carpet-baggers, Lost Generations, Iron Curtains, etc., etc. But suppose a country fought a war continuously for a hundred years and LOST? This was England’s predicament at the end of the Hundred Years War, as it’s called, and I got there less than twenty years after the final battle at Castillon and the retreat from Bordeaux in 1453, which settled the conflict in France’s favor. Following a century of casualties, privation, uncertainty, Joan of Arc, plague and finally defeat, the English wallowed in a kind of joyless carnality, and this was reflected in their speech.
Columbus is also alive to the many ironies of his subsequent veneration:
…this narrative is full of perverse twists because it mirrors life. Take John Cabot’s place in history. Here’s a real Italian, born in Genoa but a citizen of Venice even though he would be sailing under charter to England’s King Henry VII when he made landfall in North America on Midsummer Day of 1497. And here am I, born at sea of recently converted Spanish Jewish parents, an accidental Italian who went almost everywhere but sailed exclusively for Spain. And how do the historians write it? They make me out to be the authentic paisan’ and call him plain John Cabot. Maybe one man in a hundred knows Giovanni Gaboto’s the real paisan’, not me, and all he did was discover North America where an Italian population almost as large as Italy’s would eventually hold annual parades in my honor.
The novel is a sustained feat of high-spirited lampoonery, with plenty of deeply-felt emotion sneaked in while the reader is laughing. Most of those readers, seeing its portentous title on the spine (often mis-shelved in the biography section of used bookstores), might pass this book by – don’t be one of those readers!
Fool’s Errand by Louis Bayard (1999)
Bayard has since gone on to write curiously forgettable historical novels and light fantasias, but he started out writing this utterly charming and painfully heartfelt gay novel about a young man named Patrick who takes a nap in a little room while visiting some friends and is awakened by a gorgeous man in a bright sweater made of something that looks like vaguely Scottish (Shetland?) wool. The man disappears, and once Patrick is fully awake, he asks his hosts who he was – only to be told they don’t recognize the description. In a surreal fashion, Patrick becomes obsessed with finding the dream-man he dubs Scottie (he’s aided by his nebbishly friend Seth, for reasons the reader will guess long before Patrick does) and who he considers the perfect balm to the failure of his relationship with his long-time boyfriend Alex, who still occasionally twinges his regrets:
Alex was handsome – the remembrance came to Patrick with a little pang as he contemplated the mass of medium-brown hair not yet sacrificed to fashionable salon cuts, the bright hazel eyes, the intense regularity of the features – that clean, wholesome profile and the perfectly straight nose, the kind of nose a plastic surgeon would build templates from. Suddenly it seemed perfectly sensible to Patrick that someone who looked so – so ordered would need to impose a little order on his surroundings, would feel obliged to be the world’s organizing intelligence.
Why had Patrick never allowed himself to be organized?
And why had he never really looked at Alex before? While they were still together? It seemed, in retrospect, they had always believed in avoiding each other’s glance. Why was that?
Somewhere, he thought, Somewhere Seth is lurking.
The ending of Fool’s Errand is unabashedly sentimental, and by the time they reach it, all but the most cynical readers will have felt they’ve earned it.
Lempriere’s Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk (1991)
I’ve praised Norfolk many times here on Stevereads and elsewhere – I consider him one of the least-known great novelists working today, and although I’m personally partial to his idiosyncratic masterpiece In the Shape of a Boar, I, like many readers, first became acquainted with him through this novel, the febrile, hugely inventive re-imagining of poor hapless John Lempriere, eventual compiler of one of my favorite and most-consulted reference works, Lempriere’s Dictionary. The novel by that name reads like a far, far more intelligent version of Katherine Neville’s The Eight crossed with the historical fiction of Patrick O’Brian, and all of it compulsively overlaid with a classical patina:
The carriage wheels come to a slow halt, intruding more subtly into his daydream now, the two merging as John Lempriere watched the image of Aphrodite descended from the aether to earth in the guise of Juliette Casterleigh. The sun-burnt Cyprian, eyes wide and fishing nets forgotten at the sight of the goddess’s birth, had his counterpart in the young Lempriere. His gaze unreturned, he watched slack-jawed at the vision of Venus Epistrophia in a spume of cream linen placing a delicate foot on the cracked foot-plate of the Casterleigh carriage.
This is a very intelligent, very, very strange novel – you won’t have read anything quite like it, and if it prompts you to read more by Lawrence, so much the better.
A Book of Memories by Peter Nadas (1997) (1986 as Emlekiratok konyve)
This is the great big novel (700 pages) that was so egregiously over-praised when it first appeared that readers back then could be forgiven for thinking it was actually no good at all (Harry Mulisch’s great 1992 novel The Discovery of Heaven suffered much the same fate, and you should read it too). But Nadas can’t be blamed for feckless critics, and the reverse is true: this is a great novel, nominally set in 1970s East Berlin but, in typical Nadas fashion, narratively wandering everywhere and indulging in a low-key delirium of shifting perspectives – even, as in this virtuoso morning-after moment (Nadas being by far our best, most interesting writer about sex), a scene where brain and skin give almost conflicting accounts of the same sensations, each mitigating the other almost to a nullity:
The tiniest move could have broken this peacefulness, so I didn’t even feel like opening my eyes; I was hanging on to something that had become final between us then, in the shared warmth of our bodies, and I didn’t want her to see my eyes, to see how frightened I was of what was to come – it was good like this, let fear be mine! – of my body I felt only the parts her body could make me feel: under the rucked-up silk dress the moist surface of her skin touching mine – that was my thigh; at the level of her neck my own breath mingling with the whiffs of stifling odor rising from her armpits; I felt the hard edge of a hip that may have been mine, its hardness the hardness of my bone; I felt my shoulder and back even when my shoulder and back still felt the arm, for somehow even the receding weight left an impression in the flesh and bones; and when she also raised her head a bit to take a better look at the bite mark on my neck, I was glad to be able to watch through barely raised eyelashes, not exposing my eyes; all she could see was the quiver of the lids, the flutter of the lashes; she couldn’t imagine how scared I was, and we hadn’t even begun, but I could see her in almost perfect clarity, looking at my neck, yes, I could fool her so easily; she looked at it long, even touched the spot with her stiff finger; her lips parted, edged closer, and kissed it where it still hurt a little.
The Given Day by Dennis Lehane (2008)
Lehane is of course famous for his anemic Boston-based murder mysteries, so this big, rich historical novel – centering around the 1919 Boston police strike but broadening to encompass, Dos Passos-style, the entire first half of the 20th century – came as a big surprise to me. Lehane writes about everything in this overstuffed book with real, practiced knowledge and a sharp trust in the intelligence of his readers, and although Babe Ruth steals the show, it’s only natural that the book’s many scenes featuring the police (and their corrupt, conniving bosses) should have an extra crackle to them:
Commissioner Curtis sat behind his desk with a revolver lying just to the right of his ink blotter. “So, it’s begun.”
Mayor Peters nodded. “It has, Commissioner.”
Curtis’s bodyguard stood behind him with his arms folded across his chest. Another waited outside the door. Neither was from the department, because Curtis no longer trusted any of the men. They were Pinkertons. The one behind Curtis looked old and rheumatic, as if any sudden movement would send his limbs flying off. The one outside was obese. Neither, Peters decided, looked fit enough to provide protection with their bodies, so tehy could only be one other things: shooters.
“We need to call out the State Guard,” Peters said.
Curtis shook his head. “No.”
“That’s not your decision, I’m afraid.”
Curtis leaned back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling. “It’s not yours either, Mr. Mayor. It’s the governor’s. I just got off the phone with him not five minutes ago and he made it very clear, we are not to engaged the Guard at this juncture.”
“What juncture would you two prefer?” Peters said. “Rubble?”
Lehane works in racial unrest, bare-knuckle boxing, and even a fairly convincing love story, and he does it all with a no-nonsense honesty reminiscent of Elmore Leonard, and he makes you believe every word of it. Tough to go back to reading his South Boston whodunits, after this.
And there you have it! Eight great contemporary novels to satisfy your cravings, should you be in a used bookstore and be in the mood! And as always, keep in mind the full Stevereads guarantee: I’ll not only recommend these books to you, I’ll send you copies of them if you can’t find any yourself. Each one of these is certain to please.