Monday, December 16, 2013

My favorite fiction of 2013

I don't usually do anything resembling a best-of-the-year post, but because this year I

1 Read more new books than usual


2 Disagreed with the critical consensus more than usual (really disliking a lot of the books that are making best-of-the-year lists),

I decided to go ahead. Today will be my favorite fiction, Wednesday my favorite nonfiction.

Favorite fiction of 2013

Carlene Bauer's Frances and Bernard: A brilliantly realized, wholly convincing epistolary novel. I wrote about it back in February when I first read it, and I've continued to recommend it in the months since.

Caleb Crain's Necessary Errors: I happened to take this brilliant debut novel with me on a work trip to Prague this summer, only to discover when I opened it that it's about young American expatriates . . . living in Prague. Over the course of more than 400 pages, not much happens--except that Crain manages to takes us back to that moment in life when we're poised between youth, with its structures and deadlines, and adulthood, with its terrifying wide-openness. Our time horizons then were so short, our experience (despite what we told ourselves) so limited, that every single thing, person, and event seemed of outsized, at times monumental, importance, and Crain--with neither too much irony nor false naivete--makes us feel that again in all its self-involved glory. It's an incredible achievement.

Gaito Gazdanov's The Spectre of Alexander Wolf: It seems like an extra treat when you happen upon a favorite book of the year in early December--and you find it because the single line on the back cover convinces you to pick up:
Of all my memories, of all my life's innumerable sensations, the most onerous was that of the single murder I had committed.
A young man who killed an opposing soldier during the Russian Civil War happens upon a book of short stories in which one of the stories tells of the killing--and which could only be the work of the dead man. That sets him off on an investigation, and along the way the story turns and shifts, interpolating other stories with a narrative confidence and storytelling fecundity that reminds me of nothing so much as Roberto Bolano. The book was first published in 1948 in Russia, its author a taxi driver, but it feels as fresh as any of the new books on this list. Pushkin Press seems to have increased their presence in the States substantially this year, which is all to the good for readers, and this is the best yet.

A. L. Kennedy's The Blue Book: A novel that tries to wrong-foot the reader from the very start, full of tricks and misdirections, appropriate for a story of people who work in the borderlands between magic and con artistry. It's clever, engrossing, funny, dark-hearted, and ultimately moving. I'd not read Kennedy before, but this book will send me to the rest of her work.

Sam Lipsyte's The Fun Parts: With the possible exception of my friend Ed Park, there's no comic writer working today whose sentences I enjoy more. Not every story in this collection is wholly successful, but even the lesser ones offer finely honed sentences--sonically and rhythmically rich and brilliantly funny.

Matthew Specktor's American Dream Machine: I wrote about this one very briefly in the summer, calling it a cousin to Steve Erickson's Zeroville. But it's better than Zeroville, trading Erickson's distance for empathy. Specktor tells a story of Hollywood success (and the problems it brings), and it's that relatively rare multi-generational story where both generations are wholly believable, their different worlds and worldviews fully realized.


  1. I love this, and hope to pick up a few for the next year, especially The Blue Book and The Spectre . . . But, you're planned series can't leave is hanging: the line "really disliking a lot of the books that are making best-of-the-year lists" demands its own post.

  2. I was sort of sub-tweeting there, wasn't I? I generally try to stick to writing about books I like here: given that I have no assignment and no responsibility to do otherwise, I tend to prefer to push things I like rather than do down things I don't. So I think it's unlikely I'll do a whole post about the books I didn't like this year. But I don't mind quickly saying in a comment (it's not as if I can hurt these books or authors) that I didn't get Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, Amity Gaige's Schroder, or Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs. All were first-person narratives, all with a bit of deliberate distance--we were supposed to see a bit more than the narrator--and I didn't buy any of their voices from the first page. I also am not really a George Saunders fan--no dislike, just not my thing--and, looking through the NYT's Notable Books list, also was left flat by Herman Koch's The Dinner and thought Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers was interesting but weirdly lifeless. (I should--and may--do a quick honorable mentions post: I really liked Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings, Dan Kennedy's American Spirit, David Gordon's Mystery Girl, Sara Gran's Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, Javier Marias's The Infatuations, James McBride's The Good Lord Bird, and probably a couple of others I could come up with after a few minutes with my bookshelves. It was a good year for me for new fiction, which was a big reason why I found the year-end lists so frustrating.)

  3. The kind of end-of-year list I like, with books I haven't read - or even heard of (Gazdanov excepted). I do remember your writing about Frances and Bernard, so I'm glad to have this reminder to put it on the wish list, and I'm equally happy to have some other recommendations for good contemporary American fiction.

  4. I loved 'The Spectre of Alexander Wolf'. And I'm glad you reminded me about 'American Dream Machine': I have a real fondness for a good Hollywood novel--something about that awful collision of art and cash and compromise and ego--so this I must get.

  5. Interesting about The Goldfinch; the criticism I expected of it was the similarity of the voice and characters to the secret history--the narrator in both is self-aware, smart, and a natural born liar who is overwhelmed by the weird life into which he cons himself; and Boris is just Henry, both plot devices disguised by over-sized personalities. For the most part, the women in both stories are distant objects of desire, not real people.

  6. As others have said, I enjoy seeing a list of best books not only lacking the usual suspects, but with multiple books I hadn't even heard of it.

    I've heard good things about The Spectre of Alexander Wolf; between that great premise, your recommendation, and the comparison to Bolano, it has definitely moved it up near the top of my to-read list.

    Given that A.L. Kennedy is fairly well-known, I was initially surprised that I hadn't heard of The Blue Book. Then I saw that Amazon published it, and that has proved, ironically enough, commercial poison for lots of actually-quite-good books. They just don't end up stores...

  7. Josh: It's been twenty years since I read The Secret History, so my memory is vague enough that I didn't pick up on similarities. What bothered me about the voice was that its naïveté felt false, and the depictions Tartt gave us of other characters and situations and emotions didn't have the heft of realism while not offering the compensatory pleasure of fantasy. I wanted to like it, but just found myself left flat.

    Matt, JRSM, seraillion: glad you found some new stuff here; hope you like what you try!