bestbooks

The Best Fiction of 2012

There are eight million year-end lists in the naked city. Why the hell do we need another one? Well, I made every effort to keep my trap shut on this dog and pony show for many weeks, figuring that fine minds and excitable souls would ensure that the right butterflies landed in the net. But a number of novels that challenged me, knocked me in the gut, or opened my eyes to the world in new ways have been left behind by tepid tastemakers who wouldn’t know the glorious rush of literature if the late great Harry Crews ran at them with a rifle and a pack of wild dogs. So I feel it my duty as a book lover to weigh in. I read nearly two hundred books in 2012. By a stroke of good fortune, I was able to interview every author who made this list. If you would like to hear these authors in conversation, feel free to click on the links. In the meantime, let’s rock and roll.

megana1Megan Abbott, Dare Me: Before The Millions devolved into an unreadable circlejerk for risk-averse snobs, I tried to impart to these mooks why Megan Abbott was the real deal, pointing out how Abbott’s sentences employed a chewy and often operatic rhythm that was often the only way to deal with the dark edges of existence. But Abbott’s latest novel about cheerleading pushes her distinct voice further with a rich collection of wildly inventive verbs (“Everybody whoops and woohoos, jumping on the bleachers, grabbing each other around the necks like the ballers do”) that will make you wonder how you missed so much beyond the football games. She writes defiantly against the ironic or the ideal cheerleader, but her astute and enthralling observations about teens pushing themselves to their physical limits, often without parents and often with deadly adults entering their lives, left me pondering why nobody went there quite like this before. I’m very glad that Abbott is still on the case. (Bat Segundo interview with Abbott, August 2012)

Paula Bomer, 9 Months: Ayelet Waldman may have kickstarted the conversation about bad mothers a few years ago, but Bomer actually has the courage to chase maternal judgment through the pain and hilarity of its truths rather than attention-seeking pronouncements. 9 Months follows Sonia, a pregnant mother who boldly leaves her husband and even goes so far to have carnal relations with a Colin Farrell-like trucker. You could call 9 Months a Gaitskillian picaresque tale, but this doesn’t do justice to Bomer’s fierce and funny insights into how motherhood’s perceptions change from region to region, how judgment has a way of stifling a pregnant woman’s career track, and the casual cruelty of solipsistic singles who can’t understand these finer distinctions. (Bat Segundo interview with Bomer, August 2012)

cchung1Catherine Chung, Forgotten Country: This devastating and deeply visceral debut about a South Korean family fleeing to the Midwest has so many rich observations about identity, figurative ghosts, reflections you can’t escape in the existential mirror, and the pros and cons of family unity that it’s difficult to convey just how good it is. Roxane Gay suggested that the manner in which the narrator’s sister Hannah removes herself from her family “takes your breath away while it breaks your heart.” But this novel somehow manages to capture joy during these emotional moments, even while confronting cruelty, racist masks, and premonitory violence. Chung’s characters are real because we come to feel their explicit and implicit pain, the type of qualities found in nearly every family. I’m baffled by how this wonderful novel was so overlooked. (Bat Segundo interview with Chung, March 2012)

chipdelanySamuel R. Delany, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders: It’s easy to understand why so many timid souls couldn’t make their way through this bold, long, and ambitious book. The book bombards the reader with so much sex, sex, and more sex that the reader is forced to come to grips with this as a way of life, even if the reader doesn’t share the desire for cock cheese or coprophagia. Yet it’s a profound mistake to dismiss a book, as one vanilla urchin did, because you lack the courage to push beyond your comfort zone. Delany’s opus may seem to be a repetitive depiction of a couple fucking, but the patient and careful reader will discover a surprisingly moving book about growing older, how underground subcultures are increasingly ignored, and how history is not so much about one person’s overnight success but sum of brave gestures from strangers. (Bat Segundo interview with Delany, May 2012)

A.M. Homes, May We Be Forgiven: Years ago, when American novels were still permitted to capture everything, books like The Adventures of Augie March were conversational centerpieces that captured the imagination of popular and literary audiences alike. Yet in recent years, literature has shifted to the twee and superficial. We apparently need our books to bray loud with sheepish sentiments, such as this dreadful sample from Dave Eggers’s A Hologram from the King:

His decisions had been short sighted.
The decisions of his peers had been short sighted.
These decisions had been foolish and expedient.

When prose this unintentionally hilarious is allowed to rise to the top, it’s enough to make you wonder how the deck is stacked against the voices that really count. Especially when the rare book like A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven comes along, demanding something more than unpardonable pablum. Homes was the truly ambitious American novelist this year. Her sixth novel dared to map the surrealistic nature of life with great humor and inventiveness: two paramount qualities missing from that doddering dope in San Francisco. Here’s what happens in the first few pages of the book: kitchen seduction, a bizarre murder, divorce, a man thrust into the role of surrogate parent. You read this book asking yourself how Homes can ever find a narrative trajectory for Harry Silver, whose scholarly devotion to Nixon suggests a Godwin-friendly update to Don DeLillo’s Jack Gladney. Somehow, despite Internet sex and bar mitzvahs in South Africa, May We Be Forgiven becomes a hopeful book about accepting the family and friends who come to you. It features amusing cameos from real-life figures like Lynne Tillman, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, and David Remnick. And it acknowledges its debt to Bellow with the wryly named firm of Herzog, Henderson, and March. (Bat Segundo interview with Homes, September 2012)

harikunzru2Hari Kunzru, Gods Without Men: With all due respect to Douglas Coupland, the Translit label is dodgier than New Adult. Coupland was right to celebrate Kunzru’s smart and spiritual novel for its ability to span history and geography “without changing psychic place.” But when you’re using Hollywood terms like “tentpole” to reinforce your label, there’s a good chance you’re blowing a bit of smoke up the Gray Lady’s ass to get a little attention. Still, none of this should steer readers away from this fine novel. Gods Without Men contains everything from a hilariously inept rock star to a predatory linguist whose efforts to collect Native American stories belie a sad privilege. How much of the world’s difficulties can be chalked up to abandoning one’s wonder and humility at a cross-cultural nexus point? Kunzru, to his credit, avoids a schematic answer to this question. We see how secular faith turns disastrous and back again, with an Ashtar Galactic Command acolyte transformed into a victim. Jaz and Lisa Matharu, a couple recovering from the 2008 recession and trying to contend with their missing son, form a triangulation point of sorts. It’s the reader’s duty to discover more blanks. (Two part Bat Segundo interview with Kunzru, March 2012: Part One, Part Two)

laural2Laura Lippman, And When She Was Good: “If you have to stop to consider the lie,” says protagonist Heloise Lewis, “the opportunity has passed.” With eleven Tess Mongaghan novels and seven stand-alones, it’s become all too easy to take Laura Lippman’s work for granted. But Lippman’s latest novel, which is also something of a sly riff on Philip Roth’s 1967 novel, is one of her best: an astutely observed tale of a deeply complicated and endlessly fascinating woman. By day, Heloise Lewis is a single mother who reads classic literature. But she also runs a high-end escort service. The book’s alternating chapters headlined with dates reveal Heloise in the present day and Helen, the struggling young woman who transforms into Heloise, is captured in the past. But it becomes swiftly apparent that the present informs the past, rather than the other way around. Heloise believes she is in control. She’s thought out her business and her demeanor, but we come to wonder how she allows so many people, ranging from the imprisoned Val to a prostitute who works for her, to take advantage of her. This is a very thoughtful book about the follies of trying to know or outthink everything, which applies to all quarters. Lippman also gets bonus points for including one of the most creative paper shredding contraptions I’ve ever seen in fiction. (Bat Segundo interview with Lippman, August 2012)

lizmooreheftLiz Moore, Heft: Last year, a research team at the University of Buffalo conducted a study with 140 undergraduates which suggested that fiction causes readers to feel more empathy towards others. Empathy seems to be getting a bad rap in fiction these days, especially among some enfants terribles who seem to believe that novels are more about slick heartless style rather than human existence. On the flip side, you have the gushing New Sincerity movement, in which people are interested in mashing irony and sincerity into a roseate sandwich. These strange tonal prohibitions on what one should or should not do in a novel drive me up the wall. If you’re spending so much of your time second-guessing how you should write, then how can ever achieve any original viewpoint? So it was with great joy and relief to discover Liz Moore’s wonderfully endearing novel early in the year about Arthur Opp, a 550 pound man who has not left his Greenwood Heights home in more than a decade and a teenager from a troubled upbringing. Heft proves, first and foremost, that caring about people has little to do with falling along an irony/sincerity axis. Moore told Jennifer Weiner that writing about Arthur let her “write sentences I would have felt self-conscious about writing.” And it (Bat Segundo interview with Moore, February 2012)

jesswalter3Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins: “But aren’t all great quests folly? El Dorado and the Fountain of Youth and the search for intelligent life in the cosmos –- we know what’s out there. It’s what isn’t that truly compels us.” As America slogs its way out of a recession, it was a great relief to read a book hitting romance from so many angles. Walter understands that true quests aren’t necessarily measured in time and distance, but in hope. Beyond Walter’s funny descriptive details (“table-leg sideburns,” “the big lamb-shank hand of Pelle”) which mimic the larger-than-life hyphenated banter found in a Hollywood script, Walter is so good on the page that he allows a film producer to seduce us through a cliche-ridden memoir containing such dimebag philosophy as “We want what we want.” (Bat Segundo interview with Walter, July 2012)

Chris Ware, Building Stories: The box contains no instructions. The pieces range in size and can be read in any order. The characters have no names. The illustrations are beautiful. The form is paper, but that doesn’t stop Ware from reflecting on where digital technology is taking us, both in stark and in speculative terms. There is pain and pleasure and cycles and secret history. There is loneliness and togetherness. My partner and I spent an entire Saturday sifting through this box. We felt compelled to talk more about life. As the pieces were carefully unpacked, we began to treat the comics with an unanticipated reverence, even though there was no way we would never fully know the people that Ware had rendered. Building Stories is the rare prayer that grabs the lapels of the secular. It is your duty to give a damn. It is your duty to feel. (Bat Segundo interview with Ware, November 2012)

Honorable Mention:

Jami Attenberg, The Middlesteins
Brian Evenson, Immobility
Richard Ford, Canada
Nick Harkaway, Angelmaker
Katie Kitamura, Gone to the Forest
J. Robert Lennon, Familiar
Stewart O’Nan, The Odds
Nick Tosches, Me and the Devil
Karolina Waclawiak, How to Get Into the Twin Palms
Adam Wilson, Flatscreen

cathychung

The Bat Segundo Show: Catherine Chung

Catherine Chung appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #442. She is most recently the author of Forgotten Country.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he left his car keys in Korea.

Author: Catherine Chung

Subjects Discussed: How Forgotten Country emerged from multiple stories, finding inspiration from disappearance, mysterious ghost monks that couldn’t float their way into the narrative, getting to know a character’s family by telling other stories, bad fictional boyfriends, Korean American identity as seen through reflection, character depth that springs from an aesthetic, how Chung keeps her characters separate from her identity, drawing from emotional experience, the difficulties of finding details in grief, losing your parents, giving additional details to personal experience, loneliness expressed as a dialogue between author and characters, growing up in the Midwest, “Chinaman Costumes,” racist products sold at chain stores, being surprised by people speaking against injustice, first-generation Korean Americans and second-generation Korean Americans, being bullied while growing up, being pushed into a brick wall, how schools used to react to bullying, dwelling on childhood incidents, moving around a lot as a kid, not being accepted, changing perceptions of bullying over the past few decades, grief as a way of understanding cultural identity, “From the Ruins,” whether any city or location can offer true respite, escaping to Leipzig, poorly buried corpses during the Korean War, animal-based mythology, how the subconscious fits personal anecdotes into fiction, unanticipated symbols which emerge in life, paying attention to things that seems like signs, the burdens of an analytical subconscious, finding the mathematical precision within sentences, Chung’s math background, the messier process of half-formed thoughts, the difficulties of not knowing, whether or not block is productive, obsessively circling a problem, Csikszentmihalyi and flow, using the least amount of words possible in a sentence, being concerned with a readership, how style is shaped through unexpected means, abuse and ambiguity, the creative showdown between God Cathy and Janie’s Voice, the troublesome results of divine creative intervention, and control in fiction and in life.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I know that Forgotten Country emerged from a number of different stories that you were working on at the same time. You have, of course, this idea of the boy falling out the window, which is at the very beginning. The mysterious hermit girl who crops up later in this book. And then you also have this story that was inspired by your father’s sister, who disappeared when you were a child. It’s really interesting to me that, first of all, these stories fused their way together into a novel and that, secondly, this came before this massive family unity of complicated relationships. So I’m curious, first and foremost, if you could describe how these stories came together in novel form and how you were able to fuse them together, and whether you needed some of these orbiting asteroids to circle around and become the planetary family unit.

Chung: Yeah. Well, you make it sounds as if I did it so intentionally.

Correspondent: (laughs) No, it never is intentional, of course. But I’m wondering how the connections came about.

Chung: Yeah. I think that they came about after a lot of time. There’s one character telling all these separate stories. And that’s what linked them. I didn’t really know what they were doing with each other or how they were related. There are other stories that were also in this book that eventually dropped out.

Correspondent: Oh really? Like what?

Chung: So there was a flying ghost monk.

Correspondent: Really?

Chung: Yeah. He was eradicated fairly early on. But he was totally in there and for a long time, he was carrying a great deal of weight in terms of just the number of pages.

Correspondent: That’s quite a feat, given that he was a ghost.

Chung: Yeah. He was a ghost. He was on a trek to find his lost daughter. And that was one of those stories I realized in my mind was related to the other three stories, right? Because all those stories are about loss and about trying to find what’s been lost once you’ve moved on. It’s almost impossible to do that. But in terms of the narrative arc, he didn’t work. And part of the reason he didn’t work was because the main narrator really was Janie, who was the protagonist and the narrator of the novel. Because he was carrying on his own story and I thought, “Well.”

Correspondent: You can’t very well have him being narrated by Janie.

Chung: Yeah. And in my mind, he was related. But in terms of the book, he didn’t fit.

Correspondent: So how then did the family come about if Janie was the narrator for these three stories?

Chung: Ah! Because she’s totally preoccupied by her family.

Correspondent: Oh, I see. In the act of telling these other stories, you got to know her family.

Chung: Yeah! That’s exactly right. These are the stories that I was really interested in. But the other stories that she was also interested in, I had to create a character who could tell these stories. But I think that she was interested in these stories because of the light they shed on her own experience. And as she told these stories, she’s sort of a secretive, hard-to-get-to-know person. So these were the stories that she wanted to tell. But then there were these underlying stories of her own life that came to play as she was telling them.

Correspondent: And allowed you to work out the connections with the sister, with the aunt, and so forth. Well, this leads me to wonder, did you have the competitive relationship between the sisters in place before the father-daughter relationship? Which of those came first?

Chung: Which of those came first? I think that the father-daughter relationship came first. Hannah’s disappearance came first.

Correspondent: Of course.

Chung: It was the absolute first thing to happen. But their competitive nature came as I was discovering why Hannah would leave and why it would be difficult to find her. I discovered what their issues were.

Correspondent: It’s interesting that competitiveness would come from disappearance. (laughs)

Chung: Yeah! And I think that the competitiveness also arose not early on in the novel — but I think Janie gets jealous with all the attention that’s focused on Hannah while she’s missing.

Correspondent: You were mentioning ghosts earlier. We’re talking about disappearance.

Chung: Yeah.

Correspondent: I’m wondering if subtraction might in fact be the way for you to pinpoint what a story or what, in this case a novel is all about.

Chung: That’s a really interesting point. I think that a lot of what I’m interested in and a lot of what I focus on is what’s missing or what’s longed for. Or what’s gone.

Correspondent: Were there any instances when you were writing this where you simply had too much and you had to remove an element? I mean, we were talking earlier…

Chung: Like a flying ghost monk.

Correspondent: Like a flying ghost. Or a character perhaps. Or some angle that just didn’t allow you to get that emotional precision that I think is there throughout the book.

Chung: Yeah. I was thinking the other day just about how many pages I removed. And I would say the book is about 300 pages, but I think I must have deleted at least six or seven hundred. Probably more like a thousand as I was going through the drafts. So entire storylines fell out. Like the flying ghost monk. There was a character. Janie’s love interest also ended up getting cut out.

Correspondent: Oh, I see.

Chung: And so as I went…

Correspondent: Is this the guy in college? Or just another love interest?

Chung: No, it was another love interest.

Correspondent: Oh! Another love interest!

Chung: There was another.

Correspondent: What was he like?

Chung: What was he like? Well, you know, I think he wasn’t all that interesting. Which is why I took him out. He wasn’t really holding his weight. I realized it wasn’t about him.

Correspondent: Well, I also wanted to ask about Hannah. The thing that’s fascinating to me about her is that she almost seems like a reflection of Janie. I mean, I think specifically about the scene in the hotel elevator, where Hannah follows her in and is essentially tailing her and mimicking her. And then you also have Hannah, which is a palindrome.

Chung: Yeah.

Correspondent: But also you observe of her at another point in the book, “how strangers, even adult men, would pause in the street to look at her, and how easily she held their attention.” So she’s also, on the other hand, resistant to Korean food. Which leads me to also wonder if her reflective nature came to mimic the idea of America or an American identity mimicking the original Korean identity that Janie has. And I’m wondering if you could talk about if Hannah came from almost a reflective pool from dwelling on Janie like this.

Chung: That’s such an interesting question, and one I haven’t heard yet. But I think that’s exactly it. Or at least that’s the source or the core of Janie’s resentment to Hannah. I think that because Hannah not only reflects Janie, but also gets to do some of the things that Janie doesn’t get to, but would like to, Janie feels that that’s been taken from her. That she only gets to be a certain kind of person because Hannah has already taken this other part of her. This reflection, exactly as you’re saying, is reflecting some part of her that is also slightly different. And so Janie is very competitive and jealous about that. But I also think that that link that you made to how her Americanness is a reflection of how her Koreanness could be a reflection is also very interesting. Because of the ways in which people change or mimic each other or come to copy an idea of what they should be. So, yeah, those were things that were with me the whole time that I was writing this book. And I just think that it’s really cool that you picked up on that.

Correspondent: But when you considered Hannah, did she first come to you as this aesthetic person? And did you need to flesh her out by this reflective thing we’re talking about? By imbuing in her some sense of her being looked at by other people? By people who were not, in fact, Janie?

Chung: Maybe. And I think that the thing that I kept getting caught on with this question is that I have often thought of both Janie and Hannah as reflections of parts of myself as well.

Correspondent: Yes. Of course. They’re your secret sisters. (laughs)

Chung: Yeah! Who live inside my head. But I was interested in Hannah as the object of attention, right? As a kind of reflection. And I think part of Hannah’s problem is that it’s hard for her to — and Janie’s problem as well — it’s for them to think of themselves, or they get tripped up on the way that they’re being looked at by other people. And it’s hard when you see yourself as a reflection. Because then what are you?

The Bat Segundo Show #442: Catherine Chung (Download MP3)

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