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

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A.M. Homes (The Bat Segundo Show)

A.M. Homes is most recently the author of May We Be Forgiven. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #58 and The Bat Segundo Show #115.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Seeing if there’s anyone left to forgive him.

Author: A.M. Homes

Subjects Discussed: May We Be Forgiven as an update to White Noise, Nixon as a replacement for the Holocaust, Don DeLillo’s influence, Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon, David Greenberg’s Nixon’s Shadow, the evolution of televised presidential debates, growing up with Nixon as the first President on one’s consciousness, how personal commentary has replaced professional commentary, references to David Lynch in May We Be Forgiven, This Book Will Save Your Life, families as an inevitable narrative solution, how a series of calamities unexpectedly transformed into dimensional character, the picaresque qualities of The Adventures of Augie March, knowing when a protagonist has a path, turning uninteresting lumps into vivid people, Paul Slovak’s input as editor, being asked to add material to the manuscript, finding hope and battling literature, including vaguely surreal qualities that are real, the South African bar mitzvah as cultural triangulation, being taught by Grace Paley, taking Yaddo people of all ages to play Laser Tag, John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” Blake Bailey, Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That, the hunger for lost communication, media and narrative in relation to existence, fashioning a narrative based off quotidian minutiae, Instagram, how American fiction responds to the predicament of snapshot-based life, men who write big books, assumptions about women writing domestic novels, George’s homicidal impulses, unusual psychiatric institutions within May We Be Forgiven, when a novel adopts a hostile stance to therapy, Homes’s enrollment in a prison survival class, Erving Goffman’s Asylums, having a lifelong fear of ending up in jail, the burdens of being an outsider, how outsiders become insiders, Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, why even outsiders even needed to be rooted, balancing being an insider with being an outsider, the responsibilities of being a Girl Scout leader, when trying to be like other people doesn’t come naturally, operating within a system, growing up in an upper middle class suburb, having socialist parents, lunatics who believe in rational conversation, simple anti-Thanksgiving food contained within May We Be Forgiven, fish sticks, Nixon and China, the dangers of stereotypical Chinese characters, George Shima*, working the cultural and the psychological fiction angles rather than the socioeconomic ones, Chinese manufacturing, the women who are attracted to Harry Silver, whether empathy gives promiscuity a distinction, the inevitability of family history, Homes being judgmental to her characters, how viewpoints change with age, pretending that you don’t have a family, and when parents interfere within telephone calls at inopportune moments.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You’ve got this guy named Harry Silver. He’s a Nixon Studies scholar. And this, together with a homeless version of Don DeLillo who crops up in the book, suggests a deep connection to, of course, White Noise. And I wanted to ask you about this. To what extent would you say this novel serves almost as an update to White Noise? And has Nixon replaced the Holocaust as the go-to reflective tragedy in American life?

Homes: That’s a very enormous and large and interesting question. Did you say a homeless DeLillo?

Correspondent: Well, he’s like a homeless DeLillo. He’s a ragged DeLillo in the book.

Homes: Well, he’s not homeless.

Correspondent: Well…

Homes: He’s a wandering DeLillo.

Correspondent: A wandering DeLillo. All right. A vagabondish DeLillo.

Homes: In fact, in my mind, I’m stressing that. Because I thinking that the novel takes place quite near where DeLillo lives in reality. So I’m sure that he’s well housed.

Correspondent: Is DeLillo apprised of your narrative tinkering here?

Homes: I’m not sure.

Correspondent: Along with David Remnick and all the others. Lynne Tillman even shows up.

Homes: I think they’re dimly aware and soon will be more aware.

Correspondent: They certainly will be very soon. But anyway, White Noise.

Homes: The bigger question.

Correspondent: Nixon. Holocaust.

Homes: Right. You know it’s funny. I hadn’t thought about it directly in relation to White Noise, which I think conceptually or philosophically in terms of how I think of as a writer. Clearly, DeLillo is a huge influence. And it’s funny. You know how — I think it is in White Noise — there’s the big airborne incident? Which if you go back to Music for Torching, there’s that thing where they close off the house with the hazmat and all that stuff. It definitely comes out of that. But I think for me, the thing about DeLillo that’s so interesting — especially increasingly — is his ability to blend fact and fiction, and to combine the exploration of fact through the use of fictional characters. Like in Libra and in White Noise and in the last novel and in Underworld. So that definitely is a touchstone for me. I think the thing’s that interesting about Nixon as the defining American tragedy in some ways…

Correspondent: The only one people can remember.

Homes: Well, exactly. The only one that people can remember. But you know, what caught me off guard was that this year, Ann Beattie published the book Mrs. Nixon, which is very much a literary response not only to Mrs. Nixon, but to her own kind of evolution as a writer and a thinker. And I think that that book was in many ways was underreviewed or inappropriately reviewed or taken too much along the lines by Nixon scholars as being about Nixon and not enough as a literary exploration. But then also Tom Mallon wrote this book called Watergate: A Novel. So I think it’s odd that all of a sudden, without having spoken to each other, three people are launching Nixon-related fiction in a given year, which I think says that, yes, there is something about Nixon that is in some ways unresolved and that is representative of a classic American tragedy.

Correspondent: Well, I have to ask. How much research into Nixon did you do? Because I thought immediately of David Greenberg’s book, Nixon’s Shadow.

Homes: I don’t think I know that one.

Correspondent: Oh! It’s a really wonderful book that’s all about Nixon’s image. And I had developed this theory in my own head that you had actually read that book and said, “Well, I’ll make the brother a television executive.” Of course, if you look at Nixon from a purely straight standpoint, it was television that he learned to understand and therefore learned to master and become who he was.

Homes: It was also television that initially also undid him in the public eye.

Correspondent: Exactly. Unless, of course, you closed your eyes and listened to it on radio.

Homes: Well, right. So I wrote the other day this piece for one of the newspapers in England that talks about how after the Nixon/Kennedy debate, the people who heard it on radio thought that Nixon had won and the people who’d seen it on TV thought Kennedy had won. And that was the first ever, for TV, debate. But curiously after that, Nixon refused to debate again. So there was no debate. Then LBJ, also intimidated by it, refused to debate. It wasn’t until Gerald Ford in ’76 that the debates came back. And I think what’s so interesting is, we see right now in looking at the televised convention, we all know in a way how much the media plays a role in it. But the other piece we don’t even get to evaluate is how much the guy in the media truck plays a role in it. Because it’s also a lot about how that producer’s shots of the audience or what he cuts to or how they literally frame and deliver it to us. We’re not thinking about the choices that are made for us and that guide us in lots of ways that we don’t realize. So I find that all very interesting. For me, Nixon, weirdly, is a childhood thing. I grew up just at the edge of Washington DC and Nixon was the first President of my consciousness. And we took these class field trips to see Nixon greet the leader of France and things, and we’d be playing on the White House lawn while Nixon’s up there speaking. Because what did we know? Nothing. We were little, little kids. And we always used to see the Nixon girls in the shoe department at Saks, which funnily enough, Ann Beattie writes about the shoe department at Woodward & Lothrop was the opposite store from Saks in that neighborhood called Friendship Heights, just at the edge of Washington. It’s also things like I was at summer camp when Nixon resigned. In the South. And I remember this one counselor saying something like “I bet my mom was having a heart attack.” And I remember thinking, “That’s so odd. Because in Georgetown, I’m sure they’re having a party.” So just beginning to realize that the President wasn’t just the mayor of a town, but this much larger figure. So Nixon really for me evolved as part of my growing up, but also, curiously, there’s still more and more information about Nixon and Nixon’s presidency being unveiled. Which we don’t have usually to that degree of a President.

Correspondent: But there’s also this intriguing idea that you present in your book that I actually thought of last night in relation to the Democratic National Convention and watching Obama speak — last night would be when we are recording this. This is the first series of political conventions where now you’re required to participate in the commentary. On Twitter. I was tweeting up a storm. So was everybody else. And it’s a rather fascinating idea that, instead of actually studying or trusting other people to comment upon the actions, we are the ones who actually filter it. And people now seem to be watching CSPAN. They don’t necessarily trust the news. I mention this because, in light of what your book has to say about narrative — I want to get into this too. So little time. I’ll do my best. So you have at least three references to David Lynch in this book. You have the tied cherry stems. You have “blue velvet curtains.” You have a missing girl who shows up later, which is very reminiscent of Laura Palmer. And I said to myself, “Hmmm. Well, isn’t this interesting?” And isn’t it also interesting that you even have a firm show up. Herzog, Henderson & March. Which of course has us going back to Bellow. And, of course, you mentioned DeLillo earlier. What is the degree that narrative now plays in our life if we’re constantly commentating? Does fiction even have a place for reflection anymore? Or do we now have to, as you have with this book quite wonderfully, stuff our novels with commentary on all sorts of things so that people can commentate further? What of this?

Homes: You know, it’s a good question. And in many ways, I don’t actually know the answer. I mean, I think the idea of “Does fiction have a place?” is an important one. And I think people really don’t know anymore what the difference between fiction and nonfiction is. And often they’ll say, “So you wrote a fictional novel?” And I’m thinking, “That’s right.” Or they’ll say, “Is it all true?” And you think, “Well, it’s a novel.” So it’s very difficult. And I’m not sure that there is a sense of what the role of the novel is. It’s kind of in culture at this point. And it would be curious to actually try to think about what the evolution of that is. We’ve kind of lost that. Is it a result of the memoir? The idea that everything has to be a real thing. Reality TV. The impact of all these things. Have we moved away from an imagination? And my sense is that in many ways — I mean, I see this when I teach — people have forgotten what the imagination is and how to use it. It’s as though there’s not any trust in the idea of being able to make something that wasn’t there before, as though that’s too magical an idea, or how to use fiction and story to weave something together that is a heightened version of an unreal thing that is incredibly reflective of real experience in some way.

Correspondent: Well, I’m going to quote from This Book Will Save Your Life. You have the voiceover of the disaster film. “What you are about to see is a work of fiction. It has not yet happened and yet each of the elements represented are real. It was written using everything I know about the state of the world we live in, which means it’s coming soon.” So here we have in May We Be Forgiven, this notion of “coming soon.” Each of the elements are represented as real. I’m curious if this was in fact a problem in writing the book. Because the first half of the book has Harry engaged in one calamity after another. It’s this heap of abuse and he carries through. But then something rather interesting happens halfway through. Families are formed. Families are formed in the strangest of places. And every amount of narrative that you can actually heap upon Harry, going back to this idea of “coming soon,” well, it’s simply not enough for him to live as a character, as a human. So I’m wondering how this dilemma afflicted you during the writing of this and how this was your response. The idea of family, the idea of finding other people and creating this interesting snowball effect. So by the end, we have all these people in the house and so forth.

Homes: Right. That’s a good question. I’m not sure exactly what the question is. But I think the thing that was interesting for me is that this, in many ways, started as a short story. Not in many ways. It did start as a short story. So I feel like if you cause a tragic injury in the beginning, you have to raise the stakes. Because where do you go from there? On Page 20, there’s this gigantic upsetting incident. So part of it was that. And also the interesting thing for me as a writer was, early on, my difficulty with Harry was that I was writing about somebody who didn’t know himself. And it’s very hard to be led by a person who doesn’t know where they’re going. So I think as Harry began to unfold as a person, to himself actually, he became more of a character. A more open character to me as a writer. If that makes any sense. Because only by coming to some understanding of who he is and what’s happening to him is he then able to make the connections. And the connections are family and to build this family. And that’s both what slows him down and what begins to kind of ground it. And then you’re not rolling from calamity to calamity. And I think it’s very true of our lives as well. That we often live in reaction to things and things happen to us. And it’s very hard sometimes to get enough — I don’t know what you call it — traction to slow it down, to make choices or to take action or to not just be responding.

The Bat Segundo Show #486: A.M. Homes III (Download MP3)

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* — At the 36:29 mark, during an impromptu moment, Our Correspondent mistakenly referred to “Joe Shima” when he meant to refer to George Shima. George Shima was known as the Potato King of California and his story deserves more than the rushed reference offered by Our Correspondent. When the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — one of the most diabolically racist acts of legislation in our nation’s history — restricted Chinese laborers in the States, including those who had just come across the Pacific to work on the transcontinental railroad, several Japanese came across and took their place because of the domestic labor shortage. George Shima became a self-made millionaire. Our Correspondent suggested that Shima had fought the Chinese Exclusion Act, when he really fought against the California Alien Land Law years later (which restricted Asians from owning land), although he was quite vocal about many of the discriminatory laws during the line. Much of this is documented in Kevin Starr’s excellent volumes of California history. And if you would like to learn more about George Shima, there’s a good article here (PDF).