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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Laura Lippman (The Bat Segundo Show)

Laura Lippman is most recently the author of And When She Was Good. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #280.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why some firm is checking his references.

Author: Laura Lippman

Subjects Discussed: Chekhov’s rule, Donald E. Westlake, creating a specific type of prostitution ring for a novel, how deadly paper shredders have been used in narrative, The Temp, being a failed perfectionist, the impossibility of writing a perfect novel, Ian McEwan’s problematic recent novels, The Most Dangerous Thing, taking greater care with sentences, sentences which convey detail, the alternating chapter structure in And When She Was Good, technique as a role model, talk show radio bumpers as an unexpected inspiration, Howard Stern, creating nontextual outlines, the benefits of very long pieces of paper, missing pieces in early drafts, how the past informs the present and the present informs the past, motherhood as an essential character quality, the problems that arise when one’s life is revealed, pregnancy as the opportunity for the great do-over, “If you have to stop to consider the lie, the opportunity has passed,” defining characters by lies and opportunity, swear jars, being a borderline atheist, rabbis and religious education, sitting in a wine bar during happy hour, affording the luxury of friendship, American touchstones throughout And When She Was Good, amateur Civil War enthusiasts, whether Heloise is defined by the American fabric, people who were interested in military history, adultery in a McDonald’s drive-thru, the desecration of marriage, looking to other businesses for inspiration for Heloise’s prostitution ring, parallels between matchmaking service, prostitution rings and lobbying, business acumen vs. relationship acumen, Baltimore laundry services that refused to take new customers, checking references for prostitution, the bizarre qualities of high-end consumer goods, rappers and Burberry raincoats, myths and truths concerning the 1%, Romney-Ryan, voting for a presidential candidate against your own interests, having a comfortable living, the Princeton study citing $75,000 as the magical income for happiness, Lippman’s early career as a reporter, working part-time in an Italian restaurant, diabolical marshmallow mixes in fiction and and in life, how the rich experience time differently, time vs. money, whether time is the great equalizer, sex workers and workers’ compensation, the Australian civil servant who earned workers’ comp for an accident while having sex, the increasing American tendency to waive jury trial and class action suits, the pros and cons of legalizing prostitution, brothel tourism in Spain, being guided by belief, personal blind spots, foolish beliefs and autodidacticism, reading a list of books, the arrogance of self-made people, Tom Clancy’s ego, the hubris of plaintiff’s attorneys, actors who carry around Faulkner books to prove that they have something else going on, juxtaposing the American dream against violence, how a little bit of information can turn an accountant into a creep, confronting the place where you grow up, and being unmoored from domestic conversations.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Chekhov has this famous rule — or so I have heard — that if you introduce a gun, it should go off near the end of the actual story. And in your book, we have a very intriguing paper shredder contraption that is installed beneath a false bottom in a file cabinet. This leads me to ask you. When you came up with this idea, did you have Chekhov’s rule in mind? But it also leads me to ask you: because when we talked before, you told me that you read the entirety of your manuscript aloud before you submitted it. So how does this fastidiousness and Chekhov’s law apply to an element like the paper shredder? When you have a book such as this one, where you’re exploring character in depth, I’m wondering if there’s a little bit more liberalism in mind when it comes to this extremely tight, one might say perfectionism that has entered into your writing process. So just to start off here, what are your thoughts on these multifarious matters?

Lippman: I’m glad you mentioned Chekhov. Because I actually did have that in mind. Just yesterday, I talked with my sister, who is a bookseller and a very careful, methodical reader. She doesn’t read quickly. So she does read carefully. And she said, “You know at the time I wondered why there was so much detail. But if you’d never come back to it, I never would have thought about it. But when you came back to it, and when I realized why all that detail had been lavished on the furnishings of her office in the particular design of these paper shredders and cabinets.” She said, “I wondered if that was an homage to Chekhov.” And I said, “Yes! Thank you.” Because at the time, she was the first person who had noticed that. When I came up with that, I mentioned it to my husband, who’s a writer, and he said, “I don’t know. It sounds a little James Bond to me.”

Correspondent: Really?

Lippman: I said, “No, no, it’s very pragmatic. I’ve really thought a lot about this.” I mean, I’ve said this before. I mentioned it in the book afterwards. One of my heroes was Donald Westlake. And he maintained that if you were very thoughtful about your characters and your situations, you would make it credible — even to people who knew a lot about certain things — if you were true to your characters. If you just sat in your chair and thought hard. Such an old-fashioned idea in writing fiction these days. And so in everything about this book, I sat in my chair and I thought hard. It’s funny to me that, now that the book is out in the world, there’s an emphasis on “Well, Laura Lippman used to be a reporter. So she really knows a lot about the world of sex workers.” I did do research. I did learn some things. I’m by no means an expert on prostitution. I am an expert on the rather peculiar form of prostitution that I created for this book. I sat in my chair. I thought hard about what kind of business this character would create. And that led me to her paper shredders. Even to the detail that they are built by a Polish man who never smiles, but she thinks she sees a wisp of one when he understands the design that she has handed him.

Correspondent: And you point to the fact that there’s a relentless power supply. I think the fact is that you go to such degrees to describe the details of this paper shredder that one becomes willing to accept it, although actually I thought it was a bizarre yet cool idea. Because I had never seen that. Did you encounter any homegrown paper shredder setup like this at all? Ever? Did you ask around?

Lippman: No, but if you have a paper shredder and you read the warnings — especially because a small child had come into my life — I thought a lot about someone’s hand being inserted. Not to give too much away, but I don’t think people would be surprised. It’s not the what of it, but the who of it.

Correspondent: The Temp had a very good paper shredding scene.

Lippman: (laughs)

Correspondent: There’s that cheeseball movie, The Temp, from the 90s. You remember this? There’s an infamous paper shredder….”Auggghhhh!!!!”

Lippman: I didn’t realize that. But they warn you about your tie.

Correspondent: Yes. Exactly.

Lippman: And the average one that most people of us have in our home offices would probably be quite painful but not do real damage. And the idea — it does make sense that she would want a way to, with a turn of the key, be able to wipe out the paper files that she’s been obligated to keep. Just as, now I won’t remember because I do have a poor memory, but I was reading a crime novel recently. And someone said, “Now I’m not going to let you touch the computer. Because I know that there’s a way to wipe out a computer with a few commands. And the computer has now been seized as evidence.” This is a book that’s very much about the hubris of control, of believing one’s self to be in control, of thinking that one can anticipate every single contingency. So it’s very hard for me to think of myself as a perfectionist. Because alongside the other members of my family, alongside my own husband, I am a failed perfectionist. I’m much looser than everyone else I know and consider myself to be quite a mess.

Correspondent: Perfectionism, however, can come from a more relaxed, legato mode, I would argue. I have talked to numerous writers who are extremely concerned about their sentences, but not nearly as concerned about plot. And people have differing levels of what they bring to the table. I think, all writers do. So is this really something to define yourself by as a writer? Is this really something that we should define this novel by?

Lippman: I would actually encourage most writers to abandon perfectionism. It’s obviously impossible. And I think it was Stephen King who said once that the reason you write another novel is because you can’t write a perfect novel. And so the paradox of perfectionism is that, if you’ve achieved your goal, then you would stop being a writer. You have to stop if you could, in fact, produce a perfect novel. And there are some writers in the world who it almost seems as if that happened to them. You see writers who didn’t write again after producing beloved and almost perfect works.

Correspondent: Or who are burdened by the prospect of writing a perfect novel every time. I mean, I’ll name a name so you don’t have to. Ian McEwan. I feel that this has happened to his work. And it’s been disheartening to watch him try to write perfect novels and, because of that, have his voice compromised by these very hyperstylized sentences that get in the way of the life that he has previously been so good at.

Lippman: I mean, I wish I could credit it, because I don’t remember who said it, but it was something I heard at the Theakstons Old Peculier Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. Which is that the book you write is a reaction to the last book you wrote. And so I think coming off a book like The Most Dangerous Thing, which had ten or eleven points of view depending upon how one wants to count it and was deliberately a very slow book — what I had said to myself is “I want to write a fast book. I want to write a pageturner. I want it to be highly entertaining.” And I availed myself of some larger-than-life details and some larger-than-life characters. And I really wanted to have fun. Although then as I got into this book, I could make it fast. I could achieve the pace that I was after. I found that I really could make Heloise’s world fun. And it was my husband who gave me advice, which he almost never does by the way. That’s really rare. And at one point, he said, as I was getting launched into the novel, “Don’t make her benign. Her world’s not benign.” You know, the fact that the women who work for her get health insurance doesn’t erase everything else about prostitution. And it’s not a business that one can be in and thrive in with clean hands. And I thought that was pretty good advice.

(Photo: Annie Chernow)

The Bat Segundo Show #478: Laura Lippman II (Download MP3)

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