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

lizmoore

The Bat Segundo Show: Liz Moore

Liz Moore appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #434. She is most recently the author of Heft.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Swelling with untapped emotional weight.

Author: Liz Moore

Subjects Discussed: Emotional sincerity through a twin narrative, Mary Gordon, McNally Jackson, “grotesque” characters, Flannery O’Connor, complicated relationships with food in the developed world, body image issues, the perception of physicality, researching addictions and obsessions, Harper Lee, Beverly Cleary, Holden Caulfield, masculinity as a virtue and as a pathetic quality, feminine qualities, being the strong person in a relationship, emotional sensitivity, Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, looking at the failings of our contemporary world through children, broken families and togetherness, the necessity of breaking a character in some way, the difficulties of generating plot, mystery narratives, maintaining a stacked series of coincidences, writing insecurities, ensuring the believability of events, imposing incidents, shifting back-and-forth on the book’s ending (not revealed in this conversation: don’t worry!), parallel character qualities, red herrings, readers who impose their own notions of authenticity, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, confusing sentiment with sentimentality, writing nasty and unlikable characters, the necessity of liking your characters, sincerity as a revolutionary act in 2012, Gordon Lish and style-oriented fiction, modernist writers, reading James Joyce as a teenager, “The Dead,” “Counterparts,” how different readers choose different favorite stories from Dubliners, giving Arthur a monied background, various characters who give Kel money, how money changes everything, withholding godlike interventions when writing fiction, an early version of Heft written in the third person, first person vs. third person, The Words of Every Song, playing around with third-person, the influence of music upon writing, listening to lots of jazz, dashed dialogue, artificially congealed viewpoints, working at a guitar shop, the best places to observe people, being easily distractable, peripheral hearing, writing exercises from Colum McCann, teaching, the meanness of people who stare through other people and pretend that they don’t exist, people who cry by themselves, the giddy embrace of an old friend, the relationship between observation and imagination, when your friends begin to die, when your friends get married and having kids, increasingly delayed marriage among twentysomethings, and assorted existential possibilities.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I was curious, first of all, about a certain quality in this novel that is channeled through these two very different perspectives. You have, of course, Arthur, who is this man who is an ex-professor. He is just under 600 pounds. You have this kid, Kel, who has an alcoholic mother and the like. What’s interesting to me is that these types of perspectives in another author’s hands might almost be grotesque or caricaturish. Yet there’s a good deal of emotional sincerity to this work. And I’m wondering what you did to get that. I mean, is it a matter of knowing the characters extremely well before you set out on this journey to describe their intertwined fates? What of this? Let’s start from there.

Moore: Sure. Well, it’s interesting that you use the word “grotesque.” Because last night, actually, I had an event at McNally Jackson with Mary Gordon. It was a conversation with Mary Gordon. And I used the word “grotesque” to describe the characters.

Correspondent: Aha!

Moore: And she looked at me. She correct me and said, “They’re not grotesque. Not in the literary sense.” They’re not grotesque the way Flannery O’Connor’s characters are grotesque because neither one of them is mean or intentionally malevolent in a way. So I think they both have good intentions. And despite the fact that Arthur is certainly grotesque-looking, I think his internal life or his interior life is — I don’t know. There’s something pathetic about him in a way. But I like to think that his thoughts kind of save him from whatever lack of appeal he has physically. I hope his interior life is appealing in some way.

Correspondent: The thing is: I read this and I was both conscious and not conscious of Arthur’s physicality. I mean, he describes it also on a compartmentalized level. Like he’ll sometimes describe his belly or he’ll describe what he eats more so than who he is. I mean, he is what he eats. And I guess this goes back to the question of emotional sincerity and how you managed that. Whether this is the way to turn any physicality into something more. To nail that. I mean, four years is a long time to work on a book. So I’m curious.

Moore: Yeah. You’re talking about how…

Correspondent: How you put yourself on the line emotionally. Yeah.

Moore: Well, it was difficult. So, okay, I am not obese. I know this is a radio interview. But I’m not. And so I think some people have asked me, I guess, a two-part question. One is how I know what it’s like to be obese or to compulsively overeat. And the other is what right do I have to write from that perspective — in the same way that you might ask somebody why am I writing from the point of view of men. What authority do I have to do that?

Correspondent: I’m more in the former camp. (laughs)

Moore: You’re more in the former camp. Okay. Well, I’ll say this. I think it is impossible in the developed world not to have a somewhat messed up relationship with food. So I’ll say this. Because I’m a woman, from my point of view, every woman that I know has some sort of messed up relationship with food or I can imagine very clearly what it would be like to let go and to go to the very extreme place I can imagine food-wise and to just say, “That’s it. I’ve given up. I’m done restricting what I eat. And therefore I’m just going to eat whatever it is that I want.” And ao, in a sense, that was easy to imagine. Because I have imagined it. I mean, I don’t want to speak for every woman or every person. But I think it’s a place that I could easily imagine myself going. And so investing those thoughts into Arthur was easy. I’ve had them. In terms of his physicality, I guess that was more imaginary. But even again, we all loathe. I think he’s a self-loathing character. And we all loathe certain parts of ourselves. Even our own bodies. I mean, I have spent energy in my life loathing certain parts of myself. So that too comes, even though it’s not extreme, I’m —

Correspondent: Such as what?

Moore: I’m some place on the spectrum of both those things.

Correspondent: What is it that you loathe about yourself that you can draw from?

Moore: My physicality — if you want me to get specific? No, I’m not going to get specific.

Correspondent: Okay. No problem.

Moore: But there’s…

Correspondent: I’m just trying to get a general idea here.

Moore: Yeah. I mean, just growing up as a young woman, you fixate. You almost disconnect certain parts of your body from yourself. You disconnect. You fixate on whatever part of your body you imagine to be grotesque — to use that word again. And you just…you spend a lot of time and energy detaching yourself from it or imagining it as some thing outside of yourself. And I guess that I think Arthur does that a lot by describing his failure, his gut. The way he describes it. Or describing his chins. Or describing the way that his gut hangs down between his legs when he sits down. That’s almost something outside of himself. I mean, it is outside of him. But the way I have, or people in general sometimes think of their bodies as not being part of themselves, as being something else, interests me. And that’s what I was imagining when I was writing Arthur.

Correspondent: But for his specific feelings and thoughts on food — especially the early incident with the chocolate eggs that is late in the book — I mean, did you talk to people who are overweight? Did you observe? Or did you draw from this sense of the imagination or this transposition of your own experiential point of view?

Moore: I did not go out and intentionally binge ever in researching this character. Although that would have been a good excuse to. If I really wanted to.

Correspondent: Yes. “I’m having that second bowl of ice cream, dammit!” (laughs)

Moore: Research! I didn’t do that. I know what it’s like to. From history. And I know people who are overweight. And more than that though. I know people who have had addictions. And when I think of Arthur — I mean, he doesn’t just eat too much. He has an addiction to food. And to other things too. To isolation and solitude and to being inside of his home. He’s certainly, I would say, agoraphobic on some level. And other characters in the book have addictions too. And so I was drawing from, when I say my own experience of addiction, I don’t mean my own addictions, but my personal experience with people who have had addictions. I wouldn’t call it research. Because it’s just been part of my life. And the research that I did tended to be more technical. Like I spoke to a couple of different doctors about the medical consequences of obesity and also the medical consequences of long-term alcoholism. There’s another character in the book who’s an alcoholic. And also, without giving too much of the plot away, I had to research some medical interventions. Emergency treatments and stuff like that.

Correspondent: You don’t necessarily have to have your left tail in your car go out in order to actually write about it. Or did you?

Moore: Never had my left taillight in my car out. Good memory. That’s outstanding. And I’ve never punched anyone. And I’ve never… (laughs)

Correspondent: Punched by accident too.

Moore: I’ve never…I’ve never…well, now we’re getting into too many plot points. But I think every author that I’ve ever spoken to will say that personal experience is what invests the book with its energy. But certainly very little of this book is autobiographical.

Correspondent: Would you say, especially with Kel, that it has been drawn from reading, for example, of Harper Lee? There’s a Cleary in there. Beverly Cleary?

Moore: Oh, I love that. Beverly Cleary. (laughs)

Correspondent: I’m wondering, I suppose, if the muse in a sense wasn’t just the transposition theory I have offered, but also a lot of reading and wanting to capture that feeling of what it is to be young so that you can have this emotional sincerity alive on the page with Kel.

Moore: Yeah. I mean, I’ve heard Kel compared to Holden Caulfield and angry young man type characters, and I’m sure that I’ve been influenced over the years by a lot of the young — I guess the most famous adolescent characters in history. I think it’s impossible to avoid. But for me, he comes out of a lot of kids I grew up with, many of whom had very serious burdens that they were carrying around. But especially the young men, who had to perform this kind of extreme bravado. Especially the athletes too. There’s something so sad and kind of pathetic, again, I guess you could use that word again, about watching kids, young kids, being externally macho or externally tough and internally just torn apart and really sad and lonely and needing help and having to still be tough.

Correspondent: Masculinity’s a pathetic quality? Not just that quality in youth — speaking as a man, we all have our little moments, I suppose. But why do you find it to be pathetic? I mean, maybe I’m not viewing it that way — in large part because I found the book to also really grapple with issues of sensitivity in these characters. So maybe this is a way to anchor what you might view as pathetic.

Moore: Yeah. I think masculinity can be a virtue in a lot of cases. But I think it’s the idea of having to perform it when you don’t feel it. Or perform an extreme version of it or something that is pathetic and that makes me sad to see. Mostly it makes me sad to see in children.

The Bat Segundo Show #434: Liz Moore (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced