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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

jesswalter2

Jess Walter II (The Bat Segundo Show)

Jess Walter appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #465. He is the author of Beautiful Ruins and previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #163

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contemplating a trip to Italy to push his debauchery to the next level.

Author: Jess Walter

Subjects Discussed: The folly of great quests, whether true quests are measured in hope, not writing the same novel twice, starting a novel in 1997 and carrying on for the next fifteen years, Scientology, the “Psych!” moment in fiction, early versions of Beautiful Ruins, Walter’s experience as a cop reporter, Over Tumbled Graves, having to write several novels to get to the end of Beautiful Ruins, the importance of hovering central questions, hiking the Cinque Terre, having a 26 page explosive breakthrough in Italy, imposing a generous structure, the problems that come when you get sick of your characters after working on a novel for a long time, curing a novel’s frustrations by writing another novel, responding to the 2008 economic meltdown through fiction, plummeting house tax assessments, funneling anxieties into The Financial Lives of the Poets‘s Matt Prior, existing in a bubble, Albert Camus’s “The Wager of Our Generation,” marrying social concerns with entertainment, “table-leg sideburns” and other poetically entertaining descriptions, big fat American novels, the advantages of being unaware of the publishing industry or not having a MFA, Walter’s dubious bachelor’s degree, being a laugh whore, introducing social dilemmas to avoid cracking jokes all the time, pegging a writer’s DNA based on her ten favorite books, Kurt Vonnegut, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Joan Didion’s The White Album, secret trashy books that writers are inspired by, Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File, Clint Eastwood’s The Eiger Sanction, 1970s thrillers, the dramatic benefits of evil Nazi doctors, surprises of motive, the present literary stigma on melodrama, Martin Amis’s Lionel Asbo, being fond of riffs, Shane, Dee Moray and Rebecca De Mornay, the origins of names, Robert Evans, description which mimics Hollywood screenplay description, virtual adultery in The Financial Lives of the Poets and “pining for the digital hit” in Beautiful Ruins, capturing digital life in fiction, accidental zeitgeist moments, observing other people, characters who want to be younger better versions of themselves, writing short stories about fatherhood, looking for the specific angle for a novel, journalism vs. fiction, senility, the magpie method of novel writing, the Crispin Glover movie about the Donner Party, researching Richard Burton, Burton on The Dick Cavett Show, Louis Menand’s inspirational phrase, Robert Sellers’s Hellraisers: The Inebriated Life and Times of Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris & Oliver Reed. the freedom of writing about the dead, Michael Deane’s abandoned first chapter, “We want what we want,” using narrative fragments and “bad writing” to find poignancy within characters, feeling genuine about a story, writing a section of Beautiful Ruins without using a comma, deliberate efforts to write the world’s worst poetry, when people don’t think that they are the villains of their own story, inevitable actions, responding to Allegra Goodman’s charges about extending beats too long, pushing hard on the emotional buttons, the impossibility of the perfect novel, the inevitability of bad writing, reality shows based on Web concepts, collisions between high and low culture, emotions and language, the beauty of faded art, artistic compromises, and whether writing can ever fully capture romance.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I’d like to start off with a sentiment that’s expressed late in the book. Because I think it really encapsulates what this novel is about. “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.” And in this passage, you suggest that true quests aren’t measured in time and distance. They’re actually measured in hope. So to my mind, this is also a very good description of writing.

Walter: Yeah.

Correspondent: So I’m wondering how you counter this idea of knowing what’s out there while writing Beautiful Ruins. This notion of the quest that guided all these considerable styles, considerable characters, considerable decades, considerable locations — all crammed quite majestically into a 350 page narrative: what steps do you take to find that quest? And to make sure you’re not writing the same novel twice?

Walter: Well, I haven’t had a problem writing the same novel twice. The novel, I think, is very much a reflection of the way I work and the things that I think are important in fiction writing. And that passage you talk about, this novel I started in 1997 and I kept putting it down. So it was that journey. It was very much one of those quests that took me to different styles of writing, to different places, to Edinburgh, to Italy, to England, to different places in the United States. And every time I’d come back to it, the thing itself would kind of be about storytelling. Those “beautiful ruins” of the title are, to me, the artifacts that make up this piece. The lives are reflected in the stories that we tell about ourselves. So it was a bit of a meta experience for me, writing this. I kept feeling as if I was commenting upon the writing of the book itself through this big storytelling voice, this third-person omniscient, where I was able to just grab a character and tell you everything you needed to know about them. That idea of storytelling kept coming around in a big grand way.

Correspondent: 1997. So what shape, what direction, was what became Beautiful Ruins like back then? I ask because there’s this tantalizing bit at the very beginning. “Oh, Jess is going to write a Scientology satire, a sendup!” And then “Psych!” No, it’s that story at all. Nicely mimicking Lydia’s parallel story near the end. So this would explain, if you worked on it for so many years, why it became so mammoth and complex. But I’m wondering what the prototypical version of this looked like.

Walter: Yeah. I like the idea of having the word “Psych!” every three or four pages. Psych! You thought it was going to be this.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Walter: We may have to talk with the audio book people about that. I’ll just lean over the actor’s shoulder and say “Psych!” every few minutes.

Correspondent: That would probably be a good way to read the David Foster Wallace footnotes.

Walter: It would.

Correspondent: Psych!

Walter: Psych! But I went to Italy in 1997 before I published any novels. And I’d been working on two novels that would fail. That would just never be published. And this was my third failed novel in my mind. It was called at the time The Hotel Adequate View. My mom had been diagnosed with cancer. And I originally thought I would write a magical realism piece about a woman dying of cancer who goes to this small Italian village where, for some mystical reason, her cancer stops. And it was really just a way for me to take my mom to this place she’d never gotten to see. And then I was sort of tweaking with the idea. I didn’t want to write that book about my mom. But I still had this woman arriving at this village and this man Pasquale Tursi seeing her. And I had to figure out: “Who was this woman?” And my first book had been made into a miniseries on CBS. Ruby Ridge, in 1995. So I’d had my first dealings with Hollywood. And so I thought, “She’s an actress.” So in 1997, I had this idea she was an actress. I had already looked up Cleopatra. I thought she was part of that. I even had the parallel stories. But I really just hit a wall. I didn’t know how to write that novel then. It was more ornate than I think I was capable of doing. So I stepped aside and I wrote Over Tumbled Graves, which was a crime novel that I outlined. Like a lot of young writers, I was really teaching myself how to write a novel. And I didn’t have the chops then to write this book.

Correspondent: So out of this early version came this fixation on serial killers. That’s quite interesting. (laughs)

Walter: I had been a cop reporter.

Correspondent: Yeah, I know.

Walter: So I turned — I did what every young writer does. Write what you know. You don’t know Italy. You don’t know Hollywood. I lacked the confidence, I guess, to finish it. And I also didn’t know where the story was going. I mean, it becomes about the span of these lives. And I hadn’t had as much life as I’ve had now. I hadn’t had that span. So I wrote Over Tumbled Graves. When I finished it, I went back to The Hotel Adequate View. Still couldn’t crack it. Wrote Land of the Blind. Went back to it. Still couldn’t crack it. Wrote Citizen Vince. This kept happening on and on and on. Finally in 2008 — July of 2008 — I finished a draft of it. It was now called Beautiful Ruins. I gave it to a friend of mine. And I read it. And it still didn’t work. And so I set it aside and I wrote The Financial Lives of the Poets in about eight months. As a kind of palate cleanser. Because by now, it had grown to this puzzle with all these pieces that I could sort of intuit how they fit together. But I couldn’t quite get them to work in that way.

Correspondent: This is fascinating to me. So you had to write several novels to get to the end of this. To get to the end of the draft.

Walter: Yeah, right.

Correspondent: This suggests to me, perhaps, that, because you were mimicking several styles within the course of this book, each incremental step forward was almost a new style. Almost like a mini-novel, I suppose. Is that safe to say?

Walter: You know, not really. Because I would go back to the beginning…

Correspondent: Oh! Okay.

Walter: …and tear it up from the beginning. There’s not a sentence that exists which was in that original version.

Correspondent: Wow.

Walter: Every time I would go back to it, I’d be left with Pasquale and Dee. Most of the rest of it didn’t quite make sense to me. Michael Deane exists in some form. I probably discovered Richard Burton in about 2006, that I wanted to write about him. But there were just odds and ends and bits and pieces that would make their way into it. But it was more — it really was like a 3D puzzle that fits together. And while it’s sort of complex in structure, I never wanted it to be complex in narrative. I always wanted it to be a story that pushed forward. And there’s a central question. This couple meets. And are they going to get back together fifty years later? And as long as that was hovering over it, I felt like I could do all these other pieces. So I went to Italy again after I finished The Financial Lives of the Poets. I went to speak. A friend was teaching there and I went to speak at his class. And I hiked the Cinque Terre again. And I had this burst of understanding of what was missing. I stayed up and wrote 26 pages of my journal — my writing journal — of notes. And the last note I wrote was “It’s morning. The birds are chirping. I’ve stayed up all night.” And in there was a kind of outlined description of what I thought the novel should do. I didn’t follow all those rules. But it was a nice path to get me through this last burst of writing. And when I finished it this last time, I had a sense that this is it. This is the book that I wanted to write before I knew what it was.

Correspondent: So would you say, during this period of writing this novel and also writing several other novels, that really it was a matter, with Beautiful Ruins, of giving yourself permission to set down at least a tentative structure so you could actually push forward? Was that really the breakthrough with this?

Walter: Well, every writer knows that feeling of something that fails. And I never thought it was going to succeed. Honestly. Every time I hit a wall with it, I thought, “Well, that thing’s done.” Because I’ve had other novels that peter out after however many pages. So it wasn’t that I lacked the structure. Because I thought I knew what it was. It just didn’t work. And it just wasn’t right. And I always write two or three things at once. It’s my one superpower. That I’m a really good driver. So I write poems at the same time that I write essays, at the same time I write reviews, and I just sit at the desk. And if I’m stuck on one thing, I work on something else. So I’ve got two novels going now. And I don’t know which one will grab me.

Correspondent: A race to the finish.

Walter: Yeah. And I might finish it and decide it doesn’t work. But the structure I imposed on it the last time was a little more generous structure. I think I was even more indulgent with myself and trying on the reader in earlier drafts. And this time I said, I’m going to make sure that you’re rewarded when you have to start over and meet new characters. That when things come back around, there’s a payoff. And I knew that Alvis Bender, this writer from World War II, would figure in it. And I knew that I wanted to have a pitch for a film about the Donner Party. I knew these pieces. And so I trimmed a lot of those and made them shorter so it was less trying on the reader. I tried to make the connections more complete. And I always sensed that the novel would make or break on the last chapter when I had this idea, that I wrote in my journal in Italy in 2008, that everything would swirl back around in this big present tense.

The Bat Segundo Show #465: Jess Walter II (Download MP3)

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