In alphabetical order:
Garner by Kirstin Allio: One of the most beautifully written books of the year (thank you, Dan Wickett, for cluing me in), jamming an incredible amount of human insight and intricate prose into its 232 pages. Not a single word has been wasted here. This is a novel to be savored and reread.
Veronica by Mary Gaitskill: It took me a while to get to it, but, like Carrie, I went apeshit over Veronica and am thus somewhat laconic in my response.
The Ha-Ha by Dave King: I read this book entirely by accident earlier in the year and was surprised that most litbloggers and end-of-the-year listmakers had neglected to include it. What makes this novel so remarkable is that King takes a high-concept melodramatic story concept (well, let’s be honest here: a Lifetime TV movie premise) and turns it into a meaningful tale of existential survival.
The Bright Forever by Lee Martin: Another book that was unfairly overlooked, Lee Martin’s intricate novel throws twists, interconnectedness, and multiple perspectives into its tale of a girl who has disappeared in a small town, eventually found murdered. Sure, there are some tonal similarities to Russell Bank’s The Sweet Hereafter. But when writing is this good, who really cares?
Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet: It is an extremely difficult thing to take an idea that is both gimmicky and a potentially didactic nightmare (Oppenheimer, Szilard and Fermi come to the 21st century to lead a campaign against nuclear weapons) and turn it into a meaningful novel, but Millet has written a very touching and remarkably nuanced book that juxtaposes the duplicities of governmental policy against the hard fought battles to think deeply about world issues and attempt reform in the face of indifference.
The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia: This book ends up on the list for its sincere experimentalism, its quiet metaphors (the limes, for one) and its sheer beauty in form. OPTR and TM talked this up earlier in the year. And you can see from their convos why Plascencia’s debut novel cuts the mustard.
Tricked by Alex Robinson: While a good deal of attention was devoted to David B’s Epileptic and the like, I was very surprised to see Alex Robinson’s wildly ambitious followup to Box Office Poison pretty much ignored. (Perhaps this was a distribution or publicity problem on Top Shelf’s end.) With Tricked, Robinson expands beyond his twentysomething focus (as well as his artwork) to take on six disparate people who are eventually united by a terrible tragedy.
The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders: This time around, Saunders seems to be channeling the spirit of Edwin A. Abbott. This short book is both an utterly hilarious parable (as one would expect from Saunders) and quite prescient in light of current events.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith: Far from a mere Forster homage, Smith’s third novel ties in the academic world, class, race and gender and turns out one of those rare books that is both entertaining and literary.
Europe Central by William T. Vollmann: While I am definitely on record as a hard-core Vollmannite, this book makes the list because of Vollmann’s fantastic blossoming as a novelist. Some critics condemned The Royal Family for being long and repetitive, but with Europe Central, Vollmann’s attention to detail has dramatically improved, without sacrificing his usual wide expanse (this time, covering nearly every known figure and event in Russia and Germany around World War II).