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

buildingstories

Chris Ware (The Bat Segundo Show)

Chris Ware is most recently the writer and illustrator of Building Stories.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Learning how to wash his hands.

Author: Chris Ware

Subjects Discussed: The significance (or lack thereof) of the date September 23, 2000, technological reliance and its intrusion upon existence in Building Stories, the amount of time that humans presently stare into screens, the virtues of shapes and forms on paper, coming from a family of journalists, Ware’s decision to self-publish, the materials used in Building Stories, Ware’s affinity for small rectangular panels, the buildings that inspired the building, Charles Burns, losing track of time and space while drawing, temporal drift, Ira Glass and accusations of cliche, the pleasant frustration of not knowing the names of the Building Stories characters, people not saying Chris Ware’s name in his dreams, when characters are too defined by their names, flowers that grow along Illinois railways, SoundCloud, whether comics can compete with technology to encourage imagination, comics as a visually reductive medium to create a new language, Brandford the Bee and his influence as a narrative spirit, a fondness for circles, understanding other people, looking at animals for a very long time, empathy, Ware’s insistence on visual clarity, typography, operating from a place of uncertainty, Acme #20 and a character aging one year for every page, working with and without deadlines, how the Oak Park Public School system determines how much Ware turns out, observing the human world, parents who aren’t allowed to see their children as often as they need to, being in a privileged position, failed or aborted forms, Ware’s experiments with television, Ware’s difficulties in working with other people, cartooning as a singular art, whether there is an ideal medium for explicating or portraying human behavior, non-objective painting, representing a multilayered consciousness in comics, the physicality of doing the work, the frequency of Ware characters with afflicted or amputated legs, the creative inspiration which emerges from breaking legs, human frailties, and whether the human soul can be contained through illustration.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Is there any specific significance to the date September 23, 2000? I do know that a baseball player named Aurelio Rodriguez died that particular day.

Ware: Is that true? I didn’t know that. No, I picked it simply because it seemed like a date that didn’t particularly have any meaning to it. It’s just sort of a random day.

Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about the role of technology in Building Stories. I mean, we see that you have a concern for its effect on everyday life, ranging from the Facebook searches for lost boyfriends to this one page stark illustration with this unnamed woman with the leg. She’s standing naked before her husband and her husband is there with the iPad, also naked, not paying attention to her at all. Then of course you have this really terrifying last page augmented reality future, where they can’t even spell “fuck” right. So this would suggest, I think, a deep pessimism on your part for how technology is affecting life and so forth. And here you have a collection of fourteen various pamphlets ranging from something very small to almost a newspaper size. Is this really what we have to do now? In order for literature and comics to survive, do we now have to create massive physical palpable forms in order to get people off of this highly addictive technology that has encroached itself into culture all around us for the last five years?

Ware: No. I don’t think so. I mean, it is a little disturbing. The amount of time that we spend increasingly staring into these glowing pits in front of us. Just simply standing out on the street here, the number of people who are looking at the palms of their hands. There’s probably a higher percentage of people doing that than actually looking up. And I think the gesture for trying to remember something now has changed from looking above one’s head to slapping one’s pocket. But it’s really not that different from what adults do anyway, which is not necessarily looking at the world around them, but looking into their own past and thinking about their future and simply just kind of navigating in a world. Just trying to get through the world while worrying about the past and thinking about the future. I don’t think it’s necessary to try to make something — I don’t know what word I could use here. It’s elaborate, I guess. That’s what I tried do. But at the same time, why not? I mean, paper can do things that screens cannot. And I’ve tried to take advantage of that with the book. And we’re at a moment right now too where certain experiences and the way that we get knowledge about the world has been attached to certain shapes and forms. And those shapes and forms are disappearing. And it seemed to me just like a possibility for a slight sense of poetry in using those shapes and forms as a physical way of imparting a sense of life or everyday experience.

Correspondent: So shapes and forms in the form of paper. Old forms are the way to counter the conformist technological forms. That the housing of the form is probably going to get through to people more than the elaborate Tuftean graphs you’ve often had in your work. So you think this is going to be a solution? You think paper will persist? Do you actually have to change as an illustrator, as a cartoonist, as an artist in order to woo people’s attention?

Ware: Well, no. I grew up at a time where I read everything on paper. And I don’t have a sentimental attachment to it. I’ve never subscribed to a newspaper in my life. I’ve always read the newspaper either just simply on the Internet or picked it up here and there. Even though I come from a long line of newspaper editors and publishers. My mom was a reporter and an editor. My grandfather was an editor. My great great uncle was a publisher who actually won a Pulitzer Prize for an essay in, I think, 1911. So it’s in my blood. I feel that it’s no longer the most efficient way of disseminating important up-to-date information. Newsprint was for a long time. It was almost a fiber optic cable. But now it’s not. It’s great for art though. So I think art needs a certain kind of containment. And it needs a certain kind of containment to it because so much of the things that one writes about as a novelist or tries to get at sometimes as an artist are so ineffable and uncontainable that they almost need a certain form to stop them or something. Or freeze them.

Correspondent: So this leads me to ask, I mean, did you have to learn a lot about materials and publishing for Building Stories? Or did you have someone shepherding this for you? I mean, how did you decide upon the forms for Building Stories? In which you’re essentially collecting things from the Acme Novelty Library as well as a few new things as far as I know. How did you decide upon the forms? And what research did you do in making sure they would stick together or would be lasting to counter the end of newsprint era that we now have rolling?

Ware: Right. Well, everything in the book is made out of the exact same paper. Which is intentional. And they’re almost all coverless, with the exception of a couple. And that’s also intentional. I didn’t really have to research much. I’ve been self-publishing my own hardcovers now and comics for a while. And I’ve actually dealt directly with printing companies. So I’m more or less familiar with how those things are put together. But for this particular project, the production manager at Pantheon handled all of that for me and was able to make it work. But I just simply gave him very specific parameters for the size and paper that I wanted to use. And he accommodated me essentially. He was a very nice guy. Andy Hughes.

Correspondent: So why did you move to self-publishing? I was always curious about that.

Ware: I was sort of uninspired, I guess, at a certain point. And I felt more that if I published something myself, it would feel closer to art. The way it had early on. And I felt like I was taking the whole risk myself at that point.

Correspondent: You wanted to be a control freak.

Ware: Well, somewhat. Yeah. But at the same time, if there are any mistakes, they were entirely mine. I was solely the product of my hand. It just simply felt more like art. I was making something specifically, giving it to someone. I didn’t go through a publisher. It was less of a product and more of a thing.

Correspondent: So when you’re creating an elaborate — well, there’s tons of questions I have to ask you about layout and so forth. But let’s start — I was always curious about your small microscopic rectangular panels that are often in your work. I’m wondering if part of your attraction to this is because you’re interested in communicating the maximum amount of information with a minimum amount of detail. Is this the allure for you?

Ware: Yeah. Somewhat. Yeah. And the reason I use square panels is simply because the page is square. It’s reflective of the shape of the object itself in the same way that a leaf of a tree is somewhat reflective of the shape of a tree itself. But that’s not unusual. That’s the way all cartoonists work. I think it’s the way it’s been handed down to us.

Correspondent: So the building that is at the base of Building Stories, was this based off of any particular building?

Ware: It’s a synthesis of two buildings that I lived in in Chicago before my wife and I moved to Oak Park, Illinois. But the inhabitants are completely imaginary.

Correspondent: Are they based off of floor plans and layouts that you wandered through or lived in?

Ware: Yeah, it’s a combination of the exterior of the second building that we lived in and the floor plan of the first that I lived in. Which really means nothing to anyone except me.

Correspondent: How much did the building dictate the dimensionality of the characters? Like, for example, there’s this couple who’s unhappy. And of course, we see that pretty much all the walls are painted blue. And I’m wondering if the blue room or perhaps a yellow background may have influenced where you were going with the characters. And had you thought many of them out in advance?

Ware: You know, I thought them out. But I did not think of the colors as having any influence on the narrative. I guess, if anything else, it was just simply a way of color coding the various floors of the building itself. I find — Charles Burns and I were just talking about this recently — that, sometimes when we sit drawing, we realize that we completely lose where we are in space and time. When I’m sitting at a table, sometimes I’ll forget what room in the house I’m in. Or if I’m even in the house that I’m in. That I’ll even imagine for a second I’m in the apartment that I used to live in. And Charles was saying that he would recently find himself thinking that the sister’s room was right around the corner the way it had been when he was a child. And I’ve experienced it. Everyone has certainly. I mean, it starts off. Proust. And when you fall asleep, you tend to lose a sense of where you are when you wake up in the morning. Sometimes you don’t have any idea where you are. You have to recalibrate yourself.

Correspondent: That temporal drift, I think, informs many of the stories that are in here. Especially the thin stripped one where there are no words whatsoever. It’s all about motherhood and how we see the passage of time throughout that. And I’m wondering. Does this often inform how you organize a story along those lines? Do words often get in the way? Is time sometimes more of an allure than words or dialogue or even blank speech bubbles?

Ware: Well, in that case, there was an attempt to try and give it a sense of the general activities that one might go through during a day. And if I use words, then the segments would be too specific and seem too much like a slideshow of actual reality. Where I was trying to get more of a sense of a general repetition as well as getting a sense of time passing very rapidly. That the strip was inspired by a comment that my friend Ira Glass, the radio reporter and…I shouldn’t say “radio reporter,” but the producer and inventor and progenitor of This American Life.

Correspondent: Well, This American Life has journalistic standards. You can call him that.

Ware: I mean, he’s a great journalist. He’s broken many stories for which I think he doesn’t get adequate credit. But I was just telling him one day over lunch how quickly it was that children grow up and how fast time seems to pass. And he looked up at me and he just said, “Cliche.” And I thought, “I’m just trying to tell you a story here, you know?”

Correspondent: (laughs)

Ware: It is actually true. That it is kind of a cliche. So I tried to write this strip in such a way that maybe it wouldn’t be such a cliche and to try and give it a sense of how the time passes rapidly. How it almost seems like in one day your children grow up.

The Bat Segundo Show #496: Chris Ware (Download MP3)

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