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

Review: 2012 (2009)


Roland Emmerich’s 2012 is slightly better than Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow — the hack director’s two previous opuses involving mass devastation. But that’s a bit like saying that imbibing a thimble of urine is better than eating a shit sandwich or employing an embalmed corpse as a surrogate dining table. That one must pay ten George Washingtons for the privilege of drinking a soupçon of pee is hardly a recommendation. But the piss remains compelling. For it has become every dutiful American’s duty to sit through vile cinematic “entertainment” in order to remain on the same page. Still, there’s a part of me pondering 2012‘s potential.

“Something like this can only originate in Hollywood,” says a character early in the film. And indeed, Emmerich is right on this point. Emmerich is only a mite more talented than Uwe Boll, his fellow German sellout. But one shouldn’t compare two cultural criminals who have both severely setback the intelligent possibilities of mass entertainment. The film presents a primitive political viewpoint to entice the kooky charlatans now banging out insipid and predictably contrarian viewpoints for the New York Press. Two African-American male characters are presented here with noble intent — a humanist geologist played by Chiwetel Ejiofor at loggerheads with the cold and clinical Oliver Platt (here, with an American accent) and Danny Glover’s President Thomas Wilson (beckoning phony comparisons to Woodrow, whose first name was actually Thomas), who stays behind at the White House as giant waves and dust clouds ravage the nation. And while it’s heartening to see African-Americans shift from “magical black” side characters and wiseacres into take-charge positions, the film also serves up a distressing sexism. The Speaker of the House is, three years hence, a “he.” When a giant plane heads to a safe point in China, the women are compelled to stay downstairs while the men are summoned to the cockpit to witness recent developments. President Danny Glover insists that the people have the right to know about forthcoming disaster because “a mother can comfort her children.” Why can’t a mother kick ass? These misogynistic politics are at odds with the film’s purported humanism. Make no mistake: This is a film designed for an Armond White pullquote.

On the other hand, I cannot deny the sheer pleasure I experienced in seeing the two centers of vapid American entertainment — Los Angeles and Las Vegas — destroyed by cheap-looking CG effects. (It should be noted that Emmerich also manages to obliterate the Sistine Chapel, complete with a crack forming between God and Adam. But the man is running out of landmarks to destroy. Will public memory permit him repeats?) I cannot deny being amused by the fact that one million Euros, not dollars, is the asking price to get on board one of the arks destined to save the remainder of humanity. (There’s even a nod to Douglas Adams’s Golgafrincham, where one of the arks is damaged, proving unsuitable for the flailing crowds clamoring to get on board.) I was even amused at times by Woody Harrelson’s wild-eyed, pickle-eating, radio-ranting mountain man. But Harrelson serves the same purpose as Brent Spiner’s wild-haired scientist in Independence Day: a forgettable cartoon providing as much human depth as a TV dinner. Not that anyone will remember the formulaic similarities. As Harrelson says at one point, just after urging Cusack to “download my blog,” “You lure them in with the humor. Then you make them think.” It’s safe to say that Emmerich cannot follow his own crude advice.

There comes a point in any Roland Emmerich film in which anyone with a brain must give up and ponder why such superficialities remain a draw. For me, it came about ninety minutes in, as certain characters defiantly survived even the most liberal geophysics. It is also profoundly insulting for Emmerich (and his co-writer and composer Harald Kloser, who is overwrought in both of his “professional” duties) to offer us a character who reads books (Ejiofor’s Adrian Helmsley, “moving on up” just like Sherman did a few decades ago) and a shah using an e-reader, while also offering us this shoddy science behind the Earth’s destruction: “Neutrinos are causing a physical reaction.”

Here is a filmmaker so utterly stupid that he takes us to “the deepest copper mine in the world” in the opening minutes, features buckets of ice, and yet provides only a single consumer fan to cool the expensive computer equipment residing at the bottom. Here is a filmmaker so happy to whore himself out to product placement that the most important government representatives all use Vaio laptops. Here is a filmmaker so tone-deaf to politics that the President of the United States actually utters, “‘I was wrong.’ Do you know how many times I’ve heard that? Zero.” At the risk of invoking Godwin, Roland Emmerich is Hollywood’s answer to a dutiful Sturmabteilung. He was only following orders. And he will be rewarded for his hubris and ignorance by the considerable cash that this film will generate worldwide.

John Cusack, who is one of our most underrated actors, gives this material more sincerity and dignity than it deserves. The man (or his agent) clearly needed the cash or a way to boost his box office standing. He is, much like Dennis Quaid in The Day After Tomorrow, the Believable Presence. The guy to identify with. That guy is a writer named Jackson Curtis, the author of Farewell Atlantis, which has sold only 500 copies. Curtis is driving a limo to pay the bills. And while every other actor in this film understands that this assignment represents a fat paycheck, and is only partially exonerated, it is Cusack alone who obdurately refuses to ham it up. He is therefore just as culpable and responsible as Roland Emmerich. Let him suffer a metaphorical car accident worse than Montgomery Clift’s.

The film has lifted a good deal from 1998’s Deep Impact — the broken family gathered at the beach as a giant wave is about to hit, the older African-American President addressing the nation with the grim reality, the millions killed along the coastlines, and the efforts to alert a senior scientist of the impending catastrophe. But Deep Impact, as problematic as it was, had two half-decent screenwriters (Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin) attempting to imbue some humanity into the improbable scenario.

But 2012 doesn’t even provide the unadulterated fun of an unintentionally hilarious B movie. Emmerich, with considerable resources at his disposal, has made a dumb and unfulfillable movie. And instead of Emmerich using his exploitative skills to make his audience think, he has produced the cinematic equivalent of an audience member running out of toilet paper when she most desperately needs it. His audience is doomed to run around the house with pants around legs, hoping to seek out a Kleenex or paper towel substitute and praying to the deities that nobody else is home. But the film is so long (it runs a needless two hours and 38 minutes) and the quest so fruitless that it goes beyond any uncouthly rectified inconvenience. As such, 2012 is, to paraphrase Jefferson, the movie that the American public deserves.

[UPDATE: In a rare drift in sensibilities, Armond White has panned 2012 in what appears to be a hastily written review. The big surprise is Roger Ebert, who has awarded this film three and a half stars. I note Ebert’s review largely because he points out (correctly) that the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling has been inexplicably relocated within St. Peter’s Basilica — a detail that I failed to note in the above review.]