Why do we make lists? I tend to agree with Paul Tankard, who wrote in Prose Studies, “[A list makes] an implicit truth claim that subverts prose…a list in a novel is part of the fiction, a list in a poem is part of the poetry, but in both cases the list introduces a pragmatic element. What a list does in pragmatic circumstances it will seem to do in a literary circumstance. It stops us reading and starts us counting…It moves the reader, for a moment, outside literature.” Or perhaps Umberto Eco’s thesis of his book on literary enumerations is more to the point: “we like lists because we don’t want to die.”
That pretty much accounts for the pragmatic elements. But what about this “stepping outside of literature” business? Every year around this time (especially since the advent of Twitter) we are flooded with Best-of-the-Year-Books lists. This year was the first time I saw a few Best-of-the-Best-of-the-Year-Books-Lists-Lists. Why? Any discerning reader knows that you can’t just rank your favorite books, that nothing stacks up in a neat little row like that. We need individual books to fulfill individual needs, and some do certain things really well that certain others can’t, or don’t intend to. That’s the beauty of literature. But here we are, and here I am, delivering my list. I’ve been doing it independently since ’08, but I am glad to share with you my year in fiction. The reason I (we?) do this is not too far from Eco’s – namely, we can take stock of how much we have read, but in doing so don’t we always become even more morbidly aware of how much we haven’t read, and how many more years like this there are to go? Death would be a rather unfortunate inconvenience in the yearly reading campaign.
In the past, I’ve posted my broad results of yearly reading. The lists included any book that I read that year, young or old. This runs the risk, in the long term, of becoming repetitive. That is, anytime I read Underworld, Infinite Jest, or The Brothers Karamazov (which I hope will occur often), they will automatically make the top five. It’s nice to flaunt, but it’s completely unhelpful to a reader looking for my opinion on the best fiction of a given year (that is why you’re here, right?) Now, I wish I could be like Maureen Corrigan or Ron Charles and have a hundred books delivered to my door every week for review. I wish I could come from a place of having read all the relevant novels of the year. That’s not the case. I missed new ones from Tom McCarthy, Emma Donoghue, Jennifer Egan, David Grossman, Louise Erdrich, and John Banville, among many others. Still, I feel like I’ve been lucky enough to have read five novels that many would agree are “Best Of.” But since I don’t have high authority, I feel unqualified to label this a “Best Of” list. So, like Oprah, I give you my Year-End Favorites.
The first question most newspapers, magazines, and blogs have asked is, “Will Freedom make it?” The literary event of the year has made mine, perhaps because of its literary-event-of-the-year status. It’s too important to ignore. So, I’ll begin there.
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. Franzen may not be The Great American Novelist the way Time has set him up to be (only Time will tell if that is true). But he is a great stylist, and his sentences make the book. His characters are deplorable and spend most of the novel engaged in one Girardian mimetic triangle after another, repeating the mistakes of their parents, with potentially ruinous effects. I have friends who hate the novel on the grounds that they believe that Franzen actually likes these people and hates pretty much everyone else. A certain snobbishness does pervade, but it can be overlooked thanks to the same type of page-turning fun that characterized The Corrections and the scathing satire of his near impeccably crafted sentences.
Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields. So, I cheated. Shields’ portentous rap against the state of fiction in favor of memoir is technically nonfiction, but it’s so artfully produced that I must comment. Namely, he argues that contemporary fiction, forty years after Barth’s “Literature of Exhaustion” is, finally, exhausted. Memoir, in its emotional authenticity and basis in fact, is gaining more steam by the year. While he’s at it, he spends a good deal of time addressing the issue of plagiarism, i.e., if we’re dealing with memoir, how much can be made up, borrowed, stolen, etc.? In his opinion, anything goes. The content of the argument is relatively compelling, but about halfway through the book you have an epiphany. It has to do with the structure. The book consists of twenty-six chapters, each named after a letter of the alphabet and dealing with issues of nonfiction (“overture,” “mimesis,” “reality,” “memory,” and “blur” are just a few of the chapter titles). Each chapter is comprised of a series of aphorisms ranging from a sentence to a paragraph in length. There are 618 such aphorisms. But, halfway through (or earlier, if you’re sharper than me), you realize that Shields didn’t write any of these aphorisms. They are all lifted from somebody else. No quotation marks, no citations. I can’t tell you how much this added to the reading experience. I hadn’t encountered anything quite like it. To Shields’ dismay, he was forced to include a works-cited appendix at the end, slightly undermining his argument for total and credit-less sharing. I was still compelled, if not convinced.
Solar by Ian McEwan. “The Master of the Macabre” surprised me here with an homage to Updike and Rabbit Angstrom in the figure of Michael Beard, a Nobel laureate who is charged with the task of solving global warming. He has more than a few problems, though, mostly pertaining to the amount of potato chips (and women) he consumes. This sets the stage for a Rabelaisan romp that, stylistically as well as structurally, provides laughs at nearly every turn. Ultimately, the bureaucracies whose job it is to solve the world’s problems are bitterly satirized here in a refreshing turn from the recent darkness of On Chesil Beach.
Zero History by William Gibson. “The Bigend Trilogy” concludes with a journey into London’s underground fashion trade. At the center of it all is multi-billionaire Hubertus Bigend, whose single goal in life is to fulfill his many curiosities. Here, it is, in an elaboration on the idea of pattern recognition (also the title of the first novel in the series), a fascination with predicting trends in the market. That fascination manifests itself in an attempt to corner mass produced military wear for civilians. This is vintage Gibson, a commentary on the simulacrous state of consumerism, the invisible workings of desire and demand. But can those workings be manipulated? In addition to all this, Gibson is so enjoyable because he brokers in cool. Apple products and Twitter pervade the novel, as well as a good amount of motorcycle courier-ing. His comments at his reading in D.C. this fall tell us the most, however. “For anyone serious about writing,” he asserted, “genre is only useful as a narrative strategy.” This best sums up this recent trilogy. He deftly made the transition from out-and-out SF into what a London writer called, in reference to Spook Country (the second part of the trilogy), “one of the most important books of the decade.” Count that for all three.
And the winner is (but who’s counting?)…
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. I will re-post my review from the summer here:
Until three days ago, I had not read anything by Gary Shteyngart. But, true to form, the YouTube trailer of Super Sad True Love Story (released July 27) intrigued me enough to spend my birthday money on it. I was aware of Shteyngart’s propensity for hilarity, and this novel delivers. But it was layered in unexpected ways. It is the story of Lenny Abramov, an – ahem – middle-aged Russian-American with a taste for books. Only, in Lenny’s America, books have become physically repulsive (they stink), and every citizen is perpetually linked to his or her apparat, a media streamer good for all things data and entertainment. Reading has been replaced by “text scanning for data”; dollars are now “yuan-pegged” due to China’s global economic dominance; Credit Poles are set up in public spaces, which flash people’s credit scores as they walk by; people are subsequently divided into HNWI, and LNWI groups (High/Low Net Worth Individuals), your membership of which determines your social prospects; similarly, women’s “Fuckability” and “Personality,” their apparently only two appealing traits, are broadcast by their apparats; like David Foster Wallace’s near-future, Shteyngart’s is saturated with acronyms and product placement, with the vulgarity turned way up. JK (“just kidding”) is replaced with JBF (“just butt-fucking”), and name brands such as Polo and J. Crew are replaced with AssLuxury and JuicyPussy. Americans get their news from Fox-Liberty Prime and Fox-Liberty Ultra (“the Fox”). This alone indicates the hyper-conservate policies that run Abramov’s America, a nicely woven sub-plot that comes to a surprising head by novel’s end. Citizens are constantly screened for their credit ratings and, if returning from abroad, for how many foreigners they’ve slept with. Almost precisely this happens to Abramov, whose story centers on his love for Eunice Park, a Korean-American he falls for while abroad in Rome for a year. The narrative is told from their alternating perspectives – one chapter will be comprised entirely of his diary entries, the next by her e-mails and online chats. A nice dichotomy between old and young, literate and “post-literate.”
And ultimately, that’s what this book ends up being about. The gaps (emotionally and technologically) between generations (Abramov works for a company that helps people try to live forever), and the (im)possibility of love, romantic or otherwise, between them. Amid his satirical romp that lampoons, cleverly, the future of American political and consumer society, Shteyngart rounds the narrative out to address what Abramov realizes are life’s only two truths: my existence and my demise. This novel shows us that how we get from the former to the latter is, yes, a super sad true love story.