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Animal Collection is a new book of stories by Colin Winnette (author of Revelation, discussed here at THEthe). Like his previous book, it is a subtle blend of experimentation and dramaturgy. The concept: each story contains some kind of animal behaving in unusual and, in some cases, very human ways. From being cuckolded by a beaver, to falling in love with a hummingbird, to being impregnated by an iguana, human characters interact with animals in intimate and occasionally visceral ways. The result is a commentary on the strangeness of our own behavior, and the collection is proof of the power of certain art forms to defamiliarize ourselves to ourselves. This, to me, is the potent achievement of Animal Collection.

Here is the interview:

Brian: When we spoke about Revelation, a major theme of the conversation was the happy constraints of a framing concept. Here we have a collection of stories, each of which revolves around the image of a certain animal. How did this concept occur to you?  How “happy” of a constraint was it?

Colin: The germ for this project was pure constraint…or, better, like a dare / challenge I gave to myself because I was afraid. I had been asked to participate in a reading put on by Publishing Genius and Beecher’s Magazine at AWP DC a few years ago. I was super excited about the reading, many writers I admire were participating, and so I kept googling the reading and looking for info. Then, like the day before the flight, I discovered a poster for the event that claimed all of the authors had chosen an animal to write about and would then read that story in front of said animal’s cage…I had not done that. So I was sort of terrified and convinced of my own failure. Then there was a blizzard in Chicago (where I was living). A major one. All flights were grounded, school was cancelled, six feet of snow fell in something like two or three hours, and people were buried in their cars on Lakeshore Drive. Hunkered down in my apartment, nervous I would never make it to AWP in all of that, I decided to write 26 stories, one for each letter of the alphabet, each of which would center around an animal they had in custody at the Washington D.C. Zoo. A lot of these stories were awful, but some I loved. That was how the whole thing started. I wrote a lot more, revised considerably, and worked out a larger, more considered structure for the collection itself over the next few years. So, in a way, it was the happiest of constraints…except for those poor folks on Lakeshore Drive.

Brian: We have stories of metamorphosis, anthropomorphism, and something in between. In your thinking about this project, did you envision a clear boundary between the animal and the human? Is there a scale or spectrum of humanness or animal-ness? It’s obviously more fluid than that, but how fluid was it in your mind when you conceived of these scenarios?

Colin: The overall project, initially, was extremely fluid. As it came together, I began to detect certain underlying structures, and I worked to tease those out or, sometimes, to counteract them. Every story operates on slightly different terms so the boundaries shift. They are specific to each piece, and to the function of the “animal” in that particular piece.

Brian: More than even metamorphosis, we have visceral images of the human merging with the animal – eating a tarantula, having sex with an octopus, aborting an iguana baby, having one’s private space completely overrun by insects and vermin (which include men, in one story). This to me was a very disturbing turn, which contrasted with the lighter and outright funny tone of some of the other pieces (but maybe that’s because I’m squeamish in general). I guess the question is – if a story collection is a recipe comprised of different flavors, how did you manage the balance of the various flavors we have here?

Colin: This was a topic of much conversation with a  friend of mine, actually. The poet Ben Clark read these stories over and over again while I was working on them. He read many of the stories I wound up deleting and drafts of the stories that wound up looking completely different. At one point, he sorted all of the stories into separate categories. Something like: animal as human, human as animal, animal into human, human into animal, and so on. The various functions of the animal figure, as he could best figure them. So that was a helpful guide. But, more than anything, I was guided by the associative qualities of whatever animal occurred to me at the time I was writing the piece. That was a way I secured a certain level of variation throughout the text. Whichever animal occurred to me when I was setting out to write one of the stories would come with a cluster of associations. Some fairly common or general, and others deeply personal. Those associations dictated the movement of the story, and what was possible. So the stories had a kind of emotional and intellectual logic to them from the get go, which I then refined during revision. For that reason, some of the variation I hoped for was pretty much there from the beginning, but Ben helped me to see the “recipe,” helped to point out the ingredients, so that I might balance the whole thing more purposefully.

Brian: One unifying component of pretty much all the stories is the breakdown of relationships – lovers, families, friends. How does envisioning people as certain animals aid this feeling of disconnection and dissolution? Could it be misconstrued as a distraction (i.e., why not just depict humans as humans, rather than as animals?), or is that part of the point?

Colin: Well, I grew up on Disney films, so who knows what kind of havoc that wreaked on my sense of what exactly is “human,” but…

It’s different in each story, but the function of each animal brings something to the equation that I feel wouldn’t be there otherwise. For example, the iguana. That story is terrifying to me. It’s a joke my friend Blake and I used to make, that we always thought our parents didn’t understand us, when the reality is, they just couldn’t sometimes. It wasn’t possible. It’s entirely possible that I know Blake better than his parents ever could, just because we’re about the same age. The terms of our era were so radically different from our parents’, the disconnect was so severe, there was just no real way to bridge the gap. Any parents who are willing to listen to their kids and genuinely accept what they think and feel and do, without question, without feeling complete alienation and bewilderment every once in awhile, those are some pretty amazing people…or they’re faking it. It’s the kind of parent I hope to be (the genuine article, the amazing kind, not the faker), but what terrifies me is the question of whether I will have the self-awareness to realize when I’m not. Anyway, the joke Blake and I used to make was that it was easy to say parents “just don’t understand,” up until the day your kid is suddenly dating a Tyrannosaurus, and all you can think to say is, “I just don’t want you hanging out with that dinosaur! It’s unnatural!” Of course there’s something about racism in there too, I suppose, but for me it’s more about feeling fundamentally alienated from your child’s life. Or that’s the hook of the story. That’s what complicates it. I mean, would you have allowed her to birth the iguana?

And, just for the record, humans are totally animals.

Brian: Speaking of – the other major “human” theme is one that I’ve already briefly mentioned – the invasion of one’s space and privacy. To what extent is this a comment on the fact that the spaces and zones we build around ourselves are arbitrary and fragile? Am I putting words in your mouth here? Better than a tarantula, I guess. Stylistically, though, one way to convey this invasion of privacy (beyond various really creepy scenes) is the use of the second person. You open the collection in the second person, and one entire story consists simply of “You are here.” Who is you in Animal Collection? How many you’s are there?

Colin: Arbitrary and fragile, yes. Those are words I would use…and even have used when answering earlier questions. Each You, as with each animal, and each story, is very different. It is a way of incorporating the reader at times, or of generating an extra-textual character who is being addressed. For example, the Beaver story does not ask that the reader occupy the space of the You, any more than he/she would any other character. But the You story, that’s all about you, Brian, or me, or whoever is holding the book, really. On the one hand, it’s extremely literal. It’s also a joke. A bit of fun. But one that I felt was essential. It’s one of the last ones I wrote. I was pretty proud of it.

Brian: We have lots of animals, but also lots of voices and perspectives. As many as there are stories, really. This builds on that multivocal component of Revelation. I tell my students that writing is less akin to directing a film as it is to acting in one. How do you get your mind around the different voices and personae from story to story, especially when they’ll only live and breathe for a short time? To what extent do you “become” the voices you depict?

Colin: I abandon a story pretty quickly if I can’t embody the characters I’m writing. For me, it’s literally a physical sensation. I can feel it. I move in certain weird ways sometimes when I’m writing. You’re completely right that it’s like acting in a film, rather than directing it. Although, sometimes, once you know your characters well enough, and if you want to create a kind of stiffness or something, you can move them around like a director, like set pieces. I didn’t do that much here in AC, but I did do that a little in Revelation. They’re different projects, but they do overlap in certain areas. With AC, I was very invested in the voice of each character, or each story. It comes out when I read them, which is something I really love to do. (As a side note, whenever I read the “Tarantula” story, someone inevitably asks, “did you really…?”). I can’t say exactly what caused it, it likely has to do with the associative qualities each animal brings to the story, and what those associations allowed me to access. I was also able to play around a lot with these pieces, so I wasn’t stuck in one voice for any particular length of time. I could start writing and ride the wave of a particular voice until it stopped. Until it was done, and I could just end right there. I didn’t have to keep coming back to it and dragging more out of it. What I loved about writing this book is that I felt so free to make each piece be exactly the length it needed to be. I felt no pressure to extend a piece to make it more like a “short story” or to cut the longer pieces down so they better fit with the flash pieces. The book needed range. It required a variety of approaches to telling a story—and these are all stories, even if they’re poems. It’s a bestiary, an abecedarium, a zoo. It’s an animal collection.

Brian: My favorite aspect of your novel, one that other “Armageddon” narratives mostly miss, is that the sky may fall, but still nothing is more terrifying than one’s own death (or even one’s own life).  I guess this is a statement posing as a question.

Colin: I like this.  Thanks, Brian.

Brian: A writer friend and I debate over concept v. character. I don’t consider your book to be a “postmodernist rewrite.” But some might. Did you envision this book in that light? To what extent do you see yourself as an “experimental” writer?

Colin: I don’t view it as a rewrite so much as an interpretation, and a loose one at that.  Obviously I pick and choose which elements from the Book of Revelation I’m interested in working with.  I set down a frame on a particular section of a particular translation and worked with those elements. I’m working with the material much in the way that the characters are.  I’m responding to a  limited set of external stimuli, drafting a story in response.

As for the “experimental writer” thing…I’m going to go ahead and say I would accept being called as much by someone else, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it about myself.  In a literal sense, Revelation is a long-form experiment.  In one sense, especially early on, I was balancing a variety of narrative modes against one another to see the effects.  But I also feel like “experimental” has become a way of describing a certain style of work that resists recognizable trends in “realist” fiction.  This is going to date me a little, but I think of a band like Modest Mouse and how everyone would always describe them as “indie,” even long after they were on a major label.  It had more to do with their sound than anything else.  There’s a certain “indie” feel to it.  This is done all the time.  Bands have an “indie” sound, or writers have an “experimental” vibe, even though most of the work that’s out there being called “experimental” is as heavily codified and traditional as what people often call “traditional” (by which they most often mean “realist” or narrative).

Brian: This is interesting. I focus on what some call “unnatural” narratives. That is, anti-mimetic strategies that stretch the reader’s cognitive parameters. Problem is, “unnatural” strategies, such as, say, the experimentations of postmodernism, are very quickly “naturalized,” or incorporated into a set of parameters readers have come to expect. Do you feel pressure to challenge those parameters? Are we always trying to be one step ahead of incorporation? What does the MFA workshop, which wants you to be able to sell your books, say about this?

Colin: I’m interested in working with the expectations of the reader.  For certain projects, I’ll engage with familiar tropes or narrative modes, recognizable genre ticks, references of one kind or another, etc., and use them in specific ways.  Of course, it’s impossible to predict how people will ultimately respond to a provocation or proposition, regardless of the thought and care that went into it.  And I’m also interested in this.  I find it fascinating and extremely useful that you can introduce elements of the “familiar” by opening a story in a particular way, or saying a particular thing at a particular time, and yet every reader will have a different set of associations to a “familiar” thing.  So what you’re really doing is loading the work with a moment of recognition.  It’s a tool in the toolbox.  The thing is, the “parameters” you’re talking about, what tricks are “naturalized” or “familiar,” those are shifting all the time.  So it feels pointless to me to challenge them directly.  Rather, you can use them to enhance or complicate the work in some way.  I gave my grandmother a copy of Revelation because she was very excited about the fact that I had written a book and someone had published it, etc.  But I talked to her a few months later and she said she had to put it down because she felt she wasn’t familiar enough with the Book of Revelation to read it.  Her plan was, and I suppose still is, to reread the biblical version of the story in order to prepare herself for taking this book on.  Now if you’ve read the book, you’ll know that’s entirely unnecessary.  Maybe it would enhance your read in some way, but everything that needs to be there is in the book itself.  At least in my opinion.  But I’m interested in the way her expectations of the book shift due to a structural conceit.  If she ever returns to Revelation, studied up and thoroughly “prepared” for the material, the questions at the center of the book will be as present as they would have been otherwise, only maybe she’ll feel them more deeply because they will resist the information she’s brought to the book with her.  Where, she might ask, is the God I’ve come to know?  Why is the believer in the same position as the non-believer?  What/where is salvation?  But this book is not the Book of Revelation.  It’s not even a re-telling, really.  It’s something else entirely.  It functions on its own terms, even though it incorporates and uses a variety of familiar narrative modes.  Alternatively, if I had attempted to write something that was a direct challenge to those modes, I feel like it could no longer be said that the work functions on its own terms.  I’m tempted to say that if I wanted to “challenge” the Bible, I would just hand out copies of the Bible to as many people as possible.

But back to your question, I think we want to innovate.  That means different things to different people.  Most people want work that explores new ground, digs a little deeper, maybe, or addresses something abandoned or untouched, or recasts the die, etc.  This is as true of the “experimental” writer as it is of the YA novelist.  So, as you’re making work, it helps to know what you’re ambitions are.  And I think young writers tend to feel that more than know it.  No one in my MFA program was too concerned with me selling my work.  In fact, when I pressed faculty for information, everyone seemed just about as confused and unsure of the game as I was. I won’t go into it here, but it’s obvious that the face of publishing is changing and has been for some time.  The people I listened to most at school were those who encouraged me to make the work I wanted to make, and trust that if I kept at the whole publishing thing I would eventually land on my feet.  At the very least, during those desperate nights when you feel you’ll never make it as a writer, that no one will read your work, let alone pay you for it, that your “career” is a joke, etc. (we all have these nights, right?  Or maybe some poor souls feel this way in the morning…), but at the very least you’ll have a folder full of work that you love and that means something to you.  That’s not enough for everyone, but at one point it was something that kept me going.  It got me to this point, where I’m a little more comfortable with myself.  I don’t ever think you can shake the fears, the doubts, the reservations, but you can make it to a point where they’re no longer driving the car.  This is something a teacher of mine once told me, another thing that stuck, that you’ll never get rid of fear and self-doubt, but as long as you don’t let them take control, you’ll be alright.  They can even be useful.

Brian: That’s beautifully put. Thank you. We have Marcus’ whole life in a slim volume. Did you always envision this book as being relatively minimalist? Why did this approach speak to you the most?

Colin: I knew the book would need to be spare.  I wrote a lot more than is included and edited it out or set it aside knowing it would never go into the book in the first place.  I drafted the in-between scenes and most of what (in the book) happens off stage.  For example, the letter Marcus is obsessing over in the second chapter, I have that written out and saved in a folder on my computer.  The exact wording of the letter is irrelevant for the book, because for that scene what matters is not what the letter says, but the way Marcus is reading the letter.

Also, throughout the book, I wanted a clear sense of how things had moved in the characters’ lives.  I needed to be able to write each new chapter as if it were continuing a story, rather than picking up at some random point and beginning again.   I was interested in a story that feels clear and direct and yet is full of gaps.  The book is a kind of distillation.  There is a story here, but it is obviously not the “full” story.  In fact, I’m skeptical of the idea that there ever is one.

I’m interested in examining our relationship to the unknown, but I didn’t want to be withholding without purpose.  I think the gaps introduce elements of the unknown without tendering purposeless obfuscation.  The gaps make the world feel bigger.  I heard a story once, and I’m likely remembering this wrong, that when Gil Evans was working with Miles Davis on the album Sketches of Spain, Evans wanted to include “quiet” in the composition.  Not silence, but “quiet”.  The way he went about it was to instruct the players to play a large instrument (like a gong) softly.  So, it was actually a fairly loud sound, but it created a sense of quiet because that loud sound was loaded with the possibility/sense of an enormous sound.

But there were a lot of things that made this approach important.  Another major one was speed.  I wanted the book to move quickly, or to have the feeling of something that is moving quickly.  This isn’t an articulate way of saying this, but the book needed a kind of “woosh” to it.

Brian: Is this because death “wooshes” us?

Colin: Oh god, if we’re lucky.  I hadn’t thought of it this way, though.  Life certainly does from time to time.  David Byrne had it right.  And here’s the annoying part of the interview where I include a hyperlink to a Youtube video.

Brian: There’s some interesting textual variety here. Why fill up the page sometimes, sometimes not? Is there a relationship to poetry there?

Colin: I suppose so, in the sense that I was interested in graphic interruptions.  I think the white space on the page guides the way we read and can dramatically alter our interpretations of and engagement with the text, and that’s something many poets are concerned with.  Certainly more than most fiction writers.  But I’ve just finished two books of poems and that feels very, very different.  It was something else entirely, really.  For Revelation, I was interested in certain moments standing alone, or inserting gaps here and there.  Slowing things down or speeding them up.  I wrote the book in standard paragraphs, and it wasn’t until we were editing the book that I spaced it out like this.  Once I had done it I immediately thought, oh, this is right.  This is perfect.  Then I had to edit everything all over again.

Brian: How long did you work on Revelation, from the first intuition of the concept to the final edit?

Colin: I wrote the first draft of the book in a month.  Or, about three weeks.  During that time, it was practically all I did.  I sent it to readers then and spent a few months editing.  Then I Quixotically sent it out to publishers and agents.  Mutable Sound got back to me in a matter of months.  We went for it.  Following that, I spent maybe three months editing and re-formatting the book.  I took it to Martha’s Vineyard and immersed myself in it in the way I had done when I first wrote it.  The book was published exactly a year after I finished the first draft, but I was sending them “updated final versions” up until the last possible second.

Brian: Talk a little bit about your web presence. Your site does some interesting things.

Colin: Ha!  My web presence.  First please allow me a tangential anecdote: about a year ago I was in Austin doing a reading at 5 Things!, a monthly reading series held down there.  At the time, Amelia Gray was involved in running things and she was the one who invited me to read.  After the reading we were all hanging out at Amelia’s and eating tacos and I was being drunk and Amelia said something about the fact that I had a kid.  When I said, I do not have a kid.  She looked at me a moment and then said, well you need to work on your web presence.

That’s been the resounding cry from all concerned ever since.  I recently started working with a publicist  (Lacey Dunham at Atticus Books, she’s amazing) in preparation for the release of A Long Line of Diggers, a pair of novellas I wrote that they’re releasing in 2013.  One of the first things she said to me after we introduced ourselves was, we should talk about your web presence.

I mean, to be honest, it is primarily jokes with myself.  That’s about it.  I just thought to write, it’s all a desperate attempt to be funny…but that’s not entirely true because if I’m posting something, it’s almost always because it’s making me laugh to myself at that moment.  So I guess it’s kind of selfish…

The website is a pride of mine.  My friends Rebecca Elliott and Heather McShane helped me do the code for it.  They helped me realize what was a very specific dream.  It does exactly what I wanted to do.  It is an extension of my outlook in certain ways.  It is a random assortment of images that are related to my work in specific ways and excerpts and stories and interviews and what have yous.  There is no way to “successfully” navigate it, meaning the only way to potentially ever access all of the material is to keep going back and trying over and over again, although you’re just as likely to get nowhere or cycle through the same thing over and over.  Like I said, it’s random.  I imagine it’s terribly frustrating to many.  But I find it immensely pleasing.  (Not frustrating people, mind you, but the site itself).

Brian: That’s why I love it! These are interesting moments you describe, when folks who want to market you “need to talk to you about your web presence.” How comfortable are you, in general, with the prospect of marketing yourself, or, altering aspects of what comes naturally for you for the sake of marketing?

Colin: Thanks, Brian!  I get the idea and use and even necessity of an “artistic persona”.  I think it’s not only a marketing tactic, but also a tool for guiding readers as they approach your work.  That said, I’m a terrible actor.  So my “artistic persona” or my “web presence” has always just been an extension of my normal, social self.  An exaggerated extension, sure, a distillation, but one that, as you say, “comes naturally” to me.  Lacey is an amazing publicist and we never did wind up making any serious changes to the website or any of the other ways I’m using the internet: social media sites, etc.  After we started working together a little more closely, I think she got a handle on where I was coming from and things started to gel for both of us.  She might not have even been concerned initially, but rather looking to make sure we were on the same page.  And I think we are.  I’ve been called “strange”.  The work is “strange”-seeming, at least to some.  And my web presence is certainly “strange” in particular ways.  But I think once you see the whole picture it starts to make a certain kind of sense.  So, in answer to your question, I’m fine with the idea that artists or writers might work to present themselves in a certain light, I think we’re all doing this all the time anyway.  But I think it’s important that the presentation/illusion be in some way a part of the work, or that it help us to better understand the work or inform us as to the terms on which we are to engage the work.  However, in terms of serious alterations to the self, I’m just not a savvy enough fellow to stray too far from home.

Brian: Some very exciting things are happening for you in the near future. How do praise, fame, etc. affect your work?

Colin: There are some exciting things happening, yes!  Or things I’m excited about, at least.  There will be the book of short stories Animal Collection out in September 2012 (Spork Press) and then two novellas will be released by Atticus Books in 2013, as I said earlier.  I’m excited for all of that and to tour and on and on.  As for the second part of your question…I’ll need to see your sources.

Brian: What about the not-so-near future? Do you have ambitions for bigger projects, different modes, more experimentation, etc.? Do you feel the need to evolve as an artist?

Colin: I just finished two new projects I’m really excited about.  The first was a book of poems collaboratively written with another poet, Ben Clark.  It’s called Kate Jury Denton Texas.  Most recently, I finished a book-length poem.  Right now it’s called And We Will Stay That Way.  These were the two “ambitious” projects on the horizon this spring, but now they’re finished and out in the world being read and hopefully they’ll soon find a home.  I’m also about halfway through a new novel that is doing some strange things.  It’s a lot of fun to work on, but it feels very odd moving back into fiction after being so heavily steeped in poetry for the last few months.  To me, every project feels singular, though I’m sure you could locate patterns and identify developments in style, etc. if you were to look closely after the fact.  I’m interested in making work that is exciting to me, and part of what excites me is examining new ground, or the same ground in radically different ways.  I don’t feel pressure to “evolve” as an artist.  Or, if there is a pressure I feel, it is not on those terms, necessarily.  I feel pressure to keep myself interested and fully invested in the work.  But I don’t look at it as a progression as I move from project to project.  But if I were to use the language of a linear progression, I would say I work “backwards” as much as “forwards,” and of course “side to side”.  As I see it, I’m sifting through and rearranging a network of constantly shifting ideas and associations.  It’s a mess up there and out here.  Each project is a momentary organization of a set of needs, ideas, impressions, etc.   Let us look to the T-1000.  Ideally, each book would enter the world like one of his blades or needles, exacting and perfectly fitted to a specific use, and yet the full effects of the introduction of that new element are unpredictable.  That’s one of the motivating factors behind sharing the work, I suppose.

Sigh.  That is the second time in two days I’ve brought up Terminator 2.  Something is wrong with me.

Brian: Well, I don’t see too much wrong with Revelation, or with the way things are going for you. Thank you so much

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.