In spite of entire months going by with little fiction of note, 2017 did give serious readers some terrific fiction. Part of the problem is that publications offering book reviews have radically different ideas about what’s worth reading. And it’s an important time to be on the lookout for political correctness and other ideologies common to the more liberal publications. Just to use one example, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker all tend to review different books, and consider different ones differently important. The Times’ best fiction of the year list–they do the top five in both fiction and nonfiction–is, this year, a kind of globalized p.c. overview. I buy books reviewed from many different sources, including the three listed above, as well as Artforum’s Bookforum, which generally reviews books by younger writers from less established publishing houses.
This being said, here’s my pick of the twelve best novels and/or short stories of 2017, and my “also recommended” list follows that.
- Paul Auster’s “4 3 2 1”, is the year’s best novel. Long and hefty at over 800 pages, it’s the story of a young Jewish boy/adolescent/young adult man in his formative years in high school, including his mother’s marriage and divorce, and the young man’s applications to and experiences in college. That’s the overall plot, but it’s told from four different points of view (thus the title) and is brilliantly written, psychologically astute, and, as well, it follows the beginnings of a young man’s own career as a writer (possibly the author’s himself). Each of the four books with the book changes the outcome of the young man’s life; in some, the mother remarries; in others, she doesn’t; in one of the four, the author makes the young man gay, but in the other three, he is straight. In one, he goes to Princeton University, in another he goes directly from high school to Paris to write, in another, the college is Columbia University. One thing all four novels within the novel have in common is that the young man is killed off just as he’s starting his adult life; the author either doesn’t know what to do with this character in all four incarnations, or, as a writer himself, he doesn’t go beyond his own age as an emerging talent. In any event, this novel is absolutely riveting, and also contains a lot of the social and political movements of the sixties and early seventies. Auster’s writing, like Karl Ove Knausgaard’s, contains a great deal of the mundane qualities of daily living, which often make for truly great writing from the insights therein. The novel is riveting throughout, and each of the four possible outcomes/novels within the novel is equally compelling, reminding us how easily it is to slip from one identity to another in America and how unforeseen circumstances can alter everything.
- Jessmyn Ward, “Sing, Unburied, Sing”, just won the National Book Award, as did her earlier powerful novel “Savage the Bones” when it came out years back. Ward, an African-American writer living in Mississippi, gives us a powerful, almost archetypal Southern African-American family (father, mother, daughter, dead son, and two grandchildren; the daughter’s a druggie and her husband is white). The perceived world and the spirit world (about which the novel is powerfully written), interact, particularly on a road trip from the tiny town in which this family lives (just outside town; they are nearly self-sufficient with their farm) to a state prison to pick up the white husband/father. Much of the novel’s written from the point of view of the eldest grandson, Jojo, who’s just entered adolescence; each character gets his/her points of view in different chapters Ward’s writing is so powerful and so passionate that the novel transcends the mundane while living it. Every character is brilliantly portrayed, and issues regarding race underly the book. Most of the characters, though not all, have the ability to commune with spirits, who come to life in Ward’s hands; they are the unburied of the title, whom Ward allows to sing (speak) to and through her main characters. Ward’s power and lyrical writing makes her novel as archetypal as a Greek tragedy. She’s in the front rank of the top American writers, and this novel shows Ward at the peak of her powers.
- Aatish Taseer, “The Way Things Were”‘s book blurb on the front of the novel states “the best Indian novel of the last decade”, with which I concur. This fascinating novel is about language and culture, how language is a determinant in culture, and how language can define character and personality as well as create same. A minor Indian princeling, from the eras before India became independent, and his son, are the key characters in this fascinating novel. Both men marry very similar kinds of women, both of whom at first are enchanted by these men’s fascination with Sanskrit, the non-spoken, written language of the Indian subcontinent which emerged around the same time as Greek and Latin. And both men, the son now American, become fascinated by how Sanskrit defines ancient India, and eventually their own characters, and both wives will reject/divorce both men because of this obsession–and its reliance on Western mores to prove itself (a lot of linguistic derivations are in this novel in a playful way, as father and son are fascinated by how similar Sanskrit is to both ancient Latin and Greek; if that’s the case, then Western culture must include India in part of its origin stories and myths…..the novel is set in and amongst educated, Western-obsessed upper middle class/upper class Indians, who all seem to be hyper aware of all the latest ideas and fashions from London in particular. Thus, “old” India is defined very much against “new” India, though the Sanskrit-driven father and son maintain that India, or its ancient (and superior) culture, is one of the world’s leading cultures. This argument is very much an active one amongst Indians of a certain class and background, and the wives of both men reject the men and their fantasies of a once-great Indian civilization together. The changing mores of an increasingly materialist India form the background of the novel. Taseer’s prose is entirely Proustian, as is his sensibility; the author supposes a great loss in identity and memory with the younger generation of Indians having no interest in Sanskrit and what it presumes to represent about India’s greatness. This novel is fascinating and gorgeously written.
- Kayla Rae Whitaker, “The Animators”, was this year’s truly surprise novel, the author’s first. Written with the speed of today’s technological world, the novel revolves around two women, one “straight”, and one a lesbian, who meet in college in an art class, begin to hang out together there all the time, and become partners in an animation company. Their films, which become increasingly well reviewed and bring them a tiny cult following, are generally written around painful, traumatic incidents from each of their own lives/childhoods. One’s from rural Florida, the other from rural Kentucky; the reader is privileged to be an integral part of their creative processes as they work to dig into their own depths and make these animated films. Both women have large wounds from their pasts; they will return both to Florida and to Kentucky to “do research”, letting the reader into the lives they led as children and adolescents. Their partnership is fascinating, their creativity massive, and the love between these two great friends an important part of the novel. The author takes us into the world of young creative New York, and its “scenes”, nightclubs, drugs, booze and the like, to great effect. Whitaker writes with absolute sureness, confidence and power; her language is brilliant and even her explanations of some of the technical aspects of animation are riveting. “The Animators” is the sleeper novel of 2017.
- Elizabeth Strout, in “Anything is Possible”, writes linked short stories about life in a small town in rural Illinois. Strout, who won The Pulitzer Prize for her first novel, the amazing “Olive Kittredge”, is again at her peak in these stories (she actually integrates the character of Lucy Barton into these stories; Lucy Barton was the lead character in Strout’s last (great) novel, “My Name is Lucy Barton”). Strout’s understanding of small town/rural Midwestern life is incredibly astute and psychologically sound; she is always very kind and sympathetic to her characters, and understands well how small town residents know everything about each other, yet tend to be kind and understanding about each other’s foibles and triumphs and losses. And Strout writes with a clarity that’s much like a cold winter morning: her language is spare yet elegant and the reader won’t find one extra or unnecessary word in any of Strout’s book. 2017 brought us a lot of excellent short story collections, but Elizabeth Strout’s is the best of them all.
- Alice McDermott, “The Ninth Hour”, returns the writer to her fascination with Catholic American life; in this novel, the Irish immigrants in Brooklyn are new to this country, in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and there’s a convent of Sisters of The Poor nearby the neighborhood McDermott creates. Alice McDermott is one of America’s finest writers, and, like both the English Anita Brookner and the American Patti Smith, she knows how to condense huge amounts of information into short paragraphs and sentences, selecting only the dialogue that most helps define her characters and moves the novel along. A young Irish bride, pregnant for the first time, discovers that her unemployed husband has committed suicide, one of the worst of all sins in Catholicism. Into this void come the nuns from the nearby convent, who not only comfort her, but will see her through her pregnancy and the birth of her daughter, and give her a job in the convent, as well. The four nuns in the novel are brilliantly delineated; they are all different, and each, in her way, dotes on the daughter, whom we’ll follow from infancy to her own marriage and children. There’s a heap of love in this novel, and McDermott’s the rare writer willing to examine the people within The Catholic Church in America with understanding, complexity, and affection (the novel itself is dedicated to a nun). Following both the growth of the daughter, the mother herself, and all the nuns as they go about their daily work (taking care of the sick, the poor, the invalids) is fascinating. And McDermott truly writes like an angel.
- David Grossman, “A Horse Walks into a Bar”, won the 2017 highly prestigious Man Booker International Prize for literature in 2017. (His novel “To The End of The Land” was my pick for best novel of the year a couple of years ago). Grossman, who’s Israeli, has written a powerful novel about a man “entertaining” a group of Israelis in a comedy club in a small Israeli town. His virtual monologue is most of the novel; the narrator is a retired judge who knew the entertainer as a boy at a summer camp decades before. Dovelah G., the entertainer, appears to have some kind of a breakdown on stage; his “shtick” is a retelling of a major trauma from his own childhood, when he learns of his father’s death while at camp and is driven to the funeral, not knowing that his father was dead and never having attended a funeral before. His mother, a Holocaust survivor, is brilliantly rendered in her fragility; the father/husband tries to protect her as best he can. Betrayals and secrets come pouring out in the “performance” on stage. The psychological aspects are brilliantly rendered; many in the audience walk out as they’re not being “entertained”. The comedian is, of course, a great storyteller, and his narrative is potent and tragic and fascinating. This novel is both painful and illuminating.
- Gabriel Tallent’s “My Absolute Darling” is another great debut novel of 2017. Set just North of San Francisco, a widowed father lives with his daughter Turtle, who’s one of the most fascinating and lovable characters to emerge in all of 2017’s fiction. A survivalist, this increasingly abusive father teaches his daughter how to survive in a world full of fascinating flora and fauna, described at some length (and beautifully, at that), by Tallent. But the reader’s in for a frightening ride, as we are privy to the increasingly violent sexual abuse–rape–of Turtle by her father. But Tallent’s talent is so great that we actually are able to understand how and why Turtle loves this man, as we readers also know that a violent climax between father and daughter is building throughout the novel, and is its very violent climax. Secondary characters whom Turtle meets on her occasional wanderings over the land, boys who are her age in high school, are well delineated and represent the rather cookoo mores of The Bay Area (one of the boys walks into a yoga studio and finds his mother meditating naked, for example). Turtle’s slow evolution and understanding of the evil her father represents evolves brilliantly, until her father brings home a very young girl to live with them, and the little girl’s rape will begin Turtle’s complete understanding of her situation and her desire to flee and to save herself, which she indeed does. Tallent’s writing is slow and laconic, in ways, and he builds the narrative brilliantly. Turtle is saved by her own wits and the highly intuitive intelligence of one of her high school teachers, with whom she will live as she heals from her horrible childhood and adolescence. Rarely has a contemporary social issue been made into fiction with such assurance and intelligence.
- Eleanor Henderson’s “The Twelve-Mile Straight” is set in Cotton County, Georgia in the ’20s and ’30s, twelve miles of a completely rural area with one mill in the town which employs most of the white men around, owned by the Wilson family, the area’s first family. Wilson boys grow up with the poverty-stricken Jessup boys, and later Jude Jessup will farm land (and run a still) owned by Wilsons; Jessup’s only daughter, Elma, gets pregnant by Wilson’s only surviving son, and tragedy worthy of Greeks slowly evolves in this beautifully written, dialogue-perfect long novel. Jessup’s daughter grows up with the African-American Nan, whose late mother worked for Jessups and reared Jessup’s daughter together. The friendship between these girls and eventually women is beautifully rendered, and both young women, Nan and Elma, have babies weeks apart, but Elma claims that they are both hers; one is white, one is black. The paternity of these two children will erupt as a huge surprise even to the most sophisticated reader, will explain the long and complex relationship between Wilson pere and Jessup pere. How the African-Americans are trapped within this web, for survival and for the sexual needs of the white men, weaves the story together, and what a tale it is! Henderson, whose last (and first) novel, “Ten Thousand Saints”, was also a top ten novel three years ago, is one of America’s best storytellers. And there’s also a mysterious lynching in the novel, whose real purposes unravel parallel with the paternity of these children. Henderson follows in Faulkner’s traditions, to be sure, but her understanding of character is as fine as anyone’s currently writing fiction. This novel is very long but utterly riveting, and confirms Henderson’s status as one of America’s finest younger novelists.
- Francis Spufford’s “Golden Hill” is a great read, set in the early years of New York City, a city so new its currency may only be used there and in a few other cities in the Northeast. A small town, then, rendered with acuity and hilarity by the author, early New York is bristling with entrepreneurs, social climbers, rifraff, gossip. An unknown stranger arrives from London, whose purpose in New York remains unknown (though the author leaves a couple of early clues). He manages to ingratiate himself with one of New York’s early financial experts, whose younger daughter seems to fall in love with him (what a strange character she is, given the extreme limitations of women’s roles and lives then). The author gives us a near riot, our narrator/hero spending time in jail, a trial, in which witnesses are bribed and lawyers new, officials corrupt and the like. It’s a great yarn, and the surprise ending intensely moving. The novel’s also beautifully written and crafted.
- Lawrence Osborne, “Beautiful Animals” is an unusual and fascinating novel, in many ways about good and evil in contemporary life. The novel takes place on an island off Greece, where two different American families summer, one regularly, and the other for one summer, in which the novel takes place. Both families have a daughter, and these two adolescent young women inevitably bond. The older woman’s parents are incredibly rich and self-indulgent with their daughter, who has mysteriously lost her London legal job and is on this island figuring out what to do with her life; she abhors her step-mother, although her father’s most indulgent with her. Her new friend is younger, but rapidly comes under the spell of the older woman. Boredom, of course, underlies the plot; there’s little to do on this island but eat and drink and go to the beach. One random day, they two young women find a man who’s literally just swum ashore; he is, presumably, a Syrian refugee, and the older daughter decides to hide and befriend him, knowing truly nothing about him: it’s an adventure of sorts for her, but she automatically sees him as a victim of rich people like her parents (her underlying political radicalism being her philosophy of life). In her increasingly evil ways, this daughter will cause murders and havoc , both with her own parents and with the refugee himself–all written off by her because of her radicalism, which justifies anything (the novel suggests the old theme of ends and means). The author hints at sexual attraction between the two women, which I understood as part of the evil charm of the older young woman, as she uses her sexuality to lure people under her power as she can. And when both parents and the refugee are dead, she returns to the summer house near Greece with nary a qualm, though the horrors of the summer do plague the other young woman upon her return to America and her marriage. It’s rare to read a novel with such evil at its core, and the fact that it takes place near Greece is a reminder of how old these issues are: they relate, of course, to Greek tragedies of ancient times, and remind us that evil is always around us, and how corrupting its force can be. “Beautiful Animals” is a fascinating, cautionary tale for our times.
- Roddy Doyle’s “Smile”, a very new release, is another horrifyingly fascinating novel. It has, along with Paul Auster’s novel (number one on this year’s list), a great deal to do with writing itself, the forces of creativity, and the interactions between art and life. The narrator is a newly divorced man, whose early career as a radio talk show guest on liberal/radical causes (what’s wrong with Ireland, where this novel takes place), who meets up with the beautiful and rapidly rising star Rachel, who’s on the early side of the culinary revolution. Newly living in a small apartment in a small Irish town, he meets up with and badly wishes to be a part of three men who inhabit a pub a couple of nights a week; his longing to be part of an “in” crowd is painful to read/watch, though it will bring back many a high school memory. But the narrator’s high school was run by priests, and, on one of the radio talk shows, he confesses to having been abused sexually by one of the Brothers. Since the ending’s a huge surprise (though the astute reader should see it coming), I’ll leave the plot there, but the writing is exquisite, the lead character sympathetic, if the marriage to Rachel seems a bit overplayed and the sexuality within it overdone (clue: those are deliberately placed by the writer). The ending truly explodes on the reader, but it makes sense and offers great insights into how a writer’s mind works. The prose is spare and minimalist, the characters insightfully rendered, and the topic of sexual by men on men rarely as well rendered as in Doyle’s powerful new novel.
Also recommended this year: 2017 was a great year for short stories, and some of the best are collections by Tessa Hadley; Jeffrey Eugenides; Joshua Ferris, and Penelope Lively. Other fiction of note: Rachel Cusk’s “Transit”; Rachel Seiffert’s “A Boy in Winter”; “Compass”, by Matthias Enard; Margaret Drabble’s “The Dark Flood Rises”; “A Kind of Freedom”, by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton.