2018 was an odd year for fiction; good and occasionally superior books appeared throughout the year, though it took some sleuthing to find them. Nothing dominates other than an ominous tendency towards overpraising novels that tend towards the politically correct. If you read other lists of best novels of the year, you’ll notice a widely varying group; mine, too, is different from the others, so after reading 277 works of fiction this year, here’s my pick of the best twelve of 2018, many of which I reviewed during this calendar year for aeqai, and are archived accordingly. I do try to make, say, no. 1 my pick of the best, and , say, no. 7 would be seventh; there’s always something arbitrary about the order of books in this list, as comparing novels has something of the apples and oranges about it.
1. “The Overstory”, by Richard Powers, is the best novel of the year, hands down. A radical environmental novel, the book’s about trees: they are the main characters, if you will, and you’ll learn more about trees and how they communicate in this novel than you ever thought possible, but it’s riveting and fascinating and never, ever dull. Powers invents quite a few characters, many of whom end up in pairs, whose lives interact with trees and forests in any number of fascinating and creative ways. The characters find one another, too, in their own searches often for meaning in their lives. Powers invents one of my favorite characters in any novel, a terrific woman scientist, who, after a nasty stint in academia, finds her way as an environmental scientist eventually living amongst forests and discovering how trees really do communicate with each other and how our raping of the environment affects both them and us people (trees and humans are literally genetic cousins). The amount of activism in the novel increases as the book goes along, and, as well as learning a heap, you’ll find Powers’ characters moving and real and affecting. “The Overstory” is a must read; it’s topical and well written, astute and very contemporary without for a minute being smug or politically correct. It’s the best novel about the environment I’ve ever read.
2. “The Great Believers”, by Rebecca Makkai, is a riveting novel examining the lives of a number of young gay men in Chicago in the ’80s, just as the AIDS epidemic is beginning its rampage. A lot of the novel is set in the art world, and the author’s knowledge of that world is superior. One young woman (I wondered if it might be the author herself), who has a gay brother, hangs around with this mostly good group of friends as they’re just beginning their adult careers; a subplot or secondary theme of the book will find this woman later in life, having nursed as many of her friends as she can humanly do, in Paris, trying to reconcile with the daughter whose birth coincides with the dying of the protagonist of the novel. The author’s sympathy and empathy underline the entire novel, which is passionate but controlled; her characters are very realistically rendered, and the reader learns how arbitrary it became for men to catch AIDS, often not even through sexual contacts that were direct. Makkai also treats some of the parents of these young sick men with the horror that they deserve, throwing sons out of their houses because they are gay. This is probably the first novel examining the lives of a group of men who will mostly succumb to AIDS, and it may be the definitive novel of its type. “The Great Believers” seems to be on everyone’s “best of year” list, where it richly deserves to be. Avoiding the worst of the maudlin, the novel almost feels, sometimes, like journalism, which is a strength here as information is transmitted without hype or hysteria. I hope this novel is widely assigned as reading in college classes; it’s a beautiful book written by a smart and passionate writer and deserves a very wide audience.
3. “The Kites”, by Romain Gary, is that French author’s last novel, placed during the French Resistance in Northern France during World War II, when the village in the area has been ocupied by the Nazis. Each of the characters in this novel finds his or her way of coping with the Nazi occupation, and reading about so-called “ordinary” citizens under the worst of circumstances heightens each character’s inner strengths that might not have been forefront in their regular lives. A grandfather and grandson, each presumed to be eccentric, are at the center of the novel; the grandfather’s hobby has been making kites, which will become a key way to signal the French Underground in the areas surrounding the village in question. There’s the magnificent local chef of a five star French eaterie, determined to keep up the high quality of the cooking, food, and service so that the Nazi patrons will understand the underlying French civilization’s strength of identity in cooking, one of France’s great contributions to world culture. And the former Jewish Madam of a Parisian brothel will resurface, supposedly as the girlfriend of a Nazi officer, but in reality as a leader of the French Resistance in the region. The tone of the writing is pitch perfect; it’s elegiac, it’s tender, it’s poignant, it’s often funny, and the relationships amongst the villagers are perfectly rendered. The climax of the novel is beyond beautiful; “The Kites” is a lesser known novel, but it’s a great one.
4. “Go, Went, Gone” came out at the bitter end of 2017, but wasn’t reviewed until 2018, so it’s on my list this year. Jenny Erpenbeck, the author, creates a wonderful character, a retired university professor, whose wife has recently died, and who has too much time on his hands; his
post-career days move slowly, until , by accident, he sees a protest (in a German city) by African migrants, who are being shoved around; they are supposedly in Germany only temporarily, as The European Union’s rules about these recent migrants determine that they may possibly stay but only in the country where they happened to land. The novel, then, concerns this professor’s increasing interactions with these mainly male migrants; he tries to read to them, begins to befriend them, and also begins to leave his safe and easy life in favor of activism about and with these migrant men. One of the novel’s greatest strengths is the author’s insistence that each of these African men has a very distinct personality, history, and dreams, and we readers get to know them as the professor does. I know of no other novel which has examined the lives and plights of new immigrants to Europe as well as this one does. Like the other novels I’ve written about so far on this “best” list, it tackles contemporary problems through fiction, which may have a strength to it that journalism ultimately doesn’t. The professor’s personal growth and development are admirably portrayed, and the novel gives us a glimpse of one of the world’s most intractable problems. The professor, too, begins to argue with some of his smug friends; the loss of some and the gain of others is another great strength of this unusual, and very moving, novel.
5. “The Friend”, by Sigrid Nunez, won The National Book Award for 2018, and it, too, is one of the best novels of the year. This book is smart, and multi-layered. A woman teaching writing to a group of truly appalling millennials is a sub-theme of the book, most of which is about her former relationship to a former male teacher of hers, with whom she has maintained a very close, nonsexual relationship through his three marriages. His recent suicide becomes the reason she writes the book, as she has most reluctantly agrees to take his dog (the “Friend”, presumably, of the title), a huge Great Dane named Apollo. Parts of the novel which deal with the writer’s transferred grief from her friend onto the dog reminded me of the fabulous “H is for Hawk”, one of the best books of this decade, wherein a woman whose father has died takes a goshawk as a pet and trains it, loves it, and bonds with it until she becomes almost feral, too. As in “The Overstory”, in “The Friend”, you’ll learn an amazing amount about dogs in general and Great Danes in particular, all of it fascinating. Without being a spoiler, at some point the
reader will begin to realize that the novel is about the act of writing itself, and the materials which a writer uses/takes from her daily life. I’ll leave it at that, as I’m so eager for others to read this highly intelligent book, which is full of aphorisms and literary allusions which are breathtaking in their scope, range, intelligence and relevance. And be prepared to be very, very moved by this gorgeous, relatively short book, as it forces you to a careful reading, and it urges intelligence.
6. “Four Soldiers”, by Hubert Mingarelli, seems to have gone unnoticed by every newspaper and/or magazine I use for book sources. This startlingly beautiful short novel, which reads nearly like a prose poem, takes place during or before World War I in those parts of Eastern Europe and/or Russia whose borders kept morphing from one country to another, but seems to involve Romanians fighting drafted Russian soldiers. The four young men of the title are all about l8 years old, and have come from many of the tiny villages in the areas mentioned above. They are in the twilight of their boyhood/adolescence and find themselves bunking together in first a winter hut and later in a tent which they lovingly create and in which they live, eat, sleep and talk between battles, which were often in abeyance in the winters in the region. Told from the perspective of the narrator, young Benia, none of these men has lived outside their own families and/or villages before, and the book expresses the growing friendship and affection between and amongst these four shy young men ( a fifth runaway teenager will also be assigned to bunk with them). One of the four, a giant Uzbecki soldier, is clearly intellectually challenged, and his acceptance by the other men, who occasionally rib him but never make fun of him, is one of the strengths of the novel. Pavel, the natural leader of the group, had nightmares, and needs Benia to wake up in the middle of the night and walk with him in the woods until he calms down; Benia’s thought processes about how he might or should or shouldn’t offer Pavel a physical hug of reassurance and affection is magnificently rendered. Our four soldiers have bunked near
a pond, and occasionally catch and eat a fish; this pond remains their secret from all other soldiers, and seems almost a Garden of Eden-like setting. Male bonding as a part of being a soldier is a not uncommon theme, particularly in the literature from the Vietnam and Iraqi wars, but Mingarelli’s prose is so beautiful and his writing style so clear and poetic that this one winter in the lives of these four soldiers becomes the stuff of great literature. The writing’s much like Patti Smith’s and Elizabeth Strout’s, wherein the author uses broad brushtrokes of prose to describe his men and their surroundings, and it’s an unusually effective style for this superb novel, which I hope finds a much larger audience. This is a flawless, beautiful novel.
7. “The Winter Soldier”, by Daniel Mason, seems almost a first cousin to “Four Soldiers” by Hubert Mingarelli. Perhaps the current interest in World War I and its shattering of the aristocratic families of Europe is such a strong topic now as we’re celebrating the l00th anniversary of the ending of that war this year. The narrator is a medical student from an aristocratic family (which involves an Austrian and Polish parentage, Poland having been gobbled up entirely during this period), who finds himself attached to an army hospital in a small village in the Carpathian Mountains serving as a doctor, which he isn’t, yet. He works with a nun, who’s learned a heap of medicine by experience in desperate circumstances, as hordes of wounded men are brought to the Catholic Church which is serving as a field hospital. Mason’s superb at describing both the conditions in which these two work, and how different wounded soldiers appear and are given real personalities and real care, including the most difficult circumstances regarding hygiene. Mason’s descriptions of the terrain in question in the winter are beautifully rendered. Our narrator and the nun fall in love, and their relationship becomes the primary theme of this beautifully structured and very intense novel. When the narrator accidentally becomes lost in the mountains and separated from the hospital/nun/wounded soldiers, and in the midst of a ferocious battle, he eventually returns to Vienna (home) and then begins to search for the nun. That search through the winter mountains on whatever transport he can find is a journey into self-discovery as well as into his past at the hospital; he will run into men whose lives he’s saved, who help him along (some of these passages are utterly magnificent). Although he will find the nun, the surprise ending is phenomenal, a very adult ending to a beautiful love story set within the most difficult of personal circumstances. Giving names to real soldiers and real personnel in tiny villages is one of the great strengths of “The Winter Soldier”, which is in the front ranks of novels about World War I.
8. Ottessa Moshdegh’s pithy, cynical, New York-smart “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” is a must read for 2018. New York novels may be considered a genre unto themselves (think Henry James onwards). Moshdegh’s heroine (or anti-heroine, depending upon the reader’s points of view) has decided that she needs a year off from, well, New York and her life within it. She’s been working in a trendy art gallery, where she does very little except look good/dress well, and the scenes about/within the gallery are utterly hilarious ; Moshdegh’s spot-on about the trendiness of contemporary art, and of gallerists’ desire to shock/to find the newest talent/to court the art press , and these spoofs of the New York art world alone are worth reading this novel. The narrator goes to a woman psychiatrist, strictly to get sedatives, anti-depressants, sleeping aids and the like; the scenes with this psychiatrist are also hilarious; the psychiatrist listens to absolutely nothing her patient is saying but is happy to pour drugs into her (eventually, this woman will morph from psychiatrist into “shaman”, a wonderful spoof of contemporary shrinkery). More or less stuck with one female friend from college, who continues to visit her against her wishes, our narrator basically drugs and sleeps her way through a year; an artist from the art gallery will make something of a performance piece about her self-imprisonment–those sections about the interfaces of art and life are also wildly funny and super-cynical. I found myself underlining whole passages of Moshdegh’s text throughout the novel, as she writes like a de la Rochefoucauld of today, full of pithy aphorisms, thoughts, analyses of culture and of New York and of being a contemporary woman in New York. Moshdegh’s tone is pitch perfect throughout, and you’ll not find a more brilliant and jadedly sophisticated New York novel than this one this year. Ottessa Moshdegh is clearly a talent to watch.
9. “The Only Story”, by Julian Barnes, is a very adult love story, told from the perspective of the young man who lived it, looking back as an adult. Home from college in an upper middle class English suburb, our narrator meets, first as a tennis partner, a forty-year-old married woman with grown children, who also lives in the same affluent suburb. Their relationship as tennis partners rather rapidly grows into a full grown love affair. The two will actually move to London together, while our narrator continues his studies well into law school, but his ladyfriend, Susan, becomes an alcoholic, and our young narrator finds himself caught in the web of lies to which alcoholics are notoriously prone; she’s also terrified of being considered frigid. What begins as an eccentric and presumably summer affair will go on for years, and its aftershocks will affect our narrator for the rest of his life. The book presumes that one has only one great love in a lifetime, and if indeed this is the one for both of these people, they end up wounded and scarred for life. Living off Susan financially, too, our narrator has, like most adolescents, failed to understand the role of money in life. The good times of the affair are well described, and both characters have good senses of humor; both are decent sorts. The secondary characters in the novel, including Susan’s husband and best female friend, are superbly delineated. Bittersweet, elegiac, and poignant, “The Only Story” is, as is always true with fiction by Julian Barnes, one of England’s finest writers, beautifully crafted and written. It’s both a cautionary tale and one that seems inevitable as it progresses; it’s always vindicating to read novels by adults for adults each year, and this novel is one of this year’s best in this category. Bittersweet may best describe the tone of the novel.
10. “Asymmetry”, by Lisa Halliday, much praised by just about everyone writing their “best fiction” lists, is problematic, but mostly worth reading. The first, and longest novella, which will connect at the end to a coda/epilogue, is one of the most brilliant pieces of writing you’ll encounter this year. Halliday is widely known to have had a love affair when very young with the very aged Philip Roth, and this novella is presumed to be a literary, novelistic interpretation of that affair. Whether it is or isn’t, Halliday creates a May-December relationship between a very curious young aspiring female writer and an aging man with urgent sexual needs, but whose generosity of spirit, advice, and gifts of money , and sense of humor, make him a very admirable and most likeable man. He mentors her, in essence, while he has sex with her. But theirs is indeed a very loving relationship, and Halliday’s writing and descriptions of both parties to this affair is truly magnificent. You may not find better writing as a craft anywhere this year. In the coda, Halliday invents a scenario wherein her lover wins The Nobel Prize, a lovely and fitting
tribute to Roth, who never won that award, much to the bafflement of the world reading public. Roth, of course, died this year, so Halliday’s novel, which one cannot read without assuming her character to be Roth, takes on a poignancy that it might not otherwise have had. The main problem with “Asymmetry” is the second novella, about an Iraqi-American trapped in an American airport as he’s trying to fly to Baghdad to see relatives and he gets caught in the endless morass of airport security/bureaucracy. This novella is, frankly, boring, and it drags “Asymmetry” to number ten on my list this year.
11. “The Feral Detective” , by Jonathan Lethem, came out very late this year, and is up to Lethem’s other first-rate novels. This dystopian novel takes place “off the grid”, and was written right after Trump was elected President, and is Lethem’s response to that election. A very Manhattan-bred young woman is sent to California to help locate the runaway daughter of a New York friend; that daughter has vanished from Reed College and our narrator goes to California, hires the most bizarre private detective (who keeps a pet opossum in his desk drawer) to find the missing young woman. These two will end up amongst homeless people living in shanties and/or in pipe fittings, and will roam into people living truly off the grid; The West is full of people doing so, in reality. They will find themselves amongst communities living away from everything, the women called “Rabbits” and the men (of course) “Bears”. There’s violence and mystery and highly entertaining seduction scenes (she to him). Her savvy New York skills meet his homeless/Western mysterious detective skills; the author’s riffs on gender and class are hilarious and superb spoofs as well. “The Feral Detective” is both smart and funny and sometimes quite scary, making for a romp of a read. As America gets nuttier and nuttier, books like this one are meant to help readers to cope with the surreal country in which we now find ourselves.
“The Feral Detective” is unique this year, and it’s a great read. Lethem also uses language differently than any writer I know, and his writing itself is a model of craft and wordsmanship.
12. Jon McGregor’s “Reservoir 13” completes this year’s list of best fiction. This perfectly gorgeous novel is set in a small English village; an affluent couple has been renting a summer house here, along with their teenaged daughter, who will vanish entirely. The entire village will look for here, first intensively, and, over time, less so; her parents’ marriage will fall apart over her disappearance, and even after they’re mostly long gone, this disappearance hangs like a dark cloud over the people in this village. But the writer supposes, of course, that life goes on;
we become privy to the village’s people, their friendships, loves, divorces, widowhoods. Good things and bad–normal things–happen to the people here, and McGregor integrates those parts of human life within the rhythms of the seasons, of nature, throughout this book, so that foxes breed and have baby foxes, leaves unfurl and later die, flowers peek up and then die. McGregor’s descriptions of the rhythms of nature in which human interactions take place are utterly magnificent, some of the best natural descriptions I’ve read in years. He proposes that life in this English village is a circular affair, taking a cyclical rather than linear view of life itself. This is an unusual and riveting book; the disappearance of the girl gives the novel/life in the village a certain structure outside of the normal rhythms of life both natural and human.
The best short fiction of 2018 is in these three books: “Last Stories”, by William Trevor; “Florida”, by Lauren Groff; and “Fight No More: Stories”, by Lydia Millett.
Other novels that I highly recommend from 2018 are: “Love is Blind” by William Boyd; “Mirror, Shoulder, Signal” by Dorothe Nors; “Warlight” by Michael Ondaatje; “Kudos” by Rachel Cusk; “The Mars Room” by Rachel Kushner; “Country Dark” by Chris Offutt; “Confessions of the Fox” by Jordy Rosenberg; “A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl”, by Jean Thompson; “Waiting for Eden” by Elliot Ackerman; “A Shout in the Ruins” by Kevin Powers; “Ohio”, by Steven Markley; “The Silence of The Girls” by Pat Barker; “There There” by Tommy Orange; “Spring” by Karl Ove Knausgaard.
The most disappointing books of 2018: “Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver and “Lake Success” by Gary Shteyngart. Kingsolver’s normally very astute, somewhat romantic style is missing in this family saga, which falls flat, in territory that could be rich with meaning in the dynamics of a family that’s downwardly mobile in America. And Shteyngart is one of America’s finest satirists, often bitingly funny and astute, and how any reader could care about any of the characters in this alleged spoof of a family in the 1% is beyond me.
Most overrated book of 2018: “My Duck is Your Duck”, stories by Deborah Eisenberg. Eisenberg is a dazzling stylist who seems to have absolutely nothing to say in these wildly uninteresting, overrated stories. Comparisons of her work/style to those of Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant are preposterous.
But there’s plenty of good and sometimes great books to read that came out in 2018, and I hope that you’ll find some on this list worth reading and/or giving as holiday gifts; reading is still one of life’s greatest pleasures, and it’s also blessedly quiet when you do so.
Happy Holidays and best wishes for The New Year.