Best of Fiction 2013

Daniel Brown

2013 was an odd year for new fiction: months of mediocre offerings were mitigated by the occasional novel of excellence and/or excitement. Although I can almost always fill this annual list with at least ten new offerings, and will again now, 2013’s dominant themes were frequently redundant and/or too clever by half: rites of passage novels may sometimes be endlessly engaging, but they’re often more authentic without the ideological/socio-psychological underpinnings of identity politics pervading them, and I think we’ve had enough “victim” books for a lifetime. It hadn’t occurred to me until 2012-13 that spending time in some drug rehab unit is supposed to be some badge of honor, something to which we should aspire, to pay homage. I wonder if the Nobel Prize Committee keeps skipping American novelists because of their voluminous self-absorption not manifest, for example, in the splendid, insightful, astute stories of Canadian Alice Munro (2013’s Nobel winner).

2013 also saw a plethora of fiction by writers of African descent, mostly female: this is a new mine, a wealth of rich fiction, which I wish hadn’t all come out at around the same time, so it reminded me of that awful thing about Black History Month, where the art/corporate worlds celebrate some vague aspect of black history, thus neatly ignoring black talent for the other 11 months of the year. Fiction by a number of younger female African (or African-American) writers combine the best of exile literature with the best of empowerment work, and, like the work of newer Indian or Indian-American writers, and a few Muslims, points to a very fresh new direction in literature, another hybrid of literary form from which we can expect a great deal (writers like Monica Ali, Kiran Desai, NoVIolet Bulawayo, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie fit these categories well).

Another very refreshing phenomena is the return of the very long novel (in spite of America’s marketing gurus telling us to keep everything short, as we are such busy, busy people), novels of over 800 pages appeared this year by Donna Tartt (whose novel The Goldfinch is 2013’s best novel); Joyce Carol Oates (the Accursed, at number two on the list); Eleanor Catton’s Booker prize winning The Luminaries (recommended but not listed); and Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings (also recommended but not listed). The perverse side of me—which seems to grow every year—enjoys this anti-marketing trend, and I note that all four of these novels have also appeared on the best sellers list as well.

Here is my list of 2013’s best fiction:

1. Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch. This lengthy novel not only has a riveting, occasionally nail-biting plot, but Tartt both challenges and pays homage to at least three great nineteenth century novelists throughout The Goldfinch: Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and Proust. Tartt’s a writer’s writer, and it’s especially delightful to read a novel in which the lead character is basically orphaned, and lives at the mercy of strangers (Tennessee Williams, there, too) after he, Theo, survives a terrorist bombing inside The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and takes Fabritius’ only known painting, The Goldfinch, with him as he escapes the wreckage, at the advice of a dying man (who gives him a ring, which… you’ll have to read the novel to put together all Tartt’s wonderful clues and themes. Also, Fabritius was Vermeer’s and Rembrandt’s teacher). The painting will symbolize beauty itself throughout the book, and Tartt’s meditation on beauty are so Proustian that she persuades us of Beauty’s sustaining and transcendent purposes and properties, while our narrator/hero Theo’s life is almost right out of Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Theo will spend time living in some splendor on Park Avenue with a school friend’s family, until his alcoholic father locates him and takes him to Las Vegas, which Tartt does up wonderfully: the empty house which is rented, the girlfriend named Xandra (never Sandra), and the abandoned neighborhood to which even pizza deliveries aren’t made.

And then Theo meets Boris, a Russian teenager also living with a solo (drunken) father, and the friendship between Theo and Boris becomes a major theme of the novel—from their adolescent antics and romps to their revisited friendship back in New York—Boris is in the New Russian Mafia, and the two meditate upon the nature of good and bad, truth and beauty (while doing some serious drugs) and underworld crime. Their loyalty is total. Theo will by lured into and out of many parts of New York—Tartt’s familiarity with Park Avenue and Greenwich Village, with antiques and the mores of the rich and the noveau riche—are splendid, deadly accurate, beautifully written. Plots emerge from plots, but those big 19th century themes—love, truth, beauty, honor, good and evil pervade the novel—which is in no ways a spoof or satire.

The Goldfinch is quite a feat, and Tartt’s a major talent. It’s absolutely 2013’s finest offering in fiction.

2. The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oates, was the first excellent novel published in 2013. The prolific Oates is at her finest in this brilliantly researched, partial spoof of life in upper class Princeton, New Jersey and Princeton University around 1905. Oates creates a world of demonic spirits, devils, and other spiritualist phenomena whose presences are felt by an increasingly large number of these families, many of whom are related. She chooses the time that is immediately post Freudian, when anything sexual falls under the general category of “not to be discussed”. The staid Presbyterians, of course, do not believe in spirits, even when they are being hit in the face by them, or, eventually, ravished by them. Oates’ understanding of hysteria among the over-protected and bored females of this small town is brilliantly rendered, as are the frequently hypocritical males to whom they are attached. Power is utilized and transmitted through the gossip at tea parties which roam from house to house, and proves to be a singularly effective technique for sharing information, or decoding what their men mean in conversations overheard.

A significant sub-plot of the novel involves the presidency of Woodrow Wilson at Princeton, a perfect personality type for the peculiar matters at hand, as Wilson appears to be nearly a hysteric himself, but in real life a very expressively horny man (recent research shows Oates to be completely correct about Wilson). So when, for example, a beautiful young bride leaves her groom at the altar for a man no one knows but who turns out to be an incarnation of the devil, we know we are in classic Oates territory. She has a lot of fun with her characters, their demons, their fake honor, and the like. Her descriptions of an underworld directly beneath a manor house are exemplary, and Oates is downright funny when she creates several vampires who are only interested in young men. She is, thus, playing with gender roles in a singularly fascinating and sophisticated way. There is only one hero, so that when terrible things happen to these people, we don’t have to care about them.

She provides three different endings for the novel, a totally postmodern trope, leaving it to the reader to choose one, much like a contemporary film whose ending is created through focus groups and the like. The Accursed is smart and savvy and sophisticated.

3. The Son, by Phillipp Meyer, is a grand sweeping epic of a novel, set in Texas beginning around 1816, and bringing us to the very present. Meyer uses a multigenerational family saga as his way of showing us Texas history, from its brief early pioneer days where the worst kind of white trash enters Texas and has constant fights with the native Comanche Indians. The reader will experience a Comanche raid on a white settlement where the house is looted, burned to the ground, all women are raped and all sons are kidnapped to become part of the tribe. The differences in the way whites use their land and the way the Comanches do is beautifully rendered, and reminds us of how Native Americans attempted to save land and water, while whites use them up. One son of the original settler family will become a complete Comanche, over time, and even when he is returned to white settlements, he never regains his original identity.

Each generation gets significantly richer, as cattle are introduced, oil is discovered, and eventually financial institutions are created where money is made off money. Meyer’s sense of these developments in Texas history is brilliant, and he makes history become totally alive. We are fascinated by the tight friendships between early white settlers and their Mexican neighbors, who by the second and third generations will be wiped out by their white grandchildren. Of course, there is a son who disapproves of his father’s empire, who is forced to take part in the murder of all of the Mexican neighbors, but who later finds the Mexican girlfriend who has survived the holocaust, and their relationship will eventually wreck both families. Tragedy is built into the history of Texas. There is also a granddaughter who tries to run the whole empire, in spite of warnings from her male relatives that her workman will not take orders from a woman: they do and they don’t, as we move towards the present. Lyndon Johnson will make an appearance in his first run for Congress and the granddaughter is one of his first financial backers.

Meyer subscribes to the cyclical view of history, rather than a linear one, much like the Chinese do, so this family has to be cursed because of its original moral failures, and we will watch the decline of the entire empire caused by the dishonesty of race relations. This is a brilliant novel, and it turns out that Meyer had never set foot in Texas until this novel was written. I found the use of the family saga a particularly useful way of integrating Texas history.

4. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, reviewed in the October aeqai, is an astonishing second novel by an American from the West who is also an artist. The narrator is from Reno, and she is on her way to art school in New York around 1970. Kushner’s descriptions of the land in Nevada are totally original and unusually magnificent, since most of us see that kind of land as ugly and useless. Reno, the narrator, wants to do a performance piece in the salt flats of Nevada where she rides a motorcycle through them with the intention of photographing the line in the flats created by the motorcycle. This will be her first art piece at school. I have rarely read a better description of performance art, where Kushner is describing a new kind of drawing (it turns out that Kushner also writes for ArtForum). Her ability to describe the scenario is astonishing, as is the overall quality of all of her writing.

She gets to New York, gets involved with some bad guys, but her early sexual encounters are well within her comfort zone: Kushner is creating and defining the new American woman in this novel: she is from the West; she is used to the world of men, of tools, of motorcycles, and the like. She has an innate curiosity about how things work, including her own body. Her interests and love affair take her Italy, as her lover in New York is the son of an Italian manufacturing family. She is roundly snubbed by his mother who represents a dying world, and she runs away and lands in the heart of the radical street protests of the 70’s in Italy. She does not lose her sense of self, although frightened, and we know that she will somehow find her way back to New York safely, and she does: that’s Kushner’s new woman as well.

Rachel Kushner has an enormous gift for writing, and the territories she chooses are new, unusual, and feminist in ways not discussed in classrooms in New York City. Hers is a talent to watch.

5. Dave Eggers’ The Circle was reviewed in the November aeqai. Eggers is one of America’s most important younger writers. He has established a foundation and a publishing house in San Francisco which help immigrant writers to get published and to get jobs: most come from war torn countries in Africa.

In The Circle, Eggers creates a corporation by that name, intended by its founders to be a combined social media utopia, with a campus full all the pleasures known to young professionals in The Bay Area (no doubt modeled on companies like Google and Yahoo). The employees of The Circle are expected to take part in all sorts of extracurricular activities, as well as completing layers and layers of work integrating more and more social media. One could, for example, spend all day filling out questionnaires to please customers of The Circle’s. But what Eggers really creates is a monstrous dystopia, where people spy on each other all of the time, and where privacy is considered immoral and, if possible, would be declared illegal. The Circle is a cautionary tale about how marketing and social media have taken over our lives, and how any desire for a personal life is considered wrong. Everyone is constantly checking on everyone, and all employees walk around attached to monitors showing numbers indicating how many tasks they have completed, how many events they have attended, and even all of their private medical records. Of course, things like friendship are devalued. This seems an excellent time for this kind of novel, and it should be read as a warning, and as a type of contemporary prophecy.

6. Someone, by Alice MacDermott, represents a strain of novel that also was published this year, in which very little appears to happen, and what does is a shift in the psychological consciousness in a group of people. MacDermott is one of America’s most respected novelists, and Someone again shows her at her absolute best. Using the people who live in one extended Irish neighborhood in New York, either first or second generation, she follows their daily lives and rituals, while underneath the seemingly ordinary flow, events like life and death, and rites of passage such as weddings and funerals, the birth of a damaged child, or the alcoholic father, are followed with a deep rooted love. The Catholic Church is still a major force in these people’s lives, and the women of the neighborhood sustain and cushion all the blows which constitute real life. For example, the Someone, who is the narrator, is a daughter of the neighborhood who eventually marries an acquaintance of her brother’s and goes to work in the neighborhood funeral home. The owner’s mother lives upstairs, and about once a week, Someone goes up to visit her, and other neighborhood women and nuns will be there, exchanging vital news about the people, their ancestors, and their children: that’s how we learn the neighborhood tragedies, which are veiled, discussed obliquely, and with a nod of the head or the wink of an eye, as gossip itself is frowned upon. MacDermott reminds us of the joy and safety of those neighborhoods, all long gone, and how their women knit the fibers that held everything together, and allow everyone their dignity. Someone’s brother will have a break down, and end up in love with a man, but even that is integrated into the tapestry of their lives, unspoken but real. This is a very beautiful book.

7. Snow Masters, by Paul Yoon, is another slim, almost minimalist novel about how life survives its traumas and tragedies. Set at the end of the Korean War, our narrator is shown living in an American prisoner of war camp for the last two years of that war, with one of his few friends from childhood. At the war’s end we have learned how the narrator can survive and flourish with so little beyond a will to survive, and an unopened envelope of love waiting to be set free.

He takes a boat to Brazil, where he becomes an apprentice to a Japanese tailor, and lives in the same house/shop with that man. As the two spend their time together, neither one talks much, but an obvious bond begins to grow between them. The narrator meets two abandoned children, and the gardener of a former estate: that’s all the people who appear in this book. Each of these people has been abandoned: it turns out that a concentration camp for the Japanese had existed on the edge of this town, which the tailor has survived: we never learn who abandoned the children. But the rhythms of daily life soothe, and routine and ritual are the lullabies that bring these people back to life. How their lives intersect, and eventually how the narrator will both inherit the shop and fall in love with the female of the abandoned children, shows how love can be redemptive, and how strong survivors can be.

This is the sparest novel written in decades: the emotion is so taut and so little is spoken as mood takes over from speech itself. Once a year a boat arrives from the far East, and the narrator will go down to the port and have a beer with the few sailors he remembers from his original passage: these scenes are as moving as anything in contemporary literature. Snow Masters is a small masterpiece.

8. Ten White Geese is a novel by a Dutch writer, Gerbrand Bakker. It is another “small” novel, although also packed with strong emotion, and a combination of beauty and tragedy, life and death, identity and desperation. A youngish married woman is accused of having an affair with a male student of hers; she is censored by her department, and she decides to flee her old life and her husband. She has some mysterious and possibly fatal illness: in many ways, this novel is impressionistic. She rents a house in the wilds of Wales, taking only a few clothes and her book of Emily Dickenson poems, about which she is writing her PhD thesis. Her days are much the same; she meets few people, and then only by necessity; they frighten her. One day, a young man arrives with his dog and moves in with her. Their relatively brief relationship is utterly beautiful, although she recreates her original seduction. Their daily life consists of making food, conversation, taking walks: there are ten geese on her property, which keep vanishing. The geese are literal and symbolic, of flight, death and loss. Madness will enter her brain, partly through the pain medicine she is taking in stronger doses, and we leave her outside with the remaining geese, all waiting to die. Her husband is actually en route to save her, while the young man finds her and departs. We are left with great ambivalence about both her life and death, but she seems to have found a great freedom in her last days. This is a difficult and highly romantic novel.

9. All That Is, by James Salter is, in many ways, an old fashioned novel, wherein two men who meet in World War II come to New York after the war, to seek their fortunes. They both go into publishing, an industry that is beautifully described, as Salter makes its heyday both important and personal. The two men are different in what their goals are, but their characters are consistent. We watch them go to bars after work, and see their awkward attempts at picking up women; both will marry, and both will have tragedies within them. One’s career succeeds more than the other’s, and we follow the man who remains in New York the most, as his friend moves upstate into a life that becomes sheltered and eventually tragic. As the other man succeeds, it is fascinating to watch him pick up women in cabs, have sex with them that night, and marry them. They will betray him, and he will repeat the exact same pattern again. He will get more cynical, the women will get younger, he will seek revenge, he will get nasty. There is something utterly realistic about this man and his life, as he takes his joys and pleasures where he can get them. This is a solid and sophisticated book.

10. Panopticon is Jenni Fagan’s debut novel. Fagan is Scots born, and currently lives in London. The novel describes the lives of children who have been abandoned by everyone, and who live in state sponsored houses together, with social worker chaperones. The houses are an odd kind of prison, and the one in the novel is an old Victorian house which our narrator heroine is convinced is a panopticon, a place where she is convinced where they are all being watched, and will all be drugged and killed. When this feisty fifteen year old breaks into the top floor of this house with a friend, she discovers evidence of earlier patient abuse and of the machinery for electric shock therapy.

She is good at making friends and creating families, even though she has never had one. On the rare times where she has been out placed as a foster child and actually likes her foster mother, she will be privy to their murders and find them in pools of blood. Although she is full of rage, she is also full of love, and the other adolescents who live in these houses turn to her for leadership, which she gives. We are privy to her being gang raped twice, yet she has an indomitable spirit, and only one dream, which is to escape to Paris, and live a quiet life with her cat. How she escapes this house, with the help of all of those who have helped her is astonishing, and although some of the staff have genuine affection for her, she knows that the system wants her locked up and dead, and she is correct. She has been accused of committing a ghastly crime, and although she knows how to prove her innocence, she also knows that no one will listen to her: the justice system, as presented in this novel, is utterly frightening and entirely corrupt.

Fagan is the poet of her generation. Her language soars and soars, along with an unbeatable optimism, and a strong sense of survival. Fagan’s is a new voice in fiction, and a new voice in general. I would not be surprised if she turns into a poet and/or a musician. Her talent is as large as Rachel Kushner’s, and I will be interested to see where these two women’s careers go.

Other novels recommended from 2013, in no particular order, are:
Caleb Crane, Necessary Errors; Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings; Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs; Jo Baker, Longbourn; Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries; Jane Gardham, Last Friends; William Gass, Middle C; Jim Gavin, Middle Men; Tom Perrotta, Nine Inches; Amber Dermont, Damage Control: Stories; Andre Dubus III, Dirty Love; Allan Gurganus, Local Souls.

2 Responses

  1. Daniel, thanks for keeping me in the local cultural loop. There is much more going on here than I ever imagined.
    I started The Goldfinch about a week ago and hope to enjoy reading it while in Morcocco from the 26th until January 8th. Best wishes for happy holidays and for continued enthusiasm as expressed in your nice little monthly. -Peter

  2. Daniel, thanks for keeping me in the local cultural loop. There is much more going on here than I ever imagined.
    I started The Goldfinch about a week ago and hope to enjoy reading it while in Morcocco from the 26th until January 8th. Best wishes for happy holidays and for continued enthusiasm as expressed in your nice little monthly. -Peter

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