End of the Year Best Fiction of 2012
Although The New York Times Books Review’s editors found 2012 to be an exceptionally exciting year for new fiction, I found the opposite to be the case: 2012 was one of the weakest years , overall, for new fiction in over a decade. Of course, good and some excellent fiction appeared,most all of it after Labor Day: releasing books isn’t supposed to parallel the Academy Awards stunt, whereby serious films or films wanting serious consideration for Academy Awards are known to be released in the fall. Although The National Book Award winners aren’t announced until late fall, the organizers of those awards have moved to nominating mostly unknown or lesser known books/authors, so the enthusiasm and/or excitement surrounding those awards has significantly diminished. We expect “beach reading” in the summer, but I didn’t think that we would be including Ian McEwan (Sweet Tooth) as a beach author til this year. And, of course, The Times Book Review itself has weakened significantly in recent years, and its reviewers seem to represent a spectrum of political correctness and diversity rather than a group of literate book lovers and critics, and The Times seems fixated upon non-fiction, greatly at the expense of fiction.
Much was made, also, of the Pulitzer Prize Committee’s refusal to award a prize for fiction in 2011, indicating the poor quality of novels last year, or so it would appear. This decision reflects poorly on their judges or jurors, as Chad Harwick’s The Art of Fielding, Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints, and Leah Hager Cohen’s The Grief of Others all would have been distinguished choices for last year’s prize. The Times’ excitement in 2012, too, rests on its (mis)assumption that at least three writers of new fiction (Zadie Smith; Ben Fountain; Michael Chabon) have adopted/adapted James Joyce’s mantel of modernist style in their new books: this may (or may not) be true, although I’m not certain that the Joycean influence is as strong as The Times’ editors believe it to be, and in Chabon’s case (Telegraph Avenue), style is what wrecked an already dubiously constructed novel.
Smith and Fountain may well be reflective of the vernaculars of their own, or their characters’, places of origin, too, which may be presumed to be post-Joycean, although Joycean in origin or effect, or to a general return to modernism. Some of us thought that modernism had never died in the first place. Whether in fiction or, say, in the visual arts. it may be that postmodernism is the temporary aberration, the stylistic chic of a small number of academic fashionistas, as always, clustered on both coasts, but funneling into the heartland at long last (I am fond of saying that the last Marxists in the world are in Albania, North Korea, and on American midwestern campuses).
The single most imporatant–and shocking–event of the literary year is the announced retirement from the writing of fiction of Philip Roth. Roth, America’s preeminent fiction writer since the death of Saul Bellow, is 88, but I have wondered whether his decision to retire may have involved the indifferent-to-hostile reception of his last three novels/novellas, all based upon his memories of pre-war Newark, where he grew up and which he once shamelessly satirized. I found these three late novels to be superior in conception and craft, beautifully–often lyrically–written, and conveying an elegaic intensity which contrasts brilliantly and effectively with his earliest novels, Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint: Roth created an enormous elliptical cycle, in his career, and these three late, great, undervalued novels do complete the cycle, square the circle. The New York Times Book Review, yet again, managed to misread, misunderstand, miscalculate and misjudge all of Roth’s late efforts, probably because of its editors’ obsession with the politically correctness of much contemporary feminism, which doesn’t approve of men writing sex scenes, particularly ones in which the characters may be enjoying themselves–particularly the men.
The “culprit”, of course, is a sex scene in the second of these novels’ trilogy. (Perhaps it wasn’t possible for Roth to exit the scene without one last brouhaha about a sexual escapade, but, if such is the case, we would have preferred if the reviewer had understood the novel and the purpose of the sex scene in question which, of course, she did not). Roth’s narrator/protagonist, a man long past his prime, falls for the young daughter of some of his friends; she, though, thrusts herself at him and moves in with him without invitation; this inversion is critical to an understanding of the ending of Roth’s cycle. The young female character is a self-proclaimed lesbian, and, although she uses her older boyfriend/lover as a machine to consider “conversion” to being”straight”, she goes ahead and picks up a woman in a local bar where the two lovers have just had dinner, and the three of them return to (his) house. Roth then describes one of the saddest, loneliest and most manipulative sexual encounters in all of his fiction: the three bed together, the man the least willing and the least interested (not, as the reviewer informed us, to play out every man’s fantasy of a three-way–and who is she to tell us what every man’s fantasy is?)–our older narrator goes ahead with this to please his young seductress/harpie. Of course, her original lesbianism reasserts itself, and not only is their relationship killed off, but, after she blithely departs, he kills himself. Perhaps a certain kind of strident contemporary feminist believes this to be his due.
The woman who reviewed this novel threw a feminist fit about this sex scene, which she blames entirely on the male, and she has misread the book and the scene in question, misinterpreted the meaning of the whole scene, misunderstood and willfully trashed the novel, accordingly: the review is a cathartic outlet for her rage at the kind of man, like Roth, who has abused women……need I go further?
The Times’ book editors then began a baffled “conversation” amongst a few writers of their own choosing, mainly women, of course, wondering why so much contemporary fiction , mainly by younger writers, is so often sex-free or, at best, coy in these matters. The Book Review’s editors asked Anne Roiphe, for example, to ponder these matters and let us know why sex has flown off the pages of contemporary fiction. It seems not to have occurred to these esteemed editors to consider asking more male writers these same questions. Roiphe rather takes a pass in her answers, a shrug, allowing The Times to evade the very questions it raised. Male writers probably avoid sex scenes for fear of the wrath of feminist reviewers, it seems to me, and/or avoid writing them because sex isn’t fun anymore, perhaps, in the era of the internet and double working couples etc. Ardor and corporte coupling seem to contraindicate one another. None of the psychosexual or sociological issues surrounding the differences in life styles is ever mentioned, because they may not sync with the ideologies of The New York Times (to which I or my family has subscribed for over forty years).
Whether these episodes are partially responsible for Roth’s retirement remains unknown; he is, after all, 88 years old, but I write about these issues at some length as my own farewell to The New York Times Book Review. It’s become mediocre, boring, uncreative, almost anti-fiction, and the editors’ ideas of what constitute quality wraps around either political correctness; fiction from emerging countries; fiction from emigres who live in their heads; rights-of-passage novels from spoiled upper- middle class urban brats (Claire Messaud’s The Emperor’s Children was so repulsive a novel that one hoped for the worst for its characters; same with Ian McEwan’s Saturday, in which two “delinquents” break into the (lovely) townhouse of an upscale family: I began to root for the thieves.) Contemporary ideologies and propoganda pervade this book review, and the reviewers are clearly encouraged to include their diatribes of the day into the reviews.
When, around two months ago, I read a review in the “Briefly Noted” section of The New Yorker about a reissued or newly paperbacked English novel, Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy, I was unsurprised to see it reviewed, and similarly praised, about a month later in The Times Book Review. Wake up, NYT Book Review editors! Your review is becoming like all the “stuff” sold in bookstores, rather than like the books, and the reviewers’ writing is often bland, smug, miscalculating, and unswervingly politically correct in the most frightening ways: The Review has become a liberal version of the kind of fundamentalism, of which The Times has long been the polar opposite. Your pages resemble them more and more.
What follows my diatribe is my list of the ten best works of fiction in 2012.
l. Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior. Kingsolver flawlessly interweaves two of the most complex socio-political movements of contemporary life into one hugely compelling and beautifully written novel, set in the Appalachia where the author grew up, and where she has returned to live. In a small Virginia mountain farming community, a young married mother of two small children, desparate, lonely, isolated, bored, and whose family is totally economically dependent upon her husband’s parents’ land and sheep farm, walks up a mountain for a loveless tryst and sees what she thinks is a lake of fire, a sea of orange movement. The lake or sea turns out to be a haven for millions of monarch butterflies, whose natural habitat in Mexico has been destroyed by climate change (the butterfly story is real, though not their sojourn in Appalachia). This “vision” must also play out against the town’s churches as well as the arrival of a crew of scientists who have come to document and study this new and perhaps terminal habitat in which the butterflies are trying to survive.
The unfolding narrative is one of the slow liberation of the mother from her hopeless life, as the lead scientist hires her–for pay, the first she has ever earned–to help with his research. Though she falls in love with the guy, as her rescuer and the first man to take her intelligence seriously, Kingsolver wisely keeps any love story at bay, while the reader learns a great deal about the survival of a species and the enlightenment of this one woman, concurrently. Feminism and environmentalism merge in this cautiously optimistic novel, which includes some superb secondary characters (the narrator’s brilliant older son; her best friend from high school who has remained her sole confidante; her increasingly fascinating mother-in-law; a fundamentalist minister).
The novel’s strength includes the descriptions of how the citizens of this town divide: the in-laws want to strip the land, which they own, to pay off a bank loan, pitting the financial squeeze of the subsistence farmer against banking interests; others see the arrival of the butterflies as a sign from the Lord, though they foresee a kind of butterfly theme park; ultimately, the scientist and his crew have to manage the (repulsive) national media: all these very probable subplots enrich the novel. Kingsolver never, ever patronizes her characters.
This novel places Kingsolver in the front ranks of American writers; I listed her last novel, Lacunae, first on my book list two years ago. I worry that the postmodern fiction snobs will avoid her. She writes fluently , easily, and is a remarkable storyteller, too.
2. Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies. This sequel to Mantel’s remarkable Wolf Hall, which fictionalizes the rise of Ann Boleyn and her greedy relatives to become Queen of England to Henry VIII, now documents the decline, fall, and execution of Boleyn, with Jane Seymour and her clan waiting in the wings for their turn . Mantel has an astonishing ability to make history seem totally alive, and her characters are complex and fascinating even when vain and silly. Her research is impeccable.
I find that these two historical novels are as much about the rise of Thomas Cromwell as Henry’s legal advisor as much the central narrative as are the whims of Henry or the machinations of the Boleyns and the court itself. Cromwell must find legal ways–not just legal, but moral and ethical and religious—to dump each Queen to the satisfaction of the court, England’s emerging great landed families, and to the general populace who may have to fight in some war for their King. Cromwell does so with increasing cynicism and increasing numbers of chopped off heads. Mantel builds tension as she weaves Cromwell’s increasing numbers of enemies into these fictions; no doubt, the next Mantel novel will include Cromwell’s downfall. He is, by far, the most fascinating character in both Mantel novels, both of which have won the highly prestigious Man Booker prize for literature in England. Mantel constructs plots , subplots, characters’ inner workings and outer worlds with sophistication and acuity. Although Bodies is slightly too long, it’s a terrific read, and she makes Henry himself a fascinating character, all too human though possessing absolute power. Boleyn still expects to be set free minutes before her beheading.
3. Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. This somewhat underrated novel, which should have won The National Book Award, is satire at its finest, and an excellent send-up of contemporary America’s love affair with marketing and image creation. An American army squad which has just won a nasty firefight in Iraq is whisked out of Iraq for a brief tour, a celebratory public relations stunt. The tour will reach it zenith (or nadir) at the Thanksgiving Dallas Cowboys’ football game. Our soldiers–bear in mind that they average around nineteen years of age–are manipulated, photo-opped, wept over, squeezed like Texas beef as they meet Texas donors (to football and to President Bush, their friend and neighbor), are fed and feted, flirted with by Cowgirl cheerleaders (one of whom falls for the soldier/narrator, Billy). Fountain is unusually clever in quoting the platitudes from America’s rich suburban Republican Dallas Cowboy fans in their remarks to the soldiers and the author has considerable fun running the cliched words–freedom, flag, sacrifice, bless yous, support our troops et. al–through the narrator’s mind: some of the best writing in this novel evokes this language of public relations, marketing spin, tearjerky platitudes. No one remembers that these soldiers have to return to Iraq and possible death as soon as this tour is over.
The squad is trapped into a halftime celebration, the men nearly on top of singer/superstar Beyonce to smell her perfume (no touching, please). The fireworks and halftime lunacy, of course, sound just like mortar fire or ground explosions to the soldiers, who are trapped on stage–one has a breakdown right there as he cannot escape. The halftime stuff ends with a brawl on the field, yet the soldiers always behave better than their hosts do.
This publicity stunt is, of course, at the heart of America’s ambivalence and cluelessness about war’s realities and absurdities, and the war begins to seem semi-sane to the soldiers after this preposterous American self-congratulatory orgy of troop supporting. Fountain’s tone never slips into farce; he neither patronizes nor characitures: the well-heeled Texans seem quite real, and, in their hermetic world, pillars of sincerity. This MASH-like novel is a must read of 20l2.
4. Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds. This novel is the first written by a soldier (turned poet) who fought in Iraq. Powers’ narrative structure is unusually effective, bouncing back and forth from then to now and here to there; his return to his Virginia home is a virtual study in PTSD. The novel’s lens focuses sharply on three soldiers: the narrator/writer, and his new Virginia back-country friend, for whom he feels protective from the beginning; the third is a war-weary but honorable officer, who has seen too much and veers in and out of a disciplined madness.
The randomness of guerilla warfare is written about impressionistically–an unusually effective method, bringing Denis Johnson’s award-wining Vietnam -inspired novel Tree of Smoke to mind. Powers hones in on the mundane details of the daily fears and terrors, while some of his descriptions of the land in Iraq are lyrically beautiful: such contrasts make the horror heightened. How the narrator’s buddy dies becomes the book’s focus, its brutality shocking even by today’s blunted standards. Powers places the denouement in an orchard, so that beauty and death become temporary companions, even colluders. His writing soars in both its beauty and its tragedy. Every blasted or ruined garden or field in Western war literature comes to mind, from Flanders fields in WWI to the haunting song “where have all the flowers gone” and the Revolutionary War “Johnny” songs.
Powers’ poetic language merges with an emotional intensity–he is a man of few words–in an introspective prose of extraordinary affect: this relatively short novel is great literature and is bound to become a classic war novel.
5. Zadie Smith, NW. Smith’s new novel follows the friendship of two women, who grew up together in the public housing projects of Northwest London, which has become an area full of new immigrants. Both women leave the projects, at least physically; they both remained haunted by memories of who got out and who remained trapped. As their lives improve educationally and thus economically, they both marry/partner, and the lawyer/narrator/Smith-like character buys a huge house and has children. But their adult lives are stultifying: they become trapped by lifestyles with no personal time and no sense of play. The old adage “be careful, your dreams may come true” comes to mind as both women continue to struggle for identity and purpose, and try to involve their husbands in their life-long friendship.
Smith’s language has a rhythmic urgency to it, which does associate it with modernism and with the dialects of immigrants, a kind of hybrid bird-like chatter running through the air and the streets, those admixtures of languages heard in every modern urban center. Her writing is magnificent in its cadences and rhythms and syncopations. Smith condenses huge amounts of information and dialogue thus, allowing her characters to reveal themselves in shorthanded verbal codes, as friends will do.
As both women’s confusion grows along with their worldly successes–professional and marital–Smith’s novel grows from a good one to a great one: in the last fifty pages or so, each woman begins to act out in order to break out: one goes into obsessive internet sex, but with real people, and the other sinks into a stupor of a depression. A black friend of mine explained to me years ago that the most threatening and devastating way in which a black person may rebel is to go back to the streets, or to so threaten, and Smith knows this and knows how to put her characters in and out of their old and new worlds and lives without breaching the friendship. These last pages search into those streets and into characters from childhood to devastating effect. Zadie Smith remains one of our best contemporary writers, and her style and character studies show a new maturity, making this a great novel.
6. A.M. Homes, May We Be Forgiven. Homes’ novel is the best mirror of the America of the upper middle class suburban white world written in a decade. Two brothers, whose mutual hatred began as young boys, are the central characters around whose life chaos and violence swirl: one is a television producer, married with two children, and the other a Nixonian historian and teacher, whose corporatae wife makes token appearances when expedient. The television producer will, in the first fifty pages of the book, manage to run his car into an SUV and kill everyone but one teenager in it, and also murder his wife, when he discovers her in bed with his brother.
The other brother will move into his house as he is carted to hospitals and prison-like places and will, over time, get to know , admire, and eventually to love his brother’s children, who will form the basis of a new family that none of these people has yet had. This new family will also include the surviving teenager from the car wreck, yet again manifesting how American children from broken families learn how to create new and workable merged families, a key new theme in American contemporary fiction.
But Homes describes both the chaos and the malice of everyday American life, where lawyers routinely buy their clients’ freedom or divorces; where psychiatrists collude with police and military security forces; where health care is predicated upon the perceived behavior of the patient by nasty, Nurse-Ratchett-like nurses; where afternoons in suburbia are spend meeting strangers over the internet for afternoon sex. That this evolving family–which will also include the aging parents of our narrator’s occasional random girlfriend, who dumps them on him, is a tribute to Homes’ vast psychological /sociological understanding of a country run amok, a country where mentally ill post-adolescents may well murder first-graders with guns and weapons the envy of a third world dictator, and where gun control is dismissed as whimpy, in favor of “grief counselling”. Ms. Homes is a very sharp writer and observer of the American debacle, of a country gone ballistic as its individuals may yet try to cope–that her characters live in Greater New York City may well make them more realistic and resilient. This novel is often funny, but its underpinnings are tragic.
7. Jo Baker, The Undertow. Undertow is the first of Jo Baker’s novels to be published in America; she is English. It’s a splendidly written and carefully observed four-generation family saga, beginning in 1905 and coming to the near present. The first generation barely has enough food to eat, and the first of the four Williams or Willies or Wills or (eventually) Billie , goes to WWI at Malta, where he spends some ruminative time studying a (Caravaggio) painting in the local church, as will his great-granddaughter Billie, an art student come to Malta on a scholarship. Such generational linkages/coincidences–objects large and small–have acute emotional resonance as they link (or occasionally skip) generations. We will live through the disappointment of the near-Olympian bicyclist; his son, the first to go to university and the first to divorce, and are privy to the inner dynamics of marriages reflective of eras and socio-economic circumstances.
Baker is equivalently sympathetic to each generation of this family, while also allowing different family members to dislike or misunderstand one another or their spouses. The last “William”, Billie, the female artist, becomes very close to her grandfather, the failed bicyclist, who cannot get along with his son, Billie’s father (nor can she). Families do work thus, and the saga is splendidly delineated: Baker does not choose a glitzy family, but one which might be considered “ordinary”. She seeks and finds redemption in each generation, and, persuasively argues for the redemptive qualities of love, and of literature.
8. Paul Theroux, The Lower River. Theroux’s small , novella-length masterpiece, The Lower River, concerns an aging white male merchant living–or existing–in Medford, Mass., whence Theroux himself hails. Watching his business and stale marriage deteriorate, the narrator longs for his time in a small African village–probably a Peace Corps stint–and its seeming simplicities, harmonious natural intuitive living and balances, the goodness of the villagers, the school he helped to build.
And so he returns, on a brutal journey where he will be nearly impossible to locate. The initial response to his return is joyous: the son of the Tribal Elder gives him a guest hut, food, and a serving “girl”.
But the villagers have, by now, interfaced with Western aid agencies and greed, in the form of relief groups and the like, while their own standards of living have declined. The narrator is welcome so long as his money will last: he observes a middle-of-the-night tribal dance–of his own death. He gets the hint.
And old girlfriend from his student days lives some villages upriver, and her warnings for his safety finally awaken him to his plight: he will be sold for ransom money as soon as his own runs out.
His eventual escape after numerous frustrated tries are brilliantly written, and the treatment of women as near slaves, sexual or otherwise, well rendered. As Theroux has aged, his cynicism has ripened, making his writing taut and tough; his last novel, Blinding Light, was brilliant (and much overlooked). Before younger reviewers entirely write off boomer writers, grab this Theroux and others you may have missed, including Blinding Light, and the terrifically and appallingly nasty Hotel Honolulu. Theroux is one of America’s most versatile and intelligent writers; he began as an eccentric travel writer and has evolved into a man of genius, much like his occasional friend V.S. Naipaul.
9. Louise Erdrich, The Round House. Erdrich writes with eloquence and some humor about Indian tribal life in Northern Minnesota, and her characters often overlap and repeat in her novels and stories. Like Barbara Kingsolver, Erdrich has chosen a topic of real concern on Indian lands: the rape of Indian women, mainly by white men, but in jurisdictions where Indian judges have no role or any legal authority. A major theme in all of Erdrich’s fiction is the conflict between Indian and American legal statutes, always written in favor of the white man, and between Catholicism and native religions and customs (the latter tend to win out in her work). Spirit worlds are an integral part of any Erdrich novel, including this one.
A native woman who serves as a councilor, wife to a native judge and mother of a teenaged son, is raped by a white man in this novel, and the impact of this crime upon her husband and children, her sister and extended family, is brilliantly depicted and forms the structure of the plot. Various legal systems and tribal customs, the local Catholic priest, all are interwoven through the novel, with regular appearances by the remaining elders, who have long since gone back to their own customs. The narrator of The Round House is the teenaged son. Much of the novel describes the daily lives of a group of teenaged boys, the narrator amongst them, and Erdrich is masterful with character development and the sensitivities of real cultural diversity. She is also splendidly astute about the psychology of adolescent boys. The son believes it to be his role to vindicate his mother and find the rapist; he will, but the cost will be great, as the spirit world demands not just justice, but balance in the cosmos.
10. T.C. Boyle, San Miguel. Boyle remains one of America’s finest storytellers, and one of our most admired and prolific writers. His double offering or two novellas, comprising San Miguel, is no exception. Boyle is a seamless writer, whose prose flows with such apparent ease that it lulls us like a lullaby.
Based upon true stories, two different families chuck everything to go and live on the windswept island of San Miguel, off the California coast west of Santa Barbara, a sheep-rich but people-less barren place. Both groups who move there are seeking a utopian way of life–a very American idea/ideal–though the first family includes a dying woman and her teenaged daughter, who is trapped in this Paradise of her husband’s/stepfather’s dream. The few “natives” are the labor force, along with a horse or two; the “manor house” is bleak and damp and cold; boredom overcomes all but the father/husband, whose livelihood is at stake. Occasional visitors ramp up the novel.
Characters are sensitively —brilliantly—rendered; Boyle’s understanding of character and of human longing , desire, and of that line between hope and desparation makes him unusually aware of the psychological pitfalls of isolation. The second couple to live on this island, about thirty years after all evidence of the first group has vanished except for the”help,” come to San Miguel as newlyweds, and their life really is idyllic until the early rumblings of WWII begin to ruin their idyll; the geography of the island makes it necessary for the potential defense of California, and Navy men are bunkered at the island during their stay. But the wife’s money enables the husband’s husbandry, if you will; his occasional bipolar episodes are frightening but brilliantly delineated and described by Boyle. As with all utopias, this one will end, too, but this newleywed couple, and their two children, make a real go of island living and its isolation, with increasingly regular private planes and yachts stopping by with visitors and supplies., even luxuries.
Boyle’s sympathies for his characters are palpable, and, typically for his writing, he rivets the reader with plots, character, eccentricities of place and people . Boyle has, yet again, or as always, written a quirky novel about oddball Americans with grace and dignity: he understands the American just slightly over the edge. San Miguel is a lovely and a riveting novel.
Other novels of note in 2012 include: Colm Toibin, The Testament of Mary; Alice Munro, Dear Life (short stories); Nell Freudenberger, The Newlyweds; Amber Dermont, The Starboard Sea; Richard Ford, Canada; Marie NDiaye, Three Strong Women; Lauren Groff, Arcadia; Edward St. Aubyn, At Last; Deborah Levy, Swimming Home.