Posted by Tobias Carroll
This is the second of two lists of the books I read this year that I most enjoyed. Here, the focus is on older books that I first encountered this year; strangely, the focus here is much more on fiction than on my other list, and I’m a little uneasy that this list is far more dude-heavy than its counterpart.
I wasn’t entirely sure where to fit Michael Kimball’s Us, an older novel revised for its first US publication; it ended up going here more or less because it seemed of a piece with the other novel of Kimball’s on this list. Alternately: these are my lists, and I’m kind of making up the taxonomy as I go along…
A running theme of 2011 seemed to be a number of smart folks telling me that John Williams’s Stoner was a fantastic read. In the first few weeks of this year, I picked up the novel and read it, and was quietly devastated. To say “it’s a novel about an academic” doesn’t really get at the bulk , which is of man living through a massive transformation, from an agrarian life to a life of the mind (apologies to Barton Fink). And it’s fantastically written, emotionally resonant, and feels utterly complete once the last page has been turned.
In a similar category to Stoner was Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh— a whole lot of smart readers suggested that I read it; when I did, I immediately understood why. The story told here is a painful one, of trauma and lasting emotional wounds and the past looming over everything. Where Chee excels is in the minor details; he’s equally at home writing about choral music and DIY punk shows, and it gives this novel a grounded, lived-in feel without ever being showy.
In a very different vein was Barbara Comyns’s Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead. It’s a surreal, haunting novel, taking as its setting an English home in the country, then subjecting it to a series of small apocalypses. Between this and her novel The Vet’s Daughter, released by NYRB Classics, I hope that we’ll see more of Comyns’s books venture back into print before long.
On the flip side to Comyns’s novel is Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill. It’s a novel that spans the better part of the century in telling the lives of twin brothers; it’s a beautifully-written pastoral novel with a subtle vein of bleak humor running through it; the last few pages brought with them a rush of conflicting emotions, all of them genuinely earned.
At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of the fragmented structure of Dennis Cooper’s The Sluts. Over the course of the novel, as identities and motivations are upended, it became apparent that this was the only way possible to tell this story. (It’s also one of the best evocations of internet communities I’ve encountered in fiction.) Throughout, Cooper’s novel recounts the horrific without ever losing the sense that these events are truly horrific.
Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn works on any number of levels; it’s a detailed war novel; and yet, when one steps back, the action of the novel as a whole takes on an almost absurdist tone.
And then there are the books that shouldn’t work, but do. Michael Kimball’s Us and Dear Everybody; Rick Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death. Each of these three novels takes a seemingly traditional structure and ekes away at it: Us, which pushes past narrative into a deeply intimate portrayal of the lives of a family; Dear Everybody, in which the portrait it assembles of one man’s life begins to say as much about the man doing the assembling as the nominal subject; and The Four Fingers of Death, where the pulp sci-fi narrative occupying the bulk of the novel slowly comes to mirror the anxieties and concerns of its fictional author. (I wrote more about Moody’s novel here.) I’d also throw Paul Harding’s Tinkers into this group — it shifts narrative styles and leaps around in time, and yet by the time the novel reaches its conclusion, this stands revealed as part of a generous (and moving) approach to storytelling.
Earlier this year, I did something of a marathon reading of many of the books in the running for this year’s Tournament of Books. One of those was Anne Carson’s Nox, an indescribable meditation on loss, language, and family. It’s both a brief reading experience and a weighty one (both literally and figuratively); it also prompted me to read more from Carson as the year continued, including Autobiography of Red and Eros the Bittersweet.
Alexander Chee, Edinburgh (Picador)
Bruce Chatwin, On the Black Hill (Penguin)