Periodically, I joke with friends that the amassed media in my office is eventually going to develop consciousness, and seek some sort of bloody revenge on me. That’s just how things go when inanimate objects develop sentience: they come for you. I’ve seen enough horror films and bad science fiction to know how these plots go. This year was the first year I actually got evidence of this, though: two bookcases began to buckle under the weight of the tomes they held, and hilarity almost ensued.
All of that serves as this year’s de facto wacky anecdote to start off thoughts on my year of books. As with previous years, I’m dividing this into two categories: books from the current year and books from previous years. Strangely, the former tends to lean in the direction of fiction, while the latter leans more towards nonfiction. I have no idea why this is. Maybe the looming swarm of books, LPs, and CDs currently shaking its fist-like protrudences at me can provide an answer.
So: twenty books (more or less), in no particular order. This is only a fraction of the fantastic works I encountered this year, and I’m incredibly grateful to have had such good luck as to run across so many works that moved me.
From This Year
Hilton Als, White Girls
It wouldn’t be incorrect to call White Girls a collection of essays on culture, but it wouldn’t quite capture the scope of Als’s vision here. For him, culture is a window on the wider world, and the way he uses figures familiar and obscure to illuminate certain aspects of society, and raise questions about others, is breathtaking.
Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped
Had this book simply been a straightforward memoir, focusing on the deaths of five men close to Ward, it would have been a stunning work all its own. But Ward builds on this towards an indictment of certain aspects of society, leading to a work that is both searing and heartbreaking.
xTx, Billie the Bull
It’s been almost a year since I first read xTx’s surreal short novel, about a woman whose body has a tendency to grow far beyond what one would expect, her love for her child, and the strange forces arrayed against her. At times painfully intimate, at times summoning a dreamlike pulp atmosphere, I read nothing else like this this year, and I’m thrilled to see what its author does next.
Rosie Schaap, Drinking With Men
Rosie Schaap’s memoir is about unlikely communities, the way friendships are formed in unexpected places, and the ways in which we educate ourselves. Schaap precisely evokes the spaces about which she writes, whether it’s a bar in lower Manhattan or an isolated town in New England.
Sarah McCarry, All Our Pretty Songs
I’m a sucker for a good book about Seattle, and I’m a sucker for a novel that blends well-drawn characters with evocations of myths and legends. Did I mention I’m also a sucker for novels that get music right? This novel hits so many of my sweet spots, I don’t think I stood a chance.
Kathryn Davis, Duplex
Trying to explain the plot of Duplex might require a white board. There are varieties of magic, doppelgängers, and transmogrifications; the chronology accelerates and decelerates, sometimes wildly. But in the end, it’s both moving and mysterious, much as how its plot blends the essentially familiar with the unknowable uncanny.
Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers
If you like your novels dense with politics and art and history, look no further. It’s a novel of ideas and of emotional remove; it’s a deeply condensed family saga and a dissection of art-world gender politics. Plus: 1970s New York.
Aleksandar Hemon, The Book of My Lives
Some of the best essays I’ve read in the past few years — including the devastating “The Aquarium” and the vivid “If God Existed, He’d Be A Solid Midfielder” — all collected in one place.
Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs
Ambiguous friendships, artistic frustrations, semi-reliable narrators, and pitch-perfect evocations of the dynamics of a community. There’s plenty to admire in Messud’s novel, with a series of taut, fraught relationships at its core.
Jeff Jackson, Mira Corpora
Mira Corpora has been rattling around inside my head for a while since I read it, ultimately to end up here. Much like Duplex, it creates its own logic: here, it’s through a series of sequences in which its narrator navigates various traumas, all structured around a framing device that hints that he may not have navigated them well at all.
Additionally, I’m thanked in the acknowledgements of two books that bear mentioning here. I feel as though I should probably mention them separately, but nonetheless, they bear mentioning. One is Matt Bell’s visceral, surreal In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, which takes a primal, pared-down narrative and runs it through a number of permutations; it’s a creation myth for the flawed and the troubled. And Norman Lock’s collection Love Among the Particles is a fine summation of Lock’s decades of work, from evocations of pulp characters to explorations of more mundane anxieties to thrillingly experimental works.
From Years Past
Ned Beaumann, The Teleportation Accident
Beaumann’s novel reads like some sort of blend of Sam Lipsyte and Martin Amis: bleakly funny, historically resonant, and often uncomfortably intimate.
Renata Adler, Speedboat
Yep, I’m going with Speedboat as well. Fractured and chaotic and intimate, this also fits into the “I’d never read something like this before” camp. And it’s riveting throughout; never a bad thing.
Melissa Holbrook Pierson, The Man Who Would Stop at Nothing
In the aftermath of the end of her marriage, Holbrook Pierson rediscovered motorcycles, which in turn led to her fascination with the small group of people who engage in long-distance trips by motorcycle. And in the end, it works as a look at a particular subculture, at its author’s re-connection with life, and at the proverbial romance of the open road.
Wayne Koestenbaum, Humiliation
I read both Humiliation and Koestenbaum’s terrific essay collection My 1980s this year, and was floored by both. This slim book, about the titular concept, brings together a host of wide-ranging concepts and combines them in unexpected ways.
Thomas Lynch, The Undertaking
A series of meditations on mortality, small towns, and the ways we make art, Lynch’s collection of essays (or memoir, depending on how you want to classify it) hit me on a gut level like few other books I read this year.
Samuel R. Delany, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders
Scale gets me. This novel, which charts a decades-long relationship covering most of the twenty-first century, is dizzying in its use of chronology, and left me utterly exhausted (in the best way) by its conclusion. Delany does things here that you can only do when you have the amassed weight of hundreds of pages behind you, and the way his story evolves here is stunning.
Russell Hoban, Turtle Diary
I can remember my parents renting the film adaptation of this in the late 1980s. For whatever reason, I don’t think I was prepared for the range of emotions I encountered in this novel; there’s certainly wry comedy aplenty, but there’s also a deeply-felt sense of loss, and a heartbreaking account of depression.
Sarah Hall, How to Paint a Dead Man
An absolutely stunning novel, told through linked narratives, exploring issues of art, destiny, and belief.
Charles D’Ambrosio, The Point
On a visit to Chicago over the summer, I found a copy of Charles D’Ambrosio’s first collection, The Point, at a used bookstore and quickly snapped it up. (His second collection, The Dead Fish Museum, is one of the best I’ve read.) This one’s also fantastic: sometimes bleak, sometimes hilarious. And it whets my appetite for Tin House’s reissue of D’Ambrosio’s stunning essay collection Orphans next year.
Tatyana Tolstaya, The Slynx
I think I’ve terrified people over the course of recommending this in recent months. “It’s a dark comedy about post-apocalyptic Russia! And it’s also full of literary references! And some of the characters have tails and claws!” I’ve gotten more than a few strange looks, to be sure, but it’s been worth it for this profoundly strange take on society after the end of the world.
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. His work has recently appeared in Tin House, Joyland, Bookforum, Underwater New York, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. He can be found on Twitter at @TobiasCarroll.