Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ten Best Novels Read in 2011

These posts are for anyone that’s interested, my stab at figuring out the impact of this recent year, as a narrative and a cluster of narratives. My analysis will cover large scale political processes and culture, in analysis of the manner in which I experienced them and why I think they are particularly central. Along the way I’ll take advantage of this form to rant on the worst books I read as a form of retribution for experiencing them. Hopefully these lists and the analysis may be of some interest to you, any commentary you have on them or your own assessment are welcomed.

Ten Best Novels Read in 2011

Best novels read by me, that is. At this point I’m being wantonly narcissistic, this isn’t based on the best books written or published in the previous calender period, instead it’s book from some arbitrary point in the past that I happened to read for the first time in the past year. Partly I’m doing it this way because recent publication dates are themselves very arbitrary and differently distributed, partly because my own reading there has been rather partial-- extensive in speculative fiction, meager elsewhere, and even in science fiction and fantasy I haven’t read half the books of the last year I want to, and don’t yet want to be making claims about the best book published in the year. Using the personal timeline has the advantage of at least moving beyond one genre with any depth. There’s unlikely to be a direct parallel to others’ experiences as a set of literature, and in most cases these are works that are already relatively famous, and don’t require discovery or whatever additional minor attention I can bring to them. Nevertheless I offer this as a personal assessment, on the novels that most impressed and changed me as I encountered them from the past year.

1. Dhalgren by Samuel Delany (1974)
2. Absolute Friends by John Le Carre (2003)
3. Red Plenty by Francis Spufford (2010)
4. Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet (2005)
5. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010)
6. Stoner by John Williams (1965)
7. Embassytown by China Mieville (2011)
8. The Affirmation by Christopher Priest (1981)
9. Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian (1990)
10. Old School by Tobias Wolff (2003)

1. Dhalgren by Samuel Delany
A sprawling, vivid and utterly successful investigation into bodily politics. Which means race, gender and sexuality, in particularly vivid rhetorical form. The book is filled with what would be generally regarded as profanity, here taken not as a shock but to create a specific microcosm of regional sex and violence as a norm. Above all the book is unapologetic, not fearing to dismantle every buffer that keeps subjects taboo for conservative and liberal subjects, instead getting at the core of the daily interactions that make contemporary U.S. society such a racist and rape-driven regime, among other things. Delany offers a level of implicit narrative commentary on the present world that’s startling, and he does it in full commitment to an imaginative piece of science fiction. Linked to all this is a story of corporeal politics, a recognition of the relationships imposed by certain types of violence and the politics that drive this even as it also explores utopian politics. The body emerges not as natural constant but precisely that which is least fixed, the most radically fluid.
A long book, and unpleasant in a lot of its subject details, but it fully earns it’s length and unpleasantness. It’s science fiction for social critique and reality dysfunction in high flying Philip K. Dick style, except even Dick was never quite this good.

2. Absolute Friends by John Le Carre
Le Carre moves beyond the Cold War spy thriller with gusto, fearlessly tackling the intrinsic abuse of the counter-terrorist state in a dramatized but not over the top fashion. The control over plotting and characterization is as good as he’s ever had, showing the careful manipulation of when the characters and reader have access to certain information, as well as portraying the complexity of lives that exist under the bleak absurdity of the twenty first century. It’s a book that at points flirts with meltdown, of theme as well as narrative, but builds masterfully to a strong climax that pushes the impact of just how mass-information can be contrived, and what the human consequences are. Le Carre writes a forceful, angry reaction to Bush Two a lot earlier than most authors had the courage to, and even more impressive is how he does this without sacrificing any narrative coherence or power of prose.

3. Red Plenty by Francis Spufford
An in-depth piece of history through way of a novel or, as some have argued, science fiction applied to speculative economics rather than physical divergence. Either way it concerns a large cast struggling to get by in Khruschev’s Russia, with a long-burning attempt to achieve the utopian potential still pulsing in the bowels of the Soviet system. The book is unstinting about the abuses of the Bolshevik experiment, from high government to police repression to the contractions of daily life. Yet the work also captures better than almost anything I’ve seen the appeal of the far-left alternative, and the way that individuals continued on with their own dignity and sense of priorities. It’s the rare truly great narrative of history, well researched and capturing also the feel of history as it plays out, the transition among differnt Soviet policies managing to feel as monumental as any other traumatic counter-revolution. It’s a great novel both because of the genres that it dislocates and because any one of them--the period drama, the historical epic, the political assessment, the historical component--are done surpassingly well.

4. Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet
It’s mainstream fiction using a speculative fiction premise, in this case the conceit that Oppenheimer, Fermi and Szilard are transported from the Trinity Explosion to the present day. Often when writers outside the genre tackle a science fiction concept it’s awkward, ending up reinventing the wheel or using a problematic assumption of what does or doesn’t need to be explained. Here the flimsiness of the main time travel conceit damages the story not at all, allowing a forceful and well balanced story of how nuclear capability developed before and after Trinity, and the existential degrading of humans that has accompanied it. The story seems to invite either comedic farce and there are points of comedy, but the energy of the piece is in a frightening, pathos-filled and vivid condemnation of where things are at now, particularly relating to increasing fundamentalism and militarization of politics. It also manages some of the best characterization I’ve seen, in the historical recreations as well as the contemporary anchor, which also show an outstanding instances of well-defined scientists and female characters that are unapologetic about being such.

5. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
2010’s outstanding literary work, a hyperlink story that describes a diverse set of characters portrayed with consistent skill and nuance. It grabs interest from the first lines and never relinquishes this, managing frequent shifts in perspective and style that disorient and reward repeatedly. It works as a supremely entertaining story as well as a meaningful one, showing both the surreal connections of the modern world and the march towards death that faces all the characters across social ranks.

6. Stoner by John Williams
The earliest book on this list, Williams’ brilliant deconstruction of academic indepence. The novels first pages describe evaluates its subject, William Stoner, as failing to make a positive impact or to be remembered much in his life, and the book ruthlessly lives up to that premise. The icy and unlovable protagonist has considerable integrity, and ability to accept without complaint hardship in his life. These same qualities lead to accepting of powerlessness and treating disaster for himself and those closest to him as the sad necessity rather than anything alterable. At the same time Williams builds Stoner up as a credible and interesting figure, making his doomed and overly quiet life more suspenseful than most war stories I’ve read. And in the process the novel evokes the attraction of academia while also condemning its rivalry, male-privilege, sterility and basic lack of empathy. Yet the vivid collective norms are ultimately secondary to the individual focus and Stoner is at base an epigraph delivered on its protagonist from first page to last, a severe judgement but a well defined one. There are weaknesses to the novel, particularly its positioning of Stoner’s wife as a shrewish villain, but the power of Willaims’ prose, story and stark tone builds to an extremely satisfying whole.

7. Embassytown by China Mieville
The only book on this list that was actually published in 2011, and one that comes off an author I’ve found almost constantly excellent. Embassytown isn’t quite as effective as some of his best work, but in contrast to his recent lackluster Kraken and the speculative fiction world more generally it’s sheer gold. Embassytown succeeds partly on strength of concept, weaving together an invented language, tumultuous political intrigue and a progressively more and more strife torn alien city. The book works on many levels, as a creation of an intricate imagined urban space, in bending concepts of the possibility of language structure, and in relating this to a forceful anti-imperialist subtext. It even at points works as a zombie eschatology par excellence. Most of all it succeeds in balancing the different genres and climates, existing within Mieville’s best-plotted story and an ambitious departure from his usual norms. Finally the book plays to the best traditions of science fiction in emphasizing the vast scale of the wider setting, the way that the size of the polities and even more the physical environment put the intense micro-events in a wider context.

8. The Affirmation by Christopher Priest
Priest is consistently interested in themes of duality, questionable identity and the impact of written texts. The Affirmation is his most effective exploration of these themes to date, that introduces a deep ambiguity into its presentation of reality early on, and builds tension over this question up through the last page. It’s recognizably speculative fiction but not of any of the usual variants, framing compelling and largely credible worldbuilding that is never larger than its protagonist. That setup could be irritatingly claustrophobic but it develops into an interesting exploration of memory, immortality, amnesia and hedonism.

9. Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian
I read this as part of a Nobel Laureate listing, with this novel as one of the relatively few high-returns of the past year. It’s effective primarily in showing character detail through cultural resistance and vitality, an array of strange quasi-episodic details unified by a common desire for reinvention. It works extremely well even as an alien culture, and I can only imagine how effective it would be experienced by someone more familiar with the context China. Like a lot of my favorites from recent reading it’s a novel of identity, focusing on the ambiguous and exciting reaches of self. Unusually for my reading this was basically a plot driven by travel, with journeying and the situations encountered are enough to compel interest across the story.

10. Old School by Tobias Wolff
Among other things the book has a crushing, spot on assessment of what meeting living literary fame would actually feel like, varying slightly on individual (including a deconstruction of Ayn Rand’s basic viciousness) as well as the principal of a celebrated life in itself (as in a tale of Hemingway’s actual presence deflating a lifetime of an instructor allowing everyone to assume a close personal friendship to the man). More centrally Wolff brilliantly uncovers the meaning of texts in themselves, the thrill of encountering a book, the process of different literary tastes, the easily-compromised mechanisms of authorship and the tangle of scholastic identity. I know nothing of Wolff beyond this story but it feels autobiographical, moreover its power lies in producing a similar resonance in the reader. It’s an extremely quiet tale, but also one of the most effective in its statements and silences.
This is second book on my list for this year that was published in 2003, set in the early 80s and with a deeply interior focus it seems a different world than Le Carre’s confrontational information thriller. In an odd way they do make appropriate thematic parallels, with Wolff’s focus on the creation of fictions and the insecurity of masculine identities a reasonable link to the year of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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