The hardest thing about writing is seeing clearly enough that you can get to the heart of an idea, a person in a sentence or two. All of the authors listed here do this. Their books are wonderful observatories of the human experience: some draw it more beautifully, some draw it more sharply, some more absurdly. But every exaggeration reflects back some fun house mirror of the truth.
My favorite fiction reads of 2012:
- A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan. Time is running out for faded rocker and record exec, Bennie Salazar. As Bennie puts it, “I’m done. I’m old, I’m sad – that’s on a good day. I want out of this mess. But I don’t want to fade away, I want to flame away – I want my death to be an attraction, a spectacle, a mystery. A work of art.” Every chapter is a different window into Bennie’s life, from a different person, at a different time. In the hands of a lesser writer, this might feel trinket-y. But with Egan’s command of language, it’s just a treat to get to meet so many different people and see so many different times.
- The Invisible Circus, Jennifer Egan. When 1960s San Francisco wasn’t enough of a kick any more for hippie Faith, she moved to Europe where she died shortly thereafter. Her younger sister Phoebe feels like she’s missed out: missed out on the ‘60s, missed out on Faith. Eventually, Phoebe takes off for Europe herself. There she meets her sister’s ex-boyfriend, Wolf, living a rather pedestrian life as a translator. Trying to understand the gap between the wild child lifestyle Faith and Wolf led together and the life Wolf now leads, Egan reflects, “And sitting there, sea drifting in around them, Wolf had understood for the first time what kind of life he wanted to live with Faith. Maybe they wouldn’t rise up into the sky the way he’d thought, maybe the real thing was doing what his parents had done, pay the rent, read the paper, hell, maybe that was the dare. To live–day in, day out. Just live.”
- Look at Me, Jennifer Egan. In this 2001 novel, Egan presages the rise of reality television, terrorism, and social media. But like the other Egan books, this one explores what identity is and what it means when our identity changes. As our protagonist says, “I would lie of course. I lied a lot and with good reason: to protect the truth—safeguard it like wearing fake gems to keep the real ones from getting stolen or cheapened by overuse. I guarded what truths I possessed because information was not a thing—it was colorless odorless shapeless and therefore indestructible. There was no way to retrieve or void it no way to halt its proliferation. Telling someone a secret was like storing plutonium inside a sandwich bag: the information would inevitably outlive the friendship or love or trust in which you’d placed it. And then you would have given it away.”
- The Adults, Alison Espach. The adults, consumed with their own wealthy suburban Connecticut lives, have more or less left Laura to raise herself. The adults behavior is appalling, Laura’s own decision-making is questionable, but her tone of voice is more observational than excoriating. Later, as an adult, she reflects, “Childrens’ lives are always beginning and adults’ lives are always ending. Or is the opposite? Your childhood is always ending and your adult self is always beginning. You are always learning to say goodbye to whoever you were at the dinner table with.”
- Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn. Razor-sharp writing with a killer plot. Amy disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary; husband Nick is suspected. Amy writes of their relationship, “I am a thornbush, bristling from the overattention of my parents, and he is a man of a million fatherly stab wounds, and my thorns fit perfectly into them.” But was it Nick?
- The Likeness, Tana French. Daniel says to Cassie-as-Lexi, “Sacrifice is not an option, or an anachronism; it’s a fact of life. We all cut off our own limbs to burn on some altar. The crucial thing is to choose an altar that’s worth it and a limb you can accept losing. To go consenting to sacrifice.” Daniel and his housemates have chosen a different sacrifice than most. But in the midst of it, the real Lexi has been killed. This is a smart whodunit, exploring identity and critiquing modern life as its pages turn themselves.
- The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach. A bildungsroman for the modern era, this one weaves together the stories of five college students, shifting points of view with each chapter. The most fully rendered is Mike Schwartz, captain and unofficial coach of the Westish College baseball team: “Schwartz knew that people loved to suffer, as long as the suffering made sense. Everybody suffered. The key was to choose the form of your suffering. Most people couldn’t do this alone; they needed a coach. A good coach made you suffer in a way that suited you. A bad coach made everyone suffer in the same way, and so was more like a torturer.”
- State of Wonder, Ann Patchett. In the prologue to the Best American Short Stories of 2012, Geraldine Brooks writes, “There’s nothing wrong with writing stories set in bedrooms, classrooms, kitchens. These are the places where we spend large slabs of our lives. But the air becomes stale there.” Patchett takes us out of these rooms and into the Amazon. Against this canopy, a pharmaceutical company executive disappears, a researcher’s answers don’t make sense, and our protagonist seeks the truth. Fingers crossed that after all the hard work Patchett does to set the scene in this book and the number of loose ends she leaves behind, a sequel is on its way.
- Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart. Forget the plot, read it for the social commentary. The Euro has split into North and South; the only airline left is UnitedContinentalDeltamerican; people think books “smell like wet socks;” teenagers surf each other’s data streams rather than “verballing.” Welcome to the near distant future.