Five 2008 Novels That Can Go To Hell and Five That Can Come Sit On My Lap
The New York Times just released its list of the five best fiction books of 2008, and the books seem thin and strained, like the laughter of an old, old woman as she contemplates the suicide of her husband long ago.



I haven't been able to afford a new book in months, but if I could, I don't think I would buy any of these, even though I can't just stand up, get in your face, and proclaim each of them dogshit, because I haven't read any of them.

But if these books were people, and we were at a party, I would not be going home with them, not even to steal tortillas from their pantry:

DANGEROUS LAUGHTER
Thirteen Stories
By Steven Millhauser.
Alfred A. Knopf, $24.

"In his first collection in five years, a master fabulist in the tradition of Poe and Nabo­kov invents spookily plausible parallel universes in which the deepest human emotions and yearnings are transformed into their monstrous opposites. Millhauser is especially attuned to the purgatory of adolescence. In the title story, teenagers attend sinister "laugh parties"; in another, a mysteriously afflicted girl hides in the darkness of her attic bedroom. Time and again these parables revive the possibility that "under this world there is another, waiting to be born."

Snap Judgment: "Laugh parties" sounds promising. Poe and Nabokov do not share any tradition that I can think of, except the fact that they are both dead. Are these stories dead too?


A MERCY
By Toni Morrison.
Alfred A. Knopf, $23.95.

"The fate of a slave child abandoned by her mother animates this allusive novel â€" part Faulknerian puzzle, part dream-song â€" about orphaned women who form an eccentric household in late-17th-century America. Morrison's farmers and rum traders, masters and slaves, indentured whites and captive Native Americans live side by side, often in violent conflict, in a lawless, ripe American Eden that is both a haven and a prison â€" an emerging nation whose identity is rooted equally in Old World superstitions and New World appetites and fears."

Snap Judgment: An allusive novel, huh. Does that mean it is full of allusions? Or does that mean that you won't be able to find it when you need to take a shit and you need something to read? You will be running all over your house, clamping your sphincter shut with thumb and forefinger, knocking over furniture, eyes blazing, pantyhose running, screaming: "Where is my part Faulknerian puzzle, part dream-song? Where are you hiding?" Is that what you need more of in your day?


NETHERLAND
By Joseph O'Neill.
Pantheon Books, $23.95.

"O'Neill's seductive ode to New York â€" a city that even in bad times stubbornly clings to its belief "in its salvific worth" â€" is narrated by a Dutch financier whose privileged Manhattan existence is upended by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. When his wife departs for London with their small son, he stays behind, finding camaraderie in the unexpectedly buoyant world of immigrant cricket players, most of them West Indians and South Asians, including an entrepreneur with Gatsby-size aspirations."

Snap Judgment: A good book for the depressed financier in your life. I don't know any depressed financiers, but if I did I would play a lot of early Nine Inch Nails and Nirvana around them, and take them on long walks across high bridges. The novel that I would buy them is called "A Separate Peace." Trust me, they did not read it in junior high like the rest of us, and now they have some time on their hands to catch up.


2666
By Roberto Bolano. Translated by Natasha Wimmer.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, cloth and paper, $30.

"Bolano, the prodigious Chilean writer who died at age 50 in 2003, has posthumously risen, like a figure in one of his own splendid creations, to the summit of modern fiction. This latest work, first published in Spanish in 2004, is a mega- and meta-detective novel with strong hints of apocalyptic foreboding. It contains five separate narratives, each pursuing a different story with a cast of beguiling characters â€" European literary scholars, an African-American journalist and more â€" whose lives converge in a Mexican border town where hundreds of young women have been brutally murdered."

Snap Judgment: Everybody is talking about this book. Is it really set in 2666? Are there flying cars? Does Mexico really still exist? What about nanobots? I am intrigued. Everybody buy this book, read it, spill some egg nog on it, and donate it to "The Strand."

Note: Why doesn't this book cost $26.66?


UNACCUSTOMED EARTH
By Jhumpa Lahiri.
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.

"There is much cultural news in these precisely observed studies of modern-day Bengali-Americans â€" many of them Ivy-league strivers ensconced in prosperous suburbs who can't quite overcome the tug of traditions nurtured in Calcutta. With quiet artistry and tender sympathy, Lahiri creates an impressive range of vivid characters â€" young and old, male and female, self-knowing and self-deluding â€" in engrossing stories that replenish the classic themes of domestic realism: loneliness, estrangement and family discord."

Snap Judgment: Bengali-American dissection and taxonomy. Cool, cool. Necessary, maybe. Pass.


***


BOOKS FROM THIS YEAR THAT I WOULD GIVE A CHANCE IF I HAD MONEY, BASED ON THE DESCRIPTIONS ON THE BACK:

I would fuck these books, if they were people, and we were mingling over cocktails, using our tongues as "suggestions" around olives. Maybe it would be awkward and upsetting, but I would give them a try and let them let me down.

LIBERATION: BEING THE ADVENTURES OF THE SLICK SIX AFTER THE COLLAPSE OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
By Brian Francis Slattery
Tor Books, Paperback, $14.95

"From the author of the literary pulp phenomenon "Spaceman Blues" comes a future history cautionary tale, a heist movie in the style of a hippie novel. "Liberation" is a speculation on life in near-future America after the country suffers an economic cataclysm that leads to the resurgence of ghosts of its past such as the human slave trade. Our heroes are the Slick Six, a group of international criminals who set out to alleviate the worst of these conditions and put America on the road to recovery. Liberation is a story about living down the past, personally and nationally; about being able to laugh at the punchline to the long, dark joke of American history."

Snap Judgment: A group of international supercriminals fight the slave trade in the FUTURE! If this book is no good, it is a damn shame, because how can it not be.


ANATHEM
By Neil Stephenson
HarperCollins, $20

"Fraa Erasmas is a young avout living in the Concent of Saunt Edhar, a sanctuary for mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers, protected from the corrupting influences of the outside "saecular" world by ancient stone, honored traditions, and complex rituals. Over the centuries, cities and governments have risen and fallen beyond the concent's walls. Three times during history's darkest epochs violence born of superstition and ignorance has invaded and devastated the cloistered mathic community. Yet the avout have always managed to adapt in the wake of catastrophe, becoming out of necessity even more austere and less dependent on technology and material things. And Erasmas has no fear of the outsideâ€"the Extramurosâ€"for the last of the terrible times was long, long ago.

Now, in celebration of the week-long, once-in-a-decade rite of Apert, the fraas and suurs prepare to venture beyond the concent's gatesâ€"at the same time opening them wide to welcome the curious "extras" in. During his first Apert as a fraa, Erasmas eagerly anticipates reconnecting with the landmarks and family he hasn't seen since he was "collected." But before the week is out, both the existence he abandoned and the one he embraced will stand poised on the brink of cataclysmic change.

Powerful unforeseen forces jeopardize the peaceful stability of mathic life and the established ennui of the Extramurosâ€"a threat that only an unsteady alliance of saecular and avout can opposeâ€"as, one by one, Erasmas and his colleagues, teachers, and friends are summoned forth from the safety of the concent in hopes of warding off global disaster. Suddenly burdened with a staggering responsibility, Erasmas finds himself a major player in a drama that will determine the future of his worldâ€"as he sets out on an extraordinary odyssey that will carry him to the most dangerous, inhospitable corners of the planet . . . and beyond."

Snap Judgment: All this sounds like post-apocalyptic babble and bullshit until you get to the last sentence. Hold on, hold on...space travel? Science-monks fighting aliens? I WILL BITE.


SHADOW COUNTRY
By Peter Matthiessen
Modern Library, $40

"Inspired by a near-mythic event of the wild Florida frontier at the turn of the twentieth century, Shadow Country reimagines the legend of the inspired Everglades sugar planter and notorious outlaw E. J. Watson, who drives himself relentlessly toward his own violent end at the hands of neighbors who mostly admired him, in a killing that obsessed his favorite son.

Shadow Country traverses strange landscapes and frontier hinterlands inhabited by Americans of every provenance and color, including the black and Indian inheritors of the archaic racism that, as Watson's wife observed, "still casts its shadow over the nation.""

Snap Judgment: This won the National Book Award, and ordinarily, who gives a fuck, but the man is about to die, and I think the book is some kind of atonement about his sad, complicit past with the CIA. Also, after seeing him interviewed, I admit he's a born storyteller, and he's got the good gravel in his voice. I wonder if it translates to his prose?


CHILD 44
By Tom Rob Smith
Grand Central Publishing, $25

"There is no crime."

Stalin's Soviet Union strives to be a paradise for its workers, providing for all of their needs. One of its fundamental pillars is that its citizens live free from the fear of ordinary crime and criminals.

But in this society, millions do live in fear . . . of the State. Death is a whisper away. The mere suspicion of ideological disloyalty-owning a book from the decadent West, the wrong word at the wrong time-sends millions of innocents into the Gulags or to their executions. Defending the system from its citizens is the MGB, the State Security Force. And no MGB officer is more courageous, conscientious, or idealistic than Leo Demidov.

A war hero with a beautiful wife, Leo lives in relative luxury in Moscow, even providing a decent apartment for his parents. His only ambition has been to serve his country. For this greater good, he has arrested and interrogated.

Then the impossible happens. A different kind of criminal-a murderer-is on the loose, killing at will. At the same time, Leo finds himself demoted and denounced by his enemies, his world turned upside down, and every belief he's ever held shattered. The only way to save his life and the lives of his family is to uncover this criminal. But in a society that is officially paradise, it's a crime against the State to suggest that a murderer-much less a serial killer-is in their midst. Exiled from his home, with only his wife, Raisa, remaining at his side, Leo must confront the vast resources and reach of the MBG to find and stop a criminal that the State won't admit even exists."

Snap Judgment: A serial killer murder-mystery set in Stalin's Russia? Hilarious! I want to know if it works! But even if it doesn't: what larks, what kicks! It's like an adorable baby solving the crime "who's got your nose!" The premise alone is brilliant political satire!


THE GOOD THIEF
Random House, $25

"Twelve year-old Ren is missing his left hand. How it was lost is a mystery that Ren has been trying to solve for his entire life, as well as who his parents are, and why he was abandoned as an infant at Saint Anthony's Orphanage for boys. He longs for a family to call his own and is terrified of the day he will be sent alone into the world.

But then a young man named Benjamin Nab appears, claiming to be Ren's long-lost brother, and his convincing tale of how Ren lost his hand and his parents persuades the monks at the orphanage to release the boy and to give Ren some hope. But is Benjamin really who he says he is? Journeying through a New England of whaling towns and meadowed farmlands, Ren is introduced to a vibrant world of hardscrabble adventure filled with outrageous scam artists, grave robbers, and petty thieves. If he stays, Ren becomes one of them. If he goes, he's lost once again. As Ren begins to find clues to his hidden parentage he comes to suspect that Benjamin not only holds the key to his future, but to his past as well."

Snap Judgment: Maybe it is crap and I will be disappointed and kick a wall, but based on the premise, I have to give it a shot, because I need to know, because this is exactly the sort of thing I like. "You are looking fine, today, "The Good Thief." More Hennessy? I say, how would you like to go somewhere we can be alone and just talk? I will get your coat (I AM CLEAN, BUT DO YOU HAVE PROTECTION?)"


***


All these books sound like good stories that I would like to read. You want to fight about it?

I'm sure there are even BETTER books out there (more sick, more disturbing, more hateful, more true), but I don't know about them because they have no PR campaign and because they are put out by dying, impoverished independent publishers who can't get their catalog reviewed by anybody, not even "The Fiction Circus."

It's like the old saying goes: you haven't met the right person for you because they are starving to death in Africa and can't get on a plane because you are a greedy bitch who needs to have electricity and hegemony to watch porno.

Is that an old saying? Anyway, it's true.

Posted by miracle on Thu, 04 Dec 2008 06:17:04 -0500 -- permanent link


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