Stoner by John Williams is not about a dude who smokes blunts all day. It’s about a man named William Stoner, and the book tells his life story in a mere 278 pages. The prose is unadorned and crisp, and it captures the true essence of its protagonist, a man who grew up on a farm, and then studied, and went onto teach, English literature at the University of Missouri. In other words, a person who isn’t particularly noteworthy in the broader scheme of things. This is a heartbreaking and beautiful novel, one of the best I have ever read, or will have the privilege to read, in my life.
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon deserves all the praise it’s getting–and then some. It masterfully interweaves three storylines (all of them compelling), and its characters, lost and alienated from the world and themselves, are rendered with insight and compassion. I won’t soon forget the image of the severed hand in the cooler, or the eerie lighthouse motel, or the magic supply shop on some forgotten Cleveland street. This novel made me want to use exclamation points, and watch scary movies, and read Shirley Jackson, and throw my computer out the window with a paranoid shriek. Such a fun read.
Nothing Right by Antonya Nelson: What a wit Antonya Nelson wields, and what sharp observations! I absolutely adored this collection of stories about fucked-up people and their bad choices, their sad aftermaths. I loved how she compressed time, and how, with a single phrase, I understood a moment for all of its awkwardness, anxiety, hope, and honesty. I want Ms. Nelson to come over my house, share a vat of pasta, and tell me some more stories.
A Mercy by Toni Morrison and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: These two books, however different, will forever be paired in my mind. I read them fairly close together, and in both, the prose stunned me. I read significant portions of each out loud, lying across my couch, or sitting up in bed, or pacing from room to room. I did this mostly because I was trying to understand Woolf and Morrison’s books better, but also because their prose is so beautiful and intricate, that it deserves to be recited as poetry. I feel grateful to have been let inside of their worlds—that syntax, those sounds. They made my year all the richer.