Megan Abbott, Literary Criminal

1. In 1989, Welsh journalist John Williams crossed the Atlantic.  Operating on the theory that crime writers were the best chroniclers of American society, Williams hoped to pinpoint the connections between the real clime and fictional crime.  So he talked with the writers. Williams found out that James Lee Burke's novels had emerged, in part, because of his love for Louisiana music. Gar Haywood spent his twenties latching onto science fiction's escapist hatches before confronting the open doors of South Central's ravaged reality.  In 2005, returning for another transcontinental spree of conversational investigations, Williams learned that Vicki Hendricks had used her bodybuilding and scuba diving experience for Ramona Romano, the tough-as-nails Miami nurse in Iguana Love.  He also discovered why Daniel Woodrell's settings were so authentic.  “I don't want to live on the Upper West Side or something,” said Woodrell to Williams.  “There is something here for me...I'm just one generation from illiteracy.” These experiences – originally published as Into the Badlands and later rewritten as Back to the Badlands – helped confirm Williams's hypothesis.  Crime fiction was indeed drawing from vivid personal experience, sometimes working territory that other practitioners wouldn't touch.  But Williams still didn't ken why the gatekeepers routinely ignored these faithful annalists. 2. In recent years, crime fiction hasn't faced the histrionic threat of a Meghan Cox Gurdon declaring that YA books “focusing on pathologies help normalize them,” but it has faced crusty, post-crest condescension from The New Yorker's Joan Acocella.  Yet even Acocella, in her reductionist view of Blomkvist as “anti-masculinist,” had to concede that Stieg Larsson “may have had a weakness for extraneous detail, but at the same time, paradoxically, he is a very good storyteller.” 3. There's no paradox about it.  There are, in fact, two crime novels on the 1998 Modern Library list of the 20th century's top 100 novels: James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice and Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon.  Even John Banville, who has written many crime novels as Benjamin Black, has called Georges Simenon and Richard Stark (the name with which Donald E. Westlake wrote his remarkable Parker novels) “two of the greatest writers of the 20th century.”  Crime fiction is bona-fide literature.  Why such reluctance to qualify it further? 4. Perhaps this failure to encourage the rising crop comes from recent developments in the field, especially those involving women writers.  On May 14, 1990, two Newsweek writers had this to say of the mystery landscape: “Call her Samantha Spade or Philipa Marlowe and she would deck you.  A tough new breed of detective is reforming the American mystery novel: smart, self-sufficient, principled, stubborn, funny – and female.”  While women had been creating such crackling heroines well before 1990 (see Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, and others), these gains had been somewhat swift. Megan Abbott, the author of five striking novels, isn't merely a natural response to this increasingly progressive atmosphere.  While her quintet can be found in the mystery section, and while she has won a well-deserved Edgar Award for a highly entertaining pulp tale of a take-no-shit woman clambering into the casino underworld (Queenpin), Abbott's novels are distinguished by rhythmic prose, historical settings (in sequential order: 1954, 1949, 1950s, 1931, and the 1980s, with The Song is You and Bury Me Deep taking inspiration from real criminal cases), and a candor about the way people live that isn't often found in today's well-groomed posterboys. Abbott's protagonists are not professional investigators.  The character who comes closest to a true-blue boy in blue is Bill King, a junior investigator in Abbott's debut novel, Die a Little, who is the brother to  Lora, a schoolteacher in 1954 Hollywood concerned about the new woman that Bill has married.  In fact, detectives tend to show up in Abbott's novels at the last possible minute, long after the reader has been presented with some version, often subjective, of the facts.  And with the long arm of the law tied behind the world's back (and very often corrupted), this gives Abbott the focus and the restraint to contort her universe. Abbott's sentences are frequently stacked with a stylish repetition telegraphing the schism within action.  In The End of Everything, told through Lizzie Hood, a thirteen-year-old girl who has seen her best friend disappear, Abbott writes, “And I thought of Bobby in the front seat of his parents' cars, his forest green varsity jacket with the chenille C.  I thought of him hunched there, gazing up at Dusty's bedroom window, its frothy curtains, Dusty's frothy girlness.”  Aside from the striking imagery (especially the lovely “chenille C”), we see how the phrase “I thought of” generates two discrete moments: Bobby's visual image in the first sentence and an effort to affix longing that reverts back to another visual image leading to Dusty.  And when the prose reverts from the feeling to the object, Abbott repeats the word “frothy,” suggesting that Lizzie's thoughts will return to this same visual/emotional cycle. But her prose is also quite chewy.  There is a grab-them-by-the-lapels quality to some sentences which demonstrates why melodrama is sometimes the best method to send a message.  Consider this moment from Bury Me Deep, my favorite of the five: “This is what the man with the Adam's apple thick-knotted in his long neck was singing in Ginny's ear, plucking at a banjo.”  This is told from the perspective of Marion Seeley (based on Winnie Ruth Judd), a woman who ends up in a heap of trouble while estranged from her husband, shirking his duties as doctor and husband by fleeing to Mazatlán.  This sentence's beauty comes from the way it undercuts an intense Adam's apple twice: both in describing the man with some hyperbole (“thick-knotted in his long neck”) and by appending the phrase “plucking at a banjo.”  But it also hints at the horrors ahead. An author's understanding of the human condition (to say nothing of how far she is willing to go) is often revealed through the manner in which they write about sex.  John Updike, of course, was fond of external sexual imagery.  Lionel Shriver's greatly underrated novel, The Post-Birthday World, succeeds in part because of its attentive detail to sexual position and how it often determines status.  But with Abbott, when sex isn't used for diabolical ends (this is a dark world; so it does), it is often something that is either observed or confessed.  And this quality permits the reader to become implicit in the way certain characters judge others.  In The Song is You, Abbott has Barbara Payton reveal she's “such a dumb cluck” just before describing a sexual episode to impress her listeners: “So he backs me into the tub and fucks me for five minutes, my head hitting the faucet over and over again like a freaking knockout bell.”  This fictive directness from a real-life public figure is clearly descended from James Ellroy, but, in Abbott's hands, the anecdote itself carries an odd humorous quality that generates an additional question: why is this the story Payton's using to impress?  In The End of Everything, Abbott employs voyeurism during one moment when Lizzie observes her mother having sex with her new partner, Dr. Aiken (like Bury Me Deep, another doctor as partner): “I want him to turn around, to face her. I want him to look at her.”  That Lizzie issues this judgment when neither her mother nor her lovers can see her suggests a certain lack of self-reflection. 5. Stewart O'Nan (Songs for the Missing), Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones), and Michelle Richmond (The Year of Fog) have been called “literary” for their missing girl novels.  Why not Abbott's The End of Everything?  Abbott's ability to tap into tangible teenage experience is equal to O'Nan's, especially when describing the “body-closeness” of girl get-togethers (“I'd look at my own left thigh and wonder where the white curl went, the scar like a half-moon, a nail dug deep, from falling off Dusty's Schwinn in second grade.”), detailing a folded-paper game called FLAME, and providing glimpses into “the teen-boy world” (“a world of sweat socks and thumping bass and torn-out magazine photos of bulbous tan breasts and white rabbity teeth and yellow flossy hair”) that elicit an unflinching image of comparative innocence. Where Sebold and Richmond have compromised their talents by settling for, respectively, sappy late-stage farewells between a dead ghost and her boyfriend and a hypnotist helping a mother to extract abstract details about her daughter's disappearance, Abbott is too smart a novelist to fumble with bald attempts to play to the bleachers.  If Bury Me Deep demonstrates how malicious forces can push a lonely soul into a deepening abyss, The End of Everything examines how tampering with memory and maintaining a quiet solipsism can flick you into the same pit of despair.  Abbott's most recent novel shows a greater willingness than Sebold and Richmond to bury hypocrisies and prevarications within the text.  Late in the book, we encounter a bloody incident mimicked in a manner suggesting that Lizzie's memory is far from fallible.  Instead of pursuing neat resolution, Abbott ponders the untidiness of all seemingly “neat” endings.  In the end, Lizzie confesses that memories are “self-spun, radiant fictions” – a remarkable statement from a thirteen-year-old girl that you certainly wouldn't expect from Alice Sebold's Susie Salmon. If such finesse can't also be called “literary,” it's outright criminal.

A Year in Reading: Ed Champion (The 13 Most Underrated Books of 2010)

Critics who produce the same tired titles for these infernal end-of-the-year lists are as useless as austere accountants who refuse to fox trot on the dance floor.  They are stiff, unimaginative, uncultured, incurious, and, quite possibly, lousy in bed.  They are the literary equivalent of unadventurous tourists who cling to tired maps and who are hopeless with a Swiss Army knife. The authors who are afforded predictable laurels are not to blame for this.  Don't get me wrong.  These folks know how to cut the rug. Paul Murray (Skippy Dies), Yiyun Li (Gold Boy, Emerald Girl), Tom McCarthy (C), Cynthia Ozick (Foreign Bodies), David Rakoff (Half Empty), Adam Ross (Mr. Peanut), David Mitchell (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet), Matt Taibbi (Griftopia), Paul Auster (Sunset Park) and Marilynne Robinson (Absence of Mind) hardly need any help from me.  Chances are that you're already familiar with these fine titles.  As for some “masterpieces,” well, you don't really need me to tell you that the emperor wears no clothes. But who needs such unpleasantness!  2010 was a great year in books!  This was a hard list to assemble!  There were only two books this year that almost made me consider suicide! The following list represents an effort to identify books that were completely marginalized, modestly outside the radar, or needlessly condemened by certain hatchet wielders who lacked the grace and/or the intelligence to embrace a peculiar magic. Allison Amend, Stations West – Jewish cowboys, vagabonds, 19th century multiculturalism, and an elaborate storyline covering a good fifty years.  It isn't often when a novelist crams so much enjoyable story into a taut 250 page container.  In addition to the book's telling but unobtrusive historical details (“inexpensive porcelain dishes” delicately placed inside a glass case for a quiet dignity, the newspapers taking so long to deliver the news, et al.), Amend is very careful in giving the reader much to infer.  Garfield, for example, is an indolent trainhopper who becomes something of a politco.  The reasons behind this unlikely ascent are skillfully delivered: “As the country entered a new century, so did Garfield.  He was tired of the raised eyebrows, the barely polite refusals, tired of fighting just to get the same food or service everyone else did.  Just because he had a Jewish surname.”  Yet remarkably, this book has received scant notice from the book reviewing outlets.  Perhaps because it's too readable to be true. Toby Ball, The Vaults –  “So he leaned against a thick timber that had at one time served as a post for a jetty and with his collar up and hat down inhaled the sweet, moist smoke and felt the cold become a more-interesting-than-uncomfortable sensation on his skin.”  That's probably the type of hyperspecific pulp prose style that's going to infuriate the Millions readership.  The time has come to loosen up.  From a worldbuilding standpoint, why shouldn't we know the origin point of the post?  Why shouldn't we know how someone faces the cold or contends with competing dermal sensations?  These may seem flippant questions.  But if we can accept this level of detail in William Gibson or Nicholson Baker, then surely we can offer some wiggle room for an engaging novel that somehow manages to squeeze such intriguing sentences into brisk chapters (did I mention that this book moves?) for a high-octane, multiple character story that involves a parallel dystopian America in the 1930s. Robin Black, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This – Forget Wells Tower. Robin Black's marvelous short story collection, which was needlessly ignored by The New York Times and The Washington Post, is very much on the level: far truer to human existence than anything written by that lumbering Young Turk. These subtle and mature stories avoid belabored metaphors and neat conclusions, revealing numerous nuances about the human condition in its careful use of understated language   Black knows “the heavy lifting when the conversation sags.”  In “A Country Where You Once Lived,” cybersex involves “gasps from behind a curtain of shimmering color blocks.” The striking possibility that humans can surrender to their baser instincts is suggested by “Harriet Elliott”'s narrator sleeping in a bedroom filled with stuffed animals.  Some stories are interrupted by terrible accidents, often of the car crashing variety.  But these stories don't just tell the truth; like much great literature, they make a quiet case for perseverance. Paula Bomer, Baby – These darkly hilarious tales are somewhat reminiscent of Kate Christensen, Iris Owens, and Maggie Estep.  Yet Bomer is more willing to investigate that uncomfortable territory between extreme behavior and insanity. In a Bomer story, you'll find a perverse passage (“She didn't know what to do. But that was how it was. Babies screamed, you tried all sorts of things, and sometimes, they just kept screaming anyway.”) that makes you ponder why the character hasn't been arrested for outright neglect.  (What “things” did this mother try?  And why is her partner so complicit?)   Unfortunately, mainstream publishers don't have the stones to publish such material anymore.  Fortunately, Word Riot Press is there to cover the gap. Jane Brox, Brilliant – In The Journal of American History, Jill Lepore unfurled a Bummer Bertha, suggesting that microhistories, by way of auctorial passion, have little to offer the serious minded.  Such a distressingly humorless attitude can be handily answered by Jane Brox's fascinating book, emerging from a straightforward examination of how artificial light has permanently altered human existence.  Before reading this book, I had no idea how difficult it was for astronomers to locate dark patches of the sky.  I knew that the end of the curfew had augmented nightlife, but I hadn't fully considered how swiftly gaslight had superceded candlelight, making such items as theatrical makeup more garish.  The common electricity that we now take for granted is a relatively recent phenomenon.  Imagine that you're a farmer in the 1930s who has recently received rural electrification.  Now imagine that you're given the sudden ability to see beyond the circumference of the kitchen table and how this alters your everyday family life.  Brox's book is loaded with such examples.  And I include it on this list, with the proviso that you may become as intoxicated by the subject matter as I was: so much so  that you will find yourself flocking to the library, seeking the many sources and pondering the vantage point of someone illuminated in 1849. Andrew Ervin, Extraordinary Renditions – Ervin's debut novel is one of two Hungary-themed books on this list. I don't know what it is about Hungary, but maybe the Budapest Tourist Office will explain this obsession to me one day. Extraordinary Renditions was one of those novels (or three interconnected novellas; pick your category!)  that made it into my backpack at BEA (I have no recollection of acquiring it; so perhaps it was a plant!) and which I very much enjoyed.    Like the Amend and Bomer books, it's very much the kind of book you don't see published by a major house anymore.  No coverage in The New York Times, nothing in The Washington Post, some coverage in some newspapers.  See a trend?  Anyway, this book's about national identity and expatriates running around Hungary.  It's funny, alarming, evocative, and, very often with its internal description, defies its apparent historical setting.  It echoes political texts while presenting political folly (and youthful folly).  Said folly even extends to the naivete of a celebrated composer of some years, who shuffles the Budapest streets like a young man. James Hynes, Next – Knowing of my needless difficulties in obtaining review copies from Little Brown, a good friend placed this novel in my hands and urged me to read it.  Not only did I finish this tome in one sitting, but I plunged into Hynes's backlist, discovering the wonderfully twisted book, Kings of Infinite Space.  I don't say this lightly, but James Hynes is very much the real deal.  He is as worthy a literary satirist as Sam Lipsyte, Lydia Millet, George Saunders, Jess Walter, and countless others.  But you won't see him in The New Yorker anytime soon.  And that is because, from his homebase in Austin, he understands the human condition too well.  Hynes knows that what occurs on your way to a job interview is often just as important as whether or not you get the job.  The result here is a novel that is both hilarious and revealingly introspective. Charlie Huston, Sleepless – The prolific and highly enjoyable Charlie Huston has given us some gleefully brutal moments, vampirism afflicting the marginalized, and comic capers involving a crime scene cleanup. But Sleepless signaled an unexpected gravitas and several ambitious steps forward. With its plot set in the daringly recent future (six months from now), with 10% of the population suffering from permanent insomnia and addicted to a massively multiplayer game called Chasm Tide, Huston portrays an increasingly more persuasive world in which life is dictated by the cultural dregs that remain. Where Gary Shteyngart offered little more than expansive (yet enjoyable) detachment with his dystopian epic, Super Sad True Love Story, Huston wants to get at the manner people carry on.  Does it come from fatherhood?  Some larger sense of responsibility?  The ability to withstand horrific torture or loved ones disappearing?  Manhood's certainly part of the game, but the chessboard's much larger.  And Huston only gets better. Julie Orringer, The Invisible Bridge – This sweeping epic was, at 624 pages, perhaps too much for some critics to take in.  One snarky scribbler condemned this book for “feel[ing] birfurcated” without bothering to cite a reason.  (Perhaps the events of the Holocaust?  Known to unsettle populations and disorder romantic harmony?  Just a few wild stabs in the dark.)  Such foolish snaps don't even begin to approximate what Orringer's magnificent debut novel does.  Using beautiful language to depict the near disappearance of an idyllic paradise (“He entered through a floriated wrought-iron gate between two stern figures carved in stone, and crossed a sculpture garden packed with perfect marble specimens of kore and kouros, straight from his art history textbook, staring into the distance with empty almond-shaped eyes.”), this powerful novel is equally unflinching in ilustrating how its colorful cast of characters (including an acrobatic family member) “might grow up without the gravity...without the sense of tragedy that seemed to hang in the air like the brown dust of bituminous coal.”  This is a book that approaches unspeakable barbarism with a rare ebullience, feeling neither inappropriate nor unconsidered.  It is a call for hope and small acts of resistance.  It may be set in the past, but this is very much a novel for our times. Gary Rivlin, Broke USA – Many flocked to Matt Taibbi's excellent Griftopia as the high finance expose of the year.  But Gary Rivlin's understated look at predatory lending is also worth a look.  The book collects perspectives from every end of the spectrum.  There's Chris Browning, the former manager of a Check 'n' Go in Ohio, who was fired because she was required by the higher ups to upsell and lend money to anybody who walked through the door; Martin Eakes, the man behind the Center for Responsible Lending offering a more reasonable APR through his credit union.  And then there's the sordid history of the rapacious corporations that built up their businesses with the refund anticipation loan, disguising the hidden costs of tax preparation.  Like Howard Karger's Shortchanged and John Lanchester's IOU, Rivlin's book is vital in understanding some of this nation's most underreported issues. Matthew Sharpe, You Were Wrong – Lips are “two fat garden slugs making love.”  There is “no worse violation of a soul than hope.” We're told that “tones can be tough for everyone and were extratough for Karl, who was lately an avid pupil in the urgent remedial project of tones.”  Sometimes the reader is subtly addressed.  Sometimes not.  There is a curious precision to the description in the way the “midafternoon sunbeam entered the house through a bedroom window to the right.”  These are just some of the many nonsequitur joys (or planned pleasures?) to be found within Matthew Sharpe's extremely goofy and very enjoyable novel, which seems to be channeling Flann O'Brien's madcap spirit. Scarlett Thomas, Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas's subtle efforts to examine the relationship  between narrative and life – to say nothing of the omega point – were drastically misunderstood by those who expected another The End of Mr. Y.  For this masterful novel -- defiantly plotless after the success of Thomas's previous pageturners -- is very much interested in how narrative must rely upon contrivances in order to present life. Beyond this, it dares to portray Meg Carpenter, an intelligent woman whose identity is occluded by the driftless mumbling of her flaccid partner.  By offering a protagonist brazenly defiant of reader expectations, Thomas subtly channels Henry James's Isabel Archer (with Meg, like Isabel, even running into some money), while also demonstrating that the quest for the new often leads to the same old cycles. Donald E. Westlake, Memory – This lost novel in a drawer, published by Hard Case Crime after four decades of dutiful dust collection, revealed that  Westlake was far more than a mystery master.  The book's taut and fatalistic narrative arguably aligns itself with Knut Hamsun's Hunger and Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground.  And had Westlake pursued more solitary outcasts like protagonist Paul Cole, he may very well have pursued John Banville's trajectory (ironically, with Banville finding his alter ego, Benjamin Black, in the end).  Which isn't to take away from Westlake's Dortmunder books or Westlake's wonderful Parker novels (written under Richard Stark) – all very deserving of praise.  Memory confirms that “inferior” genres must be reconsidered by the seemingly discriminating. More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions

A Year in Reading (The Year in Essays): Edward Champion

Edward Champion is a New York writer with a receding hairline. He sometimes answers to the name Alfredo Garcia, but is known to respond to Phyllis if you coo nicely into his ear. In addition to writing reviews and essays for the likes of The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Guardian, the Washington Post, and various outlets that have "New York" in them, he also produces a strange radio interview program called The Bat Segundo Show and blogs quite prolifically at his website, www.edrants.com. He hopes that you have enjoyed reading this biography.You've probably expended hearty chunks of 2008 dodging the hot and feverish advances of Bolaño acolytes, hoping that you wouldn't lose your job, and waiting for the January 20th regime change with the same mad patience practiced by Vladimir and Estragon. Yes, there were plenty of exciting books that sparked the heart, touched the soul, and had some running down the streets with the mad looks of unvetted Visigoths who forgot they needed to listen to the attack plans before sacking Rome. Lost in the shuffle of these year-end lists were the many intriguing essays that appeared in newspapers, magazines, and blogs.The following list of essays doesn't necessarily represent the best of 2008, but, for me, these pieces presented some of the most memorable contributions of what it means to live in our time.One essay forgotten in the Human Smoke controversy was Nicholson Baker's "The Charms of Wikipedia," in which The New York Review of Books's stodgy tone was momentarily disrupted by an all-too-brief flicker of passion and excitement. Not only did Baker dutifully review the book in question, but he became so hopelessly dedicated to improving Wikipedia (under the handle "Wageless") that his essay transformed into an unexpected call for civic duty, with the author himself demonstrating how one goes about preserving information.Maud Newton's "Conversations You Have at Twenty" was one of the bravest essays of the year: an unflinching account of wild youth, unapologetic confession, and how one person believed too much in the wrong person at the temporary expense of her own identity. Richard Powers's "The Book of Me" looked at the notion of identity from an altogether different end of the telescope, chronicling his own genome being mapped while unexpectedly revisiting his personal notions of security and identity.The two essays that stood out in The New Yorker this year were Malcolm Gladwell's "Late Bloomers," which wasn't so much about a dubious dichotomy, as it was an evocative portrait of a young and arrogant writer who may not know how washed up and socially maladjusted he really is. Tom Bissell's "The Grammar of Fun" put human faces to the men who design first-person shooters, subtly revealing how technological innovations reflect the lives and decor of those working long hours before the computer.Tim Wise's "This Is Your Nation on White Privilege" was a riff on John Scalzi's 2005 "Being Poor" essay, with the phrase "white privilege" standing in for "being poor." But Wise was one of the few writers who dared to be explicit about the racial division that has fragmented this nation. And if Barack Obama's "A More Perfect Union" counts as an essay, then I likewise have to include it in this list for the same reasons.Frank Bures's "A Mind Dismembered" earns an honorable mention on this list, if only because of its gripping lede, "No one is entirely sure when magical penis loss first came to Africa." Another close contender is Junot Diaz's "'Grand,' but No Godfather." This appears to be the first essay written by a Pultizer Fiction winner that is unapologetically passionate about video games.But the year's best comeback has to be Roger Ebert. After losing his voice, Ebert has funneled all of his energies into expressing himself on the page, most often through his blog. And he's been a delight to read, whether he's demolishing Ben Stein or making mischief by reviewing only eight minutes of a movie. While other essayists have ossified in their old age, Ebert appears to have developed some much-needed piss and vinegar. His writing has become more iconoclastic and provocative. And I'm convinced that this new direction has much to do with the freedoms of blogging. When you're writing in an unfettered medium, you can pretty much do anything you want. And Ebert's phoenix-like transformation into an astute, take-no-prisoners writer for the people should serve as a lesson to the bitter and lifeless dunces who complain of "blogger tics" because they know deep down they're drier than the Gobi Desert and have no business writing in the first place.More from A Year in Reading 2008

A Year in Reading: Edward Champion

Edward Champion's work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Philly Inquirer, Newsday, as well as more disreputable publications. He blogs at Return of the Reluctant and podcasts at The Bat Segundo Show.I'm reserving my hosannas for this year's lit for another place, another time, another Bizarro universe, another silly excuse to rip off my clothes, dive into the almighty ocean, and shout ("Holy shit, it's freezing!") the ten names of the ten greatest books to the heavens and presumably Xenu himself. There was one writer I rediscovered this year after a ten year absence, a guy who knocked my socks off, a man who I understand was passed up for a special National Book Award because he was considered too experimental, too out there, too not right for the vox populi. Never mind that his instinctive perversion of carnal and literary conventions is exactly the apposite kick in the ass the American public needs right now and exactly the kind of subversive thrust that can galvanize today's young writers.That man is John Barth, who, at 77, is indeed still alive and still writing and may face a Gilbert Sorrentino-style shutout in his last years if we're not careful. You'll even find one of his tales, "Toga Party," in this year's Best American Short Stories. And this story of anxiety and distress and growing older demonstrates that the old guy still has it.But if you need convincing in novel form, start with his first three books, all of which I reread this year. The Floating Opera and The End of the Road were each written in three months, amazingly during the same year. Each volume is a glorious decimation of Puritanical values, whether they be sex, psychiatry, the legal system, or even the manner in which one obtains employment. But the piece de resistance is Barth's third book, his masterpiece, The Sot-Weed Factor, a picaresque 17th century monster that befuddled and delighted even the great Darby M. Dixon III! Not only is this book an immensely entertaining satire of a real-life Maryland poet named Ebeneezer Cooke, but it features lengthy explanations on arcane historical topics, perfectly fabricated notebooks that rethink the John Smith-Pocahantas relationship, and a sustained examination on how absolutist ideologies are inextricable thorns in the grand American rose. This is a book that a capsule post cannot do justice to. That it is not uttered in the same breath as Gravity's Rainbow or The Recognitions or Gormenghast is a sure sign that literary standards have fallen.More from A Year in Reading 2007

A Year in Reading: Ed Champion

Ed put in another year unchallenged as the litblog world's preeminent gadfly, offering blanket coverage of all things literary with impressive depth and ample humor. His Bat Segundo show was equally impressive, offering dozens of interviews with top authors this year. I still need to catch up, but Ed has found the time to contribute to our ongoing series:I am withholding my top ten list until the turn of the year, not because I don't find you sexy or stunning, Mr. Magee, and certainly not because I don't possess a taxonomic mind set. Rather, I object to associating one's literary compulsions with the dreaded consumerist impulses of the Xmas season. So that list will have to wait until we've all been thoroughly gorged with goose and egg nog and a few carolers have contracted laryngitis due to their relentless and cloying largesse.Thankfully, sir, you have been kind enough to confine your question to one peremptory and all-encompassing one, an absolute value that I am all too happy to answer. And I can say, without a doubt, that Richard Powers' The Echo Maker is the finest book I had the honor of reading this year. I did not ride the National Book Award bandwagon on this one. I knew this tome was the Great Book early on, well before the NBA longlist was launched. I was enchanted, lost, and entirely inveigled by Powers' deceptively simple premise: a man gets involved in an accident, suffers a rare condition called Capgras' syndrome, and cannot recognize the sister who has sacrificed her job and the many threads of her life to care for him. This sounds like a ridiculously melodramatic premise. But it is Powers' adept narrative skill that makes this scenario fundamentally real and a fundamentally poetic tapestry revealing post-9/11 transformations within America.The book, as Margaret Atwood has suggested, demands to be read twice. This book is the full realization of Powers as social novelist, an experiment he attempted before with Gain, albeit with some didacticism attached. But almost a decade wiser, Powers has given us a daring Rorschach Test that any person who cares about literature is indebted to pick up and get lost in.Thanks Ed!