Satin Island: A novel

New Price: $24.00
Used Price: $1.20

Mentioned in:

The Millions Top Ten: November 2015


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Between the World and Me
5 months

2.
2.

A Little Life
5 months

3.
3.

Purity
4 months

4.
7.

Slade House
2 months

5.
4.

Go Set a Watchman
5 months

6.
6.

Fates and Furies
3 months

7.
5.

Book of Numbers
6 months

8.
8.

City on Fire
2 months

9.
9.

The Heart Goes Last
3 months

10.


The Big Green Tent
1 month

My uncharacteristically bold plug for Marlon James’s outstanding novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, was not enough to keep the book on our Top Ten this month, and I’m choosing to believe that the only reason is because you’d already purchased your copies when it first came out. It’s not because you don’t trust my recommendations, right? Can’t be.

Nevertheless, this month’s newest title — filling James’s former spot — is Ludmila Ulitskaya’s The Big Green Tent. For five years since the novel’s Russian publication, English and North American readers have been eagerly awaiting the translation to finally hit shelves. (In fact, it’s been on The Millions’s radar for so long that it appeared in both our 2014 and 2015 Book Previews.) Following three friends-turned-dissidents who come of age during the Soviet era, the 592-page novel provides a richly detailed, intimate depiction of what life was like behind the Iron Curtain.

Still, “any plot-based retelling of The Big Green Tent misses the point entirely,” wrote Emily Tamkin in her review of the book for our site. “It is the story of three boys growing up, yes, but so, too, is it a portrait of a time, and a sketch of so many types who lived in and through it, and of Russian literature itself. … In this way, Ulitskaya has not only described the spirit of an era, but also captured it.”

Stay tuned for our December list, which will undoubtedly be heavily influenced by our current Year in Reading series, underway all month long. Who will be this year’s breakout star? Only one way to find out.

This month’s near misses included: Fourtune SmilesUndermajordomo Minor, Satin Island, and The Paying Guests. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: October 2015


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Between the World and Me
4 months

2.
2.

A Little Life
4 months

3.
4.

Purity
3 months

4.
3.

Go Set a Watchman
4 months

5.
6.

Book of Numbers
5 months

6.
7.

Fates and Furies
2 months

7.


Slade House
1 month

8.


City on Fire
1 month

9.
8.

The Heart Goes Last
2 months

10.


A Brief History of Seven Killings
1 month

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a book about de-cluttering and organizing, just became the 102nd title to join our ever-more-cluttered Hall of Fame, which feels appropriate. Meanwhile, two titles – Satin Island and The Paying Guests – fell out of this month’s Top Ten, despite strong showings for the past four months.

As a result, three spots have opened up for newcomers, so let’s take a look at these fresh new faces:

This month’s seventh spot belongs to David Mitchell’s latest project, Slade House, which got its start as a Twitter-based short story last year. (We published the story in full.) Now expanded into a 256-page book, Slade House, spans across five decades, focusing on a mysterious residence down the road from a British pub, and the people who live within – or are invited to.

Next on the list is Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel, City on Fire, which is surely familiar by now to anyone who a) reads this site, and b) doesn’t live beneath a rock. (Psssst! You can read its opening lines over here.) At 944 pages, this doorstop provides a surprisingly intimate glimpse into the lives of its closely-observed subjects. As Brian Ted Jones remarked in his review for The Rumpus:
It’s not a big novel about the human condition. It’s a novel that word by word reaches out to capture the smallness of life, the minute particularity that stacks up until—whoa, baby—you’ve got a whole universe on your hands, but a universe that flies away like a pile of dirt in a strong wind.
And that level of observation does not come easily, as Hallberg himself noted in his interview with our own Lydia Kiesling:
Writing is definitely not what we typically think of as “easy” or “natural” for the person doing it. You know this as a writer — it’s mostly torture. You have those days when you kind of light up inside like a pinball machine or something, and all of a sudden everything is feeding back 10 times as much as it did the previous day, and you have this sense of joy and you walk out of the house and run into someone you know, or your spouse comes home and says “How was your day,” and you say, “This was a great day! The writing went well!” And then if you actually paused and walked back through the writing hour by hour you would realize, “No, it was still mostly torture, but it was a kind of exquisite and joyous torture on this day, as opposed to the gray horrible torture that it is on most days.”
Man, that must’ve been a fun way to feel for the five years it took to write the book, huh?

Finally, this month we also welcome newly-minted Booker Award winner Marlon James to our Top Ten. His third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, concerns Jamaica at a pivotal moment in its history, and really the history of its relationship with the United States as well, but also it’s about so much more: Bob Marley, CIA machinations, international drug dealers, race, family, friendship, journalism, and art. To call this novel ambitious is to undersell it. If I can be bold for a moment, allow me to say this: James’s novel is the best book I’ve read in years. Heck, even our resident video-bloggers, Michael Schaub and Janet Potter, were rendered speechless by it.

This month’s near misses included: Undermajordomo Minor, Fourtune Smiles, and A Strangeness in My Mind. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: September 2015


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Between the World and Me
3 months

2.
7.

A Little Life
3 months

3.
2.

Go Set a Watchman
3 months

4.
8.

Purity
2 months

5.
3.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
6 months

6.
6.

Book of Numbers
4 months

7.


Fates and Furies
1 month

8.


The Heart Goes Last
1 month

9.
10.

The Paying Guests
4 months

10.
9.

Satin Island
5 months

Our Hall of Fame grows to 101 titles strong this month, thanks to the ascension of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (#100) and Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train (#101). It’s the first appearance in the Hall for both authors.

In their place, we welcome Fates and Furies and The Heart Goes Last, the latest works from Lauren Groff and Margaret Atwood, respectively. The former should be especially familiar to Millions readers, as we shared the book’s opening lines on our site last March, and we interviewed Groff about her writing process (and why she feels ambivalent about Florida) more recently. Atwood, meanwhile, took part in our Year in Reading in 2010.

For the second consecutive month, Ta-Nahesi Coates’s Between the World and Me tops our list. It’s an honor that Coates should treasure because his year has otherwise been fairly uneventful for him. After all, he’s only won a MacArthur “genius grant,” been longlisted for the National Book Award, and announced a forthcoming Marvel comic. In other words: nothing that holds a candle to the honor of being named a Millions fan favorite.

Moving along: Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life occupies this month’s number two spot. The book’s steady rise over the past three months — unlisted in July, #7 in August, and now runner-up — surprised me almost as much as it’s likely surprised our own Lydia Kiesling, who wrote of the work:
A Little Life has stayed with me, not because I found it so sad, but because I found it so strangely bad, and have spent significant time wondering if what I perceive to be its badness is in fact a function of a bold narrative experiment that, to quote James Wood on Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, “invents its own category of badness,” and thus deserves a very particular set of laurels.
Indeed, it’s as though a negative review from Lydia has the perverse effect of skyrocketing her victim’s works into the hands of Millions readers. (After all, this is the second time it’s happened…) Perhaps from now on publicists should refer to Lydia as the Literary Queen Midas?

Elsewhere on the list, Go Set a Watchman and that book on de-cluttering dropped one spot apiece, Franzen’s latest rose a bit, and works by Joshua Cohen, Sarah Waters, and Tom McCarthy held steady.

This month’s near misses included: Undermajordomo Minor, The Martian, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight NightsThe First Bad Man, and Wind/Pinball. See Also: Last month’s list.

Booker Prize Offers Up Eclectic 2015 Shortlist

| 1

The Booker Prize has whittled down its longlist to an intriguing shortlist, and none of the authors tapped has previously won the Prize. As was the case last year, two Americans make the shortlist this year: Anne Tyler and Hanya Yanagihara. They are joined by Nigerian Chigozie Obioma, the UK’s Sunjeev Sahota and Tom McCarthy, and Jamaican Marlon James. The bookies suggest that Yanagihara is the favorite to win. She would be the first American to take the Prize.

All the Booker Prize longlisters are below (with bonus links where available):

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (The Book Report on A Brief History)
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy (The Last Epoch: Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island Takes on the Avant-Garde)
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (“The Audacity of Prose” by Chigozie Obioma, Clickworthy Headlines about The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma)
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish, ‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara)

The Millions Top Ten: August 2015


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

Between the World and Me
2 months

2.
1.

Go Set a Watchman
2 months

3.
4.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
5 months

4.
3.

The Buried Giant
6 months

5.
5.

The Girl on the Train
6 months

6.
6.

Book of Numbers
3 months

7.
8.

A Little Life
2 months

8.


Purity
1 month

9.
7.

Satin Island
4 months

10.
9.

The Paying Guests
3 months

A shuffling atop this month’s Top Ten puts Ta-Nahesi Coates’s Between the World and Me above Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, which may be expected when one book earns inspires praise from Toni Morrison while copies of the other one are refunded by local bookstores.

Of course, it hasn’t all been praise for Coates’s essay-letter to his son – and, to be fair, it hasn’t all been negative press for Lee’s early novel. In a recent piece for our site, Sonya Chung used a regrettable column by David Brooks to explore the “convergence of The Road to Character and the conflict that arose from Brooks’s public response to Between the World and Me.” Similarly, our own Michael Bourne pondered the silver lining of Go Set a Watchman’s release, which occasioned the reevaluation of Atticus Finch:
“Jean Louise, have you ever met your father?” her uncle asks, and she realizes she never has, not really. Neither have we, though we have been living with Atticus Finch for more than half a century. It is high time we got to know him. The question is whether we will still love him once we have.
Moving from two major publishing stories to a third: this month’s Top Ten welcomes Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, into its ranks. The work debuts in the eighth spot, likely but a pit stop on its way to the higher reaches of our list, as the book (whose release date was technically September 1st) was only just reaching readers’ hands in the final days of August. Purity follows blockbusters The Corrections and Freedom and, as our own Lydia Kiesling notes, the book contains “a few digs at you, reader.”

The Martian dropped from our list this month. Other near misses included: Wind/Pinball, The First Bad ManThe Tusk That Did the Damage, and Armada. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Last Epoch: Tom McCarthy’s ‘Satin Island’ Takes on the Avant-Garde

1. Two Sides of the Same Street
If you’ve read a review of any novel by Tom McCarthy anytime in the last 10 years, you know that you don’t have to look very far to find the term avant-garde, and equally as often, the consensus that McCarthy is the new standard bearer of the avant-garde in contemporary fiction. While the claim is no less true despite the ease with which it is repeatedly made, the framing of what this mantle means is less frequently explored, and has somewhat problematic origins. The stone in the pond here belongs to Zadie Smith, who in 2009 contrived a binary between Joseph O’Neill’s bestselling novel Netherland and McCarthy’s debut work, Remainder, announcing the latter as an “assassination” of an exalted brand of realism, and an “alternate road down which the novel, might, with difficulty, travel forward.” The philosophical templates behind this antagonism were well sketched, if muddled somewhat is Smith’s distillation; on the one hand — epiphany, redemption, coherency of language and memory, and the ontological superiority of subjective experience over the world; on the other — method, process, simulacra, hard materialism, and false transcendence.

Simple enough, yes? If there was a charm to the proposal it was in its sincere, if not somewhat mannered frustration about a long-standing though largely non-threatening conflict with traditional literary realism (in Smith’s words: “lyrical realism,” an equally slippery designation.) And though the blemishes of Smith’s argument lie precisely in wind-up prescriptions like the kind mentioned above, it is also a part of her success and influence as a critic –– and lo, in the years since the publication of “Two Paths For the Novel” in The New York Review of Books, the contention that McCarthy is the inheritor of a much needed literary iconoclasm has been almost universally adopted and disputed only by a few. The underlying assumption that both its affirmers and detractors leave largely unexplored however, is the question of what exactly the avant-garde means to contemporary literature, where it is to be found, what defines it, and whether or not it is even possible.

Smith herself can hardly be blamed; her essay –– another addition to an ever-expanding catalogue of literary manifestos –– is merely one person’s testimony in a waiting room full of patients claiming the same malady. The real, albeit incidental insight that emerged in the aftermath of the essay, was that its proposed solutions betrayed a genuine need born out of something endemic, something we are all actually desperate for –– a coherent framing of contemporary literary conflict and an authentic mode of resistance to a increasingly corporate literary monoculture.

Today, manifestos are a cheap commodity, as easy to pen as they are to rally behind, and must, it seems, in order to maintain their integrity, announce this fact; (Lars Iyer’s “Nude In Your Hot Tub, Facing the Abyss (A Literary Manifesto After The End of Literature and Manifestos”) comes to mind.) But while its authors aren’t able to escape this debilitating self-awareness, it is precisely in this irony that the manifesto reveals its necessary value. As co-founder and chairman of the International Necronautical Society –– an organization with an foundational manifesto of inauthenticity and a self-proclaimed penchant for death, failure, and false-redemption –– McCarthy seems playfully complicit in the genre’s comic real estate, as well as in the idea that the avant-garde does not inherently represent an obliteration of artistic or intellectual tradition, but is rather a renewable resource. Consequently, McCarthy has found himself enlisted in an argument that he not only didn’t start, but seems to have been working actively to deflate for two decades now.

It would be myopic to view Remainder as an assassination of a lyrical trend the likes of which Joseph O’Neill’s novel represented, since both novels are mutually loyal progeny to their literary ancestors, with Remainder owing as much to Alain Robbe-Grillet and J.G. Ballard as Netherland does to Gustave Flaubert and Vladimir Nabokov. Even though this posture feels affected and outmoded only six years later –– with several critics pointing out how the argument dissolves when taken to its logical terminus –– the attitude of the “Two Paths” model still has currency, though less in its clarion calls than in the subtle and insidious brand of market logic it represents; its inheritors seeking to establish their camps based on the successes and failures of recent novels instead of challenging what the avant-garde means in an increasingly monolithic industry where favored aesthetics are bred based on what brings in the highest profits. McCarthy’s new novel tackles this question head on and in a way that frees itself from the kind of pigeonholing his first novel was susceptible to. If Remainder represented the abandonment of the pure and sacred self against the apparatus of a long held tradition of realism, then Satin Island seeks to reveal how such distinctions are ultimately meaningless.

2. Explain Everything!
Satin Island takes on a lot within the space of its covers. Indeed, for a novel that is fewer than 200 pages, it is remarkably dense and polysemous –– at times it seems to accomplish more in this space than many much larger novels achieve in triple the length. This time McCarthy concerns himself directly with manifestos, and the manifesto here is on perhaps the greatest subject of all: The Contemporary –– which is to say, the Postmodern (whatever that means.) Indeed, this is precisely the joke that surrounds our protagonist –– a “Corporate Anthropologist” (a sort of liberal arts student-cum-corporate cog) –– throughout the novel. Like Franz Kafka and Thomas Pynchon before him, McCarthy maintains an interest in hidden networks and bottomless bureaucracies that baffle common sense and intuition. As usual, McCarthy remains comically oblique about the presumed details of plot and character, though our protagonist, known only as U. (there’s Kafka again) is certainly not without psychology or ambition. Of “The Company” that employs him in Present Tense Anthropology™ he says only:

“…[it] advised other companies how to contextualize and nuance their services and products. It advised cities how to brand and re-brand themselves; regions how to elaborate and frame regenerative strategies; governments how to narrate their policy agendas –– to the press, the public and, not least, themselves. We dealt, as Peyman liked to say, in narratives.”

This can be read as the mission statement of modern brand marketing: the total dissemination of an idea, not a product –– less concerned with things than with the narrative between things. The “Great Report” for the “Koob-Sassen Project,” for which our protagonist inherits the role of “architect,” is never clearly explained, though it is suggested that it’s a kind of master narrative that explains everything and is everywhere all the time: “It will have had direct effects on you; in fact, there’s probably not a single area of your daily life that it hasn’t, in some way or other, touched on, penetrated, changed…” U. discusses the Project in circumambulatory fashion, (assuming some non-disclosure clause) and only ever describes it in relation to his visions of a titanic, desert-bound work site:

I saw towers rising in the desert — splendid, ornate constructions, part modern skyscraper, part sultan’s palace lifted from Arabian Nights: steel and glass columns segueing into vaulted cupolas and stilted arches, tiled muqarnas, dwindling minarets that seemed, at their cloud-laced peaks, to shed their own materiality, turn into vapor. Below them, hordes of people — thousands, tens of thousands — labored, moving around like ants, their circuits forming patterns on the sand; patterns that, in their amalgam, coalesced into one larger, more coherent pattern, just as the meandering, bowing, divagating stretches of a river delta do when seen from high enough above.

In addition to many others, this vision belongs to U.’s private bank of revisited images –– including footage of oil spills, hydraulic machines stretching taffy, and a possible murder mystery surrounding the death of a sky diver.

When collected, they reveal how the corporate superstructure (or supra-structure) can become a lattice through which one can view all human activity, and diagram that activity into a single coherent narrative. After all, anthropology, in its most ambitious form, is essentially totalitarian, seeking to explain all human behavior –– not simply to diagnose what prompts that behavior, but to find a grid through which it can be connected and codified. In short, everything that appears distinct and separate is actually a different version of the same thing. In The Gift, Marcel Mauss was convinced that however foreign and irrational the trade practices of primitive societies appeared to westerners, the most sophisticated and advanced industrial economies rested on the same integral logic of exchange. That everything can be explained with a narrative that allows all features to co-exist in apparent disharmony is the dream of the structural anthropologist, the father of which, Claude Lévi-Strauss, U. tells us, is his hero. This is also the dream of the modern corporation, is it not?: to assimilate all culture into a single, interchangeable narrative, which continues to succeed despite internal variance and transition. If this is the dream, than the Koob-Sassen Project is its manifesto.

Historically the novel and the manifesto have been the two delivery systems for the avant-garde. While the latter hopes to goad the former into existence by commanding a switch in consciousness, the novel creates consciousness on its own terms and for its own sake. Manifestos are inherently arrogant and utopian by nature, seeking to explain the whole of their time and replace the miserable, vulgar past with an exalted vision of the future. Often bound to hard ideologies, like fascism and communism, it is no surprise that the early 20th century was the heyday of the form (F.T. Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism and the 1918 Manifesto I of the De Stijl group are perhaps the best examples of this.)

To regard the manifesto as something that serves an art form is to slightly misunderstand its usefulness. As a genre it is essentially self-satisfying, always benefitting its loyal disciples more than the form as a whole. McCarthy, of course, is all too aware of this, having described the manifesto in a conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist as “macho” and “inherently ridiculous,” and indeed he seems to have laid this attitude into the marrow of Satin Island’s satirical bones. So, if the ambition of the avant-garde is essentially constructive, seeking to establish a kind of new world order, than McCarthy’s novelistic treatment of this idea seems to be one of negation and dismantlement.

A high ideal of the avant-garde would be a Heideggerian one –– to erupt a new form of consciousness out of a kind of nothingness, and to hurl ourselves through that consciousness which we are scarcely prepared for and desperate to understand, ahead of which only oblivion lies. This certainly appears in the pious avant-gardism of the modernists, vis-à-vis Marinetti’s sleek futuristic visions and Ezra Pound’s refrain “make it new.” In this sense, the challenge that faces new novelists is always epistemic –– an attempt at “new knowledge,” which is ultimately what lies at the heart of U.’s work with the Great Report.

McCarthy himself has spoken about the reusable, or recreational avant-garde –– the kind of experimentalism that beats ahead by reaching back into tradition and appropriating old forms to the standard of our time, sometimes subverting that tradition, sometimes disrupting it violently, sometimes remaining faithful to its origins. This is the avant-garde of Guy Debord and the Situationist International, whom U. seems to hint at when he imagines, “…cells of clandestine new-ethnographic operators doing strange things in deliberate, strategic ways, like those conceptual artists from the sixties who made careers out of following strangers.” In a sense, all appropriations of existing narratives are a form of the avant-garde, from Don Quixote’s demented and bathetic recreations of chivalric romance to the plays of William Shakespeare. This seems to be the avant-garde that McCarthy is most interested in both disrupting and verifying, and providing a fictional framework in which both its braggadocio and its necessity can co-exist.

In Satin Island, the battleground of this vision of the avant-garde is the modern bureaucracy, that node of systemic knowledge, that endless vista of departments, branches, and research. Through this, the novel immerses itself in the vertiginous and ever-expanding matrix of networked human experience. In other words, McCarthy doesn’t seem to subscribe to the redemptive power of the avant-garde novel within a monolithic industry, but sees the form rather as an endless discursive palliative to a circuitous conflict that only ends with failure and stunted-epiphany. Some authors chose to abandon the novel’s most immediate and natural resources in order to achieve a similar dismantling effect, mainly character and coherency of language as a means of apprehending the World. Jorge Luis Borges sought it through metaphysical abstraction and speculation; writers like Thomas Bernhard and Lázló Krasznahorkai through exhaustive language; theorists like Maurice Blanchot and Robbe-Grillet –– who seemed to regard the novel’s natural resources as ultimately inadequate –– were more willing to saddle their fiction with a philosophical treatment at the expense of things like character and plot.

Blanchot and Robbe-Grillet are obvious influences on McCarthy, but McCarthy himself seems to work more out of the left brain, or perhaps more appropriately, the gut. More often than not, Satin Island operates in the open and imaginative spaces that one would sooner associate with Kafka. Indeed, for all his continental headiness, McCarthy thinks like a novelist better than pretty much anyone, with an acute sense of irony and negative capability thoroughly worked into his characters and not just his theoretical schemas. But where his post-war ancestors believed that form, language, and other aesthetic techniques could be used as tools to overthrow existing orders, McCarthy has seen (if only by virtue of hindsight) that the mainstream coopted this hope of the avant-garde long ago.

3. The Long Last Stop
Nostalgic for eras that have yet to begin, the other side of the avant-garde is equally concerned with the end of institutions. Postmodernism, as Frederick Jameson reminds us, is concerned with the end of things: “the end of art,” “the end of philosophy,” etc. –– an old Hegelian an idea that regained traction in the 1960s when the prospect of a cultural-wide revolution seemed imminent, and continued on through Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the “end of history,” after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. At the end of Weekend (1967) Jean-Luc Godard announced that the film was “the end of cinema,” intuiting some kind of upheaval that would destroy the cultural patrimony and make art as it had previously been thought of no longer possible. As both McCarthy and Iyer seem to understand, this is the reality in which the manifesto, and its literary counterpart, the avant-garde novel, has to exist, if it is to exist at all.

Jameson most notably described the Postmodern “not as a style but rather as a cultural dominant: a conception which allows for the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate, features.” (This is the best definition of Postmodernism I know of, and the only one that has ever made any sense to me.) It could also be the thesis statement for the Koob-Sassen Project. For today, this “cultural dominant” is the modern corporation. Think about it. It explains how The Beatles’ “Revolution” (actually a counterrevolutionary song) can be the soundtrack for a Nike commercial, or how Walt Whitman’s “O Pioneers!” can be used as a narrative to hawk Levi’s jeans. The corporation is at the forefront of the avant-garde, the central engine of appropriation, which is to say, that if the modern avant-garde exists in any form, it is in appropriation, only in what can be hijacked and redeployed. This is precisely what I believe is at the heart of McCarthy’s novel. At one point U., in describing his intellectual style within the company, relates how he stole Gilles Deleuze’s idea of “folds” (or le pli) as a way of explaining various levels of meaning found in the stitching patterns and creases of Levi’s jeans. Here, the engine appropriation appears in disquietingly familiar terms:

“This pretty much set up the protocol or MO I’d deploy in my work for the Company: feeding in vanguard theory, almost always from the left side of the spectrum, back into the corporate machine. The machine could swallow everything, incorporate it seamlessly, like a giant loom that reweaves all fabric, no matter how recalcitrant and jarring its raw form, into what my hero [Lévi-Strauss] would have called a master-pattern — or, if not that, then maybe just the pattern of the master.”

(“…always from the left side of the spectrum.” This is one of many iconoclastic sentiments woven into the protagonist’s noble vision of his profession. On another occasion, in one of U.’s scripted fantasies, he describes the cleanup processes of a massive oil spill as “a putsch, a coup d’état.”)

But, if the Postmodern can only be defined by negation, as a kind of everything and nothing, then its very definition as an aesthetic under which artists might choose to band together or writhe in discontent is essentially meaningless. If we are living in an age beyond epochs, beyond movements or era –– one of perpetual transition and integration in which disparate and often mutually contradictory ideas are swallowed into a larger pattern that ironizes them into co-existence –– can one make a rallying call like Zadie Smith’s with any kind of honesty, without seeming like a mere reactionary? Consider the grim concession of Iyer’s essay –– we can only entertain the illusion that true resistance is possible anymore. Can one eschew popular trends in favor of niche cultures, like the American hipster, without also being a slave to that niche? Isn’t all resistance to the market via consumption itself ultimately an illusion of pluralism and independence?

The overriding fear here, is what Theodor W. Adorno warned us about long ago: that to challenge something is to inherently confer power upon it. Adorno believed that the machine of institutionalized culture made any alteration to that institution, however disruptive, a mere continuation of that system, and that which appeared different was only a stylistic variance; in this system, the avant-garde becomes a set of “additional rules” to the standard vocabulary, in which it “merely increases the power of the tradition which the individual effect seeks to escape.”

McCarthy, respectfully aware of this, offers “the individual effect” as a potential escape hatch for his protagonist, who later in the novel begins to fantasize about destroying The Great Report and the entire Koob-Sassen Project by way of technocratic guerilla-type sabotage: “And then my cohorts, that semi-occluded network of covert anthropologists I’d dreamed into being already…Together, we could turn Present Tense Anthropology™ into an armed resistance movement.” This is the necessary deviation from the system, as Adorno foresaw, which the system itself breeds into existence, reintegrates, and then stabilizes. And fearing the prospect genuine redemption, U. informs us later, rather laconically, rather dispassionately, that the Project, despite his efforts to destroy it, succeeded all the same.

It was perhaps Lévi-Strauss’s greatest and most prophetic premonition that humanity was doomed to monoculture in the absence of space –– in other words, a disposable culture, a non-culture, one that could be created one day and discarded the next, in which the avant-garde is less a genuine adversary of the mainstream than a ventriloquist for dissent. This is the monocultural dead end, the existential equivalent of Coke or Pepsi? Apple or Samsung? And think again about Smith’s essay: Realist or Anti-Realist? It’s no different than a T-Mobile ad that boasts switching providers as a form of liberation and self-definition. And still further into the literary conversation: the hip, enervated insouciance of Tao Lin or the new sentimentalism of David Foster Wallace? To think of the avant-garde this way is to treat it as a mere genre in the cafeteria of literary identity; both are the same kind of unfreedom, different forms of the same essential meaninglessness. The irony inherent in this misplaced sense of independence is exactly what lies underneath U.’s ultimate refusal to visit Staten (Satin) Island at the close of the novel –– that materialist wasteland, the dumping ground for all culture past and present, success or failure:

To visit Staten Island –– actually go there –– would have been profoundly meaningless. What would it, in reality have solved or resolved? Nothing. What space would I have discovered there, and for what concrete purpose? None…And so I found myself, as I waded back through the relentless stream of people, struggling just to stay in the same place, suspended between two types of meaninglessness.

So what are we to take away from this? While the ending of the novel is depressingly bleak, suggesting a perennial void, there is a muted resilience that underscores its very effort, something beyond what the manifesto with all its dogmatic prescriptions could ever hope to achieve. At the risk of sounding formulaic, taking on the idea of what the avant-garde means seems to be the truest path forward for the avant-garde. Satin Island is a successful work of the contemporary avant-garde, I submit, because it does exactly this.

However you wish to group the terms, McCarthy remains one of the few novelists we have who consistently challenges our conceptions of what the novel is for and what it can achieve, even if it never quite succeeds, as the end of Satin Island would suggest. But maybe it does succeed. It succeeds, like the Koob-Sassen Project, even when it attempts to fail, and is always failing even when it appears to have succeeded, with one always elegantly contained in the other. Maybe this ambiguity is the not-so-sexy virtue to abide by. Freedom (however we choose to define it in art) will always go, as Rosa Luxemberg once said, to the one who thinks differently. (But wait, there’s one more caveat: can we uphold this as a single-entendre ideal when one of the most successful marketing campaigns of arguably the most successful company in the history of western capitalism is “Think Different?”)

The avant-garde, in whatever form it takes, ought to be heralded as the last territory of free intellectual and creative identity in spite of this, even within the obvious indefinability of “The Contemporary.” One thing’s for sure, the literary climate we should avoid at all costs is the one in which the avant-garde continues to be a commodity, a standard that is handed off from one writer to the next. Literature has always been a project of the self, a project out of which new forms of consciousness can be forged, and the self is not a supermarket, even when the rest of the world feels like one. As the corporation has coopted the tenets of the avant-garde, so too should the avant-garde (wherever it is to be found) take back the language of corporations and use its own grammar against it. I still like to believe (if only because I have to) what Walter Benjamin said; that a writer can either dissolve an order or found a new one. Today however, the dictum seems slightly different: in an era beyond eras, writers can either choose to found an order or steal one back, even if, like U., we continue to find ourselves forever in between.

Oh well.

Nothing can come of nothing. Speak again.

The Millions Top Ten: July 2015


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for July.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.


Go Set a Watchman
1 month

2.


Between the World and Me
1 month

3.
2.

The Buried Giant
5 months

4.
4.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
4 months

5.
5.

The Girl on the Train
5 months

6.
6.

Book of Numbers
2 months

7.
7.

Satin Island
3 months

8.


A Little Life
1 month

9.
10.

The Paying Guests
2 months

10.


The Martian
1 month

Four new additions splashed climbed into the Top Ten this month, with Go Set a Watchman — Harper Lee’s ubiquitous Mockingbird pre/sequel — topping the chart. It would be generous to say that the critical reception to the novel, which was written prior to Mockingbird but set two decades afterward, has been mixed. Many evaluations hinge on whether or not the work is capable of standing on its own, or whether it can only be understood as a draft. (There’s also the whole matter of whether the thing should’ve been published to begin with…) In an essay for our site, Michael Bourne wrapped it all together by writing:
Whatever its true provenance, Go Set a Watchman, despite some deft prose and sharp dialogue, fails as a work of art in every way except as a corrective to the standard sentimental reading of Atticus Finch. … The great revelation of the novel isn’t that Atticus Finch is a bigot, but that he has been one all along and his daughter has been too in love with him to notice.
(Bonus: Robert Rea went to Monroeville, Alabama on the day of the book’s release, and wrote about the experience for our site.)

Also appearing on our list this month is Ta-Nahisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. In her preview for our site last month, Anne K. Yoder wrote that the work “grapples with how to inhabit a black body and how to reckon with America’s fraught racial history from a more intimate perspective — in the form of a letter to his adolescent son. Given the current state of affairs, this book should be required reading.”

We also welcome Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Andy Weir’s The Martian to this month’s list. No doubt their presence owes to a recent essay from Lydia Kiesling, and Hollywood’s ongoing obsession with abandoning Matt Damon in space, respectively. We also interviewed Yanagihara this week.

We saw two books graduate to our Hall of Fame; congratulations to Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosio and The David Foster Wallace Reader

Nipping at the heels of this month’s selections is Ernest Cline’s new novel, Armada, which was discussed by yours truly in our Great Second-Half 2015 Book Preview a few weeks ago. Be honest: a bunch of you bought it because I referenced my “Diablo III” prowess, didn’t you?

Miranda July’s The First Bad Man and Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar dropped from our list this month. Other near misses included: Armada, The Tusk That Did the Damage, and Everything I Never Told You: A Novel. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Booker’s Dozen: The 2015 Booker Longlist

In the second year that the Booker Prize has been open to U.S. authors, five American authors make the longlist. Anne Enright is the lone former winner on the list, while Marilynne Robinson is the most celebrated American to be tapped. Other notable names include Hanya Yanagihara, Tom McCarthy, and Bill Clegg, who has been better known as a high-powered literary agent and memoirist. Laila Lalami, who now calls the U.S. her home, is the first Moroccan-born writer to land on a Booker longlist. Seven countries are represented overall.

All the Booker Prize longlisters are below (with bonus links where available):

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
The Green Road by Anne Enright (What It Is to Be Alone: The Millions Interviews Anne Enright)
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (The Book Report on A Brief History)
The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami (“How History Becomes Story – Three Novels” by Laila Lalami, Ship of Fools: On Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account)
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy (A Millions Top 10 book)
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (“The Audacity of Prose” by Chigozie Obioma, Clickworthy Headlines about The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma)
The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan
Lila by Marilynne Robinson (Marilynne Robinson’s Singular Vision)
Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota
The Chimes by Anna Smaill
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish)

The Millions Top Ten: June 2015


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
4.

Loitering: New and Collected Essays
6 months

2.
5.

The Buried Giant
4 months

3.
6.

The David Foster Wallace Reader
6 months

4.
7.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
3 months

5.
8.

The Girl on the Train
3 months

6.


Book of Numbers
1 month

7.
10.

Satin Island
2 months

8.
9.

The First Bad Man: A Novel
3 months

9.


The Familiar, Vol. 1
1 month

10.


The Paying Guests
1 month

Our Hall of Fame added three volumes this month — Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, Haruki Murakami’s The Strange Library, and Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation — and that opened the door for three new entrants. Before moving on to them, however, let’s give a shout out to Murakami, who’s now officially made it into the Hall of Fame for two separate books (1Q84 graduated in April ’12). It’s a praiseworthy feat, and one that’s only been accomplished by nine other authors: David Foster Wallace, Junot Díaz, Stieg Larsson, David Mitchell, Hilary Mantel, Jonathan Franzen, George Saunders, Dave Eggers, and Alice Munro. That’s some lofty company to keep.

Also noteworthy is the fact that, David Foster Wallace has the unique distinction of having two of his own books in our Hall of Fame in addition to a biography written about him. And if current trends hold true for another 31 days, then he’ll be adding an anthology put together in his honor to that group as well.

Of the three new entrants to our list, two of them — Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen and The Familiar, Vol. 1 by Mark Z. Danielewski — appeared in our Most Anticipated List earlier this year. Danielewski teased his ambitious 27-volume Familiar project in our 2012 interview. Meanwhile, the third new book on the list is Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guests. To quote Emily Gould in last year’s Year in Reading, “God, this book. This BOOK!”

Stay tuned next month as we open two more spots. Will they be books we featured in our new Book Preview? My guess is yes, but there’s only one way to find out.

Near Misses: My Struggle: Book 1Everything I Never Told You: A Novel, Redeployment, The Martian, and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. See Also: Last month’s list.

Tuesday New Release Day: McCarthy; Doten; LeCraw; Connors; Ackerman; Sumell; Albert; Tedrowe; O’Hagan; Filipacchi; van den Berg

New this week: Satin Island by Tom McCarthy; The Infernal by Mark Doten; The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw; All the Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found by Philip Connors; Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman; Making Nice by Matt Sumell; After Birth by Elisa Albert; Blue Stars by Emily Ray Tedrowe; The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan; The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty by Amanda Filipacchi; and Find Me by Laura van den Berg. For more on these and other new titles, go read our Great 2015 Book Preview.

Most Anticipated: The Great 2015 Book Preview

Last year offered many treats for readers: hotly anticipated new books by David Mitchell and Marilynne Robinson; the emergence of our own Emily St. John Mandel as a literary superstar; the breakout success of Anthony Doerr. 2015 offers more riches. This year we’ll get to crack open new books by Jonathan Lethem, Kelly Link, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kate Atkinson, Toni Morrison, Aleksandr Hemon, and Milan Kundera. Our own Garth Risk Hallberg will have his much anticipated debut on shelves later this year. Look beyond the hazy end of summer 2015 and Jonathan Franzen will be back with a new novel. All of these and many more are the books we’re looking forward to this year.

The list that follows isn’t exhaustive—no book preview could be—but, at 9,000 words strong and encompassing 91 titles, this is the only 2015 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.

January:

Amnesia by Peter Carey: Carey’s new novel uses a cyberattack as the lens through which to consider the often-fraught history of the relationship between the United States and Australia. A radical hacker releases a worm into a computer system that governs both Australian and American prisoners. The doors of five thousand prisons in the United States are opened, while in Australia, hundreds of asylum-seekers escape. An Australian journalist, determined to figure out the motivation behind the attack and trying to save his career, struggles to get the hacker to cooperate on a biography. (Emily)

Outline by Rachel Cusk: First serialized in The Paris Review, Cusk’s new work is described by its publisher (FSG) as “a novel in ten conversations”, but I prefer Leslie Jamison’s description: “a series of searing psychic X-rays bleached by coastal light.” The woman at the center of these conversations is a writing teacher who travels to Greece to teach a workshop. Her portrait is revealed by her various interlocutors, beginning with her neighbor on a plane en route to Athens. (Hannah)

 

The First Bad Man by Miranda July: Miranda July, artist, filmmaker and author of the story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, has written a debut novel about a woman named Cheryl who works at a women’s self-defense nonprofit, and, according to the jacket copy, is a “tightly-wound, vulnerable woman who lives alone with a perpetual lump in her throat.” Cheryl also believes she’s made love with her colleague “for many lifetimes, though they have yet to consummate in this one.” In her blurb, Lena Dunham writes that July’s novel “will make you laugh, cringe and recognize yourself in a woman you never planned to be.” While you prepare for the book’s release, check out The First Bad Man Store, where you can purchase real items that are mentioned in the novel. (Edan)

Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman: This new book is Bergman’s second short story collection, after her heartbreakingly humane debut, Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Her new collection takes inspiration from historical figures, women who attained a certain degree of celebrity but whose stories have never been fully imagined. We meet Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister, a conjoined twin, and a member of the first all-female integrated swing band. (Hannah)

 

Sweetland by Michael Crummey: The award-winning author of Galore returns to the land and the past of Newfoundland in his latest novel, which follows Moses Sweetland, the one man determined to stay on an island long after every one else has left, in defiance of both their warnings and their threats. As the Vancouver Sun puts it, Sweetland “demonstrates, as the best fiction does (and as Crummey’s novels always have) that the past is always with us, and that contemporary events are history embodied and in motion.” The novel also promises to be the best kind of ghost story, one in which memory and place are as haunting as the ghosts Sweetland believes he sees. (Kaulie)

Glow by Ned Beauman: Multiple prize nods for each of his first two novels have set high expectations for Ned Beauman’s next effort. If the plot, which slingshots through England, Burma and Iceland, is any indication, the new book will match the ambition of his previous work. The story kicks off at a rave in London, where Raf, a sufferer of a chronic sleep disorder, is trying out a new drug, the eponymous “glow.” The drug leads him on a quest to uncover a massive conspiracy involving a multinational named Lacebark. (Thom)

 

Honeydew by Edith Pearlman: Long a distinguished short-story writer, Pearlman emerged into the spotlight with her 2011 collection Binocular Vision. The new-found fame landed her a new publisher — Little, Brown — for her latest collection and a profile in the Times. It seems, in fact, that Pearlman is now assured the larger audience that eluded her for decades. (Max)

 

 

Binary Star by Sarah Gerard: An introduction to a recently published excerpt of Binary Star suggests Sarah Gerard has a reputation for tackling her subject matter with unusual ferocity. In her debut, she turns her attention to eating disorders, focusing on a would-be teacher who struggles with anorexia. When the story begins, the teacher weighs ninety-eight pounds, and she reflects on the parallels between her own compulsions and the hopeless alcoholism of her lover. Gerard heightens the intensity, meticulously listing what her characters eat and drink. (Thom)

Frog by Mo Yan: In the latest novel by the Chinese Nobel laureate to get an English translation, Mo Yan takes on the one-child policy, depicting the lives of several characters throughout the lifespan of Communist China. Gugu, a gynecologist who delivered hundreds of babies during Mao Zedong’s reign, finds herself performing illegal abortions after the policy takes effect in the late seventies. Yan also depicts the sexism of the policy — his characters work hard to have sons and not daughters. (Thom)

 

Watch Me Go by Mark Wisniewski: Wisniewski’s third novel channels the best of his profluent short fiction (Best American Short Stories, Virginia Quarterly Review). Watch Me Go speeds by with clipped chapters that follow Douglas “Deesh” Sharp, who helps haul the wrong junk: an oil drum that holds a corpse. Sharp does it for the money, and that bad decision haunts him until the final page of the novel. Wisniewski’s tale unfolds in the shadow of the Finger Lakes, New York racetracks, where, one character warns “in the long run, gamblers always lose.” Watch Me Go feels particularly apt to our national present, when police procedure is under constant scrutiny. Deesh is a victim of the system, and his redemption will only happen by fire. Wisniewski’s prose burns forward, but he knows when to slow the pace and make the reader feel Deesh’s injustice. (Nick R.)

Hall of Small Mammals: Stories by Thomas Pierce: Pierce’s stories are reminiscent of the work of Laura van den Berg: his fiction exists in a space that’s just slightly offset from reality, not quite surrealism but not quite realism either. A woman admits to her boyfriend that she’s married to another man, but only in her dreams; in dreams she and her husband live out an ordinary domestic life. A man who works for a sinister television show that clones extinct animals delivers a miniature woolly mammoth to his mother. Pierce’s stories are beautifully written and suffused with mystery. (Emily)

A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor: “Delhi is no place for a woman in the dark,” Kapoor writes, “unless she has a man and a car or a car and a gun.” Idha, the narrator of Kapoor’s debut novel, is young, middle-class, and bored. Her car allows a measure of freedom, but not enough, and when she meets a somewhat unsuitable older man, the temptation to capsize her life with an affair is irresistible. Both a coming-of-age story and a portrait of New Delhi. (Emily)

 

 

Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda: Buwalda’s first novel, translated from the Dutch, traces the dissolution of the outwardly solid Sigerius clan, updating the family saga by way of technical intricacy, narrative brio, and internet porn. In the Netherlands, the book was a bestseller, nominated for a dozen prizes. The English translation has drawn comparisons to Jonathan Franzen and the manic heyday of a young Philip Roth. (Garth)

February:

Lucky Alan: And Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem: Jonathan Lethem has made a career of capturing transition—whether it’s Brooklyn’s gentrification or his masterful blend of genre and literary fiction. He works with similar themes in his third short story collection, but this time, it’s people—not places—that are in limbo. From forgotten comic book characters stuck on a desert island to a father having his midlife crisis at SeaWorld, the nine stories in this collection explore everything from the quotidian to the absurd, all with Lethem’s signature humor, nuance, and pathos. (Tess)

Find Me by Laura van den Berg: In most post-apocalyptic fiction, the end of the world is devastating, but what if it were a chance for renewal and redemption? Laura van den Berg is the perfect writer to answer this question as she has proven herself a master of scrutinizing fresh starts in her short story collections, What The World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth. In her first novel, a lost young woman named Joy is immune to an Alzheimer’s-like plague sweeping the country. With society’s rules broken down, Joy travels across America in search of the mother who abandoned her, making new friends and a new world along the way. (Tess)

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy: McCarthy’s fourth novel introduces us to a “corporate anthropologist” struggling to wrest an overarching account of contemporary existence from a miasma of distraction and dream. Perhaps he’s a stand-in for your average internet user. Or novelist. At any rate, expect ideas and delight in equal measure (assuming there’s a distinction); McCarthy’s reputation as a “standard bearer of the avant-garde” underrates how thoroughly he’s mastered the novelistic conventions he’s concerned to interrogate – and how fun he is to read. (Garth)

Get in Trouble by Kelly Link: Link’s last story collection for adults, Magic for Beginners, was something like the Jesus’ Son of Magical Realism. Its publication nearly a decade ago won the author a passionate cult; since then, mostly through word-of-mouth, its excellence has become a matter of broader consensus. Get in Trouble, her fourth collection, offers a vivid reminder of why. Beneath the attention-getting levity of Link’s conceits – ghosts, superheroes, “evil twins” – lies a patient, Munrovian attunement to the complexities of human nature. (Garth)

The Strange Case of Rachel K by Rachel Kushner: Before she published her two richly accomplished novels, Telex From Cuba and The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner wrote three short works of fiction that are collected in The Strange Case of Rachel K. In “The Great Exception,” a queen pines for an explorer as he makes his way to “Kuba.” In “Debouchement,” a faith healer’s illegal radio broadcasts give hope to an oppressed island populace. And in the title story, a French-style zazou dancer in pre-revolutionary Cuba negotiates the murky Havana night. The stories read like warm-up sketches for Telex From Cuba, and they’ll be of interest to Kushner’s ardent fans and future scholars. Others will be left hungering for something new from this outlandishly gifted writer. (Bill)

Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London by Mohsin Hamid: Hamid’s latest is a collection of pieces that he wrote for various publications between 2000—the year his first novel, Moth Smoke, was published—and 2014. Hamid has lived in Pakistan, New York City, and London, and in works ranging from extended essays to brief op-eds, he brings personal insight and thoughtful analysis to issues ranging from the war on terror to the future of Pakistan to the costs and the promise of globalization. (Emily)

 

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is known for finding the fantastical in the everyday and the cracks in reality. So it should be no surprise that his third short story collection defies genre categorization, delving into fairy tales, horror, fantasy, poetry, and science fiction. Yet not all of it is unfamiliar: “Adventure Story” shares themes with his last novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and “Black Dog” brings him back to the American Gods world. (Tess)

 

Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano: Patrick Modiano, winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, will get a belated introduction to many American readers through Suspended Sentences.  Originally published between 1988 and 1993, these three atmospheric novellas share Modiano’s recurring theme: an attempt to understand the secret histories of the Nazi Occupation of his native Paris.  “Afterimage” is the shadow tale of a young writer cataloging the work of a haunted photographer.  The title piece is a child’s-eye view of the gang of circus performers and crooks who raise him.  In “Flowers of Ruin,” a double suicide triggers an investigation into gangsters and collaborators during the Occupation.  It’s a delectably broad sampling from a writer with a doggedly narrow scope.  American readers should rejoice. Update: The release date was moved up following the Nobel win and the book has already been published! (Bill)

The Infernal by Mark Doten: After ten years of near-silence, we’re now in the full roar of fiction about the Iraq War. The most notable efforts to date have taken a realist slant, but Mark Doten’s first novel marks a sharp swerve into Coover territory: its key figure channels the voices of Condoleezza Rice, Paul Bremer, and Osama bin Laden. Early readers have reached for adjectives like “deranged,” “crazy,” and “insane,” in addition to the more usual “thrilling” and “dazzling.” (Garth)

 

There’s Something I Want You to Do by Charles Baxter: We don’t often want authors to moralize, but Charles Baxter is a fictional minister we have been devout to throughout more than a dozen works of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Virtue and vice are inextricably related in his latest short stories. The collection features ten stories, five about virtue and five about vice, with the same characters participating in both and all motivated by the book’s titular request. What Baxter wants us to do is note human frailty, ambiguity, and its shameful depths. As fellow master of the form Lorrie Moore notes, “Baxter’s stories proceed with steady grace, nimble humor, quiet authority, and thrilling ingeniousness.” (Tess)

The Last Good Paradise by Tatjana Soli: The author of The Lotus Eaters (winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize) and The Forgetting Tree returns with a novel about a ragtag group of modern people attempting to escape their troubles on a remote Pacific island. Come for the scenery, the picaresque cast, and the comic reflections on the vagaries of contemporary life; stay for, as Kirkus puts it, Soli’s “idiosyncratic prose style.” (Lydia)

 

My Documents by Alejandro Zambra: “Camilo” was both the first thing I’d read by this young Chilean writer and one of the two or three best stories to run in The New Yorker last year. It appears alongside 10 other pieces in this collection, Zambra’s first book with McSweeney’s. (Garth)

 

 

I Am Radar by Reif Larsen: Reif Larsen’s follow-up to the bestselling The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet takes off from a premise halfway between Steve Martin and Judy Budnitz: “In 1975, a black child named Radar Radmanovic is mysteriously born to white parents.” But the ensuing 650 pages venture into realms of Pynchonian complexity and Irving-esque sweep. Erudite and voracious, skylarking and harrowing, they follow Radar around the world and into entanglements with some of the worst atrocities of the 20th Century. (Garth)

 

The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw: When Harvard graduate Charlie Garrett starts teaching at Abbott, an Episcopal boarding school in Massachusetts, the chair of the English department tells the young teacher that his students “all still believe in truth.” LeCraw’s gorgeous sentences dramatize a campus where literature stirs young hearts and minds. Charlie falls for a student, May Bankhead, daughter of the campus chaplain, and makes his feelings known when she returns home from college. Love turns to lust, and later to jealousy, when Charlie’s half brother, attractive Nick Garrett, arrives at Abbott to teach. Nick catches May, who has returned to teach at the school. “I need to be here,” she tells Charlie. LeCraw never eases the emotional tension. The novel begins with an epigraph from gifted teacher-writer Andre Dubus, who says he “learned to walk into a classroom wondering what I would say” rather than planning. The Half Brother captures his spirit, and the result is one of the finest school-set novels in recent memory. (Nick R.)

The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman: Newman’s third novel is set in a world of children. Eighty years ago, a deadly pandemic swept across North America, and now every child is born with the disease; they begin showing symptoms around the age of eighteen or nineteen, and die soon after. When fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star’s beloved older brother falls ill, she sets out after rumors of a cure. It’s a compelling story, but the most fascinating thing about Newman’s book is the language: the novel is written in the kind of beautifully warped English that one might expect to develop over eighty years without adults, and the prose often approaches a kind of wild poetry: “We flee like a dragonfly over water, we fight like ten guns, and we be bell to see.” (Emily)

All the Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found by Philip Connors: After the suicide of his brother Connors finds himself in, as the title of his second memoir promises, many incongruous and wrong places, ranging from a hot-air balloon floating over New Mexico to a desk at the Wall Street Journal. A kind of prelude to his debut memoir, Fire Season, All The Wrong Places helps to explain why spending a decade in mountain solitude was so attractive to Connors. It’s also a look at the wandering years that often follow early loss, and has already drawn comparisons toCheryl Strayed’s seemingly infinitely-popular Wild. (Kaulie)

Bon Appétempt: A Coming of Age Story (With Recipes!) by Amelia Morris : As anyone who has ever creamed butter and sugar together in a mixing bowl knows, the precision of baking can also bring order to your life. With a few failed careers and a dysfunctional family, Amelia Morris needed to learn this lesson, too. From her blog of the same name to this memoir, she chronicles her transformation into an adult and cook, complete with a good dose of humor and recipes. (Tess)

March:

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro: It’s been ten years since Never Let Me Go, so for Ishiguro fans, his new novel has been long-anticipated. His British publisher, Faber & Faber, offered up a somewhat oblique teaser early last year: it’s a book about “lost memories, love, revenge and war”; the website, which is currently just a (kind of intense) book trailer, doesn’t help much either—but then, if Never Let Me Go is any indicator, perhaps we’d all be better off without a lot of spoilery summaries in advance. (Tess)

Ember Days by Nick Ripatrazone: Nick’s lovely meditations on teaching, writing, reading, and faith have come fast and furious on The Millions since he joined the site as a staff writer at the tail end of 2013. Nick is prolific–he’s the author of two novellas, two poetry collections, a book of criticism, and a short story collection, which he somehow managed to write while teaching public school in New Jersey and parenting twins. His newest collection of short stories will be published by Braddock Avenue Books; you can read the eponymous story, a haunting number about atomic power and retribution, the title of which is taken from the Christian liturgical calendar, at Story South. (Lydia)

The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James: Tania James’s debut novel Atlas of Unknowns and follow-up story collection Aerogrammes were both published to critical acclaim. This second novel may be her true coming out. Says Karen Russell: “The Tusk that Did the Damage is spectacular, a pinwheeling multi-perspectival novel with a cast that includes my favorite character of recent memory, ‘the Gravedigger,’ an orphaned homicidal elephant.” The elephant is not only a primary character, but one of three narrators, who also include a poacher and a young American filmmaker. Ivory trading, poaching, an escaped elephant, a risky love affair, all set in rural South India and “blend[ing] the mythical and the political”—this novel seems to have it all. (Sonya)

Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes and I Refuse by Per Petterson: Since Out Stealing Horses brought him international acclaim in 2007, many more of Norwegian novelist Per Petterson’s books have been translated into English, although not quite in the order he wrote them. Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, a collection of linked stories, was his first, published in Norway in 1987, and introduces young Arvid Jansen — a character he revisits in In the Wake and I Curse the River of Time — growing up in the outskirts of Oslo in the early 60s. I Refuse, meanwhile, is Petterson’s latest novel, published in Norway in 2012. It tells the story of Jim and Tommy, whose friendship was forged in their youth when Tommy stood up to his abusive father and needed Jim’s support. When they meet by chance 35 years later, they recall those painful events, as well as a night on a frozen lake that separated them until now. (Janet)

B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J.C. Hallman: Nicholson Baker’s characteristically idiosyncratic biography of John Updike, U and I, has become a literary classic. Now J.C. Hallman, himself a gifted practitioner of eclectic non-fiction with books on topics ranging from chess to Utopia, turns the lens on Baker. Publisher Simon & Schuster calls it “literary self-archaeology” and offers up comparisons to Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage and Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, two books that have helped carve out a new genre of memoir that arrives refracted through the lens of the writers’ literary obsessions. (Max)

The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya: Castellanos Moya’s short novels are hallucinatory, mordant, and addictive – like Bernhard transplanted to warmer climes. And his translator, Katherine Silver, is admirably attuned to the twists and turns of his sentences. We’ve offered enthusiastic readings of Senselessness and The She-Devil in the Mirror. Here Castellanos Moya flirts again with autobiographical material, tracing the crack-up of “an exiled journalist in Mexico City [who] dreams of returning home to El Salvador.” (Garth)

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson: There’s a robust online conversation right now about public shaming: when someone says or does something offensive on the internet, does the collective outcry — a digital torch-wielding mob — go too far? Ronson’s previous books include The Psychopath Test and The Men Who Stare at Goats, and he’s a frequent contributor to This American Life and BBC Radio 4. In his newest book, billed as “a modern-day Scarlet Letter,” he examines the culture that’s grown up around public shaming, talking with people like Jonah Lehrer, who shook the publishing world with several rounds of plagiarism revelations, and Justine Sacco, who tweeted an offensive “joke” before boarding a transatlantic flight — and had what felt like the entire internet demanding that she be fired before her plane touched down. (Elizabeth)

Young Skins by Colin Barrett: Ireland right now is ridiculously fertile ground for writers, though I guess that’s been said so often in the last century as to border on cliché. Still: Anne Enright, Paul Murray, Eimear McBride, Kevin Barry, Keith Ridgway…and 32-year-old Colin Barrett is, as they say, the coming man. This collection, winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Guardian First Book Award, wastes no motion in its unsparing look at youth and masculinity in the small towns of the west. (Garth)

 

Decoy by Allan Gurganus: In 2013, 12 years after the appearance of his last full-length book, Allan Gurganus published Local Souls, a collection of three novellas. One of these, Decoy, which Dwight Garner called “the keeper” of the bunch, is indeed being kept, appearing as a separate publication this spring. Set in the fictional North Carolina town that has housed much of Gurganus’s previous work–including his beloved debut Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All–Decoy deals in small-town social relations and obscure homoerotic longings. Gurganus, known as a writer’s writer (he taught Donald Antrim’s first writing class), is reportedly at work on another massive full-length novel, “The Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church.” (Lydia)

Crow Fair by Thomas McGuane: A new release by gifted prose stylist McGuane should be cause for celebration by sentence lovers. McGuane long ago moved from the sardonic prose of his earlier novels (The Sporting Club) to lyric representations of the American West (The Cadence of Grass). In his own words: “As you get older, you should get impatient with showing off in literature. It is easier to settle for blazing light than to find a language for the real. Whether you are a writer or a bird-dog trainer, life should winnow the superfluous language. The real thing should become plain. You should go straight to what you know best.” The seventeen stories of Crow Fair model that sentiment. Start with the patient words of “A Prairie Girl,” but stay for the rest. (Nick R.)

The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi: British man of letters Hanif Kureishi, OBE, has been, variously, a novelist, playwright, filmmaker, writer of pornography, victim of financial fraud, and sometimes reluctant professor of creative writing. His newest novel takes on another man of letters, Mamoon Azam, a fictional lout rumored to be based on the non-fictional lout V.S. Naipaul. Echoing Patrick French’s biography of Naipaul, Kureishi (who has assiduously avoided drawing comparisons between his novel and Naipaul) describes an imperious and irascible master of post-colonial fiction and his hapless biographer. (Lydia)

The Unloved and Beautiful Mutants and Swallowing Geography: Two Early Novels by Deborah Levy: For those who loved the oneiric Swimming Home, 2015 will be a great year as three Deborah Levy books—one new novel and two earlier works—are due to come out. Her latest, The Unloved, starts out as a sexually charged, locked door mystery set in a French chateau, then expands into a far-ranging tale about sadism and historical atrocities. Beautiful Mutants, her strange first novel about a Russian exile who is either a gifted seer or a talented fake, and Swallowing Geography, a European road novel with nods to Kerouac, are being reissued in June. (Matt)

Aquarium by David Vann: Vann, whose work we have examined previously at The Millions, returns with a new novel in March. Library Journal offers high praise: “Since electrifying the literary world five years ago with his debut novel, Legend of a Suicide, Vann has racked up an astonishing number of international awards. This lovely, wrenching novel should add to that list.” (Thom)

 

 

The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle: When precisely, one wonders, does T.C. Boyle sleep? In the 35 years since his first book came out, Boyle has published 14 novels and more than 100 stories. The Harder They Come is the usual T.C. Boyle clown car of violent misfits, anti-authoritarian loons, and passionate losers set loose in a circus of serious-minded zaniness. After being declared a hero for stopping a hijacking, an ex-Marine returns home to Northern California to find that his mentally disturbed son has taken up with a hardcore member of a right-wing sect that refuses to recognize the authority of the state. (Michael)

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum: Well, the title speaks for itself.  “Controversial and provocative,” no doubt.  This is the book I wanted to edit myself, so now I’m looking forward to reading it.  Sixteen authors offer their reflections on this topic, including Lionel Shriver, Sigrid Nunez, Kate Christensen, Elliott Holt, Geoff Dyer, and Tim Kreider.  Daum published her own story of not being a parent—but rather a mentor of teenagers—at The New Yorker back in September.  The anthology’s title is likely both tongue-in-cheek and uncomfortably accurate; its cleverness, to my mind, is in the fact that the subtitle might easily omit the “not.” (Sonya)

The Animals by Christian Kiefer: Christian Kiefer leaves behind the suburban cul-de-sacs of his first novel, The Infinite Tides, and takes us to rural Idaho for his follow-up, The Animals.  Bill Reed is trying to move beyond his criminal past by managing a wildlife sanctuary for injured animals – raptors, a wolf, a bear.  He plans to marry the local veterinarian and live a quiet life – until a childhood friend is released from prison and comes calling.  Aimed at fans of Denis Johnson and Peter Matthiessen, this literary thriller is a story of friendship, grief, and the desire to live a blameless life. (Bill)

Delicious Foods by James Hannaham: I learned of James Hannaham’s sophomore novel back in 2013, at which point I mentioned to him how excited I was—about the title in particular: “You wrote a book called DELICIOUS FOODS?!”   “The title is slightly misleading,” he replied.  His publisher gives us this: “[A]n incisive look at race relations in America and an unflinching portrait of the pathos and absurdity of addiction.”  Delicious or not, the story of Eddie and his mother Darlene promises to be both “blistering” and “inventive”—not to mention timely. (Sonya)

The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter: In Hunter’s eerily compelling new novel, an archivist at a small London museum embarks on a final project before the museum’s impending closure: she is searching for information related to a woman who disappeared over a century ago from a Victorian asylum. The project holds some personal interest: when the archivist was fifteen years old, a little girl whom she was babysitting vanished in the woods near the asylum, and the archivist has begun to suspect that the two events were connected. (Emily)

 

The Sellout by Paul Beatty: Back in the ‘90s, The White-Boy Shuffle, Beatty’s first novel (after several poetry collections) was one of the bibles of my adolescence – furiously funny and ineffably sad. Two subsequent novels confirmed him as a scorching satirist in the vein of his contemporaries Sam Lipsyte and Gary Shteyngart. His latest outing features, in a supporting role, “the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins” – but its deeper concerns couldn’t be more timely: the precipitating incident is the death of the hero’s father in a police shootout, and the ultimate destination is the Supreme Court. (Garth)

The Last Flight of Poxl West by Daniel Torday: Torday’s novella, The Sensualist, won the 2012 Jewish Book Award for debut fiction. In his first novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, the titular character is a war hero and something of an idol to his teenage nephew, Eli Goldstein. Kirkus gave the novel a starred review, remarking, “While Torday is more likely to be compared to Philip Roth or Michael Chabon than Gillian Flynn, his debut novel has two big things in common with Gone Girl–it’s a story told in two voices, and it’s almost impossible to discuss without revealing spoilers. A richly layered, beautifully told and somehow lovable story about war, revenge and loss.” Rivka Galchen calls it both “brilliant” and “hilarious” and George Saunders says, “Torday is a prodigiously talented writer, with a huge heart.” I myself had the great pleasure of reading an advanced copy and I loved it. The final scene…what an ending! I still think about it. (Edan)

Her 37th Year: An Index by Suzanne Scanlon: Delivered in a series of pithy and emphatic observations, thoughts, and quotations, Suzanne Scanlon’s Her 37th Year: An Index examines love and desire and disappointment and writers and influence and ideas and passion and affairs and depression and writing and friendship and mothering and being a woman and aging. The potential excess of all this is balanced by its lean form, with each entry a vignette, quote, or observation. As a “fictional memoir”, Her 37th Year re-imagines form and redefines boundaries in a way similar to how Jenny Offil’s Dept. of Speculation revitalized the novel: the sum of its parts is flooring. (Anne)

April:

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison: Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature more than two decades ago; her newest novel will be her sixth in that span of time, following 2012’s Home. A new Morrison novel, according to Slate, is “news that amounts to at least an 8 on the literary Richter scale.” It is, according to Knopf, “about the way childhood trauma shapes and misshapes the life of the adult,” and though it’s just 192 pages long, it promises to be more powerful than many books twice its length. (Elizabeth)

 

My Struggle: Book 4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard: There’s still time to jump on the Knausgaard bandwagon! English-speaking fans of Books 1-3 have been waiting almost a year for this translation, the fourth in a six-volume autobiographical novel by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard — or just plain “Karl Ove” to those of us who have been following his confessional outpourings. Dwight Garner likened reading Knausgaard to “falling into a malarial fever”, and James Wood remarked that “even when I was bored, I was interested.” Book 4 covers Knausgaard’s late adolesence as he struggles to support his writing by teaching, falls in love with a 13-year-old student, and boozily greets the long arctic nights. (Hannah)

Early Warning by Jane Smiley: This is the second installment in Smiley’s Last Hundred Years Trilogy, which follows a single Iowa farming family and its descendants through the American Century, from 1920 to 2020. The first book, Some Luck, which Smiley discussed in a wide-ranging Millions interview last fall, covers the Depression years and World War II. The new book starts in the depths of the Cold War and takes readers through Vietnam and into the Reagan era. The final volume, as yet untitled, is due out this fall. (Michael)

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson: Kate Atkinson’s 2013 novel Life After Life followed Ursula Todd as she lived and re-lived her life in mid-century Britain. In this companion to the novel, we get the story of Ursula’s beloved younger brother Teddy, an aspiring poet and celebrated RAF pilot, who leaves a war he didn’t expect to survive to become a husband, father, and grandfather in an ever-changing world. (Janet)

Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser: A friend of mine keeps Steven Millhauser’s collection We Others by her bedside; she speaks of it, and Millhauser, like it’s 1963 and he’s a dark-eyed mop-top. Indeed, Millhauser inspires cult following: his stories do the impossible, getting way under your skin via immaculately simple prose and deceptively placid storylines. Voices in the Night collects 16 stories — “culled from religion and fables. . . Heightened by magic, the divine, and the uncanny, shot through with sly humor” – that promise to once again unsettle us with their strangeness and stun us with their beauty. (Sonya)

Gutshot by Amelia Gray: Gray’s stories come at you like fists wrapped in sirloin to pack a punch—they’re wonderfully idiosyncratic, visceral, and grotesque, with humor added for heft. Stories in her collection Museum of the Weird feature high-end cannibalism (eating monk’s tongues), a serial killer nicknamed “God” who cuts chests open and removes a rib, and a plate of hair served with soup. With the arrival of her next collection, Gutshot, Gray’s stories threaten to knock you out. (Anne)

 

Academy Street by Mary Costello: Bravo to Mary Costello, a “Bloomer” whose first story collection The China Factory I wrote about here back in 2012.  Her debut novel Academy Street—the story of Tess Lohan, who emigrates from 1940s western Ireland to New York City—is drawing comparisons to Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn and John Williams’s Stoner.  Academy Street has already been published in Europe and received the Eason Novel of the Year Irish Book Award. (Sonya)

 

The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy: Percy rides the increasingly porous border between literary and genre fiction in this post-apocalyptic thriller that re-imagines the Lewis and Clark expedition in an America brought low by a super flu and nuclear fallout. When word comes to Sanctuary – the remains of St. Louis – that life is better out West, Lewis Meriwether and Mina Clark set out in secrecy, hoping to expand their infant nation and reunite the States. Should be a snap, right? (Michael)

 

The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer: The author of The Dive from Clausen’s Pier again displays her gift for delving into complicated families and the women who aren’t sure they want to be part of them. Narrated in turns by each of the four Blair children, The Children’s Crusade follows the twists and turns of the family’s fortunes from the day in 1954 when their father, Bill, impulsively buys a plot of wooded land south of San Francisco, through to the modern day. “Imagine, if you will, that Jonathan Franzen’s excellent novel, The Corrections, had likeable characters,” says one early reader on GoodReads. (Michael)

May:

The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandr Hemon: His first full-length novel in seven years (since 2008’s The Lazarus Project), The Making of Zombie Wars is the story of Josh Levin, an ESL teacher in Chicago with a laptop full of hundreds of screenplay ideas, Zombie Wars chief among them. As Josh’s life goes from bad to worse to absurd — moving in with his girlfriend only to become entangled in the domestic disputes of her neighbors — he continues to work on the zombie movie that might get him away from it all. (Janet)

 

Mislaid by Nell Zink: Zink’s first novel The Wallcreeper, published by the Dorothy Project, a feminist small press, made a big splash last year. Its backstory provided the hook: a fifty-year-old expat writes a novel on a dare from her pen pal Jonathan Franzen. But Zink’s sui generis sensibility was the main event: taut, acerbic, and free. She moves to a major press for her second book, a decade-hopping Southern family novel that tackles race, sexuality, and the wilderness of youth. (Garth)

The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski: On the jacket of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks is a blurb from Publishers Weekly: Is this “the most ambitious novel ever written or just the most Mitchell-esque?” One might ask the same question, mutatis mutandis, about Mark Danielewski’s The Familiar. Danielewski combines Mitchell’s fondness for formal innovation and genre tropes with an appealing indifference to questions of taste. At its best, this gives you House of Leaves, at its worst, Only Revolutions. One Rainy Day in May introduces us to “nine lives,” principally that of a 12-year-old girl who rescues “a creature as fragile as it is dangerous” – some kind of totemic/architectonic cat? Anyway, Volume 1 is 880 pages long. Word is, 26 more volumes are on the way, so this one had better be good. (Garth)

The Green Road by Anne Enright: Spanning three decades and three continents, this new book by Anne Enright centers on Rosaleen, the head of the Madigan family. Beginning in County Clare, the book follows the four Madigan children — Dan, Hanna, Emmet and Constance — as they set off on their own lives, travelling as far away as Mali to explore their adult selves. On Christmas Day, they all come home, and the issues of their family come back to them. In many ways, it’s a premise similar to that of Enright’s Booker-winning The Gathering. (Thom)

A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me by David Gates: In a year rich with surrealist romps and boundary-blurring semi-memoirs, David Gates returns with a welcome injection of “the present palpable intimate” in the form of eleven stories and a novella. Gates is a natural and capacious realist, at once ironic and warm, in a way that makes the ordinary ambit of experience, from marriage to parenthood to getting old, seem as trippy as it really is. (Garth)

 

Loving Day by Mat Johnson: Johnson’s Pym, an entertaining riff on race and Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, took us all the way to Antarctica. Loving Day (the title refers to a holiday celebrating interracial love) is set in a less remote locale, a black neighborhood in Philadelphia, but promises to be no less hallucinatory than its predecessor. A mixed race man returns from Wales, where both his marriage and his comic shop have failed, to inhabit a ghost-haunted mansion left to him by his father. He soon discovers the existence of a daughter, and the pair is drawn into a “utopian mixed-raced cult.” (Matt)

The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard: While Jim Shepard was a student at Brown, John Hawkes told him “You know, you’re not really a novelist, you’re really a short story writer.” Thankfully, good writers can be terribly wrong. Shepard’s long fiction is as fantastic as his classic stories. Shepard has always been a writer who exists outside of himself on the page, and this Holocaust-set novel is no different. The story focuses on Aron, a boy from the Warsaw Ghetto, who joins other children in smuggling goods to those “quarantined.” The novel also illuminates the life of Janusz Korczak, the real-life protector of Jewish children in ghetto orphanages (he once said “You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children at a time like this.”). Serious material requires sensitive hands, and Shepard’s care creates beauty. (Nick R.)

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf: Kent Haruf, who died last year at 71, will be best remembered for his 1999 novel Plainsong, a finalist for the National Book Award. It was set in the fictional eastern Colorado town of Holt, which Haruf (rhymes with sheriff) returns to yet again for his last novel, Our Souls at Night, finished shortly before his death. It’s the story of a widower named Louis Waters and a widow named Addie Moore who come together in Holt and begin sharing the aspirations, disappointments and compromises of their long lives. One critic likened Haruf’s prose to Pottery Barn furniture – with its “rustic lines,” “enduring style” and “aged patina.” His legion of fans wouldn’t have it any other way, and Our Souls at Night will not disappoint them. (Bill)

City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis edited by Keith Gessen and Stephen Squibb: Drawn from an n+1 series of the same name, City by City offers an insider’s glance into the state of America’s urban spaces. The mix of personal and historical essays explore issues such as crime, gentrification, and culture in cities as varied and far-reaching as Miami, Florida and Gold Rush, Alaska. Described as “a cross between Hunter S. Thompson, Studs Terkel, and the Great Depression–era WPA guides to each state in the Union,” City by City provides a collective portrait of the American city during the Great Recession. (Anne)

The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato: Disabato, who has written for The Millions, debuts with a high-concept mystery that looks to be a lot of fun. Pop stars aren’t known for avoiding the limelight, which is why the disappearance of a Lady Gaga-like singer inspires two women to track her down. Racing around Chicago in search of clues, they find themselves decoding arcane documents and ancient maps rather than liner notes as the disappearance turns out to involve a secret society. (Matt)

 

Odd Woman in the City by Vivian Gornick: For a sneak preview of Gornick’s witty and unsparing observations of city life, please read Gornick’s “Letter from Greenwich Village” in The Paris Review  (it’s also collected in The Best American Essays 2014). A master memoirist, Gornick’s latest is an ode to New York City’s street life, old friends, and the fascinating joy of “living out conflicts, rather than fantasies.” (Hannah)

 

The Edge Becomes The Center by DW Gibson: Following up his critically-acclaimed oral history of the recession, Not Working (the title is a play on Studs Terkel’s classic oral history, Working), Gibson’s latest oral history portrays gentrifying New York City from all sides. Gibson interviews brokers, buyers, sellers, renters, landlords, artists, contractors, politicians and everyone in between to show how urban change feels to those living through it. (Hannah)

June:

Black Glass: Short Fictions by Karen Joy Fowler: Fowler’s 2014 novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, won the PEN/Faulkner award and landed her on the Booker shortlist, one of two American finalists for the now American-friendly prize. This year will see her 1998 short story collection, Black Glass, re-released in hardcover. The stories — with influences and references from Carry Nation to Gulliver’s Travels to Albert Einstein to Tonto and the Lone Ranger — have been described as “occasionally puzzling but never dull,” and “ferociously imaginative and provocative.” (Elizabeth)

Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg: Saint Mazie is Attenberg’s much anticipated follow-up to her bestselling novel The Middlesteins, which was also a finalist for the LA Times book prize. Inspired by the life of a woman profiled in Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel, Saint Mazie follows Mazie Phillips, “the truth-telling proprietress of The Venice, the famed New York City movie theater,” through the Jazz Age and the Depression; her diaries, decades later, inspire a contemporary documentarian to find out who this intriguing woman really was. Therese Ann Fowler, author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, calls the book “both a love song and a gut punch at once,” and Maggie Shipstead says it’s a “raw, boisterous, generous novel.” (Edan)

The Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen: Cohen, 34, is as prolific as he is ambitious. Five years after his mega-novel, Witz (and three years after a lauded story collection), he returns with a long book about a novelist ghost-writing the autobiography of one of Silicon Valley’s new Masters of the Universe. The set-up should give Cohen’s caustic sensibility a target-rich environment, while the scope leaves his fierce intelligence ample room to play. (Garth)

The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera: Fifteen years after the publication of his last novel, Kundera returns with a (very brief) story of four friends in Paris who talk self-importantly about “sex, history, art, politics, and the meaning of life” while simultaneously celebrating their own insignificance (Library Journal). While these themes may be familiar to fans of Kundera’s past work (of which there are many – The Unbearable Lightness of Being has been enduringly popular since its publication in the mid-1980s) it will be exciting to see fresh writing from a modern master. (Kaulie)

Muse by Jonathan Galassi: Over his long literary career, Galassi has done everything except write a novel. Now the FSG publisher, Italian translator, critic and poet has checked that off his list with a story that satirizes the industry he knows so well and sounds like an updating of Henry James’ The Aspern Papers. In the novel, a publisher tries to wrestle a famous female poet away from a rival, eventually securing a meeting in her Venetian palazzo and learning a revelatory secret. (Matt)

 

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida: Believer founding editor Vendela Vida’s trilogy of novels about “women in crisis” becomes a tetralogy with the debut of her latest, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty. As in her previous novels, the story involves a woman traveling abroad (in this case, Casablanca, Morocco). When the woman is robbed of her wallet and passport, she experiences distress and also unexpected freedom. The novel dips into All About Eve territory in this part-thriller, part-novel-of-ideas when the woman finds work as a celebrity stand-in and then begins to assume this alternate identity as her own. (Anne)

In the Country: Stories by Mia Alvar: Alvar is a frequent contributor to literary magazines—she’s been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize—but this is her first short story collection. In the Country focuses on the Filipino diaspora, from Bahrain to Manila to New York. Alvar considers themes of alienation, displacement, the sometimes-troubling bonds of family, and the struggle to find a sense of home. (Emily)

July:

The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann: The one living novelist who makes Joyce Carol Oates look like a slacker returns with the fifth volume of his “Seven Dreams” series, about the confrontations between native people and settlers in North America. This installment swings west to investigate the Nez Perce War of the late 19th Century, and is rumored to lean on dialogue to an unusual degree. The first of the Seven Dreams was published in 1990; at this rate, the series should conclude some time in 2027. (Garth)

 

A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball: Jesse Ball’s novels are playful and clever and often quite grim, although this is not a contradiction. As he said in an interview: “a life of grief can be joyful too.” In his fifth novel, A Cure for Suicide, this again seems to be evident. A man and woman move in together: she is his guide and doctor who teaches him about life, defining for him the nature of objects and interaction and ways of being. That is, until another woman arrives and upends all he’s learned, making him question. (Anne)

 

Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto : Couto, a Mozambican who writes in Portuguese, has for years been considered one of Africa’s leading writers, fusing indigenous settings and traditions with influences from abroad. His first novel, Sleepwalking Land, was named one of the best African books of the 20th Century; his most recent, Tuner of Silences, was published by the terrific independent press Biblioasis, and was longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin award. In Confessions of the Lioness, a series of lion attacks in a remote village forces an eruption between men and women, modernity and tradition. It’s Couto’s first book to be published by FSG. (Garth)

Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai: Fans of 2014’s The Hundred Year House don’t have to wait too long for more of Makkai’s clever and wonderfully imaginative work. Her third book and her first story collection, Music for Wartime offers a diverse array of stories, four of which are inspired by Makkai’s family history and her paternal grandparents’ involvement in 1930s Hungarian politics. (For more on this, check out this Harper’s Magazine interview with Makkai). Overall, the collection showcases the author’s talent for the short form–which has gotten her anthologized four (!) times in the Best American Short Stories series. (Edan)

August:

Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh: Following Sea of Poppies (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and River of Smoke, Calcutta-born Amitav Ghosh brings his Ibis Trilogy to a rousing conclusion with Flood of Fire. It’s 1839, and after China embargoes the lucrative trade of opium grown on British plantations in India, the colonial government sends an expeditionary force from Bengal to Hong Kong to reinstate it. As the force arrives, war breaks out, and with it a blaze of naval engagements, embezzlement, profiteering and espionage. In bringing the first Opium War to crackling life, Ghosh has illuminated the folly of our own failed war on drugs. Historical fiction doesn’t get any timelier than this. (Bill)

The State We’re In: Maine Stories by Ann Beattie: A new collection of linked stories set in Maine from one of the short story masters. Call her the American Alice Munro, call her a New Yorker darling, call this the perfect summer read. (Hannah)

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman: In her 30 works of fiction, Alice Hoffman always finds the magical in the ordinary. Her narratives have roamed from ancient Israel (The Dovekeepers) to 20th-century New York City (The Museum of Extraordinary Things). Hoffman’s new novel, The Marriage of Opposites, transports us to the tropical island of St. Thomas in the early 1800s, where a girl named Rachel is growing up in the community of Jews who escaped the Inquisition. When her arranged marriage ends with her husband’s death, she begins an affair with her late husband’s dashing nephew. There is nothing ordinary about their son: his name is Camille Pissarro, and he will grow up to become an immortal father of Impressionism. (Bill)

September:

Purity by Jonathan Franzen: There are few American authors who can hit all the popular news outlets simply by releasing the title of their next novel (Purity), or launch a thousand hot takes with the publication of one grumpy book excerpt in The Guardian (an excerpt which, curiously, is no longer available at its previous URL as of this writing). Franzen haters were derisive at the news of his impending novel (Gawker’s headline was “Jonathan Franzen to Excrete Book Called Purity”), described by its publisher as “a multigenerational American epic that spans decades and continents,” with bonus “fabulist quality.” But some people believe, privately, that Franzen is such a good novelist that his detractors must just be jealous. And for those people, the new book can’t come quickly enough. (O Franzen! My Franzen!) (Lydia)

October:

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg: We at The Millions look forward to reading fellow staff writer Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel. At over 900 pages, the novel takes place in 1977 New York and culminates in the city’s famed black-out. The Guardian reports, “The polished third-person narration conjures up a cast of characters living in a New York City divided by race and money – the reluctant heirs to a great fortune, two Long Island kids exploring downtown’s nascent punk scene, a gay schoolteacher from rural Georgia, an obsessive magazine reporter, a revolutionary cell planning to set the Bronx ablaze, a trader with a hole on his balance sheet and a detective who is trying to piece together the mystery which connects them all to a shooting in Central Park.” In anticipation of the book’s release, I suggest you dip into Garth’s essays here at The Millions, perhaps starting with his 2010 piece on long novels, “Is Big Back?” (Edan)

More from The Millions:

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, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

Surprise Me!

BROWSE BY AUTHOR