A Year in Reading 2018: Outro

Year in Reading is done. (“That’s all there is, there isn’t anymore,” to paraphrase the famous fictional nun referenced in Emily St. John Mandel’s entry earlier today.) This concludes what I believe is our 14th year of running this series at the site. There were 74 participants, dozens if not hundreds of books recommended, and expressions of melancholy and joy and generosity and rage and befuddlement and petty grievance and pleasure and everything else that makes up a year in books and in life. Thank you for sharing it with us.

-Lydia Kiesling

A Year in Reading: Kirstin Butler

In 2018 I had recurring fantasies of deleting my Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and Slack accounts. (Not Tumblr, because their new content policy basically did the job for me.) This wouldn’t be a personal conflict of interest except that I’m the social media editor of the site you’re currently reading, and completely disavowing the most basic terms of my own employment would be, as internet parlance so disdainfully puts it, Not A Good Look. So instead I sublimated my professional death drive in reading. Even without intending to, I found myself gravitating toward books about people who dared to leave it all behind.

My Absolute Darling came out in 2017 but I didn’t get to it until this year. It’s sere and visceral and made me want to move to the Pacific Northwest, so beautiful were its descriptions of the natural world out there. The novel is a cautionary tale about retreating from contemporary society, but it also shows what we lose by living within our current, constantly Linked-In bonds. In March I picked up We Begin Our Ascent by Joe Mungo Reed, which is the best book I’ve ever read about the Tour de France. That’s not actually saying much, so let me instead say that every one of its words felt so carefully chosen and necessary, and I really couldn’t put it down once I started. Its protagonist has to decide whether to compromise his spirit or walk away from a lifelong dream, and the fallout of his choice hit me with the force of a peloton. 


I knew things had gotten bad when it felt like actual apocalypse would be an acceptable tradeoff for all social networks finally collapsing. That’s the premise of Nick Clark Windo’s novel The Feed, which I enjoyed despite a plot twist halfway through that might throw some readers off. I couldn’t finish The Middleman, which came out in August, because the idea that 400 Americans would suddenly abandon their lives to join a leftist splinter movement read like one of Alex Jones’s Antifa fantasies. It went back to the library.

I read two great books whose main characters make dropping out feel futile and noble at the same time. Apex Hides the Hurt is an old favorite, and it was fun to revisit pre-Pulitzer Colson Whitehead in all his spiky, anti-social glory. Lydia Kiesling’s novel The Golden State is vital and true and stylish, and its forward momentum hypnotized me. If you haven’t yet just GO OUT AND BUY THE BOOK ALREADY. (Truly this recommendation comes without bias, although I should also tell you that her stewardship of The Millions has kept my own faith in the project of literature alive at times when it too seemed maybe worth deserting.) Both novels capture the extent to which we have become what one of Kiesling’s characters blithely calls Casualties of Capital!, and yet also how complicit in its logic. 

I loved How to Stop Time by Matt Haig, whose narrator is more than 400 years old, so his observations put today’s mediated noise into half a millennium’s perspective. As to whether it’s always been thus or we’re living in a truly different era, noise-wise, the book doesn’t conclusively say. Instead it does what the best novels always have, posing questions. In fact, Haig wrote my favorite passage in any book this year, and it’s almost completely interrogative: 

Just as it only takes a moment to die, it only takes a moment to live. You just close your eyes and let every futile fear slip away. And then, in this new state, free from fear, you ask yourself: who am I? If I could live without doubt what would I do? … If I could not fear the passing of time and the people it will steal? Yes. What would I do? Who would I care for? What battle would I fight? Which paths would I step down? What joys would I allow myself? What internal mysteries would I solve? How, in short, would I live?


The most literal interpretation of my internet escape fantasies is a book I’m still reading. I picked up Jaron Lanier’s latest manifesto, the directly titled Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, after reading Hannah Gersen’s interview the author here, and am still making my way through a pretty damning indictment of what it calls BUMMERS, or “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into Empires for Rent.” It’s confirming my suspicions that most of the services we use as internet infrastructure are garbage; we’ll see if I actually have the courage to hit Delete when I get to the end.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss:A Year in Reading 2017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

A Year in Reading: Nick Ripatrazone

I carried Katie Ford’s If You Have to Go with me for much of this year—the book lingers, and is as fine a work of longing as I have ever read. Ford is a poet of unique and deep emotion, and she is also a student of theology, and that union fills a need that I share with many readers. A space for wonder and doubt.
In my interview with Ford for The Millions, she felt that “readers are tired of ironic renderings of faith and doubt. I think people want to believe the author is sincere.” The poets who I am drawn to the most in this particular moment—Ford, Ada Limón, Jericho Brown, Traci Brimhall—encounter faith and doubt with refreshing sincerity. I have my own beliefs; I don’t look to poets for that. I look to poets for a language for a weary soul. I want to see how others envision the absence or presence of God, and I find poets particularly gifted in that practice.

Add to that list a book that I discovered this year: The Book of Trees by Sean M. Conrey. An interpretation of the life and hymns of Saint Columba, Conrey’s book brings us to the Druidic and Catholic traditions of Ireland. It is an otherworldly book; sincere in its own way, and admirable in its project.
What I like most about poetry is the second lap: the return, months and years later, to pages and sections. I suspect that I will return again and again to pieces like “Apple”: “On the days the winds blow ill I enter them, / and on the days they lift the world, too—.”
And “Vine”: “Weave the words into the world, / vines threaded through the trellis— / the cordon reaching out / like a brother’s call across the field, / clusters and tendrils, the occasional spur— / the Father is the gardener.”

More from A Year in Reading 2018

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss:A Year in Reading 2017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

Year in Reading: Emily St. John Mandel

Twelve notes for a Year in Reading essay:
1.     Do you have holiday traditions? Here’s one of mine: every December, I log into The Millions staff portal to upload my Year in Reading piece, and am somehow always astonished to discover that I haven’t written anything for The Millions since my last Year in Reading piece, a year earlier.
2.     Does anyone who isn’t independently wealthy have enough time to do everything they’d like to do? I suspect not. My affection for The Millions hasn’t dimmed since I started writing for the site nearly a decade ago, but I have an almost-three-year-old, who takes up all of the time that I don’t spend working on my new novel or chasing lecture fees to the far corners of the country. Time can be found here and there in the margins sometimes—hello from the Dallas airport!—but I do not believe that I can have it all. There are always improvements to be made in time management and efficiency—for example, you can save a lot of time in the mornings by eating breakfast standing up at the counter while you unload the dishwasher—but no matter how efficiently I work and how much coffee I drink, there are only 24 hours in the day and I need to be asleep for seven of them. Things fall by the wayside.
3.     When I give lectures I’m often asked if I’m going to start writing children’s books now that I have a child, which I’m sure is a question that male novelists who write literary fiction for adults get asked all the time too. I have no immediate interest in writing children’s books, but I do find myself considering children’s books much more closely than I used to, because there’s nothing like reading a book aloud four times in a row to gain a deep knowledge of the text. One of the books I was most fascinated by this year was Madeline, the children’s classic by Ludwig Bemelmans, which I could probably recite from memory at this point. (“In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines,” the book begins, “lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.”) The twelve little girls live under the care of a nun, Miss Clavel. In two straight lines they walk in the rain at Notre-Dame Cathedral and in the sun at Versailles; they eat at a single long table, six on each side, and even sleep in two straight lines in their dormitory. But when Madeline falls ill one night, the order is disturbed: Dr. Cohn arrives, diagnoses her with appendicitis, and whisks her off to the hospital.
I remember the book well from my childhood, but of course there are details that one only picks up on in adulthood. The book has a distinctly between-wars air about it. Cohn is a Jewish name. I checked the copyright—1939—and tried to convince myself of the irrationality of feeling a shiver of dread at the fate of a fictional character. In 1939, Dr. Cohn is still practicing medicine in Paris. The Nazis won’t arrive until the middle of next year.
4.    When the other children visit Madeline in the hospital, they gasp in amazement when they see “the toys and candy from Papa.” The toys are extravagant, in a compensatory way. Papa isn’t here in person, but he sure did arrange for a lot of toys, flowers, and chocolates. There seems to be no Maman in the picture, which is presumably why Madeline lives under the care of a nun. (One might think that a father who can buy all those toys might also have the resources to bring his daughter home and employ a live-in nanny, but it was a different time.)
5.    That night, Miss Clavel wakes to the sound of weeping. When she rushes into the dormitory, she finds all eleven of the remaining girls in tears: “All the little girls cried, ‘Boo-hoo! We want to have our appendix out too!’” My memory of reading this book as a child was that my childhood self found that last scene mildly amusing: look at those silly little kids, so desperate for attention that they wish they had appendicitis!
But all these years later, reading the book aloud to a small child, that last page provokes only distress. The children are crying because they long for what Madeline has temporarily gained: not just attention, but the attention of a parent. They are weeping in a dormitory, not a bedroom. The old house in Paris is charming, but it’s an institution. Miss Clavel cares for them, but does Miss Clavel love them?
6.     (A sobering aspect of parenting, one of many: you realize very early on that eventually, you are going to have to explain everything to your child, every detail of this world. Try not to imagine Dr. Cohn on the train to the Drancy internment camp; try not to think too much about having to someday explain anti-Semitism to your half-Jewish daughter.)

7.     The adult books I loved most this year were Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday, and The Reign of the Kingfisher, by T.J. Martinson, which is coming out in the spring. I realize it’s obnoxious to recommend a book that hasn’t come out yet, but it’s worth making a note of this one for later.
8.     A flipside to that thing about having to explain the entire world to your child: obviously it’s not all horror. I have had the honor of introducing her to her first peacock, her first butterfly, her first ice cream. I got to be the one to tell her that anything is possible in books. The idea surprised her, so it comes up in conversations quite often: “Bears and kids can be friends in books?” she asks, just confirming. Yes.
9.     (In books, twelve little girls can walk through Paris in their two straight lines indefinitely, with the summer of 1940 forever in the unimaginable distance.)
10.     If the sense of limitless possibility is what made me fall in love with reading—a childhood and adolescence spent in Narnia, in Middle Earth, on various science fiction-anthology space stations, in the company of Asimov’s androids—I believe it’s the possibility of unexpected connections between narratives that fascinated me and kept me in love with reading over time. Consider Asymmetry: in its first section, an extended novella, a young editor and writer named Alice falls in love with a much older and very established novelist, Ezra, who’s been described as a very thinly disguised Philip Roth.* What at first seems like the story of a passing fling turns into something deeper and more propulsive; time passes and they remain together; she sits with him in the hospital when his health begins to fail. The next section is another novella, a powerful first-person account of an Iraqi-American man trapped in immigration hell at Heathrow. The two novellas would seem to be entirely unconnected, until in the third and final stretch, an interview transcript suggests a link, and that link resolves some of the pathos of the first section: Alice has forged her own path, she’s found a way to write convincingly from the perspective of a person whose life experience and worldview are completely different from her own, and she’s written something brilliant. It’s a truly elegant book. I’d say that it’s the narrative subtlety that makes the book such a pleasure, but it’s also the sheer quality of the prose.
*(11.     I completely missed the Philip Roth allusion myself, because I’ve been to a lot of literary festivals, where I’ve met a lot of writers who reminded me very much of Ezra, I mean literally dozens of them pontificating over interminable dinners and giving me unsolicited career advice, so it wouldn’t have occurred to me that he was based on a specific writer, but on the other hand I was apparently the last person in the world to hear that Asymmetry’s author and Roth had a long-ago romantic involvement.)
12.     T.J. Martinson’s debut novel is set in a Chicago that used to have a superhero. It’s one of those books that plays with genre in an interesting way: the prologue reads like a graphic novel, and the entire book reads like literary detective fiction. With a superhero in it. Back in the 1980s, a mysterious and inhumanly strong man known as the Kingfisher watched over the streets, until his mutilated body was recovered from the river. In his absence, crime once again began to rise. But did the Kingfisher really die? Or did he fake his own death? If he faked his own death, why won’t he return to save his city? Either way, the book suggests, we cannot wait for a new superhero, or for the return of the old one. We must save ourselves.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss:A Year in Reading 2017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

A Year in Reading: Kaulie Lewis

For the last two years, I’ve felt like I’ve forgotten how to read well, much less write about it, as it’s become harder to find the space and quiet to do much more than simply let sentences (and tweets, and news alerts, etc. etc.) wash over me. I’m not alone in this, I know, but it’s been a lonely experience; literature has always been my tether to the world, and it feels like that tether’s dangerously frayed.
A couple of times this year I’ve tried to bridge the growing distance between my literary life and daily reality by tackling fiction and nonfiction that feels closer to the world in which I live, commonly known as Texas. Sometimes it’s worked — I read Philipp Meyer’s The Son in the spring and found it a pulpy, compulsive, enjoyable novel of the Lone Star State, complete with oil booms and bits of Cherokee and careful descriptions of the Hill Country, my actual home, and the Llano Estacado, my spiritual one. But sometimes the strategy’s fallen short: I tried and tried again and still failed to get very far into Lawrence Wright’s God Save Texas. I’ve finally decided the failures stem from my weariness of being told what Texas means (in the Year of Beto everyone had thoughts about this, most of them irritating.) I’m much more interested in what it feels like to live here right now — messy, mostly, and full of contradictions.

The most interesting, life-giving reading I did this year felt far removed from both the news cycle and Texas. The Vegetarian by Han Kang was a dark fantasy world I lived for a few days and a book that made me think about my sisters and our struggles, shared and separate, to be in the world. It’s a dreamlike, unsettling novel; I wish I could read it for the first time again, but I think I’d be a little scared. Sheila Heti’s Motherhood was something else entirely, a beautiful stream-of-consciousness blur of home-grown philosophy and indecision. Essentially a novel of the in-between, Motherhood is hard to sum up, but I know that I loved it. And then Madeline Miller’s Circe was completely different again, all classical coolness and familiar myths made a little less familiar. I tripped over the language more than once, but I ended the novel with a deep sense of gratitude for the gift of humanity in all its transience, fragility and damage.

That fragility and damage also came to mind when reading The Most Dangerous Man in America by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis, though it was balanced by both outrage and sheer entertainment. Starring Timothy Leary, Nixon, and a staggering amount of LSD, the story’s all true but feels like it can’t be. And in a strange accident of timing, I read The Most Dangerous Man alongside Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering. While in many ways they couldn’t be more different — the first is a fast-paced, drug-fueled portrait of “the high priest of LSD,” the second an introspective, interrogating look at the stories we use to understand, celebrate and condemn addiction — both helped shape my understanding of our culture’s relationship to substance use and abuse.

It wasn’t all serious this year, though. There’s some reading that’s just fun all the way through, something it took me a while to remember. One of the 2018 reading experiences I’ll hold onto longest was tearing through all of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch as part of a desperate (and doomed) attempt to understand my boyfriend’s World Cup mania and general Arsenal addiction. I’ve since given up, but I kept the book, and the Fever Pitch experiment has served as a surprising reminder of literature’s ability to connect us.

It’s that note I’m ending the year on and that I hope will bring me back into the bookish fold in 2019. I just pressed Andrew Martin’s Early Work into a friend’s hands, knowing she’ll enjoy this playful, quick-reading novel with a dark heart; a novel where all the young beautiful writers talk a little too fast and a little too well, telling jokes and making mistakes that are familiar but just far enough removed. Soon we’ll meet up to talk about it, but for now I’m starting Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights and my list for 2019.  

More from A Year in Reading 2018

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss:A Year in Reading 2017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

A Year in Reading: Ed Simon

For my first ever Year in Reading at The Millions, I will only be featuring books which I checked out from the local public library in my sleepy Massachusetts town a few miles north of the Red Line’s terminus. Constructed in 1892 and modeled after the Renaissance Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome, I’ve made this sandstone building a regular part of the itinerary on my way back from Stop ‘n Shop. The library has a resplendent mahogany reading room, the edges lined with framed 17th century drawings, with the back walls decorated with an incongruous painting of Napoleon’s ill-fated Russia campaign and a North African souk scene, all oranges and lemons in the sun. This room contains all of the new novels that come through the library, and after moving to Massachusetts and getting my card I made it a point to come every other week, and to take out more books than I had time to read.
I will not be considering books that I bought at the Harvard Co-Op or Grolier Poetry Bookshop, which without the deadline of a due-date tend to pile up next to my chair where they get chewed on by my French bulldog puppy. Nor will I write about books which I’ve taught these past two semesters, or which I published appraisals of and benefited from the generosity of publisher’s review copies. I’m also excluding non-fiction, preferring for the duration of this essay to focus entirely on the novel as the most exquisite vehicle for immersing ourselves in empathetic interiority to yet be devised by humans. And while there were seemingly endless books which I dipped into, reread portions of, skimmed, and started without finishing, holding to Francis Bacon’s contention in my beloved 17th century that “Some books are to be tasted… some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously,” I’ve rather chosen only to highlight those which the philosopher would have categorized as books that are “to be swallowed… to be chewed and digested.” Looking over the detritus of that complete year in reading, and examining that which was digested as a sort of literary coprologist, I’ve noticed certain traces of things consumed – namely novels of politics and horror, of imagination and immortality, of education and identity.


Campus novels are my comfort fiction, taking an embarrassing enjoyment in reading about people superficially like myself and proving the adage that there is nothing as consoling as our own narcissism. By my estimation the twin triumphs of that genre are my fellow Pittsburgher Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys and John Williams’s Stoner, the later of which remains alongside F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as among the most perfect examples of 20th century American prose, where not even a comma is misplaced. While nothing quite reached those heights, the campus novels which I did read reminded me of why I love the genre so much – the excruciating personal politics, the combustible interactions between widely divergent personalities, and the barest intimations that the Ivory Tower is supposed to (and sometimes does) point to things transcendent and eternal.

Regarding that last, utopian quality of what we hope that higher education is supposed to do, I recently read Lan Samantha Chang’s All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost. The director of the esteemed University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Chang’s slender novel follows the literary careers of the poets who all trained together in the graduate seminar of Miranda Sturgis at fictional Bonneville College. Chang uses the characters of Bernard Sauvet and Roman Morris to interrogate how careerism, aesthetics, and competition all factor into something as seemingly rarefied as poetry. Roman has far more professional success, but is always haunted by the aridness of his verse; his is an abstraction polished to an immaculate sheen, but lacking in human feeling. Bernard, however, is a variety of earnest, celibate, very-serious-young-man with an affection for High Church Catholicism that Chang presents with precise verisimilitude, and who toils monastically in the production of an epic poem about the North American Jesuit martyrs. It’s a strange, quick read that risks falling into allegory, but never does.

A very different campus novel was Francine Prose’s Blue Angel, which details over the course of one semester a brief affair between creative writing professor Ted Swenson and his talented, if troubled, student Angela Argo. Intergenerational infidelity is one of the most hackneyed themes of the campus novel, and Prose’s narrative threatens to spill into the territory of David Mamet’s Oleanna. A lesser writer could have turned The Blue Angel, which is loosely based on Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 film classic, into a conservative, scolding denunciation of gender politics; the twist being that it’s a woman whose delivering invective against the movement towards great accountability concerning sexual harassment. No doubt the novel must read very different after #MeToo, but the text itself doesn’t evidence the sympathy for Ted which some critics might accuse Prose of. As a character, Ted is nearer to Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert from Lolita, albeit less charming. When read as the account of an unreliable narrator, The Blue Angel isn’t a satire of feminist piety, but to the contrary an exploration of Ted’s ability to rationalize and obfuscate, most crucially to himself.

Ryan McIlvain’s novel The Radicals is only superficially a campus novel; its main characters Eli and Sam are both graduate students at NYU, but the author’s actual subject is how political extremism can justify all manner of things which we’d never think ourselves capable of, even murder. Reflecting back on the first day they really connected (at that most David Foster Wallace of pastimes – a tennis game), Eli says of Sam “I couldn’t have known I was standing across the net from a murderer, and neither could he,” which I imagine would be the sort of thing you’d remember when reflecting on the halcyon days of an activist group that turned deadly. McIlvain’s prose is a minimalist in a manner that I’m traditionally not attracted towards, but which in The Radicals he imbues with a sense of elegant parsimony. The politics of The Radicals is weirdly hermetically sealed, lower Manhattan during the early Obama years more a set piece for McIlvain to perform a thought experiment on the psychology of insular, extreme groups. Sam, initially the less committed of the two, though whom we’re given indications of his character during a disturbing road rage incident in the opening pages of the book, ultimately becomes the leader of an anarchist cell that emerges out of a movement which seems similar to Occupy Wall Street. As the group stalks through the Westchester estate of an executive implicated in the ’08 financial crash, we’re presented with a riveting account of how ideology can quickly veer into the cultish.
There is an elegiac quality to McIlvain’s novel, a sort of eulogy for Occupy, though of course the actual movement never fizzled out in a spasm of violence as The Radicals depicts. A more all-encompassing portrait of American politics in our current moment is Nathan Hill’s The Nix (2017). Hill’s book is a door-stopper, and for that and other reasons it has accurately drawn comparisons to the heaviest of Thomas Pynchon’s novels. The Nix follows the story of another ill-fated creative writing instructor, the unfortunately named Samuel Andresen-Anderson, though unlike Prose’s protagonist his vice isn’t sleeping with his students, but an addiction to a World of Warcraft-type video game. Samuel is only one of dozens of characters in the book, including his ‘60s radical mother who is in legal trouble for throwing rocks in Chicago’s Grant Park at a right-wing presidential candidate who evokes Roy Moore, his entitled student who functions as a millennial stereotype that somehow avoids being overly cliché, the musical prodigy of his youth whom he still pines for, her Iraq War veteran brother, and even the interior monologues of Allen Ginsberg and Hubert Humphrey. Hill’s most immaculate creation is the trickster-god of a book agent Guy Periwinkle, a mercurial, amoral, nihilistic Svengali who reads as an incarnation of the era of Twitter and Facebook.

The narrative threads are so many, so complicated, and so interrelated that it’s difficult to succinctly explain what The Nix is about, but to give a sense of its asynchronous scope the novel ranges from Norway on the eve of World War II, the stultifying conformity of 60’s Iowa, the ’68 Democratic National Convention (and the subsequent protests), suburban Illinois in the ‘80s, New York during the anti-war protests of 2003, as well as the Iraq War, and the imagined alternative universe of 2016. Its concerns include political polarization, the trauma that family can inflict across generation, the neoliberal university, and video-game addiction. Few novels capture America as it is right now with as much emotional accuracy as The Nix, but it’s all there – the rage, the vertigo, the exhaustion. Of course, haunting the pages of The Nix is a certain Fifth Avenue resident, who is never mentioned, but is very much the embodiment of our garbage era. More than that, Hill performs an excavation of the long arc of our contemporary history, and the scenes with Samuel’s mother in ’68 draw a direct connection between those events of a half-century ago and today, so that the real ghost which permeates the novel is less the mythical Norwegian sprite that gives the book its title, than that other “Nix” whose presidency set the template for a corrupt, compromised, polarized, spiteful, and hateful age.

Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic covered similar political and economic ground as both The Radicals and The Nix do, though as channeled through the mini-drama between upwardly mobile, self-made banker Doug Fanning and his new neighbor, the retired school-teacher Charlotte Graves. Union Atlantic follows Charlotte’s war of attrition against both Doug and the McMansion that he’s building in their tony Boston suburb. There is something almost Victorian about Haslett’s concerns; Doug’s journey from being raised by an alcoholic single mother in Southie to becoming a millionaire banker living in a Belmont-like suburb has a bit of the Horatio Alger boot-strap story about it, save for the fact that his protagonist never rises to the same heights of sympathy. Haslett portrays the contradictions of Massachusetts with admirable accuracy – the liberalism and the wealth, the Catholic city and the Protestant suburbs, the working class and the Boston Brahmins. As a nice magical realist touch, Charlotte is in the process of losing her mind, hearing her dogs speak to her in the voices of Cotton Mather and Malcolm X. I couldn’t help but be charmed by a dog who sputters invective in the tongue of the colonial Puritan theologian, saying things like “You dwell in Memory like some Perversity of the Flesh. A sin against the gift of Creation it is to harp on the dead while the living still suffer.”
A chilling evocation of those themes of sin and memory is supplied by Nick Laird in Modern Gods, though not without a bit of melancholic Irish wit. Laird provides a novel in two parts; the first concerns the wedding of Allison Donnelly to a man whom she later discovers was involved with the Ulster Unions in an act of spectacularly horrific violence during the Troubles, the second her anthropologist sister Liz’s trip to the appropriately named New Ulster in Papua New Guinea where she is involved in BBC documentary about the emergence of a cargo cult competing against the American evangelical missionaries who’re trying to convert the natives. Laird’s focus is on the horrors of sectarian violence, and the faith which justifies those acts. He could be writing of either the cargo cult, the evangelical missionaries, or the Ulster Protestants when he describes the “imagery of sacrifice and offering, memorials and altars … disguised as just the opposite, a sanctuary from materialism… a marketplace of cold transactions.” Laird’s most sympathetic (and disturbing) character is the cult leader herself, a native named Belef (just “belief” with the “I” taken out…) who appears as a character out of Joseph Conrad, and whose air of cold malice is as characteristic and as evocative of old Ulster as it is of new.
Cults from The Radicals to Modern Gods are very much on authors’ minds in our season of violent political rallies and epistemological anarchy, and so they’re a concern as well in Naomi Alderman’s science fiction parable The Power, where we see the emergence of a religion in opposition to the machinations of the patriarchy. Part of a tradition of feminist dystopian science fiction that finds its modern genesis in Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale (that author not for nothing prominently blurbing The Power). Alderman imagines an alternate world in which women are suddenly endowed with a physical strength that completely upends traditional gender roles, causing radical shifts in power from eastern Europe to Saudi Arabia, the Midwest to London. Alderman writes with narrative panache, moving rapidly between various intertwined plots and across wildly divergent voices, including that of the abused foster girl Allie who becomes the the leader of the new faith and christens herself Mother Eve; Roxie, the daughter of a Cockney-Jewish gangster; an American politician named Margot Cleary and her daughter Jocelyn; a Nigerian journalist named Tunde (who is the only major male character in the novel); and the Melania-like first-lady of Moldova, Tatiana Moskalev, who offs her piggish husband and establishes a female-sanctuary in her former country. The Power is a thought-provoking book, and one with some exquisite moments of emotional Schadenfreude, as when newly self-liberated women riot against repressive regimes in places like Riyadh, and yet it’s not a particularly hopeful book, as the new order begins to replicate the worst excesses of the old.

The Power is only one book in our current renaissance of feminist science fiction, written in large part as a response to the rank misogyny and anti-woman policies of our nation’s current regime. In The Guardian Vanessa Thorpe explains that this is a “matching literary revolution,” which sees a new “breed of women’s ‘speculative’ fiction, positing altered sexual and social hierarchies.” Louise Erdrich provides one such example in her Future Home of the Living God which reads as a sort of cracked, post-apocalyptic nativity tale. In a premise like that of P.D. James’s Children of Men, though without the implied reactionary politics, Erdrich presents the diary of Cedar Hawk Songmaker, college student and the adopted Ojibwe daughter of crunchy, upper middle-class Minnesota liberals. Cedar Hawk finds herself pregnant during an autumn when it seems as if evolution itself has started to reverse, as all manner of primeval beings hatch from eggs, one of which is the proverbial gestation of a theocratic government reacting to the ecological collapse. Erdrich remains one of our consummate prose stylists, and Cedar Hawk is an immaculate creation (in several different ways). A precocious and intelligent student, Cedar Hawk is a Catholic convert who grapples with women’s spirituality, and Erdrich presents a book that is both Catholic and vehemently pro-choice (while also understanding that to be pro-choice isn’t to be anti-pregnancy).

Genre fiction is perhaps the best way to explore our current moment, where the “Current Affairs” section and “Science Fiction” are increasingly indistinguishable. Erdrich and Alderman write in a tradition of literary speculative fiction which recalls recent work by Atwood, Chabon, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, and Jim Crace, but old fashioned hard science fiction with all of its intricate world-building never loses its charms. Sam Miller provides just that in his infectiously enjoyable Blackfish City, which follows the intertwined stories of several characters living in a floating, mechanical city above the Arctic Circle in an early 22nd century ravaged by climate change. Despite hard science fiction’s reputation for being all about asteroid mining colonies and silvery faster-than-light starships, the reality is that from Samuel Delaney to Octavia Butler, science fiction has always been more daring in how it approaches questions of race and gender than conservative literary fiction can be. Miller’s novel provides a detailed, fascinating account of how the geothermal powered city (which is operated by a consortium of Thai and Swedish companies) actually works, but his thematic concerns include economic stratification, deregulation, global warming, and gender fluidity. That, and he has depicted neuro-connected animal familiars that communicate with their human partners, including a polar bear and an orca whale. So, there’s that!


Science fiction isn’t the only genre attuned to our neoliberal, late capitalist, ascendant fascistic hell-scape – there’s also horror, of course. Paul Tremblay offers a visceral, thrilling, and disturbing account of a home invasion/hostage situation in his horror pastoral The Cabin at the End of the World, which makes fantastic use of narrative ambiguity in rewriting the often-over-played apocalyptic genre. One of the scariest novels I read in the past year was Hari Kunzru’s postmodern gothic White Tears. The strange ghost tale has been discussed as if it was a simple parody of white hipster culture’s appropriation of black music, and yet White Tears grapples with America’s racial history in a manner that evokes both William Faulkner and Toni Morrison. Kunzru’s story follows the fraught friendship of Seth and Carter, who share a love of lo-fi Mississippi Delta blues music, both listening to and producing songs as an act of musical obsessiveness worthy of R. Crumb. Carter crafts a faux Robert Johnson style number attributed to an invented musician he christens “Charles Shaw,” based off of a recording of random, diegetic patter between two men playing chess in Washington Square Park which Seth picks up on one of his forays through New York to preserve ambient sound. The two discover that the fictional bluesman might be more real than they suppose.

The complexities and contradictions of American culture are also explored in Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean, which though perhaps not a horror novel itself is still a loving homage to the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. La Farge’s novel is an endlessly recursive frame-tale which follows a series of inter-nestled narratives ranging from the (fictional) homosexual relationship of Lovecraft with a young Floridian named Robert Barlow, to New York author Charlie Willett’s obsession with finding a lost pornographic work of the master himself, which is of course titled The Erotonomicon. Along the way the reader confronts questions of artifice and authenticity, as well as a consideration of the darker reaches of Lovecraft’s brilliant, if bigoted, soul. Le Farge moves across a century of history, and from the horror author’s native Providence to Mexico City on Dia de los Muertos, from northern Ontario to the Upper West Side, with a cameo appearance from Beat novelist William S. Burroughs. La Farge’s novel isn’t quite weird fiction itself, but he writes with an awareness that Lovecraft’s cold, chthonic, unfeeling, anarchic, nihilistic stories of meaninglessness are as apt an approach to our contemporary moment as any, where Cthulhu’s tentacles reach further than we’d care to admit and the Great Old Ones always threaten to devour us. Facing the uncertainties of terrifying push notification, reflect on the master himself, who wrote that the “oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
La Farge’s narrative progresses Zelig-like through 20th century literary history, its story encompassing fictionalized accounts of the intersection of both experimental and genre writing. I’ve always been drawn to picaresque, delighted by the appearance of historical figures as they arrive briefly in a story. Matt Haig’s masterful How to Stop Time has plenty of cameos in the life of its main character Tom Hazard, from William Shakespeare and Captain Cook to Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Tom isn’t quite an immortal, but in all the ways that matter he nearly is. Haig describes an entire secret fraternity of incredibly old people called the “Albatross Society” who vampire-like scurry about the margins of history. A Huguenot refugee who comes of age in Elizabethan England, Tom’s narrative follows his yearning to discover the missing daughter of his dead wife, the former a near-immortal like himself. Haig’s is a risky gambit, jumping from the 16th century to the 21st, yet he performs the job admirably, and as somebody who cashes checks from writing about the Tudor era, I can attest to the accurate feel of the Renaissance scenes in the book. Word is that a film adaptation is on the way, starring Benedict Cumberbatch (predictably), but more than even its cinematic action about secret societies and historical personages, How to Stop Time offers an estimably human reflection on what it means to grow old, and to lose people along the way.

As the nights grow dimmer and the temperature drops, the distant beginning of the year seems paradoxically closer, the months folding back in on themselves as the Earth reaches the same location in its annual terminus around our sun. January’s reading seems more recent to me than those summer beach indulgences when I got sand from Manchester-by-the-Sea in the creases of my library books, and so I end like an Ouroboros biting its own tale with the first book of 2018 which I read: Paul Kingsnorth’s enigmatic fable Beast. Founder of the Dark Mountain Project, which encourages artists and writers to grapple with what they see as an approaching climate apocalypse, Kingsnorth has been writing increasingly avant-garde prose in reaction to our inevitable demise. His main (and only) character Edward Buckmaster seems to be the same protagonist from his earlier novel The Wake, albeit that earlier novel takes place in the Dark Ages and is written in an Anglo-Saxon patois that is equally beautiful as tedious, while Beast by all intents seems to be broadly contemporary in its setting.
I’m unsure as to whether they’re the same character, or if Edward is to be understood as the reincarnation of his namesake, but both novels share a minimalist, elemental sensibility where the very nature of prose and narrative are stripped to bare essentials. Beast follows the surreal ruminations of Edward as he phases in and out of consciousness in a cottage on the English moors, in a landscape uninhabited by people, while he both stalks and is stalked by some sort of fantastic creature. The nature of the animal is unclear – is it a big cat? A wolf? Something else? And the setting is bizarrely wild, if not post-apocalyptic feeling, when compared to the reality of the urbanized English countryside. Beast is as if Jack London’s Call of the Wild was rewritten by Albert Camus. It’s the sort of “Man vs. Nature” plot that I always want to like and which I rarely do – save for this time, where I very much did enjoy Kingsnorth’s strange allegory. At least it feels like an allegory, but the nature of its implications are hard to interpret. Proffering a hypothesis, I will say that reading Beast, where boredom threaded by a dull anxiety is occasionally punctuated by moments of horror, is as succinct an experiential encapsulation of 2018 as any.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

A Year in Reading: Matt Seidel

It could be this Love Actually earworm that afflicts me this time of year, but I’m feeling love in my fingers, my toes and my year-in-reading list. And since love is supposedly a universal language, the following highlights are eros-themed works in translation.

When we first see the titular governesses in Anne Serre’s The Governesses (translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson), they have unbuttoned their blouses to combat the heat: “Even in a state of semi-undress, they’re a model of discretion, as smooth-skinned as infants fresh from the tub.” Set on the country estate of a well-heeled family, the novel generates its energy from this sense of decorous abandonment. The three women are less traditional caretakers than “mistresses of games and pleasures,” pleasures that include the occasional bout of murderous Bacchic frenzy: “This one will be tackled head-on, licked, bitten and devoured in a ladylike manner,” we read of one stranger lured onto the estate. (The governesses are great with the children, though.) The novella, Apollonian in its composition, pays homage to the Dionysian wellspring of life.

Over in Italy, Paolo Volponi’s The Javelin Thrower (translation by Richard Dixon) begins with a traumatic scene: a young child sees his mommy kissing not Santa Claus but a fascist officer. The officer is never seen without his gleaming silver dagger dangling from his belt; he even brings it to his trysts, highlighting the combination of virility and violence extolled by Il Duce. The boy soon reaches for a phallic object of his own, taking up the javelin, where under the tutelage of the officer he excels. Nonetheless, his beautiful mother’s adulterous liaison predictably haunts the child, and as we follow him through his adolescence and early adulthood, his sexual education, and view of women, is colored by the revulsion, shame and fascination of those spied upon encounters.

Whereas The Javelin Thrower is a slow burn of a novel, Elsa Morante’s Arturo’s Island, newly translated by Ann Goldstein, bursts with fervor. Arturo is a creature of excess—excessive in his self-reliance, fantasy-life, intensity of emotions and bravado. Left largely to look after himself on a small island off the coast of Naples while his father roams, he alternately desires and disdains his new stepmother, only a few years older than he is. His father seems more interested in the fate of a male convict held on the island’s penitentiary. Both stepmother and prisoner are rivals for his father’s affection and their mere existence gnaws at the ardent Arturo, prone as he is to “opposing and intertwined jealousies, the many-sided passions, that were to mark [his] destiny.”

Next on our Italian tour is Vitaliano Brancati’s The Beautiful Antonio (trans. Patrick Creagh), whose Sicilian, Adonis-like protagonist inspires outsized lusts his diminished libido can’t satisfy: “There’s a dead man in the midst of your life,” Antonio explains of his impotence, “a corpse so placed that whatever move you make you’re bound to brush up against it, against its cold, fetid skin.” His innocent wife eventually discovers that there is more to marriage than “chaste and fraternal embraces,” leading to an annulment and anguish that seems to be felt more keenly by Antonio’s father than himself. “…at his age he ought to be lifting rocks without using his hands…He died, my son, he died. I had a son, but he died.”
Like The Javelin Thrower, The Beautiful Antonio is set in Fascist Italy, and behind the comic depictions of masculinity lies a darker statement about the allure of potency. When Antonio’s elderly uncle, who returns to a bombed-out Catania from a concentration camp to find his nephew still stewing in self-pity, he loses it:

For anyone in any other country it would have been a piddling little mishap. But for us? Oh, we have to make a Greek tragedy of it! Because all we can think of is the one little thing, and that’s it! In the meanwhile along comes a despotic gangster. One kick in the pants from him and we go flying into this war…


If these Italian novels—especially Volponi’s and Morante’s—have an overwrought intensity, Christina Hesselholdt’s deploys a cooler, more ironic approach to human passion. “We are still miserable, and again we are rambling in the realm of a powerful love,” says one of the six narrators of Christina Hesselholdt’s mosaical Companions while visiting Haworth Moor (Bronte country) with her husband. A few pages later, we find ourselves in less romantic climes, a German strip club, and in the hands of another, equally well-read narrator: “Ohhh, the human, oh-so Zizekian need to make sense of thing where none exists,” she muses while analyzing her surroundings. In this literate novel—inspired by the multi-perspective structures of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet—chronicles a group of Danish friends approaching middle-age. Translated by Paul Russell Garrett, Companions is a fascinating story about friends, lovers, and the pleasures and perils of intimacy.
Happy holidays, boun Natale, joyeux Noel, glædelig jul!

More from A Year in Reading 2018

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss:A Year in Reading 2017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

A Year in Reading: Ismail Muhammad

I’d never been inside of
a prison until this past spring, when I received a grant to teach a creative
writing workshop at the Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall facility. This meant
driving every Tuesday morning for two months to Martinez, California, a sleepy
city to Oakland’s north, until I arrived at a squat, nondescript beige building
set off from the street by oak trees and a huge visitor parking lot that was
always full. Usually I parked on the street, which extended on into the
distance until it curved around into a residential neighborhood—California
ranches, two car garages, various shades of beige and gray. From the
neighborhood, not a single aspect of the prison was visible.

The strip mall parking
lot aside, the juvenile hall was an unassuming element of the neighborhood: it
featured a boxy modernist design, a pleasant little courtyard just out front,
and a sleek glass façade. If not for the signage indicating that I had indeed
stumbled upon a prison, I would have assumed I was walking into the local high
school, with its boxy Modernist structure, pleasant courtyard, and glass
façade.

The interior trashed that
illusion. When I arrived for a February meeting with prison authorities to
discuss the workshop’s logistics, a security guard barked at me from behind
bulletproof glass—rules required that I trade my driver’s license for a guest
badge. I felt a vague, animal discomfort about the exchange. The prison
librarian, a woman about my age whose easy smile and buoyant personality calmed
my nerves, arrived in the lobby and ushered me into the facility’s innards. The
prison revealed itself to be a seemingly endless labyrinth of identically spare
white cinderblock hallways leading to unmarked doors that opened up onto yet
more cinderblock hallways. There was little signage indicating what turns took
you where, but the librarian kept a quick pace. She whipped her away suddenly
around corners without much warning; I scampered after her. My shoes slipped about
on concrete floors so polished that I could almost see my reflection in them. I
wondered whether, if left to fend for myself, I’d ever find my way back out.
What would happen if a security guard caught me wandering the halls, if he
didn’t see my badge?

The librarian and I
chatted the entire way, about how excited the students were to meet me, how
relieved they were to encounter somebody new, how much they were looking
forward to writing. We approached one of the doors; the librarian stopped dead
in her tracks, but didn’t stop talking. I must have looked confused; “We have
to wait for the guards to open the door,” she explained. We stood for a few
seconds before a voice boomed from out of a speaker I could not find. “Tell him
to show his badge,” someone commanded. Startled, I lifted the badge from my
chest, offering it to a camera I knew was there but could not see.

We walked through, into
the prison’s center, and were immediately met by a group of boys, marching
slowly down yet another cinderblock hall. Something about their bodies—the
limited range and uniformity of their movements, the way they shuffled their
feet instead of lifting them from the ground, the way their heads bent so that
their faces were nearly parallel to the buffed concrete—was off. It took me a
few seconds to process what I was seeing: black and brown teenage boys being
marched single file by a CO, their hands and feet shackled to a single chain. They
appeared younger than I had imagined, their faces puffy with baby fat. Not a
single one of them looked older than 19, and when they lifted their heads,
their eyes met mine with a mix of hatred and shame.

That day, I left the
prison with sadness and doubt swirling in my gut.  What was my presence in that place and with
those boys meant to do? Was I just legitimizing the prison’s dehumanization of
black and brown youth? I had volunteered for the workshop out of some hazy
notion that I’d change how marginalized youth thought about their world, give
them the tools to represent their own lives via story. But the sight of those
shackles made my vision seem flimsy in comparison.

My experience in the prison sent me on a yearlong search for literature with the heft of reality—not of this reality, but another one, to remind myself that writing could conjure entirely worlds altogether different from the one I’d encountered in the prison. Before the first workshop session, I sent my students a poem—“Alternate Names for Black Boys,” a stand out from Danez Smith’s 2014 book [insert] boy, which I had read that spring upon the recommendation of an artist friend. Smith’s poetry feels religious in essence, in the way it insists that there has to be another world beyond this one, where black bodies are imprisoned, shot, choked out, electrocuted, subject to an endless series of horrors. There has to be another world, they insist, and we have to make it, together. In the poem “Poem Where I Be & You Just Might,” Smith writes: “God’s flaming eye, I stare into it always/Dying to blink, irises cracking like commandment stones.” Their language is incredibly visceral, urging the reader on to this bodily encounter with the divine—an encounter we can only begin to envision through communion with one another—moved me to tears when I first read [insert] boy. I’d hoped that my class, a gathering of black and brown boys, would find it an appropriate starting point for our workshop.

Smith sent me on a poetry bender, as I’m wont to do during the summers. Simone White’s Dear Angel of Death was my biggest summer obsession: it’s a patience-testing monster of a book that blends essay and poetry in order to rethink the prominence that music enjoys in African American studies. Smith is interested in how the tightknit relationship between a mostly male-dominated jazz canon constructs a strain of black studies that conflates “feeling black” with an immersion in black music. For her, this intellectual legacy forecloses some larger questions about blackness, and leads us to automatically associate any black music with radical black resistance. Her prose—audacious, often moving in two directions at once, infused with the ethos of the black vernacular, informed by hip hop culture but never succumbing to sentimentality about the music—is never less than riveting. Turning her attention to the rapper Future’s 2015 song “I Serve the Base”—an ode to being an unrepentant scumbag—Smith is decisive: undue commitment to music as an object of black study leads us to excuse a music that will serve “Whatever you want … for money, for a nihilistic, endlessly repetitive and narcotized kind of peace … the call to recede into the persona of whatever it is one serves.”

Jasmine Gibson’s Don’t Let Them See Me Like This was also impressive. It’s a poetry collection that manages to be simultaneously tender and incisively political. In “Electric Wizard,” she writes, “In which panel do I get to be Fred Moten or/Frantz Fanon, so that you can think my words are pretty too?//I want myself against everything/Stay there and be burned into the mind/Into the mind,” and I love the way that third line turns on a minute shift, from trenchant disdain for a world built on white supremacy into something like desire, the will to be “against everything,” as Mark Greif would have it, turning into the yearning for bodily proximity. For me, the collection’s incessant flitting between anger and sensuality destabilized what it means to undertake a radical politics, moving us away from a hardened antagonism and into something more receptive: an attention to the sensuality of black bodies, and all the ways they can be in the world.

I read plenty of good prose, too, that spoke to that sense of possibility. Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man is a collection of short fiction so masterful that you can’t help but put the book down to marvel at the architecture of his language. Brinkley’s virtue is that he doesn’t settle for merely representing black life (a black Greek party soundtracked by Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Brooklyn Zoo,” for example); instead, he uses fiction as a space in which to reveal the sense of enchantment that undergirds black life. By the end of “No More Than a Bubble,” Brinkley managed to make me think so deeply about the series of performances known collectively as “black masculinity” that he made me reconsider what the short story form is capable of. Kiese Laymon’s memoir Heavy performs similar alchemy, drawing our attention to the physical experience of black masculinity. Laymon asks us to think about what happens when black male bodies fail to mirror the images that the American cultural imaginary is always comparing us to. In doing so, he has also written an aesthetically gorgeous bildungsroman of the assorted tragedies, affections, and traditions that turned him into a writer.

There was so much more that I read and enjoyed this year. I’m a Californian, and it delighted me to no end to see an outpouring of literature by and about fellow Californians. There were a few highlights for me. Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State is at once a hilarious examination of poor white culture in Northern California’s far flung rural counties, and a harrowing portrait of single motherhood. Kiesling’s juxtaposition of motherhood and an incipient political crisis seems to equate the governance of tantrum-throwing Californians with the raising of tantrum-throwing children. Vanessa Hua’s A River of Stars is a vivid portrait of an urban community of immigrants. Wandering City Lights Books in San Francisco over the summer, I found a copy of Wanda Coleman’s Native in A Strange Land, a collection of prose poems and short stories about Los Angeles that evoke the loneliness, but also the enchantment, of being black in a city that has normalized alienation. Joan Didion’s Where I Was From made me reflect on my family’s scant presence in the state, such that I can’t think of California as a place that I’m from so much as a place that I ended up via a few historical aberrations: my maternal grandparents’ decisions to abandon Louisiana so they could become shipbuilders down at San Pedro.

More than anything else that I read this year, those two books made me appreciate the unlikeliness of my black life here in this golden state—the persistence and tenacity that preceded me and resulted in my being here at all. It’s a lesson that, after walking out of that prison, I needed to relearn.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

A Year in Reading: Michael Bourne

These are tough times for fiction. According to a report released by the Association of American Publishers, between 2013 and 2017, sales of adult fiction fell by 16%, and according to BookScan, which tracks print book sales, no fiction title topped a million copies in print in either 2016 or 2017. In contrast, just six years ago, in 2012, E.L. James’ Fifty Shades trilogy sold 14 million copies in print, along with millions more e-books.
Earlier this year, in an interview for Poets & Writers Magazine, literary agent Lynn Nesbit, whose clients include Ann Beattie, Joan Didion, and Jeffrey Eugenides, told me she thinks the current political climate is partly to blame for sagging fiction sales. “Even commercial fiction isn’t selling well,” she said. “Everyone is consumed with reality, the news. Every day there’s some new breaking scandal. We’ve all become ambulance chasers.”
Nesbit is onto something, I think. For too many of us, the hours we used to spend at night reading are now consumed with deep dives into polling numbers or the latest twist in the Mueller investigation. But while the space Donald Trump is taking up in the collective American mind is surely a drag on fiction sales, our obsession with all things Trump is but one particulate in an ever-thickening haze of digital noise coming between ourselves and our thoughts. Novels are hard, Facebook posts are easy – and more and more we seem to be going with easy.
I’m no exception. If you take out the novels I get paid to review, I’m reading less fiction these days, and the novels I do read for pleasure tend to lean more heavily on plot-driven suspense than on literary quality. Still, every few months a great novel punches a hole in the digital fog. Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry  was one of these for me this year. With its heady mix of publishing industry gossip and writerly ambition, this enigmatic little novel worked like a 300-page internet-blocking app, locking me on my couch for three nights straight, absorbed only by the pleasures of words on paper.
The first half of Asymmetry traces a May-December affair between Alice, a twentysomething book editor, and Ezra Blazer, an aging literary lion plainly modeled on the late Philip Roth. That, as has been widely reported, Halliday herself had an affair with Roth while she was working for Roth’s literary agent Andrew Wylie, adds voyeuristic appeal, but what might have become tawdry and puerile is instead deeply affecting. This is the book Roth’s own creepily priapic late sex novels should have been.
Then, halfway through, Halliday abruptly abandons Alice and Ezra’s doomed affair for a wildly different tale of Amar Ala Jaafari, an Iraqi American economist enduring a Kafkaesque detention in border control at London’s Heathrow Airport. If the opening section of the novel goes down like spiked fruit punch on a summer’s day, this second section is more like a heavy dose of ketamine: deadening, surreal, and profoundly disturbing. I raced through the first part and battled my way through the second, but through it all, I never once felt the urge to check my Facebook feed.

Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room had a similar effect on me, though Kushner’s women’s prison tale is ultimately a knottier, angrier read. I bought The Mars Room with Kushner’s second novel The Flamethrowers and read The Flamethrowers first. The Flamethrowers is a very good novel perhaps a little too in love with how good a novel it is, forever flaunting its central character’s preternatural cool and its deeply researched forays into the New York art world and radical Italian politics. The book seems to constantly demand of its readers that they tell it again how smart it is.
The Mars Room also features a fiercely cool female narrator in a fictive universe few readers will know first-hand – in this case, a bleak women’s prison in California’s Central Valley – but The Mars Room spends little time insisting on its own excellence. It is merely excellent. The plot, such as it is, turns on the longing of Kushner’s narrator, a 29-year-old exotic dancer serving two consecutive life sentences, to be reunited with her young son, but the novel’s emotional power lies in its ability to lock you up, whoever you are, with 3,000 poor, desperate women in a featureless wasteland where wine is made from ketchup and fruit juice, violence is everywhere, and the best anyone can do – indeed, all there is to do – is survive another day.
I wanted to click onto Facebook a thousand times, but, Reader, I did not.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

A Year in Reading: Anne K. Yoder

The year began with Mexican beaches and ceviche and morning yoga during a much-needed sanctuary from Chicago winter and the latent anxiety that was plaguing me. This was an ideal setting to engage in the drama of someone else’s fucked-up life and fraught desire—perhaps I was seeking catharsis of some kind? Well, if so Elizabeth Ellen’s auto-fictional novel Person/a, provided it. Person/a is a tale of a once-requited turned unrequited love cum obsession, accompanied by a crumbling marriage (no surprise) and self-imposed isolation. The novel includes emails and chat sessions and text messages and almost like a preface, rejections to Ellen’s manuscript queries. It’s all so wonderfully messy and unnerving, it feels like it shouldn’t hold but it does. In an age where I Love Dick has been subsumed by the mainstream, Person/a still reads as raw and suppurating. Fleur Jaeggy’s I am the Brother of XX didn’t fare as well at the beach. No fault of the book that the sun was too adamant, the breeze too gentle for its dark melancholia, its haute cynicism. It’s better read on a bleak winter day, when the air is already laced with desperation. I am not sure how one writes so beautifully about melancholy, how to make envy so alluring, and yet Jaeggy’s a master.
 

Obsession runs through yet another favorite — Lynne Tillman’s Men and Apparitions is an obsessive’s compendium. The sprawling novel contains anthropological disquisitions on photography and our cultural inundation in images, and ends with the narrator Zeke’s attempt to delineate the new masculinity belonging to the sons of second wave feminists. Zeke’s survey on the “New Man” ends the novel, with questions Tillman had posed to male subjects accompanied by a selection of answers. Tillman’s choice to open the novel to a survey of voices conjures a conversation from Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, where the narrator argues that novels are not very good at conjuring our contemporary reality and that documentary fiction, such as Svetlana Alexeivich’s “novels in voices” seem to do a much better job.
 
Despite my skepticism about any dog-centric story (the dog here being the narrator’s inheritance from the titular dead friend), The Friend became my constant companion for a few short days. Nunez plays with the conceit of the novel in a way that brings the “truth” of the main narrative into question, it’s a wonderfully surprising turn, and that’s as much as I’ll say to avoid spoiling it.
 

Many of the novels that stayed with me hijacked my expectations of what a novel is or can do. Dubravka Ugresic’s novel Fox was sly enough to seemingly shift forms while reading. I knew it was a novel going in, and yet by the time I was in the thick of it I questioned this until I was assured the book was definitively nonfiction. But then there were moments that gave me pause — such as when on a butterfly hunt, Nabokov’s companion’s skirt flies up to reveal a butterfly resting on her pubis. What’s true and what’s not?  Fox is cunning and places this ambiguity at the forefront, for the novel is  concerned with what makes up a narrative and, specifically, how stories come to be written.
 

Sheila Heti’s Motherhood is nothing like Fox in its material — confronting a deep-seated ambivalence and desire about becoming a mother — and yet both books retool the novel’s form. Heti engages with the I Ching as a dialogic partner as she delves into an inquiry about whether Sheila and Miles should have children, and with uncanny results. (Incredibly, Heti notes that the answers from her coin tosses have not been manipulated.) If you aren’t subsumed by the desire to have children, if you’re female and an artist and that window of opportunity is closing, how do you decide? Heti’s commitment to exhausting the question illuminates fears wedged in the crevices of my own mind, such as how can you be both writer and mother without some type of neglect or resentment towards one or both roles? (which I know isn’t true, and yet…)
 

I picked up Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks while visiting family in a small coastal town in Oregon, a town serendipitously much like the one where the book is set. Being there I felt even more subsumed by the lush language and descriptions of the coast and dense forest, and was in awe of the nearly mystical powers possessed by herbalist abortionist whose power is derived from her knowledge the natural surroundings. Also, I was delighted to learn that ‘red clock’ means ‘womb’.
 

Delight is  just the word I’d use to describe reading Sabrina Orah Mark’s story collection Wild Milk, whose tales are surreal and playful and seem deceptively simple despite their profound linguistic and imaginative play. Rita Bullwinkell’s collection Belly Up is just as playful and profound, though her stories delve deeper and darker. They floor me with unexpected turns, slippages into the surreal, and their vast emotional registers.
 

I’m a little late to the party, as everyone’s championing Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel, but I just encountered her Find Me this summer. I read it twice, and became obsessed with its own obsessions with memory and loss and what’s inaccessible, its esoteric theories about immunity to the ongoing epidemic, and the fracturing effects of trauma and absence. On Joy’s ever-meandering bus ride, all seems like a dream: the bus is never heading where she thinks, she keeps getting deterred on her way. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for life, or perhaps she’s she lost her mind? I love that both readings seem plausible.
 

Unlike Joy, Sequoyah in Brandon Hobson’s Where the Dead Sit Talking knows where his mother is (she’s incarcerated); though like Joy he’s suffered abuse and has been shuffled through the foster system. He’s so tender and adrift, but finds connection in his relationship to his older foster sister Rosemary, and their shared Native American heritage. They’re all so flawed and awkward and completely alive on the page.
 

The dead do talk in Shelley Jackson’s Riddance: Or: The Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers & Hearing-Mouth Children. It’s an enigma of a novel about a boarding school for stuttering children whose impediment, or rather, gift, allows them to effectively speak the dead’s voices . The novel is a linguistic and imaginative feat, as well as a gorgeous object to behold. Interspersed between chapters is documentation of artifacts, images, and illustrations, which only an imagination as wonderfully freaky as designer Zach Dodson could pull off. Is it a cliche to say it’s enchanting? Though Riddance’s main obsession is with a murder mystery, at its core it’s also a philosophical consideration of translation and writing, and the voices that exist beyond the grave.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005