The Biggest Losers A year when the "big" books failed and good stories ruled

When it comes to novels, how much should size matter? This year’s National Book Award winner for fiction, Jaimy Gordon’s novel Lord of Misrule, was notable among its fellow finalists for smallness: A story about hard-luck cases on a West Virginia racetrack in the ’70s, it beat out stories about oppressive regimes, Alexis de Tocqueville, Asian-American activism, and health-care complexities. In a year when the judges had plenty of opportunities to promote books that stressed important themes, the panel said, essentially, screw it, and went to play the ponies.

That’s not meant to dismiss Lord of Misrule itself, a beautifully written novel that evokes Nelson Algren’s smoky-poker-room prose poems. Indeed, Gordon’s book is a welcome counter to the hefty NBA fiction winners of the past three years: Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (overwritten big-city tribute, constantly making symphonic noises about its 9/11-ness while ducking the event itself), Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country (a restitching of previous novels, its prizewinning status largely understood to commemorate the author’s career), and Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke (a Vietnam epic that constantly wobbled between freewheeling and slovenly). The National Book Foundation and many other prize-giving entities have had occasional spasms of disdain for widescreen books, but let’s ratify it in the bylaws: No plots accepted for which the adjective “sweeping” would be appropriate. Maybe it’s time to say the way-we-live-now novel is suspect, given the atomized, decentralized way we live now.

I confess I write this as somebody burned by the era-encompassing books of 2010: The big, gloomy Korean War story (Chang-rae Lee’s The Surrendered), the big, ponderous Vietnam War story (Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn), the big, incohesive San Francisco story (Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel), and the big novel where the major writer wrings his hands over the meaning and value of the major writer wringing his hands over a big novel (Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom). Even the big 2010 novel I admired most, Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That, left me hoping for something more like her previous big novel, 2007’s The Post-Birthday World, which tracked the subtle changes of one character depending on whether she did or didn’t pursue an affair.

That sense of nuance in The Post-Birthday World, the feeling that a universe of things were at stake within one character—its aggressive resetting of standards for what an “ambitious” novel should be—was what I missed in all of 2010’s allegedly important books. One way to think of The Post-Birthday World is as a small novel in big-novel dress. It’s long, but not self-conscious about it: A fulfillment of an author’s vision, not an obligation to publishing economics gussied up as civic duty. As Chad Harbach recently wrote in n+1, the New York-centric publishing industry is built on books “shaped by the need to make a broad appeal, to communicate quickly, and to be socially relevant in ways that can be re-created in a review.” If Franzen wants to write a big-deal novel that attracts a wide audience, it’s his right. But he’s rhetorically handcuffed by the marketplace. Freedom isn’t free.

So much cynicism radiates off Harbach’s essay it’s hard to take him too seriously; he doesn’t want to critique the literary landscape so much as show that he’s got y’all pegged. But we might both agree that the writer seeking to emulate Franzen’s bigness, or Marlantes’ bigness, or anybody else’s, is serving something, but not what matters most in fiction. If we’ve lost our sense of a collective society, we don’t need “our” story told. A good story about somebody, anybody, has to be enough.

1. Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li

Feelings of loss and entrapment stalk nearly every character in Li’s second story collection, and in discomfiting, unflinching prose she reveals not just how everybody got there but why they’re unable to escape.

2. Next by James Hynes

The middle-aged serio-comic hero of this day-in-the-life novel is needy, narcissistic, and fixated on old slights and bad romances. The comeuppance he receives isn’t just a shocking plot turn but an expose of how fragile our sense of stability can be.

3. Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus

In pop-historical terms, riot grrrl had a mayfly’s life—a few years in the early- to mid-’90s when female punk acts in D.C. and Olympia, Wash., collaborated and agitated against sexism. But the story feels epic in Marcus’ hands, showing why its moment meant the world to those who lived it, and why it still matters.

4. Vanishing Point by Ander Monson

The joy of reading Monson’s essays is that he can extract insights from seemingly anything: Dungeons & Dragons dice, Gerald Ford’s funeral, a cappella versions of Deep Blue Something’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” And it’s not shtick: Monson can find a path to self-actualization through a bag of Doritos, but his book is also a serious study of how much we manufacture our identities.

5. How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu

Mengestu is such an elegant writer that it can be easy to miss the emotional corrosion at his lead character’s center. But as it reveals itself, it hits hard: Mengestu’s novel about the son of two immigrants finds the moral costs attached to assimilation.

6. Sunset Park by Paul Auster

It’s easy to get exasperated with Auster, who’s chased his pomo obsessions down plenty of dead ends. This novel, a relatively straightforward tale about fathers, sons, friendship, and home, is among is most inviting and emotionally affecting.

7. A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction by Ruth Franklin

Franklin brings a furious intelligence to a difficult subject: Why people tell stories about the Holocaust, and whether anybody has the right to assert a “proper” way to do the telling. And in questioning icons from Night to Schindler’s List, she’s unafraid to throw a few elbows along the way.

8. Here Comes Another Lesson by Stephen O’Connor

The range of O’Connor’s short stories is both impressive and fascinating, especially considering his success rate. Mastering any idiom he chooses, he can conjure terror, revel in the absurd, and tidily lay out a straightforward tale about fidelity and family, as if writers hadn’t spent decades trying to master what seems so easily in his grasp.

9. Essays From the Nick of Time by Mark Slouka

The things Slouka pines for (silence, the humanities) and rails against (increasingly corrupt business and politics) in this essay collection threaten to make him the dean of Get Off My Lawn University. But his patience and intelligence make his arguments feel less like rants and more like reminders of bedrock principles.

10. About a Mountain by John D’Agata

Docked a few points for massaging facts, D’Agata’s study of Las Vegas, a mix of personal essay and investigative reporting, is still worth reading for its punishing exposé of the city’s hollow center—symbolized by civic leaders’ willingness to dump nuclear waste in nearby Yucca Mountain.

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