Of the 73 books I read in 2011, most were novels that were published in hardcover or paperback for the first time this year. (The oldest book I read in 2011, in case you’re interested, was Anthony Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset, published in 1867.) That I had trouble choosing four books to briefly discuss in this post is a testament to the good work that contemporary writers are producing—an exciting rebuke to those who feel that the only books worth reading are those by authors who died before any of us were born. No one knows which early 21st Century books will be read by future generations, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see these four among our era’s survivors.
Eric Puchner’s Model Home is the best traditional narrative I read all year. Nothing about it is postmodern, but the book shows that there are still pleasures to be had from linear narratives thoughtfully told. It’s 1985, and Warren Ziller has moved his wife and three children from their upper-class life in Wisconsin to southern California, where he hopes to get even richer by developing desert land into residences. When he learns that the site he planned to develop abuts a toxic waste dump, the family’s fortunes begin to erode, and not just from their rapidly dwindling savings. Model Home is a tale of Reagan-era excess and the consequences suffered by some of the adherents to his morning-in-America philosophy. What could have been a painful reading experience is made enjoyable by Puchner’s empathy for his characters and his eye for telling details.
A different sort of domestic drama, also a linear narrative, is Emma Donoghue’s Room. The narrator, five-year-old Jack, has known only the inside of an 11-by-11 room where he lives with his mother. His hair, never cut, is waist length, and he sleeps in a wardrobe. The only person to visit is Old Nick, whose relationship to Jack’s mother isn’t clear to him. We slowly learn that the room Jack considers a home is actually a prison from which his mother yearns to escape. The bulk of the story focuses on his mother’s attempts to break free and give her son a normal life. Donoghue pulls off a tough balancing act: Her novel is both a heart-pounding thriller and a tender portrait of a mother-son relationship. It’s an amazing book.
Equally amazing is A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan’s deserved Pulitzer winner. I wasn’t sure I would enjoy a collection of interlocking stories that take place in the punk rock scene of the 1970’s. But Egan has created a brilliant assortment of characters, from the kleptomaniac who works as an assistant to a record executive, to “La Doll,” a PR guru whose plans for a Vanity Fair-like party go horribly wrong. Egan employs just about every storytelling technique, including one chapter told in second person and the now-famous chapter told in a series of PowerPoint slides. But Egan never lets postmodern tricks get in the way of telling the story. There’s a long-standing debate in publishing circles on the merits of linear vs. nonlinear narrative. Which is better? The answer: They both can be wonderful if the writer executes them well. Goon Squad is a shrewd, well-executed book.
My favorite work of fiction from 2011 was The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes’ short novel about a young man’s suicide and its effects on a school chum now in late-middle age. Tony Webster, the amicably divorced narrator, now in his 60’s, has never really forgotten Adrian Finn, but Finn resurfaces as a factor in Tony’s life when Tony receives an inheritance he wasn’t expecting. The circumstances behind this modest windfall force Tony to renew acquaintances he had long since thought were over. Why has he received this inheritance? Why did Veronica, a former girlfriend of Tony’s, receive Adrian’s diary from the same decedent, and why is she refusing to let him see it? Barnes’ masterwork is a meditation on memory, a sobering portrait of a man whose view of himself may not be a view shared by others. Barnes is often accused of being a cold writer, the implication being, apparently, that warmer is better. There’s nothing cold or distant about the final thirty pages of this novel. They are among the most emotionally devastating of his career.
Those were my favorite books from the past year. What were some of yours?