Best Fiction of 2016

December 17th, 2016  |  Published in *, December 2016

2016 has been one of the best years for fiction in quite a number of years.  The ongoing globalization of literature continues, with superb writers now emerging from all over the world.  The range of subject matter and writing styles has rarely been as varied as this year’s, and, although I am limiting my list to 12 novels, I could easily have made a “top 15” or even “top 20” list without any lowering of standards.  Most of the novels included have been reviewed throughout the year on aeqai, and all aeqais are archived on the site. Fiction which was just released in the past six weeks haven’t been reviewed, and a few of those have ended up on this year’s list, and thus the descriptions of those books will be a little longer than those novels previously reviewed. So here’s my 2016 “best fiction of the year” list; I rarely review nonfiction books, as I rarely read them. And the books are listed, if a bit arbitrarily, in the order of their excellence, as best as I can do.

1.  Stefan Hartmans, War and Turpentine.   This quiet novel is about time, and literature and art, and how all of those interact.  The author, presumably the narrator, has found some journals kept by his late grandfather, while concurrently finding sketches/sketchbooks and some completed paintings, as well.  He decides to discover the living man who was the grandfather through his writings and images; most of what we learn of grandparents ourselves is filtered through family myths, with a tendency toward puffery, making our ancestors greater than perhaps they were (in America, it would appear, lately, that no one was ever a peasant in Europe, in particular).  The narrator remembers this grandfather, mainly painting, but the journals portray him, during his years as a soldier in World War I, and a fully fleshed picture of the man begins to emerge, along with some of the best descriptive writing about the horrors of trench warfare written to date in fiction.  The family is Belgian, and Belgium, of course, saw the very worst of trench warfare: it was their poppy fields in Flanders about which the poets wrote.  Although the grandfather really was a hero in the war, his daily thoughts and actions are the stuff of the diaries, and he survives the war, but as a physically–and sometimes mentally–disabled man, who takes to painting as a kind of catharsis, and as a way of capturing memory itself (the title of the novel, thus, speaks to his role in war and as an artist).  Hartmans achieves, with real mastery, empathy, and almost detective-like analysis and sleuthing, that greatest of possibilities: he recreates the whole man, through his diaries and art, and, in the process, stumbles upon family secrets meant to remain secret: it seems as if what’s now called The Great Generation had a greater sense of discretion about such things.  This most Proustian of novels, in which Hartmans recreates and regains time, is the best novel of the year, best read slowly, as the writing is truly gorgeous, and you won’t want to skip the details.  And the narrator’s thoughts about the landscape of contemporary Belgium, in those very places where trench warfare took place, are equally fascinating, too. Hartman the adult meets his grandfather as an adult through his diaries and artwork, and the novel reminds us that every human life may well have its beautiful moments, and heroic actions, and painful secrets, but that every human life has reasons to be remembered, celebrated, and honored.

2.  Zadie Smith, Swing Time, a recent release, shows Smith again at her most brilliant, and a little sadder, perhaps.  You have to start with the understanding that Smith is commandingly brilliant, and that this novel, like her others, proposes metaphysical and philosophical ideas throughout her narrative.   Smith writes about two young black and girls living in the English version of projects; the girls meet when they are about 7, and both are enrolled in a local dance class.  Their mothers couldn’t be more different:  one is a kind of poverty mom, usually unemployed, and beginning to live through her daughter’s increasingly visible talent as a dancer; the other mother is fiercely and singlemindedly attempting an education to get her out of this life, and the daughters partially reflect these differences in their mothers.  And Tracey, the talented dancer, has a con man of a father, who vanishes for long periods of time, and the other’s father is a loving and mostly stable man, who will be left by his increasingly ambitious wife, who’ll enter the world of politics in the course of the novel, and whose education is one of liberal socialism and class consciousness. The rhythms of these friendships and characters are part of the title’s meaning, and the dance is used both as a plot device and also as a metaphor.  Told mostly from the point of view of the untalented dancer, the shifting fortunes of the two girls/women are the underlying structuring device of the novel. Our narrator will go on to work for a very Madonna-like Australian singer/dancer/performer named Aimee, and we’re privy to what it’s like to work for a one person industry, and watch the mistakes our narrator makes in thinking that she and her boss are friends.  There’s a long detour into Africa, where Aimee’s decided to build a school for girls–this is the classic attempted return to Africa, which is somewhat trendy amongst upper middle class African-Americans, and the novel does lag a bit in the lengthy descriptions of the villagers–brilliant stuff, though–and the petty corruptions of  tribal leaders  et. al. , all of whose input is needed to get this school built. And Aimee, like Madonna, will “adopt” a newborn African child–but seen through the eyes of our narrator–and, of course, of Smith–the social and moral issues raised by the rich celebrity wanting to “do good” are brilliantly analyzed.  Relationships between mothers and daughters, between the two old school friends,  are the heart of the novel, but Smith’s analyses of race and gender and class run right through the entire novel, and they are brilliant, insightful, unpitying, and are the real themes of this complicated, long, and riveting novel.  You can’t expect too much from Zadie Smith, because you’re always going to get more, and Swing Time is a brilliant meditation on postmodern ideas, though none of them bats you on the head with “message! message!”.  Thick and dense but wonderfully plotted, you’ll wonder which of the two childhood friends will “make it ” out, until you realize that, really, neither one of them does. That’s tough stuff from Zadie Smith, and will leave the reader pondering what on earth hit him or her when the novel’s finished.

3.  Michael Chabon, Moonglow. Most every fiction writer writes about time and memory; fiction itself as a genre is, in many ways, thematically about both.  In Michael Chabon’s recently released Moonglow, time and memory are center stage, but Chabon’s working on, with, and against several genres within writing: this novel appears to be a week in his own life, listening to a week’s worth of deathbed stories from his own grandfather.  It’s possible that elements of autobiography are encased in this novel, but more likely, Chabon uses the tropes of memoir and narrative nonfiction to make it seem as if this is a personal memoir of sorts. This combination of writing genres within one novel is immensely clever and very effective. And Chabon’s a whiz, a wonder, with language; just about every skill which has made Chabon one of contemporary literature’s finest purveyors is wrapped into Moonglow.

And what a story it is. Somewhere in the past decade or so, the generation born right after World War I, and which lived through World War II and The Depression became known at The Great or Greatest Generation (it’s my own parents’ generation). And Chabon’s representational grandparents, whose lives form the basis of  Moonglow, was part of that generation , too, and I think that Chabon, too, lionizes those who lived during this time frame.   Both his grandparents on his mother’s side seem extraordinary, and very differently so.  The narrator’s grandfather is a tough South Philly Jew, who uses his hands, his wits, his natural abilities with technology, to build a life wherein the kind of philosophical meanderings of Chabon’s own generation have no relevance, although it appears that the grandfather has a streak of nihilism in him, along with a profound atheism and an underlying sense of life’s pointlessness.  But he’s a man of action, and various parts of his life are the stories that make up the novel.

His time served in World War II, in Germany itself, as a kind of espionage agent, is fascinating and bluntly put forth; his real mission in German is to locate those V-2 rockets invented by Nazi officer Werner von Braun, and to either arrest or even kill von Braun.   There’s a long piece in the book about these rockets, how they were made in concentration camps in the Alps, supervised by von Braun, who, of course, became one of the hottest properties as WWII was winding down. Both the Americans and the Russians wanted von Braun to come and start their own rocket programs, and America got him (while whitewashing his Nazi history with great ease and cynicism). Anger is a huge motivating force for the grandfather, and it’s not clear whether, had he found von Braun, whether he would have arrested or killed him.  The very idea of the Jewish soldier/intelligence officer roaming through Germany during the war is fascinating, and a section wherein the grandfather is billeted with a few of his troops by a Lutheran minister, who actually shows him one of those rockets, is a moment of extreme beauty in the novel: Chabon knows exactly how to include ambiguous moments of humanity within the horrors of war to great effect. And later in life, the grandfather will be hired by NASA to make model rockets, and Chabon creates a moment where grandfather and von Braun actually meet, and it’s completely hilarious if depressing that von Braun was given such a free reign in America.

The counteracting force against the grandfather’s tendency towards action and anger is his French wife, a survivor of World War II, whom he meets accidentally at a temple “gala”–his brother-in-law is temporarily the rabbi there, and it’s love at first sight.  The grandmother suffers from various mental illnesses, and she is hospitalized from time to time, but her extreme femininity is a perfect counterpoint to his masculinity (Chabon’s superior at defining such traits relative to the time frames in which his grandparents would have been active).  His love for his possibly schizophrenic wife is total, and it’s fascinating how he does not want to learn what may have been foggy secrets surrounding her real birth and identity in France, where she’s saved by Carmelite nuns; she, too, is Jewish. This marriage is magnificently rendered by Chabon, who makes it into a truly great love story, of two most unlikely protagonists. Grandmother is also drawn to fortune telling, to Tarot card readings, and the like, all of which drive the grandfather nuts, and her visions and hallucinations are not understood, but are indulged: this side of the grandfather is unexpected, which makes it so very real and often very touching (and sometimes funny, too).

The novel’s full of petty con men and time spent in jails and mental wards, and the like, which Chabon, in presenting as family history, takes more or less for granted; his own (fictional? real?) mother is the only child, and she’s actually the daughter of the mother, and the grandparents were never able to have a child of their own).

Thus, the mother is a tough woman, a survivor herself, of a very odd childhood, but Chabon’s acceptance of eccentricities–after all, they are wonderful stuff for a writer–is fun to observe on the reader’s part.

Like Zadie Smith’s novel reviewed above, Moonglow is probably longer than it needs to be; there are areas or tangents that begin to cloy or annoy, but Chabon reigns them back in.  The grandfather’s attempt at meeting/loving a widow in a Florida retirement home was promising but ultimately tiresome, and when writer or character or stand in Chabon meets her after his grandfather’s death in a typical book signing at a Florida bookstore–a terrible cliche on Chabon’s part, alas–their conversation does not succeed in being moving or enhance much about the grandfather; alas, the new girlfriend seems little more than a Jewish princess. Chabon seems not to have known how to end the novel, the this random meeting on the book tour and the stilted dinner afterwards is too much of a cliché for a writer of Chabon’s talent and imagination. But Chabon’s grandparents make wonderful characters, and their oddly successful and very romantic love is a wonderful subtheme to this fascinating and highly readable book, which is highly successful and very brilliant.

4.  Ian McGuire, The North Water, is an updated, good old-fashioned adventure story, featuring drug addiction, sodomy, greed, murder, extortion:  how contemporary all those issues are. Put a group of oddball men together, going near the North Pole on what’s supposedly a whaling expedition, out of season, no less, and you’ve got all the makings of a kind of moralistic mystery, elements of good and evil, investigations into the behavior of men in groups, increasingly desperate, eventually without a captain and an increasing understanding on the part of just a few men that this boat’s supposed to sink for the financial betterment of someone(s).  It’s a riveting story, first and foremost; a young opium-addicted ship’s surgeon signs onto this dubious enterprise, expecting an easy ride while he uses more and more laudanum (opium) daily, until one of the young staff on the ship comes to him for medical attention, and our surgeon realizes that the young mate has probably been raped and has caught some sexually transmitted disease.  The wrong man is accused and about to be hung, but is saved at the last minute. As the ship goes farther and farther North–and astray–lawlessness seeps in, along with fear and terror, lack of food and water, shelter and safety; some men cling in small groups while others try to make it on their own.  There’s a showdown, of sorts, between our surgeon and the real predator, one of the ship’s crew, in a true good vs. evil climax of sort, but the surgeon is perceived by Native peoples as some sort of god because he survives a blizzard hidden within the skin of a bear he’s managed to kill. The plot’s clear as can be, the characters are fascinating, and we’re privy to the oldest, as well as most contemporary, behavior between and amongst men in the middle of nowhere, with no authority and no way out.  Our surgeon turns out to be a very clever man, indeed, and his ultimate showdown with the man who’s paid the captain to sink the ship is just rollicking good reading. This is a great novel, beautifully plotted and well written, and the issues it raises will remind many of what may or may not happen soon in Washington, D.C.

5.  Karan Mahaian, The Association of Small Bombs.  This truly riveting novel takes us inside the minds both of Kashmiri terrorists and those of the victims of an attack on an Indian marketplace.  Two families, one Hindu and one Muslim, have managed to transcend the hatreds towards Muslims of those who remain in Indian Kashmir, but the two young sons of the Hindu family are murdered in a marketplace bombing, while the Muslims’ son survives.  This friendship frays and tears, though doesn’t entirely break; the remaining boy suffers from survivor guilt, though he eventually begins to flirt with terrorism himself, more from loneliness than from ideology, and both sets of parents become completely absorbed into the world of terror, one starting a kind of victim self-help group (the association of small bombs of the title). Everyone who’s involved in this act of terror will have his or her life changed forever because of this one act of terror.  A fascinating sub-theme of the novel takes us into the minds and hierarchies of those terrorists, their cells, their chains of command and the like: it all seems so ordinary, so banal, to use Hannah Arendt’s word at the end of her brilliant study, Eichmann in Jerusalem.  A new subgenre of contemporary world literature, the world of terrorists themselves, is emerging, and it’s horrifyingly fascinating as well as necessary to read some of these novels in today’s world; fiction can often deliver a more powerful punch than journalism can, and this novel is proof of this hypothesis.  The issues raised by this excellent novel are urgent for all of us.

6.  Jonathan Safran Foer, Here I Am, is one of the most excitingly written novels of 2016. Foer’s use of language is astonishing in its fineness; his ear for words and their rhythms is dynamic.  It’s been awhile since we have had a great “Jewish” novel, of the ilk written by Philip Roth or Saul Bellow, for example, but Foer’s novel is in this genre and reaches greatness.  He pitilessly examines a contemporary Jewish family living in Greater Washington, D.C., with several grandparents hovering in the background, and immediate cousins living in Israel.  Three very indulged sons, one of whom is preparing for a bar mitzvah he hates the thought of, are overwhelmed by parental attention by helicpoter parents and one grandfather in particular, whose political beliefs revolve around the idea that The State of Israel can do no wrong, and all events in national affairs and even within the nuclear family are judged by that old adage “is it good or bad for The Jews”?  Foer does not veer into farce, though he leans in that direction, and some of the dialogue he creates is openly hilarious.  Politically correct parents are virtually overwhelmed by the activities that they themselves have orchestrated for their children, until wife/mom begins to withdraw more and more from family life. Small sexual innuendos are blown out of proportion; this marriage has become virtually sexless as the parents are out of time and energy; Foer handles these issues with aplomb and ease. When the cousins from Israel come to town, while Israel itself is under attack, the whole “good Jew/bad Jew” issue arises about who’s more loyal to Israel than whom, a very comic series of dialogues indeed. But we readers are aware that this marriage really is cracking by degrees, and when it does break open, Foer creates just the right amount of pathos, and bathos, too, to keep the plotline going as the children adjust to two households.  Many will not be prepared for the wife’s later decisions, which makes the novel that much more delicious, but also sad. Everyone in the novel is, in her or his way, a good person; Foer’s investigation of the contemporary marriage seen through the lens of this one family and its slow disintegration is razor sharp, both witty and astute, and a reminder that parents/adults must not lose their own identities into children’s activities.  Language itself is one of the major themes of the novel, how it can be used, and how its very transcendence reminds us of what survives the vicissitudes of daily life in contemporary America.

7.  Lauren Belfer, And After The Fire, is one of the most complexly plotted novels of the year, and brilliantly done, at that.   Part historical fact, part invention,  at the heart of this novel is an imagined, lost manuscript by J.S. Bach, which is a metaphor for the German character: the music itself, many would posit, is as close to God and/or The Divine as anything created by man, but the lyrics to said manuscript are riddled with the anti-Semitism brought to the fore by the writings of Martin Luther, and which plague the European consciousness to this day.  Belfer’s narrator, a woman who accidentally finds this manuscript amongst the belongings of a late uncle, and who herself has been hiding in despair, sets out to learn more about Bach and the manuscript, and finds a Bach scholar willing to help her. He, of course, has his doubts about the authenticity of the manuscript, and Belfer takes the readers on a kind of academic tour of Bach scholars and manuscript experts throughout New York.  Eventually, she will go to Germany with her preferred scholar, who will become her lover en route, and the two will eventually learn a great deal about its (possible) history and origins.  In order to do this, Belfer takes us into Prussia and Bach’s own era, when one very powerful Jewish family, the Levys (who were real), have a regular musical salon, to which both Jewish and Christian Society come regularly (although, as Jews, the Levys cannot be citizens of Prussia), and at which, once, a stream of virulent anti-Semitism spews from an aristocratic mouth.  Belfer’s long foray into the mores of the Levy family–it was one of Bach’s own sons who gave Sara Levy, the doyenne of the family, the manuscript as a wedding present–constitutes some of the novel’s most fascinating passages; the descriptions of the Levy salons, and their house, property and grounds, is nearly Proustian in narrative power and the beauty of the writing. 

And the Levy family itself will eventually produce the two famous Mendelsohn siblings, Felix and Fanny, and we are privy to the fascinating details of these lives, and of the hothouse in which these hugely gifted people live: Levy’s descendants almost all convert to Christianity for survival’s sake.  Belfer’s narrator’s journey into Germany, where people openly stare at her because she is Jewish, fascinated in a horrifying sort of way, but her refusal to care parallels her own opening up back to life itself.  This is a complex and magnificent novel, one I’ve thought about on and off for months since I read it.

8.  Jo Baker, A Country Lane, A Tree, continues to build the excellent reputation English writer Jo Baker’s garnering. Based upon the life of Irish writer Samuel Beckett, who was living in Paris before World War II and who chooses to stay there with his friends, mostly writers, artists and musicians, in spite of the fact that he could return safely to Ireland and sit out the war.  Beckett quickly slips into a Resistance group in Paris, and all of his friends are caught by the SS and vanish while he and his lover begin the long process of moving and hiding and slipping away from Paris itself.  Their journey through France, into safer regions, is brilliantly rendered, and Baker has a very keen eye for choosing just the right details to explain the daily privations of war, since all food in France is shipped to Germany (a rather underreported aspect of the war).  Even when the couple manages to arrive safely in Spain, Beckett is drawn again into the Resistance, and the tension between him and his lover is palpable and brilliantly rendered: she, who is Parisian, opts for the practical and the relatively safe, while he is drawn to actively helping Resistance fighters.

Eventually, Beckett returns to Ireland, where is is bored and restless, and returns to France to help set up hospitals and shelters, and the final meeting between him and his girlfriend throughout the war is one of the great adult pieces of writing this year: these two have been through too much together, too much to regain the power of their original love.  (When Beckett offers her a bag of pears, the rapture and sensuousness of her eating is one of the best pieces of writing in any novel this year. This is a flawless novel.

9.     Kelly Kerney, Hard Red Spring, a novel which didn’t get much play this year, but deserves plenty of notice.  A second novel by Kelly Kerney, the author traces the imbalanced and increasingly corrupt relationship between The United States and Guatemala, through four linked stories spanning about l00 years of Guatemalan history.  Each of the four stories is riveting; most of the major characters are women, often highly manipulated by men, power, and economics.  It may depend upon when in these stories that the reader catches on to the vastness of the corruption of various Guatemalan governments, and the near absurdity of Americans there for either business or government meddling, usually amounting to the same thing.  The author uses very credible incidents as reasons for the various protagonists to be in Guatemala, and it’s riveting and fascinating to see people at the top of their game reemerge in abject poverty, and to watch the men at play, as they so often behave like little boys with no discipline. The fake revolution that American “diplomats” create is somewhere between tragic and hilarious, as they’re up on the roof of the “embassy” with one airplane and a record player making “zoom zoom” sounds broadcast across the capital city so that citizens believe a real revolution’s on.  Bored women, steamy sex, rampant corruption and greed all are involved in these linked stories, some of the best of this year, and the novel as a totality has a power and strength, a confidence and intelligence generally associated with much older and more experienced writers.

10.  Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad, is a powerful novel about escaping slaves, seen from the point of view of one woman in particular, as she makes her way from Georgia, eventually to Michigan, on an invented underground railway, that is really a railroad, or series of small railroads built underground, usually with “stops” directly under the houses of people helping slaves to escape: it’s an interesting trope, if not an entirely necessary one , on the author’s part, though it is necessary to the final escape.

The novel’s main problem is a big one, though: the characters seem almost entirely one-dimensional, cardboard, if you will.  It’s as if Whitehead decided which lessons from the history of slavery he wanted to include in this novel, and then cookie-cuttered the characters on top of the narrative.  The most interesting character is one of the white slave chasers, actually, and though our narrator/protagonist, the escaped slave, is an intelligent woman with anger keeping her going, and is a worthy hero, some incidents in the novel lack credibility, though the majority of the novel is riveting and moving.

Since 2016 was such a good year for fiction, here are some other novels that I highly recommend:  Barkskins, by Annie Proulx; Please Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, by Boris Fishman; Peacekeeping, by Misha Berlinski;  Cities I’ve Never Lived In (Stories) by Sara Matka; The Doubter’s Almanac, by Ethan Canin;   Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee;  Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi; Mister Monkey, by Francine Prose, and When I’m Gone, by Adam Haslitt; Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler; All That Man Is, by David Szalay;  Hot Milk, by Deborah Levy,  What Belongs to You , by Scott Greenwell, High Dive, by Jonathan Lee; and Infidels, by Abdellah Taia.

–Daniel Brown



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