Best Fiction of 2011

January 23rd, 2012  |  Published in Features, January 2012

The year 2011 in new fiction began as bleakly as any in recent memory.  By the end of summer, only two or three novels seemed even to be somewhat good – and we need to watch literary/politically correct trends, to make certain we’re not simply reading what’s been declared good for us/for the victimized but newly empowered writer.  In past years, literature has been saturated with “chick lit”, “ethnic lit”, et. al., and currently we are on the receiving end of novels from and about Eastern Europe, particularly The Balkans: foreign policy and/or sociology are not the same as literature, although cultural affairs may enlighten other civilizations and cultures for us.

By autumn of 2011, one novel after another of superior quality came out – and so many are first novels, that over and above my delight in discovering new writers, is my somewhat stunned amazement that fiction is not only flourishing amongst our younger colleagues, but we are witnessing a flowering of fiction redolent of the nineteenth-century novel: lengthy, descriptive works, slow to develop – and complex in structure and in language’s celebratory riches.

I am, for the second year, putting my favorites in order of perceived excellence: this is always a difficult and somewhat arbitrary task, but it forces comparisons in many different ways and hones my own analytical skills; yet, like connoisseurship in painting, the choices require something of an informed intuition.

1) The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach (Little, Brown) This relatively slow paced first novel, a rite(s) of passage book wrapped within a baseball novel, also reexamines what family means, and how a small number of students at a midwestern liberal arts college gain self-knowledge and the ability to care deeply about others, to love and develop amour proper in the best Eric Fromm-derived manner (see Fromm, The Art of Living)  The depth and intensity of the relationships Harbach creates make sense on a college campus and on a baseball team, but Harbach aims much higher as he redefines friendship between and amongst unlikely duos, creates intimacies between and amongst people who might have been marginalized and/or bullied not so long ago.  Two gay male characters’ integration into the school’s dominant culture is revelatory in the depictions of both intellectual and athletic abilities.  The predominant relationships between a snappy inner-city raised player and the genius shortstop he discovers and mentors may be the finest description of friendship between young men in contemporary literature.  The game provides the backdrop for character development and situations where these families a deux overlap- The President of The College and the shortstop’s roommate; The President’s daughter and the scrappy catcher; the President and his daughter; and the underlying linkages between characters and nineteenth-century literature – Moby Dick in particular – build layers of intention, and characters with the kind of empathy we associate with our best youth.  Harbach’s youth are truly post-Holden Caulfield.  With the exception of one coincidence which seems contrived – The President’s departure – this book is flawless, moving but not sentimental, powerful yet modest.  It is one of several novels of exceptional grace reexamining the concepts of family and friendship, and Harbach includes a gay roommate/baseball player who if eccentric, finds himself liked and respected and central to the book’s movement:  our younger writers take some social situations for granted that were nearly taboo in literature a decade ago.  Ideology has been dropped from much new contemporary fiction; “real” 3-dimensional characters have emerged instead.

2) Ten Thousand Saints, by Eleanor Henderson (Ecco/HarperCollins).  This debut novel stuns us with its exuberant prose, the author’s excellent eye for the defining detail, and, like The Art of Fielding, its reexamination of the role of family – and/or its surrogates – in contemporary life (and literature).  Each character Henderson creates comes from a divorced boomer family; these childrens’ awareness of their parents’ follies and foibles forms the backdrop for a combination coming-of-age novel, an on-the-road with buddies (of mixed gender) book, and a novel where the role of ’80s music is central to the identities of the characters and the era they define.  Three teenagers from broken homes create a family of their own, after the death of a half-brother/best friend of two of them, and the accidental pregnancy of the hip New York high school private-school privileged female who drops in on their Vermont NYE party almost by accident.  Their determination to keep and rear this baby plays out against hippie Vermont and the straight-edge music scene evolving in Alphabet City (NYC) in the ’80s.  The care, concern, and love amongst these three and their eventual acceptance of their own foibles – and their parents’ – makes for a terrific narrative, and one of the most moving novels of the decade.  (Note: Henderson studied writing with the great ’60s chronicler Ann Beattie, and Chad Harbach may have, as well).  Her language is rhythmically notched to full-speed, reminding us of the music she skillfully weaves into the novel.

3) The Grief of Others, by Leah Hager Cohen (Riverhead) also examines the dynamics of the contemporary American family, making this year’s top four novels all revolve around this timeless, yet far from exhausted, theme: refreshed, reinvigorated, restored to the centrality of fiction and referring to the origins of novels in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, from George Eliot and Jane Austen forwards.  Cohen’s territory is the toughest of the three being compared: the nuclear family under her microscope/magnifying glass – career-driven wife/mother; father/husband, and two children-bullied adolescent boy and dreamy, imaginative school-cutting preadolescent sister/daughter and an occasional but pivotal visit from the father’s daughter from another relationship – are tightly wound around one another.  Cohen courageously makes the mother/wife figure not particularly likeable – understandable, but neither warm nor nurturing – and the author is able to penetrate into the minds and emotions of each character with a precision that astonishes with its insights.  Cohen concurrently analyzes the ramifications of these minefields – many mundane, some enormous – upon each character as events unfold.  This ability of Cohen’s is uncanny and as successful as any psychological writing around.  How the mother/wife’s angers and fabrications almost break the family, and how she redeems herself twice via the float-in, float-out stepdaughter, allows us to understand the underpinnings of this family; the husband/father’s empathy.  Cohen reverses the parental gender roles – the father is the nurturer, the mother the main breadwinner – and she thereby highlights the brittle contemporary family and its internal inconsistencies.  The Grief of Others is elegant and sophisticated and tough – two secondary characters are as beautifully introduced and rendered to clarify two major characters – as any I’ve read this year.  One might easily call these top three novels a tie for best novel of 2011.

4) Swamplandia! By Karen Russell (Knopf).  Another knockout debut novel, also circling around the theme of the contemporary family (these novels walk a fine line between the family’s dissolution and creative methods of regeneration, even redemption).  Swamplandia! is a derelict theme park in Southern Florida, whose temporary tourist attraction abruptly ends when the mother of the family, who’s been diving and swimming amongst alligators for tourist dollars, dies of cancer.  Two young, barely adolescent daughters and one son attempt to keep things afloat, while a competitive theme park begins to win the tourists over (descriptions of gift shop junk have rarely been more laughably described); the son goes to work for the competition as both daughters’ early sexuality emerges while plotting Swamplandia!‘s revival.  Innocence is lost in the swamps of Southern Florida – the author introduces elements of magic realism, which becomes inter-changeable with schizophrenia and dehydration at times – the descriptions and parallels are brilliantly conceived – and the swamps, and the sister’s differing wanderlust therein – become a superb metaphor for their early sexual awakening, as well (the latter not noted by a single reviewer to date).  That Swamplandia! is lost matters less that the safe deliverance of these three children – Russell’s young narrator is a tour-de-force – and their reunion with their bizarre father.  The family is, once more, the source of strength, love, and redemption, yet its center has moved far from the nuclear.

5) Emily, Alone, by Stuart O’Nan (Viking Adult) O’Nan has become one of America’s most versatile and imaginative writers.  A sequel to a family saga, Emily is, in this novel, a comfortably off widow who has chosen to remain in the large family house, alone with her crotchety springer spaniel.  Her one regular friend, her never married sister-in-law, and Emily make carefully timed forays into the (same) restaurants, museums, shops of Pittsburgh. They phone each other frequently, though rarely visit.  Emily’s three (disappointing) children are, thus, her friend’s nieces and nephews.  The daily dignities – or indignities – of life alone, the stratagems for not clinging to children or grandchildren, the learning to keep her mouth shut around her not-often-present family (including conversations with herself) are nearly pitch perfect descriptions of life alone as a rapidly aging widow: the small rituals, the longing for warm weather, the walk-through of houses for sale in the neighborhood of places peopled with her past.  The occasional health emergency reminds both women of the extreme fragility of their arrangements (the dog is described as well as any animal in recent fiction).  Rarely has old age been so sensitively depicted and dissected, its peculiar senses of time so well rendered. Emily’s courage, manifested in myriads of small ways, is poignantly described.  Emily, Alone is a magnificent novel.

6) The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht (Random House).  This debut novel by a young former Yugoslavian is a remarkable tribute to her own late grandfather.  The author’s ability to enter his world, his origins, his marriage, his humanity – he is a doctor with liberal sensibilities – is uncanny.  Much of the novel integrates the superstitions, fables, and myths prevalent in rural less developed regions, and she is no less than brilliant in her understanding of the narratives inherent in superstitions, how they develop and can manipulate mobs of people.  The loving relationship between grandfather and granddaughter – a doctor in training – is poignant, ebullient, moving, the writing is superb.

7) The Memory of Skin, by Russell Banks (Ecco/HarperCollins).  This courageous novel examines the world of America’s most pariahed people: convicted sex offenders, who, even after serving their prison time, are hounded and shunned forever.  One of them, a 20-year-old simply named The Kid, is befriended by a professor studying the homeless patterns of convicted sex offenders.  What may sound like a sociological treatise is actually an attempt on the professor’s part – he has a past he’s hiding, too – to empower these men, living under an expressway bridge – to create rules and structures to keep their “camp” safe – to make it a home: again, a kind of family.  The friendship and trust between the professor and The Kid constitutes the core of this compelling, sometimes chilling, and occasionally mysterious novel.

8) The Marriage Plot, by Jeffery Eugenides (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux).  Eugenides creates a series of groups of two people, with overlaps between and amongst them, following the friendships of two men and a man and woman through their last year at Brown University – their friendships and love affairs are so finely observed, as is their sense of drift, of a future with no focus – as to transcend the rite-of-passage novel.  The characters’ angst, occasional overindulgent intellect (early sections spoof post-modernism’s linguistic excesses and pompous pretensions with wit and intelligence).  The four drift (2 through Europe, and eventually India), and the other two fall in love and live together.  The male in the male/female couple is manic-depressive, and life with him, before college and after, is a brilliant analysis of this dastardly mental condition and its effect on him and all around him.  This large part of the novel raises the book from compelling to greatness, even tragedy, and reminds us that the self-absorption of youth can be as fertile for a writer as the wisdom of later years.

9) Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux).  This novella by the author of the recently acclaimed Vietnam-war inspired Tree of Smoke circles around the brutish life of a young (twentysish) man who doesn’t know or remember his origins, parents, early life, but who must make a living helping to develop the Western railroad in Idaho.  Nearly no one speaks throughout the book: these men work, eat, dream, sleep.  Johnson captures the acute loneliness of this one of many such men – the Western railroads aren’t that old – and allows his narrator to marry and father a child.  His natural or latent warmth and fierce affection – magnificently described – for his new family (the brief courtship is heartbreaking), as well as the house he builds for them – constitute the high moments of his life: all is destroyed by a naturally driven fire.  Yet our young man – symbol, metaphor, man and ghost – and dwells in this solitary manner, presumably forever, because he remembers his one attempt at love there.  The mood of the novel is riveting, realistic and not entirely without its redemptive moments.

10) The Stranger’s Child, by Alan Hollinghurst (Knopf).  Hollinghurst, one of England’s best writers, offers another lengthy paean to nineteenth-century literature in this occasionally meandering, but often tough and biting novel (I think most reviewers have missed most of its points, as the latter one-third or so seems to disappoint and/or to dissipate: it does but for specific reasons).  An upper-class Rupert-Brooke like prep school poet comes to visit his roommate for a holiday, and everyone in the house but one brother besides the roommate also falls in love with him.  He writes one poem which will last and become famous long after his death in WWI.  The original roommate’s sister claims the poem and the poet for herself – it will make her a “character” for life (she marries his brother, et. al.).  The public fascination with this minor luminary – books are written, conceived, information sought – continues for generations; most of which revolves around the probable homosexuality of the poet.  Hollinghurst offers a multi-generational examination of different scholarly approaches to the “texts” (the sex is in the background, and rather discreet for the author).

By the 1980s, when the novel actually takes place, arts and letters have transmogrified from the discretion of the private life into the “outing” of anyone who may have either known the poet or written of him. The last third involves the traipsing through literally ashes of demolished houses, seeking yet more (already exposed and only peripherally interesting) homoproof.  Some of this later stuff is really a hilarious spoof of the post-“outed” generation of gay writers and scholars, and disappoints, as their theses devolve into gossip and irrelevance, shored up by characters manqué and the political correctness of academia and publishing.  Hollinghurst also writes with such grace and aplomb that he’s always worth reading.  (He also takes the historical conservation folks – Victorians in particular – much to task in this often very funny novel).

Other novels worth reading from 2011

1)      The Free World, by David Bezmozgis

2)      Open City, by Teju Cole

3)      The Submission, by Amy Waldman

4)      The Pale King, the novel-in-progress by David Foster Wallace before his suicide

5)      The Sense of an Ending and Pulse (two different books) by Julian Barnes

6)      Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles

–Daniel Brown


Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, her non-fiction account of the death of her daughter Quintana Roo, on the heels of the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne (The Year of Magical Thinking) must be mentioned, as Didion remains the greatest essayist-memorist in the world.  No one on Earth writes prose as well as she does.  This greatest of writers-prose-poet-musician-Greek chorus-tones her hot, minimal prose down to a lower burner, which becomes an ear-wrenching scream of horror as she realizes that words – those ideas in which her genius lies – may fail her in the face of such grief.

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