It has been an interesting year for fiction. I mean this, of course, in the very specific sense that it has been a wonderful year to be a reader of novels and stories (though when is it not?), but then also in the sense that we are living in a time of alternative facts, of subjective truth, of constructed (however shoddily) reality. It has thus become increasingly difficult to find within our existing world many places of beauty or hope; it feels like it has fallen on us to create those moments, create a new way of being.
This has started to happen, I think. It can be seen in the waves of protests that have swept over this country in the last 12 months. It can be seen in the voices of the women and men who have spoken about enduring countless incidences of sexual abuse and harassment. It can be seen in the downfalls of dozens of powerful men. It feels like we have the power to build a new truth right now, a better reality. This is a dangerous thing, of course. It would be easy to fuck up entirely. But it is also a time full of wild potential, of possibility.
And then also we can just read about such things. Each of the following books is notable this year precisely because of the ways in which they created their own realities, their own truths. Each of these books reflects the world with varying degrees of distortion, all the better in which to reflect the person peering into them. Within these pages, you will find ghosts, magical doorways, and an amputee ukelele virtuoso. You will also find love, grace, humor, despair, and rage. You will find no capital "T" truth, which is a relief, of sorts, because it makes it all the easier to find your own truth in these imagined worlds.
Here, then, are the best fiction books of 2017.
The Gift by Barbara Browning (available here)
In trying, recently, to explain The Gift to a friend, I found myself resorting again and again to the word "exuberant." In part this is because Browning's writing is joyful, even radiant, at so many points; this work of autofiction is overflowing with sexuality, sensuality, intellectual and artistic curiosity, and wonder. This is not to say that it's glib. There is a sharp edge of melancholy throughout and one of the most devastating, beautiful breakup scenes I've ever read. But the exuberance extends to how Browning handles the concept of truth within The Gift, in that the idea of truth is ever-expanding; its meaning grows and shifts. The question of whether or not truth is a game is posed; the answer relies on whether or not everyone who is playing is following the rules. That is the crux of everything, really, this focus on the power of collaboration and how, when done right, we can only then work together toward making everything from art to love to a better reality.
(Read my profile of Browning here.)
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang (available here)
Zhang's loosely interconnected stories of Chinese immigrant families now settled in New York City and its close-lying suburbs contain some of the funniest writing I've read in ages, and accurately depict the grotesque beauty of the body (and all its functions) in a manner I found endlessly compelling. As I wrote in an earlier review, Zhang "doesn’t shy away from the ugly, the fetid, and the grotesque. But even though these characters inhabit worlds filled with profound pain and trauma, those aspects of their lives don’t determine their reality on the whole. There is still an abundance of love, complicated though that may be; there are still moments of family togetherness over late-night meals of Cup Noodles, with one family member showing love to another by picking out the desiccated peas and carrots from their styrofoam cup." Sprawling and intimate all at once, Sour Heart offers a much-needed glimpse into the lives of people too rarely found in the pages of widely read American fiction. It also offers, through the ways in which each of its characters tangentially comes into the lives of one another, a glimpse into the varying ways we perceive each other, and how inherently subjective our shared reality will always be.
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan (available here)
What happens when displacement enters your DNA? This is the question that Alyan's brilliant debut novel both poses and answers, and—to borrow a heavily used phrase—it feels like one we particularly need to be asking ourselves right now. As I wrote in a prior review, the novel "spans over 50 years and several generations in the life of the Yacoubs, a Palestinian family, who have relocated their homes—sometimes by choice, sometimes decidedly not—multiple times and in multiple locations across the world. An epic in every sense of the word, due in no small part to its geography (the novel is set in locations as far-flung as Kuwait, Paris, Boston, Beirut, and Jaffa), its incorporation of world-changing events (the Six Day War, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the 2006 bombing of Lebanon), and the fact that the narrator changes chapter by chapter (ranging from a man in his 70s to an adolescent girl), Salt Houses also shines in its intimate details; notably, in the ways in which no character is allowed to be a stereotype, and in the way it grapples with those all too human-scaled experiences of alienation and belonging, displacement, and rebuilding. Alyan might be grappling with universal problems like war and brutality, but since she renders them through the perspective of one family, through their personal triumphs and struggles, she keeps these issues on a recognizable scale."
(Read my interview with Alyan here)
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (available here)
Only the fiercest of fables would take root in a place called Bois Sauvage, and that’s exactly what Jesmyn Ward’s latest novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing is: a wild, piercing mythic narrative, in possession of teeth sharp as the pointy end of an arrow, which exposes the difficult truth that there is no relief from time—or from history.
Spanning both the course of a couple of days and several generations of a Mississippi Delta-based family, Sing, Unburied, Sing centers around 13-year-old Jojo as he and his toddler sister, Kayla, leave behind their beloved grandparents, Mam and Pop, and accompany their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, to pick up their father, Michael, at Parchman, the northern Mississippi prison where he’s been incarcerated for the past three years. Though reminiscent of other epic Southern journey novels, notably William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and that other archetypal road trip narrative The Odyssey, here the monsters are sickly sweet-smelling white men and women, whose inescapable allure lays not merely in the pleasures they offer, but in their own imperviousness—to punishment, yes, but also seemingly to time itself. Their power resides beyond the realm of consequence; it exists outside of recent positive developments meant to combat things like institutional racism. Their power laughs in the face of things like social progress. As one characters notes about the injustices of the world, “Sometimes I think it done changed. And then I sleep and wake up, and it ain’t changed none.”
And yet this story remains one of hope, a testament to the ways in which we learn to heal each other, no matter how imperfect the world or how much tragedy strikes our lives. It’s emblematic of how we must work to live within something bigger than ourselves, to be our best no matter how wild are the woods around us, no matter how easy it is to get lost. It’s a love that shows how interdependent we all are on one another, and how that isn’t a bad thing; or, in the words of Mam, it’s a way of knowing none of us are alone, “because we don’t walk no straight lines. It’s all happening at once. All of it. We all here at once.”
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (available here)
How could we have expected anything else from Saunders than to release a debut novel that... wasn't really a novel at all? Instead, it's one long Greek chorus, of sorts (it's a ragtag group of ghosts), interspersed with historical anecdotes, both real and false, depicting the time period when the book takes place—namely, the days following the death of President Abraham Lincoln's beloved son, Willy. Though full with the pitch dark comedic moments familiar to Saunders fans, Lincoln in the Bardo is mainly a melancholic meditation on personal loss, and the ego attached to it, and a reminder that we are no more alone in our grief than we are in our joy, and thus we must work collectively to let go of our own hangups in order to move toward some better, brighter future, no matter how terrifying.
Marlena by Julie Buntin (available here)
I actually read Marlena in 2016, not long after the presidential election, during a time when I was barely sure what the present held, let alone the future. In some ways, this novel feels like a small one because of how intimate it is, how focused on the interior lives of its two main characters, the narrator, Cat, and her doomed best friend, Marlena. But as I revisited it more than once over the course of this year, its expansiveness is what stood out to me, its ability to take the specific feelings of loss and missed opportunity, of wild joy and willful self-destruction, and make them universally recognizable. Marlena is more than a story of friendship and young womanhood, death and addiction (though it is, beautifully, all of those). It is instead a story about a disappearing America and the dreamless sleepwalking many of us have been doing; it is a story about possibility and consequences, about burning bright and hot and then burning out. It is a reminder of the untapped power and wasted potential of so many young people. It is, as I wrote in an earlier review, a book that "resonates on a cellular level, unlocking feelings you might have forgotten you’d ever had." Read it now.
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong (available here)
What could have been an altogether impossibly sad premise—a young, unemployed woman goes home after a traumatic breakup to live with her parents and help out as her father's dementia worsens—is instead a beautiful, hilarious look at family bonds, and the constantly evolving state of love and shared memories. As I wrote in an earlier review, Goodbye, Vitamin "manages to subvert any expectations you might have about such a sad premise and take you on a provocative journey toward understanding the complications of love, both familial and romantic. It's poignant and compassionate, accurately demonstrating the ways in which we struggle to maintain our composure even when we're sure we're falling apart on the inside. Khong's insights into our relationships with our parents, our partners, and ourselves are profoundly moving, and the ending scene left me in tears—a condition that only stopped so that I could immediately text everyone I know that they had to read this brilliant book."
The Answers by Catherine Lacey (available here)
Is there any question more pressing, more vexing, more desperately in need of an answer than, "How do you solve the problem of being a woman?" I mean, it is a problem, right? That's what we're taught to believe anyway, via the constant insidious messages inundating our lives, telling us that it's not okay to feel or look or think or act the way we do, telling us that there are ways we can fix ourselves, empty out all the complications that make us who we are, all the better to just be... nothing, erased.
Erasure is central to Catherine Lacey's exquisite second novel. Main character Mary Parsons has all but erased her past, even leaving behind her birth name. She's also sold off all her worldly possessions to pay for the medical treatment she needs for her chronic, undiagnosed pain, for which the only cure appears to be a mysterious, mildly mystical treatment called PAKing. And in order to pay for that, Mary enters into something called the Girlfriend Experiment (GX), a Hollywood star-conceptualized way of solving the problem of relationships; in other words, the GX attempts to answer the question: How do you solve the problem of being with a woman?
If all of this sounds sort of heavy and dark, borderline nihilistic, well, that's because it is. It's also a profound meditation on the ways in which young women today not only have erasure forced upon them but also how they erase themselves, all the better to deal with the pain the world visits upon them. Lacey's incisive look into the state of young womanhood today will feel like it's echoing in your head and rattling around in the depths of your body long after you've turned the final page.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (available here)
There is no shortage of magic in Mohsin Hamid's profoundly moving fairytale-like rendering of two lovers, Saeed and Nadia, who meet by chance in their war-torn homeland, and soon find themselves traveling across the world, via a series of mysterious doors, which transport refugees to places of relative safety; they are "doors that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away." But while being a refugee is, by definition, a life of movement and change, what becomes resoundingly clear is that this type of displacement might not change the character of the person who left home, but it does, when it happens on the type of large scale depicted in this novel and existing in the real world, imply a change in the meaning of the concept of home. If everyone is suddenly newly mobile, willingly or not, what does it mean to leave a home—and its people—behind? And what does it mean to create something new? Although Hamid doesn't flinch from depicting the horrors of war and the instability associated with being a refugee, he leaves readers with a sense of hope about what is possible in a time of mass migration. It might not be utopia, not yet, but it surely doesn't need to be its opposite.
Made for Love by Alissa Nutting (available here)
There is a multitude of paths to a dystopian reality. We’re all pretty familiar with most of them by now: nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, the rise of religious extremism, economic collapse, even the election of a cretinous buffoon with the vocabulary of a 7-year-old. But there’s also another less-considered route: love. Perhaps it doesn’t register as disastrous in the same way that, say, catastrophic climate change does, but who says apocalyptic hell has to be global? In Alissa Nutting’s Made for Love, dystopia gets personal as one woman, Hazel, flees a toxic marriage in which her husband, Byron, has been using all the means at his disposal to control every aspect of her life. And what means they are! Byron is a tech magnate whose monolithic corporation, Gogol Industries, is making great progress toward its goal of inserting itself into all elements of human existence. The last straw for Hazel comes when Byron wants to take their love to the next level, by connecting them via brain chips for a literal “mind-meld.” Hazel flees and finds herself attempting to forge a new life in a senior citizen-filled trailer park, where she lives with her father and his sex doll, Diane. Nutting’s uniquely hilarious voice is the perfect guide to this darkly surreal, extremely relatable universe, in which the absurd becomes expected and our own personal hells feel like they’ve been perversely rendered in neon, airbrushed paint. Oh, and there are dolphins (and a man in love with one in particular). What more could you want in a book, really?