Top Reads 2009: Fiction

To culminate the 2009 retrospective, let's count-down my favorite fiction reads Letterman style, in reverse order. So here, without further adieu, are the five works of fiction that will continue to stick with me into the new year:

5. Wells Tower, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. I remember first reading Wells Tower back in March 2005, in a hilarious article for Harper's, "Bird-dogging the Bush Vote." That put him on my radar as a journalist. But then I started seeing his stories and was equally impressed. In fact, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is one of the very few books I have ever pre-ordered, waitng for it to appear. I was not disappointed (indeed, I'm puzzled that this book hasn't gotten more attention in the glut of literary look-backs at year end). While the settings range from the contemporary Florida Keys to Viking-ravaged northern England (I'm not kidding), Tower's literary eye is trained on relationships of all sorts and stripes, particularly the awkward strains of family. And I found him refreshingly devoid of the "cleverness" that besets the McSweeney's crowd. Masterful, realistic dialogue; a literary style that's not indulgent; and a sense of humor that's not to be missed.

4. Nicholson Baker, U and I: A True Story. This one had been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years, unread. When the shock of Updike's death hit me (why did it affect me so?), I pulled this down from the shelf that night and devoured it. As with much of Baker's work, akin to Julian Barnes, classing it as "fiction" is not straightforwardly simple. (Indeed, while reading this I kept thinking of Barnes' chronicle of a literary obsession in Flaubert's Parrot.) But I find reading Baker sheer (guilty) pleasure.

3. Robertson Davies, The Fifth Business. This was a late 2009 read for me, finishing it just before Christmas. And I shouldn't have been reading it. While the rest of the family was Christmas shopping, I wandered into the $1 section of our local "Bargain Books" and found this volume. Still waiting for the family on the bench in the mall, I dove in and was immediately hooked. Davies, one of the great Canadian men of letters, is someone I should have read years ago, but never did. Fifth Business, the first volume of his Deptford Trilogy, is a wonderful way into Davies' strange blend of realism and mythology (a mythologized reality? realized mythology?). But I should confess that my relationship to the book is a bit strange since it narrates the life of a guilt-ridden boy born to Scots-Canadian Presbyterians in a small village in southwestern Ontario, so I'm a bit prone to over-identification. But Davies is a hard-nosed psychologist and a disciplined stylist. I'm looking forward to finishing the trilogy.

2. Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist. Any new book by Nicholson Baker would be on my must-read list. But a Nicholson Baker book whose protagonist is a poet? And who's regularly pontificating about theory? Sign me up! It's hard for me to communicate the pleasure I feel when reading Baker (this all began with The Mezzanine). It's as if reading "literary" fiction shouldn't be this fun, this delightful. Part of this probably stems from a kind of obnoxious insiderness, the winks and nods of allusions and references that are the inside jokes of literary culture. But I think it's more because Baker's writing is an exercise in attention--a sort of hallowing of the mundane (which, for Baker, always includes the fruits of our pop culture). Such attention is also at the heart of good poetry, which is why The Anthologist is just brilliant.

Tracking the charming neuroses of Paul Chowder, a middling poet unable to write the Introduction to his long overdue anthology, Only Rhyme. Chowder is a throwback and a romantic, devoted to rhyme and armed with an idiosyncratic account of meter. (It was hilarious to see Charles Simic, taking the bait, get sucked into a debate with the fictional Chowder in his NYRB review of The Anthologist!) But woven throughout is also a low-grade love story (Chowder's live-in girlfriend has finally given up on the relationship) drenched in beautiful longing. Even here he hallows the mundane. In fact, I can't resist putting two passages side-by-side:

What if sometime Roz let me hold her breasts again? Wouldn't that be incredible? Those soft familiar palm-loads of vulnberability--and I get to hold them? That's simply insane. Inconceivable. (p. 178)

And then later:

One time when Roz was still with me I came home late from a reading in Madison, Wisconsin, and she was already asleep, and so was the dog. I kicked Smacko in the head by mistake in the dark, not too hard, but he made a little growly yelp, and I said I was sorry to him, and that woke Roz. I got in bed, and she smelled so smilingly sleepy that soon I had my hand on her hip and I said, "Baby, that is one big sexy hip."

She stirred and said, "Yikes, what's going on here?"

I said, "I don't know, what's going on with you?"

She turned and unbuttoned her pajama top over me, and I could see one of her breasts outlined in the orange light coming from the street. Her breasts didn't have to rhyme, but in fact they did rhyme (pp. 203-204).

Did you catch that--"she smelled so smilingy sleepy that soon..."? The beauty of The Anthologist is that it retrospectively helps us appreciate what we should have seen all along: Baker's prose is positively poetic.

1. Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel. Some books are so significant for me I'm too intimidated to write about them. (I don't think I've ever written about Jean Giraudoux's Choice of the Elect, which might be the most significant novel I've ever read.) Wolfe's gargantuan (662 pages!) Bildungsroman is still seeping into and out of the joints of my imagination. I spent the summer with it, including a week in Asheville, NC (the setting of the book, where I visited Wolfe's boyhood home in pilgrimage). Without any direct influence, I think it is a profoundly Augustinian meditation on selfhood and identity in terms of "exile" and "home." At times Wolfe's modernism is Joycean in its stream-of-consciousness peeks into the rattled mind of E.O. Gant. But it is the characters of this family that endure most (something like the characters of The Sound and the Fury). This book will be "with" me for a long time and I hope someday I'll be able to approach it more reflectively and critically.

Honorable mention: Philip Roth, The Ghost Writer. My first Roth, read in a little season spent with Jewish writers (including Bellow's Ravelstein and stories from The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel). While these are often meditations on exile and outsiderness, I find myself feeling most "outside" the literary world when I read Jewish-American writers--a sensation which has its own strange pleasures and temptations.