Favorite Books of 2008 (With Some Additional Thoughts on Ha Jin’s A Free Life)

Lately I’ve been thinking that Ha Jin‘s A Free Life, my favorite novel of last year, was published a year too early. In 2007, a novel about one immigrant family’s steady, penny-pinching march toward middle-class American attainment struck a lot of critics as tedious. Walter Kirn‘s evisceration of the book in the New York Times Book Review was typical of the complaints: “Jin’s simple sentences, familiar sentiments, and uneventful three- to five-page chapters that typically end with such pulse-suppressing non-cliffhangers as ‘the day before the Wangs returned, the Wus moved out of the bungalow and set up their residence at 568 March Drive,’ appear to derive from a highly refined aesthetic of anti-excitability.” Today, with the markets in the tank, homes devalued, and unemployment on the rise, I suspect that the exploits depicted in A Free Life would now be seen as at least slightly more dramatic and in step with the present times.

Perhaps the novel’s fate would also have improved had it been published at the same time as Jin’s The Writer as Migrant, a new collection of essays about the writer’s identity—its analysis of the lives and works of Joseph Conrad, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, V.S. Naipaul, and others might have challenged critics not to dismiss Jin’s novel as simplistic and naive. Though Jin doesn’t explicitly discuss A Free Life in the book, The Writer as Migrant makes clear that writing the novel represented some serious decisions about his status: “A writer’s first responsibility is to write well…. On several occasions, I said that I would stop writing about contemporary China. People often asked me, ‘Why burn your bridges?’ or ‘Why mess with success?’ I would reply, ‘My heart is no longer there.’ In retrospect, I can see that my decision to leave contemporary China in my writing is a way to negate the role of the spokesmanship I used to envision for myself. I must learn to stand alone, as a writer.”

I bring all this up in a year-in-review post because A Free Life stuck with me through 2008—I spent some time blogging about it, thinking about why I liked it, and figuring out what it meant for me in terms of what I look for in fiction. I believe that A Free Life does what good contemporary fiction ought to do, at least by my reckoning: bring the news that the news doesn’t bring, and essentialize the feelings of displacement and confusion that come along with living in the early part of the 21st century. If that seems like a reductionist way of looking at fiction, all I can say is that the novels I was most drawn to this year strongly spoke to a concern that, right now, the center isn’t holding. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may have brought little physical harm to anybody living safely in the United States, but, on the evidence, it’s fucked with our heads something fierce. There’s no better exemplar of that than August Brill, the sleepless hero of Paul Auster‘s Man in the Dark, who can’t resist working through a fantasy where “America is fighting America.” Auster’s approach to the novel’s structure—narratives nested within narratives, worries within worries—is both a fitting story for 2008 and an enduring achievement within Auster’s own body of work, which has been erratic in recent years.

I didn’t go hunting for allegories of war, or even of emotional displacement, in 2008. I took in plenty of satire, historical fiction, and portraits of contemporary domestic life. Still, standard-issue realism doesn’t seem to matter as much to me in this moment, even if there was plenty of fiction in that vein that I admired, among them Ethan Canin‘s America America, Jhumpa Lahiri‘s Unaccustomed Earth, Matt Bondurant‘s The Wettest County in the World, Daniel Wroblewski‘s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Francine Prose‘s Goldengrove, and Joseph O’Neill‘s Netherland. As much as I respected Netherland‘s formal achievements of style and characterization—you don’t realize how hard it is to find a novel that addresses immigrants with respect and dignity until such a book shows up—it still mainly strikes me as a beautifully formed love letter to New York City that’s boxed in by its own formality. (This is, I know, a much shallower analysis than the book deserves; Zadie Smith‘s recent essay in the New York Review of Books does a nice job of articulating some of what I felt reading Netherland.) The only novel on my list that approaches old-fashioned realism is Lush Life, an impressive portrait of the shifting demographics of a single city neighborhood, dressed up in the clothing of a police procedural. Netherland has much to say about what 9/11 did to the middle-upper class in New York, unquestionably. But Lush Life has room for everybody.

As for the the rest of this list, I should say: I missed tons. Forget Roberto Bolaño‘s 2666; I didn’t have a chance to get to (just to pick a few obvious examples) Toni Morrison‘s A Mercy, Aleksandar Hemon‘s The Lazarus Project, Ron Rash‘s Serena, and Louise Erdrich‘s A Plague of Doves. I would’ve happily traded the week I spent with Joyce Carol Oates‘ overcooked JonBenet Ramsey-esque tale, My Sister, My Love, to get to a couple of those (though I thought that Oates’ collection Wild Nights! was a wholly successful attempt at inhabiting the personas of four American writers). So whether or not it reflects the limits of what I could get to, my list gravitates toward books that exemplify the kind of mindfuck the present times create: In Rivka Galchen‘s and Nathaniel Rich‘s novels, it’s a worry about who’s real and trustworthy, and who isn’t; in Paul Beatty‘s and Andrew Sean Greer‘s novels it’s the interior dialogue about racial identity that’s been a tentpole in American fiction for decades if not centuries; in Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s novel it’s the rootlessness that comes with others applying your identity upon you; in Jack Pendarvis‘ satire it’s the creeping sense that old-fashioned American pride does nothing but make you a punch line. And in Tim Lane‘s EC Comics-inspired, almost willfully cliched graphic stories, it’s an argument that the essential American state of being is noirish—black-hearted, ground-down, covetous, just about ready to crater emotionally and financially.

Lane encourages just this sort of interpretation of the American Dream his afterword to the book:

The America I portray in these stories, especially through the drawings, is a surrealistically exaggerated one—sometimes comical, other times nightmarish. Comics are especially conducive to communicating the American Mythological Drama because there’s something fundamentally comic book-like in all things American—by that, I mean exaggerated, idealistic, huge and somewhat disproportionate; beautiful but not necessarily believable, stylized, idealized. Dysfunctional to the point of functional. Surrealistic. Photogenic. Enigmatic. Dreamy.

I imagine, reading this, that Lane and Auster would get along like a house on fire; Jin, if nothing else, would appreciate Lane’s chosen mission. Figuring out how many of these books will endure is a pointless speculative game. All I’m looking for is the news that the news doesn’t bring, and if somebody wants to know what fictions best captured the emotional pitch of living in 2008, here’s what I’d hand over first:

Paul Auster, Man in the Dark (Henry Holt)
Nathaniel Rich, The Mayor’s Tongue (Riverhead)
Paul Beatty, Slumberland (Bloomsbury)
Rivka Galchen, Atmospheric Disturbances (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Richard Price, Lush Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Tim Lane, Abandoned Cars (Fantagraphics)
Andrew Sean Greer, The Story of a Marriage (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Joyce Carol Oates, Wild Nights! (Ecco)
Jack Pendarvis, Awesome (Macadam/Cage)
Rudolph Wurlitzer, The Drop Edge of Yonder (Two Dollar Radio)

Is Barack Obama Going to Improve the Washington Novel?

Among the galleys currently taunting me on my bookshelf is The Rules of the Game, the forthcoming novel by former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr. I don’t exactly have high hopes for it—if the book itself has as many groaning cliches as the promotional patter—“highest levels of Washington politics,” “ripped from today’s headlines,” “dark secrets,” “network of wrongdoing”—I’m tempted to say I’ve already read it. (Somebody in Knopf’s PR department really does need a talking-to here. There are about five people living in Crystal City who are gonna get excited about a promo blurb that includes the term “no-bid Pentagon contracts.” No-bid Pentagon contracts! Seatbelts fastened!)

The blurb also slyly points out that the novel features a woman president. The female-president-in-crisis has long been a hacky film device (probably in novels too, though I can’t think of an example at the moment), but it may prove to be even less interesting now that a black president-elect is preparing to take charge. Smartly, wire service the Canadian Press Associated Press’ deployed a reporter to find out if Obama’s election marks a change for the Washington novel. (Which has a few issues.) Christopher Buckley naturally gets a lot of the story’s real estate, but I’m glad the anonymous journalist Hillel Italie thought to give Ward Just a ring:

Ward Just, a former Washington Post reporter whose novels include “Jack Gance” and “The American Ambassador,” hopes Obama will inspire a couple of trends. Just looks forward to more stories about members of Washington’s black middle class and to a more serious approach to government.

“It’s so difficult to write about Washington without satire,” Just says. “Washington is a lot like Hollywood; the city has become so outsized and so preposterous in so many ways. If an Obama administration could bring some real statecraft and is seen as interesting and intelligent, that might prepare for a reader for a straight ahead novel that happened to be in Washington.”

Update: Thanks to Sarah Weinman for letting me know that the story was an AP piece by Hillel Italie, not an unbylined piece by the Canadian Press.

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I’ll be out of pocket here through the Thanksgiving weekend, catching up on some reading and writing, though I may poke my head up on Twitter on occasion. Have a good holiday, and thanks for reading.

Idiosyncratic Distortions With JCO

Readerville’s Gayla Bassham points to the San Diego Union-Tribune‘s interview with Joyce Carol Oates, who’s traveling to San Diego to discuss two of her latest books, the novel My Sister, My Love and the short-story collection, Wild Nights! I’m much more a fan of the latter than the former—her ability to inhabit the minds of four notable American writers seems like a more impressive achievement then registering a straightforward (if epic) grouse about tabloid culture. Plus, Wild Nights! allowed her to hang out with the folks she considers her people:

“I think of myself as a wholly American writer in the tradition, however our styles may vary, of Melville, Poe, Twain, Dreiser, Faulkner, Hemingway – holding a kind of mirror to our lives that, despite its idiosyncratic distortions, is an authentic reflection of our lives.”

“American writers are fascinated by their now-iconic, ‘classic’ predecessors,” Oates states. “There is a kind of hypnotic spell cast by the 19th-century writers of idiosyncratic genius and by the incomparable tragic figure, Hemingway. The major attraction in writing about them in fiction – I’ve written about each of them in critical essays – was to immerse myself in their language and in their worldviews, to the degree to which I could do this.”

Two more JCO books are coming: A story collection, Dear Husband, and a mystery-suspense novel, A Fair Maiden.

The Yaddo Files

It’s a wonder that nobody has yet filmed a thinky, sepia-toned, Oscar-bait-y film about Yaddo, given all the sexual, artistic, and political conflicts that seem to have occurred at the artists’ colony. A recent AP story on Yaddo, tied to a current exhibit at the New York Public Library, reveals some of the tensions:

In 1949, an Army report alleged that [executive director Elizabeth Ames] was a Soviet spy; FBI agents soon arrived. After interrogating Yaddo officials and artists, they concluded that no subversion had taken place, but not before convincing [poet Robert] Lowell and others that Yaddo was “permeated with communists.” Lowell, whose history of drinking and nervous breakdowns had well begun, demanded an emergency board meeting and the ouster of Ames.

A literary battle royale began. Critic Malcolm Cowley insisted that Yaddo was under siege from “the Communists, the fanatical anti-Communists, the homosexuals, the alcoholics and the Catholic converts.” Katherine Anne Porter thought Lowell’s crusade “vile beyond words” and critic Alfred Kazin wondered, “WHAT has happened at Yaddo?” Meanwhile, John Cheever consoled Ames: “It must have been a great shock to find yourself calumniated (slandered) by people you counted among your friends….”

Sex, drinking and general carrying on was an unofficial tradition. Yaddo resident Carson McCullers was madly in love with Porter and reportedly flung herself upon her fellow author’s doorstep, to no effect. Porter, in turn, despised Truman Capote, bragging that her students at Stanford University were wise enough to “vomit up such as little T.C.”

Lowell appeared to always be of two minds about the joint, if his letters to Elizabeth Bishop were any indication. In a recent review of their correspondence, Michael Dirda points out a choice line describing the Yaddo grounds: “rundown rose gardens, rotting cantaloupes, fountains, a bust of Dante with a hole in the head, sets called Gems of Ancient Literature, Masterpieces of the World, cracking dried up sets of Shakespeare, Ruskin, Balzac, Reminiscences of a Happy Life (the title of two different books), pseudo Poussins, pseudo Titians, pseudo Reynolds, pseudo and real English wood, portraits of the patroness, her husband, her lover, her children lit with tubular lights, like a church, like a museum . . . I’m delighted. Why don’t you come?”

The exhibit has been open for a while (it closes in February), but just last week the NYPL posted a brief video showing some of the highlights, including the very tall wall of books ostensibly produced by Yaddo residents:

Ethan Canin Has a Mentor

Ethan Canin—whose new novel is America America (reviewed)—must be tired of addressing the fact that blogger and novelist Danielle Steel was his high-school English teacher, but he seems to be good-humored about it:

“She’d only published one book at the time and was unknown as a writer. I was not a particularly attentive student . . . But she somehow took an interest in me and encouraged me to write. She gave us the option of turning in a short story instead of an English paper. That made a big impression on me.”

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The D.C.-Area Readings page is updated. Of note this week: Get Your War On cartoonist David Rees Monday at Busboys and Poets’ 5th & K outpost; critic Calvin Tompkins Monday at the National Gallery of Art; and David A. Taylor, whose short-story collection, Success: Stories, I quite liked, Tuesday at Busboys & Poets’ flagship on 14th and V.

Links: Prairie-Dogging

(Apologies for the quick-hit stuff over the past couple of days—the weeks before the holidays, combined with some added deadlines, tend to make life a little more complicated.)

News to me: Book-It Repertory Theatre, a Seattle company that interprets novels for the stage. They’re working on Willa Cather‘s My Antonia.

Also onstage: Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain. Still. Forever.

The Washington Post‘s book blog, Short Stack, reports from Maya Angelou‘s reading in D.C. the other night. Angelou’s writing process: “[S]he rents a hotel room by the month and tells the management to remove everything from the walls. She works all morning with a Bible, a Roget’s Thesaurus, the New York Times crossword puzzle and a good bottle of sherry. ‘I try to enchant myself to hear my language,’ she said. ‘Once I can almost remove myself from the ordinary, I get to my yellow pad.'”

Toni Morrison on the state of African-American fiction: “I’m not terribly up on it, but my impression is that it is thriving. Really thriving. You have everyone from Edwidge Danticat to Colson Whitehead. And of course, the literature of young Asian writers is also very interesting to me. The range is what is so fabulous.” Plus, her thoughts on the death of John Leonard.

And just for fun: Billy Joel registers a weak defense of one of his worst songs.

Links: That Settles That

Peter Matthiessen took the fiction prize at last night’s National Book Awards….

…at which Maxine Hong Kingston announced that she’s on page 173 of a poem.

College kids love Chuck Klosterman, would appreciate if he would stop chewing cough drops so they could hear him.

Ross Miller is nowhere near done with his biography of Philip Roth. But he knows his subject well: “Philip Roth probably knows as much about his own life as I do,” Miller said. “Possibly even less. He cannot remember what’s invention and what’s memory.”