Taking covers

The best fiction of 2006

Email|Print| Text size + By Gail Caldwell
December 3, 2006

Twilight of the Superheroes
By Deborah Eisenberg

The Lay of the Land
By Richard Ford

The Road
By Cormac McCarthy

After This
By Alice McDermott

The Echo Maker
By Richard Powers

The Accidental
By Ali Smith

With all due respect to Dickens, the old "best of times, worst of times" canopy no longer quite covers the territory. When the father of realism began "A Tale of Two Cities" with that melancholy insight, it still seemed feasible to capture the world, with all its complexity, in a story -- one that, we might add, was serialized in a weekly journal. Those were the days when novelists wrote installments on deadline and audiences yearned for the next week's chapter; if the novel as a form was considered risqué and even heretical, it hadn't yet been sentenced to the dustheap of history, along with last week's Pentium chip or BlackBerry.

But part of Dickens's genius was to foresee the predictability of change, and so he wrote on, in that exquisite introduction, that the year in question, 1775, was also the age of wisdom and foolishness, belief and incredulity, hope and despair: "The period was so far like the present period," he wrote in 1859, "that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

So I will be no noisy authority: 2006 was a singularly weird and cockeyed and tragic year, and thus like every other. It was a year when the vast number of books published -- somewhere above 150,000 -- continued to rise while the newspaper book sections that covered them continued to shrink. In a parlor-game issue that irritated and energized readers for months, The New York Times Book Review tried to name the best fiction of the past 25 years; enough people voted for "Beloved" for Toni Morrison's novel to win the all-comers race, while John Irving voted for himself. His narcissism paled next to the pathological blindness of the marketing helpmates behind the O. J. Simpson fiasco, who had all but bought themselves a condo in hell until Rupert Murdoch had the sense to pull the plug on Simpson's "fictionalized" confession.

On the level of pranks instead of moral iniquities, British author Bevis Hillier sneaked a fabricated letter with an acrostic into a biography by rival writer A. N. Wilson. (The acrostic , spelled out in hardcovers across the land, used a vulgarity to describe Wilson .) This schoolyard hoax was so uproarious and absurd that it begged for the headline "Bevis and Butthead" from critics laughing sea to sea, but it was only one of several literary scuffles: Salman Rushdie insulted John Updike for a bad review, T. C. Boyle went after Michiko Kakutani for the same reason, and lots of naysayers went after John Banville (who annoys everyone and takes pleasure in doing so). The intrepid Harper Lee outclassed them all when she wrote a letter to Oprah Winfrey in defense of the tactile richness of the printed word. Lee remembered her father in Alabama reading four newspapers a day, as well as herself "weeping for Anna Karenina and being terrified by Hannibal Lecter. . . . Some things should happen on soft pages, not cold metal."

Amen to that, and a great deal did happen on soft pages in 2006. Since reality is the new fiction, lots of history insinuated itself into novels. Thomas Pynchon's monumental "Against the Day" was the event of the year, with its 1 ,100 pages ranting energetically about anarchy, mayonnaise, the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, and globally staggering boyish adventure tales. In "The Emperor's Children," Claire Messud wrote an exquisitely realized comedy of manners about entitled New York that sobered itself considerably by ending in September 2001. Ken Kalfus gave us a black comedy of 9/11 in "A Disorder Peculiar to the Country"; Jay McInerney delivered nostalgia-laden realism on the same subject in "The Good Life." British writer Julian Barnes rendered the inner life of Arthur Conan Doyle in "Arthur and George," while the predictably eloquent Ward Just explored the moral consequences of the modern age in "Forgetfulness."

Stephen Wright, whose "Meditations in Green" so well captured Vietnam two decades ago, took on the Civil War in the darkly picaresque "The Amalgamation Polka." In "Eat the Document," Dana Spiotta showed her DeLillo-like talents by infusing her tale of political fugitives with piercing, spare intelligence. Gary Shteyngart continued his history of human folly, à la "The Russian Debutante's Handbook," with his imagining of an oil-rich nation in "Absurdistan." And Alice Greenway made a commendable debut with "White Ghost Girls," a novel of two American sisters coming of age in Hong Kong during the Vietnam War.

Who knew a circus story could become a runaway novel? Sara Gruen might have guessed: Her "Water for Elephants," whose heart is with the animals, found a huge audience in its tale about a big top during the Depression. Marisha Pessl managed something of equal velocity with "Special Topics in Calamity Physics," an exceptional first novel that dares to turn an English literature core curriculum into a brainy and far-flung mystery. In "The Uses of Enchantment," Heidi Julavits performs a narrative veil dance about a schoolgirl's abduction, her subsequent therapy, and the nature of illusion.

John le Carré is the bookmark by which many readers chart their literary calendar, and "The Mission Song," a full-hearted story about a British interpreter born in the Congo, was an intelligent addition. Kate Atkinson explored the Russian-doll consequences of road rage in "One Good Turn." Returning to the Peru of her memoir, "American Chica," Maria Arana provided a lush, raucous tale about magic and power in her first novel, "Cellophane." Ghosts, whether real or imagined, were roaming the literary landscape in 2006: Suzanne Berne constructed a perfectly horrific holiday in "The Ghost at the Table," while Kevin Brockmeier, in "The Brief History of the Dead," gave us an elegiac ode to memory in his map to the other side. And David Long, in "The Inhabited World," told a moving story about a man's suicide -- and his surviving consciousness -- that turns out to be surprisingly free of desolation.

The year's story collections contained a couple of lifetime- achievement volumes that were welcome in their span and generosity. More than half of the contents of "The Stories of Mary Gordon" are newly collected works; the book also contains the exquisite stories from "Temporary Shelter." And Amy Hempel reminded us of her mastery of the form with her "Collected Stories." Two new works from Canadian masters reminded us how it's really done: Margaret Atwood's "Moral Disorder: And Other Stories" and Alice Munro's slyly autobiographical "The View From Castle Rock." George Saunders was up to his usual tricks in "Persuasion Nation," a group of wacky, scary stories about the idiocies of contemporary culture.

Every year one can expect a few letdowns from the heavy hitters, whether despite or because of the industry's advance hoopla. Charles Frazier's "Thirteen Moons," a long-winded Civil War epic narrated by a white man turned honorary Cherokee, was engaging but not up to the stuff of "Cold Mountain." Julia Glass's long-awaited second novel, "The Whole World Over," was entertaining without being deep. Anne Tyler took on the travails of a bicultural family in "Digging to America," but her domestic realism was as tedious as housework. And John Updike's "Terrorist," though surprisingly poignant in its evocation of the faith of a young would-be suicide bomber, veered toward an uneven shoot-'em-up.

There were also, we are happy to report, predictable satisfactions and exquisite surprises. Philip Roth's "Everyman," even while being slight and solipsistic, also managed one of the finest paternal death scenes in memory. Peter Carey, old fox, wrote a brilliantly executed bait-and-switch novel about art and the love of two brothers in "Theft." Kiran Desai won the Man Booker Prize for "The Inheritance of Loss," a moving, sometimes funny post-colonial story that roams between India and New York. Allegra Goodman's "Intuition" is a brilliant, careful rendering of the minds and moral dilemmas of the scientific community. And Andrew Holleran's "Grief" was the unexpected pleasure of the year: In his evocation of a man wandering the quiet nights of Washington, D.C., he captures the mournful rituals of loss as specific as they are universal.

And then we have the inevitable tier of the finest of the fine: the books that, in their vast achievement, change the reader's life for a little while and then perhaps beyond. It's hard to imagine a more discrete or diverse list, which includes a post apocalyptic world, a ghostly nanny, a magnificent sandhill crane migration, and a guy driving around New Jersey. What they share, of course, is some form of excellence, be it technical or imaginative or, as one colleague puts it, the old truth-and-beauty card. Some testament, in other words, to the triumph and evocation of the human spirit. In a sharp retort a few weeks ago to a partisan colleague about the war in Iraq, Senator Hillary Clinton insisted that "hope is not a strategy." In literature, we think it is.

"Twilight of the Superheroes," by Deborah Eisenberg. A master of subtlety, Eisenberg crafts six water-tight stories of intimacy and compassion; their subjects range from a post-9/11 New York to a woman on the run from murderous love.

"The Lay of the Land," by Richard Ford. Frank Bascombe, that inimitable caretaker of pococurante grace, is back -- driving around suburban New Jersey and musing about life and death. It's a novel of such supple ease you feel like putting your feet on the dashboard while he cruises.

"The Road," by Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy ventures into the unthinkable territory of a post-nuclear world where even the weather is dying. His portrait of a man and his son walking into nothingness has a Beckettian spareness that is both elegiac and profound.

"After This," by Alice McDermott. With a stylistic precision reminiscent of Virginia Woolf and a heart entirely her own, McDermott delivers a group portrait of one Irish-American family in the decades after World War II. Her sixth novel is a template for containing faith and sorrow in a story as beautiful as it is finely wrought.

"The Echo Maker," by Richard Powers. The brainy maestro of contemporary literature delivers an Oliver Sacks whodunit on the desolate plains of Nebraska. All this, and a story of the sandhill cranes' migration, too: "The Echo Maker" is a brilliant, passionate novel about memory, perception, and the grandeur of flight.

"The Accidental," by Ali Smith. Scottish writer Smith has delivered a charming and melodic novel about a stranger at the door, but don't let its charm fool you. With its gypsy tramp showing up to be all things to all her hosts, it's also a tautly considered riff on poetry, metaphysics, cinema, and human expectations -- one confident little shooting star against the night sky.

Happy holidays, everybody.

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