Season's readings: Fiction

By John Freeman
December 12, 2010

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I once met a man who, if you mentioned a book he’d read, would instantly fall into a reverie and recall where he’d read it, and when. It was a strange trick of the memory, especially because there were some odd collisions: reading a metaphysical noir set in New York City on his porch in Boulder, Colo., for instance. Tumbling into pre-World War II Poland through a book while living in Raleigh, N.C.

This year, you don’t have to be such a rain man of reading to get some literary jet lag. The best books of the year, at least for this reader, stretch from Peoria, Ill., to Addis Ababa and back, with stops in Hungary, South Africa, and the deep South. Their heroes range from lovers on the run, to a 91-year-old shut-in to a man telling his child a bedtime story.

Here’s my list of the 12 best, beginning with a book so incredible it validates all the comparisons that have been made between its illywacking Australian author and Charles Dickens, to whom he has been compared again and again.

If you read one book this year, give one book to your dad, brother, mother, lover, it should be “Parrot & Olivier in America’’ by Peter Carey. Drawn from the bones of Alexis de Tocqueville’s life, Carey spins a marvelous story about two men on a journey into the early United States: Olivier, who grew up in a house traumatized by the French Revolution; and Parrot, a printer’s apprentice who is at home in a culture of aliens. Battling one another and America in its chaotic infancy, zigzagging into love, the two are unlikely but riveting companions. They fight, mourn, and sing the body electric of a budding nation.

If you haven’t read Roberto Bolaño yet, “The Return’’ is a perfect place to start. Bolaño’s heroes lope through these tales as if pursued by a past they understand only as fast as they can tell it back to you in a story. Here are all the late Chilean writer’s favorite themes — sex, love, and criminality — rendered in stories so fresh it reminds us again that the most powerful way a writer can speak is on the page.

Ranging from South Korea to South Africa, Anthony Doerr brilliantly conjures the landscape of memory in his second collection of stories. In the devastating title novella “Memory Wall,’’ a woman in Cape Town suffering from Alzheimer’s undergoes a risky procedure: Her eroding memories are replaced by replayable cartridges. But when these disks are stolen, so is her past. Floods, seizures, and other acts of natural wonder also steal the past from characters here. Loamy, lyrical, and undercut by a sense of haunting, Doerr’s sentences chart a world on the verge of vanishing.

In Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad,’’ the gangster stalking the half-dozen characters scattered throughout this elliptical work doesn’t carry a gun, but rather a clock. Time and its inconsolable taxations plays a role in each story. Whether it’s a record executive attempting to recover the panache of his youth, or his children thinking back on a family vacation when things were sunnier. Egan is such a crisp, funny writer, and so good at evoking the musical world in which her characters live, you don’t realize the seriousness of her melody until it’s stopped.

An Ethiopian family struggles to stay together in “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze,’’ Maaza Méngiste’s powerful debut novel set before and after the revolution that toppled Haile Selassie. A prominent doctor fighting for his life has also to mend divisions within his family. One son joins the revolution; the other stands back and waits for peaceful change. Jumping from one family member to the next, and even into the head of the emperor, Méngiste creates a story as richly complex as the times, and just as heartbreaking.

“He’s completely American,” says one man about Jonas, the Ethiopian-born hero of “How to Read the Air,’’ an exquisite new novel by Di naw Mengestu. “But you wouldn’t necessarily guess that from just looking at him.” Here is another story about how much human suffering and life can be boiled down into the so-called American dream. Thirty years after his parents came to Peoria, Ill., Jonas retraces their journey to these shores. Told in the same liquidly serene sentences he marshaled in his prize-winning debut, Mengestu’s tale is a quiet devastator. It knows what has become cliché, so instead invests its power in the matter-of-fact nature of Jonas’s family’s migration. They did it because they had to.

“How far is it from here to this Kano?” asks Jama, who spends most of “Black Mamba Boy’’ searching Africa for his father, who disappeared when Jama was young. “Three years walk,” comes the reply. Like many moments within this novel, it’s the kind of setback that would stop most of us in our tracks. But Jama persists, and Nadifa Mohamed’s wonderful debut takes us through the continent in the 1930s, with Mussolini’s forces wreaking whatever havoc has been left unwreaked by famine. It is a grim time, but this remains somehow a book full of life. Following Jama on his endless search, one gets the suspicion that the father he seeks is either imaginary, or has bequeathed his son this trip as the kind of ultimate fiery forge. If he can survive this, he can survive anything.

A 91-year-old man teetering on the brink of dementia is brought back to life by an unlikely friendship — and an even more unlikely medical procedure — in “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,’’ a moving and unfussily gorgeous novel by Walter Mosley. Restored to his faculties, but with a limited lease on life, Grey dedicates himself to uncovering the mystery around his nephew’s murder. Mosley’s rendering of this man’s return is just right. Grey might be sharper, but he still lives in the past, something, this book quietly suggests, is one of the reasons this country is still so divided by race.

It’s hard to tell what is more surprising: this sweeping, historical love story, set in the building up to World War II, or that its author is the same woman who penned “How to Breathe Underwater,’’ elegant but understated short stories with a coming-of-age bent. Either way, one thing is clear. Julie Orringer’s coming of age as a writer is complete: In “The Invisible Bridge,’’ star-crossed Hungarian lovers, caught in the march of war, are at the crux of a deeply impressive novel, one which doesn’t flinch before the horrors of its time.

Gary Shteyngart has always been too funny for his own good. Until now, that is. His third novel, set in the near future, when corporations have established a security state in America and reading is so rare it has become a sign of eccentricity, bristles with satiric gusto. Part of the pleasure of reading “Super Sad True Love Story’’ is watching Shteyngart mangle our contemporary world into a state more accurately resembling its chaos. Our obsession with youth, the pidgin English of online culture, the unsexy oversexualization of every aspect of public life — it’s all here. And yet, the reason to read this book is that beneath this anger there’s an affecting love story. Lenny Abramov, our bumbling, immigrant hero is in love with Eunice Park. And, like his parents before him, America. Neither return his love as they ought to.

The dozen tales in “Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives’’ feel like old-growth wood, compared with so much of the timber springing up from writing workshops. They plainly depict the importance of resilience in a world determined to undermine it. Brad Watson’s characters foul up their lives, as fathers, as sons, but they keep on. Watson writes like he listens a lot. People are often telling their stories, within these stories. The setting is the American South, but too much is made about Watson writing about the South. Like Welty and O’Connor before him, he simply writes — and that’s why he gets it right.

A young father begins to tell his child a bedtime story, aware that his wife has not yet come home. As “The Private Lives of Trees’’ continues, and his wife grows ever later, the man’s thoughts swirl and spiral, and a tension mounts that Alejandro Zambra manipulates with extraordinary deftness. Make no mistake, this book is, in literary terms, a piece of origami. But it is perfect.

John Freeman is the editor of Granta magazine, and author of “The Tyranny of E-mail.’’


By Peter Carey


By Roberto Bolaño

Translated, from the Spanish, by Chris Andrews


By Anthony Doerr


By Jennifer Egan


By Maaza Méngiste


By Dinaw Mengestu


By Nadifa Mohamed


By Walter Mosley


By Julie Orringer


By Gary Shteyngart


By Brad Watson


By Alejandro Zambra

Translated, from the Spanish, by Megan McDowell