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2005'S BEST BOOKS

Best fiction of the year

''Everybody has won," announces the Dodo in ''Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," ''and all must have prizes." Indeed! Never mind that the prizes, at least for the Dodo's constituency, were only comfits. The year of 2005 was all about prizes, it seemed, or at least about the race, with everyone dashing madly about, trying to locate the course or complaining that the winner's circle itself was suspect. When Harold Pinter won the year's Nobel Prize for literature, it was immediately and widely reported that he had recently called Tony Blair ''a deluded idiot." When William T. Vollmann won the National Book Award for ''Europe Central" -- a dark horse to at least two of the other four candidates -- there were audible gasps from press and audience alike. When Irish writer John Banville took England's prestigious Man Booker Prize, edging out Kazuo Ishiguro and four other notables, the Fleet Street grousing was so loud and contagious that it soon began reverberating from these mighty shores. (The normally dour Banville remained calm, telling a New York Times reporter that being vilified tended to cheer him up.)

And then there were the Dodo-inspired Quill Book Awards, industry-backed and touted as the first populist literary awards. So when the winners were announced -- all 19 of them, in categories ranging from best audio book to best romance novel -- there were audible yawns from the Fourth Estate: The Dodo's comfits seemed like gimme toys from the marketing department. What, you don't think ''He's Just Not That Into You" deserved a sweet? Snob.

So the only thing missing in 2005 was the Conniption Fit Award, which might have been presented to all those proclaiming that prizes were worthless and that literature was dead. The rest of us, for better or worse, simply kept on reading, while Google roared and the Dodo fretted and some 50,000 new titles were carted into bookstores. The year in fiction was decidedly lackluster -- it is unfair to sugarcoat that news, which is hardly news at all -- but then literature is not a collective experience, at least not the writing of it, so we ought to judge our landmarks of civilization by the work itself and not by the year-end heave. There were, as always, a few exquisite contributions to the novel, a few sterling packages of short stories, a few reaches toward the ever-elusive light.

We had big, loud novels from John Irving (''Until I Find You") and Salman Rushdie (''Shalimar the Clown"), and small, odd ones from Gabriel García Márquez (''Memories of My Melancholy Whores") and J. M. Coetzee (''Slow Man"). We had lovely story collections from Ann Beattie (''Follies"), Roxana Robinson (''A Perfect Stranger"), and Alice Mattison (''In Case We're Separated"). In ''Never Let Me Go," Ishiguro wrote an eerie, melancholy novel about the dark possibilities of cloning -- a bit didactic for my tastes, but expertly realized nonetheless. Michael Cunningham genuflected to Walt Whitman in ''Specimen Days," letting the wild-man poet dictate the sensibility of this triptych, which is a little sci-fi and a lot whimsical and perhaps an acquired taste. With his usual bear hug to history, E. L. Doctorow conceived and executed a dark and magnificent task in ''The March," giving us a ground's-eye view of General William Tecumseh Sherman's devastating march near the end of the Civil War.

In the mostly passed-over ''Paradise," acclaimed Scottish writer A. L. Kennedy wrote a jaw-droppingly bleak account of the drinking life in the first-person voice of a young woman alcoholic. Judging by the sales numbers, Mary Gaitskill's equally naked ''Veronica" isn't scaring people off; it's an Edie Sedgwick-like story about a former model, nursing drug addiction and hepatitis C and gazing upon the flotsam of life. Cormac McCarthy has proven himself a master of the abyss over the years, and in ''No Country for Old Men" he infuses that leaning into a hard-edged and laconic thriller: Watching a madman kill people with a cattle stun gun won't appeal to everyone, but there's a gritty authenticity to the novel that's signature McCarthy. Kathryn Harrison is a writer unafraid to plumb the shadows of the soul; in ''Envy," she explores a psychiatrist's unraveling life through all sorts of Greek-myth possibilities.

Nicole Krauss wrote a fetching and elegant book in ''The History of Love," even though its meta-twists (the old novel-inside-a-novel trick) were more detracting than illuminating. Speaking of everything being illuminated, Krauss's husband and collaborator, Jonathan Safran Foer, made a quick return to the shooting-star list with ''Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," but I find the Krauss-Foer cuteness a bit much. Can't people just hush up and write good books? Lily King did, with ''The English Teacher" -- a character study about a woman trying to use Hardy to make sense of the world.

One of the splendid discoveries of 2005 was British writer Rachel Cusk's ''In the Fold," a sorrowfully comic novel about an eccentric, wealthy family on the coast of England. It's full of small and perfect moments, with a narrator of such wit and sensibility one would follow the voice anywhere. Walter Kirn wrote an uproarious satire in ''Mission to America," in which a secluded sect in Montana decides to venture forth and see what the world -- its decadence, consumerism, and jingo sentimentality -- is really all about. Two writers went ghostly on us in 2005: British author Hilary Mantel, in ''Beyond Black," delivered the world of psychics and spiritualism with deadly wit. And Amy Tan, in ''Saving Fish From Drowning," gave her story over to a garrulous (and sometimes annoying) ghost who takes us to Burma and beyond; there's a novel hidden in here somewhere, but it should have been cut by half.

The works of fiction that form this critic's best of 2005 have nothing in common besides their goodness. We have among them two Americans, three Brits, and an Irishman; two of my six are women, and only one on the list is a first novel. None of which means anything, of course. Finally and always, there is simply the work itself -- the magical or bedeviling or transporting moment that happens between reader and writer, once the hurdles of the imagination have been cleared. Each of the following books, listed alphabetically, achieved this with acuity and grace, and hurled a few more stars into the stratosphere.

''A Long Way Down" (Riverhead, $24.95), by Nick Hornby. How funny can a novel about wannabe suicides really be? Very, as it turns out. When four Londoners meet on the rooftop where they mean to end it all, they begin a conversation that gives us shifting narrators and a splendid, even life-affirming, novel about how to go on.

''On Beauty" (Penguin, $25.95), by Zadie Smith. The wunderkind author of ''White Teeth" has proved her mettle with this sprawling academic comedy about race, tenure, sexual politics, hip-hop, the chaos of parenting, and a New England university milieu that sounds a lot like . . . Harvard.

''The Painted Drum" (HarperCollins, $25.95), by Louise Erdrich. Erdrich's fearless story about the legacies of the dead shifts between an antique dealer in New Hampshire and the inherent powers of an Ojibwe drum; the novel is an elegiac ode to the heroism of the young, its sorrows made bearable by the eternal presence of the natural world: the care of ravens and the cries of wolves.

''Rules for Old Men Waiting" (Random House, $21.95), by Peter Pouncey. This account of a man calmly putting his affairs in order is as seamless as it is consoling -- meticulously conceived and delivered with the pitch-perfect voice of a classicist. The war story hidden within it elevates the novel to moments of sheer wonder.

''Saturday" (Doubleday, $26), by Ian McEwan. The author of ''Atonement" proves he can write a novel about a contented man. Well, sort of. A London neurosurgeon wakes to a post-9/11 world, and we accompany his interior consciousness through the pleasures and terrors of a long, long day. As always, McEwan's brimming authority is the sine qua non and defining cloak of the novel itself.

''The Sea" (Knopf, $23), by John Banville. Banville's slyly exquisite prose at first deflects the reader from the dark complexity of his narrator, a widower who has returned to the seaside town where he summered as a boy. ''The Sea" is a desolate, autumnal story, its unyielding cliffs almost as treacherous as its internal journey, all rendered here with stunning precision.

Best fiction
A Long Way Down
By Nick Hornby
On Beauty
By Zadie Smith
The Painted Drum
By Louise Erdrich
Rules for Old Men Waiting
By Peter Pouncey
Saturday
By Ian McEwan
The Sea
By John Banville
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