Tales of the times

A year in fiction
December 20, 2006 5:39:17 PM

UPAMANYU CHATTERJEE: A lyrical comedy about an Indian slacker.
Here, listed alphabetically by author, are 10 of the best fiction and poetry books the Phoenix wrote about in 2006.

1. Julian Barnes | Arthur & George | Knopf | In a time of tenuous allegiances and deep culture clashes, Julian Barnes’s novel asks, “What determines nationality? What does it mean to be included, to be excluded?” Set in Late Victorian England and based on a true story, Arthur & George alternates sections headed “Arthur” (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes) and “George” (a half-Indian Staffordshire solicitor whose tidy, provincial existence is disrupted when he’s accused of hideous crimes). Barnes’s language takes in Kipling’s florid prose, Gilbert & Sullivan’s lilt, Mrs. Gaskell’s delicacy, and Elgar’s pomp, merging elements of the Victorian thriller and romance to tell a whopping good tale with unsettling existential and moral implications.

2. Upamanyu Chatterjee | English, August: An Indian Story | New York Review Books | Originally published in India in 1988, this American debut can be shelved along with the work of Chatterjee’s compatriots, but a few delightful differences set it apart, the most obvious being its protagonist, Agastya Sen, a 24-year-old slacker whose primary activities are masturbating, smoking pot, and contemplating his place in the larger order of things. Unlike the uneasily acclimatized expatriates of Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction, Sen has remained in his home country. Yet he experiences the same feelings of rootless confusion.

3. Richard Ford | The Lay Of The Land | Knopf | In what he says will be the last of his Frank Bascombe novels — which began in 1986 with The Sportswriter and continued in the Pulitzer-and-PEN/Faulkner-Award-winning Independence Day — Ford follows his protagonist, a philosophical novelist-turned-sportswriter-turned-real-estate-agent, over three days that culminate in Thanksgiving 2000. Contending with prostate cancer, two challenging adult children, an ex-wife, a current marriage at risk, and a Tibetan Buddhist employee named Mike Mahoney, Bascombe is grouchy, likable, garrulous, infinitely observant. Deploying him against the backdrop of the Jersey shore, Ford makes an implicit argument about the novel not merely as a depiction of the world but as a mode of thought.

4. Etgar Keret | The Nimrod Flipout | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | The Tel Aviv author is a deadpan surrealist chronicling the intrusion of the bizarre into the quotidian: a man’s girlfriend turns, every night, into a bald potbellied soccer fanatic; devoted parents shrink an inch for every inch their son grows; a booklet advertised in the newspaper teaches humanity the meaning of life for only $9.99; a beloved pet dog keeps coming back from the dead; a beautiful little girl covets the glittering eyes of the grubby, ordinary little boy who’s in love with her. But Keret’s weirdness is never without a recognizable emotional component, and at their best these stories work as elegant metaphors.

ETGAR KERET: Deadpan surrealism from Tel Aviv.
5. Louise Glück | Averno | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | “Always nights I feel the ocean, biting at my life,” Louis Glück wrote in Firstborn (1968), her first volume of poetry. Ever since then, mortality has haunted her work, sex and death bound together. In Averno, she revisits the myth of Persephone, in whose story sex and death became one. Averno feels made from experience, as though Glück had gone down to the underworld herself to confirm what we all know to be true.

6. Seamus Heaney | District and Circle | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | “District” suggests the place where Heaney’s imagination has jurisdiction and holds sway. This book, meanwhile, keeps “circling” back to his childhood, his love of things, to Wordsworth, to the Tollund Man, and, in the last poem, to the signal event in his youth, the accidental death of his younger brother. His concerns may be local, but his poems reverberate at large, far from home.

7. Edna O’brien | The Light Of Evening | Houghton Mifflin | Edna O’Brien’s most autobiographical novel yet depicts the struggle between a mother and daughter to sever the unbearable bond — the “blood feud, blood knot, blood memory” — that conjoins them and the love and guilt that makes total separation impossible. She sets her story in her mother country, Ireland, saturating it with both the poetry and the malarkey of her mother tongue. She’s mastered a compact stream-of-consciousness that’s a distillate of her influences — moments as violently lyrical as Faulkner and more than one outright homage to Joyce. She does them proud.

8. George Pelecanos | The Night Gardener | Little, Brown | An ace plotter who rigorously avoids the clichés of noir, Pelecanos creates multi-strand narratives that narrow the space between his characters so that by the end of the book he’s put them and us in a tense, tight corner. In The Night Gardener, a police detective faces the possibility that a serial killer who terrorized Washington when he was a rookie is back and killing again. In the process of evoking inner-city DC life, Pelecanos also takes on the largely abandoned roles of novelist as muckraker and social critic.

9. Thomas Pynchon | Against the Day | Penguin Press | Undaunted in the past by the big questions, Pynchon here addresses (in addition to the elusive quality of light) time travel, multiple universes, the death struggle between anarchism and capitalism, the dance of order and chaos. Heavy going? Not for the Chums of Chance, the quintet of aeronautical adventurers navigating the airship Inconvenience through the trouble spots of world history, some real, all fanciful, from the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 to the aftermath of World War I. Whereas Beckett’s works grew inexorably shorter as he confronted the intransigence of meaninglessness, Pynchon’s proliferate with Joycean abandon.

10. Sarah Waters | The Night Watch | Riverhead | Set in London during and immediately after World War II, Waters’s short-listed Booker Prize nominee studies the intersecting lives of characters who survive the Blitz to find themselves stranded by the peace. Kay, a former “night watch” ambulance driver, is emotionally wasted, unable to move on after a betrayal that was a kind of death. She moves among characters — lesbians and homosexuals at various stages of being out, and a straight adulterer — who are trapped by the past in a society desperate to forget.


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