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The Year in Books

Roberto Bolaño became literature’s new patron saint, Joshua Ferris goosed cubicle culture, Michael Chabon compared many things to many other things, Edwidge Danticat delivered a memoir of shocking loss, and one writer made the novel’s survival seem inevitable.

Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Among the abstract categories routinely killed off by doomsaying cultural critics (cf. irony), the novel has long been a favorite target. Often overlooked in such forecasts, however, is that—at least when it’s done right—the genre is invincible. For 400 years, it has laughed at, then absorbed, every threat. Díaz’s novel, which tells the story of Oscar (a monstrously fat, occasionally suicidal Dominican-American “ghetto nerd”), ingests such an overflowing bucketful of poison pills that any other book probably would have died: anime, role-playing games, comic books, the Internet. But Díaz finds a miraculous balance. He cuts his barn-burning comic- book plots (escape, ruin, redemption) with honest, messy realism, and his narrator speaks in a dazzling hash of Spanish, English, slang, literary flourishes, and pure virginal dorkiness. By the end, his geek references—“Don’t misunderstand: our boy wasn’t no ringwraith, but he wasn’t no orc either”—take on solid weight, like Milton dropping allusions to Dante and Greek myth.

Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
The book begins with a diary entry in which the narrator tells us that he’s joined a radical school of poets called the “visceral realists.” In the next entry, he admits that he doesn’t really know what visceral realism is. The novel was published in Spanish in 1998, and this translation seems to have ushered in Bolaño’s American moment. An English version of 2666—the alleged career-capping masterpiece he was working on at his death—is already one of the most anticipated novels of next year.

Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Chabon takes full advantage of the unreality of the detective genre: His characters are deliberately cartoonish, his plot clogged, and his premise (a world in which displaced Jews have found refuge in Alaska rather than Israel) provocatively far-fetched. But it’s all outshined by his exuberant language. The main character’s wife “accepts a compliment as if it’s a can of soda that she suspects him of having shaken.” A pretentious journalist speaks Yiddish “like a sausage recipe with footnotes.” And a salmon is an “aquatic Zionist, forever dreaming of its fatal home.”

David Leavitt, The Indian Clerk
If you write a novel about Srinivasa Ramanujan—the self-taught rural Indian mathematical supergenius who died a tragic early death after five unhappy years at Cambridge—I’m pretty much automatically going to read it. Leavitt, however, improves this can’t-miss narrative by filtering it through the eyes of grouchy Cambridge don G. H. Hardy, Ramanujan’s intellectual sponsor in England. Ramanujan himself remains a mysterious figure in the background, the black hole around which the other stories revolve. This makes any scene that features him—including one in which he has a gentle epiphany about partition theory while pushing lentil beans around—unusually precious and rewarding.

Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End
(Little, Brown)
Over the last fifteen years, pop culture has been overwhelmed by cubicle anthropology: “Dilbert,” The Office, Office Space. Ferris, a debut novelist whose book was too good to rank merely as Best Debut, heads into this dangerously familiar territory armed with a deep understanding of the basics (interoffice loitering, the metastasis of gossip) as well as an ingenious new trick. His narrator is an unidentified “We,” a kind of self-organizing hive mind that has the warmth of a human narrator without any of the constraints—until, spectacularly, the pronoun dissolves into its component parts in the very last sentence.