1. BEST NOVEL
Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead)
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.
2. MOST DESERVING PROMOTION TO THE CANON
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.
3. BEST STYLE
Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (HarperCollins)
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.”
4. MOST MATHEMATICAL USE OF LENTIL BEANS (I.E., BEST HISTORICAL NOVEL)
David Leavitt, The Indian Clerk (Bloomsbury)
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.
5. BEST PRONOUN
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.
6. BEST COLLEGE COURSE YOU SHOULD’VE TAKEN BUT DIDN’T
Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)
Ross has all the attributes of a great professor—passion, rhythm, command—and he employs them on a subject in which most of us desperately need professing: classical music, that mystifying wash of tinkles and swells that has long been the official soundtrack of High Culture.
7. BEST BIOGRAPHIES
David Michaelis, Schulz and Peanuts; John Richardson, A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917–1932 (Harper; Knopf)
You could argue over which of these artists scribbled more indelibly on the popular consciousness of the twentieth century: the bohemian high-art philanderer who changed styles every couple of minutes, or the repressed midwestern homebody whose main character wore the same shirt for roughly 50 years. Richardson’s biographical series has already inspired comparisons to the holy titans of the form: Ellmann (Joyce), Painter (Proust), Edel (James). To Michaelis’s credit, few would have thought to treat the creator of “Peanuts” with similar reverence.
8. FUNNIEST GRIEF AND RAGE
Anne Enright, The Gathering (Grove Press)
Any attempt to describe this novel’s plot makes it sound like a standard-issue shapeless miserable grab bag of alcoholism, abuse, and suicide. What redeems it is the grumpy, darkly addictive voice of its narrator. “I do not forgive her the sex,” she writes of her 70-year-old mother, who had twelve children. “The stupidity of so much humping.” (I’m pretty sure Alice Sebold—see left—meant to do something more like this.)
9. MOST TRAGIC FIGURE
Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying (Knopf)
Danticat’s uncle Joseph lost his wife to illness, his larynx to cancer, his home and church (and almost his head) to a Haitian mob—until finally, at 81, he fled to Miami, where he was finished off by the hellishly inept bureaucracy of U.S. Immigration: detained, interrogated, and allowed to die in custody. Danticat tells his story with almost inhuman restraint.
10. BEST COUNTERCULTURAL COFFEE-TABLE BOOKS
Banksy, Wall and Piece; Steve Grody, Graffiti L.A. (Random House; Abrams)
This was a breakout (or sellout) year for graffiti—that system of urban hieroglyphics for which Grody’s monumental Graffiti L.A. is a Rosetta stone. At the head of the crossover pack is Banksy, the “art terrorist” who once blasted the word boring in huge red letters on the side of London’s National Theatre, and whose auction prices have exploded lately.
Mischa Berlinski, Fieldwork
Berlinski’s novel is a smart, engaging thriller about anthropologists and missionaries in Thailand that occasionally gets lost in jungles of digression. Honorable mention to Ellen Litman’s charming The Last Chicken in America, about Russian immigrants in Pittsburgh.
The Almost Moon, by Alice Sebold
Lots of big names underwhelmed us this year: Amis, DeLillo, Roth, Rowling. But Sebold, whose debut novel, The Lovely Bones, was the best-selling book of 2002, went above and beyond—or below and behind. Her wandering story of matricide is both implausible and uncompelling: The voice is wrong, the characterization is off, the pacing is set on shuffle.