The New New York Novel
No two contemporary New York novels could differ more than Richard Price’s Lush Life and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. Price’s boom-era crime procedural speaks fluently in a million voices (beat cop, hipster, project kid) but limits its action to a few crowded square blocks of the Lower East Side. O’Neill’s tender post-9/11 elegy speaks in only one voice—its fussy, dourly lyrical, Dutch-banker narrator’s—but it roams widely over ethnic fringes of the city’s landscape (a Staten Island cricket field, an abandoned Brooklyn airstrip) that most New York novels ignore. Taken together, however, the books point a way out of a novelistic New York cul-de-sac; they refashion, yet again, the city as literary object. We’re through with the Machiavellian cash-orgy (Wolfe), the harsh yuppie playground (Ellis), and the scenic brownstone ruin anxiously awaiting its renaissance (Lethem). The new New York novel, per Price and O’Neill, doesn’t moralize (overtly), nostalgize (excessively), or employ the city as some grand metaphor in service of a Zeitgeisty social agenda. Rather, in this post-renaissance, possibly pre-apocalyptic era, it seems determined to revel in the brilliant weirdness of the now. The New York novel, in other words, has fallen back in love with New York.
The Year in Superlatives
Best Debut: Nam Le, The Boat
The Boat opens with a ballsily brilliant meta-meta-story in which an M.F.A. student named Nam writes an ethnic short story about the possibility of writing ethnic short stories. This serves as an aesthetic mission statement for the entire collection, which embarks on a stunning, and very solid, fictional world tour: Colombia, Hiroshima, Australia, New York, Iran.
Runners-up: Sharp Teeth, by Toby Barlow, and Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen. Somehow, Barlow manages to breathe life into a tired old genre: the free-verse noir novel about murderous bridge-playing werewolves. Although Galchen’s existential mystery, in which a man’s wife seems to have been replaced by a doppelgänger, can’t quite sustain its initial propulsion, her tone is addictive: playful, halting, intellectual, colloquial.
Best Simile: “The University of Santa Teresa was like a cemetery that suddenly begins to think, in vain. It was also like an empty dance club.”
—From 2666, by Roberto Bolaño
Best Thriller: Tom Rob Smith, Child 44
To the already gratuitous misery of life in Stalinist Russia (mass starvation, equal-opportunity persecution), Smith adds an unchecked serial killer whose very existence is denied by the state. Our hero, former Soviet good-soldier Leo Demidov, risks the Gulag to chase him down.
Runners-up: A Vengeful Longing, by R.N. Morris, and The Likeness, by Tana French. Morris resurrects one of literature’s all-time greatest characters: Porfiry Petrovich, the detective from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The result reads like an episode of Columbo, but with feverish Russian psychology and the filthy overflowing canals of 1868 St. Petersburg. The Likeness begins with the arrival of a highly unorthodox corpse. Not only does it look exactly like Cassie Maddox, our blunt Irish detective hero; it’s also carrying papers identifying it as Lexie Madison, Maddox’s old (traumatically abandoned) alias. Naturally, the police adopt the most complex possible strategy to sort things out: Maddox agrees to walk around Ireland pretending to be whoever was pretending to be her, waiting for the killer to strike again. Things quickly escalate into a “general hall-of-mirrors overload.”
Best Blurb: Joshua Ferris’s for Fiona Maazel’s Last Last Chance:
“Maazel was born in 1975, but her imagination has been on fire for a thousand years.”
Best Rays of Hope: Innovations (Preferably Cheap)
Reading books is good, cheap fun (at least priced per hour). Creating them should be, too. Even as publishing encountered a disastrous autumn (consolidation, layoffs, awful sales), innovators sought exciting ways to scrimp. Amazon thrived partly on the surprising growth of e-books, which never see the inside of a factory. Powell’s—the Portland, Oregon, super-indie bookstore—kept on circumventing the book tour with its “Out of the Book” film series (gauzy but meaty making-of docudramas, complete with in-depth interviews and readings, on books by authors such as Ian McEwan, David Halberstam, and Sean Wilsey), allowing publishers to spend less on plane tickets and more on publishing. And Bob Miller’s HarperStudio began paying writers less up front and moving marketing to the cheaper, nichier Web. Maybe the industry will once again become a creative playground for misers, without whom it would never have gotten off the ground.