My Favorite Fiction of 2020 – The New Yorker

Speak the words top-ten list and another word, gimmick, floats to mind. Gratitude, the kind that one feels for a book that resides temporarily in ones body, is an awfully personal feeling to try to pass off as a public judgment. Add a pandemic and the act gets even trickier. Ive wondered how art might best meet this moment: with gentleness or rudeness, distraction or challenge. Ive thought, too, about what Ive asked of literature recently. Sometimes, when the world is dumb, its mental stimulation that Im hungry for, or, when the world is ugly, beauty, or, when its exhausting, refreshment. As consumers of fiction, we have needs both diverse and inconstant; meanwhile, the best of lists gallop on, kicking up clouds of strained comparisons. This years pronouncements arrive shadowed by melancholy and, even more than usual, a vague illegitimacy.

For instance, I am writing this list from the kitchen table of a woman who says that, in 2020, she could abide only cozy mysteries or escapist fantasies. But Ive found that, for me, literatures draws finally exist independently of plagues or coups. Whats changed for many of us is perhaps our relationship to other types of fictions, which dont necessarily come from novels. Narratives of American innocence, competence, and fellowship have eroded in the time of Trumps Presidency, COVID-19, and the George Floyd protests. Letting go of these stories might cause one to crave tidy whodunnits, or it might simply make one stubborn, intolerant of pretense. Having found myself in the second category (stubborn), I regret to announce that I will not be declaring the ten best fiction books of the year. Such lists are malarkey. Id be delighted to boss you aroundI assume thats why youre here, to receive direction or fightbut please just think of the titles below as ten worthwhile books, milestones of a sort, published in this Very Weird Year. And then read them.

The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel

You should read this book because it is an intensely satisfying novel of ideas, which suggests that our identities are as fragile as our circumstances. Vincent is a bartender whose relationship with a white-collar criminal wafts her into a charmed existence; when her boyfriends Ponzi scheme collapses, she signs up to be a cook on a cargo ship. Her neer-do-well half brother, Paul, also craves a fresh start. Mandel expertly threads these and other story lines together, focussing on the ease with which a person can slip out of one life and into another; the novel is translucent with ghosts. We move through this world so lightly, one woman observes, like a voice from Beyondshe sounds amazed, dismayed, and a little relieved.

Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam

You should read this book because it makes your skin tingle, like stepping into a deep, dark pool of present-day anxieties. Amanda, an advertising executive, and her professor husband, Clay, take their teen-age son and daughter to an Airbnb in a picturesque recess of Long Island. Their vacation is interrupted when an older couple, Ruth and G.H. Washington, arrive at the door, claiming to be the houses owners and warning of a power outage in Manhattan. From there, the text veers between two novels: a sharply drawn social satire, replete with love-to-hate bourgeois accentsincluding the most critically acclaimed grocery list of 2020and a disaster tale, with the texture of a nightmare. There are spiders and blood; the imagery of repressed horror, when it erupts, is shocking. Still, Alam maintains an arch tone through his omniscient narrator, who describes omens of ecological ruin with the same chilly detachment that he brings to Amandas polite racism. (The Washingtons are Black.) Such dryness differentiates Alam from Mandel, whose visions of disaster have a more sorrowful resonance, and yet the two authors are charting similar territory: the place where realism and surrealism meet, and life as we know it dissipates into life as weve never imagined it could be.

Where the Wild Ladies Are, by Aoko Matsuda

You should read this book because it pairs the delicate eeriness of traditional Japanese folklore with a kooky, contemporary sensibility. Each of Matsudas stories updates an old tale about the ghosts and fox spirits known, in Japan, as yokai. Here, though, the yokai work alongside the living at a mysterious incense company. Matsudas agenda is mischievously feminist. She likens womens potential to an otherworldly forceshape-shifting project managers complain about Japans glass ceilingand her male characters tend to come off looking ridiculous. (I dont have any exceptional talents, one helpfully says.) There is, too, an undertow of late-capitalist weariness: the workday, which makes spectres of the living, does not pause for the dead. The cheerful oddity of these tales reminded me of the writer Sianne Ngais theory of the zany. Zany art, Ngai suggests, blurs the line between play and labor, arousing feelings of suspicion, attraction, and exhaustion. But Matsudas book also possesses a simpler appeal: her yokai say things like Okay, thats cool, and, sometimes, they lose their tempers. Ghosts: theyre just like us!

The Office of Historical Corrections, by Danielle Evans

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My Favorite Fiction of 2020 - The New Yorker

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