THE BEST OF 2013: The Year In Fiction

Bulawayo

by Justin Chandler

If 2013 proved anything, it’s that the novel still has a place in today’s fast-paced consumer culture. The rights to Garth Risk Hallberg’s first novel sold at auction for $2 million dollars, or that three first-time novelists received six-figure deals at the London Book Fair. The fact that more people are reading books than ever before is only bittersweet because it means more people are writing books than ever before too. There’s just no time to experience all the great things that 2013 had to offer. One of my biggest regrets of the year is that Richard House’s The Kills remains unread. But here’s to hoping there’ll be plenty of time to read when we’re dead. Either way, here are five very diverse books that you really ought to check out (preferably before 2014’s bounty arrives).

Mira Corpora Jeff Jackson (Two Dollar Radio, 186 pages)

Mira Corpora is the first-person coming-of-age account of Jeff Jackson. The author? No? Or maybe, because if not, who’s the one narrating the tiny chapters on writing that are wedged between the episodes of his life? But surely, probably, hopefully not the author.

Book Cover

The novel follows “Jeff” through an early childhood of orphanages, foster homes, and brief stints living with an alcoholic, abusive mother. At 11 years old Jeff finally runs away, into the wilderness, where he finds other wayward children who’ve created a primitive community without adults. Though he has some very formative experiences, Jeff ultimately leaves this community behind, and readers next find him living on the streets, alone but called out to from graffiti on the walls and mail that miraculously finds its way to its addressee, “The Kid in the Alley behind the Chinese Place on 1st Avenue.”

The summary so far may sound simple and harmless, but it isn’t. Mira Corpora is overflowing with fear, with the threat of violence, and the possibility that however close Jeff comes to creating some semblance of home, it might at any moment be torn away.

These fears come to a head with the appearance of Gert-Jan, an ominous German who accosts Jeff on the streets, informing him that he, Gert-Jan, knows someone who can cure Jeff of what ails him. What is that? We — and Jeff — don’t know. But in the next chapter we’re introduced to a nameless sex-slave version of the novel’s central character, ostensibly cured, who is now called “the body” and has only two phrases it can utter: “Thank you” and “I’m sorry.”

And this is like only halfway through the novel. It’s terrifying, and trippy, and you’ll likely read the thing in one fevered, nightmarish sitting.

But nestled in all the dark and hideous acts and thoughts is a sense of hope, I think. Told from the perspective of the young, the disenfranchised, the victimized, the homeless and orphaned and too, mortal, born with a body of flesh and blood and subject to the terror of being alive without your choosing, the book can be read as a striving — in its darkness, in its many refusals — toward a life of fullness and freedom. This striving is both the terror and the hope of youth, an insatiable hunger for union as the world expands to reveal how very large the gaps between yourself and everyone else are. There’s a feeling, reading these pages, that despite everything that’s happened to Jeff, anything — someone he’s just met, or a mixed tape from a complete stranger — might give the chance to come back to life, to begin again, forever fresh, gone but returning, newness itself a sort of grace.

Orkney Amy Sackville (Counterpoint, 224 pages)

Orkney tells the story of a professor on his honeymoon with a former student nearly forty years his junior. The bride has chosen the Orkney Islands as their getaway, and their island is largely uninhabited, giving the whole novel — which details the two weeks that comprise their honeymoon, each chapter devoted to a day — reads as a very intimate portrait of the beginning and possibly the end of a marriage.

Richard, technically still on sabbatical, is supposed to be working on a compendium of the various enchantment narratives he’s been studying his entire career, but for much of their vacation he can’t do more than stare longingly out the window at his wife, thinking back on the few brief encounters they had before he asked her to marry him. When he’s not reminiscing, he’s watching her, jealous of anyone or anything that might potentially steal her away from him. As she walks the shore, passing across the frame of his window, or sits on the beach, contained and stilled, searching for nothing in the nothing gray of the sea, Richard longs (even in the midst of it) for their time together to never end. Each night they come back together to make love and attempt to get some rest, the wife despite her nightmares of drowning and Richard despite his worrying over her. By the end of their stay together, small cracks are beginning to show in the armor of Richard’s idyll, though these signs in no way prepare the reader for what’s to come.

The novel is subtle and layered. That they are practically the only two characters in the book, and given that Richard’s first-person account creates such distance between his bride and the reader, it becomes hard in some ways to tell how the relationship works, just what’s at stake, whether what we’re reading is a story of true love, depraved misogyny, or an enchantment story not unlike the kind to which Richard has devoted his life.

This is a quiet book, one that should be read with care, when time is not of the essence. Don’t force your way through it. Float across the pages as if riding the sea. It’s ruminative, meditative, and it deserves a slow and careful reading. Also, it probably wouldn’t hurt if you read it by the fire.

Byzantium Ben Stroud (Graywolf Press, 192 pages)

Because I’ve been working on a novel of my own, most of the books I’ve read this year have been novels. I missed out on a lot of good story collections, but I didn’t skip over this one, and I’m glad for that.

Byzantium contains ten stories that vary widely both in terms of time and place. The title story takes place in the 7th Century AD, and follows the son of a deceased general who’s offered the chance to reclaim his family’s lost nobility. This opportunity, as any in this collection, comes with a price — if the narrator wants to serve the empire, and reclaim that nobility, he must castrate a seemingly innocent, possibly miraculous monk whom the current emperor fears is a threat to his rule.

Here, as in many of the stories in this collection, what’s really at stake goes deeper than the outward struggles. The reader consistently finds Stroud’s characters torn between two worlds, as if they’re nearly resigned to the life they’ve been offered but feel still called to another version of life, one more genuine and harmonious but far more difficult to navigate. Their choice, as well as the meandering ways they attempt to delay or forego that choice, is what these stories really want to show us.

This is nowhere more obvious than in Amy, a story that comes later in the collection. A foreign-exchange professor teaching in Germany for a semester (and “fleeing a failing marriage”) runs into an acquaintance from high school. A strange and pitiful affair—if it can be called that—ensues and escalates, despite the narrator’s wishes, and by the end of the story our narrator has not only lost his chance with Amy and his wife, but seems in some ways content with this, as if his loneliness were not only his fault but what he wanted all along.

Don’t let my penchant for the more lugubrious stories in this book fool you. If Stroud casts a wide net in terms of time and place, the net he casts for tone is even wider, and there are plenty of moments that will leave you pleasantly surprised, even laughing. It’s an incredible first collection, full of stories where characters struggle to tell their own.

We Need New Names NoViolet Bulawayo (Reagan Arthur Books, 304 pages)

This coming of age story begins in Zimbabwe and follows the path of Darling and her friends as they run amok in a shantytown called Paradise, stealing guavas from the rich, daydreaming of America, and growing into an awareness of the instability of their lives.

Bulawayo

NoViolet Bulawayo

Throughout the first half of the book we are given glimpses of the unimaginable difficulties of being a child in an impoverished and war-torn country, and reminded constantly that Darling’s aunt in America will someday soon be taking her to live there. When the aunt finally comes through on her promises, Darling’s America is not quite the one she’d envisioned. The celebrities and fancy cars are still very far away, and worse, what Darling has lost in leaving Zimbabwe seems incalculably greater than the safety and privilege she has gained in coming to the USA.

Bulawayo’s ear for voice is incredible, and Darling’s story is sincere and moving, but probably the most powerful force in Darling’s narrative is a prevailing question that haunts it: what can activism do? What does it mean to give voice to suffering? Just what can activism do when it is so far removed from what it is trying to help? Often, what masquerades as activism becomes commodified, another badge to be worn (think here of TOMS’ “One for One” concept, or The Gap’s “Red” campaign) rather than a sustained investigation into poverty and suffering. It is the commodification of caring that appalls Darling throughout her time in America, the pity  that revels in the cruelty and poverty witnessed rather than making any concerted effort to understand and overcome.

Bulawayo’s novel is one of the few places where the voice being heard isn’t an uninvited, indifferent observer, commenting on the suffering the way a connoisseur might a sip of wine. As Chipo, one of the children Darling left behind, says while they are Skyping together some years after Darling has left Zimbabwe, “But you are not the one suffering. You think watching on BBC means you know what is going on? No, you don’t, my friend, it’s the wound that knows the texture of the pain; it’s us who stayed here feeling the real suffering, so it’s us who have a right to even say anything about that or anything and anybody.”

The Woman Who Lost Her Soul Bob Shacochis (Atlantic Monthly Press, 640 pages)

While the preceding books were in no particular order, I have to admit that I’ve saved the best for last. And my god is it good. Shacochis’s second novel, 20 years in the making, is the type that defies summation and demands you experience it first-hand. And I demand you read it first-hand too, if I’m allowed to demand something. Because it’s so damned good, part of me doesn’t want to talk about just on the principle of you experiencing it on your own. But I’ll give it a try anyway.

 Shacochis

Bob Shacochis

The Woman Who Lost Her Soul begins with Tom Harrington, a human rights lawyer, being asked to accompany a relative stranger down to Haiti to investigate the inexplicable murder of Renee Gardner. Turns out Harrington not only knew the deceased but was intimate with and betrayed by her, though she was known by another name at the time. Harrington’s search for justice is carried parallel with his reflections on their time together, and by the end of the first of five books that comprise the novel Harrington has uncovered far more than he’s solved, leaving readers with a strangely satisfying anti-climax.

But what seems an entire story in and of itself turns out to be only one of the final turns of the screw, as the next book takes us back fifty years to Croatia, at the end of World War II, to explore the beginnings of a struggle Harrington was barely able to even glimpse. It’s here that the story finds its chronological beginning and its seed, and for the next four-hundred pages what opens itself up to the reader is a beautifully rendered blend of mystery, history, and family drama.

What makes the novel so amazing is that in dealing with all of these subjects it is able to transcend them too, to achieve an aboutness that is beyond the bounds of its content. The novel is more than merely what happens: in its closeness and depth and its attention to acute details, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul ends up being about both a fully-realized individual and everyone who has ever lived. It’s great, and more than that, it’s one of those rare great books that might just be for everyone.

The Ryder ◆ January 2014