Book reviewer Michael Upchurch lists his favorites of the year.
This is a “favorites of 2017,” not a best, because no one can read everything. The thing I’m always looking for, besides beguiling content, is a novelist who can do something innovative, but still readable, with the form.
“Enigma Variations” by André Aciman (Farrar Straus & Giroux). Is there any writer out there who can conjure the seismic swings of sexual infatuation the way Aciman can? The author of “Call Me By Your Name” does it again with this tale of a man whose body has “two agendas”: an appreciation of women and an irresistible attraction to men. Each of its five novella-length sections focuses on a different erotic obsession and possibility, and the last sentence of the book delivers a twist that reframes the whole novel. Aciman’s agile handlings of the heart’s paradoxes make this a masterpiece.
“Transit” by Rachel Cusk (Farrar Straus & Giroux). Like some Scheherazade-in-reverse, the narrator of “Transit” — Cusk’s sequel to her brilliant “Outline” — coaxes life stories from anyone and everyone she meets. In the process, she casts an oblique light on her own cool personality. The anecdotes she elicits often have a stranger-than-fiction luminosity about them. They also lead to larger questions concerning freedom and fate, appearance and reality, choice and passivity. A fine dry humor spices the book as it delves into tales of estrangement, ordinary loneliness and life-changing minutiae.
“The Night Ocean” by Paul La Farge (Penguin Press). What could be more fun than a novel that turns itself inside out not once, not twice, but three or more times as it unravels the enigmas of identity? “The Night Ocean” concerns an elusive chapter in the life of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, involving his friendship with a gay male teenage fan. Revelation becomes hoax and suicide becomes “pseuicide” in an ever-exploding series of narrative curveballs. Bonus item: Author William S. Burroughs (“Naked Lunch”) makes several appearances, delivering one outrageous deadpan quip after another.
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“The Locals” by Jonathan Dee (Random House). Dee’s fiction has always trained a sharp eye on the tricky intersections between private and public life. But with “The Locals,” he outdoes himself. “The Locals,” set in a Massachusetts tourist town, examines the battered state of the American psyche in the interim between the shock of 9/11 and the crash of 2008. Dee uses a variety of storytelling techniques to illuminate his characters from every possible angle. The result: a book that combines the sweep of a 19th-century novel with spry experimental touches and an unsettling take on small-town life in the digital era.
“Careers for Women” by Joanna Scott (Little, Brown). To say this historical novel offers a behind-the-scenes look at the planning, building and promotion of the World Trade Center in New York doesn’t quite do it justice. It’s a stylish jigsaw puzzle of a book, ranging in tone from faux documentary to jaunty “Mad Men”-like melodrama. It’s also a murder mystery, a good-humored feminist parable and a cautionary tale of ecological devastation. Its highhanded guiding spirit — Mrs. Lee K. Jaffe, real-life PR director for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which built the Twin Towers — is unforgettable.
“The Disintegrations” by Alistair McCartney (University of Wisconsin Press). Describing this wryly death-obsessive novel as “fiction” is a bit misleading. Figures from McCartney’s life — including his husband, performance artist Tim Miller — turn up in it and newspaper accounts of murders pepper its pages. Still, its collagelike catalog of all the ways it’s possible to die feels more imagination-propelled than factually constrained. A host of vivid characters emerge from its ghoulish eccentricities. Result: a book that teems with life, even as it trains a determined eye on the threshold where life vanishes.
“So Much Blue” by Percival Everett (Graywolf). Three stories, scattered across time, fuse into one stunning tale in Everett’s new novel. Fifty-six-year-old Kevin Pace is an African-American abstract painter whose artwork is both his retreat and his attempt to reach out. His secretive work on his latest canvas triggers memories of two destructive episodes from his past: an affair he had with a young French woman 10 years earlier and a crazy jaunt he and his best friend made to El Salvador in 1979 when the country was on the verge of civil war. As its narrative threads combine, “So Much Blue” becomes a taut meditation on the costs of keeping vital or traumatic experiences to yourself.