Last year I joined list hysteria (“listeria”?) of end-of-the-year reading. At the end of 2013, I’m succumbing again. I’ll just quote myself from last year regarding the rather lengthy title to this post:
Since it would be silly to say these are the “best” books of 2012—”best” is impossible to determine, and considering I’ve read only about 20 books that were published this year, I’d be hardly one to determine it—these are, then, my “favorites of the books I read this calendar year that also happen to be published in 2012.” Not quite as catchy as “Best of 2012,” but far more truthful.
Sub 2013 for 2012, and we’re on—with one caveat. Because I read so few 2013 nonfiction books this year, it doesn’t seem fair to pick a winner—so I’ll keep my choices to fiction:
- The Infatuations, Javier Marías
This is the best novel I’ve read this year, by far. Marías is the most exciting novelist alive. He doesn’t wow with descriptions or aesthetics, but he picks the most challenging and interesting ideas and themes. His novels—which contain “systems of echoes”—are intricately plotted and brilliant. If I were on the Nobel committee, I’d pick him. (My review of this book is here.)
- The Sound of Things Falling, Juan Gabriel Vásquez
The latest novel by (for my money) the most promising South American novelist, Vásquez effortlessly blends history and narrative. Though it could have ended stronger, this novel opens wonderfully—and in a more interesting way—than many books I’ve lately read. (Review here.)
- A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra
This was my beach book, consumed while looking out at the Gulf of Mexico, which made Marra’s accomplishment—making me feel as if I was there, in a blown-out hospital in Chechnya—even more impressive. This has the best denouement of any 2013 novel I read. (Review)
- The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner
What hasn’t already been said about this novel? Kushner showed great promise in Telex From Cuba, but The Flamethrowers has her in stride. There’s so much on the page and so much more between the lines. Kushner is not a strong plotter, but everything else that comprises a great novel—interesting settings, dynamic characters, relevant themes, aesthetic beauty, originality—she has in spades. I’ll read anything Kushner writes.
So much gold in this Vulture profile of author Rachel Kushner:
Kushner speaks fluidly but is sometimes hard to parse. Category distinctions are very important to her, and she gives no quarter to the gray areas that are unavoidable in discussing her work. She can seem impossibly sophisticated and then incongruously naïve, like an excited conversationalist occasionally trapped at a cruising altitude of lofty ideas.
Then she had another idea, and unfurled it for me: “Writing is a way of living. It doesn’t quite matter that there are too many books for the number of readers in the world to read them. It’s a way of being alive, for the writer.”
I’ve been sort of aghast at the entire seesaw of critical response to Kushner’s work. The praise, the backlash, the aggressive backlash backlash. She’s just damn good, and she’s getting better (The Flamethrowers is a vast improvement over Telex From Cuba): that’s all there is to it.
Oh, and this:
In preschool, she got second-degree burns from a pancake skillet. Severe strep throat left her home from fourth grade for long stretches, nurturing a reading habit just like the young, sickly Marcel Proust (who’d become her favorite author). But she also wound up vomiting blood and spending days in the hospital. Walking home from school around age 7, she was nearly kidnapped by a man circling the block in a car. The incident led to recurring nightmares. Trying to make sense of them, Kushner eventually sought treatment—that Lacanian psychoanalysis, a highly intellectualized practice that overlays Freudian theory with postmodern philosophical inquiries.
Partway through Telex from Cuba, Rachel Kushner’s debut novel, I was reminded of John Lennon. I had been reading into the background of the Beatles’ famous avant-garde experiment, “Revolution No. 9,” and had rediscovered some of Lennon’s astute political observations. Amid the chaos of the 1960s, when many youth and liberals and liberal youth spoke openly and with applause for revolution, Lennon—the prophet of counterculture, the epitome of the 1960s—railed against it. “As far as overthrowing something in the name of Marxism or Christianity,” Lennon said, “I want to know what you’re going to do after you’ve knocked it down. I mean, can’t we use some of it? What’s the point of bombing Wall Street? If you want to change the system, change the system. It’s no good shooting people.”
The more and more I read about Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, the more I want to read it. Her previous effort, Telex from Cuba—which is absurdly cheap on Amazon right now—is already on my to-read pile.