The 10 Best Fiction Books of 2011

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In the latest Ali Smith novel, a precocious 10-year-old girl asks: “If a story isn’t a fact, but it is a made up version of what happened…what is the point of it?”  Her conversational companion, an eccentric middle-aged man, replies: “Think how quiet a book is on a shelf, just sitting there unopened. Then think what happens when you open it.”  In that spirit, each of 10 books below is a passageway to possibility, a free trip to another world: whether it’s India, Japan, or the Balkans, a college campus in New England, or a government office in Illinois. As with yesterday’s list of The 10 Best Nonfiction Books of 2011, these are listed in alphabetical order by author; ranking them further seems as problematic as ranking one’s friends, parents, or children.  Please add your own fiction favorites in the comments section below and check back tomorrow for the best poetry books of the year. Happy reading!

Anita Desai, The Artist of Disappearance

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This quiet triptych of novellas set in India begins with an epigraph from Jorge Luis Borges (“One thing alone does not exist –oblivion”) and the fabulist spirit of the Argentine short fiction master informs the entire book. The first story features a civil servant who discovers an abandoned museum of forgotten treasures. The second stars a translator who tries to upstage the author whose work she’s commissioned to translate. The title story features a hermit whose solitude gets disrupted by a television crew. All three protagonists are lonely and artists in their own way; their stories meditate on  the relationship between the past, present, and future, especially the notion of legacy and what gets passed down between generations.  Whatever the 74-year-old Desai thinks about mortality, she clearly does not equate Death with oblivion.

And there was still more to see: cases that held all manner of writing materials with inks reduced to powder at the bottom of glass containers, pens and quills no one would ever use again, seals that no longer stamped; a chamber of clocks where no sand seeped through the hourglass, water had long since evaporated from the clepsydras, bells were stilled, cuckoos silenced, dancing figures paralysed. Time halted, waiting for a magician to start it again. -From “The Museum of Final Journeys”

Jean Echenoz, Lightning 

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This elegant fable  follows the rise and fall of Gregor, a brilliant inventor modeled on Nikolai Tesla.After he immigrates from Eastern Europe, Gregor befriends Thomas Edison, then becomes his rival in the burgeoning field of electricity and global communication. Like many great men, Gregor is alternately worshipped and ridiculed as a crackpot. And like many geniuses, his intellectual gifts outshine his social skills and business savvy.  Echinoz is hardly the first writer to fictionalize Tesla, who has appeared everywhere from a Paul Auster novel to The Prestige, where he was played by David Bowie. Lightning is neither science fiction nor historical fiction, but rather the kind of allegory favored by Borges, Kafka, and Calvino. For all his flaws, Gregor  is a sympathetic eccentric, with the ruthless determination of Steve Jobs and the child-like heart of Rain Man.

Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot

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The latest from the author of The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex centers on a love triangle among three kids who graduate from Brown in 1989. Despite the straightforward setup, Eugenides imbues his characters with complexity: from their anxiety about school and careers to more profound struggles with faith, family, class, commitment, love, and illness. At turns, the novel is somber, satirical, spiritual, and sexy: a masterful meditation on what is lost –and what is gained—when you become an adult.

Siri Hustvedt, The Summer Without Men

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A middle-aged women gets ditched by her husband for a younger woman, has a mental breakdown, and leaves Brooklyn for rural Minnesota where she communes with her mother and her companions  in an old age home and teaches a poetry workshop to a “coven” of tween girls. Within the classic archetype (a woman goes on a journey, a stranger comes to town), Hustvedt establishes a strong, humorous, and compelling voice as her protagonist  grieves and ruminates on the battle of the sexes and the bonds among women.  Imagine Bridget Jones with a PhD and a penchant for quoting poets and philosophers.

Jim Knable, Sons of Dionysus

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If books are friends, then Sons of Dionysus is a friend with benefits. As far as we know, it’s the only novel that reads to you, sings to you, and has its own music video. Of course, I’m biased. This fall, we’ve been serializing this lusty college novel of myth, mirth, and music, based on the a cappella singing group scene at Yale. Published every Friday, each chapter includes text and a streaming audio recording performed by an eclectic crew of more than 20 theater, television, and literary stars. Pass the pitch pipe.

Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

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He’s a child prodigy and judo champ turned math tutor, aspiring novelist, and improbable chick magnet. She’s a martial arts teacher and masseuse who moonlights as an assassin. On the cusp of 30, both are lonely as hell, but terrified of commitment. So in 1984 – twenty years after they bonded in grade school—they find themselves compelled to revive their childhood crush. So goes the love story at the heart of 1Q84, the masterful new novel by prolific writer, music maven, and marathon runner Haruki Murakami. At 925 pages, it’s one of the year’s longest novels–and one of the most hyped. 1Q84 is more sprawling, more ambitious, and more satisfying than Murakami’s recent output. With its quests for love and self-discovery, it’s most similar to two of his masterpieces: Norwegian Wood and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.


Tea Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife

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Back in 2009, The New Yorker published the short story “The Tiger’s Wife,” anointing the 24-year-old author Tea Obreht as the next young literary sensation. This year, her debut novel of the same title is a masterful tale of family, war, and culture set in a fictional region of the Balkans. The set-up features a young female doctor ministering to needy children during wartime. While this storyline sometimes sounds stiff, the heart and soul of the novel concerns the narrator’s late grandfather and the titular tiger whose presence haunted his insular hometown. Told in rich and elegant prose, these stories offer passage to a world of myth and magic, superstition and the supernatural.

Ali Smith, There But For The

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“There was once a man who, one night between the main course and the sweet [dessert] at a dinner party, went upstairs and locked himself in one of the bedrooms of the house of the people who were giving the dinner party.” So begins the set-up of Ali Smith’s latest novel, a fanciful premise reminscent of Calvino’s The Baron in The Trees, in which a rebellious boy climbs up a tree and refuses to come down. While the man’s eccentric behavior launches the novel, the focus and force of the story comes from the internal struggles of the four protagonists: a woman in her forties, a gay man in his sixties, a dying woman in her 80s, and a precocious 10-year-old girl. Ultimately, There But For The is less a conventional narrative than a series of comic and philosophical riffs, filled with puns, jokes, wordplay, social critique, and meditations on the silliness and sadness of life.


Justin Torres, We The Animals

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This debut “novel” is a collection of vignettes about three sons of a Puerto Rican father and a white mother in upstate New York. Heartbreaking, hilarious and haunting in its portrayal of family, class, ethnicity, and sexuality,  the book reads like a fusion of Rick Moody’s classic short story “Boys” and Junot Diaz’s autobiographical short story collection Drown. From the first paragraph, the prose is hypnotic:

We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird ones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.

David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

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This posthumously published novel sounds like the dullest book of all time. Subject: taxes. Major characters: IRS employees. Setting: Peoria, Illinois. Plot: Minimal. Violence: Minimal. Sex: A blowjob buried in a footnote. Major theme: Boredom. Length: 538 pages, plus addenda.Nevertheless, The Pale King is a masterpiece.Its 50 chapters intersperse “a portrait of bureaucracy” at the IRS with traumatic tales of adolescence and supernatural stories that include ghosts, psychics, and a boy’s quixotic quest to kiss every spot on his body. With layers of malaise, wit, irony, and earnestness, the novel finds depth in banality and meditates on the human condition, the fact that “we’re all less than a million breaths away from an oblivion more total than we can ever bring ourselves to even try to imagine.”

Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. His 10 Best Nonfiction Books of 2011 appeared yesterday. In 2011, he read 70+ books and finally got a library card.



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