2009 displayed an epic lineup of new novels from old hands at the form: we had new works from Margaret Atwood, Mary Gaitskill, A.S. Byatt, E. L. Doctorow, John Irving, Thomas Pynchon, Richard Powers, William Trevor, Pete Dexter, Richard Russo, J.M. Coetzee and a list of other luminaries, almost all of whom disappointed in some way or other. And there's a certain kind of balance to be found in the fact that much of the year's best fiction was written by far less familiar names. It's enough to make you think that in 2009 we saw not an unprecedented assembly of established writers but the birth of a new pantheon. If so, I say bring it on - when Thomas Pynchon makes a promotional video for his slight, charming new novel, it's clearly time for a new pantheon. Here are the real winners of 2009, by my lights:
10. The Song is You by Arthur Phillips - Don't let the emo cover photo fool you: this is a smart, funny, and above all happy novel, every bit as quotable and music-obsessed as Phillips' other books would lead you to expect, but with an added breadth of both maturity and narrative command. I cheered inside at the end of this book - and although I had the same reaction at the end of The Egyptologist, in this case I was cheering because the book made me happy, not because it was finally over.
9. A Day and a Night and a Day by Glen Duncan - There's a surprisingly amount going on in this slim novel, but its dramatic centerpiece is the slow, thoughtful, systematic torture of one man by another, complete with grotesque physical violence and complex verbal sparring. Both the victim and his torturer are instantly memorable characters, propelling this novel far beyond anything Duncan has previously shown us. There's a thoroughgoing indictment of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney here, but there's no ripped-from-the-headlines triviality - this is more parable than parody, and its dark lessons will still be electric fifty years from now.
8. Roanoke by Margaret Lawrence - This lean, dodgy Elizabethan historical novel succeeds where so many countless thousands of novels set in the same time period have failed because it never takes anything about its readers for granted - it earns every dramatic payoff through precise realization of scenes and characters, not through lazy reliance on 'Good Queen Bess' to carry the bulk of the weight. I can't call it the best Tudor novel of the year (that spot's taken!), but I can and will fudge things a bit and call it the best Elizabethan novel of the year!
7. American Rust by Philipp Meyer - This bleak, elliptical novel about tragedy overtaking two young men in Nowhere, Midwest America was unfairly ignored for all the year's major literary awards, despite being tautly plotted and knowingly executed to a degree few novels this season could approach, let alone equal. Perhaps the problem was the setting: most two-books-a-week literate Americans know more about the society of Dune (or Hogwart's) than they do about the various kinds of low-rent dead-ends Meyer so perfectly evokes. If so, it's the readers' loss; this is a stark, memorable book.
6. Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead - Another strong, remarkable book, fleet and funny, Whitehead's latest and best novel was misunderstood right out of the starting-gate by most critics, who were so busy describing how little the book works as a racial manifesto that they failed to report on how well it works as a witty, assured bildungsroman. It's unthinkable that critics would have been so confused if Whitehead and all his characters were white, and the confusion is a shame, because the realizations of love, bullshit, and summer in this book are pretty damn wonderful. Who knows how many people missed out on that while they were treasure-hunting for The Souls of Black Folk 2.0?
5. How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely - You read this novel the first time because of how laugh-out-loud funny it is. The story of a schmuck who decides to write a bestseller, the book does for the whole writing and publishing industry what Gulliver's Travels does for society: skewers it and serves it up over an open flame. Long after you've stopped laughing, scenes and screeds will stick with you - and you'll certainly never view commercially popular fiction of any kind the same way again.
4. The City and the City by China Mieville - The author of this fantastic, mind-working blend of police procedural and Twilight Zone hypothetical (two cities co-existing in the same physical space, and the mysterious law enforcement entity that keeps them from interacting) here strips his usually-ornate writing style down to lean, almost telegraphic basics - which only serves to highlight both the poetry and the originality of his vision. In addition to being one incredibly gripping read, this book is also a near-perfect example of that rarest of rarities: a science fiction book that's perfect for people who hate science fiction. I'd say it's not possible for Mieville to top this performance, but I've said that about all of his previous books - and been wrong twice.
3. Lowboy by John Wray - This precisely written and ultimately very touching novel about a mentally disturbed teenager who's on the loose in the bowels of the New York, convinced that the world is about to end, works perfectly because it takes virtually none of the easy routes on offer: its policemen aren't morons or monsters, Lowboy is sweet but not Movie-of-the-Week redemptively sweet, and - in the toughest fictional move of all - his brittle, intellectual mother is never allowed to become a Medea stand-in. And the whole thing unfolds for the reader with such speed and confidence that the ending comes rushing up on you. Certainly the best work of fiction I read this year that wasn't a historical novel.
2. Girl Mary by Petru Popescu - And speaking of historical fiction, there's surely no suburb of that particular genre that sports more eyesores than Biblical historical fiction, so I naturally expected the worst from this novel about the young girlhood of the Virgin Mary. But Popescu's book is nothing short of marvellous - Defiant, free-thinking Mary comes alive in these pages, as does her much older husband Joseph and her most obstinate Suitor, Who quite literally won't take 'no' for an answer. These characters and this story couldn't be more familiar to Western readers, and yet they're all vitally, amazingly new in this book.
1. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt - In his own roundup of the year (and the decade)'s best fiction, Sam Anderson wrote that the 20-aughts showed the beginning of a literary trend toward fragmentation and diminution, that the age of big, heavily-plotted conventional novels may well be over, driven to fragmentation by blogs, blurbs, and tweets. If he's right (and I wouldn't bet against him - he's pretty smart), then the two best novels I read in 2009 are pure anachronisms - but oh, what glorious anachronisms! Byatt's opulently-detailed Trollopian look at two intertwining Victorian families and Mantel's brutally powerful narrative of the Thomas Cromwell's heyday in power have no patience whatsoever for the alleged disintegration of the reading mind: they present complex, compelling stories and demand that their readers concentrate and follow along. Those who do are in for two immensely satisfying reading experiences.
Up next: 2009's best Nonfiction!