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The year 2013 was full of repeats in publishing. Dan Brown and Stephen King notched up another couple bestselling thrillers, there were new nonfiction entries from backlist favorites like Malcolm Gladwell and David Sedaris, Rick Atkinson capped off his monumental history of World War II, another self-published dystopian cycle (Hugh Howey’s Wool) became big news, and James Patterson knocked out another half-dozen books or so.
But with a few exceptions, these were not the books most likely to keep you up an extra hour or two flipping pages and fighting off sleep. Some better known writers who surprised you with what they were capable of, like Dave Eggers or George Packer, showed themselves able to generate thought-provoking science fiction and elegantly literary historical portraiture, respectively. Others, like crime novelist Jake Arnott, catapulted themselves to new levels entirely.
What 2013 proved more than anything else—besides the ability of writers to keep surprising you; who would have thought Donna Tartt had another bestseller in her?—was that taking a chance on something different (wait, Joyce Carol Oates wrote a historical ghost story… about Woodrow Wilson? Thomas Pynchon is that funny?) was going to pay off more often than not.
Herewith, in alphabetical order by title, the 15 books of 2013 that feel the most resonant to me, along with some notable mentions at the end; since denoting a mere 15 favorites is not merely enough.
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon
While the world kept careering towards the edge over the past couple decades, Thomas Pynchon must have been taking some great notes. This crackpot comic detective story set in 2001 New York is like a dowsing wand for the various nodal points of the jangled postmodern consumerist landscape ,where everything can be discovered but nothing comprehended. Pynchon’s heroine is a small-time Upper West Side fraud investigator with a healthy line of sarcasm, a web of connections, and a tendency to sleep with the worst guys she can possibly find. She gets wrapped up in some shady goings-on in the post-bubble Silicon Alley scene, where the “dark Internet” makes the burying and buying of secrets easier than ever.
It’s not surprising that the ever-conspiratorial Pynchon would throw in everything from the Montauk Project to MK-Ultra and a bucketful of 9/11 theories. But what stuns is how smartly attuned Pynchon’s cultural radar is for the Coen brothers-esque oddball (Russian gangsters rocking out to Nelly) and the William Gibson-like feel for how the future has become now. This is a screwball comedy for the age of terror.
The Circle by Dave Eggers
It would be easy to dismiss this flashing flare of a warning novel about a young woman who gets a dream job at a Google-ish company with world domination dreams as The Firm for the millennial generation. Eggers’ clean-chiseled voice does feel at times like that of some bestseller list-haunting thriller writer whose work is described as “pulse-pounding”. The characters tend to be skin-deep villains or mouthpieces for the author’s trepidations. But the pitch-perfect satire of the company’s blithe Silicon Valley utopian arrogance is on the nose. The stealthy totalitarian creep of the consumer opt-in online surveillance state, and the public’s eager acquiescence to it, has rarely been depicted with more plangent emotion and apocalyptic dread.
Published not long before Hugo Chavez’s death, Rory Carroll’s lacerating, colorful portrait of the effusive autocrat could stand the test of time as one of the best portraits of the comically ineffective leader who was, incredibly, once a hero to the international left. As Latin American bureau chief for The Guardian, Carroll had a front-row seat for the chaos that followed Chavez’s first election as president in 1999. His vivid reporting illustrates the myriad ways that Chavez’s media-obsessed cult of personality steadily demolished nearly every Venezuelan institution until the nation became practically a failed state. Carroll doesn’t call Chavez a dictator not just because he was popularly elected (albeit elections in which state propaganda and harassment drowned out the opposition), but because he was bad at it: “Real dictators—Trujillo Perez Jimenez, Fidel, Kim Jong Il—kept streets safe for ordinary people.”
This history of hate is electrifying in the worst way. Texas journalists Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis dug into the archives and produced a chronological accounting of how several power centers—oil magnate and Howard Hughes, nutjob H.L. Hunt, civil rights-hating General Edwin Walker, and the Eastern liberal-hating publisher of the Dallas Morning News—converged on Dallas in the early ‘60s to create a vortex of explosive right-wing rage. The litany of fury against everything deemed un-American (mink-coated Republican ladies assaulting LBJ, crosses burned on a Holocaust survivor’s lawn, pamphlets damning the Eastern establishment and fellow travelers for loving everything not white and Protestant) makes for dark but familiar reading.
The writers don’t have to draw parallels between this xenophobic, reactionary whirlwind and current political storms; an entire book could be written about the similarity of nightmares over that era’s supposed Socialist scheme (Medicare) and today’s (Affordable Care Act). How all this right-wing fury explodes in the assassination of a Democratic president by an avowed Marxist who had not long earlier been taking potshots at Gen. Walker is a mystery that the book doesn’t try to unravel. What it does show in riveting detail is how hate moves in mysterious ways.
This malicious little mousetrap of a novel was something of a sensation in Herman Koch’s Netherlands when it first came out in 2009, and it’s easy to see why. The narrator, Paul, is getting ready for a dinner with his politician brother and their wives. His running commentary is at first a John Kennedy Toole-esque litany of bitchy complaints that turn into a kind of comic symphony. Just when Koch has sucked readers into Paul’s misanthropic worldview, though, he starts pulling back the curtain on the true nature of the dinner and the horrific crime that concerns both families. It’s a neat sleight-of-hand that goes beyond mere trickery. Koch continually dares readers to sympathize with Paul while giving them all the evidence of what kind of person he truly is. This is a chillingly funny and precise portrait of a European bourgeoisie feeling hemmed in by the modern world and eager to strike back at whatever or whoever is closest at hand.
Just how Rachel Kushner’s sparkling rocket of a novel is able to jump from the desert flats of Nevada to the lofts of Manhattan to gilded Italian villas without losing its unerring sense of time and place is just one of its glorious attributes. It’s a simple thing at heart but densely packed: Girl from Reno (nicknamed Reno) has a thing for motorcycles and defying expectations, so heads to ‘70s New York just as the downtown arts scene is rumbling towards full boil and falls in love with the scion of an Italian motorcycle fiefdom; sparks of romance, creativity, and what-the-hell-am-I-doing? fly everywhere. Reno’s sense of self is tinctured with complexities without being held hostage to the whims of a plot that’s part conveniently timed melodrama but mostly sharp-focus snapshots of time and place. Kushner sends Reno out on a quest for self and finds a whole world in the process.
It wasn’t that people never knew what was behind the “Church” of Scientology. It was just that for years, the organization has been able to wage a successful campaign of intimidation against anybody who dared talk, or even worse, write about it. The dam had been showing some leaks of late, but with Lawrence Wright’s near-definitive text on Scientology’s history and methods, it’s finally been busted wide open.
Drawing on years’ worth of research and interviews with former church members, Wright vividly portrays how a prolific pulp science-fiction writer turned some demonstrably helpful self-help techniques into a quasi-religious system of cult-like beliefs ruled over by a corrupted elite willing to use violence and virtual slavery to keep its members in line and the money flowing. The group’s strategy of recruiting denizens of Hollywood to their cause makes for some of the book’s more vivid material, particularly the stories of Tom Cruise being treated as a near-God and writer Paul Haggis’s transformation from convert to apostate. It’s not an attack, just history, expertly and thrillingly told.
The House of Rumor by Jake Arnott
Jake Arnott’s breakthrough, Borges-ish thriller appears at first to be spinning one of those history-behind-the-history stories where real-life figures turn out to be much more than recorded history gives them credit for. With the same ear for nervy dialogue and cinematic scenery that graced his London crime novels like The Long Firm, Arnott weaves a tangled web that yokes in World War II espionage, Jonestown, UFOs, Ian Fleming, magicians, West Coast sci-fi writers like L. Ron Hubbard, and Aleister Crowley. The stranger elements here, particularly the many curious intersections of those in positions of power with sketchy underworld characters, are generally based on fact. The plot skitters off in a half-dozen directions at once, even though it’s nominally pegged to one of World War II’s great mysteries: Why Nazi occultist Rudolf Hess parachuted into Scotland in 1941 only to be made prisoner immediately. But Arnott’s masterful sense of mood and tension makes it all seemed planned and never random.
Those looking for a great moment of clarity will be disappointed, with the novel preferring to let the great weight of time wear down everyone’s utopian visions. Readers can sink deeply and satisfyingly into the addictive but ultimately unknowable story that Arnott teases “from the cloud mass of history.”