PopMatters Picks: The Best of Books 2009: Fiction

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More than half of the titles in this year’s selections offer grim portraits of the human condition, some with more wit and optimism than others, and a surprising number of legendary authors complete the portraiture and theme.

Note: These books are listed in alphabetical order by title. This is not an order of preference. They may be the paperback version or a reprint: if they were published in 2009, and we read them and loved them, they're here.

Introduction by Rodger Jacobs

In Act Three of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the troubled young prince of Denmark lectures a troupe of actors “to hold a mirror up to nature” in their performances, echoing a critical sentiment of the time (1601) that drama and theater (and, by extension, much of the arts) should reflect a form of truth and not simply serve as petty entertainments.

“In the theatrical mirror we see our virtues and vices reflected back to us in their true shape,” writes Michael Macrone in Brush Up Your Shakespeare, “that’s the theater’s moral function. Defensive dramatists, who had to contend with accusations of corrupting the masses, were fond of pointing out that their productions did indeed have the effect Hamlet advertises.”

If the 24 works of fiction contained in this annual list are examined for their reflection of the modern and postmodern human and social realm, the face in the mirror is one that is perplexed and intrigued by the spiritual and moral failings of mankind, from the very first serious lapse of judgment at the Garden of Eden (as illustrated by the father of underground comics) to all manner of ill and unforgivable sins in between, including the 1989 massacre at China’s Tianenmen Square student uprising (Beijing Coma), a most regrettable chapter in human history.

More than half of the titles in this year’s selections offer grim portraits of the human condition, some with more wit and optimism than others, and a surprising number of legendary authors complete the portraiture and theme.

Margaret Atwood, the queen of speculative dystopic fiction (don’t ever tell her she writes sci-fi, that genre “has monsters and space ships,” she says, “speculative fiction really could happen”) returns to the delightfully pandemic post-apocalyptic world of 2003’s successful Oryx and Crake with Year of the Flood; gray lion Philip Roth spins a yarn about an over-the-hill actor’s ill-fated love affair; our old friend Thomas Pynchon stops by for a marijuana-hazed L.A. private detective tale set in ‘60s Los Angeles; and the master realist Richard Yates – who influenced Raymond Carver and Richard Ford – gets his due with a nice trilogy release of three of his best novels of Freudian, angst-ridden mid-20th century life, including Revolutionary Road.

Another modern literary legend, James Ellroy, the genre writer appropriately described by Publisher’s Weekly as “the premier lunatic of American letters”, returns with the conclusion of his dark Underworld USA trilogy that began with American Tabloid in 1995, and far across the Atlantic, the popular Italian writer Nanni Balestrini explores the Camorra, the Naples-based organized crime syndicate in the experimental novella Sandokan.

As there always should be, there are a handful of commercial titles on this list, including works by noir novelist Michael Connelly and genre master Stephen King, as well as the latest heartwarming lit-fic work featuring a precocious post-adolescent genius (they’re all the rage these days) and if you feel like the need for a jolt back to reality after that venture into escapist lit fiction you can always pick up the lumbering and harrowing look into the mind of a German SS officer in World War II in the controversial The Kindly Ones; talk about spiritual and moral failings, this book is an encyclopedia on the topic.

Combative politics on the regional and global level, two wars, and a worldwide recession like none ever seen before has a lot of people on this planet not only reflecting inward but thinking about the human race at large, the brilliance and tenacity and infinite kindness of humans and their opposing ability to remain in perpetual conflict and seemingly eternal greed, corruption, hatred, bigotry, and meaningless squabbles.

Charles Bukowski put it best when he wrote, “We’re all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t. We are hardened and flattened by trivialities. We are eaten up by nothing.”


Book: Beijing Coma

Author: Ma Jian


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Beijing Coma
Ma Jian

Picture this: A Chinese graduate student-activist gets shot during the Tiananmen Square Riot on 4 June 1989. He falls into a coma, but regains consciousness only to find himself able to see and hear, but unable to speak. His “communication breakdown” lasts almost 20 years; but as the optimism of those around him fades, the narrator becomes more hopeful – not just for his own recovery, but for that of his country. Such is the premise behind Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma, the best Asian novel of the year. Jian gives us a taste of the brutal history of the People’s Republic of China through his protagonist Dai Wei, whose coma is indicative of the general malaise of the mainland government. At 700 pages, Beijing Coma is not a weekend read; however, it is a monumental novel and tribute to the perseverance of the Chinese people. Reading this book gave me a much greater appreciation for the success of China, its residents and its expats than anything I’ve read before. Shyam Sriram


Book: Blood's a Rover

Author: James Ellroy


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Blood's a Rover
James Ellroy

The completion of James Ellroy's Underground USA Trilogy is a different kind of beast than those that preceded it, and that is a definitely a good thing. Books like The Cold Six Thousand seemed to be running on the fumes left over from his earlier quartet, mammoth crime novels set in the glamour and horror of postwar Los Angeles. The later books spread their nets further, almost trying to encompass all of America's dirty laundry, from the Kennedy assassination to Cuba, Howard Hughes, the mafia and beyond. Blood's a Rover brings Ellroy back from the edge. In tracking his epic pack of bloody-minded characters (gunsels, spies, cops, whores and more) as they tangle themselves through the '60s and '70s political tumult, Ellroy brings an elegiac note to the dense, ultraviolent plot. Yes, the novel is still replete with his patented brand of conflicted men of secrets who trade bags of money and bullets in the night, but a surprising strand of political insight runs through the tangled plot. Ellroy was once content to let the bad men take charge of history, and even seem to side with them at times, but now it seems he thinks the country is due its revenge. Chris Barsanti


Book: The Book of Genesis

Author: Robert Crumb


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The Book of Genesis
Robert Crumb

The king of underground comix made a triumphant return to publishing with undoubtedly his most radical project to date, a thoroughly faithful cartoon interpretation of The Book of Genesis. This is Crumb’s first official book-length work, and it does not disappoint in the least, drawing in even the most ardent religion skeptic with his unmatched eye for the most minute detail as only he can create. From 'Creation' to 'The Death of Joseph', no stone goes unturned in this phenomenal adaptation, which in some parts feature imagery as graphic and scandalous as his most sex-fueled inkgasms in Zap Comix. This is being hailed as the best thing Crumb has done in his illustrious 40-odd year career, and from the moment you crack open this must-own for any and every fan of this unheralded American icon, you will know why. Ronald Hart


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