PopMatters Best of Books 2008: Fiction

Feeling anxious? Here are 23 masterful works of fiction from 2008 that will either underscore your anxiety or help alleviate it through escape into the past and the land of make-believe.

Introduction by Rodger Jacobs

We live in anxious times. Nowhere is that statement of indisputable fact better demonstrated than in the 23 outstanding books that grace this compelling but troubling Best Of list from our contributors. The opening line of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book serves to best demonstrate the tension-fraught direction that this literary inventory clearly takes:

“There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife.”

Troubled yet? You should be. The popularity of these 23 titles, and the overall critical consensus of their artistic worth and viability, represents nothing less than a collective reaction formation. In psychoanalytic theory, reaction formation is a defensive process whereby unacceptable emotions and impulses are countered and tempered by exaggerating the directly opposing tendency.

Reaction formation is more profound and primal than “say one thing and do another”, as explained by Calvin S. Hall in A Primer of Freudian Psychology (1954):

“… the ego may try to sidetrack the offending impulse by concentrating upon its opposite … when one of the instincts produces anxiety.”

When the ego cannot cope with the demands of desires and reality, anxiety takes over and anxiety, Freud tells us, is an unpleasant inner state that we seek to avoid at all costs. All 23 of the fictional works on this year’s list fall directly or indirectly into this mud patch of psychoanalytic theory.

A tendency to overindulge in the past indicates an anxiety toward and fear of the present and the future. Eight of the novels on this list, not surprising given our anxious present, are historical narratives, ranging from an epic adventure set against the backdrop of the 19th Century Calcutta Opium Wars (Sea of Poppies) to Salman Rushdie’s Booker Prize-winning The Enchantress of Florence, a lush fairy tale featuring a moody sultan and historical characters like Machiavelli in the faraway lands of Medici Florence and Mughal India.

Norman Mailer once said that it takes ten years for popular culture to absorb and process a major event, and that may be the reason why the great 9/11 novel has yet to be written, after stabs at the dubious subgenre by John Updike, Ian McEwan, and Jonathan Safron Foer. Deep down, each and every one of us knows that there’s something amiss in the tragic events of September 11, 2001, too many convenient truths such as the surviving passport of one of the hijackers found amid the debris on a Manhattan street after a fiery inferno with enough Satanic intensity to melt glass and steel; the knowledge that something is askew has crept into our collective subconscious but we don’t speak about it (except for the realm of conspiracy theorists) and the suppression creates anxiety; the literary reaction formation is yet three more novels confronting not the lingering questions and doubts, but the emotional trauma of 9/11 on New Yorkers: riddle-master Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark (wherein the protagonist wakes up in a parallel world where 9/11 never happened), Joseph O’Neill’s best-seller Netherland, and The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt.

Reaction formation is on ample display in the dazzling debut novel of Joe McGinniss Jr., The Delivery Man, and Willy Vlautin’s second emotion-laden ballad of the underclass, Northline. Both books, by no small coincidence, are set in the anxiety-producing gambling meccas of Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada, and both works are populated by self-defeating American youth who make up for their lack of substance through Herculean efforts at self-defeat and self-annihilation.

By now you probably know how to take the psychoanalytic theory and apply it to this compilation of 2008 fiction releases. We could make the application title for title for you, but it probably wouldn’t be as much fun as making the leap for yourself. To paraphrase novelist and social anthropologist J.G. Ballard, human beings are not meant to be comfortable. We need tension, stress, and uncertainty. With this list we honor 22 authors who have constructed their own logical alternative universe to what they see as a poisoned realm, which just might be a reasonable and accurate description of the world today.

On to the best fiction of 2008...

See also PopMatters Best of Non-Fiction 2008

Note: Some titles included may have been originally published before 2008. They make this year's Best Of list as a new paperback version or a reprint published in 2008.

Next Page




How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.


From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?


The 50 Best Songs of 2007

Journey back 13 years to a stellar year for Rihanna, M.I.A., Arcade Fire, and Kanye West. From hip-hop to indie rock and everywhere in between, PopMatters picks the best 50 songs of 2007.


'Modern' Is the Pinnacle of Post-Comeback Buzzcocks' Records

Presented as part of the new Buzzcocks' box-set, Sell You Everything, Modern showed a band that wasn't interested in just repeating itself or playing to nostalgia.


​Nearly 50 and Nearly Unplugged: 'ChangesNowBowie' Is a Glimpse Into a Brilliant Mind

Nine tracks, recorded by the BBC in 1996 show David Bowie in a relaxed and playful mood. ChangesNowBowie is a glimpse into a brilliant mind.


Reaching for the Sky: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Bruce Sudano

How did Bruce Sudano become a superhero? PopMatters has the answer as Sudano celebrates the release of Spirals and reflects on his career from Brooklyn Dreams to Broadway.


Inventions Conjure Mystery and Hope with the Intensely Creative 'Continuous Portrait'

Instrumental duo Matthew Robert Cooper (Eluvium) and Mark T. Smith (Explosions in the Sky) release their first album in five years as Inventions. Continuous Portrait is both sonically thrilling and oddly soothing.


Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch Are 'Live at the Village Vanguard' to Raise Money for Musicians

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch release a live recording from a 2018 show to raise money for a good cause: other jazz musicians.


Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica' Hides Its True Intentions Behind Dancefloor Exuberance

Lady Gaga's Chromatica is the most lively and consistent record she's made since Born This Way, embracing everything great about her dance-pop early days and giving it a fresh twist.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Street Art As Sprayed Solidarity: Global Corona Graffiti

COVID-19-related street art functions as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement. It offers a form of global solidarity in a time of crisis.


Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.


Okkyung Lee Goes From Classical to Noise on the Stellar 'Yeo-Neun'

Cellist Okkyung Lee walks a fine line between classical and noise on the splendid, minimalist excursion Yeo-Neun.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.