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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.

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