The OF Blog: 2010 in Review: Non-Speculative Fictions

Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 in Review: Non-Speculative Fictions

In my previous essay, I discussed my general attitude toward 2010's speculative fiction releases.  What I failed to mention there, which I shall address briefly here, is how those books were chosen.  For the past several years, I have received hundreds of review copies from genre publishers.  Only a handful of them tend to be superb books; the rest are mediocre or of no interest to me.  Yet I have felt uneasy at times over the past year or so about receiving so many books that seem targeted toward audiences other than myself.  I refuse, with very few and notable exceptions, to host any "giveaways" or to do the usual publicity hooey.  I just can't promote books that I myself would not recommend to those whose reading tastes are similar to mine.

When it comes to non-speculative (realist, "literary," "mainstream," Naturalist, etc.) fictions, the situation is reversed somewhat.  I have no publicity contacts to speak up with lit presses, outside of those forged for the purposes of gathering materials for the stillborn Best American Fantasy 4 anthology.  What I've had to do is learn how to sift through reviews and find books that are of interest to me.  I also have depended, perhaps too much, on literary shortlists to fill out my non-speculative reading this year.  This is something I will change for 2011.  But yet despite the differences in book acquisition, I've found that I've been happier with the majority of the non-speculative reads than I was with the speculative fiction I read in 2010.

One prominent book that I pre-ordered was Bret Easton Ellis' Imperial Bedrooms, the twenty-five years later sequel to Less Than Zero.  A fan of the prior work, I was curious to see how Ellis would approach revisiting an LA scene that he made (in)famous in 1985.  I never wrote a formal review of the book, but if I had, I would have discussed the murky layers of characterization, plot, and theme (particularly that of how the once-young deal with the young world that is passing them by) and how well this novel complements its predecessor.  Ellis' work is not for everyone, but for me, Imperial Bedrooms was a disturbing read which I hope to re-read in the coming year.

Robert Coover's Noir is a story of "postmodernist" (I use the scare quotes with some bemusement) noir that contains a surprising amount of humor.  Some of the elaborate structures that are devised and then detonated did not work as well for me as I thought they might, but it certainly is a challenging work that I hope to revisit in the years to come.

David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a historical novel that straddles the lines between the fantastic and the mundane.  Set during the early years of the Napoleonic Wars in the far-away Dutch outpost off the coast of isolationist Japan, Mitchell's latest novel bears little resemblance in form to his earlier works, particularly Cloud Atlas.  Yet the third person limited PoV narrative suits this tale of cultural clashes and quasi-romantic tragedy (among a great many other things) quite well.  Wish this book had made the Booker Prize shortlist.

Earlier, I praised Grace Krilanovich's debut novel, The Orange Eats Creeps, so I see no need to repeat myself, other than to note that it was a memorable work that blurred several genre bounds.

I did not do a separate section for translated fictions this year, but if I had, René Belletto's Dying certainly would have been praised for its intricate plot and how well it was executed.  I wish more writers would take narrative chances like he did.

As I noted above, I read each and every book on the National Book Award and Booker Prize shortlists (Peter Carey's Parrot & Olivier in America appears on both lists).  Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question and Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule won the Booker Prize and National Book Award respectively.  I vehemently disagree with the judges' choices, as I felt each was at or near the bottom of each of the shortlists of 5-6 novels.

If I were to rank the National Book Award finalists, first prize I would award to Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel.  Set in San Francisco around the aging International Hotel, this book is a series of ten interconnected novellas that feature this hotel as a backdrop to momentous action from 1968-1977, when the hotel was condemned and its residents forcibly evicted.  Yamashita utilizes a variety of literary styles and techniques, including graphic novel scenes and play script in order to tell the various stories of the Asian-Americans who grew up with the I Hotel as a cornerstone.  This book, the longest of the finalists, never felt bloated due to the various ways the residents' stories were told.

Another strong National Book Award finalist was Lionel Shriver's So Much for That.  At times a bit too maudlin and bleak, this novel tells the trials and tribulations of a soon-to-retire worker who planned on using his $1 million nest egg to live out his life in Africa, until his oft-self-centered wife comes down with terminal cancer and he has to keep his now-miserable job in order to pay for the cost of her chemotherapy.  It is a very sobering look at the American health care system, but it is also a testimony to how people adjust and adapt (if they do) to such pressures.  The ending some might think is tacked on, but I found it to reinforce the messages found within the first three-quarters of the novel.

Nicole Strauss' Great House was a novel that I reviewed back in November.  I found it to be a solid novel that was worthy of consideration for the National Book Award, but here I consider it to be third-best out of the field.

Peter Carey's Parrot & Olivier in America seemed too much like a dull reimagining of Tocqueville's writings on 19th century America, until toward the end.  The writing is good, the characters of Parrot and Olivier are well-drawn, but the plot lagged for most of the novel, until toward the end, when some of the observations struck me as being not so much a reproduction of Tocqueville but rather a satirical look at what became of the US.  The conclusion raised this novel to decent enough for award consideration, but I consider it fourth out of the National Book Award finalists and fifth out of the Booker Prize finalists.

The actual National Book Award winner, Gordon's Lord of Misrule, was a choppy, sloppy affair.  While I got that the novel dealt about the seedy world of racetrack trading and gambling, I was not as enamored with the characters as some other reviewers have been.  Combine that with one of the worst sex scenes I have ever read (the "moist portal" of a woman's asshole being one of the worst metaphors I have ever read in literature) and this was just a disappointing read in comparison to the other finalists.

The Booker Prize finalists were mostly on par with the National Book Award shortlist.  My two favorite books there were Emma Donoghue's Room, which I reviewed earlier this year, and Damon Galgut's In a Strange Room, which started inconspicuously but built up to a moving conclusion.  Both works contained memorable characters and the settings, vastly different as they were, contributed greatly to the story.

A slight step below these two was Andrea Levy's The Long Song, about a Jamaican mulatto house slave during the last years of slavery on Jamaica.  It was good, solid, but ultimately felt too derivative.  It lacks the power of earlier slave fiction narratives like Alex Haley's Roots and there was no redeeming quality to make up for this sense that this was just a retelling of a sad, tragic narrative that had been told before (and just as well) by several other talented writers.

Tom McCarthy's C was entertaining, but ultimately it just felt a bit flat to me.  The final bit of the "codes" dealing with Egypt I found to be weaker than the preceding section, which dampened my enjoyment of this otherwise fine novel.

Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question was ultimately one of the emptiest novels that I've read in years.  My recent review I think says quite well what I still think of it, so just read that if you want to know more why I found this to be the weakest shortlist book by a fair margin.

Despite a few clunkers, 2010 certainly had quite a few enjoyable non-speculative releases.  Hopefully, 2011 will bring even more to my attention.

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