Of this year’s batch of consensus favorites, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl probably earns its place best.
That’s not because Gone Girl is the best book of the year, even if it’s totally justifiable to put it in the running. It’s because of just how effortful Gone Girl turns out to be. It’s a meticulously plotted, immaculately mean-spirited three-act thriller, the kind of book that actually pulls off sucker-punch plot twists. But at the same time, Gone Girl shifts into a different genre after each twist, with Flynn discarding the first act’s whodunit for a revenge plot and finally resisting her earlier promise of gore for something colder and nastier in the conclusion. Flynn works hard for your attention: She gives the impression of throwing every trick she’s got into her performance, and putting much more into Gone Girl than any reader’s going to pull out of it.
And that’s a pretty good metaphor for a year in reading distinguished less by high points than by high-profile disappointments: J.K. Rowling’s workmanlike and over-earnest The Casual Vacancy (read our review here); Zadie Smith’s lapidary and fragmented NW; Justin Cronin’s The Twelve, which dissipated the rush of 2010’s The Passage into a largely static sequel. But even against this background of busyness, there were still enough books that paid off, and in a bunch of different ways.
Rare peeks behind high walls: Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, a thriller that grew out of its author’s firsthand observation of North Korea’s hermit kingdom, transforms that outsider’s experience into a pure act of imagination by creating a plausible North Korean mind-set; G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen performs the no-less-imaginative feat of creating something entirely new and unprecedented in a supernatural Muslim hacker novel.
Absolute precision as a vehicle for emotional clarity: Kathleen Alcott’s The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets and Edward St. Aubyn’s At Last are both careful and low-key, in ways that almost masks their pain and perversity: Alcott’s simple vignettes build up to a creepily incestuous portrait of the trespasses of a too-close friendship, and the final volume of St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose cycle is equally unflinching and witty in showing not only his characters’ feet of clay, but enumerating exactly the sort of clay those feet are composed of.
Humane regard: Both Nell Freudenberger’s The Newlyweds and Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins plumb the divide between husbands and wives; Freudenberger’s characters grasp at each other across cultures and the realities of a mail-order union, while Attenberg’s push each other away. But both books are distinguished by devoting the respect and restraint necessary to showcase their characters’ choices without facile, artificial judgment.
Humor as a blind for insecurity: Sergio de la Pava’s exuberant, hyperverbal A Naked Singularity and Padgett Powell’s stark and absurd You & Me inhabit opposite poles. But for books so very different, both are minor masterpieces of humor, paranoia and even flashy technique as an overcompensation for very real fears of disenfranchisement, disability and death.
Visceral, physically uncomfortable prose: Amelia Gray’s alternately surreal and crushingly sad Threats uses its weirdness for misdirection, veiling its emotional punch behind promises to “CROSS-STITCH AN IMAGE OF YOUR FUTURE HOME BURNING.” Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet does her one better, using an effective and alienating palette of diction and syntax to mark out a spare story about the toxicity of language, making it easily the ickiest thing on your bookshelf.
Self-consciousness that adds meaning, rather than distraction: Laurent Binet’s HHhH — whatever its problems as a piece of history or a work of ontology — used its questioning, self-dramatizing straw man of an author to cast something familiar in a new light; and I.J. Kay’s Mountains of the Moon, with its heroine’s fragmented character and detailed, idiosyncratic voice, elevates one woman’s attempt to rebuild herself to an immersive, virtuoso, exhausting read through sheer force of style.
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