Favorite Books of 2008 (With Some Additional Thoughts on Ha Jin’s A Free Life)

Lately I’ve been thinking that Ha Jin‘s A Free Life, my favorite novel of last year, was published a year too early. In 2007, a novel about one immigrant family’s steady, penny-pinching march toward middle-class American attainment struck a lot of critics as tedious. Walter Kirn‘s evisceration of the book in the New York Times Book Review was typical of the complaints: “Jin’s simple sentences, familiar sentiments, and uneventful three- to five-page chapters that typically end with such pulse-suppressing non-cliffhangers as ‘the day before the Wangs returned, the Wus moved out of the bungalow and set up their residence at 568 March Drive,’ appear to derive from a highly refined aesthetic of anti-excitability.” Today, with the markets in the tank, homes devalued, and unemployment on the rise, I suspect that the exploits depicted in A Free Life would now be seen as at least slightly more dramatic and in step with the present times.

Perhaps the novel’s fate would also have improved had it been published at the same time as Jin’s The Writer as Migrant, a new collection of essays about the writer’s identity—its analysis of the lives and works of Joseph Conrad, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, V.S. Naipaul, and others might have challenged critics not to dismiss Jin’s novel as simplistic and naive. Though Jin doesn’t explicitly discuss A Free Life in the book, The Writer as Migrant makes clear that writing the novel represented some serious decisions about his status: “A writer’s first responsibility is to write well…. On several occasions, I said that I would stop writing about contemporary China. People often asked me, ‘Why burn your bridges?’ or ‘Why mess with success?’ I would reply, ‘My heart is no longer there.’ In retrospect, I can see that my decision to leave contemporary China in my writing is a way to negate the role of the spokesmanship I used to envision for myself. I must learn to stand alone, as a writer.”

I bring all this up in a year-in-review post because A Free Life stuck with me through 2008—I spent some time blogging about it, thinking about why I liked it, and figuring out what it meant for me in terms of what I look for in fiction. I believe that A Free Life does what good contemporary fiction ought to do, at least by my reckoning: bring the news that the news doesn’t bring, and essentialize the feelings of displacement and confusion that come along with living in the early part of the 21st century. If that seems like a reductionist way of looking at fiction, all I can say is that the novels I was most drawn to this year strongly spoke to a concern that, right now, the center isn’t holding. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may have brought little physical harm to anybody living safely in the United States, but, on the evidence, it’s fucked with our heads something fierce. There’s no better exemplar of that than August Brill, the sleepless hero of Paul Auster‘s Man in the Dark, who can’t resist working through a fantasy where “America is fighting America.” Auster’s approach to the novel’s structure—narratives nested within narratives, worries within worries—is both a fitting story for 2008 and an enduring achievement within Auster’s own body of work, which has been erratic in recent years.

I didn’t go hunting for allegories of war, or even of emotional displacement, in 2008. I took in plenty of satire, historical fiction, and portraits of contemporary domestic life. Still, standard-issue realism doesn’t seem to matter as much to me in this moment, even if there was plenty of fiction in that vein that I admired, among them Ethan Canin‘s America America, Jhumpa Lahiri‘s Unaccustomed Earth, Matt Bondurant‘s The Wettest County in the World, Daniel Wroblewski‘s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Francine Prose‘s Goldengrove, and Joseph O’Neill‘s Netherland. As much as I respected Netherland‘s formal achievements of style and characterization—you don’t realize how hard it is to find a novel that addresses immigrants with respect and dignity until such a book shows up—it still mainly strikes me as a beautifully formed love letter to New York City that’s boxed in by its own formality. (This is, I know, a much shallower analysis than the book deserves; Zadie Smith‘s recent essay in the New York Review of Books does a nice job of articulating some of what I felt reading Netherland.) The only novel on my list that approaches old-fashioned realism is Lush Life, an impressive portrait of the shifting demographics of a single city neighborhood, dressed up in the clothing of a police procedural. Netherland has much to say about what 9/11 did to the middle-upper class in New York, unquestionably. But Lush Life has room for everybody.

As for the the rest of this list, I should say: I missed tons. Forget Roberto Bolaño‘s 2666; I didn’t have a chance to get to (just to pick a few obvious examples) Toni Morrison‘s A Mercy, Aleksandar Hemon‘s The Lazarus Project, Ron Rash‘s Serena, and Louise Erdrich‘s A Plague of Doves. I would’ve happily traded the week I spent with Joyce Carol Oates‘ overcooked JonBenet Ramsey-esque tale, My Sister, My Love, to get to a couple of those (though I thought that Oates’ collection Wild Nights! was a wholly successful attempt at inhabiting the personas of four American writers). So whether or not it reflects the limits of what I could get to, my list gravitates toward books that exemplify the kind of mindfuck the present times create: In Rivka Galchen‘s and Nathaniel Rich‘s novels, it’s a worry about who’s real and trustworthy, and who isn’t; in Paul Beatty‘s and Andrew Sean Greer‘s novels it’s the interior dialogue about racial identity that’s been a tentpole in American fiction for decades if not centuries; in Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s novel it’s the rootlessness that comes with others applying your identity upon you; in Jack Pendarvis‘ satire it’s the creeping sense that old-fashioned American pride does nothing but make you a punch line. And in Tim Lane‘s EC Comics-inspired, almost willfully cliched graphic stories, it’s an argument that the essential American state of being is noirish—black-hearted, ground-down, covetous, just about ready to crater emotionally and financially.

Lane encourages just this sort of interpretation of the American Dream his afterword to the book:

The America I portray in these stories, especially through the drawings, is a surrealistically exaggerated one—sometimes comical, other times nightmarish. Comics are especially conducive to communicating the American Mythological Drama because there’s something fundamentally comic book-like in all things American—by that, I mean exaggerated, idealistic, huge and somewhat disproportionate; beautiful but not necessarily believable, stylized, idealized. Dysfunctional to the point of functional. Surrealistic. Photogenic. Enigmatic. Dreamy.

I imagine, reading this, that Lane and Auster would get along like a house on fire; Jin, if nothing else, would appreciate Lane’s chosen mission. Figuring out how many of these books will endure is a pointless speculative game. All I’m looking for is the news that the news doesn’t bring, and if somebody wants to know what fictions best captured the emotional pitch of living in 2008, here’s what I’d hand over first:

Paul Auster, Man in the Dark (Henry Holt)
Nathaniel Rich, The Mayor’s Tongue (Riverhead)
Paul Beatty, Slumberland (Bloomsbury)
Rivka Galchen, Atmospheric Disturbances (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Richard Price, Lush Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Tim Lane, Abandoned Cars (Fantagraphics)
Andrew Sean Greer, The Story of a Marriage (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Joyce Carol Oates, Wild Nights! (Ecco)
Jack Pendarvis, Awesome (Macadam/Cage)
Rudolph Wurlitzer, The Drop Edge of Yonder (Two Dollar Radio)

8 responses to “Favorite Books of 2008 (With Some Additional Thoughts on Ha Jin’s A Free Life)

  1. I also felt that the Auster book was his strongest in some time, but suffered from his apparent inability to give his characters a speaking voice that isn’t in the vernacular of an aging man with a hat-full of neuroses.

    “Atmospheric Disturbances” was strong, but eventually sank under the dual weights of 1) my outrageously high expectations, and 2) not seeming to have a lot at stake. Or maybe I shouldn’t say “sank,” as on balance I liked it a lot. What is less than sank but more than seaworthy?

    I’m just getting around to “Netherland” now. Liking it a lot, about 1/3 of the way in.

  2. I’m with you on Man in the Dark. I still can’t get it out of my head. Of the others on your list that I read, Ethan Canin’s America America, Daniel Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland really got to me. Great post and great list.

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  4. I don’t know what rock I’ve been hiding under, but I didn’t even know Pendarvis had a new book out this year – and a novel, too! Geez, where have I been? Sigh, there’s another one for the TBR pile.

    As for the other books on your list, I have both “The Mayor’s Tongue” and “Wild Nights!” on my unread shelf. I kept picking up and putting back down both of those books all year. Maybe it’s time I made them stick. Hmm…

    Great list, by the way!

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