from the upcoming Dec/Jan 2019 issue

Top Shelf

Writers choose the best books of the year.


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My favorite novel of 2018 is Andrew Martin’s Early Work (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which is smart and scuzzy, bleak and funny, sexy and depressing—and none of that “by turns” shit either. It’s everything all at once, which to me is the hallmark of both its artistry and its authenticity. My favorite nonfiction book of 2018 is Lorrie Moore’s See What Can Be Done: Essays, Criticism, and Commentary (Knopf). It is a pleasure, and moreover an education, to pore over four decades’ worth of Moore’s generous, incisive assessments of Welty, Cheever, Elkin, DeLillo, Beattie, Barthelme, and Roth (among others) as well as her occasional forays into TV, film, music, and politics. I especially enjoyed it when Moore returned multiple times to a given subject (Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, the Clintons), giving us a record of her own thought in action and revealing how both admirations and reservations can complicate and perhaps complement each other as the years go by. —Justin Taylor

2018 must go down for me as the year of Fred Moten’s trilogy: Black and Blur, Stolen Life, and The Universal Machine (Duke University Press). You could say they’re essays about art, philosophy, blackness, and the refusal of social death, but I think of them more as a fractal universe forever inviting immersion and exploration, a living force now inhabiting my bookshelf. —Maggie Nelson

Intellectual growth prevails over experience in Joshua Sperling’s A Writer of Our Time: The Life and Work of John Berger (Verso). The life is not really here. A hermeneutically minded guide, Sperling lacks access to Berger’s innerness—the primary documents on which he relies do not include diaries—and/or the gall to intrude, and he stays entirely out of the bedroom, barely mentioning lovers, wives, children. This failing of the biography is perversely, for a tired-woman reader, a relief, there being no unwanted reflections to distract from the grand, freeing POV of the (male) critic as artist, the materialist as art critic, or as Sperling puts it “an astronomer and stargazer both at once” (i.e., equally capable of fine, minute observation and dialectical thought). Sperling’s constant historicizing helps, in the end, to make a good point: Berger’s talent for “seeing all sides” of a thing, his incredible floating perspective, would have been worth less had he not used it to choose the right side. —Sarah Nicole Prickett

Fiction in English set among speakers of Indian languages is always an arduous act of translation. Half the Night Is Gone (Juggernaut) by Amitabha Bagchi is a rare success. It is also an unprecedented achievement in that it brings to life, for the first time, a whole world and sensibility that was previously accessible only to Hindi speakers. —Pankaj Mishra

Something about 2017 made me want to lose myself in trashy true-crime novels, preferably featuring psychopaths. And because the pendulum swings between farthest points, 2018 was instead for me the year of intense, philosophical fiction. On a single long plane ride last January, I transitioned from pulp to the gravely artful with Leïla Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny (Penguin), easily one of my favorite books of the year. The divisive novel, about a nanny who murders her charges (on the first page), won France’s Prix Goncourt in 2016. Many dismissed it as a gratuitously grisly condemnation of working mothers, but I read it as a penetrating, existential thriller that is fiercely complicated about race and class. Another gift of 2018 is Deborah Eisenberg’s new collection of long short stories, Your Duck Is My Duck (Ecco), which doesn’t have a word out of place, or a tired image, or a story you’ve heard before. Reading Eisenberg is, as always, gloriously, utterly absorbing—despite the conspicuous lack of serial killers. —Minna Zallman Proctor

One of the best books I read published this year is Carceral Capitalism (Semiotext(e)). Jackie Wang’s sharp and deeply felt account of US capitalism’s reliance on predatory extraction from its poorest communities was partly inspired by her brother's incarceration, and is one of the most convincing attempts to thread together the multiple analytical strands of race, class, and finance capitalism I’ve read. Amazing that a poet whose work is usually situated somewhere out there/in here in a trippy stratosphere of feeling can also produce such lucid analysis drawing on both Marxist and Black radical theory, but maybe our currently heightened awareness of the condition of the world fused together by capitalism means that political analysis should ideally be conducted only by poets. —Hannah Black

The innovation of Keith Gessen’s debut could be judged by its spine: Every book has an implicit demographic, but to call your audience out in the title! Men, young, literary, sad, all! I liked it, but was unsure that I would have had I been not literary, not male, not young, happy. Gessen has been busy since—editing, reporting, translating. His second novel, A Terrible Country (Viking), is heavy with clashing obligations. The narrator Andrei is one with his counterlife: daft and sharp, average and exceptional, liberal and socialist, white American and Russian Jew. A flight is all it takes to be another person with the same name. In Moscow, Andrei feels responsible for Russia’s fading incarnations of the Soviet past. He reaches an understanding with Russia’s neoliberal present. He falls in love with communists protesting neoliberal iniquities. ATC’s style is crisp, its plot urgent, its denouement not just sad but sorrowful. It owes its excellence to the stark awareness of how, once you’ve immigrated, all trips—home or away—are guilt trips regardless. —Frank Guan

Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties (Graywolf) is an astonishing debut, dark and glittering, like a night, or a knife. The stories in this book unroll like millipedes, smooth shells of lyric giving way to sharp joints and flailing, alien limbs: ghost girls, doppelgängers, mysterious illnesses. “Especially Heinous,” a stunning, sprawling ep-by-ep rewrite of the television show Law & Order: SVU, begins as an ambitious gimmick and ends as a breathing, sentient world, the crown of some giant’s head, pulsing with myth. Machado’s prose is effortless, magnetic, very funny when she wants it to be. Like the confident, baseball-capped butch from “Real Women Have Bodies,” it drives you to a run-down motel and feeds you greasy Chinese after. I’ve never read sex scenes like these: urgent, queer, attuned to pleasure as a species of pain, never its opposite. But Machado rarely raises her voice, even when she makes you want to scream—a sound reminder that dread is a liquid, not a solid, leaking into things, sweating out of things. I dare you not to get wet. —Andrea Long Chu

Tired of hearing from the so-called creative class? Frustrated with the complete failure of liberal elites to even comprehend what the problem is? Me too. This country, this world, is now utterly shaped by crisis and full of people living on margins—social, economic, and geographic—people who need not romantic elegies, hillbilly or otherwise, but studied attention by those able to understand history and its flows, who can report on the fine-grained life texture and large-scale patterns of populations both excluded from the economy and yet brutally integral to it. Globally, those who suffer most amount to a magnificent and terrible multitude. What is the logic of this crowd? Can they revolt against a social order that makes their lives expendable and cheap? Phil A. Neel, in Hinterland (Reaktion), reports from far-flung places where people are forced to make do: a train full of migrant workers in southern China; Ferguson, Missouri; Jail Cell, USA. Neel writes in a visceral and stunning style of the slow apocalypse he everywhere finds, and he applies to these encounters a most unusual rigor. Hinterland is the geography lesson I’ve been looking for all year. —Rachel Kushner

“I was a woman in the usual way / I had no language but distress and duty,” Chase Berggrun writes in “Chapter I,” a poem I reread periodically for about two months before I got any further into Red (Birds, LLC). Berggrun erased the majority of Bram Stoker’s Dracula to reveal these lines, and while a tiny elitist inside me suspects that erasure poetry is somehow cheating, that elitist is nearly smothered to death by the power of this work, which boomerangs misogyny back on its adherents. (“I could make men fear the same violent promises they made me.”) Embedded in the momentum of constant political outrage is a compulsion to describe any relevant writing as somehow newly urgent or especially timely, but Brett Kavanaugh did not invent rape and neither did Bram Stoker. —Charlotte Shane

My favorite book(s) of 2018 are the three volumes of Fred Moten’s consent not to be a single being, individually titled Black and Blur, Stolen Life, and The Universal Machine. In this collection of essays stretching back fifteen years, Moten challenges the reader to imagine a radically interconnected aesthetic and political sphere that stretches from Glenn Gould to Fanon to Kant to Theaster Gates, sometimes in the space of a single sentence. This trilogy is one of the great intellectual adventures of our era. —Jess Row

This year I read some excellent novels, most notably Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State (MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country, and Sheila Heti’s Motherhood (Henry Holt). I also loved Wesley Yang’s collection of essays and reported pieces, The Souls of Yellow Folk (Norton). Yang is relentlessly honest with and about himself, about harboring secret stores of resentment and status consciousness and feelings of rejection. He uses this knowledge not to wallow or romanticize himself but to more deeply understand and empathize with the people he writes about, especially those who feel marginalized, politically as well as personally, in the marketplaces of sex and social life (which we myopically, naively like to imagine aren’t marketplaces at all). Yang’s writing is sometimes lovely, always effective, and consistently bracing, both morally and intellectually. His heterodox opinions and measured, thoughtful approach to social issues have caused him to run afoul of some on the left, but he is one of the most sensitive, fair-minded, and original writers working today. —Adelle Waldman

Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)wraps its grip around a single theme: the place and power of mothers in a world defined by suffering. Rose is, as ever, devastating in her elegance and striking in her ingenuity, as she projects a montage of imagined mothers: the perfect and the failed, the mythic and the topical, the helpless and the brutal. Running throughout the book is the conviction that, in matters of both self and state, the boundaries between inside and outside are violent and blurred—a riddle for which mothers are the impossible key. As Rose told The Guardian this year, “You have to be a socialist and a bit of a Freudian to stop offloading on mothers two utterly banal truths about being a human subject, which is that the world is unjust and our hearts and bodies are frail.” —Tobi Haslett

The only book I’ve read that’s come close to capturing this suffocating year is Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina (Drawn & Quarterly), a graphic novel about the psychic toll of online conspiracy and fearmongering. After the video of a senseless murder goes viral, the victim’s loved ones get caught up in the sensory-inundation chamber of internet speculation.

Maybe you’ve had enough 2018, though. In that case let’s go back a year to Bennett Sims’s White Dialogues (Two Dollar Radio), a brilliant late-2017 story collection by possibly the smartest and most inventive writer of his (my) generation. —Tony Tulathimutte

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