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Most underrated fiction of 2013

Miguel Porlan

“Asunder” by Chloe Aridjis (Mariner)

This second novel by the author of “Book of Clouds” brings London to life in all its crepuscular decadence. A museum guard named Marie burns her days standing in the National Gallery, enforcing the no-touching rule. Drip by drip, her tedium becomes a study in beauty and the glamour of ruin. Night by night, her world collapses as her flatmates, current and former, get together and begin dating. Her one love option is a pretentious poet in love with Latinate words. His book has been rejected. One may be the loneliest number, but in this book, Aridjis reveals that perfection is the loneliest concept.

“Stories II” by T.C. Boyle (Viking)

Boyle is such a good storyteller it will probably take, as in Alice Munro’s case, the Nobel Prize or retirement for us to fully appreciate what tremendous talent has laid right in front of our noses. Barely a decade after his first, 700-page collected stories was published, he has collected another five dozen or so of enormous range, style and low-down nasty fun. It’s a dangerous thing to be cast in one of these fictions. Broken limbs, snow blindness , sleep deprivation, the hits just keep coming for Boyle’s cast. More than a few men wash up at bars, looking to catch a break. Like slapstick noirs, Boyle’s stories keep us laughing right through their black conclusions.

“The Panopticon” by Jenni Fagan (Hogarth)

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Fagan, like the heroine of her debut novel, grew up in group homes, dodging the obvious obstacles and gouging herself on the usual rusty nails. She survived by force of will and intelligence, a journey she mythologizes and makes into a classic coming-of-age tale with “The Panopticon.” Anais, the book’s heroine, is vulnerable, yet strong, determined not to take lip from the creepy and abusive social workers that pollute the care system. With adulthood closing in like a thundering storm front, she knows that rebellion alone will soon bring stiffer consequences. Here she is, on the final tightrope between the rubble of her youth and the gleam of an uncertain future. Will she make it?

“Ghana Must Go” by Taiye Selasi (Penguin)

So much time was spent discussing her background, her advance, and her cheekbones that it became almost incidental that Selasi also wrote a tremendous first novel: an all-American story in many ways. Like “The Corrections,” hers is a tale about the complicated loyalties of family life and how they can be torn apart by the narrative of constant improvement. Selasi charts the cost of this myth of collective self-actualization when drunken straight, no chaser, by the young members of a high-achieving Boston family with African roots. Some fly the coop; others circle back. All have the self-conscious shame that status anxiety can bring.

“A Permanent Member of the Family” by Russell Banks (Ecco)

Washed up, jobless, or without their sons and daughters, the men in Banks’s new collection have walked right out of the headlines. There’s far more to this book, though, then its topical grasp on the so-called underclass. Whether it’s a woman trying to buy a used car for cash, or a man remembering the symbolic importance of a family dog, Banks’s characters are fingering wounds only a story can make apparent. The need to get it right makes them anxious, talkative, twitchy, mournful. Not since Andre Dubus III left Haverhill has an American writer understood how true desperation sounds.

John Freeman is the former editor of Granta. His latest book is “How to Read a Novelist.”
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