Generation shifts, in literary terms, don’t happen all at once, but in shades. A few years ago it seemed John Updike, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, and Saul Bellow would never not be writing and publishing and dominating critical debate. With Roth’s retirement this winter, all of them have entered the long and more brutal critical test of time.
In their absence a debate runs about the nature of the novel, a conversation that takes its cues mostly from British novelists. Has the novel, as Will Self has written, betrayed modernism’s advances and settled into a dreary realism? Or as Zadie Smith and Tom McCarthy have argued, are there ways to saturate a social novel with once-cutting-edge narrative techniques?
The happy part about being a reader in 2012 is that while this debate simmers in graduate schools and bubbles over onto pages of critical reviews, the place it is felt most energetically is in the work itself.
From a masterpiece of the graphic novel, to a stunning historical re-creation of Tudor times, the best fiction of 2012 smashed the notion of orthodoxy by showing how many different ways there are to tell a great story. Here are my nine favorites.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
By Ayana Mathis (Knopf)
A Jacob Lawrence painting comes to life as this debut novel of blood and milk chronicles a black woman’s journey from Georgia to Philadelphia in the 1920s through the lives of her nine children. They turn out to be juke-joint players, preachers, and everything in between, and Mathis, just out of the University of Iowa, makes their fates, which echo the lives of characters in works by Gloria Naylor and Toni Morrison, feel so urgent it’s as if the Great Migration happened yesterday.
This Is How You Lose Her
By Junot Díaz (Riverhead)
Is there a writer alive who has such an ecstatic grasp of the English language? In his second collection, Díaz spins a series of tales of heartbreak and self-implosion, bringing back Junior, the hero he first introduced in “Drown,” 15 years ago. Junior has grown up, but learns how to love the hard way, detonating one relationship after another as he wrestle with the image of the men they think they’re supposed to be.
Bring Up the Bodies
By Hilary Mantel (Henry Holt)
Mantel’s extraordinary sequel to her Booker Prize-winning “Wolf Hall” packs twice as many infidelities into half as many pages, and emerges with a robust and thoroughly modern portrait of the Tudor Court as it tilts toward male-heir-anxiety induced breakdown. This is historical fiction at its finest: Mantel does not so much set her novel in Tudor times, as she animates them from within.
A Hologram for the King
By Dave Eggers (McSweeney’s)
Eggers made his name as the best ventriloquist in America. In this elegant and understated book, he adopts the very old-fashioned third-person to bring to life Alan Clay, a failing 54-year-old salesman on a Hail Mary pass to Saudi Arabia, hoping for the big sale that will rescue his finances, his family, and the dignity he lost a long time ago. There has been no finer parable of America’s precarious perch in the global economy than this.
By Claire Vaye Watkins (Riverhead)
The myths of the West are so durable they need to be smashed every decade. Wallace Stegner did it in the 1960s, followed by Joy Williams, Larry McMurtry, and Cormac McCarthy in subsequent decades. Now it appears to be Watkins’s time. In this powerful and wise debut collection, she writes of her native Nevada with a poet’s precision and a historian’s heart. Here are the creosote-barnacled hearts of men and women who have wrapped their lives around the stories of their place, from the Gold Rush to today. And here is Watkins, not yet 30, unthreading those yarns and spinning new ones that have the dense weave of truth.
The Hunger Angel
By Herta Müller, translated by Philip Boehm (Metropolitan)
Set in the Russian Gulag at the end of
World War II, this lyrical novel by the 2009
Nobel Prize winner seethes to life one of the lesser known corners of this terrible conflict, which was the forced labor of Romanian Germans in Stalin’s camps. Not since Knut Hamsun’s great novel has hunger so grotesquely and uniquely been made to bear on a tale that is impossible to stop reading, only in this case the reader must remember it is all based on a true story.
The Round House
By Louise Erdrich (HarperCollins)
Erdrich’s vast and ever-expanding body of work is the closest thing we have to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County in our time, a universe so fully imaged it needs surveyors and maps to keep up with its people. In her latest novel, winner of the 2012 National Book Award, Erdrich finally addresses straight on the violence that has threaded through so many of her novels. A boy’s mother is attacked, and he and his father spend the rest of this perfectly paced book trying to find and punish the perpetrator. What they find makes them wish the equation for justice were that simple.
By Chris Ware, (Pantheon)
If James Joyce wrote comic books, he’d probably have produced something like “Building Stories,” which is a game-changer to the graphic novel in the same way “Ulysses” was to the literary novel under modernism. Fourteen interlocking tales printed in varying formats — from newspaper to comic strip — live within a building-shaped box that mirrors the three-story Chicago apartment structure in which they are all set. The booklets can be read in any order, but whereas Joyce’s masterpiece was about the permeation of myth and legend and life and city, Ware’s is a tale of loneliness and isolation, a world in which even sitting across from one another and captured in one frame, a husband and wife may as well exist in separate worlds.
The Orphan Master’s Son
By Adam Johnson (Random House)
Jun Do, the North Korean hero of this magisterial dystopian novel, means John Doe in Korean — an everyman in a country of everymen. Over the course of this huge book he travels from the orphanage of his birth to the high seas where he transcribes radio intercepts from English into Korean — to Pyongyang, where he witnesses every worst thing a regime can do to people who disagree with it.
John Freeman is the editor of Granta and the author of “The Tyranny of E-mail.”