Better Than Freedom
Slatewriters and editors share their favorite books of the year.
The Ask by Sam Lipsyte
The Gen-X coming-of-middle-age novel we've all been waiting for, and, fittingly, none of us bought it. C'mon, people, skip an Angry Birds session and flip through this on your iPhone instead. It will leaven your anger, bake it up, and serve it back to you in the form of impolite metaphors, funny observations, and unheralded moments of non "ironic" emotion. You will also never look at a turkey wrap sandwich again without thinking of melancholy office life. Milo Burke, the book's hero, may be an overeducated loser, but he has the unfiltered wisdom of the condemned. Bonus titles: If you have kids, read them Hyewon Yum's There Are No Scary Wolves and Christoph Niemann's Subway.
— Michael Agger, senior editor
C by Tom McCarthy
I liked Tom McCarthy's debut novel, Remainder, so much that I read two-thirds of it without once leaving my seat. (I had the window on a trans-Atlantic flight. But still.) I enjoyed his latest effort, C, a densely allusive yet unpretentious work, even more. The opening section, on Serge Carrefax's turn-of-the-century childhood, is part Victorian pastiche (as Adam Kirsch put it in his review for Slate), part Freudian case study, part Atonement. I felt sorry when McCarthy let Serge grow up, but only momentarily—the character lives up to his promise. I relished his brief stay at a sanatorium on the continent (hat tip The Magic Mountain), his Grand Illusion-ish experiences in World War I, and his Forster-ian trip to Egypt. It is rare to find an unabashedly philosophical book that is also a page-turner, or an avant-garde text that is also accessible to anyone just along for the plot, or a historical novel that also feels completely contemporary. C is all of those things.— Juliet Lapidos, associate editor
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
Weisberg's Law states that any Jew more religious than you are is mentally insane, while any Jew less religious is a self-hater. The Finkler Question demonstrates this rule's applicability in Britain, where the striations of Semitism have their own complications and subtleties. It centers on three old friends, one a goy who thinks he might be Jewish, one a Jew ashamed of Israel, and a third who thinks the other two must be nuts. Like Phillip Roth, to whom he is fairly compared, Howard Jacobson is a magnificent prose stylist who is often at his most serious when he is being uproariously funny. This novel, which won the Man Booker Prize this year, is both a send-up of some very silly people, and an examination of Jewish identity in relation to rising tides of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. I don't think you have to be Jewish to find it funny, touching, and troubling. — Jacob Weisberg, editor-in-chief of The Slate Group
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
I read The Imperfectionists: A Novel in one sleepless gulp. It is a novel, as the subtitle informs you, but a multifaceted one: Each chapter stands as its own finely wrought short story about one of the various employees (and in one case a consumer) of a once-revered international newspaper based in Rome. For a group of professional observers, the journalists have whopping blind spots—the fossilizing stringer has never gotten around to purchasing a computer; the lonely business writer decides to date the very thief who robbed her. Rachman's prose is wildly witty but never arch, and even as his characters tangle themselves into absurd predicaments, you can't help but sympathize with them.— Sara Dickerman, contributor
The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason
I'm still a little disappointed that Zachary Mason didn't see fit to send Slate a custom-made Trojan Horse like the ones he sent to the Los Angeles Times and New York Times. The wooden horses contained copies of his debut novel, which Mason, a computer scientist by trade, wrote during weekends and lunch hours. It was a PR stunt worthy of Odysseus, the must cunning of the Achaeans and the star of Mason's book. The Lost Books reimagines Odysseus' life in a series of 44 impressively economical vignettes. Some, like the one in which the Ithacan king is portrayed as a cowardly deserter, challenge the image of the hero from Homer's epics. Others are more playful, like the one that addresses the age-old question: Are we really supposed to believe Odysseus didn't knock boots with Nausicaa? Almost all of them are wildly entertaining.
— John Swansburg, culture editor
The New Yorker Stories by Ann Beattie
Ann Beattie used to be the most famous young writer of her generation, but today she's largely fallen off the public radar. The New Yorker Stories, a compilation of much of her best work from the '70s until this decade, is a bid to bring her back into the limelight. It's a startling collection. Beattie is perhaps best-known as a stylist (her cool, flat, journalistic prose sometimes gets her grouped—inaptly, I think—with the likes of Raymond Carver and Bobbie Ann Mason) or else as an MFA-program ideal of craftsmanship. But the greatest pleasure in these early stories is in their emotional pull: Beattie's characters of the '70s are young people foundering in nostalgia and quiet loss, trying to figure out how to move forward in a world where every choice is open but no markers of adulthood seem fixed. To a young person in today's recessionary lull, these early pieces are markedly, sometimes unsettlingly, resonant. To a student of a postmodern fiction, meanwhile, Beattie's recent stories are engrossing for their quiet innovation. The collection (which I reviewed at greater length in Slate) is not so much a museum of past work as a dynamic, entertaining, 32-year exploration of the form—a reminder that, in the hands of a career virtuoso, the short story is very much alive.— Nathan Heller, copy editor
Room by Emma Donoghue
Emma Donoghue pulls off two feats in Room that I wouldn't have thought possible: She successfully uses the stuff of tabloid horror and the voice of a 5-year-old. Jack has never known any world but Room, where he lives with Ma. He spends nights in Wardrobe, tucked out of sight—though not out of hearing—when Old Nick unlocks Door and makes Bed, with Ma in it, creak. Jack counts "till he makes that gaspy sound and stops." When morning comes, if Skylight is all blurry, Jack knows it's raining, because that's what Ma has told him. "Ma knows everything except the things she doesn't remember right, or sometimes she says I'm too young for her to explain a thing." In evoking their barricaded life, trapped by a psychopath in his backyard shed, Donoghue explores many things: the mysteries of childhood, motherhood, time, reality, language, evil, hope, hopelessness, resilience. As Ma does for Jack, Donoghue proves a remarkable guide in the face of daunting obstacles.— Ann Hulbert, books editor