I don’t know what the best books were this year. Mostly I don’t like to read things right after they come out, when people on the Internet and in the magazines are talking about how great they are. This is partly because most of the time I don’t really agree with most of my friends about which books are amazing. (I don’t disagree with them either. It’s more a skepticism of adjectives. I prefer mechanical descriptions to general claims, which is one reason I regret how much this brief piece will rely on the latter.) I’m not sure what year the following books came out. I don’t think any were 2012’s babies.
I like to get my family books for Christmas. To my great surprise, my family likes to receive them. It’s hard buying books for me. I barely like anything. They still do it, but always from lists I provide. A couple years ago I asked for and received Kamby Bolongo Mean River; and I read it in a night. One year before college I asked for Michael Chabon’s collected fiction and his novels. Then I read Michael Chabon’s collected fiction and his novels in a matter of months. You couldn’t have bought me Kamby Bolongo Mean River in the Michael Chabon year. Nor could you have done the reverse. Probably I wouldn’t have read either. I don’t mean to argue I have impeccable taste. I mean to say that I have particular needs, and they are always changing, as what I need to learn for my own writing changes. (This year, for what it’s worth, you could have bought me Kamby or Kavalier & Clay and I would have been happy to read them both.) My family is easier to buy for. They let me choose what I want. They trust me to find things they’ll like, or they learn to like what I give them.
This is partly something they do to tell me they love me. I think, too, that they are searching for inroads to my own fiction, which is probably not the sort of thing a mother and father especially want to see their ostensibly healthy, well-adjusted children writing. In that sense, I’m not sure what this year’s books were meant to tell them: they are funnier, smarter, and more beautiful than mine.
I gave this book to my father. I chose it two nights before departing for Christmas. I gave it to him on the Kindle because he prefers to read his books this way. (Dear authors who resent e-readers: do you also resent what I suspect to be the massively increased volume of Christmas sales?) I was also choosing books for my youngest brother that night. I don’t know why one got Treasure Island!!! and the other didn’t. It’s a very funny book. They are both funny people. Mostly I knew that I wanted to give it to someone.
A lot of my favorite fiction is about men who are terrible people: murderers, liars, thieves, drug dealers, assassins, etc. Treasure Island!!! is the story of a woman who is a terrible person, who becomes much worse after reading Robert Louis-Stevenson’s novel and adopting its boyish values of “Boldness! Resolution! Independence!” and “Horn-blowing!” as her own. She doesn’t kill anyone (nobody human, at least) and the only life she ruins is her own. It’s still the most harrowing, outrageous, hilarious thing I read in a year of reading that also somehow found room for The Sisters Brothers (a close second in all those categories, despite its advantages of cowboys and pistols) and Dennis Cooper’s The Marbled Swarm. Even its third-act movement toward conventional family drama couldn’t make me love it less.
I told my father not to read this one all at once, though I had read it all at once, in I think three weeks, on lunch breaks at my job. I remember being grateful for its strangely generic, vaguely patriotic cover; having so much fun at work felt like getting away with something. Long, Last, Happy is a selection of work from throughout Hannah’s life, as well as new material; a career of stories this good should be digested with more care than I gave it, but Hannah’s sentences feel so wild and reckless, and I used them in that spirit. I gave them to my father, I think, because my brother might be too young to appreciate or even perceive the youth of these stories. It may be that he would think it’s easy to write the way Hannah does, when really it’s anything but.
Two years ago I gave my brother Cloud Atlas for Christmas. I thought he would like it because the book is smart, fun, complicated, and full of little surprises. He loved the book so much that when I called him this year he was eager to discuss how much the film sucked. (I haven’t seen it yet, but what he told me was discouraging.) He also asked for more by David Mitchell. The Thousand Autumns is not by any means as irresistible as Cloud Atlas—the structure is less demanding and therefore less addictive, and the characters are a bit less charismatic, probably because they have historical counterparts and are therefore limited by plausibility. Still, I loved the book, which is basically an adventure story about obligation, forbidden love, international realpolitik, and a quiet man who faced down cannons. I hope that Alex loves it also.
Alex, who has lived in California with his girlfriend since he graduated (home-school) high school, used to live without her in Indiana. They spent a lot of time on Skype then. I used to wonder what they could possibly be talking about, even allowing for the fact they were teenagers in love. Then I found out that sometimes Alex read her books. I think he read her part or all of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for instance, and he may have read her the Dirk Gently books also. Once, at my request, my wife read from Pretty Monsters to me. I was driving down New Mexican mountains. Most great fiction is written with women in mind. Sometimes I wonder if Kelly Link writes her fiction for people in love.
This year I asked my mother to choose from three books: Lightning Rods, by Helen DeWitt; Ray, by Barry Hannah; and Geronimo Rex, by the same. I remembered as I asked that Lightning Rods is pretty much about glory holes. The cover on the current printing is also significantly more racy than that on the first. I told her maybe that one wasn’t such a good idea for Christmas. That left the Hannahs. They are racy, too, I’m sure, but their covers, like that of Long, Last, Happy obscure the fact pretty well. I haven’t read past page five yet. I read those pages in a stolen moment on the toilet. When I came out of the restroom I told my mother it was great. She laughed at the idea that I could tell already. (Maybe she’s skeptical of adjectives also.)
I told her, “It’s because he knows, and this sounds crazy when you try to tell it to people, but it’s true, that all you have to do to be a great writer is to never stop writing great things. If you write a really fun sentence, then the next one has to be that way, too, and so does the next. And if you’re ever bored, you have to stop being bored, because why would you want to be bored? All of the pages just have to be great. And he just never stops.” Every sentence in Geronimo Rex so far describes something spectacular, disastrous, or both, and all in language that refuses to settle for boredom. Hannah is lucid: you always know what’s happening in his fiction, both in the present action and in the narrative as a whole. Hannah is a savage: he will make each sentence sing, even if he has to break their knees to do it.
Mike Meginnis has published fiction in Best American Short Stories, Hobart, The Collagist, The Lifted Brow, The Nashville Review, and many others. He serves as prose editor for Noemi Press, and co-edits Uncanny Valley with his wife, Tracy Rae Bowling. He also plays collaborative text adventures at exitsare.com.