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IT WAS A HALTING, haunted year. The pandemic sort of ended, but still required constant vigilance, inflicted mass tedium, and ruined our fall plans. Just like autofiction! There were inconclusive congressional inquiries into the Capitol riot and the Bad Art Friend. The Paris Review got a new new editor, which is exciting. Giancarlo DiTrapano died, tragically and too young, which fucking sucks. Corporate publishing continued to consolidate. An unprecedented number of named storm systems—Franzen, Rooney, Whitehead, Knausgaard, Doerr—shattered precipitation records over a small swath of the discourse, even as most regions were wracked by drought, supply shock, and prestige TV. Climate collapse is well underway and Joy Williams’s HARROW deserves the Pulitzer Prize.

Two books I was happy to be haunted by: Dennis Cooper’s I WISHED and Kevin Brockmeier’s THE GHOST VARIATIONS: ONE HUNDRED STORIES. Cooper’s novel is a wild coda to his George Miles cycle, a postscript that functions just as handily as an introduction, deconstruction, or reboot. The five—now six—cycle books are linked by theme and concept, not plot or character, so don’t let a lack of prerequisites keep you away from this achingly intimate novel about the inextricability of obsession from love and life from art. I Wished is a marvel of both economy and excess, a haunted theme park built on the fairgrounds of its author’s throbbing heart.

The Ghost Variations is a less feverish affair: one hundred flash fictions in the quietly beguiling tradition of Kawabata’s Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, J. Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand, and Joy Williams’s Ninety-Nine Stories of God. Entries are batched by category (“Ghosts and Nature,” “Ghosts and Memory,” etc.), with “A Partial Concordance of Themes” at the back to remind us that no matter how long or short it is, a story—like a life—is never just one thing. Each variation draws fresh sorrow and sweetness from the central premise, without tipping over into mawkishness or twee. Brockmeier’s sentences are understated miracles of precision and style, his compendium of revenants a revelation. I can’t think of a more fitting way to ring out a year that felt over before it started than with the collective consolation, despair, humor, and wisdom of one hundred wayward ghosts. —JUSTIN TAYLOR

THIS YEAR, so many beautiful, curious, strange books emerged into a landscape still emerging—trying to emerge—from the pandemic. Here are three I particularly loved. G’Ra Asim’s BOYZ N THE VOID: A MIXTAPE TO MY BROTHER is a collection of essays about punk, Blackness, and rebellion on all scales, words written by a young man to his brother, full of rage and care and also, thrillingly, the ecstasy of loving things—a stance I don’t often see written as acutely as critique. Lilly Dancyger’s NEGATIVE SPACE reckons with the legacy of her father, an artist who died when she was young, and engages with his art as a way to grapple with his life as a father and a heroin addict. She writes beautifully about how all these identities overlapped and intersected, and describes growing up as the child of heroin addicts on a Lower East Side now largely surrendered to frat-boy antics—but writes about her childhood without reduction or sensationalism, and documents her quest to better understand her father with the nuance that love, in its truest form, always demands. Lastly, I was absolutely staggered by Sarah Sentilles’s STRANGER CARE, a book about foster care—and her own experience fostering her daughter, Coco—that is a deep and tender inquiry into a particular family in formation (her own), an exploration of the various and boggling forms of caregiving that fill our stupendous and imperiled earth, and a call to think harder about how we might care better for others, for strangers, for the world itself. —LESLIE JAMISON

THE PHRASE “being Black at the end of the world” appears toward the end of my new novel but I could barely type it without covering my eyes. MY MONTICELLO, a novella in debut author Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s gorgeous nightmare of a story collection of the same name, starts from that premise and pole-vaults into hell. Climate catastrophe has taken down the electric grid in Charlottesville, Virginia, and roving gangs of “Unite the Right” types enact a reign of white terror. Protagonist Da’Naisha Love and her community hide out at Monticello, the tourist-attraction home of Thomas Jefferson, the racist founding father of several enslaved people. At this historic site, to which many of the Black characters have ancestral connections, the group confronts the existential and mundane challenges of what they call “the unraveling.” The novella, like other stories in this collection, explores interracial intimacy, hatred, displacement, the origins and end of America; it also incorporates a paternity subplot that recalls the prelapsarian time of soap operas. Of course My Monticello—which should join the canon of Black women’s dystopian classics by Octavia E. Butler, Tananarive Due, and N. K. Jemisin—poses questions that ABC Daytime never addressed: What will you do, or not do, to survive when this world goes to shit? Johnson’s book is not an escape from our moment, but rather will make you feel more prepared for “the unraveling” or whatever may come. —ASALI SOLOMON

THE NOVEL is a remarkable technology, perhaps the best vehicle we have for the transmission of consciousness. A shame that so often the insane, minor miracle of literature coheres only to bring before your eyes the most boring consciousnesses imaginable. (I see a professional weekly to have the soggy bourgeois feelings wrung from my mind; why crack a spine just to pour it all right back?) “Most had accepted the destitution done in their name,” and a great deal of fiction loiters in the heads of that “most.” Not so Joy Williams’s HARROW, from which the phrase is plucked. Hers is a book most likely to be described as a surreal landscape, keenly focused on the non-human environment and its degradations, and a prescient glimpse of near-future apocalypse. It is surely all of those things, but it is also, weirdly, an absurdist character study, almost nostalgic in its fixation on the endangered species of people who never turn away from the full magnitude of their situation, who have refused the ideological gratifications of their times. (Ecoterrorism motors some of its plot.) One character soothes herself with the thought, “This is still a day, it’s still called a day.” The rhythms of such deluded catechisms creak with familiarity. Luckily, the rest of the novel insists on other registers, and installs itself within the enormity of what we are stitched into, but like to forget. We should call this what it is. —CATHERINE QUAN DAMMAN

“NOTES!” cries a character in André Gide’s MARSHLANDS, to the narrator, who has just read her some of his book in progress, also called Marshlands. “Oh, read them! Those are always so interesting, you can see what the writer is trying to say much better from notes than from what he writes afterward.” First published in 1895, Marshlands itself is “always so interesting,” an antic anti-novella about writing, friendship, envy, and ambition that is as crisply funny as anything written since. According to Dubravka Ugrešić, Gide called it a sotie, “the old carnival genre, a street-fair farce, a Feast of Fools,” distancing it from his weightier offerings; Damion Searls’s new translation makes you hunger for a feast of soties.

Earlier this year, I’d gotten in the habit of waking up early on Saturday mornings, fixing coffee, “writing.” Really, I just listened to the radio. On May 8, I heard a Richard Thompson tune that made my jaw drop, a plangent story-song in which the singer remembers an early love—a musician like himself, a “rare thing, fine as a bee’s wing,” a free spirit who can’t be tied down. She laughs at any plans for a future together; decades later, he hears news of the hard turns her life has taken. By the end I was in tears. I found the song, “Beeswing,” online, played it over and over, read that it was inspired by a near-mythic folk singer named Anne Briggs. I sent the song to friends. I saw that Thompson had in fact just published BEESWING: LOSING MY WAY AND FINDING MY VOICE 1967–1975, a memoir. I saw that the coauthor was Scott Timberg. And then I wept again.

I never met Scott, but he profiled me for the Los Angeles Times when my novel came out in 2008. We kept in touch over the years, usually about music we liked in common. In December 2019, he committed suicide. I remember reading the news in shock. I must have seen that he had been collaborating with Thompson, but I’d forgotten that fact till now. I had an Audible credit and thought I would listen to Thompson narrate the book. It’s a beautiful, funny, fascinating book, covering a transformative time in Thompson’s life, as he puts together Fairport Convention and a new approach to English folk music. I listened to the chapters as I walked home after dropping off my son at school, which had more or less reopened after far too long. I hope Scott knows that he helped bring something great and moving into the world. —ED PARK

I’M STILL HAUNTED by the weird aftertaste of WAT-R, the manufactured water replacement that everyone but the richest Californians has to drink in Alexandra Kleeman’s novel SOMETHING NEW UNDER THE SUN. The book goes down fast but leaves a strange mouthfeel—it’s both addictive and disconcerting. This is a perfect novel about climate uncertainty and grief that refuses to deliver any easy answers. Instead: provocations like “People aren’t the future,” from the mouth of a nine-year-old. As for fantastic end-of-world scenarios from past eras, I’ve really appreciated the British Library’s series of Science Fiction Classics and Tales of the Weird—each paperback is a compendium of obscure and often delightfully trashy short stories from the last century and a half. Who knew “Botanical Gothic” constituted a whole genre? —ELVIA WILK

2021 WAS A GOOD YEAR for books. Great novels I didn’t get around to writing about, but would have liked to, include Pola Oloixarac’s MONA, Rachel Cusk’s SECOND PLACE, and Mieko Kawakami’s HEAVEN. Each of these writers got under my skin, and each used the novel to stage a philosophical debate. Oloixarac and Cusk, in particular, left me even more convinced than I already was that more novels could do with a bit of magic. Another thought I had this year was that the tendency to dismiss intellectually ambitious books as pretentious also tends to piss me off.

For sheer breadth and eerie beauty, however, the best book I read this year was Dorothee Elmiger’s SHIFT SLEEPERS, a dreamlike novel about Europe’s refugee crisis staked on a Shakespearean refrain: “Who’s there?” say the guards in the opening line of Hamlet. The English translation appeared in 2019, but Elmiger gets one grace year for being among the most promising young novelists writing in German today, another because what kind of year was 2020 anyway? —JESSI JEZEWSKA STEVENS

AT AN AIRPORT in northeast Scotland, where she’s gone to write about offshore oil drilling—“one of the last avenues of blue-collar opportunity in this country”—Tabitha Lasley meets a rig worker named Caden, who is married and has freckles. The North Sea’s oil platforms are almost exclusively the domain of men, and Lasley, a thirty-three-year-old former magazine writer, is planning a book about the culture of “offshore” (as everyone abbreviates it) that will also be a study of “what men are like with no women around.” The latter proves difficult to deliver: her affair with Caden totally diverts her project, then incinerates both itself and his marriage. SEA STATE thus lends a certain archness to its epigraph, the tired Janet Malcolm line about journalism being “morally indefensible.”

The tone is affectionate and skeptical, wary and enticed. When a man is good at apologizing, that’s probably because “he’s had lots of practice.” Rig workers at a pub are “the sort of people you’d want at a house party, provided the house wasn’t yours.” In bed, Caden turns his hands around and runs the tipped edges of his fingers across her skin, “a trick too subtle to be part of his own rough repertoire. A woman must have taught him that.” Lasley has written a unique book, a cross between Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Prime of Life: reportage on the English working class that is also a lucid travelogue (Lasley’s has more sex scenes). —JESSE BARRON

LAST YEAR, I was incredibly unhappy (like most, although it felt like my unhappiness was consummately personal), and I read roughly five books a week. This is an unhealthy number—a symptomatic amount of contemporary fiction. This year, however, I have read hardly anything at all, because I fell in love. I hesitate to admit how many new books I finished, but it’s not a lot. Instead, little words changed their meanings: “blitz,” “sweet,” “us,” “home.” We started describing the unfolding relationship in sections: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3. I read my favorite poems aloud into my phone and sent them to him on his lunch break. If the compulsive, dissociative reading I did in 2020 demonstrates a book’s ability to rescue, or remove, there is that other kind of reading, the reading that places us firmly in the shining center of our own life. Not an escape, but an entrance or a staying. It only heightens the room we are in, the moon through the window, the person nearby. Judith Schalansky’s AN INVENTORY OF LOSSES and Maria Stepanova’s IN MEMORY OF MEMORY are both trying to pin down echoes and build from dust. They are about true things that don’t exist anymore, reliquaries that hold shards of rumor, bones of grief. I know that everybody is somebody’s baby, but I forget sometimes that every family goes back endlessly, a line of mothers that meets the vanishing point. I forget that when somebody dies, their library of little words, so beautifully changed, is also gone. These books helped me remember mine in advance: the room, the light, the first chapter. — AUDREY WOLLEN

I READ Tao Lin’s autofictional LEAVE SOCIETY with a mixture of compassion, reparative patience, and skepticism. Young, male, human, straight, Mandarin-speaking and American, of lower-upper-class descent, Lin’s protagonist Li is a novelist who has supplanted the ferocious, muted existentialism of his earlier books with a mellow pantheism more amenable to health and healing. Whether regarding his species, his family, his romance, or his self, Li now looks to deified, benevolent, and feminized Nature, through its mysterious agencies, art, and alternative medicine, to detoxify a planet saturated with harmful radiation like microwaves, harmful chemicals like mercury, harmful institutions like the CIA, and harmful ideologies like male supremacy and the worship of Yahweh. More than ever before, Lin’s art manifests in the presentation of ideas. The style of Leave Society is bare, mundane, profoundly flavorless; its plot is devoid of grand gestures and emotions, let alone politics. Yet this ultra-prosaic depiction of a man, emotionally paralyzed for decades, trying his belated best to relate to those nearest to him in a more considerate and helpful way, is, to me, artistically compelling nonetheless. I don’t think Nature is a god or friendly. I like other, bleaker Lin books better. But I’m glad he wrote this book and I think it’s good. Gray carrier pigeons count for more than sculpted peacocks if you have a message to transmit. Further proof that glittering style is not a must for worthy art is Jonathan Franzen’s CROSSROADS, on which I’ve already written plenty. —FRANK GUAN

“THEY HAVE A JUICE that purportedly tastes like sunshine,” I told my boss. For a short stint in my twenties, I led a double life—a grad student by day, a production assistant in Hollywood (also by day, but don’t tell my adviser). So I was tickled to find that in SOMETHING NEW UNDER THE SUN, novelist Alexandra Kleeman gives the best lines to the underpaid PAs who drive around Los Angeles to pick up overpriced and overpromising beverages for movie producers. “It’s the same as water, just a little bit more so,” one of them says of WAT-R, a suspiciously blue drink at the heart of this neo-noir novel set in a drought-ravaged California of the—near future? A present when we’re not kidding ourselves? You might be thinking that you don’t need a novel to tell you that the world is on fire, but I don’t think that is what Kleeman is up to here—or, it’s certainly not what made this novel compelling for me. What did is how Kleeman uses our vexed relationship to the natural world to expose our hang-ups about the natural itself. There is this great cultural yearning for realness and authentic experiences, but there is so much staging that goes into satisfying this demand that what we are left with is WAT-R instead of water. The real thing, just a little more so. Hilariously—and fittingly—it all unspools on a movie set; “Is this supposed to be the ‘tree’?” asks the lead actress, pointing to a ladder in front of a patch of green screen. —JENNIFER WILSON

THERE WERE so many great books this year. Tina M. Campt’s A BLACK GAZE helped me see Black visual art anew. Rinaldo Walcott’s THE LONG EMANCIPATION gave me new tools to think with in Black studies. Elizabeth Hinton’s AMERICA ON FIRE renominated her for the Black historian hall of fame. The tragicomic portrayal of New York publishing and the Biafran war in Uwem Akpan’s NEW YORK, MY VILLAGE made me laugh and cry. The gripping, genre-bending tale of captivity and torture in Carolyn Ferrell’s DEAR MISS METROPOLITAN kept me up at night. And the return of Gayl Jones with PALMARES was a prayer finally answered. But, when asked about 2021’s best book, it’s hard to name anything other than Mariame Kaba’s compilation of essays WE DO THISTIL WE FREE US, all of which are as clear as they are insightful in their portraits of the assaults of the prison industrial complex and of the radical potential of seeking accountability outside the State. That so many of the essays are coauthored is a testament to Kaba’s claim that abolition is a collective project, and reading the book enables us to engage with the movement more broadly as well as to join in the collective imagining of a world without prisons. If you have ever felt lost or confused in conversations about violence and prisons, seek this book; it is a compass. —ELIAS RODRIQUES

I FIND IT DIFFICULT to recommend Alexandra Kleeman’s SOMETHING NEW UNDER THE SUN to friends, despite the fact that I’ve been doing so for months. To summarize its plot, or gesture towards its genre placing, is to do the book no justice. I could say: “It’s a near-dystopia, about California wildfires, Hollywood, the privatization of water, climate decimation, a child star, a flailing writer. And there’s a cult.” This description might appeal to some, but if I were to hear it, I’d be uncompelled. Rather, Kleeman’s genius lies in her mastery of the uncanny, through visceral detail and careful pacing. In Kleeman’s hands, you are where you have been, but the air is getting thicker and the water is no longer water and it’s sticking in your throat; senses are glutted, you’re losing language, and it is terrifying and true. Kleeman’s brilliant first novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, was, as its title indicates, a novel of the body and its porousness. In her latest, she concerns herself with the body politic as capitalism’s smelt, a furnace of organic and synthetic matter from which the rich extract value—you’re melting in it and Kleeman will make you feel it. —NATASHA LENNARD

“WILL THEY FUCK?” is one of the best plots available to a novelist. “A person who is very good at their unusual, highly technical job” is one of the best subjects for journalism. Maylis de Kerangal’s PAINTING TIME combines the two. In the fall of 2007, Paula Karst arrives as a somewhat wayward student at the Institut de Peinture in Brussels; though her course in trompe l’oeil is only a few months long, it is intense physically and emotionally, and it sets up a subtly strange Künstlerroman about the magic of realism. (Its title in French, Un monde à portée de main, is better.) In long, precise sentences, Kerangal depicts the competition and friendship (and romance) that develop at the institute, the peripatetic but oddly glamorous lifestyle one can expect as aprofessional decorative painter, and the ecstasies and devastations of apprenticeship and craftsmanship. You will learn some new vocabulary words. Although the subject would tempt even casual lovers of metaphor and abstraction, Kerangal exercises admirable restraint in this regard; like Paula, she knows that looking closely at her subject is what will allow her to see the whole picture. “She reaches the window, ready to lean out, certain that another world stands right there, just past the casement, within reach—and every point her fumbling only reveals more painting.” That is, of course, exactly what it’s like. —LAUREN OYLER