The Lit Parade

JEREMIAH MOSS’s FERAL CITY concerns the summer of 2020, when after covid’s devastating first pass through New York City and the consequent exodus of everyone who could afford it, an invisible city rose up. The poor, the young, the nonwhite, the queer, the marginal were its constituents, and they made full use of public spaces in which they would otherwise be surveilled and policed. They made art on the plywood masks worn by fancy boutiques, rode their bikes in great swarms down the carless thoroughfares, staged dances and boxing matches and every kind of performance in the parks. Moss vividly conveys the exhilaration, using his gifts as a writer, an observer of the city, a moral philosopher, and a font of empathy. He also covers the return of the repressors, and the mood plummets. A few years earlier I’d read every memoir of the Paris Commune that I could find; the two sets of events followed the same emotional arc. The summer of 2020 in NYC may have been less world-historical than the Commune, but it represented the same human urge and will for liberation. —LUCY SANTE

I HAVE NEVER ascribed to a negative theology of art—that its beauty and its truth are ineffable, ungraspable, and that the ideal reader has no choice but to fall silent before it. Jon Fosse’s SEPTOLOGY is the only work of fiction I have read that has troubled my unbelief. Its seven volumes tell of a painter named Asle, and of his friend, also a painter named Asle, their minds and memories running together in the dark days that lead up to Christmas. But to describe what Septology is about—or even to claim that it is about something that can be fixed in words—is already to defile it. Perhaps it would be simpler to say that reading it is the closest I have come to feeling the presence of God here on earth. —MERVE EMRE

THE BOOK POND is new, beautiful writing, and it plumbs the English language, its possibilities commonly underused, with lush vocabulary. Claire-Louise Bennett’s fiction, her protagonist’s thoughts and actions, is grounded in vegetable gardens, in love and loss, and in a winning imagination. A pleasure to read.

Rachel Aviv’s STRANGERS TO OURSELVES: UNSETTLED MINDS AND THE STORIES THAT MAKE US is an important contribution to contemporary thought about mental illness and the psychiatrization of everyday life. Through the stories, case histories, of others, Aviv examines how they came to be identified by their “illnesses,” and how their illnesses told their stories and not them. The book asks readers to be skeptical of professional “mind-readers” and diagnoses that threaten to control a person’s life. —LYNNE TILLMAN

I TAUGHT Noor Naga’s debut novel IF AN EGYPTIAN CANNOT SPEAK ENGLISH in my postcolonial literature class this semester. One student wrote in her book report: “My first two thoughts after concluding the book were (1) wow that was really good and (2) wow I am not smart enough to be discussing this book.” A young New Yorker of Egyptian origin lands in Cairo. She thinks “this is a real place where real things happen. Not microaggressions that are tweeted about, not theory.” A part of the new reality she encounters, adult and aggressive, is a young man from a village called Shobrakheit who had worked as a photographer during the revolution that overthrew Mubarak. He is struggling with a drug habit and also with the low that has followed that political high. I loved the novel because everything you learned about in college classes on Edward Said’s Orientalism is here put into play in people’s lives. And then, in the book’s concluding section, the story that we have just read is discussed in a writing workshop with its species of deranged wokeness. More mocking and meaningful than the dull MFA vs. NYC debate, this section by itself is worth the price of admission.

If all that I have said above is about the subtle transformation of knowledge into art, then another favorite book of mine from 2022 is the memoir STAY TRUE by Hua Hsu. Debates on Asian American identity, music, and culture are unpacked in a language so limpid and pure that thought becomes pure feeling. —AMITAVA KUMAR

I’VE BEEN ASKED to read pretty much every book on work that has come out in the last few years, and many of them are very good. But for this end-of-year wrap-up I’ve chosen a book that is not about work, except in the way that it is a book about capitalism; and, as Brett Scott writes, the true lifeblood of that system is not money but people carrying out labor.

Scott’s CLOUDMONEY: CASH, CARDS, CRYPTO, AND THE WAR FOR OUR WALLETS is indeed a book about money: what it is, what it isn’t, and why it matters for everyone to know the difference. It is also a book about power, and how that power is being wielded by a tech-finance nexus that pretends its takeover is natural, unavoidable, simply a consequence of something like evolution. “Many mainstream futurists get paid a lot of money to style themselves as prophets ofinevitabilities,” Scott writes, but he is arguing that we can change this situation, and, in fact, that we must. That we should see in a “cashless” society an enclosure by the biggest firms of late capitalism—by Wall Street and Silicon Valley—of everything we do, a way to produce more data, which is, of course, the unit of value of a digitized world.

Scott’s perspective is global and his argument, at the end of the day, a little bit romantic. Yet we need, I think, more romance and dare I say more friction in a world pushing us closer to the metaverse of Mark Zuckerberg’s dreams. It is what allows a book about money and technology to become something beautiful. —SARAH JAFFE

I’VE NEVER READ a book like Ryan Lee Wong’s delightfully laid-back debut, WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON, which attempts to think through one of the great questions of our times: How do we balance our political convictions with the need to sometimes just chill out and live? A killjoy might have populated a novel like this, set during the movement for Black lives and—one of Wong’s chief concerns—the rise of a reactionary Asian American conservatism, with us-and-them archetypes. But Which Side Are You On is playful and cranky, a series of conversations between friends and family that help bring these broader struggles into manageable focus. The political is made personal again; discourse is dismissed but values find renewed energy. Wong follows an idealistic, polemical, occasionally lazy college kid contemplating leaving school in order to pursue greater political aims. He is a member of the radical vanguard; he is alone. It spoils nothing to reveal what he learns while driving around Los Angeles with his (much cooler) mother or smoking pot in the hills with his friends: he is neither. —HUA HSU

MY FATHER’S DIET by Adrian Nathan West was the funniest, bleakest book I read this year, the best thing yet written on the undertheorized (but all too real!) relationship between sad divorced dads and their intellectual adult sons. West builds something beautifully grim from the wreckage of American self-help culture; in his portrait of the titular father, he’s crafted a figure of grandly inarticulate pathos. (“It’s a goddamn fountain. I just got it at Walmart. I thought it would help set the mood in the mindfulness room.”) This year, West also translated two amazing books by Hermann Burger, a Bernhard-obsessed, Ferrari-driving sometime-magician who killed himself shortly after completing BRENNER, a discursive, Proustian meditation mostly concerned with the manufacture and smoking of cigars. Burger’s ludicrous self-regard gives even his grimmest work (that would be TRACTATUS LOGICO-SUICIDALIS: ON KILLING ONESELF) a comic edge. It would be a disservice to call a self-described “mortologist” life-affirming, but as in West’s own novel, there’s something exhilarating about seeing despair turned into moving, desperate art. —ANDREW MARTIN

I DON’T THINK we live in a time of power couples, but maybe we live in one uniquely poised to appreciate power couples. I don’t even mean people who are in love—often, a power couple is made up of two figures who hate each other, or are at least competitive. I mean two charged and stormy souls creating a strange and special life together, one that bubbles over and calls to everyone around them. Mark Rozzo’s EVERYBODY THOUGHT WE WERE CRAZY chronicles one such pairing: the wasp Hollywood princess Brooke Hayward and her onetime husband, unhinged (and unemployable) Dennis Hopper, who casually lorded over a mid-’60s microcosm where Pop art, psychedelic rock, and middling television acting converged. What’s interesting about the Hayward-Hoppers—like their obvious predecessors, Sara and Gerald Murphy—is that despite the chaos around them, they created an oddball domestic bliss, primarily through a spectacular house whose charms went beyond its wackadoo decorating style. Even when Hopper was disappearing for days on end on binges, or Hayward was grappling with giving up her acting career, they provided a foundation for counterculture, however short-lived. The house that Rozzo describes, and which mishmashed Tiffany lamps with Warhols and Hayward’s own tilework, speaks to the idea that a fantastic house goes beyond interior design and good parties to the very spirit of its inventors. —RACHEL TASHJIAN

LAST MONTH, Sandrine Rousseau, a Green MP in the French National Assembly, made headlines when she declared that French workers have “a right to idleness.” Whether consciously or not, Rousseau was quoting Paul Lafargue, Karl Marx’s wayward son-in-law, who, while in prison in 1880, put the finishing touches on a socialist pamphlet entitled The Right to Be Lazy. Lafargue’s treatise, reissued this year by New York Review Books as THE RIGHT TO BE LAZY: AND OTHER WRITINGS (translated by Alex Andriesse), is a spirited case for idleness as the condition to which humanity should aspire.

The French proletariat, Lafargue argues mischievously, had succumbed to a “strange madness”: “the love of work.” Their frenzy for labor was so intense that it was harming the idle rich, who had to strain their bellies to consume all that the workers produced. The solution, he proposes, is to “proclaim the Rights of Laziness”—namely by passing a law limiting the workday to three hours. After all, work is slavish, idleness godlike. Consider the deity of the Old Testament: “after six days of work, he rested for eternity.”

Discontent with the work system has, in the last year, become harder to ignore. The “lying flat” movement in China and a resurgent anti-work movement in the United States reflect the need to redesign our labor arrangements and grant space in contemporary life for soul-enlarging idleness. Lafargue’s riotous attack on the work ethic is, truly, a book for our moment. —CHARLIE TYSON

THAT WE’RE LIVING in a time in which sexual expression is simultaneously extolled as a political triumph and intensely circumscribed along “better” ethical boundaries than the last ones, and the ones before that, means that sex, in its various cultural manifestations, can often feel boring. Predictable. Played out. The French-speaking world—its veneration of bona fide sexual creeps like Woody Allen and Gabriel Matzneff—hardly represents an ideal, but this year two (three?) of its novels have helped me put things in perspective. First, there’s CHÉRI AND THE END OF CHÉRI, written in the 1920s by that grande dame of French literature, Colette. Few words bear repeating about a writer so exhaustively written about, yet I can’t help but relish and recommend this incestuous love story, so deeply uninterested in the sort of frugality and anxious, political self-scrutiny that characterizes much of the previous decade’s early-feminist literature—as well as much of today’s. Steeped in the hedonism of the noble class, it embraces the splendor of beauty, the excitement of vulgarity, the exquisite brutality of unfettered emotions, parsing through the inner lives of the aging Léa and her lover Chéri with a naked prose not unlike the autofiction of the past years. Then there’s GENTLEMAN CALLERS by the Belgian writer Corinne Hoex, newly translated by Caitlin O’Neil. It takes seriously the realm of fantasy—not just as a space of discovery, where great perils might be safely explored, but as a structuring principle. The slim novel contains a series of dreams, with each “chapter” evocatively detailing the narrator’s erotic encounters with different men—the schoolteacher, the cook, the hunter—with each one bringing the narrator and her textures closer into view. For Hoex, sex is generative—in the metaphorical sense, of course. —BEATRICE LOAYZA

ADA CALHOUN’S ALSO A POET: FRANK O’HARA, MY FATHER, AND ME seems almost to court disaster. It’s a memoir of a defective parent, the poet and art critic Peter Schjeldahl—who died in October, aged eighty—and a portrait of not just one halcyon era but two, that of the poet and art curator Frank O’Hara (1926–1966), and of the next generation of New York bohemians, among them Schjeldahl, who tried to write O’Hara’s biography in the mid-1970s. Yet Calhoun avoids self-pity and nostalgia to produce something trenchant and controlled, a work of quiet, or sly, virtuosity. The audio version, read by the author, offers a rare bonus—excerpts from the interviews conducted for the abortive book that provided the spur for this wonderfully accomplished one. —LEO ROBSON

A CHANCE MENTION in the TLS this past summer led me to pick up Elizabeth Jane Howard’s utterly remarkable CAZALET CHRONICLES. One could call this quintet of novels about three generations of a family living in Sussex at the beginning of WWII “enchanting” except for the fact that the word doesn’t quite capture their psychological depth or human wisdom.

Aside from the Chronicles, Howard, who died at the age of ninety in 2014, wrote a clutch of novels and an excellent autobiography, Slipstream. She was re-nowned for her beauty and always on the lookout for love, as a consequence of which she fell into the arms of many questionable men. Her third husband was the resolutely alcoholic Kingsley Amis, whom she eventually divorced and whose son, Martin, credits Howard in his autobiography Experience with salvaging him from his layabout ways and making him into a reader and conscientious student.

The Chronicles were best-sellers when they were published in the 1990s (the fifth volume was published in 2013) and were adapted for a BBC television series. The historical arc they draw is large, but the novels are singular for the quality of intimacy they create, in part via the superb dialogue, around the many characters who appear in their pages, from housemaids to great-aunts to the gaggle of children, all of whom live under one roof at Home Place. Three brothers—Hugh, Edward, and Rupert—share in the patriarchal duties; one of them is faithless, another one has lost a hand in WWI, while the third goes missing in combat. The conflicts of the young female cousins—Polly, Louise, and Clary—are especially vivid, rendered with subtlety and humor.

Full disclosure: I am midway through the Chronicles as I write, taking my time the better to savor the muchness of them. Martin Amis called his stepmother, along with Iris Murdoch, “the most interesting woman writer of her generation.” Why this saga hasn’t been given its due on these shores is a mystery to me. —DAPHNE MERKIN