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Our 25 Favorite Books of 2002

A New Kind of Science
Wolfram Media, 1197 pp., $44.95
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Do the 250,000-odd words of Wolfram's self-published magnum opus really offer "a fundamentally new intellectual structure" for understanding the world? The insight that drives the book, that simple rules can, at times, produce extremely complex behaviors, is perhaps not as unprecedented as the author would have us believe. Nonetheless Wolfram's persistence in applying his ideas to all branches of human knowledge, from the growth of plants to whale songs and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, gives the book—and especially its 348 pages of notes—a kind of encyclopedic bewitchment. Wolfram may not be the next Einstein, but he is at least a modern Aristotle.

Get "Heppy": George Herriman
illustration: from Krazy & Ignatz, 1927–1928, Fantagraphics Books
Get "Heppy": George Herriman

Serpent's Tail, 216 pp., $14
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Woronov's novel peers into the broken-down life of drunk housewife Molly, who spends her days in an embarrassing stupor, blaming her shambled present on her past (domineering mother, lost brother, hapless father). Molly's bitter recollections sting, but what really drives this novel is a later realization that her ideas about childhood have little to do with what really happened. Is it too late for this woman to benefit from her new knowledge? Woronov captures Molly's doomed attempt to free herself from her own destructive notions with exposed-nerve prose and painstaking clarity.

Nowhere Man
Doubleday, 256 pp., $23.95
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In Hemon's hands, a would-be simple tale of immigrant dislocation and coming-of-age becomes a purposefully existential meditation on evil, longing, and the weird and luminous texture of everyday life. His fascinated and witty prose makes even the most despairing inquiries into the state of the human soul read like love stories. His world, like ours, is incredible and mundane: Humdrum characters reappear in crucial global plots, everyone falls for the same two Beatles songs, a tiny mouse can undo you like a knife to the throat.

The Portable Promised Land
Little, Brown, 256 pp., $23.95
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The stories in Touré's first outing—all flip-o'-the-script comeuppances and Technicolor folly—are morality tales of a sort, but ones in which judgment and superiority get tossed on their butts by the vibrant, the messy, the absurd. Populated by characters like the Rev. Dr. Bernard Z. LeBub, this Promised Land is Soul City by way of Calvino, where grasping identity is a layered operation.

State of Siege
City Lights, 158 pp., $13.95
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Goytisolo's latest novel comes out of his visits to Sarajevo in the early '90s, but it's hardly journalistic. An attempt "to oppose the truth of fiction to the lies of propaganda," the slippery, labyrinthine plot—about the mysterious disappearance of a foreigner's body in a Sarajevo-like city under siege—holds dream narratives, fragments of homoerotic, mystical poetry, and fantasies of a Parisian neighborhood's collapse. Goytisolo strives for a unity of politics and form, trapping his readers and characters alike in an epistemological purgatory in which "Reality has been transmuted into fiction: the horror tale of our daily existence!"

This Is Not It
D.A.P., 288 pp., $27.50
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This beautifully designed book gathers 20 years' worth of Tillman's prose inspired by the work of such artists as Kiki Smith, Juan Muñoz, and Jeff Koons. Many of the pieces appeared originally in limited-edition artist portfolios; Madame Realism, Tillman's alter ego, appears in six of the stories—as artist and sybarite, thrill seeker and voyeur. Tillman mines unhappiness for insight and distills prose to its unapologetic essence, allowing her hard-earned wisdom to hit all that much harder. What remains is a seductive voice entirely her own.

Under Radar
Atlantic Monthly, 256 pp., $23
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Tom Levy, an American lawyer vacationing in Jamaica with his family, sulks about tourism, his all-too-tame life. His sour self-satisfaction and above-the-law private fantasies suddenly shift to outward violence and downfall: He commits a horrific murder, gets sentenced to life, and loses all contact with his wife and daughters. Trauma turns his hair white and renders him mute. When Levy regains his senses, he recites a mysterious religious parable, which sets him and his fellow inmates free, and then embarks on a strange sea journey of continued personal transformation. No matter how intriguing and mythical the book becomes, Tolkin anchors it throughout with rigorous intelligence and reflections on tragedy and self-reckoning.

You Are Not a Stranger Here
Doubleday, 240 pp., $21.95
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The stories in Haslett's debut explore the desolate geography of depression and mental illness, a world in which people, like similarly charged magnets, repel one another even as they are drawn together. A husband plots suicide behind his caring wife's back; a young orphan punishes his body through self-annihilating love; a psychiatrist desperately seeks absolution from a bereaved mother. But even in these hollow intimacies, Haslett offers glimpses of transcendence—not the least of which is the haunting wisdom of his own lucid prose.

You Shall Know Our Velocity
McSweeney's, 371 pp., $22
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Dave Eggers's first novel spins its reality-show premise (give away 32-large while circumnavigating the globe in one week) topsy-turvy, admitting huge emotion, special effects: grief and first-world guilt, Faulknerian interiority and pocket fabulism, plus the best deployment of the Scorpions we will likely see. If the heroes' quest is quixotic, it's no fluke that the last of the money goes to a Mexican youngster named Cervantes; if the staggering finale coaxes us that life is beautiful, we need only return to Y.S.K.O.V.'s Sunset Boulevard opener, engraved on the concrete-gray cardboard cover and bordered with black. Eggers gives us the mausoleum of all hope and desire.

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