Top Shelf 2005

Our 25 favorite books of the year—from teen sex diseases and Aztec slaughterhouses to Kiss riffs and juvenile tambourinists

Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction
By Sue Townsend
Soho, 327 pp., $24

Townsend uses the weight of her 23-year-old literary project to create an expert entertainment that's also a cogent, furious foreign-policy critique. Hypnotized by credit card offers, thirtysomething Adrian sinks hundreds of thousands of pounds into debt; the final calculation is both absurd and chilling, a potent metaphor for the cost of the war effort. His support for Tony Blair crumbles as it becomes clear that his infantryman son faces real danger. "Happy people don't keep a diary," Adrian concludes. Can greedy readers be forgiven for wishing him just a little more misfortune?

Afflicted Powers
By Retort
Verso, 211 pp., $16

Vik Muniz’s Double Mona Lisa (Peanut Butter + Jelly), from Reflex
photo: Courtesy Vik Muniz/Aperture Foundation
Vik Muniz’s Double Mona Lisa (Peanut Butter + Jelly), from Reflex

It starts with a rebarbative proposition. The events of September 11, 2001, were indeed attacks in a terrain once thought unassailable: the arena of domination known (and misknown) as "the spectacle." "The state's reply to them," the first chapter notes unflinchingly, "has exceeded in its crassness and futility the martyr-pilots' wildest dreams." Elaborating global and local conflicts within a web of strong, weak, and failed states, the book pursues much of what's hauntingly unsatisfying about most "explanations" of recent history. It's similarly enlightening on the troubling development of "Revolutionary Islam," and global oil economics—situating these things, without justification or excuse, within the failed narrative of modernity. Unorthodox, historically informed, and fearless, this volume is desperately necessary for thinking, circa now, about common life without commonplaces.

Atomik Aztex
By Sesshu Foster
City Lights, 203 pp., $15.95

Foster's debut novel flips fearlessly between the creases he's pressed into the wrinkled fabric of reality—from the killing floor of a southeast L.A. slaughterhouse, to a suicide mission in 1940s Stalingrad, to "the frenetic hustle of overcrowded Teknotitlan," mid-20th-century capital of the "Aztek Socialist Imperium." Isaak [sic] Babel makes a brief showing in biker's black leather, and a naked, 400-pound Hermann Goering, emptied of entrails, bounces down the steps of the Great Pyramid. "The world goes on & on," Foster writes. "It will never stop." And until you turn the final page, at least, that sounds like a blessing.

Black Hole
By Charles Burns
Pantheon, 368 pp., $24.95

There's a bug going around, passed through sexual contact, leaving teenagers with peculiar deformities—a tail, or webbed hands, or a small, mumbling mouth at the base of the neck. Is this an AIDS metaphor, or one for the awkward passage into adulthood, or simply a horrific look through a mirror, darkly? By the end of Burns's 10-years-in-the-making opus, dream logic and subtext have danced with each other too closely for us to distinguish between fantastic abstraction and what's really real. Corroborated by his stark, static illustration, the book's final impression is candid and clinical, a portrait of the artist as the man he'll inevitably become.

The Collected Fiction of Kenneth Koch
Edited by Jordan Davis, Karen Koch, and Ron Padgett
Coffee House Press, 387 pp., $18

Koch's fiction strings together impeccable sentences in ways that beat the boundaries of logic and genre. A seven-page Hardy Boys epic nestles next to a Proustian riff off a postcard; novels have a hard time deciding whether they're made up of chapters or stories. Koch wrote about one long work: "All the sentences were like the last sentences of novels or the first sentences of short stories." There's an innocence to all his orderings, and a great relief in not knowing whether we're reading grown-up literature for children ("He really loved the polenta, and so did his friend") or children's literature for grown-ups ("We have had such a good lunch that it makes me sad"). What's certain is a light and loving hand that wasn't afraid to do a little wavering.

Europeana
Patrik Ourednik
Dalkey Archive, 122 pp., $12.50

Europeana is like Harper's Weekly Review extended across the 20th century: a bunch of neutral sentences that promise via sequentiality to make an endlessly dissolving narrative from "events." Here the facts are weighted: more sentences about WW I than jogging, though both appear, and ghostly power is vested in the magical word and. "And writers and poets endeavored to find ways of expressing it best and in 1916 they invented Dadaism because everything seemed crazy to them. And in Russia they invented a revolution. And the soldiers wore around their neck or wrist a tag . . ." History, or a knifing of the progressive humanist delusion that there's such a thing as history in the first place? Yes, exactly. A tragicomic prose poem to make poets weep with envy, to make everyone weep.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
By Jonathan Safran Foer
Houghton Mifflin, 356 pp., $24.95

Oscar Schell, a nine-year-old tambourinist with a propensity for running his mouth, roams New York searching for the literal key to his father, who died on 9-11 after leaving five gut-wrenching messages on his home answering machine. Oscar wards off panic attacks by busying his brain with pressing questions (what if skyscrapers were built underground? what if anuses could talk?). Never short on invention, Foer's second novel offsets tragedy into moments of sweet and boyish humor. With an array of puzzles and tricks, the book captures "the worst day," as well as the unconquerable loneliness that follows.

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