Top Shelf 2005

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

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

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.

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.  

Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story
By Chuck Klosterman
Scribner, 245 pp., $23

Please thrill me: Klosterman's best book yet has a Spin-assignment narrative line (he'll drive across the country, visiting the deathplaces of rock stars) that he gradually and gloriously reconfigures to his own omphaloskeptical purposes. The result is a fast-moving meditation on death, girlfriends, and drugs. Not that there isn't music: His riffs are nicely deranged, as when he explains how Kid A predicted 9-11 or correlates his exes with every last member of Kiss—even the "uncredited percussionist on Unmasked." Klosterman concludes, with charming self-loathing, "It is a miracle any woman has ever kissed me."

The Letters of Robert Lowell
Edited by Saskia Hamilton
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 672 pp., $40

Reading letter collections always feels a little larcenous, but Lowell's correspondence is so artfully crafted it demands an audience. Enclosed are reams of apologies to those whose lives his manic depression also, to varying degrees, derailed. In particular, his three writer wives and his great friend Elizabeth Bishop sustained impassioned attempts to cover lapses and explosions. To Bishop he writes, "[M]y state zoomed sky-high and I am glad you didn't see it. It's hard for the controlled man to look back on the moment of chaos and claim. I shan't try, but it was all me, and I am sorry you were touched by it." This is a different kind of confessionalism—one that places Lowell among the ranks of the great epistolists.

Like a Fiery Elephant: The Life of B.S. Johnson
By Jonathan Coe
Continuum, 486 pp., $29.95

Coe's passionate B.S. Johnson bio is a tribute from a famous novelist to an obscure one, a reconstruction of the life and a probing if playful deconstruction of such reconstructions, and an affirmation of Johnson's importance. Johnson could be a comic figure; he was ultimately a tragic one, ending his life at 39 and leaving behind his wife and two children. In its artfully fragmented structure, autobiographical inserts, and circular conceits Like a Fiery Elephant adopts Johnson's own imperatives (all is chaos, you can only write about yourself) even while questioning them.

Love Creeps
By Amanda Filipacchi
St. Martin's, 289 pp., $23.95

After years of unhampered if boring success with men, a New York gallery owner yearns to be humiliated, or at least rejected, so she picks a random guy to pursue and annoy—"for health reasons." (Her own stalker, a chubby dud who calls her "pooky," trails a few paces behind.) With a flair for delightfully silly dialogue, Filipacchi's third novel portrays romance as the tricky, prickly game that it is: Her characters fall in love for all the wrong reasons. Flirting is a complex process, requiring wit, patience, and elaborate displays of disgust.

Lunar Park
By Bret Easton Ellis
Knopf, 320 pp., $24.95

Eyeballing his writing and party careers next to his estranged father's ghost, a son he's ignored for 11 years, disappearing teens, possessed toys, and a serial killer re-enacting American Psycho's murders, Bret Easton Ellis stars as Lunar Park's neurotic and perpetually buzzed, ultimately tender narrator. Like a tell-all, meta–Charlie Kaufman– Revolutionary Road Poltergeist mash-up, Ellis's fifth novel channels John Cheever, Stephen King, and Philip Roth into the author's own back catalog, creating a cynical, heavily coded, surprisingly scary, often hilarious, totally haunted treasure hunt from 307 Elsinore Lane. Showcasing Ellis's best writing to date, the pyrotechnical finale is one of the year's most sumptuously tear-jerky prose arcs. Watch your back, Michael Cunningham.

Magic for Beginners
By Kelly Link
Small Beer Press, 272 pp., $24

Otherworldly nostalgia creeps close to revolution in Link's collection, where zombies and ghost dogs muddle a sweetly feral domesticity. In "Lull," a cheerleader fated to live life backward thinks (during a spin-the-bottle interlude in a closet with the Devil): "That was what was so nice about being married. Things got better and better until you hardly even knew each other anymore. And then you said goodnight and went out on a date, and after that you were just friends." It's the storyteller's mantra—"It gets better"—come to life and multiplied.

My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973
By Harry Mathews
Dalkey Archive, 249 pp., $13.95  

A semi-fictionalized (or perhaps semi-authentic) account of the author's Cold War adventures, My Life in CIA features an American protagonist, Harry Mathews, who's so frequently mistaken for a government operative that he decides to become one. But Mathews the author isn't necessarily Mathews the character, and ultimately nothing about this "novel" should be taken literally, except its desire to provoke ample head-scratching. Mathews leaves subplots unresolved, abruptly writes off supporting characters, and otherwise luxuriates in an inexplicable stasis. Think of a Ludlum thriller bled of all suspense, and then turned inside out.

Never Let Me Go
By Kazuo Ishiguro
Knopf, 288 pp., $24

Like Shakespeare's monster who learns enough to curse learning, Ishiguro's Kathy H. comes to doubt what she's taught at Hailsham, an isolated boarding school where student-clones are raised and trained to donate their organs. Imagine Caliban as an adolescent girl; today the test tube is the witch who gives birth to her. A 1984 for the bioengineering age, the novel is a warning and a glimpse into the future. For Orwell's Winston Smith, war was peace and freedom was slavery. For Kathy, dying after a second or third or fourth donation is known as "completing." By the time a well-meaning guardian finally follows "donate" with "your vital organs," it's too late to object.

99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style
By Matt Madden
Chamberlain Bros., 206 pp., $16.95

99 Ways does the best kind of exercise: There's no padding or heavy machinery, just one elegant body studiously stretching its limbs. Madden takes the model figure of a bare-bones story (man walks into a kitchen), spreads it out over eight panels, and, in 99 one-page permutations, twists and shouts it in every direction. It's the comic book version of Bach's Goldberg Variations—or, to choose a juicier example, a still life from The Aristocrats. The real story turns with the pages in this deep-thinking, quick-moving Queneauvian study of the infinite pleasures of composition.

Other Electricities
By Ander Monson
Sarabande, 167 pp., $14.95

The fragments in Monson's Upper Peninsula epic assume in strange shapes: dream obituaries, annotated temperatures, incantations. The titles here would be at home on a Sufjan Stevens album ("We Are Going to See the Oracle of Apollo in Tapiola, Michigan"), and the two share a gift for oblique illumination. Winter has its own secret history, a frozen litany of vandalism, accident, and rue; "like milk in a bottle," the season's given shape in these pages. Crystallography and The Age of Wire and String are reference points, but Other Electricities locates an odd, exciting wavelength all its own.

By Geraldine Kim
Fence, 128 pp., $14

Kim's centaur debut is a constant notebook, humming with graffiti and gossip, bad jokes, great jokes, bodily functions, lyrics, juvenile glosses, sudden sadnesses. Povel comes equipped with a hilarious, spurious Lyn Hejinian intro, the longest title in the world, and observations on how her writing-workshop cohorts are responding to the text. Kim comments on the spell-checker's comments, Rage Against the Machine, the NYU suicides, Infinite Jest. She's her own A.D.D. Boswell, a self-mythologizing Korean American diva worth a thousand Margaret Chos.

By Vik Muniz
Aperture, 204 pp., $39.95

The most Borgesian of contemporary artists turns out to be a splendidly Borgesian writer himself, and Reflex, his generous, Cheshire cat of a primer, is as profound as it is playful. Injured randomly by a bullet in his native Brazil, he took up the gunman's offer of money and bought a ticket to the U.S., where he developed the "light interrogatory technique" of his art. His wizardly cover versions of famous images use everything from thread to diamonds to chocolate syrup, and Reflex is similarly omnivorous, bursting with double-take reproductions, beard-tugging axioms ("The accidental discovery of anything implies a predisposed need for that thing"), and at least seven if not seventeen types of ambiguity.

Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition
By Jeff Byles
Harmony, 353 pp., $24

Voice contributor Byles presents very different chapters in city planning: Haussmann's plans for Paris, the what-were-we-thinking story of Penn Station, the Berlin Wall's demise, the destruction of the twin towers. It's a strange but satisfying amalgam of stories, a primer for anyone who cares about urban histories and how, in ignoring architecture, we actively participate in its destruction. By Rubble's end, the pleasure of ruins no longer seems so irresistible, and analogies to voyeurism and murder are never far.

The Sluts
By Dennis Cooper
Void, 296 pp., $50
(also in paper, $14.95 from Carroll & Graf)

A dizzying pileup of bareback breeding, castration procedures, master-slave mind games, boyband necrophilia fantasies, and consensual snuff sex, The Sluts is—this will sound strange— Cooper's most enjoyable novel to date. Echoing the loose palindromic structure of his George Miles cycle, the book begins and ends on a gay-escort review website, where the focus of masturbatory—and possibly murderous—attention is a barely legal total bottom. Simulating the thrill and fatigue of Web prowling, it's as profound an analysis of the Internet's philosophical dimensions as any fiction writer has produced.  

Times Like These
By Rachel Ingalls
Graywolf, 316 pp., $16

A Massachusetts native resident in En-gland for 40 years, Ingalls conjures a calmly demonic America for the stories and novellas in this brutally beautiful collection. Unwanted pregnancies and unnamed wars cast permanent shadows; the reader's skin crawls at the relentless concatenations (shades of Thomas Berger) and Twilight Zone plot-pivots. "Veterans" evokes A History of Violence, and "Somewhere Else" might be the year's most surprising piece of fiction: an unmooring vision of hell that rises just as your defenses go down.

By Mary Gaitskill
Pantheon, 227 pp., $23

Fans long accustomed to a sensibility as blunt as ice had reason to worry that Mary Gaitskill might by circumstance have softened in her second novel. Begun a decade ago, Veronica, whatever its author may have once intended, reaches us at last as a well-crafted dispatch from middle age. No matter, it's a knives-out return, and Gaitskill's sentences spring all the usual traps. Feeling blue one rainy day, Alison, a washed-up model, regrets her past—in particular, Veronica, a loudmouth who made her embarrassed to be her friend. Humility strikes Alison hard.

Wimbledon Green
By Seth
Drawn & Quarterly, 128 pp., $19.95

In this high-spirited, densely packed graphic novel, cartoonist Seth chronicles the exploits of the "greatest comic book collector in the world." Working with a color palette of gold, silver, and bronze (in honor of the three key ages of 20th-century comics), Seth casts his hero as a globe-trotting adventurer with his own dual identity, acknowledging this highly nerdy community's fundamental need to imagine itself as a league of real-life superheroes. Conceived as an exercise in the artist's sketchbook, the whimsical world Seth creates ultimately captures the best and worst of comics, the only place where "infamous flatulence" is actually a selling point.

The Year of Magical Thinking
By Joan Didion
Knopf, 240 pp., $23.95

The writer who famously cut to passages from her psychiatric report here splices in her husband's autopsy and her daughter's CT scan. Didion has always been obsessed with disjunction—narrative breakdown, the erasure of meaning—and is never more lucid than when she realizes the impossibility of clarity. By awful necessity, this memoir sees a further refinement of the Didion style: the incantatory echoes, the tidal italics, the pitch-perfect use of crescendo and staccato. Facts are her talismans, and The Year of Magical Thinking is a survivor's manual that understands all too well the limits of its usefulness.

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