Throughout January, we’ll be looking back on 2011 and unveiling our favorite things. This week, Carissa Smith shares an idiosyncratic list of the best five books of 2011–each presented as an entree with a bonus pairing.
Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding
Chad Harbach’s debut novel, The Art of Fielding, records the rise of college shortstop Henry Skrimshander, along with his near-derailment by performance anxiety. Henry’s struggle stands in as a metaphor for both “What am I supposed to do after college?” panic and, well, the Human Condition. For an example, take the following passage in which Henry reflects on the promise of the structured, purpose-filled world of athletic training: “Henry knew better than to want freedom. The only life worth living was the unfree life, the life Schwartzy had taught him, the life in which you were chained to your one true wish, the wish to be simple and perfect. Then the days were sky-blue spaces you moved through with ease. You made sacrifices and the sacrifices made sense.” Henry doesn’t have to bear the burden of metaphorical meaning-making alone: the supporting cast of characters, including the Westish College president, all wrestle with vocation and calling. Melville, chronicler of obsessive quests for perfection and meaning, as well the despair of those lacking such a quest, haunts the pages of The Art of Fielding, but knowledge of Moby-Dick isn’t any more essential than knowledge of baseball (I certainly have very little of the latter) for appreciating the novel. Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot has received a little more attention as THE college/post-college novel of 2011, and I enjoyed the portions of it relating to semiotics, but for my money, The Art of Fielding has more interesting characters and themes.
Lev Grossman, The Magician King
Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, sequel to 2009’s The Magicians, may be somewhat uneven—not to mention troubling—but it still ranks as one of my top five novels of the year, in part because it’s one about which I’ve had the most fruitful and interesting conversations with fellow readers. Grossman’s Harry-Potter-meets-Narnia world could easily be dismissed as derivative, as dressed-up fan-fiction, but I’m more inclined to read the novels as realistic college/post-college novels that just happen to be partially set in other people’s fictional universes. Like The Art of Fielding and The Marriage Plot, The Magician King plumbs the depths of post-college angst, exploring the failure of both formal schooling and the school of hard knocks to prepare one for life in the real (Real?) world. The difference is that, in this case, the real world involves satyrs and talking sloths. (If you’re interested in a book on the failure of higher education in a world in which sloths remain speechless, check out Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.)
Colson Whitehead, Zone One
I’ve been a fan of Colson Whitehead’s fiction (especially his 1999 novel The Intuitionist) for a few years, and I was particularly interested to see his newest novel, Zone One, billed as a new exemplar of the marriage between literary and genre fiction (the genre, in this case, being the zombie novel). As Glen Duncan’s controversial NYT review indicated, the novel is unlikely to find a following among those looking for a limb-chomping lark through postapocalyptic terrain. There’s limb-chomping aplenty, but the novel is primarily a portrait of the consciousness of protagonist Mark Spitz (almost everyone goes by nicknames in the New World Non-Order). Through Mark Spitz’s eyes, we see how post-zombie life really isn’t all that different from pre-zombie late modernity. Barricades to keep the right people in and the wrong people out? Check. Zone One itself isn’t so dissimilar from the New York City it once was. Setting the novel several years after the initial zombie outbreak allows Whitehead to skewer inane political rhetoric of optimism: the provisional government, centered in Buffalo, has an official theme song entitled “Stop! Can You Hear the Eagle Roar? (Theme from Reconstruction).” Because Zone One occurs primarily in Mark Spitz’s mind, with flashbacks to both recent and more distant events, the novel is admittedly sometimes difficult to follow. But if you find that The Walking Dead features too little reflection on the hermeneutics of the everyday, then Zone One is likely to be your cup of tea. (Though I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, Kenneth Warren’s What Was African American Literature?, which argues that African American literature, as defined by the Jim Crow era, has come to an end, would be my companion pick for Zone One: both Whitehead and Mark Spitz are black, and though race receives very little explicit mention in the novel, race and the hotly debated discourse of post-blackness loom large as a subtext.)
In the category of children’s and YA fiction, my pick this year is Meg Wolitzer’s The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, a light read targeted at the 8-12 age range. The novel plunges us into the world of competitive youth Scrabble, and the result is something like a cross between Ellen Raskin (The Westing Game) and the documentary Spellbound. Like Spellbound, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman focuses on several protagonists to give us an idea of the range of reasons why kids would be drawn to a competition involving lettered tiles on a board. The titular Duncan Dorfman had never played Scrabble until a cafeteria incident revealed his special power of reading with his fingers, but now he sees the chance to be known at school for something other than having lunch meat stuck to his back. Nate Saviano is the more stereotypical kid who competes only because of parental pressure. April Blunt, my personal favorite, simply loves Scrabble, but she also wants to do well at the national tournament to prove to her sports-loving family that Scrabble is an endeavor as worthy as soccer. We meet several other teams along the way, including the Evangelical Scrabblers, who are portrayed as well-adjusted competitors with quirks no less charming than anyone else’s. The novel introduces a rather unnecessary antagonist, but most of the seemingly extraneous details turn out to play a pivotal role in the book’s plot, and that attention to structure is appealing. (Runner-up in this category: Rachel Neumeier’s The Floating Islands, which breathes some new life into coming-of-age fantasy clichés.)
Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture
Princeton historian Daniel T. Rodgers’s Age of Fracture has already received laudatory reviews from many publications, including Books & Culture, but I’ve selected it as my best nonfiction book of the year for Christ and Pop Culture because the book surveys American intellectual and cultural history of the 1970s through the 1990s (with a brief epilogue addressing the post-9/11 era). Rodgers selects “The Age of Fracture” as his moniker for late-twentieth-century America because of the disintegration of communal identities and the rise of a “self” (quote marks mandatory to indicate its constructed nature) characterized by “choice, provisionality, and impermanence; a sense of the diffuse and penetrating yet unstable powers of culture; an impatience with the backward pull of history.” Age of Fracture draws startling connections between political punditry (both right and left) and the rise of theory in academia as it devotes chapters to presidential rhetoric, economics, class, race, gender, and concepts of the public good. Such a totalizing portrait of an era surely goes against the key tenets of the Age of Fracture, but it makes for head-nodding, highlighter-wielding reading. I have to admit that my head nodded more in restlessness than in affirmation during the economics chapter, but, since Rodgers’s thesis is that free-market economic language both reflected and contributed to “visions of society as a spontaneous, naturally acting array of choices and affinities,” it’s worth slogging through. (And if “slogging” describes your approach to any book these days, you might pick up Alan Jacobs’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, an engaging—and brief!—ramble through reading-and-technology-related topics.)