Staff Picks: Our Favorite Reads of 2016


Best of 2016

From Gone with the Mind.


So many of our contributors brought out new books this year—Amie Barrodale, Emma Cline, Peter Cole, Rachel Cusk, Kristin Dombek, Garth Greenwell, Benjamin Hale, Fanny Howe, Ishion Hutchinson, Alexandra Kleeman, Karl Ove Knausgaard, April Ayers Lawson, Nathalie Léger, Ben Lerner, Jonathan Lethem, Mark Leyner, Sarah Manguso, Luke Mogelson, Mary Ruefle, David Salle, Brenda Shaughnessy, Zadie Smith, Karen Solie, David Szalay … I worry I’m forgetting some, but these are the ones on my shelf. After these, my favorite new books of 2016 were probably a couple of reissues from New York Review Classics. First there was Henry Green’s masterpiece, Loving, about servants on an Irish estate during World War II; then there was Sybille Bedford’s multigenerational saga, A Legacy. First published in 1956, this is the story of two German families—one, rich Berlin Jews; the other, country aristocrats—whose fates intertwine in the years before World War I. If you like any two of the following—The Radetzky March, The Hare With Amber Eyes, or Love in a Cold Climate—then A Legacy should be on your short list. Things get a tiny bit slow at the very end, only because Bedford seems to lose interest in the plot. What she cares about is scenes, character, and atmosphere. She is also very good at food: “The sea-urchins came heaped in a great armorial pile, sable and violet, tiered on their burnished quills, like the unexplained detail on the hill by the thistles and the hermitage of a quattrocento background, exposing now inside each severed shell the pattern of a tender sea-star.” And that’s just the first course. —Lorin Stein

With such wildness going on around us, it’s beginning to feel like an even more difficult task than usual to make writing equal to the gargantuan thing we keep melancholically calling reality. The essays by Mark Greif in Against Everything are a rare example of patient, complicated clarity; while I hope someone is translating Nous by the French novelist and philosopher Tristan Garcia, a book that brilliantly examines what we mean when we use that pernicious and inescapable word we. I guess in the end it just comes down to some kind of accuracy of voice, like the disillusioned, festive thinking on display, in very different ways, in Frederick Seidel’s Widening Income Inequality and Maureen McLane’s Mz N: the Serial. Or maybe there’s no need to expect the contemporary to be equal to the contemporary … The woozy inventions on display in Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories (I know it came out last year, but still …) seem more and more alarming and persuasive. —Adam Thirlwell 

I find making year-end selections especially daunting when I consider all the books I haven’t read this year. I also can’t possibly choose just one. With that in mind, the book I’ve talked about and recommended the most this year is Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, a three-part novel about a young American cruising for sex in Bulgaria and becoming entangled with an alluring hustler named Mitko. But it’s the novel’s middle section, about the protagonist’s youth and budding sexuality—written as a single, tense, unstoppable paragraph—that bowled me over. Coincidentally, I also loved László Krasznahorkai’s single-sentence novella The Last Wolf, about an unnamed, washed-up philosopher who is ferried to Extremadura, Spain, to write something—anything—on the unremarkable city. It’s Krasznahorkai, so nothing happens, in a big way, which keeps me coming back for more. There’s also Julie Doucet’s Carpet Sweeper Tales, another formally risky and brilliantly executed book. Doucet snipped pictures, letters, and phrases from sixties Italian fumetti to create nonsense narratives about gender and language. If Kurt Schwitters and Aleksei Kruchenykh made feminist comics, they would look like Carpet Sweeper. Last, Kima Jones’s “Homegoing AD,” from Jesmyn Ward’s anthology The Fire This Time, a hard gem of a story and one that’s so short it’s over almost as soon as it begins. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it: “And we smile cuz his hand is on our hip and it’s hot out and he smell good and it’s the darkest Charleston has ever been.” —Nicole Rudick

Mark Leyner’s Gone with the Mind stands out as the most inventive, vibrant novel I read in 2016—and, in its oblique way, the most poignant. Yes, it is, on the surface, the story of a loser writer who gives a reading at a mall food court in New Jersey, attended only by his mother and two employees from Panda Express and Sbarro. And yes, the entirety of the novel comprises his spoken introduction to this “reading.” But it’s so much more than that. I sometimes worry that literary readers resist comic novels for their air of high-concept shtick, as if from hearing the premise you should think, Well, I know how that plays out, and it just sounds silly. But you don’t know a fraction of what happens in Gone with the Mind, and (you’ll just have to trust me on this) its silliness is a conduit to some of the most profound, humane concerns a writer can have. If it’s about anything, Gone with Mind is a study of a mother and a son, a look at “how intimates make audiences of each other,” as Leyner put it. In its imagery and its preoccupation with fascism, it also anticipated the aesthetics of Trump rallies. In fact, I’d argue that it reclaims those aesthetics: here is one man on stage alone, rambling, free-associating, but in ways that seek to affirm life rather than to deny it. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout has been rightly celebrated for its originality and its incisive wit. If you liked that book, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in Gone with the Mind. Both are propelled by a compulsive energy; both are urgent reminders that the comic novel can go places that no other medium can, and that writers would do best to hold their idiosyncrasies up to the light instead of ironing them out. —Dan Piepenbring

From Hariton Pushwagner’s Soft City.

I’ve marveled over the late Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik before, but I’ve kept the latest and most extensive collection of her poems, Extracting the Stone of Madness, close until now. While Octavio Paz, Roberto Bolaño, Julio Cortázar, and other Latin American writers have long touted her oeuvre, Pizarnik—a “woman of torments,” to borrow from her poem “Scene”—remains startling obscure in the U.S. Behold Extracting, which compiles work from 1962 through 1972, the year the poet took her own life. Pizarnik’s is a harrowing poetry; nearly every line heaves with an intense longing to die. And yet, it’s poised, too, as if death is something to lust over rather than cower from. What’s most arresting, though, is the way she knits subtle enchantments in, like the tiny woman who lives in the heart of a bird, or the man who hangs dead from a tree only to slip through an opened window with the wind. Here are my favorite lines from the title piece: “He smiles, and I become a tiny marionette, pink with a pale blue umbrella, and I enter through that smile I build my little house on his tongue I inhabit the palm of his hand closing his fingers a gold powder a bit of blood and then goodbye, my love, goodbye.” —Caitlin Youngquist

Many of my favorite books from 2016 were released by our friends at New York Review Books, who had a banner year—three Henry Greens (Caught, Loving, Back), Slow Days, Fast Company by Eve Babitz, and the stupendous small novel by Ge Fei, The Invisibility Cloak. The release that had the most impression on me, though, is from New York Review Comics: Hariton Pushwagner’s dystopic masterpiece, Soft City. This graphic novel is about a single day in Soft City, where citizens wake up, take a pill, read the paper, eat breakfast, drive to work, grind away, trek home, have dinner, watch TV, take a pill, and go to bed. Pushwagner creates his story in plain black ink, outlining a world manic with repetition—streets are crowded with cars, massive apartment buildings stretch off the page, offices are stacked with hundreds of desks (an image that reminds me very much of Joseph K.’s office in Orson Welles’s 1962 The Trial). Dystopia reveals itself first in the maddening cheerfulness with which these workers serve their absence purposes, which are to work and consume media. A Big Brother figure watches everyone’s movements. Martin Herbert says in the afterword that Pushwagner’s world “is at once pleasurable to lose oneself in, fearsome in its amphetamine energy, frightening as an idea of reality, and comically scathing: an intricate no-way-out design in which even the sun is a spy.” —Caitlin Love

To anyone who’s asked, and to so many who haven’t, I’ve made it no secret that my favorite book from 2016 is Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot. The premise is convoluted: two orphans, Ruth and Nat, travel along the Hudson River Valley pretending to be mediums, until they mysteriously vanish. Fourteen years later, a very different Ruth—older, haggard-looking, mute—appears in the bedroom of her pregnant niece, Cora, and the two women embark on a grueling journey, again along the Hudson. Cora doesn’t know what the reason for this adventure is; she just follows. Ruth, after all, can’t talk, and therein lies the mystery. Hunt’s writing is beautiful and sharp and quiet; her Hudson Valley—a historically spiritual landscape—is fever-dreamy and gothic. The standout moments are delightfully spectacular: a gathering of meteorite-worshipping cultists snorting rails of Comet; a ghostly farce in which Captain Ahab, Huck Finn, and Lord Nelson engage each other in naval warfare at twilight on the Eerie Canal. It’s a book about spirits who so fiercely want to be seen, and about the gauntlet between pregnancy and motherhood. Mostly, it’s about the folly in our kneejerk quickness to explain away our ghosts. And so, Mr. Splitfoot continues to tap on my shoulder—oddly, sweetly. It’s insistent like that. I get the sense not only that its story will long linger with me, but also that perhaps—not unlike the phantoms that haunt its pages—it hopes to remain there, dogging my thoughts. —Daniel Johnson

I read several artful and surprising works of fiction in 2016, but as the year wore on I found myself turning to journalism and criticism instead. The fiction I was reading seemed to skirt the most urgent questions, failing to account for the swelling calamity and lacking consequential ideas about my own place within it. The summer issue of The Point included an editors’ note entitled “On Political Fiction,” which calls to account the contemporary American political novel for failing to disturb its liberal readership’s own troublesome ethics and assumptions, in part because of a simplistic insistence that the “basest and most violent elements in our society” are “alien and marginal” to normal American political life. The essay is a powerful argument for writers like George Saunders and Claudia Rankine, whose work is personal without being inbent and political without being righteous. “The political value of the imaginative writer,” the editors of The Point write, “[lies] in helping to close the gap between the emotional crosscurrents that swell beneath the surface of our political life.” Perhaps, then, the imperative of political writing in 2017 is less to “expose … ‘lies,’ ‘crimes’ or ‘iniquities’ ” than it is to puncture “the increasingly prevalent illusion that it is possible to wall ourselves off from the America that disappoints, frightens or disgusts us.” —Sylvie McNamara