The Year in Fiction (Vol. 99)
The Year in Fiction by Bruce Allen
In a year not notable for experimental or even particularly unconventional fiction, the most audacious production may well have been a straightforward retelling of one of the most familiar of all stories. Walter Wangerin Jr.'s The Book of God, subtitled "The Bible as a Novel," indeed reshapes the separate books of the Old and New Testaments (beginning with the story of Abraham) into a single continuous narrative that is distinguished—if such is the right word—by both reasonably crisp summary and description and numbingly anachronistic dialogue. Perhaps the best one can say of it is what Samuel Johnson said when comparing a woman preaching with a dog walking on its hind legs: "It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."
A rather more literary novel, Harry Mulisch's The Discovery of Heaven, grafts a plot that is quite literally made in heaven onto a richly observed exploration of intellectual and sexual kinship and rivalry. A celestial "Prologue" informs us that a disillusioned God intends to break His covenant with mankind and that angelic interference with the course of human events will produce a proto-human prodigy capable of fulfilling the divine will.
Mulisch depicts the working-out of this plan as the pattern that shapes the lives of astronomer Max Delius and linguist Onno Quist, the woman they both love, and the son she bears, in effect, to both of them. That chosen child, Quinten, is given an eerie hyperreality that's altogether convincing—as is this surpassingly dense novel's dramatic communication of the scholarly and theoretical matters that absorb its vividly drawn protagonists. In fact Harry Mulisch, an eminent Dutch writer previously best known for his superb novel The Assault, has here surpassed himself. The Discovery of Heaven was the year's most demanding work of fiction, and one of the most rewarding.
An equally learned novel, Palinoru of Mexico, introduced American readers to that country's forbiddingly erudite Fernando del Paso. He has here constructed a witty metafiction in which the metaphysical dimensions of medical (particularly, anatomical) study, political activism as self-creation, and the unruly relations among narrators, fictional characters, and their creators are explored at both exhausting and intriguing length. A difficult book whose extraordinary energy will likely win over even the most recalcitrant reader.
The most daunting American novel of 1996 was David Foster Wallace's gargantuan Infinite Jest. In braiding together the passions and fates of a family of semi-deranged over-achievers and the drug-addicted inhabitants of a clankingly symbolic halfway house, Wallace—whose previous fiction included the delightfully impudent and brainy Girl With Curious Hair—has achieved a synthesis of vivid realism and speculative fantasy that many have compared to work of his presumable mentors Pynchon and DeLillo, though one might also imagine Infinite Jest as the product of an unholy union between William Burroughs and J. D. Salinger. It's heavy going, but beautifully written, and its vision of a cockeyed America hellbent on the pursuit of pleasure has great power. And Wallace has the wit to make even a supplemental hundred pages' worth of "Notes and Errata" and essential and pleasurable component of the strange adventure this big book comprises.
John Edgar Wideman's The Cattle Killing revisits territory previously explored in his fiction ("Fever," Philadelphia Fire): an outbreak of plague in late-eighteenth century Philadelphia, and the consequent near-annihilation of that city's black population. This novel is a sequence of fragmentary, impressionistic images which suggest, but do not make clear, a connection between the confused wanderings of a nameless epileptic black preacher and a haunting tale (denoted by Wideman's title) of an African tribe misled into sacrificing the herd that constituted their livelihood. The novel is written in stark, accusatory prose that masterfully creates a tone of doom-laden sorrow, but its meanings are teasingly withheld, and the result is a work of unquestionable beauty that remains frustratingly opaque.
One of the most tireless experiments among American writers, John Hawkes, offered in The Frog a perversely elusive fable whose narrator actually has (accidentally) swallowed a frog and subsequently experienced a life of brief furtive pleasures and fulfillments truncated by setbacks which occur whenever his disturbed corporeality (as it were) rears its head. The novel's actions take place in an exquisitely rendered early twentieth-century French provincial setting, but God alone knows what it all means—and Hawkes doesn't offer the reader much help.
In John's Wife, however, Robert Coover put his mandarin postmodern energies to good use in an agreeably manic chronicle of Middle American social and sexual confusion. It takes place in a close-knit small town dominated by the eponymous John, whose successful construction business and bewitching (if essentially unknown, and unknowable) wife make him the envy of a vigorously evoked host of variously moonstruck, worshipful, and lust-besotted neighbors. Coover cleverly explores the psychic driving forces that propel them all toward a catastrophic comic denouement which says all that need ever be said about the intersection of Main Street with Sodom and Gomorrah. It's one of Coover's most abrasive and accomplished performances.
Steven Millhauser's Martin Dressler, a more robust counterpart to his delicately crafted and richly embroidered tales of dreamlike obsession, recounts in pleasingly plain, swift sentences the story of its title character's rise from cigar-store clerk to rich hotelier, and his fall (through an act of ill-considered overreaching) back to something like his humbly expectant origins. In fashioning a tale of capitalism and its discontents that also comprises a sly parable of the creative urge and its psychic ramifications, Millhauser has managed an unique hybrid: a book that might have been co-authored by Dreiser and Borges, and that both would surely have admired.
Once past some coy authorial posturing (i.e., is it or isn't it autobiography?), there's much to be enjoyed in Paul Theroux's "imaginary memoir" My Other Life, an ostensibly alternative version of the career and personal life of a successful writer who grew up in Massachusetts, served with the Peace Corps in Africa, taught school in various Far Eastern and other foreign climes, and published a number of books remarkably similar to those Paul Theroux has owned up to. Intermittent theorizing about the divided identity of the book's protagonist and author grows increasingly tedious, but as a lively narrative of adventures courted and relationships painfully endured and often mishandled, it achieves a nervy and almost unqualified success.
Three other established American novelists offered new installments of multivolume works in progress. The Flaming Corsage, novel number six in William Kennedy's popular "Albany Cycle," weaves skillfully backward and forward in time to explore the causes and consequences of its pivotal actions: a hotel fire and the related (and notorious) "Love Nest Killings"—particularly as they affect recurring character Francis Phelan, most familiar as the protagonist of the critically acclaimed Ironweed. This novel features some vigorous melodrama, and lively characterizations, especially of its male figures, but will be of only passing interest to those who haven't kept up with the Albany Cycle.
Tales of Burning Love continues Louise Erdrich's portrayals of Native American life (begun with Love Medicine) in and near Angus, North Dakota. This time her focus is on dysfunctional charmer Jack Mauser, a Chippewa Indian, who can't seem to avoid attracting women, and the four former wives (of the five he married) who together weave a faux-Chaucerian tapestry of remembrance about their experiences of his seductions and misdeeds. This is a vivid novel filled with extravagant comic (and, sometimes, serious) invention, and one of Erdrich's very best.
The most remarkable novel cycle of our time is unquestionably the late Henry Roth's autobiographical Mercy of a Rude Stream, begun in old age decades after the appearance of Roth's single masterpiece (Call It Sleep in 1934) and completed shortly before his death in 1995. The story of writer Ira Stigman, whose formative experiences are indistinguishable from the known facts of Henry Roth's life, reaches a furious crisis point in From Bondage, which concentrates on Ira's sexual liaisons with an older woman mentor, a female cousin, and his younger sister. It's an amazing book: a raw confessional howl of pain, rendered both as it is lived and as it's guiltily remembered, long afterward. A deeply personal work that nevertheless far transcends autobiographical catharsis.
Other well-known American novelists surfaced with surprisingly accomplished new works. One was Bruce Jay Friedman, whose wonderfully droll A Father's Kisses portrays a middle-aged poultry distributor turned gangland hit man with the rueful comic resignation that characterized such previous triumphs as Stern and A Mother's Kisses.
Another was Albert J. Guerard, the eminent critic and novelist (Night Journey, The Bystander) who in The Hotel in the Jungle constructs an energetic symbolic drama set in Mexico over a fractious half-century of cultural and political conflict and featuring a large cast of intertwined characters that includes fictional counterparts of poet Mina Loy and heavy-weight boxing champion Jack Johnson, and the notorious adventurer and malcontent William Walker. It's the sort of novel you can happily lose yourself in for several days.
John Updike's In the Beauty of the Lilies explores the comparative attractions and disappointments of the religious life and the fleshpots of Hollywood in an ambitious multigenerational portrayal of a New Jersey family that is, simultaneously, compulsively readable and clogged with intermittently tedious sociological detail.
Suspects is another of Thomas Berger's wry revelations of the dark underside of Middle American complacency. It's a murder mystery that blossoms into a beautifully plotted chain of coincidences, in which both the duplicitous souls of ordinary people and the bland inequities of law and order are presented with the irresistible deadpan understatement shared by such earlier delights as Sneaky People and The Feud. It's a pleasure to report that Berger's twentieth novel ranks among his most outrageously appealing.
Fred Chappell's Farewell, I'm Bound to Leave You revisits the rural North Carolina depicted in his best fiction for a backwoods portrait of the artist: recurring Chappell character Jess Kirkman. In recounting tales of embattled and indomitable women (that mainly concern courtship and marriage) told him by his mother and grandmother, Jess creates both a rich patchwork portrayal of a vanished culture and an intriguing revelation of the sources of his own inquiring and receptive sensibility. This beautifully written novel was one of the year's best.
It was a typical year for Joyce Carol Oates, who published a nondescript collection of generally overwrought short stories (Will You Always Love Me?); a rhetorically charged and ingeniously symbolic portrait of the corruption of preadolescent innocence (First Love); and, in We Were the Mulvaneys, one of the most accomplished and haunting of her twenty-six novels. It's a large-scaled chronicle of a wealthy and seemingly blessed upstate New York family undone by an act of sexual violence and the shock waves thus sent throughout its members' later lives. Oates's tendencies toward strident melodrama and empurpled sentences are as irritating as ever, but she takes us deeply inside the variously destroyed and self-destructive Mulvaneys, and renders with remorseless clarity the subtle permutations of character that make of people either victims or survivors. This is a consistently engrossing novel, and a very rewarding one.
Joan Didion's The Last Thing He Wanted, her first novel in twelve years, is a savvy political thriller which makes expert use of its author's celebrated reportorial skills. It's the story—told by herself, and also seen from differently involved other perspectives—of Elena McMahon, a disaffected journalist whose initially passive involvement in her late father's business propels her into an ungodly spiral of Cuban and Caribbean—and, perhaps, global—intrigue. This compact and resonant analysis of the inevitably political character of presumably unaffiliated lives constitutes a triumphant return to fiction for one of our finest essayists.
Among other new books from veteran novelists, the most notable included Louis Begley's marvelously urbane and incisive study of a priggish and pompous (and, for all that, likable) lawyer's complex late-middle age crisis (About Schmidt); E. Annie Proulx's vastly ambitious, and somewhat contrived double-edged paean to the American immigrant experience (Accordion Crimes); Joanna Scott's rich Gothic exploration of taxidermy as a metaphor for enclosure and stasis (The Manikin); Ron Hansen's affecting character study of a widowed Colorado rancher who must also bear, and somehow understand the loss of his wayward son (Atticus); and Padgett Powell's delicious Edisto Revisited, which returns to the eccentric South Carolina backwater and addled extended family relished, and suffered by Simons Manigault, the errantly maturing protagonist of his fine first novel Edisto. Not much happens in this sleepy, agreeable novel, but Padgett Powell's characters are pure pleasure to spend time with, even when they're only fretfully tolerating one another.
Among several variously accomplished second novels, the most interesting was Sherman Alexie's vividly written, passionately accusatory Native American murder mystery Indian Killer; Alfredo Vea Jr.s' invitingly chaotic tale of culture conflict, murder, and revolution in a vividly ethnically mixed-up San Francisco (The Silver Cloud Cafe); and Alan Isler's Kraven Images, a comic roundelay of sexual pursuit and conquest in a Bronx Jewish setting that effectively explores a rather more visceral dimension of the deracinated ethnic culture portrayed in his memorable debut novel The Prince of West End Avenue.
Gish Jen's Mona in the Promised Land followed her highly praised Typical American with its lively account of a Chinese-American family adrift in a chameleon-like America in which everybody seems to have roots in everybody else's nationality and ancestry. It's a highly entertaining example of a novel whose humor arises with perfect naturalness from its cleverly imagined core situation.
And Dale Peck's The Law of Enclosures diverges successfully from the knowing portrayal of gay life that distinguished his first novel Martin and John, in constructing a jagged and harrowing picture of a deeply troubled marriage. The characters of "Dale" (who tells the story), his alcoholic father Henry, and embittered mother Bea are three of the most painfully, sorrowfully real characters contemporary fiction has to offer.
Of the usual plethora of American first novels, the traditional coming-of-age tale took pleasingly various forms in Max Phillip's attractive recounting of preadolescent Nicky Wertheim's fixation on a beauteous "older woman" (Snakebite Sonnet); Alan Brown's thin but nicely imagined story of a young Japanese artist's fetishistic maturing (Audrey Hepburn's Neck); and Elizabeth McCracken's widely praised portrayal of a lonely woman librarian's unconventional relationship with a deformed eight-foot-tall teenaged boy (The Giant's House).
Even better was Geoffrey Becker's Bluestown, a charmingly bittersweet narrative about bright, sardonic Spencer Markus's bumpy adolescent relationship with his vagrant father, and later tribulations as a young adult befuddled by rock 'n' roll, the mysteries of women, and the irritating persistence of unwanted family ties. It's a delightful story, told in an engagingly fresh, lively voice.
Several less categorizable first novels included Todd Wiggins's calculatedly zany Zeitgeist, a Kerouacian and Pynchonesque satire on all manner of American complacency and myopia; and Daniel Akst's St. Burl's Obituary, an often hilarious picaresque featuring an adipose gourmand whose rude wit intensifies his awkward relations with both women and The Mob. This is the novel that the overpraised A Confederacy of Dunces should have been.
And Eric Darton's Free City, a clever fable of technology and commercialism run rampant, set in an unspecified (though vividly evoked) seventeenth-century European seaport city, mocks the grand designs of idealistic and mercenary souls alike in a zestfully epigrammatic period style that reminded me of Voltaire.
But the majority of the year's better first novels focussed on family relations. Antonya Nelson's Talking in Bed observes the chance intersection of two totally different unhappy families with a knowing blend of convincing domestic realism and thoughtful introspection. Christopher Tilghman's Mason's Retreat fashions a moving drama of incompatibility and its consequences out of the interactions of a long-troubled family obsessively drawn back to the Maryland Eastern Shore area so vividly depicted here, as also in his earlier short-story collection In a Father's Place.
Judson Mitcham's The Sweet Everlasting, written in a beautifully spare first-person voice that precisely suggests the hesitant character of its burdened narrator and protagonist, movingly relates the struggle of a semiliterate Georgia mill worker to rebuild the sustaining family life he had all but thrown away. Mitcham's stolid, stoical Ellis Burt was one of 1996's finest characterizations.
The closely linked stories of Allegra Goodman's The Family Markowitz comprise an affectionate and very funny group portrait of several generations of an American Jewish clan dominated by its aging matriarch Rose, which exfoliates expertly in detailing the familial and career conflicts that absorb her children and grandchildren and often center in the varying degrees of their commitment to orthodox Judaism.
The world of Diane McKinney-Whetstone's Tumbling is a Philadelphia neighborhood during the 1940s and 1950s and the orbit of a black family threatened by both urban upheaval and its members' imperfect, reluctant commitment to one another. This novel's thoroughly satisfying and believable resolution is the best single feature of a story that many readers will find impossible to forget.
In The River Beyond the World, acclaimed short-story writer Janet Peery created a rich double portrait; of a wealthy Texas matron and the Mexican servant woman whose romantic and sexual tribulations and embattled motherhood parallel, as they become entwined with, her own.
Marly Swick, another superb story writer, produced in Paper Wings a lyrical account of young Suzanne Keller's confused intimacy with her dreamy, remote mother—a memorable casualty of the cataclysmic social changes that followed the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy. Swick's unerring feel for the minute emotional shifts that accompany and underscore more visible family dynamics imbues her debut novel with the same delicacy and precision that distinguish her stories.
A number of fine first collections of short stories by American writers appeared in 1996. These included wry portrayals of middle class life and domestic discord in Erin McGraw's Lies of the Saints and Dean Albarelli's Cheaters; keen analyses of cultural difference and conflict along the Texas-Mexico border in Wendell Mayo's Centaur of the North; Kafkaesque tales of nightmarish personal struggles in Philip Graham's Interior Design and of the workaday world become the soulless future in George Saunder's Civil War Land in Bad Decline; and an eerie presentation of the complex symbiosis that binds together humans and animals in Brad Watson's intensely imaginative Last Days of the Dog-Men.
An almost Faulknerian empathy with the rootless wanderers and phlegmatically self-possessed inhabitants of northern California's mountain country distinguishes the vividly metaphoric stories of Roy Parvin's The Loneliest Road in America. The often violent and endangered lives of Dominican American refugees hopefully resettled in New York and New Jersey are explored with terse understatement in Junot Diaz's highly praised Drown. The varieties of romantic obsession vis-a-vis suburban angst are the abundantly suggestive matter of Paul Griner's Follow Me, a frustratingly uneven collection whose high points can bring you right up out of your chair.
And in one of the year's best debut collection, Same Place, Same Things, Louisiana's Tim Gautreaux surveys momems of decision and crisis conditions in the baffled lives of white Southern and Cajun protagonists whose imperfect intimacies with others evolve believably out of their own solipsism and wariness.
Character is subordinated to situation and incident in Jim Shepard's very satisfying Battling against Castro, a hair-raisingly varied volume of stories whose characters include sexually dysfunctional college football players, a suicidal suburbanite, an incompatible couple struggling to make it in a postnuclear America, and a science-fiction freak whose hobby somehow sustained him through a painful childhood. Jim Shepard has the talent to make the unrelentingly bizarre entirely credible.
Short fiction from veteran writers included the compassionate and borderline-sentimental portrayals of separation anxiety and compromised fidelity in Andre Dubus's Dancing After Hours; intelligent analyses of wealthy and complacent families tested by divorce and the pangs of parenthood in Roxana Robinson's Asking for Love; and a beguiling further view of the scattershot emotional life of Ellen Gilchrist's recurring character Nora Jane Whittington (among other, similarly bittersweet portrayals of addled souls who might all be her second cousins) in The Courts of Love.
John Barth offered more of his trademark self-reflexive metafictions in On With the Story, an intricate and amusing collection that nevertheless seems scarcely distinguishable from the contents of his Lost in the Funhouse nearly thirty years ago.
Robert Olen Butler produced in Tabloid Dreams a smartly conceived set of tales inspired by National Enquirer—like kitsch and salaciousness ("Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover" is typical), but the stories' execution only intermittently lives up to their seductive premises.
Attention-getting premises also dominate the tense, menacing stories—many set in or redolent of the worlds of drug abuse and trafficking—of Edward Falco's Acid. And in The Night in Question Tobias Wolff further explores the disorienting experiences of maturing under pressure in fragmented families or the hermetic unreality of military service, and of helplessly confronting the facts of one's own solitude and mortality. The title story, "The Other Miller," and "Firelight" are on a par with the best stories Wolff has written.
The disappointed and regretful depths of everyday lives are keenly analyzed in Distant Friends and Intimate Strangers, a welcome second collection from Louisianan Charles East (whose only previous book of stories appeared in 1965). "A Perfect Day," "Man of the House," and "Days of Our Lives" are quietly convincing examples of the resonance this very underrated writer extracts from apparently ordinary people and situations.
Andrea Barrett's Ship Fever (which won a 1996 National Book Award) offers, in its seven unusually textured stories and its brilliant title novella, an enormously rich investigation into lives ruled by, and expressive of, the spirit of scientific inquiry. The experiences and examples of Linnaeus, Mendel, and Darwin among others are counter-pointed against discoveries about the material world and themselves made by disciples of such touchstone figures—particularly by women who have been discouraged from exercising their intellects. A superb and endlessly suggestive collection; easily the year's best.
Flying Home, a posthumous collection of early (1937–54) stories by the late Ralph Ellison, forms a welcome pendant, if not a worthy counterpart, to the enduring achievement of his classic novel Invisible Man. With the single exception of the graphic and powerful title piece, these stories are, variously, melodramatic, derivative, or inchoate. The volume's greatest value is its gathering together of rough materials that would later be magically reshaped into segments of Invisible Man—and it is also graced by editor and Ellison scholar John F. Callahan's informative and moving "Introduction."
Another essential American writer, Gina Berriault, was represented by Women in Their Beds, an omnibus collection of thirty-five precisely observed and hauntingly intimate portrayals of men, women, and children stunned into paradoxical acknowledgement of both their inescapable connections to others and their ultimate loneliness. Familiar stories like "The Stone Boy" and "The Infinite Passion of Expectation" are matched by such previously uncollected standouts as the subtly mocking "A Dream of Fair Women" and the collection's unforgettably astringent title story. Not enough people know it yet, but Gina Berriault is one of the masters.
Another of them, Canada's Mavis Gallant, offered in her Collected Stories a dazzlingly rich retrospective of fifty-two stories (a half-century's work) which evoke with firm clarity and generous detail the discoveries and compromises of (mainly Parisian) expatriate life and the varied and traumatizing legacy of World War II. Prominent among this big book's many delights are Gallant's brilliant autobiographical "Linnet Muir" stories, and also an informative "Preface" in which she charmingly pre-empts outside analysis of her unique and surely lasting oeuvre.
Several other Canadian writers produced some of the year's best fiction. Brian Moore's The Statement is a superbly crafted story, both thriller and moral drama, about the hunt, forty years following the war, for a former Vichy regime operative and Nazi collaborator who is sought, for various reasons, by his enemies and colleagues alike. Dialogue, action, and remembrance are seamlessly interwoven in this engrossing tale, which actually surpasses such earlier successes in this vein as Lies of Silence and No Other Love. As pure narrative, this was perhaps the year's best novel.
Indian-born Rohinton Mistry reached far beyond his previous work in the ambitious A Fine Balance, a sumptuously detailed portrait of four impoverished protagonists struggling to survive during Indira Gandhi's indifferent rule. This provocative and deeply felt novel falters only when Mistry's knowing vignettes of the teeming life that surrounds his principal characters usurps our interest and relegates them to the story's background.
Funny Boy, a superb first novel by Shyam Selvadurai, skillfully combines an account of its gay young narrator's coming-out and coming-of-age in its author's native Sri Lanka with a sober and deeply disturbing picture of violent rivalry between indigenous Tamil (Hindu) and Sinhalese (Buddhist) adherents. In its firm command of tone, and virtuosic blending of comic and serious materials, this is a very accomplished debut.
Veteran writer Margaret Atwood offered her finest novel yet in Alias Grace, a devious and fascinating reconstruction of a notorious nineteenth-century Toronto murder case. In presenting the puzzle of Grace Marks, an articulate and reserved servant girl whose complicity in the murders of her employer and his mistress remains teasingly in question throughout, Atwood has created an ingenious mystery, a meticulously detailed picture of Victorian Canada, and a witty commentary on the fates doled out to women who won't accommodate men's fantasies about them. She has never written better.
Arguably Canada's most distinguished export, Alice Munro was seen at her spectacular best in an ample Selected Stories drawn from such rapturously praised collections as The Moons of Jupiter and Friend of My Youth. These complex, often novella-length portrayals of usually) Ontario women obsessed by both the actual and potential lives they may have lived and men they may have loved, or at least endured, are among the best short fiction of our time. The best of this volume's contents include "The Progress of Love," "A Wilderness Station," and the unforgettably Chekhovian "Carried Away"—but not one may safely be skipped.
Munro's only rival, in this reviewer's opinion, for the title of best living short story writer is the Anglo-Irish William Trevor, whose After Rain contains twelve more superlative examples of his understated analyses of stunted or threatened sheltered lives. A solitary woman discovering her true nature while vacationing in Italy, a blind piano tuner at the mercy of his combative former and present wives, and a doting mother unwilling to acknowledge her beloved son's violent criminality are prominent among the damaged yet somehow resilient souls whose strategies for remaining, and feeling alive are so memorably portrayed in Trevor's consistently brilliant fiction.
The popular Irish novelist Roddy Doyle achieved in The Woman Who Walked Into Doors a success of a somewhat different sort from that enjoyed by his roughhouse-comic Barrytown Trilogy. This is the story of an abused housewife, Paula Spencer, whose feisty defiance of her brutish husband is narrated with Doyle's characteristically exhilirating vulgarity, and builds into a stunning and moving characterization of a weary survivor whose strength amazes her as much as it impresses us.
Another fine novel from Ireland, John B. Keane's The Ram of God, tells the vivid tale of a rural village unsettled by the complicated rivalry among a lapsed cleric eager to rebuild his wasted life, his unregenerate twin brothers, and the scheming matron who means to bend them all to her will and ensure her erring daughters' respectability. Keane skillfully combines a stinging satire on traditional Hibernian pieties with a rousingly entertaining old-fashioned melodrama.
Even more variety was displayed in fiction from Scottishborn authors. Alison Fell's The Pillow Boy of the Lady Onogoro, for example, concocts a hilarious fantasy of female resourcefulness and survival in her richly imagined tale of an eleventh-century Japanese woman fulfilled and empowered by stories told her (during lovemaking) by a blind stableboy. A brilliantly mischievous variation on the Arabian Nights, and one of the year's most inventive fictions.
A History Maker offered another invigorating infusion of Alasdair Gray's truculent metafiction, in an enchantingly wild and crazy narrative of clan warfare set in a dystopian twenty-third century and featuring both a thick-headed Samson and his beguiling Delilah, and a generous sprinkling of Gray's medieval-surrealist illustrations. I don't quite know what to call it, but whatever it is, it's wonderful.
Shena Mackay's The Orchard on Fire, which was nominated for Britain's Booker Prize, is the beautifully imagined story, told from the vantage point of her subdued adulthood, of an eight-year-old girl's summer of innocence besieged by her wary relations with family, a new best friend, and a sexually predatory neighbor. It's a convincingly realistic and paradoxically reassuring picture of the peculiar resiliency of childhood, and a fine introduction to the work of a writer whom many have labelled one of today's best.
1996 saw the U.S. publication of two books by Scotland's scabrous bard of heroin addiction and calculated sociopathy, Irvine Welsh. Ecstasy collects three short novels that show no advance beyond such predecessors as his superb "rave" of a novel Marabou Stork Nightmares (though the x-rated courtship recounted in "The Undefeated" is a partial exception). But Welsh's debut novel Trainspotting (first published in 1993) is a one-of-a-kind winner: a fragmented, accusatory, ingeniously slangy portrait of Edinburgh's don't-give-a-damn drug culture that virtually bursts with energy and creates a burnt-out protagonist whose very hopelessness elicits our intrigued empathy.
Prominent among several fine first novels from England were Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Kate Atkinson's rudely comic multigenerational chronicle of a daft Yorkshire family whose members are slightly more worldly versions of the memorable rustic monsters of Stella Gibbon's Cold Comfort Farm; John Lanchester's urbane portrait (in The Debt to Pleasure) of a superbly arrogant gourmet whose meandering "culinary reflections" brilliantly tell the story of a uniquely insular life; and John Derbyshire's Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream, a marvelously winning tale of a Chinese immigrant's infatuation with America, temptation to relive the passions of his youth, and eventual détente with his new country and his formidable wife. It's a charmer.
Among their countrymen, veteran writers of comparatively recent vintage produced several unusually interesting novels. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, for one, tells the involving and intricately detailed story of a lovestruck young English industrialist's grand passion and life-changing battle experiences in First World War Europe, in a splendidly romantic narrative reminiscent of, and in many ways equal to, A Farewell to Arms.
Tim Binding's A Perfect Execution is a risk-taking symbolic novel whose opaque hero struggles to reconcile his seemingly destined occupation as a merciful hangman with a less manageable personal life that values making choices and acknowledging priorities more than simple compassion. It's occasionally floridly written, but Binding's central character is a memorable figure indeed. And Paul Bryar's In a Pig's Ear constructs a devilishly witty portrayal of political, sexual, and artistic energies spent under the shadow of a briskly rendered generic Europe after Hitler. Bryar's narrator and antihero Milan (perhaps a homage to Kundera?) explores the mock-Arthurian dimensions of his own adventurous quests with a sophisticated deadpan obliquity that in fact resembles nothing more than one of that eminent Czech writer's understated récits.
Another younger British writer, Will Self, continued his conte cruel-like satires on contemporary deracination and ennui in the nine abrasive, borderline-surrealistic stories of Grey Area—at least one of which, "Inclusion," envisions the future potential of drug therapy with a comic ferocity that Mr. Self's peer and frere semblable Martin Amis undoubtedly envies.
Sara Maitland's Angel Maker collects thirty forthright and admirably varied stories which at their best (as in "Cassandra" and "The Witching Times") explore woman's fate as preserved in a rich matrix of history and legend, and at their weakest succumb to strident protofeminist argumentation.
Maitland's obvious mentor, the late Angela Carter, was a grand mistress of such associative juxtapositions, as is triumphantly evinced by Burning Your Boats, a marvelous omnibus volume containing forty-two of her enchantingly overripe fabulistic confections. "The Bloody Chamber," "The Fall River Axe Murders," and "Our Lady of the Massacre," among many others, reinvent our known world with a Gothic facility and outrageousness that, to be sure, turns away many readers at the outset. But if you take even a single step inside Angela Carter's seductively deranged world, you won't be able to stop reading her.
Three long-established British novelists published books that compare favorably with their best. Anita Brookner's Incidents in the Rue Laugier records an earnest young woman's Parisian encounters with two very different men who attract and, to differing degrees, disappoint her in an economical and rigidly controlled narrative much in the manner of her master Henry James, and reminiscent of both his The American and The Portrait of a Lady.
Beryl Bainbridge's Every Man for Himself, the best of the year's several books memorializing the "Titanic" disaster, retells the familiar story from the viewpoint of a fictional nephew of financier J. P. Morgan with an elliptical surehandedness that packs an enormous amount of life (and not a little social comedy and satire) into eloquent brief compass.
Graham Swift's Last Orders, the current Booker Prize winner, conclusively demonstrates the continuing vitality of the traditional realistic novel in its masterly interweaving of the relationships of several men thrown into friendship by their experience of the Second World War, and both tested and transformed when the death of one of them brings the survivors together, many years later, for his funeral. The characters, so alike on the surface, are expertly distinguished, and the potentially dreary and trite details of their families' interactions are made fresh by the force of Swift's elegiac respect for their simple persistence and endurance. This is a very moving story.
Three other eminent writers offered work a bit below their usual level. A. S. Byatt's Babel Tower, the third in her cycle of novels featuring presumable alter ego Frederica Potter, finds that character adrift in the 1960s London literary world and involved in two elaborately detailed courtroom dramas. It's willfully Dickensian, and it's a bit much. Iris Murdoch's Jackson's Dilemma, her twenty-sixth country-house romantic comedy, focusses on a versatile manservant whose efficiency is interpreted by the several lovers and beloveds through whose orbits he treads as evidence of his magical, perhaps divine nature. It's very swiftly done, and it feels both hurried and rather thin.
Doris Lessing's Love, Again analyzes the emotional and intellectual life of sixty-five-year-old Sarah Durham, a theater manager who becomes infatuated, and to some extent involved with two adoring younger men. Sarah's late-life magnetism must be taken pretty much on faith, but Lessing probes her reawakened spirit skillfully, and offers, in the subplot story of a beautiful woman musician whose life Sarah researches, a haunting image of passions unslaked that continually threatens to take center stage, as it were, and is far more compelling that the main character's story.
Finally, two superb novels from two of the world's finest writers. Guyana's Roy Heath produced in The Shadow Bride a brilliant chronicle of an idealistic doctor's pursuit of his own moral nature, in the face of his possessive mother's determined domination of him. Indian-born Betta Singh's dedication to improving the lives of workers exploited by a notorious sugar plantation makes for a gripping story in its own right, though it pales beside Heath's magnificent delineation of the grasping Mrs. Singh. A well-meaning woman who cannot resist the urgings of her own hunger to belong and to control, she is one of the most unusual, and greatest, characters in contemporary fiction.
And in The Moor's Last Sigh, Salman Rushdie created an epic polyglot comedy fully worthy of comparison to his earlier masterpieces Midnight's Children and Shame. This exuberantly inventive novel depicts the common (and, for that matter, uncommon) fornmes of a Portuguese woman folk painter, her Indian Jewish multibillionaire husband, and their doomed son (who, in the book's boldest magical-realist stroke, ages at twice the speed of a normal human), the story's sardonic and eloquent narrator, with a captivating word-drunk velocity that elevates even its melodramatic excesses to the level of gorgeous fireworks. Rushdie's third great novel is a hymn to cultural and ethnic assimilation, and an unanswerable rebuke to the separatist fanatics who demand his death. This novel ensures his immortality. And it goes, as they say, without saying that it was the richest and most rewarding fiction of the year just past.