The Year in Fiction (Vol. 119)
The Year in Fiction by Bruce Allen
Some of the most interesting American fiction of 1998 came to us from writers who haven't been heard from in some time, or belong to an earlier time. The classic—quite literally, classic—example was Eudora Welty, now in her ninety-first year, and long since acknowledged as one of the irreplaceable masters of the American short story.
Welty's well-loved oeuvre has now been enshrined in the invaluable Library of America, which published in matching volumes her Complete Novels and Stories, Essays, and Memoir. The first of this pair restores to print Welty's five limpid long fictions, including her high-spirited homage to both Mark Twain and the Southern regionalist storytellers The Robber Bridegroom, her deft comic monologue The Ponder Heart, and that still unsurpassed modest epic of byzantine family relations Losing Battles—as well as Welty's virtually unclassifiable The Golden Apples, an incredibly rich collection of linked stories that blends folk comedy with classical mythology in a manner perhaps matched only by Faulkner's unconventionable masterpiece The Hamlet.
The Stories volume of course contains the famous tales initially gathered in her breakthrough collections Curtain of Green and The Wide Net, along with a number of later stories which at their best vividly dramatize the tension that animates all of Welty's work: the individual's conflicting desires to blend safely into the shelter of a nurturing family or community versus the wish to light out independently in search of more varied experience and knowledge. The whole arc of Welty's long career (which in effect ended, it seems, a quarter-century ago) displays her remarkably consistent imaginative power and stylistic mastery—nowhere more evident than in such early triumphs as "Why I Live at the P. O.," "Petrified Man," "The Wide Net," and "A Worn Path." These, and many of their companion stories, are the work of a great American writer.
The late Henry Roth's serial autobiographical novel Mercy of a Rude Stream continued in (its fourth installment) Requiem for Harlem, in which Ira Stigman (Roth's obvious doppelganger) recounts his student years at New York's City College, frustrating relationships with both his teacher and mistress Edith Welles (a fascinating fictional simulacrum of feminist intellectual Eda Lou Walton) and the sister and cousin whom he has incestuously loved, and increasing alienation from the family he credits only with stifling him. In old age, Henry Roth scrutinized with unflinching intensity the patchwork character of his early self—distinguished as much by egocentricity and hypocrisy as by artistic diligence and courage—and the uneven though irresistibly compelling result is a portrait of the artist unlike any other in our literature.
Hubert Selby Jr.'s place in contemporary fiction is assured by his blistering anatomy of inner-city despair Last Exit to Brooklyn—fortunately so, in view of Selby's latest novel (and first in twelve years) The Willow Tree, a fulsome recounting of a vengeful black teenager saved from his own rage by an improbably saintly concentration-camp survivor. It's a bathetic, totally unconvincing amalgam of "West Side Story" and Edward Lewis Wallant's The Pawnbroker. Only for Selby's most fervent admirers.
James Purdy was in rather better form with Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue, another of this uniquely subversive writer's deceptively simple stories about unprepossessing "ordinary" people discovering the unsounded depths in their human connections and experiences and in themselves. Moving echoes of Purdy's fine early novel The Nephew surface frequently throughout the story of Midwesterner Carrie Kinsella's search to understand why her daughter Gertrude, a talented artist, took her own life. In so doing, the formerly submissive Carrie achieves a transformative independence which is subtly heightened by a tissue of suggestive allusions linking carrie's quest with the classical myth of Demeter and Persephone. Purdy's first book in a decade is one of his best.
Veteran novelist (and Presbyterian minister) Frederick Buechner made a dazzling return to fiction with The Storm: a witty romance which relocates Shakespeare's The Tempest at an upper-class resort, Plantation Island, just off the Florida coast. This novel's (all quite likable) characters include an aging writer, Kenzie Maxwell, "exiled" to this demi-paradise in the wake of a sexual scandal (he's Buechner's Prospero); Kenzie's virginal daughter "Bree" (a very Miranda); wealthy spinster Violet Sickert (the witch Sycorax); an Ariel, a Caliban, and any number of visiting characters—all invited to Kenzie's seventieth birthday party, and disturbed by the storm that climaxes the story—each of them "endlessly trying,… like … [Kenzie], to find where they really belonged." Their efforts and cross-purposes cohere in a dazzling entertainment that was one of the year's least noticed and most accomplished novels.
Another unexpected pleasure came to us from Oakley Hall, the highly praised author of such near-classic Western novels as Warlock and The Bad Lands. Hall's Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades is a deliciously convoluted caper involving the choleric satirist and magazine editor (and self-appointed to "sworn enemy of piffle") and his stalwart apprentice Tom Redmond in a murder investigation complicated by stock fraud, endangered (and dangerous) women, closets positively bulging with skeletons, and a cast of slippery villains that Stephen King and even Sax Rohmer might envy. Great fun, manipulated for maximum comic-melodramatic effect by a very skillful old pro.
James Wilcox's agreeable fictional world of Tula Springs, Louisiana (which hamlet has spawned such splendid comic novels as Modern Baptists and Sort of Rich) was once again heard from, in Plain and Normal. This is the enjoyably sprawling story of transplanted Southerner Lloyd Norm's ongoing midlife crisis in New York City, where the stresses of being an attractive unattached male who's gay are exacerbated by people who keep insisting Lloyd must be straight, and others (including his ex-wife) resolved to find him a boyfriend. One of the droll Mr. Wilcox's funniest and finest books.
The millennium, and all the expectations attending it, provide rich comic matter for Maureen Howard's ironical and hopeful A Lover's Almanac. It's a portrayal of the relationship between two well-meaning people—artist Louise Moffett and computer graphics-meister Artie Freeman—as the unruly passage of time (that is, the new century approaching) pressures them to think about commitment and stability. This is a daunting hodgepodge of a book, juxtaposing (sometimes stentorian} authorial commentary with really rather sweet romantic folderol, and snippets of its characters' and the century's pasts arranged in a collage structure similar to the one Howard employed so successfully in her brilliant historical novel Natural History. A Lover's Almanac is a lesser book, but it's still a hearty, stylish, and entertaining rebuff to the cynics and doomsayers.
Readers who appreciate Maureen Howard's urbanity won't want to miss The Smithsonian Institution, professional curmudgeon Gore Vidal's savvy amalgamation of political satire and time-travel romance. It's the story of "T." (not otherwise identified), a charismatic adolescent mathematical whiz who's whisked away from his Washington prep school and into the title institution (in 1939), and thence into both America's past and its potentially catastrophic future (which the sapient T., contriving "to enter time at the right point and alter history," ingeniously averts). Delightfully humane and funny—and, for this author, quite surprisingly avuncular. The year's most sophisticated entertainment.
Joyce Carol Oates's My Heart Laid Bare, her twenty-eighth novel and the latest installment in her ongoing "Gothic Quintet" (begun with Bellefleur) devoted to mischievous reinvention of American history, tells the defiantly tall tale of turn-of-the-century confidence man Abraham Licht and his variously blighted children and descendants. The Lichts' mastery of criminal impersonation, fraud (which takes several very amusing forms), and murder blandly skewers the self-righteous gelling and spending that underlie American enterprise and ingenuity. And Oates manages the difficult trick of dexterously mingling broad satiric comedy with far more serious material in the novel's bleak climactic pages, in which Abraham's black adopted son Elisha strikes out on his own, with dramatic unforeseen consequences.
This is probably the most skillfully plotted of all Oates's novels, and its resonant mockery of the tireless acquisitive energies of both Abraham Licht and his cohorts and victims makes it both a partial departure from and an interesting counterpart of her more overtly "serious" contemporary fiction.
Another of our most prolific and esteemed writers, John Updike likewise returned to familiar material with a third (and, it seems likely, the last) collection of related stories Bech at Bay (following Bech: A Book and Bech is Back) featuring his (distantly related) fictional alter ego: "semi-obscure" American Jewish novelist Henry Bech. This ineffably wry guided tour of the resilient egoist's supposedly declining years shows us Henry Bech on a disastrous European cultural tour ("Bech in Czech"), confronting his literary peers ("Bech Presides"), and—having fortuitously mastered computer skills—dispatching obnoxious critics ("Bech Noir"). Finally, in his seventies, the aging reprobate gratefully accepts both the blessings of fatherhood and the ultimate literary accolade ("Bech and the Bounty of Sweden"). Witty and ingratiating, if ever so slightly sentimental, this is one of the most winning of Updike's recent books.
Philip Roth, whose recent novels Sabbath's Theater and American Pastoral rank among the best of the decades came back to earth with I Married a Communist. This awkwardly mixed bag of a book offers a scathing indictment of the McCarthy years in its core story about the rise and fall of conflicted leftist intellectual (and radio celebrity) Ira Ringold—as observed and in retrospect recorded by recurring (Roth-like) Roth character, novelist Nathan Zuckerman. The novel is filled with bracingly articulate and driven personalities (Ira's older brother Murray, a valiant lifelong radical, is a particularly wonderful one), but submerged by its frequent recourse to partisan rant, and further marred by a subplot detailing Ira's bitter estrangement from his actress ex-wife (a relationship that bears uncomfortable resemblances to Roth's own notoriously unhappy one with actress Claire Bloom). The novel bristles with energy, but its declarative fervor overpowers its comedy and drama alike, making this one of its author's least convincing books.
I was also surprised, if not precisely disappointed, by Cities of the Plain, the concluding volume of Cormac McCarthy's almost universally praised "Border Trilogy" (whose earlier volumes are All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing). For this novel brings together the earlier books' surviving protagonists, John Grady Cole and Billy Parham. We first meet them in 1952 when they're working as hired hands on a New Mexico cattle ranch. A borderline-lugubrious plot details the inevitable working-out of John Grady's hopeless love for an epileptic Mexican prostitute, but the novel's larger fatalism—expressed in McCarthy's superbly laconic descriptions of men and nature at work and at war with one another and in a chilling extended description of the hunt for a pack of murderous wild dogs—inspires numerous passages of somber beauty and primal (almost primeval) power. Cities of the Plain is not in itself a masterpiece, but the Border Trilogy unquestionably is something very like one.
Nobel laureate Toni Morrison produced her first novel since being awarded the Prize in 1993. Paradise is a deeply confrontational story which begins in the 1970s, with a dramatic account of the murder of a group of women who occupy a former convent on the outskirts of the Oklahoma town of Ruby, built and ruled by an insular community of black people descended from the freedmen who had originally settled the area in the aftermath of the Civil War, and slavery. Morrison's complex, challenging piecemeal narrative surveys both the history of Ruby (and the settlement that preceded it, pointedly named Haven) and the individual stories of the fugitive "women who chose themselves for company," thus incurring the wrath of a patriarchal society convinced of its own rectitude—and symbolizing (perhaps a bit too blatantly) the plight of people doomed to be reviled and persecuted because they are perceived as, simply, "different." If its ironies are thus unremarkable, Paradise nevertheless in every other way provokes, stimulates, and rewards readers willing to stay its often harrowing course. One of Morrison's most interesting works.
Other rewarding explorations of the black experience included John Edgar Wideman's Two Cities, a brooding story of the ever-exfoliating damage done by urban street violence (in the familiar Wideman terrains of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia), and the difficult road to recovery traveled by a woman numbed by loss and grief, and hesitant to keep loving and losing those she loves. But the novel's real center—and its triumph—is the vividly realized figure of Mallory, an elderly black photographer whose collection (and as it happens, legacy) of images of his people's sufferings constitutes an alternative, redemptive social history. Less knotted and obfuscatory than much of Wideman's recent fiction, this an unusually lucid and gripping novel.
The Healing, the first novel in twenty years from the highly acclaimed Gayl Jones (whose Corregidora and Eva's Man were among the best fiction of the 1970s), will unfortunately be forever linked with the incident—occurring almost exactly at the time of its publication—in which a confrontation with police ended in her husband's death and Jones's own hospitalization. For The Healing is a rich, complex, and affirmative novel: the story of a woman faith healer who makes her way through the maze of contemporary American race relations, gradually surpassing the expectations of her family and lovers, and coming into a hard-won, gratifying intellectual and emotional maturity.
An interesting analogue to Jones's novel is Charles Johnson's Dreamer, which examines the life and mission of Martin Luther King Jr. in a highly imaginative way: through the experiences and changes undergone by Chaym Smith, a rootless Korean War veteran whose close physical resemblance to the Civil Rights leader enables and obliges him to "stand in" for—in a way, to become—King. Johnson skillfully transforms a high fictional concept that might easily have produced little more than fictionalized argument into an absorbing human drama.
Similar skill is displayed in New Journalist Tom Wolfe's much-ballyhooed A Man in Full. This is a consciously Dickensian panorama (with perhaps a rakish tip of the cap in the direction of John Dos Passos) of the New South (capital letters seem unavoidable when discussing Wolfe) in extremis. The story of Atlanta real estate mogul (and former football star) Charlie Croker's plunge into near-bankruptcy, vis-a-vis his city's maneuverings to defuse a sexual and racial scandal, is neatly counterpointed against the histories of a black attorney accused of turning his back on "his people" and a white factory employee victimized by "downsizing" and in pursuit of a most unusual revenge. A cornucopia of specific detail and a blistering series of comic scenes satirizing virtually every known contemporary fad make Wolfe's Deep South Satyricon both a work of considerably sophisticated art and a very entertaining whopper.
A rather different image of the complexity of present-day America emerges in Gain, the fifth novel from the outrageously gifted Richard Powers (whose earlier novels, including Prisoner's Dilemma and The Gold Bug Variations, have been favorably compared to the best work of De Lillo and Pynchon). What's most remarkable about Gain is its even-handed presentation of both the life of a woman (Laura Bodey) struggling with cancer and the history of a chemical company (Clare International) responsible for loosing the carcinogens that have caused her condition. No villains or heroes here; rather a highly informed and searching analysis of relationships among society, "big business," and the individual citizen. Another dazzling addition to an already remarkable body of work.
Powers's grasp of such relationships is matched, on an even wider scale, by the much admired Robert Stone, whose Damascus Gate tells the compellingly intricate story of an American Journalist (Christopher Lucas) in Jerusalem at a time (the early 1990s) when sufferers from what Lucas ironically calls "Jerusalem Syndrome" are thrown together into a skillfully related series of actions which vividly dramatize both the healing and the destructive consequences of religious commitment. Echoes of Stone's earlier A Flag for Sunrise, Graham Greene's flinty studies of adventurers adrift in volatile foreign lands, and even Dostoevsky's definitive portrayals of political and religious mania in The Possessed, as well as several brilliantly complex characterizations, make this one of Stone's most challenging and satisfying novels.
Barbara Kingsolver produced her best novel yet in The Poisonwood Bible, the story—told by its women members—of an American missionary family's ordeal in Africa (the Belgian Congo) during the 1960s, when African independence movements confronted both internal military dictatorship and interference from both Europe and America.
Kingsolver's fascinating novel combines an authoritative picture of African village life with resonant characterizations of the women who idealize, follow, and eventually separate themselves from zealous Baptist missionary Nathan Price: his embittered wife Orleanna and their four daughters, two of whom—"retarded" (actually hemiplegic) Adah, who lives in her own world of subversive intellectual ferment, and headstrong Rachel, who raises malapropism to hilarious new heights—are among the most memorable characters Kingsolver has ever created. One can make a strong case for The Poisonwood Bible as 1998's best American novel.
Other worthwhile novels by well-known American women included Cavedweller, a richly imagined tale of mothers and daughters finding independence both away from and within family relations, from Dorothy Allison (author of the very popular Bustard Out of Carolina); Cathleen Schine's witty exploration (The Evolution of Jane) of a woman biologist whose discoveries in the Galapagos Islands (the site of Charles Darwin's most famous travels) throw revealing light on her own personal relations; Alice McDermott's National Book Award-winning Charming Billy, a simultaneously warmhearted and incisive portrayal of an Irish-American family sustained and divided by the way it remembers, and reinvents its history; and Susan Minot's graceful rendering (Evening) of a dying woman's memories of the "accidents'—and the early love—that shaped her later life and marriage.
Allegra Goodman followed her critically acclaimed Total Immersion and The Family Markowitz with the equally accomplished Kaaterskill Falls, a generously funny and often moving large scale portrayal of several New York Jewish families brought together and separated by the imperatives of orthodoxy during the summers they spend in tense close proximity at an upstate New York resort. And Jane Hamilton surpassed her much admired A Map of the World with The Short History of a Prince, a wonderfully empathetic delineation of a gay man's painstaking and courageous adaptation to the facts of his own sexuality—and sensibility, and to his (deftly characterized) disapproving and loving family. A slowly paced, almost stately novel, but a consistently absorbing one.
Other veteran novelists offered new work essentially similar to that for which we already know them. Reynolds Price's Roxanna Slade, the sympathetic study of a Southern woman's life, though it's less fully plotted, essentially resembles his award-winning Kate Vaiden. Leaving Small's Hotel continues Erie Kraft's endearing chronicles of the (now midlife) adventures of his presumably autobiographical series hero, Long Islander Peter Leroy, and the latter's formidably competent wife Albertine. Having reached fifty, Peter is now writing his (irresistibly comic) memoirs. Eric Kraft's admirers will be hoping his dead-pan alter ego stays around long enough to gather much more such likable personal history.
The newest installment in Donald Harington's series of comic novels about the lively hamlet of Stay More, Arkansas, When Angels Rest, is an unfortunately sluggish coming-of-age tale set on the home front during World War II. But Jim Harrison's believably complex history of a conflicted Nebraska family The Road Home effectively picks up and amplifies the story initiated by his well-received Dalva. And Rick Bass's Where the Sea Used to Be reshapes his earlier novella of the same name into a powerful family drama that pits a young geologist's environmentalist ideals against the hardbitten pragmatism of his mentor, a taciturn oil-driller.
In The Half-Life of Happiness, John Casey offers an exhaustive (and occasionally oppressive) analysis of a family traumatized, then soberly matured by divorce. Alison Lurie's The Last Resort examines the partners in a moribund middle-aged marriage as they briefly go their separate ways—and recharge their romantic batteries—while vacationing in Key West. David Gates's Preston Falls explores with wry intensity the psyche of a deeply private public relations man whose temporary flight from his career and marriage becomes an unanticipated adventure in self-understanding.
Louis Begley's fifth novel Mistler's Exit reveals, in a skillfully paced and subtly understated extended meditation, its wealthy protagonist's gradual acknowledgement of the egoism and rapacity that have assured both his worldly success and his very personal failings. Tim O'Brien's rather less polished Tomcat in Love likewise offers a vivid warts-and-all portrayal of a seriously flawed protagonist: in this case, an unapologetic erotomaniac whose gross solipsism eventually becomes both curiously winning and refreshingly comic.
Mary Gordon's Spending: A Utopian Divertimento rings amusing new changes on her fiction's preoccupation with Catholic families in the impudent history of Monica Szabo a middleaged artist whose forthright interpretations of "pos-torgasmic" Christ figures earns her both public oppobrium and an invigorating renewal of her personal sexuality. And John Irving's plummy A Widow for One Year narrates with oldfashioned (if sexually explicit) charm the parallel stories of a famous woman novelist whose life and work are shaped by a heritage of unhappiness and of the rival novelist whose life is continually, frustratingly intertwined with hers. Though it's much too long, this is an unusually interesting dramatization of the way writers manage to make art out of the chaos of their lives.
Though it's only Brian Morton's second novel, Starting Out in the Evening depicts with great assurance the New York literary world of the 1940s and '50s as it is recalled by Lawrence Schiller, an aging (Henry Roth-like) novelist himself recalled imperfectly to life by the young woman scholar who believes he alone has understood her life. It's a story about literary people which is itself anything but "bookish." And Barton Midwood's The World in Pieces, his first novel in nine years, is the intricate story of a reclusive writer's chance acquaintance with a tormented Austrian-American family—which impels him to research and translate the book of their lives, and in so doing achieving a fuller understanding of his own.
Robert Hellenga's strong second novel The Fall of a Sparrow (following his strikingly imaginative The Sixteen Pleasures) creates a warm and likable central character in Alan "Woody" Woodhull, a middleaged classics professor coming painfully to terms with the death of his vibrant daughter in a terrorist bombing in Italy and the departure of his griefstricken wife, who has entered a convent. Hellenga convincingly portrays Woody as a sentient and still passionate fellow (who is, interestingly, an accomplished amateur blues guitarist) whose hold on our emotions strengthens even in the novel's comparatively discursive final pages, when Woody confronts the destroyer of his own, and others' happiness, and finds he can choose "the strength of love" over "the strength of death." A rich, risk-taking book, and a very moving one.
Peter Hedges's second novel An Ocean in Iowa (his first was the popular What's Eating Gilbert Grape?) observes a year (1969) in the suburban (Des Moines, Iowa) life of its seven-year-old protagonist with a perfect blend of minute realistic detail and warm humor. It's a real charmer. And Girl in Landscape, the fourth novel (already) from comic surrealist wunderkind Jonathan Lethem makes a Brooklyn family's futuristic extraterrestrial adventure an ingenious parody of American western movies that's also an incisive satire on contemporary complacency and passivity. Lethem just keeps getting better.
Louise Erdrich's series (begun with Love Medicine) of critically praised novels depicting Native Americans in extremis continued with The Antelope Wife, a lushly symbolic and starkly dramatic saga of two Northern Plains families first united, then thrown into exhausting contention, as their later generations move uneasily into an urban world (Minneapolis) far from the elemental "spirit" one to which they still attempt to belong.
The legacies of a complex remote past are also explored in Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat's The Farming of Bones, a moving fictionalization of the 1937 massacre of Haitian sugar cane workers by their Dominican "masters"—and, with equal vigor, in Eccentric Neighborhoods, Puerto Rican native Rosario Ferre's colorfully jam-packed family saga chronicling her homeland's volatile political and economic history.
Less specifically exotic, though perhaps equally remote territory furnishes the scene for Howard Norman's compelling third novel The Museum Guard. It's the cunningly structured story of Nova Scotian De Foe Russet's painfully cramped life—from orphanhood through his disillusioning entry-level job (denoted by Norman's title) and climaxing with De Foe's unfulfilled relationship with Imogen Linny, a woman whose distracted wish to "liv[el a true life" moves her far beyond his restrained orbit. Another unusual and moving study (essentially similar to Norman's popular The Bird Artist) of the frustrations endured by people unable to move beyond boundaries seemingly ordained for them.
No such fate attends the narrator of Russell Banks's imposing Cloudsplitter. He is Owen Brown, the only surviving son of abolitionist martyr John Brown. In a series of letters responding to a historical researcher's queries, the aged Owen recalls in exhaustive detail the long process of protest and rebellion that culminated in what he ironically terms "Father Abraham, making his final, terrible sacrifice to his God." Except for its inordinate length and frequent redundancy, this is a satisfyingly vivid portrayal of one of our history's most complicated and interesting figures.
A rather similar novel, Jane Smiley's The All-True Adventures of Lidie Newton, engagingly recounts its eponymous heroine's adventures in the abolitionist movement in the Kansas Territory just before the Civil War. The rough-hewn Lidie is perhaps a tad too formally articulate to be believed, but Smiley's narrative vigor and expert pacing keep the novel moving along quite agreeably.
Other "big" novels by established American writers: T. Coraghessan Boyle's Riven Rock, a beautifully constructed madcap tragicomedy about a sexually disturbed millionaire, the feminist crusader who loves and labors to cure him, and the society (early twentieth-century America) that "confines" them both to ultimate frustration; Richard Price's Freedomland, another authoritative portrayal of inner-city turmoil—the story of a kidnapping, fleshed out with riveting characterizations and a powerful sense of both impending doom and the possibility of recovery—Price's best book; and Michael Cunningham's 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours, an elegant updating of Virginia Woolf's classic novel Mrs. Dalloway in which Woolf herself is a character, and suggestive parallels between the devastation wrought by the First World War and the chaos unleashed in the age of AIDS are deftly proffered. This is a very good novel: a quantum leap beyond Cunningham's earlier work, and one of the year's most artful novels.
Cunninghams triumph was surpassed only by Andrea Barrett's The Voyage of the Narwhal, the richly imagined and resonant story of a nineteenth century Arctic expedition, the introduction to "civilization" of that region's "primitive" peoples, and the consequent moral crises which perturb and ennoble—the idealistic botanist whose discoveries awaken him to imperatives and responsibilities other than the scientific ones he has lived by. A dazzling successor to Barrett's award-winning Ship Fever, and commanding proof that she has become one of our finest writers.
And a few words ought to be said about the underrated Anne Tyler, that middlebrow favorite whose unpretentious comic portraits of suburban (usually Baltimore-bred) underachievers are invariably entertaining and often much better than that. Her fourteenth novel, A Patchwork Planet, extracts from the misalliance of a former juvenile delinquent and a self-effacing "do-gooder" an invigorating blend of affectionate comedy and understated moral complexity. This is one of Tyler's most accomplished books.
1998 was also a fine year for short stories, of which the best collection was indisputably Lorrie Moore's Birds of America (her third). In twelve vividly expressive studies of women's fate in and out of familial and romantic relationships, Moore consistently creates stunningly self-aware, mockingly articulate protagonists—none more vivid than the embittered mother of a dying child in "People Like That Are the Only People Here"—the best thing Moore has ever done.
Several attractive omnibus volumes included a bountiful gathering (T. C. Boyle Stories) of sixty-eight inventive comic tales by the versatile (and aforementioned) T. Coraghessan; a new collection of (the also aforementioned) Joyce Carol Oates's only occasionally overly lurid neo-Gothic tales; and Park City: New and Selected Stories, a retrospective twenty-five years' worth of Ann Beanie's acutely realistic observations of contemporary anomie and self-consciousness. It's an uneven volume, but Beattie's best stories merit comparison with those of the writer she resembles most: Katherine Mansfield.
Other notable volumes from established authors: Steven Millhauser's gently fabulistic The Knife Thrower; William H. Gass's witty if annoyingly mandarin Cartesian Sonatas; Karen Joy Fowler's sturdy feminist fables (much in the manner of the late Angela Carter) collected in Black Glass; and the richly humorous cross-cultural stories (Salvation and Other Disasters) of the gifted Croatian-American author Josip Novakovich.
Distinguished first collections included Ken Kalfus's pyrotechnic Russian-inspired picaresques (Thirst); Beth Lordan's And Both Shall Row, whose masterly title story memorably limns the emotional interdependence and contention of two elderly sisters; and Michael Knight's offbeat studies of lonely people drawn into troubling relationships with both other people and animals (Dogfight).
Knight also produced one of the year's more interesting first novels: Divining Rod, a wistful story of adultery and murder, both precipitated by a warmhearted beauty's very real love for two very different men.
Other notable debut novels: G. W. Hawkes's arresting portrayal of the troubled lifelong bonding of two Korean War veterans Surveyor, published simultaneously with his mysteriously beautiful story (Semaphore) of how a young man who has been mute since birth learns to love, and "communicate" with those he loves; Tim Gautreaux's racy story (The Next Step in the Dance) of a volatile Louisiana couple who drive each other crazy whether they're apart or together; and Frederick Reiken's The Odd Sea, a wonderfully moving depiction of a family shattered by its beloved older son's unexplained disappearance and eventually, only imperfectly reconciled and healed.
A more conventional coming-of-age tale, Frank Manley's The Cockfighter, offers a lyrical, meditative portrait of an adolescent boy's confused introduction to the world of adult pleasures—and failings. And veteran short story writer Daniel Menaker's debut novel The Treatment deftly skewers suburban angst, the culture of psychoanalysis, and the ambiguities of commitment in a highly entertaining satiric-romantic comedy.
More ambitious first novels included Phyllis Alesia Perry's Toni-Morrison-like tale (Stigmata) of a troubled black woman's enigmatic connection to the sufferings and spirits of her ancestors in the days of slavery and Colson Whitehead's urbane The Intuitionist, a savvy reimagining of Ralph Ellison's classic 1952 novel Invisible Man as the story of a black female elevator inspector's collision with commercial and racial conservatism and myopia. It's a delicious conception, laden with metaphoric suggestiveness, and Whitehcad—a gifted writer with a strong individual voice—makes of it a technically intricate yet absorbingly dramatic work of fiction.
A similar richness distinguishes Martha Cooley's serenely exfoliating story of a literary scholar profoundly transformed by the information her researches uncover (The Archivist); celebrated journalist Scott Anderson's harrowing story (Triage) of a combat photographer's struggle to distance himself from the horrors he has witnessed and cannot block out; and especially C. S. Godshalk's magisterial Kalimantaan a replete historical novel which explores in exhilaratingly specific detail the British colonial experience in early nineteenth-century Borneo. The characters of British governor Gideon Barr and his reluctant young bride, and the ways in which they alter and are altered by the "primitive" paradise they have appropriated are explored with remarkable subtlety in a thrilling story that is both 1998's best first novel and a superb romance reminiscent of Patrick White's masterpiece A Fringe of Leaves. I can imagine no higher praise, and impatiently await the opportunity to read Kalimantaan again.
Other English-language fiction took us to faraway places. including five excellent first novels. Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard by Kiran Desai (the daughter of celebrated novelist Anita Desai) details with gentle irony the changes that come over a small Indian village when a notorious do-nothing inexplicably decides to live in a tree—and is henceforth admired as a holy man. Multi-cultural Shani Mootoo (born in Ireland, raised in Trinidad, now a Canadian) produced in Cereus Blooms at Night a haunting tale of the effects of an interracial marriage on a remote Caribbean island—a convoluted story somewhat reminiscent of Arundhati Roy's remarkable success The God of Small Things.
British journalist Leslie Forbes's Bombay Ice returns an Indian-born television reporter to her homeland for a reconciliation which quickly involves a murder investigation and a farrago of related intrigues which neatly parody both the James Bond adventures and (this novel's probable source) Peter Hoeg's popular Smilla's Sense of Snow.
Giles Foden's The Last King of Scotland creates a bracing blend of political satire and picaresque adventure out of its high-concept premise: the ordeal of a young Scottish doctor who becomes "personal physician" to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. And Australian novelist Delia Falconer's smoothly written The Service of Clouds tells the enchanting tale of a young woman pharmacist and an idealistic photographer whose virtually mystical connection to the beautiful land they inhabit is shattered by the ugly reality of the First World War. Other first novels of note: Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary, the wildly popular tale of a feisty single woman's hilarious vacillations between seeking independence and finding the perfect man; Magnus Mills's The Restraint of Beasts, a deadpan-monotone story of two phlegmatic working-class blokes whose casual rejection of authority initiates a Kafkaesque succession of misadventures and horrors; Ronald Wright's highly inventive revision (A Scientific Romance) of H. G. Wells's The Time Machine: a richly detailed satirical vision of London several centuries from now; Hilary Mantel's The Giant, O'Brien, which vividly contrasts the fates of its eponymous "freak," an eight-foot-tall Irishman who escapes starvation at home by becoming an exhibit in London, with that of the exploitative Scots physician for whom O'Brien's existence is only a biological mystery waiting to be solved; and Simon Mawer's exquisitely composed Mendel's Dwarf, which links the thwarted life of its narrator Benedict Lambert, a geneticist and a dwarf, with that of his ancestor Gregor Mendel, whose discoveries would themselves be distorted centuries later by the Nazi propaganda machine. This is a stunning work—one of the year's best and most neglected novels.
Several novelists of comparatively recent emergence brought forth worthwhile new books, including Anna McGrail's richly imagined account of the contrary scientific path taken by a great physicist's rejected, embittered daughter (Mrs. Einstein); Jonathan Coe's witty, energetic recording of a scientific experiment's lingering aftereffects on the lives of its subjects (The House of Sleep); Rupert Thomson's superbly intricate tale (Soft!) of the consequences of a young advertising executive's ruthless careerism; and Martin Amis's crafty tale (Night Train) of an investigation into a suicide which becomes an elegant meditation on the form and raison d'etre of the detective novel.
Andrew Miller's fine second novel Casanova in Love takes its eponymous (and aging) protagonist to England for another splendidly detailed historical adventure. It's a more than worthy successor to Miller's highly acclaimed debut novel Ingenious Pain.
Hitherto known for his history-flavored crime novels, Iain Pears produced one of the year's most (deservedly) talked about books: a fiendishly intricate historical mystery (An Instance of the Fingerpost) set in seventeenth-century England, in which no fewer than four narrators tell stories related to the unsolved murder of an Oxford don. Undoubtedly the most satisfying work of its kind since Charles Palliser's The Quincunx, a supremely literate entertainment.
Also notable: Jim Crace's limpid retelling of the story of Christ (Quarantine)—a novel which far surpasses Norman Mailer's much better-known The Gospel According to the Son; Rose Tremain's Chekhovian study (The Way I Found Her) of an adolescent boy's transformative infatuation and friendship with a beautiful (and understanding) woman; and Esther Freud's harrowing depiction (Summer at Gaglow) of an English family permanently changed by its experience of Germany during and after the First World War.
Two recent novels from Ireland offered revisions of famous literary originals, with rather uneven results. Robert McLiam Wilson's ambitious Ripley Bogle conflates the figures of both Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom together in a contemporary Ulysses, set in Belfast and London, whose considerable verbal energy interests us much more than the peregrinations of its (not very fully characterized) protagonist. Playwright Sebastian Barry's The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty is much better: the moving story of an Irishman "exiled" from his homeland (for pro-British sentiments), whose wanderings vividly evoke and echo those of the hero of Virgil's epic Aeneid.
One of the year's most pleasing entertainments, Australian novelist Peter Carey's Jack Maggs, revisited the world of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations for an atmospheric melodramatic adventure whose lively characters include both the eponymous ex-convict (Dickens's Abel Magwitch) with an up-and-coming young novelist (and amateur mesmerist) who closely resembles "the Inimitable" (Dickens) himself. It's a very impressive performance.
Several other established novelists showed themselves in familiar (if in some cases unexceptional) form—though George MacDonald Fraser's vigorous Black Ajax—the story of black American prizefighter Tom Molineaux's rise and fall in the British boxing world—is one of its author's breeziest and finest books.
Anita Brookner's seventeenth novel Visitors is another of her exquisitely wrought portrayals of lives lived so quietly that they're scarcely noticed: this lime in the story of an aging widow whose carefully guarded solitude is disturbed by the appearance of a handsome younger man. (This novel compares interestingly with Doris Lessing's recent Love, Again).
Nadine Gordimer's The House Gun joins the distinguished parade of her bleak dramatizations of the unavoidable intertwining of individual and political destinies in present-day South Africa. It's the story of a liberal white couple whose life is overturned by a sudden explosion of violence, the after-effects of which bring "old prejudices" to the surface, and subtly alter their relationship to a society they realize they can never fully join. A model of concision, and a book that keeps resonating in your head long after you've finished it.
Another such is Ian McEwan's Booker Prize-winning Amsterdam, a taut psychodrama which explores the effects of a strong woman's death on her nondescript husband and two former lovers, a newspaper man and a classical composer—and extends to the complex relationship that develops between the latter two, who are probably the most fully rounded and piquant characters the talented McEwan (whose fiction is too often praised for its shock effects) has yet created.
The death of its protagonist's father, an Italian immigrant living in Toronto, occasions the former's return to Italy in search of the answers to his fragmented family's several secrets, in Italian-Canadian author Nino Ricci's beautifully controlled Where She Has Gone, the wonderful final volume of his underrated autobiographical trilogy (whose predecessors are Lives of the Saints and In a Glass House).
Canada was also well represented by Mordecai Richler's raucous Barney's Version, the energetic confession of a middleaged television producer and writer who has cheerfully distributed trash to the masses, run through three long-suffering wives, and (quite possibly—he isn't absolutely certain) committed murder. Barney's bilious rant does go on rather too long, but it's perversely entertaining all the same.
The invaluable Alice Munro of Ontario offered a new book (her ninth) of densely packed short stories (The Love of a Good Woman), which struck this reviewer—alone of all his tribe, it seems—as only middling Munro, owing to its overload of structural complexity (stories within reminiscences within stories, and such) and unconvincing plot developments—though the clever "Cortes Island" and the superb long title story—a novellike anatomy of a small town's reaction to an unexplained death—show why an increasing number of readers (including, I hasten to add, this one) consider her one of the greatest living storytellers.
A Canadian writer new to us, Ottawa's Dorothy Speak, produced in Object of Your Love a splendid collection of nine provocative stories about women attempting to live lives independent of "their men," who invariably abuse or ignore them. Speak doesn't always avoid monotony, but several of her stories stab at you with crystalline force, and the best of them, "Summer Sky: White Ship," traces the emotional unravelling of a woman who marries into a family of violent men and cannot escape their influence, with a concentrated fury reminiscent of Munro at her very best.
Alice Munro's chief rival for the short-story throne, the Anglo-Irish master William Trevor, offered one of his finest novels in Death in Summer. This is the perfectly constructed story of an avaricious widower who had married for money, who is himself exploited in a manner that simultaneously confirms, mocks, and transforms his curiously amoral nature. As is usually the case in Trevor's novels, the reader is drawn into totally unexpected complicity with a deeply flawed fictional character who turns out to he not all that different from ourselves. No living writer surpasses Trevor at this particular kind of alchemy, and he has never practiced it more skillfully than in this radiant novel.
But the best novel from Great Britain in 1998 was Beryl Bainbridge's Master Georgie. Like all her previous (fifteen) novels, it's a work of exemplary brevity and suggestiveness: a story set in England and Europe and on the battlefields of the Crimean War, which examines the relationships among a British surgeon and amateur photographer (the eponymous George Hardy) who volunteers for wartime duty, the adoring servant girl who willingly subsumes her own quiet life within his more "distinguished" one, and the street urchin whose peculiar devotion to "Master Georgie" throws the lives of all those connected to his master into a confusion that is subtly echoed and paralleled by the carnage of the war. There's more wit and meaning and understated emotion judiciously packed into this brief novel's almost unbelievably generous compass than in virtually any of the contemporary "blockbusters" that overshadow Beryl Bainbridge's distinctively refined works of art. Writers can learn to write by studying her technique, but it is readers who should be most grateful for the wizardry with which she retrieves the vanished past and compassionately enters the hearts and minds of even opaque and inarticulate people. This novel is a masterpiece.
It seems appropriate to close, nevertheless, with a brief tribute to the late Brian Moore, that most cosmopolitan (Irish-Canadian-American) of novelists whose widely ranging oeuvre was concluded with The Magician's Wife. This is a historical novel (and another model of compactness) set in nineteenth-century France and Algeria, which observes the French conquest of that north African country through the eyes of Emmeline Lambert, the young wife of "master illusionist" (and probable fictional counterpart of the celebrated magician Robert Houdin) Henri Lambert. The contrast between Henri's (and his nation's) vainglorious trickery and the unassuming faith of Algeria's Arab populace becomes the stimulus for Emmeline's awakening to the complexities of national, and indeed even personal allegiance. This is an impressively researched, unpretentiously dramatic, altogether absorbing novel—a further demonstration of the versatility so evident in its immediate predecessors No Other Life and The Statement. Brian Moore's final decade was his most creative one; a time during which he kept extending his reach, surpassing himself again and again. No novelist could wish for a more tilling climax to a distinguished career, and few have ever realized it so successfully. Heartfelt thanks, therefore, to one of the contemporary masters. Hail, and farewell.