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Books of the year: Fiction
The titles selected by critics as the best of 2008.
 

1. 2666
by Roberto Bolaño
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30)
“Reviewing Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is like reviewing the ocean,” said Adam Mansbach in The Boston Globe. Split into five loosely connected parts that range in tone from “romantic farce” to the literary equivalent of a black hole, this is a novel of “devastating power” written by an artist as cannily indirect as “the great post-bop jazz drummers.” Bolaño, who died at age 50 in 2003, set most of the action in a Mexican border town. But it’s not until a chilling catalogue of unsolved rape and crime unfolds in the long fourth section that readers can see that he’s been circling an evil so grand in scale that it seems to challenge any belief in life’s meaning. The lingering question this new masterpiece raises, said the editors of Salon.com, is whether humanity’s worst acts are “redeemed or ameliorated to the slightest degree by our most sublime achievements.”
A caveat: People shouldn’t use the term “masterpiece,” said The New Yorker, for a novel that doesn’t cohere.

2. Netherland
by Joseph O’Neill
(Pantheon, $23.95)
Joseph O’Neill’s ode to New York is “too small-boned” and “too savvy” to be crowned the great post-9/11 American novel, said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. But this Irish-born novelist “seems incapable of writing a boring sentence or thinking an uninteresting thought.” His narrator-protagonist in Netherland is a doleful Dutch securities analyst who tethers himself to a Staten Island cricket team when his wife decamps to London after the twin towers fall. Yet the self-accounting that he offers is startlingly universal. Our man Hans never does discover “a miracle cure” for his languor, said Adam B. Kushner in Newsweek. He simply lives through it, which makes this novel a far more honest and complex study of contemporary masculinity than we’ve seen in some time.
A caveat: O’Neill ultimately chooses to console readers, said Zadie Smith in The New York Review of Books, with ideas that he himself doesn’t believe about the transcendent powers of individual consciousness.

3. Lush Life
by Richard Price
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26)
Crime novelist Richard Price does the 19th-century-style “novelist-as-reporter thing” better than any American writer alive, said Sam Anderson in New York. His latest marries “the visceral pleasures of a whodunit” with “the more cerebral thrill of a sociology project” after a botched street robbery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side leaves one white hipster dead and another under suspicion of inventing a black suspect. The steady patter provided by “the best writer of dialogue since Plato” makes every cop and every mere bystander jump from the page. The precision of the storytelling exceeds even Price’s own past work, said David L. Ulin in the Los Angeles Times. Despite its admirable range and ambition, Lush Life is “a rocket of a book.” It starts with a bang and “never lets up.”
A caveat: Some of the dramatic tricks that Price has learned from screenwriting, said Ulin, undermine his bid for Zola-like authenticity.

4. Unaccustomed Earth
by Jhumpa Lahiri
(Knopf, $25)
Few writers craft love stories that are as heartbreaking as Jhumpa Lahiri’s, said John Freeman in The Hartford Courant. The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Interpreter of Maladies has left readers gasping again with her second collection of “mournful, deeply satisfying” stories about Bengali-American couples and families, lovers and friends. But where Lahiri’s breakthrough book framed and exhibited its characters’ quiet grief, said Todd Shy in the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer, the author has achieved something more “forceful and wise” in Unaccustomed Earth. The sense of strandedness that all her characters feel here is more deeply woven into the narratives. Their quiet sorrow also sounds a more universal note about the costs associated with the “individual freedoms that are the American calling card.”
A caveat: “The thematic repetitions from story to story threaten tedium instead of building to effect,” said Aimee Liu in The San Diego Union-Tribune.

5. A Mercy
by Toni Morrison
(Knopf, $23.95)
“What a pleasure,” said Carlin Romano in The Philadelphia Inquirer, to come across a book by a Nobel laureate that crackles with youthful ambition and energy. Though slim, Toni Morrison’s first novel in five years is more “sinewy with imaginative sentences” than anything you’d expect from a writer who’s already earned a few lazy victory laps. What’s more, its heart-rending story about the four women who comprise a patchwork 17th-century American household proves as powerful as any tale the author has shaped before. Each of these women “has been abandoned” in some way, said Victoria A. Brownworth in the Baltimore Sun. Three are slaves, and the fourth is a veritable mail-order bride who proves equally incapable of freeing herself when the death of her decent-hearted Dutch husband casts them all adrift. These women inhabit a frightening American past but an “extraordinary” novel.
A caveat: As always, said Ruth Franklin in The New Republic, Morrison is using her immense talent not to “interpret the world in all its variousness” but to protest “man’s inhumanity to woman.”


How the books were chosen

We tabulated the end-of-year choices of critics for The Atlantic Monthly, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, The Denver Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, New York, The New York Times, the Denver Rocky Mountain News, Salon.com, Time, The Village Voice, and The Washington Post.

 

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