Opinion

The best novels I read in 2020

Who said they had to be new?

I found 2020 to be a good year for new novels. By "new" I mean previously unread by me. With the death of John le Carré, there are no living novelists whose books I buy without hesitation. Instead I tend to read old favorites over and over again or to pick up new ones when they are recommended by friends or by the handful of critics I trust. I cannot apologize for my indifference to novelty or for the idiosyncrasy of my taste in fiction.

Here are the five novels I enjoyed most this year.

1. The Twenty Days of Turin, by Giorgio De Maria

In "speculative fiction," that academic catch-all category that seems to include everything except Anthony Trollope, the central conceit matters far more than the words with which it is presented. This is why we continue to read books like Journey to the Center of the Earth and the The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket even though they are appallingly written. In The Twenty Days of Turin the conceit is "The Library," a repository of letters, diaries, personal musings, lunatic political screeds: "true, authentic documents reflecting the real spirit of the people." Those who enter are permitted to obtain the contact information of the authors. It is not entirely clear who is responsible for The Library or why it has been allowed to appear, or why it remains the object of such intense fascination. Is it in spite or because of the appalling violence it engenders? This is the question the narrator, in a series of interviews conducted with a bizarre cast of lawyers, politicians, nuns, and hermits, appears interested in answering a decade later.

I am tempted to compare The Twenty Days of Turin to the works of my fellow Michigander Thomas Ligotti. But for all the suggestive power of his short stories, Ligotti is a nihilist whose nonfiction writings are wicked when they are not simply unreadable, while Giorgio De Maria was an old-fashioned, if somewhat idiosyncratic, Christian humanist. More so than any writer of fiction, he brings the conscience of Europe to bear upon the waste of post-war civilization.

2. The Wall, by Marlen Haushofer

Here is another novel with a wonderful conceit, one simple enough to belong to a fairy tale: a frumpy middle-aged woman falls asleep at a hunting lodge and wakes up to discover that she is apparently the last person on Earth and that the lodge has been surrounded by an invisible wall of sorts. What follows is a kind of ersatz Robinson Crusoe, a book of lists and routines. There is even a Man Friday, though not one destined to become our unnamed protagonist's companion.

I know virtually nothing about Marlen Haushofer save that she grew up in pre-war Catholic Austria, married a dentist, and divorced only to remarry him eight years later. It would probably be possible to match some of the incidental details about the protagonist — who, like Haushofer, has two children — with the life of the author, but I for one am happy to be spared the burden of reading this book as anything save an exercise of the imagination. The Wall is unfortunately out of print.

3. The Long Walk, by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)

I have long argued that Stephen King's best work came in his first decade as a professional writer, in the Jamesian short stories set in an already dying post-industrial New England that he scribbled for what we used to refer to as "men's magazines." Somehow, though, I have never managed to get around to the novels he wrote under the pen name "Richard Bachman" in the 1970s at the urging of his publisher, who insisted that readers would not accept a writer churning out two novels per year. One reason for this is that the Bachman books have a reputation for being rather nasty, to the point that one of them, the eerily prophetic school shooter fantasy Rage, has been disavowed by its author and withdrawn at his request from publication. (Naturally, copies routinely fetch $1,200 or more online.)

The Long Walk occasionally lives up to its reputation. There is a lot of death here, described with a horrifying frankness. As its title suggests, it is a novel about a totalitarian America whose citizens' chief entertainment is a yearly contest in which one hundred boys walk at a constant speed of four and a half miles per hour until only one is left alive. The novel depends for its power upon the fact that we are never told what has happened to the country, or, indeed, why any of the participants choose to join the gruesome contest, a subject they debate constantly as they march through the interior of New England in the summer heat. King is showing us something all but ineffable here about America and political violence that transcends whatever topical concerns he might have had at the time.

This is not a perfect novel. A clever game along the lines of the Bedschel test could be devised for King novels analyzing the number of female characters about whom we learn nothing except their relation to the protagonist (mother, literary agent, etc) and the size of their breasts. I like to imagine that one day he will gather his opera omnia into a collected edition and remove some of these cringe-inducing passages.

4. The Life and Adventures of Mrs. Christian Davies, attributed to Daniel Defoe

For obvious reasons I was prompted back in March to revisit Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, only to discover that most of the major online booksellers had sold out of the current Penguin edition. This sent me back to the other novels Defoe gave us in the "secret life" genre, especially Moll Flanders, which I have always liked just this side of idolatry. The life and adventures of Mrs. Christian Davies, commonly call'd Mother Ross; who, in several campaigns under King William and the late Duke of Marlborough, in the quality of a foot-soldier and dragoon, gave many signal proofs of an unparallell'd courage and personal bravery. Taken from her own mouth when a pensioner of Chelsea-Hospital, and known to be true by many who were engaged in those great scenes of action (to give it its ridiculous full title) is the least known of these, no doubt because it was not attributed to Defoe during his lifetime.

"Kit," who goes by any number of names during her strange career, is the dispossessed daughter of an Irishman who died in defense of the Stuart cause. (Like many of Defoe's heroines, she is sexually assaulted as a teenager.) She earns a good living by assisting an aunt in Dublin, who keeps a public house, which she later inherits. Here she falls for a servant, Richard, whom she marries and employs as a waiter. One day, under circumstances that are never reasonably explained, Richard abandons her and their children, ostensibly to pay a creditor, and joins the army. Rather than accept what must have been a distressingly common lot in 18th-century Ireland, she disguises herself as a man and becomes a soldier herself. In the years that follow she survives serious action on the battlefield, duels fought to defend the honor of other women, and even accusations by a prostitute that she is the father of her child. Eventually she finds herself reunited with Richard, who agrees to pretend that she is his brother. I will not reveal the circumstances under which her ruse is discovered, but I will say that it is not the end of her life in His Majesty's service.

Unlike Moll Flanders, Christian Davies was a real person who actually received a pension from Queen Anne and finished her life living in comfortable if modest fashion. I include it on this list because most of what is related of her here is unverifiable, and, more important, because stylistically speaking the book resembles Defoe's other novels far more than it does any actually existing specimens of 18th-century autobiography. If it really is true to life, so much the better. As far as I am aware Christian Davies has not been printed for more than a century. The hardcover edition I purchased for a pittance at a second-hand bookshop is listed on AbeBooks and other online retailers for around $750. There is certainly an opportunity here for an enterprising publisher or (heaven help us) a Netflix producer.

5. Death in Her Hands, by Ottessa Moshfegh

Last is the only one of these books published this year, though it has been reported that it was written many years ago and left in a drawer by the author. Like all of its predecessors on this list, Death in Her Hands begins with an irresistible premise: an elderly woman named Vesta Gul finds a note in the woods near her house that reads: "Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn't me. Here is her dead body." But there is no body. What follows is as strange and haunting as anything of its kind I have ever read, an unclassifiable masterpiece in that twilit border country of literature between crime and magical realism that I associate with the great Gladys Mitchell. The passages in which Vesta Googles "Top Tips for Mystery Writers" also reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor's Angel.

After reading it I assumed that Death in Her Hands was a debut novel. Upon realizing that it was Moshfegh's fifth book, I raced to purchase everything else she had written. Unfortunately I could not get further than a few pages into My Year of Rest and Relaxation, a tedious first-person account of prescription drug addiction nearly as bad as Jack Kerouac. I for one hopes she returns to this territory soon.

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