This is a succinct account of the three best novels–or I should say the novels I enjoyed the most–that I happened to read in the 2017 calendar year. Many reviews about all three of them may no doubt provide layered context for their greatness, and so I will just share the ones I liked and why I liked them the most.
Without question, Emma Cline’s THE GIRLS was the book I enjoyed most this year. It was awesome from start to finish. As a reader, I really need excellence in a novel’s prose style, from its opening line to its final sentence, and Cline’s prose–its style, sinuous at times, succinct elsewhere, lushly approximating the consciousness of its protagonist, while pivoting sharply in the presence of danger–perfectly suited its subject matter, in the way that we talk about form following function. THE GIRLS (I mean, yeah, I know I was late to the party in reading this book, but still. . .) is a novel you can open on any page and immediately get sucked into the river-current of its language and style, and that, for me, is extremely rare in contemporary fiction. Yes, the content is lurid and complex and therefore interesting, and the circular attraction of a mythical, violent leader is timeless and universally appealing in a story: all of that is true, and–not but–and I enjoyed this novel the most this year because of how excellent the prose was from start to finish. I looked forward to whatever Cline writes next. Along with Leslie Marmon Silko, Juan Gabriel Vazquez, Louise Erdrich, and Mark Z. Danielewski, Cline is an author whose books I would read without any context of their content whatsoever for the writing alone.
The close runner up: LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders. The scene where the preacher gives an account of his life and begs his case before the gatekeepers of the afterlife: that scene was devastating; it broke me; it made me afraid of what terrors lay on the other side of this life, and Saunders’ novel seemed to know, or suspect, what might happen to us if we don’t tidy up our souls in time for death.
And lastly, Michel Houellbecq’s SUBMISSION: he predicted Trump’s ascendancy more than a year before it happened, and what more can great fiction do but warn us about the trajectory our decisions may lead us and show us how, if possible, to change our ways before it’s too late.