This is a fun list — not necessarily the best-reviewed or best sellers — just one women’s offering of the books she thinks are worth us reading after her.
My Favorite Fiction of 2020
Our book critic takes in the year.
By Katy Waldman December 17, 2020
Illustration by Min Heo
Speak the words “top-ten list” and another word, “gimmick,” floats to mind. Gratitude, the kind that one feels for a book that resides temporarily in one’s body, is an awfully personal feeling to try to pass off as a public judgment. Add a pandemic and the act gets even trickier. I’ve wondered how art might best meet this moment: with gentleness or rudeness, distraction or challenge. I’ve thought, too, about what I’ve asked of literature recently. Sometimes, when the world is dumb, it’s mental stimulation that I’m hungry for, or, when the world is ugly, beauty, or, when it’s exhausting, refreshment. As consumers of fiction, we have needs both diverse and inconstant; meanwhile, the “best of” lists gallop on, kicking up clouds of strained comparisons. This year’s pronouncements arrive shadowed by melancholy and, even more than usual, a vague illegitimacy.
For instance, I am writing this list from the kitchen table of a woman who says that, in 2020, she could abide only cozy mysteries or escapist fantasies. But I’ve found that, for me, literature’s draws finally exist independently of plagues or coups. What’s changed for many of us is perhaps our relationship to other types of fictions, which don’t necessarily come from novels. Narratives of American innocence, competence, and fellowship have eroded in the time of Trump’s Presidency, covid-19, and the George Floyd protests. Letting go of these stories might cause one to crave tidy whodunnits, or it might simply make one stubborn, intolerant of pretense. Having found myself in the second category (stubborn), I regret to announce that I will not be declaring the ten best fiction books of the year. Such lists are malarkey. I’d be delighted to boss you around—I assume that’s why you’re here, to receive direction or fight—but please just think of the titles below as ten worthwhile books, milestones of a sort, published in this Very Weird Year. And then read them.
“The Glass Hotel,” by Emily St. John Mandel
You should read this book because it is an intensely satisfying novel of ideas, which suggests that our identities are as fragile as our circumstances. Vincent is a bartender whose relationship with a white-collar criminal wafts her into a charmed existence; when her boyfriend’s Ponzi scheme collapses, she signs up to be a cook on a cargo ship. Her ne’er-do-well half brother, Paul, also craves a fresh start. Mandel expertly threads these and other story lines together, focussing on the ease with which a person can slip out of one life and into another; the novel is translucent with ghosts. “We move through this world so lightly,” one woman observes, like a voice from Beyond—she sounds amazed, dismayed, and a little relieved.
“Leave the World Behind,” by Rumaan Alam
You should read this book because it makes your skin tingle, like stepping into a deep, dark pool of present-day anxieties. Amanda, an advertising executive, and her professor husband, Clay, take their teen-age son and daughter to an Airbnb in a picturesque recess of Long Island. Their vacation is interrupted when an older couple, Ruth and G. H. Washington, arrive at the door, claiming to be the house’s owners and warning of a power outage in Manhattan. From there, the text veers between two novels: a sharply drawn social satire, replete with love-to-hate bourgeois accents—including the most critically acclaimed grocery list of 2020—and a disaster tale, with the texture of a nightmare. There are spiders and blood; the imagery of repressed horror, when it erupts, is shocking. Still, Alam maintains an arch tone through his omniscient narrator, who describes omens of ecological ruin with the same chilly detachment that he brings to Amanda’s polite racism. (The Washingtons are Black.) Such dryness differentiates Alam from Mandel, whose visions of disaster have a more sorrowful resonance, and yet the two authors are charting similar territory: the place where realism and surrealism meet, and life “as we know it” dissipates into life as we’ve never imagined it could be.
“Where the Wild Ladies Are,” by Aoko Matsuda
You should read this book because it pairs the delicate eeriness of traditional Japanese folklore with a kooky, contemporary sensibility. Each of Matsuda’s stories updates an old tale about the ghosts and fox spirits known, in Japan, as yokai. Here, though, the yokai work alongside the living at a mysterious incense company. Matsuda’s agenda is mischievously feminist. She likens women’s potential to an otherworldly force—shape-shifting project managers complain about Japan’s glass ceiling—and her male characters tend to come off looking ridiculous. (“I don’t have any exceptional talents,” one helpfully says.) There is, too, an undertow of late-capitalist weariness: the workday, which makes spectres of the living, does not pause for the dead. The cheerful oddity of these tales reminded me of the writer Sianne Ngai’s theory of the “zany.” Zany art, Ngai suggests, blurs the line between play and labor, arousing feelings of suspicion, attraction, and exhaustion. But Matsuda’s book also possesses a simpler appeal: her yokai say things like “Okay, that’s cool,” and, sometimes, they lose their tempers. Ghosts: they’re just like us!
“The Office of Historical Corrections,” by Danielle Evans
You should read this book because it holds all of its component parts in perfect balance. At first, I wasn’t sure which quality of Evans’s collection to highlight. Her slyness, the jokes that only reveal themselves as such three sentences later? Her timeliness, which somehow avoids gimmickry? Evans writes of Internet cancellation and Bad Men who apologize, of racist militias and the contemporary “crisis of truth.” In her stories, there is usually a tragedy just out of the frame, something intimate that wrenches free something historical. (In “Boys Go to Jupiter,” a white college student becomes a lightning rod after her boyfriend posts an image of her wearing a Confederate-flag bikini.) Evans zeroes in on mothers and daughters, and on best friends who are close enough to be sisters; she asks how racism shapes and distorts the experiences of these mostly Black women. (“Do they know I’m human yet?” one protagonist keeps wondering.) She is drawn to frustration and complexity, but her work feels weightless, natural. No other fiction I’ve read this year wears its profundity so lightly.
“Rest and Be Thankful,” by Emma Glass
You should read this book because it gives explosive and overdue literary consideration to medical personnel. In Glass’s freaky trance of a novel, Laura is a pediatric nurse in a London hospital. She has trouble saying no to extra shifts and other requests; pile on already-long hours and the emotional stress of caring for sick babies, and she’s unravelling. Glass stokes her first-person writing to a sumptuous tumult. The fragmented prose, so raw that it can seem almost lewd, flirts with the gothic: a hallucination runs up the stairs; “the fingertips barely touch the wood, the blackness is a long dress trailing.” This language can also be deeply moving. Glass makes some missteps: her vision of newborn innocence too often involves “peachy” or “porcelain” babies, and the book, with its unabashed fantasy sequences, sometimes risks melodrama. But I love how unself-conscious Glass is. Like Laura, she makes brave commitments, and gives to them everything she has.
“Luster,” by Raven Leilani
You should read this book because the main character is as disgusting as you are. Edie has a low-paying publishing job and a mouse-infested Brooklyn apartment. She licks tuna out of the can and wears her bathing suit under her clothes when she runs out of underwear. She used to paint, and dreams of painting again, but instead she pours herself into aimless, self-hating hedonism. (The self-declared “office slut,” she eventually gets fired.) Soon after “Luster” opens, Edie, who is Black, begins a liaison with Eric, a white man in an open marriage. Later, she moves in with his family, including his adopted daughter, Akila. One might take or leave the supporting cast, but every moment spent with Edie, and her quietly outrageous inner monologue, is riveting: “There are times I interact with kids and recall my abortion fondly,” she muses. Leilani’s run-on sentences, the abundant lyricism of her prose, have raised a few eyebrows. But “Luster” ’s language, now terse, and now ornate and flowing, doesn’t ever feel over the top, just unregulated—like Edie herself. The book, to its credit, has nothing to prove about “Black women”: Edie is neither sanitized nor idealized, but rendered as humanly as the other dysphoric millennials of recent fiction, over whom she reigns, a scummy bohemian queen.
“Cleanness,” by Garth Greenwell
You should read this book because it contains the year’s most thrilling sex writing. Sure, Greenwell writes sensually about many things—he’s a stylist’s stylist, whose use of the semicolon has inspired rapturous close readings—but the uncanny presence of his sentences is perhaps best felt in his descriptions of bodies. “Cleanness,” like Greenwell’s previous book, “What Belongs to You,” centers on an unnamed narrator who teaches literature in Sofia. (Greenwell himself lived in Bulgaria for several years.) The interlinked stories circle notions of pleasure, violence, and the self. Greenwell is interested in the transformations that might be found in the loss of ego; he pursues the question through sadomasochistic flings, conducted against the crumbling backdrop of a once shining capital. In the book’s middle section, the narrator turns from alienation to joy, describing his relationship with a Portuguese student, R. Though the connection doesn’t last, being with R. feels like “a kind of cleanness,” Greenwell writes, in which one’s essence is not shattered but offered, intact, to the beloved: “Anything I am you have use for is yours.”
“Interior Chinatown,” by Charles Yu
You should read this book because its conceit—it is formatted as the script of a television show—transmutes high-concept Surrealism into a poignant study of Asian-American identity. Yu’s novel, which won this year’s National Book Award for fiction, follows Willis Wu, an actor who longs to break free of the roles he’s normally cast in: Disgraced Son, Delivery Guy, Generic Asian Male. Willis’s fantasy is to reach the pinnacle, Kung Fu Guy, but he keeps getting killed off or sidelined; meanwhile, his parents are slipping into poverty. Yu worked on the show “Westworld,” and his novel, which feels similarly concerned with artifice and performance, has a TV-ready slickness. Characters can seem flattened, even behind their masks, and there are the squirts of Cheez Whiz that one might expect from writing that includes its own musical cues. (In time, Willis merges with a fictionalized, onscreen version of himself, and the concentrated hokeyness of that story-within-a-story spreads into the rest of the book.) But “Interior Chinatown” also offers an array of televisual pleasures: teasing dialogue and softly lit flashbacks, laced with melancholy, and a willingness to court big emotions. (Too much art these days seems to assume that sentimentality is the most heinous crime a writer can commit, leading to work that at times feels desiccated and minor.) At one point, Yu offers a lovely meditation on fatherhood, glimpsed through the lens of a whimsical kids’ program. The surprising gesture rewrites the rules of the novel, hinting at other lives for Wu to inhabit.
“Real Life,” by Brandon Taylor
You should read this book because it is an unhurried, tender, lush revelation. The novel spans a single weekend in the life of Wallace, a Black and gay graduate student in a Midwestern biochemistry lab. Wallace’s father has recently died; someone has also contaminated his experiment, killing his nematodes. Between satirical set pieces in which Wallace tries to tolerate his mostly white friends, Taylor interposes scenes of seduction, intimate conversation, and lyrical flashback. Wallace can seem passive to the point of being effaced, and the delicacy of the book’s language and observation suggests something either precious or unbearable just below the surface. Although “Real Life,” which evokes and appraises the tradition of the campus novel, explicitly critiques the whiteness of academia, Taylor’s focus stays on Wallace, whose reactions to different forms of abuse rarely fit his peers’ expectations. The book thus seems less interested in polemic than in the complications of “real life,” and in how lonely living there can be.
“Homeland Elegies,” by Ayad Akhtar
You should read this book because it will atomize any comfortable view of America. Akhtar, a Pulitzer-winning playwright, constructs his new novel as a group of personal essays, loosely about Muslim identity and United States exceptionalism. The New York-born narrator, who shares a name and life story with the author, parses his country’s “ever-tumescent” self-regard and its reckless capitalism; he depicts an Islamic friend’s radicalization and explores the aftermath of writing a play in which the main character asserts that he felt pride when the Twin Towers fell. The narrator’s father, a cardiologist who considers treating Donald Trump in the nineties to have been his great glory, provides an energetic counterpoint to “Ayad” ’s malaise. “Homeland Elegies” burrows into the tension between the longing for élite acceptance and the duty of critique—a tension that “Ayad,” with his glittering career and immigrant parents, experiences keenly. The book springs off Whitman: “My tongue, too, is homegrown,” Akhtar writes. “But these multitudes will not be my own.”