These are the best books we read in 2015.
I’ll admit that I’ve got some catching up to do when it comes to Haruki Murakami’s work. The famed post-modernist had previously only occupied one slot on my bookshelf until I picked up a copy of Dance Dance Dance earlier this year on a whim. I didn’t even realize it is actually a sequel to his breakout A Wild Sheep Chase, but thankfully the book stands on its own so well—and shifts in tone and story so much—that it’s not even considered part of Murakami’s “Trilogy of the Rat” (the books that launched his career).
Dance Dance Dance finds our nameless narrator, a professional freelance writer, seeking out the rundown Dolphin Hotel where he’d fallen in love with a woman whose real name he never knew. What he finds instead of the dingy hole-in-the-wall is a gorgeous new high-rise hotel, but despite the glossy façade, this place has got a mystery of its own. The Sheep Man, an otherworldly figure who appeared in the previous book, lurks in a mysterious vortex of a 16th floor that appears to exist in another dimension. The slurring figment, adorned in a shabby sheep costume and living in a furniture-less room packed with moldy books, advises the narrator to keep on his toes (invoking the book’s title) while unraveling a mystery in which he doesn’t even know what he’s looking for. Soon our narrator is forging a connection with the hotel’s front desk clerk, chaperoning a clairvoyant teenager, meeting up with an old junior high buddy who’s now a film star and crossing paths with a one-armed poet. Visions abound, and so do Murakami’s usual themes of loss, abandonment and sexuality, all while the modern master blends surrealism with existentialism with fabulous results. – Josh Goller
Jazz has influenced literature pretty much since it was invented. It was adopted by early modernists like Gertrude Stein, and later, the Beats, as a means of twisting the structure of writing to match the avant-garde, improvisational nature of the music. However, despite Toni Morrison naming her 1992 novel Jazz, she does not bend or warp her prose. Instead of attempting to refract the complexity of the composition, she digs into the history that jazz encapsulates; of the centuries-long struggle with social repression and its subsequent outlets of music and community.
White intellectuals mined jazz for its individual virtuosity, but Morrison is attuned to its group dynamics as reflected in the use of multiple perspectives featuring similar circumstances. Thus, the low-down, cheating husband seen from the jilted wife’s perspective is subsequently presented on his own terms as the product of spirit-crushing racism who seeks validation wherever he can find it.
Morrison’s writing is both abstract and pointed, never approaching any subject head-on, but using prose so descriptive that even reveries are concise and always purposeful. The book draws from the golden age of jazz, but by peeling back the context of this new, wholly African-American art form, Morrison reveals the swirl of politics and emotions present in the music long before it made these feelings explicit in the ‘50s and ‘60s. – Jake Cole
As a native Texan, I can absolutely confirm that Philipp Meyer nails the essence of the Lone Star State in The Son. The way he describes the soul-draining heat, the good ol’ boys who rule the state and the secret history of blood that nourishes the soil is startling, uncanny even. Impressive for a guy from Baltimore.
The Son’s interlocking story arc follows different generations of one Texas dynasty that grows out of the sheer brutality and cunning of the family patriarch. Indeed, brutality is a central motif. In a year that produced Between the World and Me’s meditations of racial violence in America and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’s deep dive into internet mob mentalities, nothing cut quite as directly or as painfully as The Son for me. The body count is in the hundreds. Rape, mutilation and kidnapping are all common in Meyer’s world, and thanks to his curt, yet vivid style it all makes a twisted sort of sense. By the end of the carnage I hated nearly every central character, but Meyer wouldn’t let me put the book down. Their tales of horrific violence and brutish callousness were too engrossing to turn away from for even a second.
I’ve read many reviews that compare The Son to the harshest pieces by Cormac McCarthy, some even claiming Meyer as a proper heir to McCarthy’s western throne. But even that comparison undercuts just how excellent this novel is. It is its own stunning composition. – Nathan Stevens
For at least as long as humans have told each other stories, the animal kingdom has provided us with a means of representing ourselves. Different creatures become stand-ins for a vast array of virtues and foibles. Ants are conferred a special status in this regard: Their advanced organizational structure and dogged work ethic avail them to us as analogues of our own collectivity.
Michael DeForge’s Ant Colony—the 28-year-old comics artist’s first graphic novel— takes the ants-as-humans premise to its logical extreme while also subverting it. Life in the colony is governed by some basic biological facts: The male population is enlisted in an endless cycle of harvests and periodic impregnation of the queen. Infertile females are cordoned off, their contact with the males strictly limited. When ants die, the pheromones released by their corpses trigger waves of lust. Sweet‘N Low, mistaken for real sugar, is fatal. No ants are given names. But at the same time, they sit on couches, sell lemonade, perform relationship maintenance and stage nihilist revolts.
DeForge renders this all in a style somewhere between Japanese kawaii and the oddities of Mike Diana. Except for the queen ant, who’s imagined as a bodacious fertility goddess, the ants are anthropomorphic in the most basic manner possible, with their organs visible on the outside. Non-ants are designed metaphorically: Spiders are lynx heads with their mouths agape, centipedes are out-of-control city buses. Colorful gore is a frequent feature of the book’s psychedelic micro-landscapes. Occasionally the scope widens to capture panoramas of disarming, grotesque beauty, such as an epic battle scene with the red ants. More often, though, DeForge focuses on working out the particulars of his wild, funny and endlessly inventive vision. – Benjamin Aspray
Do life and happiness necessarily intersect? Nimbly walking the line between nihilism and Zen Buddhism, Paulo Coelho uses his novel Adultery to forcefully ask this question in the softest, yet most pointed manner. Life is a constant tightrope walk between desire and passion, safety and risk, banality and excitement. We seek meaning in our monogamy, our long-term relationships, but our lack of sex or food or happiness or whatever-the-television-tells-us-we’re-lacking leaves us with something missing—something destructive. Our lack creates our numbness; our numbness creates our fear; our fear paralyzes us into a life without risk. But without risk and danger—what do we have?
Coelho has an adept understanding of how we live within The Template of Coping: religion, television, popping pills and pretending everything is okay. He opens our minds and eyes, forcing us to examine our own roles via the Midlife Crisis phenomenon. Adultery’s protagonist, a successful Swiss woman who is habitually insulated from danger via the safety and creature comforts of high society, wanders through life seeking meaning through work, yoga, meditation, religion and family. With her story as a lens, we wrestle with the tenets of Getting Along that are foisted upon us by our society without ever evaluating if they work for us. We teach our children what is right before we know what is right ourselves.
Beautifully written, hard-hitting and searingly critical of our modern lifestyle, Adultery is a daring foray into questioning societal taboos—which, in and of themselves, likely raise the hair on the backs of our necks in excitement. Coelho explains the unexplainable: The reasons why people destroy things they’ve worked so hard to attain for moments of carnal pleasure. – Cedric Justice
Although Terrance Hayes’ fifth collection How to Be Drawn didn’t win the 2015 National Book Award for Poetry, his widely inventive collection of thoughtful, calculated and urgent poems is one of the best books of poetry this year. It is a book charged with political intensity, familial intimacy, music and grit, held together with intoxicating language and dazzling poetic skill. And as a result of so much of his work drawing from his past as a visual artist, his poems feed from an acute attention to physical and cerebral detail as well as what it is to see, be seen, unseen or seen again.
2014 saw Claudia Rankine’s intensely political and immediately important book Citizen’s release. It is a fierce book outlining discrimination in grim, sad and often violent detail. In many ways, How to Be Drawn echoes Rankine’s themes of marginalization, but Hayes does it with calculated attention to the interiority of people and their relationships with those around them. It’s a book that addresses big questions of American race relations as well as a book that examines the family, the community and the self in relation to all of those concerns. In what is becoming typical of Hayes’ genius, he confronts these questions in How to Be Drawn with a powerful blend of grace, beauty, skill and empathy. – Nicodemus Nicoludis
Of all of Vladimir Nabokov’s opening paragraphs, “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul,” will forever exist in the public consciousness. But consider the beginning of Speak, Memory, the author’s autobiography: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Accurate, frightening and as much a primer for the work that follows as Lolita’s raw beginnings. As such, should Speak, Memory not also be renowned?
Nabokov spent the majority of his life holding that crack of light open, making it shine over everything it could reach for as long as he could allow. His camera lucida-like sentences are never more justified or impressive than they are in Speak, Memory. The book contains the mastery of language and structural complexity that characterizes Nabokov’s work, but his emotions are thrust unflinchingly into the spotlight in a way that seems impossible for the condescending and authoritative writer of The Defense and Pale Fire. Speak, Memory is nothing less than an attempt to forever hold a light to the virtues of people, places and things for all the world to see.
Nabokov made a career out of insisting upon the necessity of rereading for aesthetic purposes. But in Speak, Memory reading, like writing, is an act of self-preservation. The astute Nabokov reader will find life’s careful constructs broken down and laid bare by the double meanings he imbues into his impeccably recreated life. – Forrest Cardamenis