(Lev Grossman writes about books here every Wednesday. Subscribe to his RSS feed.)
The book business goes on a bit of a hiatus in December. If you release a book now you don’t really have time to push it out to bookstores with the kind of oomph you would need to get the holiday sales. So publishers tend not to bother.
Which is why I’ve mostly been reading advance copies of books due out in 2012. It’s going to be a good year. Here are a few I’m especially excited about:
1. William Gibson, Distrust That Particular Flavor (January 3)
Gah. I see Gibson’s non-fiction prose so rarely that I forget that in addition to being a major novelist (Zero History, Neuromancer etc.) he’s one of the best essayists and critical observers currently operating within our sociocultural sphere. This is his first essay collection, and it’s messed up how good it is: raw, weird, honest, smart. Gibson can write about more than neural implants and herf guns, I tell you what.
For example here he is — this is plucked more or less at random — on Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature:
[It’s] like being present for the arrival of a time machine. But not one from any particular past, or future; this music managed (as it always has) to transcend the duller registers of the cultural calendar. It’s as though it was composed in the time machine, in its own little pocket of temporality. I suspect that this is somehow the result of an encyclopedic sense of American music, an effortlessly graceful facility at collage and that patented Steely Dan studio wax, as though one were listening down through a hundred coats of hand-rubbed sonic carnauba …
Even correcting for my known Fanboy Bias, come on. Sonic carnauba.
(MORE: The Top 10 Fiction Books of 2011)
2. Daniel O’Malley, The Rook (January 11)
This is the only debut novel on this list, and it’s a monster. I get sent a lot of books by publishers looking for blurbs, and I almost never give them, but The Rook snapped my head around. I did my best to ignore it, but I simply could not. It opens with our heroine, Myfanwy (go with it), waking up in a park in London surrounded by dead bodies wearing rubber gloves. She has no memory of who she is. Here’s who she is: a high-ranking member of a secret branch of the government that protects England from supernatural threats (“rook” is her official title, as in the chess piece). She has to figure out who tried to kill her, what her job is, the extent of her own supernatural powers, etc. You learn about the world along with Myfanwy, and it’s utterly convincing and engrossing — totally thought-through and frequently hilarious. The writing is confident and fully fledged. Even this aging, jaded, attention-deficit-disordered critic was blown away.
3. Edward St. Aubyn, At Last (January 31)
It’s tough competition for the most-underrated writer in the English language — there’s plenty of neglect to go around — but if you put a Colt Commander to my head (see below) I might well say it’s St. Aubyn, the chronically under-published chronicler of abuse, dysfunction, alcoholism and worse in the English upper classes. At Last is the final novel, one thinks, in his series about his alter ego, the neurotic Patrick Melrose. It’s pretty much a lock to be one of the funniest, saddest, most beautiful books of the year.
4. Josh Bazell, Wild Thing (February 8 )
Bazell’s first book, Beat the Reaper, was about Pietro Brnwa. He’s a mob hitman who becomes a doctor. In yet? OK: these are hard-boiled thrillers, written in one of the most distinctively entertaining new fictional voices I’ve run across in years, in any genre. There is a massive density of information in this book – you learn, for example, on p. 68, not only how to disable a guy with a Colt Commander “that’s as shiny as a disco ball” shoved into your neck, but why the singular of “biceps” is “biceps”—but Bazell wields it with wonderful lightness. Reading him is like being able to monopolize the attention of the most interesting person at a party. In Wild Thing he gets into cryptozoology, which is unexpected, but it works. It’s so rare that you see a really brilliant writer who is committed, 100%, in every sentence, to giving you a good time. Bazell is, and he does.
(MORE: The Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2011)
5. Mark Leyner, The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack (March 26)
If you were a certain kind of reader in the 1990’s then Leyner was pretty much it for you. He was for me. He wrote these incredibly funny para-logical stories and novels that managed to be satires of everything in the universe at once. As a stylist he was AAA-rated, like David Foster Wallace without the cumbersome intellectual ambitions. In fact in 1996 when Charlie Rose wanted the cutting edge of fiction in his studio, he called Jonathan Franzen, Wallace and Leyner, and it was the right call. (You can still watch the episode.)
But in 1998, after his The Tetherballs of Bougainville, Leyner stopped writing fiction. I don’t know why. It appears he has started again. Thank God.
6. William Boyd, Waiting for Sunrise (April 17)
Boyd is the author of, among a lot of other things, Any Human Heart, one of my favorite novels of the 2000s. Basically, any time Boyd’s cat even jumps on his computer keyboard, it’s an event for me. I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s about a young English actor who goes to Vienna in 1913 to get psychoanalyzed. He has a “sexual problem.”
(MORE: The Top 10 Novels of the 2000s)
7. Paolo Bacigalupi, The Drowned Cities (May 1)
I have filed Bacigalupi in a file marked ‘lives up to the hype.’ He doesn’t have a lot of company there. This is a guy with genuinely radical ideas, writing in a genre, science fiction, that is, like most genres, largely populated by merely faux-radical ideas. Moreover he can really write. The Drowned World is a ‘companion,’ a non-sequel, to Bacigalupi’s YA novel Ship Breaker; both books take place in the same flooded, post-petroleum world as his mega-prize-winning The Windup Girl. The point of contact with Ship Breaker is the augmented man-beast Tool, who teams up with two denizens of the war-torn Drowned Cities (there are lots of them in the future) looking for revenge and freedom. It’s smart and merciless, and Tool is sooooper bad-ass.
By the way it’s pronounced BATCH-i-ga-LOOP-i. I asked him.
This completes our survey of 2012 books written by white men. I don’t know what happened to the diversity there. Sorry. I have my New Year’s resolution now.
LIST: The All-TIME 100 Novels