Best fiction of 2015

by on November 22, 2015 at 12:55 am in Books | Permalink

I thought it was a stellar year for fiction, even though most of the widely anticipated books by famous authors disappointed me.  These were my favorites, more or less in the order I read them, not in order of preference:

Michel Houellebecq, Soumission/Submission.  The correct reading is always a level deeper than the one you are currently at.

Larry Kramer, The American People.  Epic, reviewed a lot but then oddly overlooked in a crowded year.

The Seventh Day, by Yu Hua.  Perhaps my favorite of all the contemporary Chinese novels I have read: “Lacking the money for a burial plot, he must roam the afterworld aimlessly, without rest.”

Chris Adrian and Eli Horowitz, New World, “An innovative story of love, decapitation, cryogenics, and memory by two of our most creative literary minds.”

Vendela Vida, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty.  Fun without being trivial.

Elena Ferrante, volume four, The Story of the Lost Child.  See my various posts about her series here, one of the prime literary achievements of the last twenty years.

The Widower, by Mohamed Latiff Mohamed.  My favorite novel from Singapore.

The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud.  I’ll teach it this coming year in Law and Literature.

Eka Kurniawan, Beauty is a Wound.  It’s been called the Garcia Marquez of Indonesia, and it is one of the country’s classic novels, newly translated into English.  Here is a good NYT review.

Nnedi Okorafor, Binti.  Okorafor is American but born to two Nigerian parents, this science fiction novella is creative and fun to read.  Ursula K. Le Guin likes her too.

Of those, Houllebecq and Ferrante are the must-reads, the others are all strong entries, with New World being perhaps the indulgence pick but indulgences are good, right?

And here are three other new books/editions/translations which I haven’t had any chance to spend time with, but come as self-recommending:

The Poems of T.S. Eliot, volume 1 and volume 2, annotated.  Rave reviews for those.

Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu, translated by Dennis Washburn.

Homer’s Iliad, translated by Peter Green.  Also gets rave reviews.

1 Christian List November 22, 2015 at 1:09 am

How is the book by Houellebecq (with an e after ou) compared to The Camp of the Saints by Jean Raspail?

Has anybody read both?

2 Jamie_NYC November 22, 2015 at 8:03 am

Submission is a far better novel. CotS has a lot of monologues that make you roll your eyes as they could never occur in real life (typical French prose, if I may add); Submission is thoroughly modern, quite enjoyable read. The reason they are compared, of course, is that both have a political edge, relevant to today’s world. From that perspective, although I liked both, neither has a very plausible plot, but the prevailing ideologies (one and the same, actually, in both novels) are conveyed very persuasively.

3 Ray Lopez November 22, 2015 at 10:15 am

Though French is close to English, isn’t the whole point of a novel to read it in the original language, like Homer’s Illiad? I mean, are the ideas behind Submission so provocative that you can read it translated and still be amazed? I doubt it. Guy de Maupassant and O Henry had great short story themes (e.g., Maupassant’s “The Necklace”, each party trying to anticipate the others’ desires and failing), but I bet both of them are better read in the original than translated.

However, against this, apparently the NY Times review suggests Houellebecq is a hack, so perhaps his work ‘translates better’, if you understand what I’m saying (like for example blank verse poetry ‘translates better’ since there’s no rhyme so the words can be freely translated). NY Times: “Even if, sentence by sentence, Houellebecq is not a writer to envy, certainly he does have a voice of his own, one of slightly resigned sociological detachment.”

I might add this to my growing reading list, but I doubt it. There’s a ton of chess books I need to go through first…

4 FredR November 22, 2015 at 10:19 am

Agreed on all points, but I’d add that Submission’s undercurrent of despair is much more moving than the histrionics of Camp of the Saints. It’s like comparing a comic book to an actual novel, really.

5 Horhe November 23, 2015 at 3:05 pm

I’ve read the English translations of both. My French is tres rusty. You can find Jean Raspail’s book posted online here

I have to say I like Raspail’s more, but I think Houellebecq’s is better written. And, of course, it’s more current. But Raspail’s book, even though it had Indians (instead of the intended North Africans), really hit a nerve with me. Maybe that says more about me, since, as someone pointed above, Submission is heavy on despair, and the Camp of Saints on histrionics. I must say Jean Raspail is still giving great interviews, even at his age. You can find some on Youtube.

6 RM November 22, 2015 at 2:34 am

I hope that Houellebecq’s book is much better than this: (Maybe the translator had to do it too quickly; or maybe I am missing all the levels).

7 Vivian Darkbloom November 22, 2015 at 3:33 am

There appears to be only one level here:

“It’s unlikely that the insignificant opportunist who passes for our head of state, or the congenital moron who plays the part of our prime minister, or even the “stars of the opposition” (LOL) will emerge from the test looking any brighter.”

And here:

“Who exactly drilled into our heads for years the notion that borders were a quaint absurdity, and evidence of a foul and rancid nationalism?”

But maybe Tyler can find more.

8 Gochujang November 22, 2015 at 7:04 am

It is probably fair to ask why Kadafi had to be removed. It seemed then a short-sighted punishment, and now with ill gains.

9 affenkopf November 22, 2015 at 4:07 am

Speaking of NYT editorials by writers on this list:

Kamel Daoud has written one about Saudi Arabia as a better- dressed ISIS:

10 prior_approval November 22, 2015 at 8:04 am

Hey, ISIS doesn’t buy American military equipment like the KSA.

11 Horhe November 23, 2015 at 3:07 pm

They requisition it from the Iraqis and the moderate Syrian opposition. I hope you at least voided the warranty.

12 Gochujang November 22, 2015 at 9:03 am

Interesting that the article should appear there, but II doesn’t fairly paint the horns of the dilemma, especially 1970s forward.

American voters demanded cheap gasoline and support for Israel.

How do you do that? You work a deal.

13 Christian List November 22, 2015 at 4:07 am

The text is better in French. It’s also not literature but his actual opinion. People tend to forget that there’s a difference. It’s not supposed to be art.

14 Joël November 22, 2015 at 6:26 pm

Not by much. I do like Houellebecq, with some reservation, but I don’t see any interest in this text, which could have been written by any middle-tier politician.

15 Paul November 22, 2015 at 9:28 am

Indeed — this editorial suggests that the correct reading of Submission is not the deeper level that Cowen is reaching for.

16 yo November 22, 2015 at 3:51 am

“The correct reading is always a level deeper than the one you are currently at ”
Like this?

17 Asher November 23, 2015 at 3:03 am

Tyler’s characterization is one of many concentric layers of meaning, of which the innermost is “correct”. I don’t agree with that characterization. The book is filled with allusions and like many French authors (Modiano comes to mind) Houllebecq loves to sustain a submerged dialogue with other authors, particularly Huysmans. But they are not at all distinct concentric readings. Rather, the reading is enriched by the context evoked by the various allusions and parallels, hence the events have a degree of depth and texture. I think that the author really just wanted to give us a good and provocative read, which he does, and he is probably more amused than gratified to see the detailed analysis people are making of his satirical novel.

18 Steve Sailer November 22, 2015 at 3:54 am

The translation of “Submission” by Lorin Stein, editor of the Paris Review, is wonderfully acerbic. For example:

“The academic study of literature leads basically nowhere, as we all know, unless you happen to be an especially gifted student, in which case it prepares you for a career teaching the academic study of literature—it is, in other words, a rather farcical system that exists solely to replicate itself and yet manages to fail more than 95 percent of the time. Still, it’s harmless, and can even have a certain marginal value. A young woman applying for a sales job at Céline or Hermès should naturally attend to her appearance first and foremost; but a degree in literature can constitute a secondary asset, since it guarantees the employer, in the absence of any useful skills, a certain intellectual agility that could lead to professional development—besides which, literature has always carried positive connotations in the world of luxury goods.”

19 dearieme November 22, 2015 at 8:08 am

“The academic study of literature” is largely chaps who can’t write chattering about chaps who can. Some of the chaps are chapesses.

20 Gafiated November 23, 2015 at 2:15 am

Some of the chaps are wearing chaps.

21 Art Deco November 22, 2015 at 9:55 am

You are aware of what is meant by ‘liberal education’ and ‘liberal arts’ v. ‘mechanical arts’? It’s not supposed to prepare you for any distinct trade.

22 dearieme November 22, 2015 at 10:04 am

I am well aware. Claiming that the average course in Eng Lit is a part of The Humanities is a pretty sick joke though.

23 Thomas Taylor November 22, 2015 at 11:42 am

Mybe YOU are a pretty sick joke.

24 Art Deco November 22, 2015 at 2:17 pm

When you’ve sobered up and slathered some Anbesol on your rotting teeth, maybe you could tell us what you could possibly know of English literature as it is taught here.

25 rayward November 22, 2015 at 6:06 am

Houllebecq: I’m not sure what to make of Houllebecq. I haven’t read Submission but I did read the review of Submission by Karl Ove Knausgaard (author of My Struggle) in the NYT on November 2nd and I thought I understood the point of the book. Then Houllebecq wrote a guest op/ed for the NYT about the attack in Paris in which he opined that to save ourselves we must succumb to a police state and to save democracy we must abandon representative government and adopt direct democracy (or government by mob). My question: who is failing whom: the people governed (Submission) or their government (the op/ed).

26 Thiago Ribeiro November 22, 2015 at 7:20 am

Both. Neither.

27 Ray Lopez November 22, 2015 at 10:50 am

Maybe Houllebecq was in character, like Sasha Barron Cowen was in his interviews for his comedic films?

BTW, I’m not reading this guy, who apparently is doing a ‘data dump’ of his (warped but sometimes funny) mind: Larry Kramer, The American People – ( reviewer): “It’s difficult to rate this book being that it’s really only half a book, I need to see what’s going to happen before I can fully decide. Many people have complained the book needs an editor, but it has had one. The book is 4000 pages long. You are getting 800 in part one and say another 800 in part two, that’s 2400 pages cut. Kramer says after part two is published he plans to self-publish the remaining 2400 pages. I can’t see anyone on earth reading that”

28 Bill Benzon November 22, 2015 at 7:45 am

NO BOOK is a “must read” and “readings” are a dime a dozen. Literature doesn’t need interpretative readings. Interpretive readings are mostly an artifact of academic literary culture. It remains to be seen whether they make any contribution to knowledge or whether they’re mostly currency in the formation of intellectual communities.

29 Jamie_NYC November 22, 2015 at 8:07 am

“New World” is a very original novel, short and breezy (one afternoon read). However, I thought it was technically quite weak (and wrote so on Amazon): the main male character is so unconvincing that I thought that the novel must have been written by two female authors, or perhaps by two gay men (as Charles Bukowski wrote: “Male characters I can invent, because I’m one of them, but it is impossible for me to completely invent a female character – I have to take it from real life” (quoted from memory)).

30 prior_approval November 22, 2015 at 8:09 am

‘Michel Houellebecq, Soumission/Submission. The correct reading is always a level deeper than the one you are currently at.’

Prof. Cowen, praising a text that is always beyond your ability to read correctly. Though possibly not beyond a web site writer’s ability to interpret, depending on one’s view of how humility presents itself in his public writing.

31 Gochujang November 22, 2015 at 10:52 am

Please read my comments one level deeper than I intend.

32 dearieme November 22, 2015 at 12:33 pm


33 Art Deco November 22, 2015 at 8:14 am

Larry Kramer, The American People. Epic, reviewed a lot but then oddly overlooked in a crowded year. –

You’re plugging this again? The man’s a wreck-lunatic.

34 efp November 23, 2015 at 3:06 pm

I started it. Found it utterly tedious. I suppose one might find it titillating, if you’ve never heard of Burroughs and the like. Does it get any better?

35 Hoosier November 22, 2015 at 9:43 am

Are you specifically recommending the new translation of Genji, or just the novel itself? The previous Royall Tyler translation was wonderful and from what I have read this version by Washburn does not better it.

36 Anon November 22, 2015 at 6:10 pm

I am not sure that there is much difference between the two (except perhaps to someone who is already fluent in Heian era Japanese. I think Washburn is better in some parts Royall Tyler in others (the notes in the Washburn translation are excellent)*. It strikes me as strange that another major translation has been published so soon after the Royal Tyler translation (which was an important update on Waley/Seidensticker) especially for a book that very few people read in English.

I am about halfway through Washburn.

37 Anon. November 22, 2015 at 10:17 am

Opinions on the new Iliad translation? The amazon reviews are glowing…

38 Anon November 22, 2015 at 6:19 pm

Green’s Argonautica was very good however I don’t think this translation offers enough of an improvement on Lattimore to make it the choice of someone who will only read one English translation, The notes are excellent and if people are encouraged to read the Illiad fantastic.

You might like to read this “professional” review.

39 T. Shaw November 22, 2015 at 10:30 am

The largest sources of fiction are academia, government and the media.

40 dearieme November 22, 2015 at 10:56 am

“Best fiction of 2015”: probably Hitlery’s tales of her private server.

41 anon November 22, 2015 at 1:48 pm

>“Best fiction of 2015”: probably Hitlery’s tales of her private server.

Godwin’s law and all that.

Try “Nihillary” (queen of the nihiliberals)…

42 Bob November 22, 2015 at 5:39 pm

Which of these books did you read in their entirety? You’ve mentioned before that you don’t actually read most of the books you mention and review.

43 Faze November 22, 2015 at 6:06 pm

“Any book is new if you haven’t read it yet.” I just finished Arnold Bennet’s “Old Wives Tale” (1909), and was bowled over by the psychological acuity and precision of the prose. How come no one any longer reads this marvelous author?

44 James Canav November 22, 2015 at 8:34 pm

Binti stunk, meaningless and we get it with the Clay on her head. Only good thing is how short it was, do you actually read any of these books?

45 Sherwood Belangia November 23, 2015 at 10:38 am

I would say LILA by Marilynne Robinson was the best fiction book I read this year.

46 Ian Leslie November 24, 2015 at 9:48 am

Rachel Cusk, Outline, was my novel of the year. Intelligent, opaque. Suspect Tyler would like it very much (plus it’s short. Short is good).

47 sunraysat November 25, 2015 at 2:14 am

ok, i like it , it can help me
thank you very much

48 Justin Brown November 27, 2015 at 1:45 pm

I recently read Nick Totem’s ‘A M M’ and thought it was truly exceptional.
It’s a post-apocalyptic sci-fi with some really fresh ideas and a perfectly paced plot that never felt predictable or cliche.
Well worth taking a moment to check out some of the reviews over at amazon and visit the authors website. If you’re a fan of dystopia and science fiction, A M M is as good as they come this year. Easily top of my list.

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