A Novelist’s Picks of 2013

By Kurt Wenzel

“Death of the Black-Haired Girl”
By Robert Stone
    Even B+ Robert Stone is better than almost everybody else. The setup is conventional: an affair between a student and professor at a university bearing more than a passing resemblance to Yale. But the way it unravels is wholly unpredictable, as is every line of Mr. Stone’s dialogue — especially his New Yawk police talk — which remains (the author is 76) utterly realistic and yet somehow never clichéd.

    Here is a novel beyond good and evil. There are no heroes, no one to “root” for — the student’s spoiled recklessness is as irritating as the professor’s pomposity — and in the end nearly everyone loses. “Feel good” fiction? Not exactly, but indispensable for those unafraid of a hard look at America’s new narcissism. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25)

“Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick”
    Sometimes fans of P.K.D.’s work will go so far as to tell you that their hero was an American version of Jorge Luis Borges. That’s probably the herb talking, but even hyperbole cannot diminish the fact that the author’s futuristic visions have grown more popular (and perhaps more relevant) 30 years now after his death. There have been at least 12 movies made from his novels and stories, including “Total Recall,” “Minority Report,” and the immortal “Blade Runner.”

    The blight on P.K.D.’s career has always been overproductivity — the copious hack work done to stave off creditors, drug dealers, alimony, etc. This new collection solves that, whittling things down to 20 of his most essential stories. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28)

“All That Is”
By James Salter
    The life of Patrick Bowman, a soldier and book editor, reads like the quintessential arc of the postwar American male, and an elegy for a lost world. James Salter, whose lyrical flourishes have solidified his reputation as one of our greatest living writers — and simultaneously one of our most under-read — turns down the heat in his prose just enough to make this the most approachable fiction of his career.

    And just when you thought novels had lost the ability to shock, “All That Is” also boasts one of the few bombshell moments in recent literary memory: a scene of sexual betrayal between a man and a young woman. It earned Mr. Salter the tired moniker of “misogynist” in a Slate review earlier this year. But no matter. The carping of sexual politicians is for today; the work of James Salter is forever. (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95)

“Going Clear: Scientology,
Hollywood,
and the Prison of Belief”

By Lawrence Wright
    It’s even creepier than you thought. Lawrence Wright chronicles the enigmatic religion from its inception to its most recent incarnation, getting unprecedented access and testimony from those who were inside. We meet its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, as never before, lying about his military record and birthing a religion directly from his megalomaniac, science-fiction obsessed imagination.

    But it’s Scientology’s most recent chapter that may be its most disturbing. Its new leader, David Miscavige, seems to be running an internment camp where members put in 15-hour days while Hollywood stars are flown in for a sanitized weekend tour before dropping a hefty donation. And Mr. Miscavige doesn’t do Jesus, by the way; displease him and the unhinged, bodybuilding pontiff will beat you to a bloody pulp right on the spot. If only it were a novel, it would easily be one of the scariest of the year. (Alfred A. Knopf, $28.95)

“MaddAddam”
By Margaret Atwood
    The volumes of Margaret Atwood’s “MaddAddam” trilogy have been described either as a satire or an alarm, depending on one’s perspective. Most likely they are both. The story is set in a dystopian nightmare of humanity’s own making, and Ms. Atwood takes our contemporary obsessions — genetic modification, consumerism, environmental ignorance, corporate greed — and drives them to their logical conclusions. The results are not pretty, with huge, man-eating swine turning out to be the least of our problems.

    As ever, the trick of great science fiction is characters, not just ideas, so luckily “MaddAddam” has the humane and mordantly witty Toby as its narrator and central character. And, you’ll be relieved to know, there’s even a little romance to be had at the end of the world, when Toby is reunited with a love interest from volume two. (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $27.95)

“The Flamethrowers”
By Rachel Kushner
    There’s no question that Rachel Kushner’s second novel was fiction writers’ favorite of the year. It wasn’t so much the storytelling, which chronicles a young artist named Reno and her adventures in 1970s New York and Rome. Rather it was the electrifying sentences, which at their best can give off sparks and earned the author comparisons to no less than Don DeLillo. There is at least one astonishing image on almost every page of this nearly 400-page novel.

    True, Reno’s nouvelle vague romance with Sandro Valera, the scion of an Italian tire and motorcycle company, was a little too cool for school for some readers, and the book’s narrative is too fractious to be entirely satisfying. But sentence by sentence there is probably no better example this year of what 21st-century fiction is going to look like. (Scribner, $26.99)

“The Circle”
By Dave Eggers
    You could say that Dave Eggers was lucky that the N.S.A. surveillance scandal broke almost simultaneously with the publication of his newest fiction, a skeptical look at an Internet company not so loosely based on Google; or you could say that prescience is the reward for the instincts of a good novelist. Either way, “The Circle” touched a major nerve.

    The heroine, Mae Holland, appears to have landed the contemporary version of the dream job at the Circle, the kind of Internet company where workers lounge around on beanbag chairs and famous musicians serenade their organically prepared lunch on sprawling campus lawns. Too good to be true? You betcha. Just when you thought they were ready to make Steve Jobs’s birthday a national holiday, thankfully there are novelists like Mr. Eggers ready to challenge the hagiography of social media and technology. (Alfred A. Knopf/ McSweeney’s, $27.95)

“The Bully Pulpit”
By Doris Kearns Goodwin
    Luckily “The Bully Pulpit” is not another addition to the exhausted genre of Theodore Roosevelt biographies. Rather it is the story of the friendship between Roosevelt and Howard Taft, and the severing of that relationship when both men decide to run for president in 1912. Their fight stultifies the Republican Party and paves the way to the presidency for the hapless Woodrow Wilson.

    Doris Kearns Goodwin once again displays her storytelling gifts and her instinct for contemporary relevance: While her book on Lincoln showed a president overcoming a deeply divided Congress for the public good, “The Bully Pulpit” addresses the issues of income inequality, corporate mergers, and the lust for deregulation. (Simon & Schuster, $40)

“The Goldfinch”
By Donna Tartt
    This year’s literary blockbuster has all the can’t-miss elements, moving effortlessly from classic bildungsroman to social novel to conventional thriller — all of it topped off with a tasty dollop of culture. “The Goldfinch” is in fact a Dutch Master painting that accidentally comes into the possession of Theo, the novel’s orphan protagonist.

    Yes, there is more than a touch of Dickens in Donna Tartt’s story, and not every moment of this nearly 800-page novel thrills (the painting itself can disappear from focus for so many hundreds of pages you wonder if the center can still hold). But great novels inspire quibbling. In the end, this is an irresistible literary page-turner of remarkable breadth and feeling, and unquestionably the read of the year. (Little, Brown, $30)

“I’m Your Man: The Life
of Leonard Cohen”

By Sylvie Simmons
    The most satisfying biography so far of one of the most elusive and enigmatic figures in modern popular music. Leonard Cohen’s unusual arc takes him from a Canadian country band to literary novelist to the “second coming of Bob Dylan” to Buddhist monk.

    There are plenty of colorful stories, most of them, not surprisingly, of women, given Mr. Cohen’s “ladies’ man” reputation. There are the Js: Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, and of course Janis Joplin, who inspired the notorious “Chelsea Hotel #2.” A recording session with Phil Spector disintegrates into the usual gunplay. And finally we get some insight into “Famous Blue Raincoat,” one of the most discussed and disputed songs anyone has ever written (“going clear” turns out to be a reference to Scientology, not drugs).

    Like all great artists, Mr. Cohen is a complicated figure who usually wriggles out of biographers’ hands, but Sylvie Simmons does a yeoman’s job of keeping control. (Ecco, $27.99; released in hardcover late 2012, paperback 2013)


    Kurt Wenzel is the author of the novels “Lit Life,” “Gotham Tragic,” and “Exposure.” He lives in Springs.