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Personal and political conundrums
Hereís a selection of fiction that Phoenix reviewers liked this year, in alphabetical order by author.

1) Nicholson Baker, Checkpoint (Knopf)

With this fantasy about the assassination of President George W. Bush, Nicholson Baker stepped out of the world of exquisite literary gamesmanship and into the realm of pop culture that includes (pre-Alexander) Oliver Stone and Ermine. Two educated middle-class white guys, Jay and Ben, sit around talking about Jayís plan to assassinate the president, the argument going back and forth as Jay thrusts and Ben demurs. Funny and horrifying, Checkpoint is about limits ó of presidential power, of law, of discourse, or rationality, and of language itself.

2) Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Madeleine Is Sleeping (Harcourt)

The controversy surrounding this yearís National Book Award nominations doesnít obscure the achievement of this finalist. In her debut novel, Bynumís dreamlike circular narrative is populated by fantastical characters right out of Aliceís Wonderland, including its title heroine, through whose dreams we enter the story. Bynumís unusual creations (Matilde, who "must gather up her fat just as another woman gathers up her skirts," and M. Pujol, who can fart an impressive range of animal noises and musical tunes) offer ample fodder for lit-crit analysis, but you wonít need the assistance of M. Barthes or M. Derrida to appreciate this novelís beautiful images and spare, poetic prose.

3) David Markson, Vanishing Point (Shoemaker & Hoard)

Septuagenarian avant-gardist David Markson is a great American comic original, as indebted to William Gaddis as to Beckett or Joyce. In Vanishing Point, as in his past two novels (1996ís Readerís Block and 2001ís This Is Not a Novel), a shadowy narrative presence (referring to himself this time only as Author) meditates on life, death, and the frustrations on art in a series of one-liner anecdotes separated by white space ("A seascape by Henri Matisse was once hung upside down in the Museum of Modern Art in New York ó and left that way for a month and a half," or "Tolstoy to Chekhov: You know I canít stand Shakespeareís plays, but yours are worse"). Plot, setting, and character are eschewed in favor of these variations of cultural detritus and the comic precision of the narratorís voice.

4) David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (Plume)

With his third novel, David Mitchell moves up a notch in the British literary hierarchy of the hottest: past Louis de Bernières and Lawrence Norfolk, encroaching on Will Self and Martin Amis. The overlapping narratives of Cloud Atlas have drawn comparisons to Russian matryoshka dolls, but genetic replication is a more apt analogy. The story jumps from an ocean voyager in 1851 to a bi-sexual composer in 1931 to an investigative reporter in 1970s California to current-day England and near-future settings in Korea and Hawaii. Mitchellís complex design delivers a profound entertainment.

5) Orhan Pamuk, Snow (Knopf)

The epigraph for Turkish author Pamukís fifth book to be translated into English comes from Stendhal: "Politics in a literary work are a pistol shot in the middle of a concert, a crude affair though one impossible to ignore." In Snow, Pamuk dramatizes the tension between art and politics ó art and life, really ó in the person of Ka, a Turkish poet who travels to the remote border village of Kars (echoing a similar trip made by Pushkin in 1829), ostensibly to report as a journalist on a local election and the unrelated suicides of three teenage Islamic schoolgirls. Ka tries to remain aloof, writing poetry as snow falls, but is inexorably drawn into the lives and stories of the people he talks to.

6) Philip Roth, The Plot Against America (Houghton Mifflin)

Itís 1940: aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, running on an isolationist "America First" platform, has just defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt in the presidential election, and we see subsequent events unfold through the eyes of nine-year-old Philip Roth, his 12-year-old brother Sandy, and their parents, Herman and Bess, in Newark. Any resemblance between the Republican administrations of Lindbergh and George W. Bush is highly suspect and unintended by the author, even with the creepy parallels between the Lindbergh Homestead Act and the Bush Patriot Act. Read this Plot not for its plot but for its character studies, its incidental details, its spot-on impersonation of a Walter Winchell campaign speech, and its authorís sense of ethnic anxiety, for the unerring rise and fall of its long sentences and their bitter, ironic twists.

7) Edward St. Aubyn, Some Hope: A Trilogy (Open City)

These three novellas, each running just over 100 pages, were first published separately in England in the early í90s; this past year they were collected and published in the US. The trilogy follows protagonist Patrick Melrose from an abusive childhood through a major drug problem and finally some sort of recovery. St. Aubyn is a skillful, insightful, and witty writer who has chosen to tell an unhappy story through the view of characters who tend to operate in an ironic mode. Still, and despite that mercifully distancing approach, Some Hope is, at times, a very sad book.

8) Isaac Bashevis Singer, Collected Stories (three volumes, Library of America)

The great Yiddish-American writer was fêted in his centennial year by this monumental three-volume collection from the Library of America ó almost 200 stories, 13 of them previously uncollected. Singer yokes folk fable forms with a modern sensibility, naturalism with mysticism. His is a tragicomic view of the world in which the past is forever alive and the transition from old to new ó in the form of ethnic assimilation ó is profoundly painful.

9) Colm Tóibín, The Master (Scribnerís)

Irish novelist Tóibín looks at a stalled period in the career of Henry James, before the late, great flowering that brought forth The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl; he captures the flavor of the era in which James lived and, more important, imagines the writerís inner life, with its sexual conflicts, sibling rivalries, and other personal relationships. And he dramatizes Jamesís creative struggles in a prose style that convincingly mimics Jamesís own.

10) Joy Williams, Honored Guest (Alfred A. Knopf)

Death, disease, physical injury, and disappearance figure in these 12 stories, the follow-up to Williamsís darkly satirical 2000 novel The Quick and the Dead. The sudden, arbitrary nature of life and death is an ongoing puzzle to Williamsís characters ó a daughter coming to terms with her terminally ill mother, a wife looking after her semi-vegetative husband (injured in a bow-hunting accident), a woman who has inherited a dog from a friend who has died. But, far from being gloomy, Williamsís fiction embodies a weirdly exultant energy as it explores the edges of life.

Issue Date: December 24 - 30, 2004
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