fiction

Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return by Martin Riker

Martin Riker’s debut novel Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return (Coffee House Press, 2018) is a masterclass in writing compelling, well-crafted fiction. Riker’s precise and careful execution of a number of ambitious craft elements—including a structure inspired by a 19th-century novel (Robert Montgomery Bird’s Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself) and the main character inhabiting different bodies that all have distinctly written voices—is impressive. And as he pulls off feats of point of view and voice throughout this body-hopping journey, Riker never wavers from the emotionally affective core of the story: a man trying to get home to his son to say he loves him. —Carolina VonKampen

Comemadre by Roque Larraquy

Heather Cleary’s 2018 translation of Roque Larraquy’s Comemadre is equal parts horror and comedy. In a sanitarium in Buenos Aires, a group of early twentieth century doctors craft an experiment that will allow them a glimpse into the afterlife. They build a machine to decapitate terminally ill patients and wait to hear the patients’ final words before their brain completely expires. Given the absurd premise, the minimal, yet impressive, prose devotes little time to unnecessary specifics. The book is viewed through the perspective of Dr. Quintana, and though he is a key member of the team, his pursuit of the head nurse Menéndez commands most of his attention to detail. The novel’s second section takes place in 2009 and concerns an artist’s manipulation of the body for the purposes of art. Larraquy uses family lineage to give the sections some concrete connection point, but more interesting is their shared dispassionate view of the human body. Little of the comedy comes out of the medical ineptitude of generations past as one might expect. Instead the book shows how the fetishization of the body spans generations, and how any attempt to elevate the human form into the divine is futile. I guess the joke is that we will never stop trying. —Dusty Freund

Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba

In Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba (Portobello Books, 2017) a young girl, Marina, is sent to an orphanage after her parents die in a car crash that she survives. We learn in alternating perspectives of narration that both Marina and the orphaned girls love each other but can’t communicate it; their actions come out wrong and disconnected. Barba captures this strangeness of childhood with a dark mood that permeates the prose, which is brimming with repetition, abstractions, and vivid similes such as: “Like a glass, her face filled up with humiliation.” This story is chilling—it haunts you long after you’ve put down the 97-page novel. —Carolina VonKampen

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

In a novel about an art forgery and the various forgeries, or reincarnations, of three people linked by one paining across more than three centuries, Smith's Last Painting (Sarah Crichton Books, 2016) offers a master class in the use of painterly detail to build a canvas of prose images. Sentences like this one abound: “The girl had been lavished with very fine brushwork, the hem of her dress frayed by a hundred filaments of paint, each one half the width of a human hair.” Couple that sort of close attention to painting and jazz clubs and and human behavior with a meticulously constructed plot and the near-universal praise for this novel is no surprise. —Laura Moretz

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan’s latest novel features spunky, relentlessly modern WWII diver Anna Kerrigan and the intertwining of her life and family with local gangster Dexter Styles. Although Manhattan Beach (Scribner, 2017) undeniably contains the gratifying reading experience of an ambitiously researched and detailed big book, I found the real pleasure to be in parsing its deliberate, artificially constructed parallels—an Egan-istic trademark that will appeal to fans of Goon Squad. There’s interlinking arrangement of plot and theme, and character flux: for example, noticeable slip between the two fathers and their relationships with their daughters; symbolic barefoot beach walks; and a puzzling self-destructive morality shared among the main characters. If you enjoy detailed historical novels or more experimental fare, pick up Manhattan Beach regardless. —Jessica Rogen

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

The obvious parallel in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991) is King Lear: an aging farmer abruptly hands his operation down to his three daughters and their husbands, one daughter is excommunicated, and the others are left to cope with their father’s diminishing mental faculties. But another parallel comes from its depiction of modern industrial farming in 1979 America. Acquired through less than honorable means, the farm has thrived under the Cook family for generations, but the impending 1980s economy poses unique and unforeseeable challenges to the idea of the family farm. What at first seems a simple Shakespeare adaptation becomes an intimate character study and quickly blossoms into a horrific story of capitalism, trauma, and family. The final pages hold some of the best writing I’ve ever seen. I was shook. –Dusty Freund

Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash

The eponymous anti-hero of Habash's debut (Coffee House Press, 2017) is a tightly wound, antisocial college wrestler in his final year of eligibility. He is singularly determined to win the 133 lb. weight class in the NCAA Division IV wrestling championship while battling his own demons, his emotional isolation, a complex relationship with his teammate Linus, and a new romance with his classmate Mary Beth. Set against the backdrop of North Dakota, this journey through the obsessive mind of an unreliable narrator is a richly rewarding look at the American drive to win at all costs. —Michael Nye

The Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee once said of his own writing that instead of creating characters he personified ideas. He’d intended to identify a shortcoming, but The Life and Times of Michael K (Secker & Warburg, 1983) is as good as it is because it makes human some of the thorniest and most interesting human ideas. Set against the backdrop of a fictional Apartheid-era South African civil war, the intellectually slow and ever-earnest Michael K wants no part of the upheaval around him. But it won’t let him be. The novel, which won the Booker Prize in 1983, is a two hundred page mediation on the impossibility of being separate from the times you live in. An idea both timely and timeless. —Ryan Krull

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

Three years ago the terrific American novelist Kent Haruf passed away, but not before completing his final novel, Our Souls at Night (Knopf, 2015), which is an elegant swan song/love story worthy not only of its creator, but of its touching, senior-citizen couple—Louis and Addie, who now enjoy the cinematic afterlife of being portrayed by Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in the film version released on Netflix last month. Haruf is perhaps best known for his best-selling novel Plainsong (1999), which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and for creating Holt, Colorado, a small town on the high plains in the eastern part of the state, of which he once said, “It’s not pretty, but it’s beautiful.” I knew Kent as a soft-spoken, kind gentleman, and one of our great contemporary Western writers. —William J. Cobb

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

To be Korean living in Japan was to be in identity limbo. Min Jin Lee softly examines the absurd impossibility of assimilation in her latest novel, Pachinko (Grand Central Publishing, 2017), which follows four generations of a Korean family from the end of one world war to the other. Though I could recommend the novel as a history lesson or a sad parallel to modern immigrants’ circumstances, I’d rather focus on the dynamite perspective changes and the way Lee ends her chapters with beautifully subtle turns that compelled me to continue reading on and on and on. –Jessica Rogen