Each year the editors of the Believer generate a short list of the novels they thought were the strongest and, in their opinion, the most undervalued of the year. The 2007 list appears below, along with several writers’ citations. In the last issue, we asked our readers to send in their nominations for the best work of fiction from 2007; their answers, along with the winner from the following short list, will appear in the June issue.
The Short list
- Samedi the Deafness, Jesse Ball (Vintage)
- Sunless, Gerard Donovan (Overlook)
- Zeroville, Steve Erickson (Europa Editions)
- Generation Loss, Elizabeth Hand (Small Beer)
- African Psycho, Alain Mabancko (Soft Skull)
- Remainder, Tom McCarthy (Vintage)
- The Revisionist, Miranda Mellis (Calamari)
- The Power of Flies, Lydie Salvayre (Dalkey Archive)
- The Meat and Spirit Plan, Selah Saterstrom (Coffee House Press)
- An Ordinary Spy, Joseph Weisberg (Bloomsbury)
Maybe by seducing me into giddy bitter commiseration and then swiftly making those feelings seem deeply misguided, or maybe by repeatedly startling me with unsought (even deeply resisted) compassion and grace—somehow or other the stories in Rebecca Curtis’s collection Twenty Grand keep haunting me. I didn’t want to love a fat “ex-psychiatrist,” or a repellently depressed law student, or a whiny teen. Curtis’s prose left me no choice, though, and I even felt myself welcoming fiction’s old nineteenth-century aspiration to make us better people. I seriously doubt moral improvement was Curtis’s intention, but there you go. Her work reminded me that the seemingly ordinary house of the short story is still capacious enough to hold, well, yes, a cathedral. And Lydia Davis’s gorgeously uncomfortable story collection published this year, Varieties of Disturbance, reminded me that apparently this cathedral can even be contained in a closet. Also: even though they aren’t really 2007 books, they did come to us in English in 2007, and modern literature now feels immeasurably smarter, funnier, and tastier to me for the presence of Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives and (finally) the collected translated poems of Zbigniew Herbert.
It’s hard to come down to one book so I’m cheating and proposing two. Robert Hass’s Time and Materials, an extraordinarily various book, deep and inquiring of the world and poetry. Ron Padgett’s How to Be Perfect, marvelously daffy while being somehow wise.
Amanda Eyre Ward
“Mall traffic on a gray winter’s day, stalled.” So begins the most beautiful book I read this year, Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan. Manny DeLeon, the general manager of a Red Lobster which is about to close, parks his “shitbox of a Buick” and the story begins. It’s an achingly sad story, and gorgeously lyrical. O’Nan doesn’t glamorize Manny and his plight (he’ll be demoted and sent to the Olive Garden in Bristol, fifteen minutes away; he’ll never see Jacquie, his best waitress and the love of his life, again). Nor does he step back and observe the scene with irony and condescension. Instead, O’Nan notes the details—a string of Christmas lights festooning the lobster tank, Jacquie’s ring tone (“Get Ur Freak On”), the constant chores that keep a restaurant running. In these details, and in his serious consideration of an ordinary man on a gray winter’s day, O’Nan finds magic.
The best book I read in 2007 was Stoner by John Williams. It’s perhaps the best book I’ve read in years. But it came out a long time ago, didn’t sell many copies, and the author died. Stoner was re-released by New York Review of Books Classics in 2006. A few people noticed, and that was that. Maybe it was too sad for popular consumption. Without wasting a word, this short novel captures the entirety of a man’s life. I give you this one quote:
In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.
My favorite new book from 2007 was The Farther Shore by Matthew Eck. Norman Mailer wrote that “major war novels are not difficult to write—it is just difficult to find writers of sizable talent who come close to war.” Eck, a soldier who served in Haiti and Somalia, is that writer of sizable talent, which he puts on display in this haunting portrait of modern warfare.
Jonathan Coe’s The Rain Before It Falls (published in the U.K. in 2007, in the U.S. in March) exceeded all possible expectations, representing an entirely new style—no bizarre plots, no Grand Guignol satire, no politics, no chapter-long sentences, no comedy set pieces. It’s the generational story of the women in a family, kicked off by the suicide of an aunt and the discovery of a book of photographs, each of which is described in detail, book-on-tape-style, by the deceased for a blind legatee. Coe has written an homage to the green-spined Virago Modern Classics—writers such as Dorothy Richardson, May Sinclair, Rosamund Lehmann, Elizabeth Taylor (not the author of Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair with Jewelry: the other one). I’ve become obsessed with many of these writers myself (and I’d like also to recommend The Vet’s Daughter  by Barbara Comyns, which hit me like a dangerous drug earlier this year: one of the best books I’ve ever read). While the taped narrative voice of Rosamund remains enjoyably acid-toned, I loved the quietly dignified (and liberating) sentiment Coe’s channeling of these writers afforded him. He even managed to have the novel pass through the Dorset film set of Powell and Pressburger’s Gone to Earth, therefore proving once again—as if he needed to, having named The Rotter’s Club for an album by Hatfield and the North—that, for some reason, this is an author who knows exactly what I personally want to read. I appreciate that. Why don’t people pay him more attention in America?
Veronica Gonzalez’s twin time: or, how death befell me. I loved the fabric of this book; the rhythm was palpable. The forces swirling in and around the young girl and the estranged and luscious descriptions of nature and mating and storytelling and dreams were told so silently. It was like being in an aquarium looking out somehow.
Lately I’ve been thinking about not just books but the spirit behind certain books. Spirit is an imprecise word, and I use it to include both the thought that goes into the making of a book and also the necessity of that thought. Many books just don’t seem necessary, and although Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson, is a quiet book, it seems to exist for a reason. I don’t know what that reason is, and I don’t need to know. All the awareness and curiosity and honesty in the book seem to spring from its basic necessity. And I recommend this book because the spirit of that necessity was clear to me.