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Last month, when Denis Johnson won the National Book Award in fiction for his novel Tree of Smoke, the author wasn’t around to pick up the prize. He was in Iraq instead, working on a story about the Kurds. New York magazine’s Vulture blog, handicapping the competition, figured that this detail might matter to the folks in charge of awarding the NBAs: Johnson’s Iraq adventure, Boris Kachka wrote, was “a story in itself—and one the judges will probably like.” It’s hard to say for certain how much that helped, but it’s easy to figure that the coronation of Tree of Smoke—backed up by its placement on the New York Times‘ and Washington Post‘s lists of the ten best books of the year—was the product of such a knee-jerk assumption. The United States is fighting a war; therefore, a war novel matters more than other novels. Big novels matter more than small novels; therefore, a 600-plus-page novel about Vietnam was going to be the most important work of fiction an American produced this year.
Never mind Tree of Smoke‘s flaws, which are legion. There’s the vague plot, which, once it defogs in its final third, reveals itself as a flat-footed tale of double-agentry; there’s the purple prose that follows a Lurp named James Houston, who becomes less and less human with every Vietnamese hooker in which he sheathes himself; the deadly duality-of-man ruminations that every character processes, and which aren’t markedly different from those in other, better, Vietnam stories. (And this is nitpicking, I know, but is it too much to ask that, at this late date, Vietnam novels get their facts straight? Especially the critically acclaimed ones? In 1968, CIA agent Skip Sands flips through Time and Newsweek to learn about the chaos the year wrought: MLK, RFK, My Lai. But didn’t the My Lai massacre only come to light until 1969?) If a recent book about the self-deceptions of GIs is what you’re looking for, Tracy Kidder‘s My Detachment has the benefit of being fact-based and a third the size; if what you wanted was a clear-eyed portrait of the moral degradations that covert operations create, the underrated Ward Just’s excellent Forgetfulness does the trick nicely.
There’s nothing wrong in looking to fiction for some kind of window into our current state—it’s a good part of the reason why we read it. And for all its frustrations, the ambition reflected in Tree of Smoke can only be a healthy thing. But in 2007, allegories were abundant, many of them much better than Johnson’s doorstop. I began the year deciding to concentrate my reading on new fiction by American writers, and early on I worried that I’d set myself up for a lot of pain—in the worst-case scenario, I was dutifully processing dozens of narcissistic tales about domestic dysfunction, which have been a staple in American fiction.
I did wind up with some of that—Annie Dillard‘s The Maytrees and Jane Smiley‘s Ten Days in the Hills being two decent entries in a generally dispiriting genre. To a large extent, though, American writers were eager to get the hell out of Dodge, disinterested in confronting the Iraq war directly but not wanting to abandon its themes either. No fewer than three well-publicized novels from major houses—Nathan Englander‘s The Ministry of Special Cases, Daniel Mason‘s A Far Country, and Daniel Alarcon‘s Lost City Radio—were tales of the disappeared in Latin American countries, and I don’t think it’s an accident that they all showed up on shelves this year. Alarcon’s fable is the most compelling of the batch, thoughtfully imagining a postwar land in which towns have their names expunged. It is certainly a land more vivid than the post-9/11 New York that Don DeLillo imagines in his dim icicle of a novel, Falling Man, in which ghostlike characters spout familiar platitudes—to the extent they did anything much at all.
The better stories about betrayal and escape in 2007 were set well away from the America we know: not just Lost City Radio but Vendela Vida‘s strikingly spare Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, in which the heroine shoves off to Lapland; Junot Diaz’s lively The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which gets much of its energy from its Dominican detours; Matthew Sharpe‘s entertaining colonization spoof, Jamestown; Colum McCann‘s biographical tale of a Polish gypsy poet in exile, Zoli. Not every allegory worked. I kept rooting for Michael Chabon‘s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union as I slogged through it, hoping that the prose might eventually match its brilliant conceit about a Jewish state in Alaska. But Chabon never did seem to decide whether his hard-boiled prose was meant to be playful or outright parodic, rendering its main characters thin and its storytelling clunky; who wants to drive a Lexus that handles like a UPS truck?
My plan to stick to new American fiction and nothing but broke down pretty quickly—there were too many nonfiction books I wanted to get to, and older books kept finding their way onto my to-read stack. (And ultimately, sticking with Americans felt a little stubborn; my top-ten fiction list below includes a Canadian, Vincent Lam, and Lionel Shriver, a North Carolina native who’s been living in the UK for the past two decades.) Ironically, the novel I loved best had all the elements I worried most about confronting: Ha Jin‘s A Free Life isn’t just about a family that’s trying to make ends meet, it’s about nothing but that; its drama is no more complicated than the efforts of its hero to run a business, burn his mortgage, and, maybe, become a poet. It’s dead simple, and the complaint about it is that not a whole lot happens—a money scare here, a marital spat there. But assimilation novels, especially ones about immigrants, aren’t built on large dramas—they’re built on the fear of a death by a thousand cuts, that there’s always going to be something that will shipwreck you, that chasing the American dream means always having a Sword of Damocles over your head. A Free Life isn’t simply about making it—it’s about the slow, steady panic that comes along with trying to make it, and that tension resonates deeply through its pages.
There’s something effortful in Jin’s prose as a non-native writer—his sentences are at once primly mannered yet rough-hewn, stacked together like piles of loading-dock pallets. Yet the writing in A Free Life never feels strained, and Jin never seems less than in full command of the story he’s telling—and to know that such an objectively small story merits his widescreen take indicates a supremely confident writer. In five years you’ll be hard-pressed to find somebody with an abiding interest with Tree of Smoke; A Free Life, like its hero, is dug in deep and built to last.
1. Ha Jin, A Free Life (Pantheon)
2. Daniel Alarcon, Lost City Radio (HarperCollins)
3. Vendela Vida, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name (Ecco)
4. Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead)
5. Andre Aciman, Call Me by Your Name (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
6. Lionel Shriver, The Post-Birthday World (HarperCollins)
7. Vincent Lam, Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures (Weinstein)
8. Joyce Carol Oates, The Gravedigger’s Daughter (Ecco)
9. Adrian Tomine, Shortcomings (Drawn and Quarterly)
10. Jack Pendarvis, Your Body Is Changing (MacAdam/Cage)