Critical Books of 2011
2011 was the Year of the Dark Horse. Highly anticipated books by the usual heavy hitters - Blue Nights by Joan Didion, Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks, Mrs. Nixon by Ann Beattie, just to name few - arrived not with a bang but a whimper. What came through instead was solid, impressive work by writers who were just starting out, writers who were stepping outside their known boundaries - and, in a few cases, writers who just can't seem to take a wrong step.
For Jeff Brewer, the year's best books were gritty and artfully grim, even gruesome. Donald Ray Pollock's The Devil all the Time, Percival Everett's Assumption, and Dennis Cooper's The Marbled Swarm all dealt with murder, mistrust, and shifting identities. Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta, mild by comparison, told of a deluded rock star, his devoted but exhausted sister, and the dissolution of their mutual daydreams. And while we're waxing dark and difficult, I have to mention Bonnie Nadzam's Lamb, which tells a tale of kidnapping, psychological abuse, and narcissism - all perpetrated in the name of love.
2011 was also a year for fantastic short story collections. Innovator and iconoclast Barry Hannah died in early 2010, and this year saw the release of a collection of his selected and previously unpublished stories, Long, Last, Happy. For Tracy O'Neill, it was the book of the year, hands down. Joseph McElroy, known for dense and challenging novels, came out with Night Soul and Other Stories, showing that he's equally adept at making mind-bending and dazzling work in the story form as in his longer fictions. And Daniel Orozco's Orientation announced the formal arrival of a wizard of the craft - we were thrilled to interview him about it.
A highly anticipated heavy hitter who did deliver was Craig Thompson with Habibi, one of Phil Guie's choices for best of the year. Massive in scale and ambition, Habibi is essentially a love story of two slaves told through a brilliant integration of classic storytelling and religious iconography. Phil's other choice, Metamaus by Art Spiegelman, is the final component of his now legendary Maus epic and a fascinating look into the creative journey Spiegelman undertook to bring it all to light.
Which brings us to my personal favorites. The Marriage Plot proved to me that Jeffrey Eugenides can write pretty much any kind of book he wants to - and he'll do it brilliantly. Once Upon a River was a stunning breakthrough book for Bonnie Jo Campbell, who also took time out to speak with us in depth about her book. Open City by Teju Cole opened my eyes to an exciting new writer, while The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips sent me back to Shakespeare with new love and the feeling of getting an inside joke. But over and above this bumper crop of great books, the essays in John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead inspired me the most as a writer, reader, and critic.
2011 surprised us with some new names and some unexpected discoveries. We hope you'll check them out, too.