Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum
What appear at first to be just interconnected short stories—albeit beautifully written, distinctively voiced, deeply smart, and very funny—in the end reveal themselves to have been a complete, organic novel about a love like none I’ve ever read about before. I don’t understand why people didn’t carry Bynum around New York City on their shoulders after this book was published. Maybe the title was too unassuming.
How to Sell by Clancy Martin
Martin, who in his other life teaches philosophy and writes lucid essays on Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, here channels the voice of a young cokehead selling jewelry for various shady outfits in Fort Worth in the early 1980s. The book has pretty much every strength I could ask for in an American novel: a distinctive and original tone; a first-person voice that’s fully invented, not merely borrowed from the writer’s own voice; great sophistication and authority and daring in its management of narrative chronology and point of view; but, at the same time, a lovely loose feel of riff and improvisation; a subtle but clear engagement with mainstream philosophical debates (e.g., Kierkegaard vs. Nietzsche); but, here again, an admirable lightness in its wearing of its erudition and its wedding of it to a street-wise modern tone; head-on engagement with vital American questions and preoccupations; powerful atmospherics of place and weather and era; vivid thumbnail portraits of eccentric minor characters; fascinating volumes of inside dope about a little-known subculture; great stories-within-stories; an impressive capacity to revel in dirtiness without losing sight of the larger moral picture; a toughness that feels real (i.e., born of pain and hard truth, not donned for an effect); lots and lots of laugh-out-loud gags and throwaway lines; good old-fashioned page-turning urgency, with casually shocking reversals and revelations; and an ending so harrowing it gave me nightmares.
Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne
A young man from the boonies comes to New York City to make his fortune. It’s an old story, but here the boonies are the Middle East, and the young man is an earnestly self-improving Muslim math whiz who goes to work for a private-equity firm shortly before the 9/11 attacks. He’s a type—the nerdy and needy young immigrant—that we’re all familiar with but that no other writer, as far as I know, has invented such a funny and compelling voice and story for. The novel unfolds as a series of diary entries, each ending with a list of American vocabulary words, and it does what novels can do better than any other art form: Show us a familiar world through unfamiliar eyes.
Oh The Glory of it All by Sean Wilsey
Technically speaking not a novel, but it reads like one. In part one of the great Outrageous Mother Stories ever told, in part an assiduously researched love poem to San Francisco, and in part the narrative of a juvenile delinquent getting literally cut and bruised (and arrested, and sent from reform school to reform school) as he fights his way toward maturity, Wilsey’s memoir is the kind of book that gets your bedmate annoyed with you for laughing too much and too loudly. And then socks you with sadness at the end.
Jonathan Franzen is the author of three novels—The Corrections, The Twenty-Seventh City, and Strong Motion —and two works of nonfiction, How to Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone , all published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He lives in New York City and Santa Cruz, California.