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The Best Novels of 2014

Let me open contentiously: I’m bored by the 2014 year-end lists in literature, especially from big print newspapers. The reason? There is a measure of comfort in books coverage that breaks faith with the lively, exploratory spirit of contemporary literature. And 2014 has been an exemplary year in this regard, especially for poetry and the novel.

The novel is changing. Whether it comforts you or not, literary fiction is shedding its obsession with the page-turner in favor of sophisticated, language-rich novels that are no less readable for being unabashedly smitten with the intersection of life and words. There isn’t a novel on this list that is difficult to read, and yet I get the feeling that readability was far from the first thing on these writer’s minds as they completed their work.

Part of the way we know this: many of these novels are either bildungsromans, novels that deal with maturation and education, or künstlerromans, novels about an artist or writer coming to the point where they can create their art. This fact alone is fascinating, especially in a year where maturation from childhood to adulthood has been thrown into question. These books assert that there are no hard breaks — punctuations — in life that easily demarcate how we develop; nor do they decline belief that humans mature through language. And language is key. So, too, is fiction. These novels suggest that what is real is somehow tied to life and living, and living is itself composed in large part of fictions.

10:04, Ben Lerner

This book, even more than Knausgaard’s My Struggle, is a clarion call for a new fiction built on the premise that real life is composed of fictions. It shreds the notion, inherent to the postmodern novel, that the self must be lost in systems of entropy or disinformation.

Lila, Marilynne Robinson

If you replaced “religion” or “religious” with “existence” or “existential” in every review of a Marilynne Robinson novel, you’d be much closer to what she’s getting at, and she’d probably sell more books. Lila is Robinson’s fiercest existential novel. It tells the story of a Faulknerian idiot named Lila who matures through rough times into marriage and adulthood. Yet by “story” I mean only that Lila becomes as conscious of herself as the reader is of her.

I’ll Be Right There, Kyung-Sook Shin

This reflective novel of formation forms a much-needed bridge between “Eastern” and “Western” literature. But it also fits squarely with other great books from 2014 in the way that it chooses to interpret life through fictions.

Our Lady of the Nile, Scholastique Mukasonga

In this formidable debut novel, Mukasonga channels Thomas Mann and delivers an African The Magic Mountain. Set in a Catholic girls’ school, often during a rainy season, this novel establishes a heterotopic world that reflects on the attitudes that led to the Rwandan genocide.

My Struggle, Book 3: Boyhood, Karl Ove Knausgaard

My Struggle, like Lerner’s 10:04, is about refusing to accept that the self gets drowned in life, or that life gets drowned in struggle. It is, like it or not, an attempt on the part of the author to elevate himself into the cultural archive. The best way I can describe the My Struggle series: for Knausgaard, the oeuvre — the body of work — has replaced the soul.

The Wallcreeper, Nell Zink

Nell Zink’s novel stays ahead of the reader by virtue of its author’s fleet mind and fleeter prose. It appears to have been written by Zink as an out-of-body experience. Flush with idiom, metaphor, and plot points that simply do not exist in novels before it, The Wallcreeper is the most radically new book of the year. It also has the slyest ending, as its protagonist — who through various levels of romantic and intellectual dependence on and independence from men — decides not to give a fuck. Then she starts writing The Wallcreeper.

Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish

Atticus Lish’s debut is the soul of fiction in 2014. Throw rote critical compliments in the trash: Preparation for the Next Life exists purely out of the immense solicitude of its author. A love story about a war veteran and a Uighur immigrant, it refocuses our gaze on the margins of New York City, where it belongs.

Faces in the Crowd, Valeria Luiselli

In 2014, no book grew on me more than Faces in the Crowd. Luiselli’s debut grabs three strands of narration and twists them into a single, psychogeographical thread. Imagine Teju Cole’s Open City or Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station; as a debut novel, it’s that good.

Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill

Maybe in your capacious mind, the story of a relationship or marriage is one seamless chronicle that spans its entirety. Or maybe, as in Jenny Offill’s masterful Dept. of Speculation, it is an accumulation of memories, thoughts, and spontaneous emotions. This novel, one that hews so close to life, will be seen in a year’s time as the prelude to the novels of 2015, which is certain to be the year that the novel redistributes our perceptions of love, marriage, and motherhood.

A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James

The 2014 novel that most proves there is no rubric that separates long, readable, plot-heavy novels from books that push the boundaries of language. In fact, Marlon James’ novel is probably the easiest to recommend to the widest number of people, mostly because it works in several registers.

A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, Eimear McBride

The year’s biggest affront to the complacency of the page-turning English language novel, Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing has precedents in the work of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. More than any other book in 2014, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing refuses to accept that its readers are incapable, easily bored, or lazy. Like Lerner’s 10:04, this is a book about keeping it together. And like My Struggle: Boyhood, it’s the story of a child’s maturation told through language.

Leavetaking, Peter Weiss

Peter Weiss is among the most important postwar writers in drama and fiction. His historical novel The Aesthetics of Resistance is the best such book to come out of Western Europe after the war. His dramas Hölderlin and Marat/Sade also rank among the best of postwar literature. He was an accomplished painter and filmmaker. The best entry point into Weiss’ work is this novel, published in July by Melville House. A masterpiece of autofiction, it destroys narrative conventions and invents new ones while telling the story of a bourgeois child who grows into maturity as an artist. (It’s actually one-half of a larger book called Exiles, and I hope Melville House picks up the second half and repackages them.) To put it plainly: without Weiss, the work of Sebald, Krasznahorkai, Lerner, and Knausgaard is unfathomable.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena Ferrante

The third book of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay updates this entrancing story (also a long-term double bildungsroman) of two friends who take divergent life paths. I can think of no ongoing fiction (including Knausgaard’s My Struggle) that more faithfully traces the relation of the self to others in love and friendship.

Panic in a Suitcase, Yelena Akhtiorskaya

From Nell Zink to Catherine Lacey to Yelena Akhtiorskaya: this was not only the year of the debut, it was the year of the debut of tantalizing sentences — except that Akhtiorskaya’s are the best of the bunch. She understands that great prose has zero to do with experimentation for experimentation’s sake. Instead, each of Akhtiorskaya’s often hilarious sentences is a world unto itself. And what a world to discover in 2014.

Self-Portrait in Green, Marie NDiaye

This book skirts the line between a collection of short fiction, memoir, and novel, but I think it’s best understood as a set of scenes, variations on the theme of the “green lady” — an invention of NDiaye’s — that wades through feminine fear, power, and insecurity like no other book I’ve encountered.