33 Must-Read Books for Fall 2015

Even though Jonathan Franzen’s Purity is the first book on this list, it is in many ways the least important. The truth is that after a dizzying autumn, we may not remember Franzen’s novel at all. Just think: new novels by Elena Ferrante, Margaret Atwood, Valeria Luiselli, and Orhan Pamuk; short fiction by Joy Williams, Percival Everett, and William Gass; landscape-altering American debuts by Joanna Walsh and Eka Kurniawan; timely and timeless nonfiction from Gary Indiana, Carrie Brownstein, Patti Smith, and Margo Jefferson. Not to mention that the season brings a haul of great new works in translation, poetry collections, and a book of essays by Marilynne Robinson. And just when you thought the controversies of 2015 had died down, Michel Houellebecq returns in October to reopen our spiritual wounds… Franzen who?

franzen

Purity, Jonathan Franzen (FSG, September 1)

Franzen’s latest blockbuster is either an acceleration or a crash, depending on who gives you the news.

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The Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante, trans. Ann Goldstein (Europa, September 1)

The fourth installment in Ferrante’s Neapolitan series brings the decade’s greatest series of novels (so far) to a fitting conclusion.

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Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, Salman Rushdie (Random House, September 8)

Rushdie squeezes his allusive and multi-genre’d novel into just 300 pages. One wishes his tweets were as rich in their brevity.

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Did You Ever Have a Family, Bill Clegg (Scout Press, September 8)

Clegg’s first novel was recently long-listed for a Booker in advance of its US release. Before that, he wrote nonfiction about doing crack. Before turning to crack, he was a successful literary agent.

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Tram 83, Fiston Mwanza Mujila (Deep Vellum, September 8)

Mujila’s energetic debut about a “modern African gold rush” will be a welcome introduction — for most of us, anyway — to Congolese literature. It has already made waves in France.

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The Things We Don’t Do, Andreas Neuman, trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia (Open Letter, September 8)

More than most writers, you can tell a Neuman fiction without seeing the name of the author, even in translation. But it may be this often brilliant collection of short fiction that brings him to greater American prominence, even considering the fanfare over Traveler of the Century — a novel that frequently recalled the best work of Thomas Mann.

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The Visiting Privilege, Joy Williams (Knopf, September 8)

Ben Marcus chose to include one of Joy Williams’ stories in his new anthology of contemporary American short stories, only to find that it had been written in 1969. It’s a testament to how much American fiction seems to have been written in the wake of her own.

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Negroland: A Memoir, Margo Jefferson (Pantheon Books, September 8)

Pulitzer winner Jefferson’s personal history is — as she says about vigorous analysis of race, gender, and class prerogatives — as fundamental as “utensils and clothing.” This is to say that it’s one of the truly indispensable books of 2015.  

indiana

I Can Give You Anything But Love, Gary Indiana (Rizzoli Ex Libris, September 8)

It’s impossible to agree or disagree with all of Indiana’s (often fearless) critical pronouncements, but it’s likewise impossible to discount his tremendous style, wit, and erudition. Careworn copies of this long overdue memoir will change hands for the rest of the year and beyond.

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Half an Inch of Water, Percival Everett (Graywolf, September 15)

“In a perfect world,” Alex Balk once wrote for The Awl, “Percival Everett would dominate the bestseller list to such a degree that they would need to give him his own category.” Half an Inch of Water is not a novel but a collection of short fiction — Everett’s first in 11 years. Balk’s proclamation applies nonetheless.

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The Story of My Teeth, Valeria Luiselli, trans. Christina MacSweeney (Coffee House, September 15)

One of last year’s celebrated “5 Under 35” authors, Luiselli returns with a novel written for and in collaboration with Jumex factory workers. Unlike anything in contemporary US fiction, The Story of My Teeth — as the unforgettable protagonist “Highway” explains — is composed of “hyperbolics, parabolics, circulars, allegorics, and elliptics.”

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Undermajordomo Minor, Patrick deWitt (Ecco, September 15)

More than most books this season (I’m looking right at Rushdie), deWitt’s new novel — about a “compulsive liar, [and] sickly weakling” named Lucien Minor — manages to combine classical storytelling forms with an original and darkly subversive voice.

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Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff (Riverhead, September 15)

Described by its author as “more sudden audible wave than narrative,” Groff’s novel about a tempestuous marriage may conjure the same furies — and the same furious readership — that Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life did earlier this year.

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Beauty Is a WoundEka Kurniawan, trans. Annie Tucker (New Directions, September 8) / Man Tiger, Eka Kurniawan, trans. Labodalih Sembiring (Verso, September 15)

In terms of the literary novel, the year’s most stirring revelation is Eka Kurniawan. Described by Benedict Anderson as “Indonesia’s most original living writer of novels and short stories, and its most unexpected meteorite,” Kurniawan’s introduction to literature wasn’t writing but the oral storytelling that prevailed in his remote village — it shows. Imagine if Gogol adapted the films of Weerasethakul into novels.

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C. K. Williams: Selected Later Poems (FSG, September 22)

This collection chooses from the later work — 1997 to 2014 — of one of our best and most decorated poets. It’s also an object lesson in what you might call “the late-career introspective turn” — which Williams pulls off without forfeiting the clarity of his documentary vision.

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Trans: A Memoir, Juliet Jacques (Verso, September 22, 2015)

“The personal is political” — Elena Ferrante recently explained that she “owe[s] much to that famous slogan.” The idea is alive and well, too, in Juliet Jacques’ writing about her sexual reassignment surgery, which was featured in the Guardian and long-listed for an Orwell Prize. Trans, her moving new memoir, brings this story to American audiences and updates it. It also features an afterword with Sheila Heti.

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The Heart Goes Last: A Novel, Margaret Atwood, (Nan A. Talese, September 29)

She might be done with her MaddAddam trilogy, but Atwood hasn’t totally abandoned the future as a thought experiment. The Heart Goes Last is set in a near future where “the lawful are locked up and the lawless go free.”

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Vertigo, Joanna Walsh (Dorothy, October 1); Hotel, Joanna Walsh (Bloomsbury Academic, September 24)

Walsh has been praised to the skies by Chris Kraus and Jeff Vandermeer, and it isn’t hard to see why. Her writing sways between the tense and the absurd, as if it’s hovering between this world and another. This time last year, Dorothy brought us Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper. Walsh’s Vertigo may similarly redistribute the possibilities of contemporary fiction, especially if it meets with the wider audience her work demands.

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Eve’s Hollywood, Eve Babitz (NYRB Classics, October 6)

An artist, journalist, designer, and writer (among countless other things), Babitz also dated some famous men and played naked chess with Duchamp. This book brings together her Hollywood stories. You’ll read it twice in a day.

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M Train, Patti Smith, (Knopf, October 6)

It’s hard to believe that it has been five years since Patti Smith won a National Book Award for Just Kids, a memoir about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. This multiform book that Smith describes as “a roadmap” to her life could win her another.

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The Sleep of the Righteous, Wolfgang Hilbig, trans. Isabel Fargo Cole (Two Lines, October 13)

László Krasznahorkai, a writer of undeniably immense stature, has called Wolfgang Hilbig “a writer of immense stature.” Hilbig has also been compared to Poe and Kafka. According to Krasznahorkai, too, The Sleep of the Righteous, “describe[s] a world which is distasteful not only to the Germans but actually horrific for all of us.” That’s more than enough for me.

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City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg (Knopf, October 13)

It’s impossible to talk about Hallberg’s forthcoming debut without mentioning that it sold for more than a million dollars. Here’s what we know: it deals with with the 1977 blackout in New York City, and it’s almost 1,000 pages long.

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Eyes: Novellas and Stories, William Gass (Knopf, October 15)

William Gass, who is (arguably) the best writer of sentences in the English language, returns with a collection of novellas and short stories. For those who admire his shorter stuff more than novels like Omensetter’s Luck, this will likely be one of the prized collections of the year.

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Submission, Michel Houellebecq, trans. Lorin Stein (FSG, October 20)

Almost no one had read Michel Houellebecq’s novel about an Islamic party taking power in France before the Charlie Hebdo shootings, but the tragedy nonetheless forced the author into hiding (where he seems to have stayed) in the aftermath. One of the only new novels likely to achieve near-Franzen levels of scrutiny, Submission probably deserves it. He’s a better writer than Franzen, anyway.

pamuk

A Strangeness in My Mind, Orhan Pamuk (Knopf, October 20)

An epic bildungsroman from a Nobel Prize winner. Pamuk’s novel tells the story of “an Istanbul street vendor and the love of his life,” and it is said to feature a large cast of characters.

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Looking at Pictures, Robert Walser, trans. Susan Bernofsky, Lydia Davis, Christopher Middleton (New Directions/Christine Burgin, October 20)

Even if the Walser rollout in America has cooled a bit, there’s no denying that each book has revealed itself to be a work of genius. Looking at Pictures — which features writing about Van Gogh, Cezanne, Rembrandt, and Brueghel, among other subjects — promises more revelatory wit and surprising aesthetic insight.

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Slade House, David Mitchell (Random House, October 27)

Mitchell promises that his new novel, which apparently began as a series of tweets, will offer a robust imaginative world. It helps that it spans five decades and features some kind of haunted house.

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Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir, Carrie Brownstein (Riverhead, October 27)

If it hits the right notes, Brownstein’s memoir could become a definitive document about independent music in the 1990s and 2000s, but it will almost certainly be a moving story about Brownstein’s life before, during, and after the rise of America’s greatest rock band.

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The Givenness of Things: Essays, Marilynne Robinson (FSG, October 27)

Read this collection of essays on humanism, science, being, neurology, and theology not only for its intellectual depth and paradoxically calm polemical brilliance, but also because it allows you to wade in the mind of our most reliably great writer of fiction.

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The Mare, Mary Gaitskill (Pantheon, November 3)

Gaitskill recently told New York magazine that she was worried The Mare would be considered too heartwarming until she asked a friend to read it. The friend told her it was the most depressing thing she had ever read. It’s hard to think of a better endorsement for a novel in 2015.

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The Big Green Tent, Ludmila Ulitskaya, trans. by Polly Gannon  (FSG, November 10)

Ulitskaya’s 600-page novel, set in a post-Stalin Soviet Union still ordered by the KGB, has been compared to the work of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky but sounds (somehow) more like Doctor Zhivago.