The Best Fiction of 2015

Forget the tedium of straightforward realism, 2015 was a year when theme pushed form in daring new directions. So instead of celebrating the Big TV Novels of the American white male, we’re happy to applaud this motley group of genius fictions, books that never failed to challenge the pieties of life in the 21st century. Counternarratives that work against the grain of colonialist history, novels of ellipsis that refuse to cookie-cut their women protagonists, crazy novels-as-rants, comedic romps that overturn accepted notions of gender and race and class, fictions that upend bromides about fantasy and magical realism. How could you cheer against them?

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Outline, Rachel Cusk

In a year when literature was celebrated for being “big” and “ambitious,” Cusk’s slim and ambitious novel deserved attention. The narration involves a newly alone writer and teacher at a seminar in Greece, having conversations with strangers, friends, and students, through which her own life is barely visible — only a shadow here, a detail there. Instead, the men around her, and several women too, use her to project and share their own stories, their insecurities and resentment, and she coolly takes it in. It’s a study in passive aggression, a sort of literary version of an eating disorder, a kind of pain and project that actually feels fresh, and a direct provocation to the established mode of storytelling. — SS

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Mislaid, Nell Zink

This novel, set at first in 1960s Virginia, becomes over the course of many years and many pages an iconoclastic blitzkrieg parody of distinctly American pieties. The sheer speed of its observational wit can blind the reader to the way Zink ties together the absurdities of the South, a region that serves as an incubator for American folly. Nothing is off limits here: race, gender, property rights, environmental negligence. If Zink has been forthright in interviews about how the themeless novels of tall white men are erroneously seen as vanguardist, here she proves otherwise. The most formally ingenious novel of the year is also the one with its ear closest to the ground. — JS

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Counternarratives, John Keene

This collection of variegated short stories and novellas is the year’s most historically rich work of fiction; you could easily retitle it Counterhistories. But in the end these stories all work toward the goal of un-restricting the consciousnesses of their characters, often historical or literary subjects — free artists of themselves — who were previously trapped in colonialist history and fiction. And whether Keene is rewriting a slave rebellion, witchcraft, or the material afterlife of a dead infant, his preternaturally beautiful sentences never fail to sting and release. —JS

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The Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante brought the saga of Elena and Lila to a breathtaking close at last in a novel that took a long look at her characters’ ascension to motherhood and career success, with a number of true tragedies along the way. The much-anticipated final installment of the Neapolitan series wasn’t necessarily the best of the four novels, but it had the satisfying, heart-wrenching twists and turns we’d come to expect from Ferrante, and effectively managed to throw the narrative’s subjectivity into relief. Whose story was it, really, in the end? — SS

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Get In Trouble, Kelly Link

Kelly Link’s strange and poignant story collection defies categorization: geek culture meets literary fiction meets fantasy and fairy tale and satire. There are ghosts and vampire boyfriends, cosplay and stark realism. But the collection is never unbelievable or manipulative; considering the way it used pop culture tropes to access something incredibly real, it’s no wonder Get In Trouble was one of 2015’s most-discussed works of fiction. — SS

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Against the Country, Ben Metcalf

It takes no more than a page or two of Metcalf’s blistering Against the Country for the reader to realize that she is no longer in the wasteland of workaday American prose. This novel, set in Virginia, like Zink’s Mislaid, is the best sentence-for-sentence piece of prose styling we’ve seen in years. A marathon complaint against a basic national trashiness, it’s also the best novel about fathers I’ve read since Barthelme’s The Dead Father. —JS

binarystar

Binary Star, Sarah Gerard

A novel in staccato verse about anorexia, veganism, and eco-sabotage is another example of ambition coming in a small, precise package. Our narrator is a young woman obsessively cataloging her eating and calorie restricting. Meanwhile, she’s fighting with and loving her ideological warrior of a hard-drinking boyfriend, reading celebrity magazines while plotting to overthrow the system, and studying astronomy and its metaphorical potential. Gerard’s debut leaves the reader with images and ideas that are hard to shake. — SS

a manual for cleaning women

A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin

By far 2015’s most important American rediscovery, the reemergence of Berlin will make you curse your elders. Why wasn’t she always available to us? A writer who spent much of her life in the American West, who was best known (intermittently) from the ’70s to the ’90s, Berlin writes stories that shoot point blank into the lives of her characters. Drugs, alcohol, abortion, poverty: still, these stories are deceptively unadorned, warmed over by Berlin’s wit — then cooled by reality. You’ll forget altogether that you’re reading fiction. It turns out that the year’s best fiction about American austerity was written three, four, five decades ago. —JS

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The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, Anna North

Cult-classic film director Sophie Stark is gone, and through the stories of the people who loved her best — old flames, relatives, colleagues, even newspaper articles — the novel tries to piece together the auteur’s life, both personal and creative. Did Sophie even know how to relate to people without the lens? North’s exploration of a “difficult” artist is also a sad and original storytelling feat. — SS

kurniawan

Beauty Is a WoundEka Kurniawan, trans. Annie Tucker / Man Tiger, Eka Kurniawan, trans. Labodalih Sembiring

It may be cheating to include two novels by one author, but there is no doubt that the year’s most important revelation-in-translation is Eka Kurniawan, whose searing works of so-called magical realism set in Indonesia should not be missed by any reader, especially those who are unafraid of sex and violence. If you’re tired of rereading Gogol and Dostoevsky, turn to Kurniawan instead. —JS