I did this kind of elaborate top 10 for the first time last year and found that I would actually really like it to become a tradition for myself, if only because it is an opportunity to go through the past year in my mind and realize that I did do a lot more things than the breakneck speed of time sometimes makes it feel. Once again, this list is not based on any expertise other than that I “have always liked reading” and “wrote some seminar papers on books of the Anglophone canon.” It is compiled on the basis of criteria as miscellaneous as “what does this book say about the human condition”, “how often did the inventive similes make me gasp” and “how cool are the monsters the heroes have to fight (or befriend)?” All of them are books that I read in 2020, although only a single one was actually published last year – all the others I came across by chance, was recommended, had long wanted to read or thought I should in fact already have read long ago to justify whatever dubious claim I have on an MA in Literature. Bottom line: all the books below are books I greatly enjoyed reading in 2020; if you want to argue with their ranking then that argument will probably be a lot more interesting than my original explanation, but if you look for great reads from pretty much any genre out there, I will vouch that these ten novels are all, in some way or another, absolutely excellent.
10. Mikhaill Bulgakov – The Master and Margarita
I came across this book while in Moscow last winter, staying at a picturesque hostel that had a huge black cat called “Behemoth”, and so maybe I’m a tad biased, but this might not only be my favorite Russian novel I have read so far, but also perhaps my favorite depiction of the Devil in literature (more devils farther up this list, btw). It tells the story of Satan and his accomplices wreaking havoc in Stalinist Moscow, and so is on the one hand a scathing satire of a society in which records are altered mysteriously, people disappear on a daily basis, theater performances are attended by party officials whose task it is to ensure that nothing immoral or subversive is allowed on stage at any point, and religious belief is officially forbidden. On the other, however, it is also a hell lot of fun – one of the Devil’s companions is the abovementioned cat, who drinks barrels full of vodka and at one point plays ball with one such theater overseer’s disembodied head – and a surprisingly elegant tale of tolerance and liberation. The Devil, it turns out, is perchance more noble and elegant than most humans around, and becoming a witch of his coven, for the title character, entails not some sort of Christian moral punishment but rather liberation from her husband, her domestic duties, her sexual repression, and a chance to do significant good in the world. It’s a blast, it’s highly literary, and I find it hard to think of a better read while watching the snow fall through the window of a Gorky Park café.
9. F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby
Come to think of it, this one feels almost like a sister piece to Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita – someone should write a paper about that at some point! I don’t think Fitzgerald’s classic about the decadence and disillusion of America’s jazz age needs any introduction, so I will just say here that it’s not only glamorous and oh so poetically written, but also a relentless critique of everything that was wrong with American (and, by extension, Western) society in the 1920s and, non-surprisingly, is still as wrong in the 2020s. You get people who inherited millions and never had to work a day in their lives complain how non-whites profit of the hard labor of the Northern race; you get hedonism and the mental and physical exploitation of domestic staff, you get childish illusions, false romance, the American dream and enough champagne to drown all of Wall Street in … That this novel manages to be incredibly bleak while also remaining an utterly swift and poetic read, and is just as well suited for theme parties as it is for political suffragism and personal life lessons is probably its most impressive accomplishment. This is not one of the classics you have to get through at some point to then display it on your bookshelf and never touch it again, but one that you will breeze through, have tremendous fun on the way, and keep thinking about perhaps for the rest of your life.
8. M. John Harrison – Light
This novel is significantly harder to get through than the previous two, and it mostly impressed me due to its sheer stylistic mastership. Light consists of three parallel narratives – one following a serial killer in turn-of-the-millennium London, the other two a warship pilot and a daredevil, respectively, in the distant, intergalactical future – and blends them together in a manner similar to what Faulkner would come up with in a dream about 2001 Space Odyssey. Yes, it is incredibly strange – there are whole chapters where I still only have a faint idea of what was going on (something involving two crime lords and a circus and a sentient rubber duck?), but that’s not the point. Harrison’s prose is like dense modernist poetry, his images have the effect of surrealist paintings; they are striking precisely because they’re so confusing. It’s one of the most idiosyncratic Science Fiction books I’ve ever read, but, in consequence, also one of the most captivating pieces of high literature. If you want spaceships in a university class on existentialism, this is the kind of book you need.
7. Susanna Clarke – Piranesi
Clarke’s debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was my undisputed number 1 last year, and it remains one of the best books I’ve ever read in any respect – enormous, complex, poetic, hilarious, thrilling, magical, smart as a whip and with the joy of a child playing with fairies. I couldn’t wait for this (unrelated) second novel to come out, and was quite happy to find out how different it was. Piranesi is a lot less spectacular than Clarke’s previous novel. It clocks in at barely over 200 pages, features only a handful of characters, is gently magical not a fantasy story per se, and treats topics of isolation, loneliness, the sorrow and joy in that, instead of the politics and ambitions of all of 19th century Europe. In other words: It is a decidedly small novel that you can read in a few quiet hours, perhaps a little too appropriate for 2020 and its lockdown thematically, but still written with effortless grace. There are only a handful of authors I could think of that are able to strike this perfect a balance between having absolute control over language and never feeling the need to show it off. Nobody will put down Piranesi because they find it too highbrow, but those that really want to delve into its intricacies will find miniscule clockworks, oceans and albatrosses between its lines.
It is also, just on a sidenote, perhaps the most beautifully designed book on this list, in case you need something exceedingly pretty to put on your shelf.
6. Joe Hill – Horns
Joe Hill – Stephen King’s son, writing under a pseudonym because he does not want to be constantly compared to his father – is perhaps my favorite new discovery this year. Just like his dad, he writes classic American horror, but (maybe because I’ve read most of King’s books only in translation so far, maybe because I read so many of them that I started knowing his spiel at some point, or maybe just because Hill could actually learn from the best) he does so with a slightly keener awareness for everything from human psychology to language to popular culture. His writing is incredibly lyrical, the conceits at the core of his novels are as original as they are effective, and he knows that, yes, to have terrifying adversaries is nice and well, but a reader will only feel terrified by them if the protagonists at risk feel like real people. And by God, they do! Hill’s greatest accomplishment is perhaps that he does not work with the stock characters that can be traced through most of Stephen King’s work, but makes this cast feel like wholly original creations that need to live there and then, act precisely as they do, and have already been up and about in that particular small town long before Hill decided to look at it and set a novel in it.
Horns tells the story of Ig Parrish, an average New England guy who does mostly average things, the good and the ugly, is suspected of having murdered his ex-girlfriend, and one morning finds a pair of horns growing from his forehead that give him control over people’s darkest desires. It is hilarious, monstrous, and so rich in details that the best thing about reading it was sometimes not the story itself, but simply tracing all the themes and easter eggs Hill has running through this text.
5. Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House
Another one in the category “classic for a reason”, although I might not even label this one a horror novel, and it will do it a lot of disservice if you start reading it expecting one. There are ghosts in this quick, beautiful tale about four researchers lodging in an allegedly haunted house, or at least I suspect there are, but they don’t act anywhere near as gruesomely as, let’s say, the ghosts in Joe Hill’s Heart Shaped Box (which was a close contender for the position of Horns). They’re just also around. So are the humans and all their very human problems. So is absolutely stellar writing, case in point one of the most masterful opening paragraphs in the English language. Jackson doesn’t get nearly the recognition she deserves – I’m not sure if I have read any characters and set pieces as enchanting in their normalcy since Harry Potter – and this is a book that you might not want to pick up in order to get frightened at night, but rather to feel understood when all the world becomes overwhelming, humans become riddles you don’t want to solve, and you begin to wonder if meeting an actual ghost floating alone through their mansion might fill you with horror or, rather, a sense of comfort.
4. Gabriel Garcia Marquez – 100 Years of Solitude
And on we go with the classics! There is little to say about this one that thousands of other critics haven’t already said better, but what delighted me most was how much 100 Years of Solitude changed in the process of reading. It performs history, so to say, and over its great many pages you feel like you’ve spent a whole life in the South American village it describes. In the beginning, I found it interesting enough, though a little monotone and a little confusing, especially when more and more characters with the same name pop up through generations, and even halfway through, I sometimes wondered at their being no recognizable climax, no clear protagonist … This was rich and imaginative, yes, but what was all this about? Really, it is not a book in a traditional sense, because it does not want to tell a story as much as just show you things. The plot is the years progressing, and at some point, you’ll think back through them, remember characters that popped up as children and now have fully grown up, remember houses that were once described and are now torn down, recognize decisions that did not seem overly significant in the moment but ultimately result in unforeseen boons or disaster. It’s not a project in storytelling but rather in bringing a whole society alive, and if that’s the kind of thing you’re interested in, then 100 Years of Solitude is undeniably one of the greatest works of literature out there. I am still utterly touched by it – however, I had to teach myself at first that, if I went looking for any conventional plot or coherence, I would only be disappointed.
3. Thomas Pynchon – Gravity’s Rainbow
Without any hesitation, I would say that this is the most impressive book I have read in my life. It is Joyce’ Ulysses and then some more. We have to wonder how its author can possibly be human – over the course of a thousand pages, he combines everything from reckoning with the Holocaust, American academia, South African colonization, experimental 1920s cinema, aliens, Soviet alphabetization programs, the habits of octopi, BDSM, astrophysics, Kant and Hegel and Confucius and Satanism and card games and geopolitics and pie fights and abstract mathematics and Moby Dick and literal dicks and the material science of plastic and the afterlife and the beauty of early morning fog into one unbelievable whole. I have no idea how he does this. I have no idea what supernatural craftsmanship it takes to clad all of those ideas into language that’s not only powerful enough to hold them together, but somehow manages to convince you that it is supposed to be precisely like this, that all of human history only existed to be re-assembled by Thomas Pynchon and serve as the setup for a moment of slapstick comedy.
The reason why Gravity’s Rainbow does not take the top spot on my list, then, is that this kind of game will only appeal to a very specific kind of reader. It is a little like listening to Guthrie Govan do absolutely preposterous things on guitar – as a guitar player, you might gasp and gasp until you forget to breathe, but if you don’t play the instrument yourself or wanted a song to touch your heart instead of making you gasp, then why would you need to keep listening for the musical equivalent of 1000 pages?
2. Max Porter – Lanny
Quite a few books on this list are big and spectacular. They are authors showing off, and being good enough for us to be delighted that they do. This is the opposite. It’s small enough to be carried like a lucky charm in your pocket; it features a handful of characters and doesn’t try to make comments on the human condition, the nature of time and literature. Instead, it is a gorgeously crafted ghost story – we follow a former actress, her banker husband, their peculiar son, an elderly artist and a primordial spirit through their thoughts in a little English town. We overhear conversations, compare their different perspectives on the world, catch glimpses of the world around, tremble a bit when things become dire, feel relief for a bit, and ultimately think how nice it would be to put the book down and take a walk in the woods. It’s precious, it’s easy, and I’m unspeakably grateful that this book exists precisely because of that.
Lanny reads almost like a long poem. Its language is playful and rhythmic, there are gaps between lines and many short chapters playing off one another like stanzas. Sometimes, the sentences move across the page in inventive ways, and sometimes, we don’t quite know what’s going on, but that’s fine … We can just let the music take over and listen. Some of it sounds like birdsong.
1. Mark Z. Danielewski – The Familiar I: One Rainy Day in March
And, finally, back to the spectacular: This is not really just a novel, but more a piece of (performance) art. Ostensibly, it was supposed to be book one of a 27 part series – which got scrapped by the publisher after the first five volumes because the sales couldn’t justify the production cost any longer – but even as a standalone work, it is stunning. It’s main narrative follows Xanther, a teenage girl with epilepsy, as she finds and adopts a kitten. There are eight narratives running alongside – one for Xanther’s programmer father, one for her mother struggling with her PhD thesis, one about an LA gang leader, one about a cop and one about a taxi driver, one about a petty Singapore criminal and his witch companion, one about two outlaws in the Texan desert, and one about a Mexican animal smuggler – as well as the idea of narrative itself sometimes interfering and adding its own perspective to the stories. Each of those narratives is written in its own distinct voice, typeset and visual design. The pages do the most wonderful things to heighten the reading experience – sometimes they will get flooded by raindrops made out of words, sometimes they’ll turn completely black, transform into a graphic novel, change to a different kind of paper, feature only a handful of words or be written in programming code instead of actual text. It takes effort to work through all of that, but not as much as one would think. All the stories are captivating in their own way; a big part of the appeal is how they will all coalesce about Xanther’s kitten in some way eventually, and the sheer beauty of this book, the amount of work and care that went into creating its thousands of moving parts, fine-tuning them, getting them past a publisher to begin with, and rendering them a properly heartwarming story, is something I have never seen anywhere else. The Familiar is not just a great novel, it is its own category altogether.