I got caught in a lot of hype last year, mostly of the for-the-comeback variety: Good authors who’d taken their sweet time coming out with a new book, good authors who’ve just kept on writing but managed to hit the sweeter spot this time around.
I have this notion about myself that I steer clear of hype, because it’s just the publishing world lying to me, but this is obviously flawed thinking. And so I like to console myself that the comeback-hype is the better kind of hype to fall prey to—one that has basis, plus the odds are with you because you know that it’s worked for you before? It’s more infectious, too: The hype was more of the bookish internet slaying everyone with a celebratory cheer: Marisha Pessl had a new book, Donna Tartt had a new book, J.K. Rowling kicked everyone’s asses and proved she still had a good book under her belt, Stephen King wouldn’t fucking relent and just kept getting better.
One of my best reads of the past year was The Cuckoo’s Calling, a slick crime novel by J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith. I enjoyed my time with Cormoran Strike, who’s right up there in my personal pantheon of masterful detectives with flaw-some personalities—Sherlock Holmes and, erm, the Batman’s in this pantheon. The Galbraith book was likewise a dip in a genre I’d rarely strayed into, and it’s almost a matter of fact that it will set the bar for contemporary crime fiction I’ll deign to get my grubby hands on. Which is rather unfortunate for Pessl’s Night Film—not crime, per se, but audacious enough to feature a trio of bumbling fools trying to uncover a mystery, headed by a breathtakingly inept investigative [scoff] journalist. Cuckoo, by default, would win over a lot of books, but Night Film surpasses the bounds of blech reading.
The thing is, I was very excited for this book—even if I’d thought Pessl’s debut, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, acutely insufferable. Night Film was supposed to draw, tonally (if not share the subject matter of), the books of Auster and Hustvedt, and especially Mark Z. Danielewski’s clever and terrifying House of Leaves. Pessl’s book turned out to be a cheap imitation of all good clever-and-terrifying books, with the bonus of embarrassingly lyrical prose and tons of italics, and it was exhausting for me because it wouldn’t let me go. I kept reading and reading and reading even when after I’d realized I’d hated it. It was the ickiest iteration of a page-turner: You’ve been sucked in, and that book won’t spit you out until it’s fucking done with you. Tough.
The book is hinged on a great mystery that’s revealed to be crap but the book keeps on insisting that it’s anything but. It’s a book on shadows, we’re pummeled into acknowledging: “Shadows with wills of their own, killing curses and devil’s curses, rivers that ran black and beasts with bark for skin, a world with invisible fissures that anyone could accidentally fall down into at any time.” But it’s not, and the narrative isn’t even aware of it. Night Film insists on its genius and its ooh-slick-and-complex mysteries, but all it’s been doing is going “awoo” at its readers. No, Night Film, just no. Sit down and think about what you’ve done.
I had the same allergy to Donna Tartt’s backlist—I thought The Secret History a denser but no better version of Calamity Physics, with the “acutely insufferable” tag just as applicable. But The Goldfinch completely won me over, and now definitely stands among the highlights of the past reading year. It was lovely, and unabashedly consuming—it gives so much to the reader, with Tartt indefatigable in giving us the whole of Theo Decker’s life. No detail was too small, nothing was insignificant. And it did not get tedious once. I don’t know how exactly—was it the prose, was I simply the target audience for stories of art and dissolution, was it my absolute need to be consumed by a narrative so divorced from my own? It just felt really good to surrender to Tartt, especially since she never lets up on making that surrender worth it.
If Pessl was disdain all the way, and Tartt was a courtship I stood no chance against—my relationship with Stephen King in 2013 was just this blissful and giddy reunion. I’d devoted myself to his epic, picked off a few more of his classics, and read two of his newest releases—Joyland and Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining. Joyland was pure fun, a summer read through and through—give or take a few haunted amusement park rides and the stray serial killer. Doctor Sleep—which I’d read a few weeks after The Shining [which I could have sworn I’d read when I was a wee child]—is King changing gears, focusing more intently on the supernatural. But, again, King’s best works always involve decent human beings caught in circumstances that threaten to overtake them—and Danny Torrance is the latest in King’s collection of reluctant, deeply flawed, secretly-monsters-battling heroes. And it was so fucking good.
My love for Steve grew exponentially last year, visiting his backlist and relying on faith to go through his more recent releases. Stephen King is getting better, dammit, he’s writing more confidently, and with more heart. And I’m so glad it looks like there’s no sign of him stopping. You keep on writing, Mr. King, please and thank you.
I don’t quite have a clear plan for the rest of the year, really—not that the comebacks of Pessl, Tartt, and King were part of a grand scheme in 2013. As usual, I’m just going to be walking into bookstores and let the displays surprise me. I’m terribly excited for Siri Hustvedt’s and Lorrie Moore’s new books, and I’m going to be waiting for the paperback releases of books that have intrigued me in the past few months—but that’s about it. I’ve said it before: Y’all can just expect me to wing it.