For me, there are two things that take a good story to the next level of greatness: fully human characterization, and a connection to wider moral-philosophical themes. And not just any themes. I want a narrative that is aware of tragedy without being defeated by it. A narrative that values equality and diversity, and hints at how we can move in that direction, without glossing over the contrary impulses in every human heart. Throw in an appreciation of art’s power to undermine dehumanizing ideologies, connect it to God somehow, and you’ve got me hooked. The books below were not only my favorite novels of the year, but will also be favorites for years to come.
Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (first published in 1980; expanded edition from Indiana University Press, 1998)
Imagine the Bhagavad-Gita as a Punch-and-Judy show. What do the legend of St. Eustace and particle physics have in common? In this unique novel, part mystical treatise and part fantasy-horror fiction, two millennia have passed since a nuclear war knocked Britain back to the Iron Age, and a semi-nomadic civilization has preserved only degraded fragments of our science through oral tradition in the form of puppet shows. Our narrator, 12-year-old Riddley, at first joins forces with a shifting (and shifty) cast of politicos and visionaries who hope to bring the human race back to its former glory by rediscovering the recipe for gunpowder. But soon he’s on the track of bigger game: the nature of reality, and the causes of sin. Which is more fundamental, unity or duality? Why does Punch always want to kill the baby?
Vestal McIntyre, Lake Overturn (Harper, 2009)
This standout first novel paints a tender, comical portrait of an Idaho small town in the 1980s, where a motley collection of trailer-park residents yearn for connection (and sometimes, against all odds, find it) across the barriers of class, sexual orientation, illness, separatist piety, drug abuse, and plain old social ineptness. You’ll want to linger on the luscious writing, but keep turning the pages to find out what happens to the characters who’ve won a place in your heart.
Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Random House, 2000)
This Pulitzer-winning epic novel about the golden age of comic book superheroes is also a love song to New York City Jewish culture in the years surrounding World War II. Two boys, a visionary artist who escaped Nazi-occupied Prague and his fast-talking, closeted cousin from Brooklyn, lead the fantasy fight against Hitler by creating the Escapist, a superhero who is a cross between Harry Houdini and the Golem of Jewish legend. However, their real-world dilemmas prove resistant to magical solutions, and can only be resolved through humility, maturity, and love.
Diane DiMassa, The Complete Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist (Cleis Press, 1999)
Warning: castration fantasies, uppity women, cruelty to morons, and unapologetic feminist rage at rape culture. But our gal Hothead is about so much more. In her own traumatized, over-caffeinated way, she’s on a quest for healing and love–even if sometimes the only person she can trust is her beloved yoga-practicing cat, Chicken. This graphic novel will win your heart if you stick with it.