A Terrible Country
Keith Gessen’s second work of fiction focuses on a man’s return to his home country of Russia. Having immigrated to America at a young age, Andrei, the protagonist, is essentially American, so his journey through Russia contains the perspective of a dual citizen, thereby making its insights all the more prescient. Gessen’s prose is infinitely readable, his characters effortlessly real and developed, and his commentary on the politics of today are subtle, more between the lines than popping out of them. As Nell Zink describes it, A Terrible Country is “the only up-to-the-minute, topical, relevant, and necessary novel of 2018 that never has to mention Trump.”
The second in her so far remarkable Seasonal Quartet, Ali Smith’s Winter (after 2016’s Autumn) features a woman who’s visited by a floating, disembodied head; her son, a nature writer who never actually visits the places about which he writes so poetically; and his ploy to hide his marriage’s collapse by hiring another woman to pretend to be his wife—all set during Christmastime. Somehow Ali Smith, with her trademark, brilliant wordplay, turns Winter into a penetrating political work. “There’s been a change all right,” one character says. “Never mind literal climate change, there’s been a whole seasonal shift. It’s like walking in a blizzard all the time just trying to get to what’s really happening beyond the noise and hype.” With Winter and her Seasonal Quartet, Smith is trying to do just that, and succeeding admirably.
The Golden House
A seasoned provocateur, Salman Rushdie updates F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for a new era with The Golden House. Beginning on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration and rollicking onward from there, Rushdie’s 13th novel brings us Nero Golden, a billionaire with three sons who suddenly takes up residence in a wealthy community in Greenwich Village, and whose origin the narrator, a young filmmaker, can’t figure out. Fascinated by this mysterious figure, René finds himself involved with Nero and his Golden home, and decides they would make a fitting subject for his next film. As with any Rushdie work, The Golden House is stunningly written, chock-full of references, allusions, and homages, and full of magic of the most indefinable sort. Also, he has a great deal of fun with Trump, so it’s truly a can’t-miss performance.
Sam Lipsyte’s first novel in nearly a decade, Hark is an uproarious tale of Hark Morner, a wannabe stand-up comedian who gets a gig as a fake corporate expert paid to give strange speeches about some charlatan’s philosophy. Thus he creates “mental archery,” a mix of jargon, platitudes, and self-help bullshit aimed at focus and productivity. Hark’s phony philosophy, though, ends up gaining him legions of followers, all of whom are so desperate for meaning that they’ll find it anywhere, even where it absolutely isn’t. Filled with hilarious one-liners and one-of-a-kind sequences, Lipsyte’s follow-up to The Ask is well worth the wait, even if what’s happened in the interim isn’t a cause for celebration.
The New Order
Karen E. Bender
Bender’s previous collection of stories, Refund, was deservedly shortlisted for the National Book Award. Her latest, The New Order, is even better and more trenchant, a harrowing look into our present moment. In the remarkable first story, two friends tour a synagogue in North Carolina in the wake of Charlottesville, trying to figure out the safest seats in the event of a shooting. The title story also deals with a shooting, except this one is in the 1970s, “when these events didn’t happen at schools,” giving Bender the ability to examine the effects of that violence decades after it. Bender’s writing is precise and exacting, and each story heartbreakingly cuts to the core of America’s numerous tragedies.
A startling debut novel set in an America in which women are only permitted to speak 100 words per day, Christina Dalcher’s Vox turns the overarching issue facing women today—being silenced—and literalizes it, spinning it into a haunting and thrilling wake-up call for our deeply troubled times. A cognitive linguist fights against the Pure Movement that has brought about the horrifying misogynistic rule. At first, she suffers through the electric shocks that come when a woman surpasses her allotted word limit. Then, she goes after the President. A must-read from a voice who needs, like so many, to be heard.
Amanda Wakes Up
How about a novel about a crazy election from the point of view of a TV anchor? Alisyn Camerota does just that in Amanda Wakes Up, the story of an anchor at FAIR News, a new cable network that promises to lift Amanda out of her local channel doldrums. Instead, what she gets is a sexist, ratings-obsessed environment with all the careerism and petty competition you can imagine. An anchor herself (on CNN’s New Day), Camerota clearly has the inside scoop, and her fictional presidential election with a famous actor candidate has more than a few things in common with the real one in 2016. A funny behind-the-scenes look at politics from those who can’t choose to look away in disgust, but must deal with it every day in order to bring it to us.
Eli meets Sam Westergard in a graduate course on Marxist theory. The two become fast friends, as Eli is enchanted by Sam’s personality and passion. Soon, their shared dedication to socialism pushes them to drop out of grad school and pursue a life of activism, specifically against an energy conglomerate who they believe is ruining the world. Ryan McIlvain’s The Radicals is a critique of both graduate school’s distance from real life (in both the intellectual and the privileged sense) and the perils of extremism, how far you’re willing to go for a cause, and what stake you have in the fight to begin with.
Only a writer like Shteyngart could take the story of Barry, a mega-rich hedge fund manager who abandons his wife and child from New York to head on an absurd, reliving-the-glory-days road trip and turn it into an emotional journey filled with all kinds of perceptive points about American life. Like Rushdie’s The Golden House, there’s some Fitzgerald in there (Barry’s hedge fund is called This Side of Capital) and a little of Tom Wolfe, but Lake Success is quintessentially Shteyngartian. Which means, for those uninitiated, brilliant.
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin
In blazing series of sonnets that all share the book’s title, Terrance Hayes captures the constricting and suffocating atmosphere of present-day America, especially for people of color, who have been placed in a box the way these poems have been put into sonnets. “I lock you in an American sonnet,” he writes, “that is part prison/ Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.” With humane intensity, Hayes’s poems excel at sometimes stunning rhythmic syntax, internal rhyme, and devastating commentary. American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin is vital poetry.
Remember 2013? Feels like a long time ago, doesn’t it? Almost a different world altogether. So much so, in fact, that Stephan Markley’s Ohio, set in 2013, feels like a historical novel rather than a contemporary one, and it functions like a historical novel, too, in that it comments on the present day by showing its precursors in the past. The story of four high school classmates who converge on a night five years ago, each with a different reason for being in their hometown, rivets from its haunting opening line (“The coffin had no body in it”) to its terrifying climax, and through it all shows the ways in which our present-day horrors have been percolating long before Trump’s rise to power.
The Female Persuasion
Meg Wolitzer has been producing great novels for three decades, but it’s only been the past few years that she’s grown in renown. This is no doubt because she’s a woman, which means her books were placed on the “lower shelf,” as she calls it, beneath literary fiction (i.e., novels by men). In The Female Persuasion, Greer Kadetsky (a nod to Germaine Greer) is sexually assaulted by another student at her college, and—surprise, surprise—the guy doesn’t get punished for it. Greer, angry at the system’s treatment of women, finds inspiration in Faith Frank, a feminist icon who takes young Greer under her wing, giving her a job at Faith’s new foundation for women. The result is a deep examination of the vagaries of power and feminism and selfhood. The Female Persuasion is another triumph for a major figure in American letters.
The Lying King
A warthog tells lies so blatant that all the other animals can see through them, yet none of them do anything about it. At first he lies “to feel big,” but soon the warthog rises “on the backs of his lies” and becomes king. Does this sound like anyone we know? Alex Beard’s The Lying King is a children’s book with wonderful drawings accompanying the narrative, but the underlying message is as dark and important as any of these adult novels. Call it a kids’ Animal Farm for our post-truth age.
Something Great and Beautiful
Although Enrico Pellegrini’s novel is a satire of the 2008 financial crisis, it contains, like Stephen Markley’s Ohio, a dire forecast for life a decade later. The tale of an Italian wannabe writer who follows his love to America and opens a bakery, Something Great and Beautiful is light on its feet yet heavy with its implications. When powerful Wall Street brokers begin investing in Rosso the protagonist’s venture, turning it into the biggest IPO in history, things in Rosso’s life go from charming to sinister.
Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win
Charlotte Walsh leaves a high-paying job in Silicon Valley to return to her hometown in Pennsylvania and run for a midterm Senate seat. “This campaign isn’t about the fact that I’m a woman,” she says. “It’s not about how I got pregnant and it’s not about my husband. It’s about the voters of Pennsylvania. It’s about disrupting a broken system.” But the press, and especially the opposition, don’t see it that way, and the election becomes mired in the very things that pushed Charlotte to run in the first place. Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win is a couldn’t-be-more-timely novel that fiercely scrutinizes the constant turmoil women face in a patriarchal government.
The Feral Detective
The narrator of Jonathan Lethem’s first detective novel since 1999’s Motherless Brooklyn is Phoebe Siegler, a woman so disgusted by the 2016 election (she refers to Trump as the “Beast-Elect”) that she quits her job at The New York Times and sets out to find her best friend’s daughter. With the help of Charles Heist, an off-kilter private eye, Phoebe navigates through the strange world of California’s Inland Empire and the even stranger, darker world of Trump’s America. A fast-paced and funny mystery filled with Lethem’s characteristic verve, The Feral Detective is one of Lethem’s most effective and relevant books.
Like the protagonist of Shteyngart’s Lake Success, hedge-fund manager Philip Hadi flees New York for a safer life, except here it’s after 9/11. He sets up in Howland, Massachusetts, where he hires Mark Firth to render his weekend home into a “secure location.” Mark, who like many locals is resentful of the wealthy tourists of his hometown, begins to invest in real estate following the housing bubble, while Philip runs for local office. The clash of these two forces make up Jonathan Dee’s The Locals, a microcosmic look at the prevailing failures of 21st-century America.
Set “in a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war,” Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel Exit West tells the love story of Nadia and Saeed, whose romance is shaped by the violence of their homeland. Published to wide acclaim last year, it went on to become a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Kirkus Prize. Lyrical and magic, tender and tragic, Hamid’s tale is a rose blooming on a battlefield, a small symbol of hope in an otherwise harrowing world.
A condo board election serves as the driving force of Paul Goldberg’s scathingly satirical second novel The Château. The story follows Bill, a former Washington Post reporter who’s down on his luck and searching for redemption. Hoping to investigate the suspicious death of his friend (a plastic surgeon known as the “Butt God of Miami Beach”), he instead gets embroiled in his father’s bid for control of a destitute high-rise. Bill’s father is what you get “if you cross American fraud with Russian literature,” and his ambition to be elected onto the Château’s board mirrors the circus that is our government. Set in Florida, Goldberg’s novel asks, how can we “drain the swamp” if we’re all living in it?
Radio Free Vermont
Aging fugitive and radical radio host Vern Barclay and young computer whiz Perry Alterson use Radio Free Vermont, Vern’s show, to advocate for Vermont’s succession from the U.S. Bill McKibben’s 1989 book The End of Nature is a seminal work of environmental writing (one of the first major books on climate change), and now McKibben has set his sights on fiction with his first novel, a madcap satire filled with wonderfully drawn characters, heaps of local color, and a passionate patriotism (as opposed to its abhorrent doppelgänger nationalism) that seems a whole lot less crazy than the world we find ourselves in now.
Dinner at the Center of the Earth
Renowned short story writer Nathan Englander’s second novel tells the story of a prisoner languishing in a cell in the Negev desert in Israel. In recounting how the unnamed prisoner got where he is and paralleling it with the story of the dying General, a controversial Israeli leader, Englander brings global perspective to some of today’s most pressing issues. In the tumult following the 2016 election, we sometimes forget that the rest of the earth still faces their own dire problems. Writers like Englander help us remember, and show them to us in all their haunting complexity.
Whether we like it or not, this is the age of Trump. Maybe Trump’s actual presidency will last for four years (or maybe less, fingers crossed), or even eight, but the repercussions of his policies, his behavior, and the world’s reaction to him will be felt for much longer. Entire volumes could be written about the impact of Trump’s tweets alone. In less than two years of the Trump era, writers have engaged with our political landscape with renewed passion and indignation. Poets and short story writers have traced Trump’s disheartening influence, and even novelists—not always known to be the quickest to respond to topical politics, considering how long it takes to craft a novel—have already tackled, in various ways, our Trumpian climate.
Sometimes directly and sometimes less overtly, it’s impossible to deny the effect Trump’s election has had on literary art. Many have called this the “post-truth” era, but these 21 books show that great literature doesn’t lie like Trump lies—self-aggrandizing, fault-avoiding, and shortcut-chasing. Instead, literature invents in order to tell us hard-won and difficult truths. Deception conceals; literature reveals.