I spent 2016 writing (well, rewriting) a novel—a grueling, often dispiriting process. The books on this list, then, were not merely brilliant reading experiences, but rather something like lifelines, mantras, affirmations. I carried them to restaurants and bars, I read them on planes, I kept them at my desk as if mere proximity might convey something of their beauty and texture to my own work. This year I was reminded daily that, at its best, literature is talismanic. In no particular order, here are the best things I read in 2016.
The Lime Twig, John Hawkes (New Directions)
“You suffer The Lime Twig like a dream,” wrote Flannery O’Connor. “It seems to be something that is happening to you, that you want to escape from but can’t.” In an oeuvre of jewels, The Lime Twig is Hawkes’ onyx, the surreal tale of a bored couple tricked into fronting a racehorse scheme. Reading it is like sinking into a pit of tar, too entranced by the iridescent bubbles to notice the approach of extinction.
Outline, Rachel Cusk (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
With admiration and then awe, I first read Outline when it was serialized in the Paris Review. Having returned to it again this year, I can happily report that it has lost none of its uncanny power—a beautifully aseptic quality, like a pane of chilled glass. Outline’s narrator is a remarkable achievement, a virtuosity of distance. That the world refracts so richly through this exquisitely opaque lens is a mark of Cusk’s genius.
Dodge Rose, Jack Cox (Dalkey Archive)
The first book I read in 2016 also happened to be my favorite novel of the year. Jack Cox’s debut is a High Modernist wonder, richly allusive, funny, erudite, and sad. I wrote about it for 3:AM Magazine, which you can read here if you’re so inclined.
The Journals of John Cheever (Vintage)
I kept Cheever’s journals on my bedside table the way others might keep a bible, a gun, a flask—for protection and peace of mind. Dipping into one entry, I’d find myself on the other side of thirty pages, nourished as after a fine meal. As much as I adore his stories and novels, I’m convinced that these howling, tender, gin-soaked journals are Cheever’s actual magnum opus.
Dusk and Other Stories, James Salter (Modern Library)
Salter is the English prose stylist par excellence. This lethally gorgeous collection is an atmospheric master class in erotic tension and human failure. “American Express,” “The Destruction of the Goetheanum,” and “The Cinema” are among the finest stories I’ve ever read.
In the Café of Lost Youth, Patrick Modiano (NYRB)
Modiano’s work occupies a particular sweet spot for me, an intersection of obsessive, Proustian memory and noirish ambience. In just over a hundred pages, four different narrators circle elliptically through a wash of recollections, struggling to make sense of a café—a point of stasis in a hazily drifting Paris—and a mysterious young woman named Louki. A richer aesthetics of memory you will not find.
The Public Burning, Robert Coover (Grove)
Coover’s deep dive into the filth and fantasy of the American dream—sprawling, parodic, righteous, ribald—was a brilliant end-of-year read for me. I remain afraid that art’s response to Trump will be heavy-handed and overly didactic. The Public Burning shows how a consummate artist transmuted his own dissatisfaction with the country into a replenishing, wickedly funny, morally serious masterpiece. May it be something of a template for us all in spirit if not in form.
Sleepless Nights, Elizabeth Hardwick (NYRB)
In this intensely compressed, hauntingly beautiful novel, Hardwick offers an array of gorgeous miniatures that slowly erode the line between acts of documentation and acts of fiction. The calm fatality of her depictions of womanhood and the undertow of family are unmatched. “Her sentences are burned in my brain,” Sontag once wrote. This book is a scarring one should seek out.
Dustin Illingworth is a contributing editor for 3:AM Magazine.
First posted: Thursday, December 22nd, 2016.