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Fiction -- the year in review

By Charles Taylor

JANUARY 3, 2000: 

1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling (Arthur A. Levine Books). When books get as big as the first three entries in the Harry Potter series, there's a temptation to assume it's all hype and do your best to ignore them. So let's be clear: J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series are not just the best novels anyone has written this year, not just the greatest fantasy series since C.S. Lewis's "The Chronicles of Narnia," they are books that remind you why you started reading novels in the first place. With this saga of the Hogwarts School, where young witches and wizards are trained, J.K. Rowling has constructed a completely realized fantasy world with enough recognizable links to the real one (and enough of a sense of humor) to keep her creation from seeming precious. Each book has been more complex than the previous one narratively, emotionally, and morally (which is not the same thing as the moralism espoused by the cretins who would reduce literature to "virtues"). The publishers who are complaining that these three books have taken up residence on the top three slots of the New York Times bestseller list might instead ask themselves why these books have struck such a chord. I think it's because Rowling returns us to the basics, the breathless anticipation of needing (not just wanting) to know what happens next while complicating our responses, just as her young characters are learning the complications of life. Right now, there is nothing I want to read more than the next four books in this series, and no fiction I've read this year has made me feel different.

2. The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, by Wayne Johnston (Doubleday). The story of Newfoundland's confederation with Canada told as the fictional autobiography of that movement's driving force, Joe Smallwood, the itinerant journalist and union organizer who went on to become the island's first premier. The book is a Chinese box of exile -- the story of a man who doesn't belong in a colony that isn't really a colony. It's also a great, unrequited love story. As only David Macfarlane has in his memoir Come from Away, Johnston captures the desperate poverty and flinty character of Newfoundland. It's not just a particular time and place that he evokes so beautifully, but the condition of internal exile, the dead north of the soul.

3. The Sea Came In at Midnight, by Steve Erickson (Bard). The fantasies and warnings and predictions about what awaits at the end of this century burst forth in Steve Erickson's best novel. It's Erickson's conceit that the new millennium has been with us for 31 years, since May 1968, which inaugurated the age when the modern notion of apocalypse outgrew God and became "an explosion of time in a void of meaning." Within his globehopping story of a young girl who escapes a New Year's Eve millennial sacrifice and a haunted man who has become an "apocalyptologist," Erickson has crammed the secret history of the past three decades. This dark dream of a novel, both seductive and cautionary, reverberates as something both archetypal and up-to-the-minute. It's the news that exists between the lines, the story behind the story, a siren song and a lighthouse's warning beacon.

4. Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri (Mariner). The ardor of empathy courses through Jhumpa Lahiri's stunning debut collection. Showing a steadfast and genuine curiosity about the impulses of human behavior and a healthy respect for its mysteries, these 10 stories have the grace to make us feel close to even the foolishness or timidity or naïveté of these Asians who have come to America for a job or for school, and the wit to make their actions logical without becoming predictable. Jhumpa Lahiri's gift is to invest the ordinary with a depth of emotion that makes you feel you're seeing it anew. What is beyond her empathy is not, on the basis of this debut, yet apparent.

5. Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson (Avon). It's big (900-plus pages). But the sprawl is part of the pleasure. Neal Stephenson's epic adventure of crypto-hackers past and present is both boy's-book adventure on a grand scale and something the novel almost never is anymore: a piece of reporting on an unknown segment of society. Cutting back and forth between the '40s and the present, Cryptonomicon tells the story of a cryptologist and a Marine Raider working on the German Enigma code, and the grandchildren of those characters who, half a century later, are working to set up a "data haven" where encrypted data can be stored away from the prying eyes of governments. Stephenson takes you into this world without getting lost in jargon, keeps you in a state of suspense for almost 1000 pages, and provides an explanation and critique of Web culture that no nonfiction writer has begun to touch. He has explained the technology of now in the form of a classic adventure novel and in the process allowed the reader to imagine that tomorrow will still wear a human face.

6. Italian Fever, by Valerie Martin (Knopf). A ghost story and an E.M. Forster-like tale of the innocent abroad, Valerie Martin's sumptuous page turner reads like a literate romance novel. As precise as the name of its heroine, Lucy Stark, the novel follows her journey to Italy, where she is tidying up the affairs of her suddenly deceased boss, a hack author of bestsellers. Essentially it's the clash of Anglo-Saxon and European, and though it's not in a league with Forster and James, the masters who made that clash their own, it is perfectly scaled, adding shadings layer by layer on the way to a beautifully realized revelation of character.

7. A Star Called Henry, by Roddy Doyle (Viking). Roddy Doyle's sixth novel, set in the years 1900-1920 and encompassing the Easter 1916 uprising and Ireland's eventual emergence as a republic, is full of casual brutality, tough-minded resistance to ideology, and a richness of expressionistic language that can only be called Joycean. The language flows in descriptive torrents, turning history into a blur, an indecipherable blend of news and rumor and legend. If it is not as emotionally involving as Doyle's past work, it is still a huge leap, a vision of the tyranny of history that stays true to its subject's violence by refusing either to soften the protagonist into a hero or to redeem him for a higher purpose.

8. The Artist's Widow, by Shena Mackay (Moyer Bell). The spirit of Angus Wilson rears his wicked -- and wickedly accurate -- head in this slim, acerbic novel about the contemporary London art scene. At times the characters are less characters than the modern vice they've been invented to represent. But, like Wilson, the Scottish Mackay knows how to depict modern malaise without giving into literary ennui. That is to say she's written a novel that's satisfying in the way novels used to be while feeling totally of its moment.

9. Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday). Imagine Raymond Chandler and Mad cartoonist Don Martin collaborating on a detective novel at a Zen retreat and you can begin to imagine (though not fully) the tone of this inventive and immaculately controlled novel. The hero, Lionel Essrog, is a Tourette's sufferer turned shamus when his boss, the head of a Brooklyn limo service/private-eye agency, is killed. The plot is less important here than Lethem's seemingly effortless version of the world as seen through Lionel's obsessive-compulsive eyes. It's a shame to invoke a cliché to praise a book that so scrupulously avoids them, but there's no way around it: there is nothing else like Motherless Brooklyn.

10. The Sopranos by Alan Warner (Farrar Straus Giroux). The profanely raucous farceur dukes it out with the gloomy cuss in Scottish novelist Alan Warner's third book and beats him. The title refers to the teenage choir members of Our Lady of Perpetual Succor School for Girls, loose in the big city for the afternoon before a national singing competition. It's a pilgrimage to the shrines of pubs and McDonald's and French Connection seeking the sacraments of booze, clothes, and sex. Warner is on the side of these girls, sparing us the moralizing that usually goes with teenage drinking, smoking, swearing, and the urge for sex (more than sex itself). He remains one of the most frustrating talented writers around, prone to the showy grotesquerie of his countryman Irvine Welsh. But he honors the belief of his characters that the freedom they seek is waiting for them in purchasing a new skirt, buying another round of drinks, sleeping with the next boy. Not knowing that freedom is an illusion is what keeps this quintet in a state of disreputable grace.


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