Editor’s Note: Find all of The Atlantic’s “Best of 2018” coverage here.
2018 was a year whose realities sometimes seemed to approach the dystopias and dramas of fiction, as stories of family trauma, environmental disaster, and sexual assault played out on the world stage. The books our writers and editors were drawn to this year include many that illuminate these struggles and inequities, whether in the form of visceral sonnets, lyrical history, or dizzyingly surreal detective yarns. But they also reach past political themes to the most intimate and universal of stories: a cross-continental meditation on transitory love, a warm and funny account of aging, a timeless reinvention of an ancient myth, and an absorbing deconstruction of faith, to name a few. Our list isn’t definitive or comprehensive, but guided by individual interests and tastes. Below, you’ll find essays, poetry, three striking fiction debuts, the first graphic novel to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and more.
Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, Brittney Cooper
Eloquent Rage has sometimes been grouped, given its topic, with Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad and Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her, as one of a trio of excellent explorations of the capabilities of feminine—and feminist—anger. But Cooper’s work, as her subtitle suggests, is a more specific celebration of the power of black feminism. Eloquent Rage, in that sense, is just as aptly in league with world-shaking works such as Audre Lorde’s The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism and bell hooks’s Killing Rage: Ending Racism. Cooper, a professor at Rutgers and a co-founder of the Crunk Feminist Collective, is a scholar, and Eloquent Rage, accordingly, is also deeply erudite: As Cooper uses her own experience to crystallize broader ideas about politics and culture and sex and pain and anger—as she discusses Sandra Bland and Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton and so many other sources of eloquence—she also blends genres. Here are theory and history and essay and memoir, combined so seamlessly that it becomes difficult—and entirely beside the point—to tell where one ends and the others begin. It is the personal is political, rendered as literature, and it is, on top of everything else, deeply enthusiastic about its subjects, the women who live and move in the tensions Cooper lays bare. As she writes, “I have always lingered over stories of women who lead, women who know what they want out of this world, and women who demand that others respect them and recognize their magic.”
— Megan Garber
Sabrina, Nick Drnaso
The first graphic novel to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Sabrina is the kind of tale whose visual simplicity belies how viscerally disturbing it is. (Suffice it to say that everyone I know who has read this book told me it gave them awful dreams.) Nick Drnaso has created a minimalist horror story that functions as a gutting critique of a modern media environment choked with misinformation, propaganda, and conspiracy theories. A young woman named Sabrina goes missing. Her disappearance and the revelations that follow trigger not only a deep grief among those who knew and loved her, but also a kind of mass hysteria throughout the United States. Following a familiar pattern, Sabrina’s case mutates from an unspeakable human tragedy into a political symbol—fuel for a brand of insatiable paranoia kept alive by reckless commentators and denizens of online forums. Drnaso’s buildup is patient, his artistic style understated. Entire pages go by without someone speaking. Characters browse the internet or listen to the radio or sit quietly in a room. People are rendered plainly—pinpricks for eyes, a wisp of ink for mouths—so that any remotely exaggerated expression feels like a jump scare. This is a book that, because of Drnaso’s immense talent and the stubbornness of the ugly realities depicted, never quite leaves you.
— Lenika Cruz
Less, Andrew Sean Greer
Less is a novel about a midlife crisis, but it’s also the most warmhearted, joyous, delightful analysis of the subject that anyone could dream of. Arthur Less, the hero, is facing 50, with a failed relationship he needs immediate geographic distance from, a middling career as a writer (“All you do is write gay Ulysses,” an ex tells him), and a particular genius for self-deprecation (“How dreadful,” he thinks, “if someone came upon naked Less today: pink to his middle, gray to his scalp, like those old double erasers for pencil and ink”). In a flash of inspiration, Less decides to RSVP “yes” to every literary invitation sitting on his desk: a creative-writing seminar in Germany, a festival in Italy, a conference in Mexico, a Christian writing retreat in India. As he traverses the world, he suffers various pitfalls and humiliations, all detailed by Andrew Sean Greer in wincingly funny prose. But Less also compels you to care deeply about Arthur himself, with his unflinching courage and his bruised, oversized heart.
— Sophie Gilbert
Florida, Lauren Groff
In her collection of stories set in a state that comes across as both alien and too horribly human, Lauren Groff uses bewitching language to bring Florida to life, as a weird, reptile-ridden, post-apocalyptic Eden. Spanish moss dangles “like armpit hair,” while humans seek refuge in strange and unruly places. A recurring voice among the stories is that of a writer, like Groff—a Florida transplant with two sons (also like Groff) whose anxiety pervades the text, turning the world around her into a ghastly fearscape, even when it feels oddly like home. In other tales, two girls are abandoned on an island and quickly turn feral, a woman sees visions while waiting out a hurricane, and a student slides into homelessness. Groff finds beauty in the most unlikely scenes, with her own “imperfect and unwilling bargain” with Florida spurring phrases and moments that are indelible.
— S. G.
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, Terrance Hayes
Terrance Hayes writes with the kind of urgency that demands undivided attention. In 2015’s How to Be Drawn, the poet drew on his fluency as a visual artist to map “TROUBLED BODIES,” “INVISIBLE SOULS,” and “A CIRCLING MIND,” as he titled the collection’s three sections. His latest, released in June, ties together 70 brutal and gorgeous poems that all bear the same title: “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin.” In some of the deftly constructed sonnets, Hayes ponders love: I am my mother’s bewildered shadow. / My lover’s bewildering shadow is mine. In others, he meditates with astonishing clarity on the stakes of interpersonal interactions under hostile conditions: I ain’t mad at you, / Assassin. It’s not the bad people who are brave / I fear, it’s the good people who are afraid. The poems were all written within the first 200 days of the Trump presidency, but American Sonnets never feels gimmicky or trite. “The hysteria of being multiplied & divided,” a line from one of Hayes’s most disembodying poems, animates the poet’s writing, and it’s hard to look away.
— Hannah Giorgis
An American Marriage, Tayari Jones
“Our house isn’t simply empty, our home has been emptied.” So Celestial writes in the first of many letters to Roy, the man she’d been married to for a year and a half before he was imprisoned for a crime she knows he didn’t commit. That grammatical distinction—between a violation that just is and one that is imposed by an invisible force—is at the heart of Tayari Jones’s magnificent novel, An American Marriage. The book’s premise may call to mind, especially this year, another devastating story about a young black couple whose bright future is extinguished by some combination of indifferent fate and a racist criminal-justice system. But in setting Roy free early on, An American Marriage asks a horrifying question: What if the resolution is the start of a new nightmare? Jones unspools just how nebulous the traumas of a single wrongful conviction can be for everyone involved; she moves between the perspectives of Roy, Celestial, and their friend Andre, whose connection with Celestial deepens into something fierce and real that frightens all three. Over 306 pages, this love triangle takes on an impossible shape: Its edges are somehow both sharpened (each character has a clearly defined position) and softened (no one is an obvious villain). The explosive drama that follows serves to validate a brutal truth: that reversing an injustice can’t rewind time or rebottle pain or reclaim love. But it can, the novel insists, make way for a new kind of peace.
— L. C.
The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon
The neat trick of The Incendiaries, a book consumed by the validity and the orthodoxy of religion, is that it sweeps readers so absorbingly into the stories being told that you might forget to question their reliability. R. O. Kwon provides three separate narratives in her debut novel about a campus cult involved in a shocking act: Will, a student at Edwards College who’s recently lost his religion; Phoebe, a former pianist whose mother died in a car accident; and John Leal, a barefoot guru who claims to have once been imprisoned in a North Korean labor camp. Not one is entirely trustworthy. As the three accounts unspool, you have to selectively try to piece them together to make sense of everything, like a modern-day St. Jerome assembling the Bible. Kwon considers vast themes like faith, grief, and deception with precision, and her imagery is sparingly beautiful, conjuring a world where it’s all too easy to be taken in.
— S. G.
These Truths: A History of the United States, Jill Lepore
The world is precarious and time is precious and those things being what they are, I can think of no stronger endorsement than this: These Truths is 932 pages long—and, reader, I didn’t want it to end. That’s in part because Jill Lepore’s history, sweeping its way from pre-Columbian America to the decidedly post-Columbian era of Donald Trump, is so lyrically told. (Who else but Lepore would think to describe James K. Polk as having “eyes like caverns and hair like smoke”?) The poetry, though, is without romance: These Truths is productively clear-eyed, rejecting the easy mythologies that so often populate wide-ranging works of history and exploring America, instead, as the product of chaotic and human and therefore often excruciatingly preventable contingencies. Here are some of the most urgent and defining truths of the current moment—among them inequality, partisanship, nationalism, and, in particular, racism—told in reverse, Metacom to Cotton Mather to Andrew Jackson to Frederick Douglass to Pauli Murray to Phyllis Schlafly to Barack Obama to so many others, figures familiar and less so. People who, treading the vast American landscape, bent the arc of history.
— M. G.
The Feral Detective, Jonathan Lethem
Fiction being a bit of a slow cousin to actuality—at least three years behind the news, as a rule—the novels of the Trump era should be coming in a steady wave by the end of 2019. None of them, however, will be quite like The Feral Detective, Jonathan Lethem’s 11th novel and his first detective story since 1999’s wonderful Motherless Brooklyn. The warping sensations of Election Night 2016, the mangled instantaneous awareness of having plunged through the ice of the looking glass and into a reversed republic, are this book’s steady state.
Perhaps to secure the dislocation, Lethem writes first-person in the voice of a woman: Phoebe Siegler, a freaked-out New York Times journalist drawn into the tingling spaces of the American West by the search for a runaway teen. In the desert, the world of the so-called “Beast-Elect,” the Supreme Tangerine, discloses itself: tribalism, hyperreality, naked-lunch America. There’s a lot of action around California’s Mount Baldy, because the runaway teen is a Leonard Cohen fan, and the monastery on Mount Baldy is where Cohen (whose death, two days before the election, seemed part of the general dilapidation of consciousness) would do his Zen thing. There is some superb writing about dogs. And there is a witty, rueful, reluctantly oracular voice telling us the new story of ourselves.
— James Parker
The Carrying, Ada Limón
The line “Imagine you must survive without running?” stopped me up as I read “Ancestors,” an entry in Ada Limón’s latest poetry collection. Into that open-ended, strangely hopeful query is baked the quandary of how to be on this Earth while also harboring a crushing grief. Limón’s poems in The Carrying are threaded with this tension. They are preoccupied, to a great extent, with a particular strain of desire and loss: struggles with fertility, as well as the societal bias toward motherhood. Limón ponders, with wonder, the dandelion, “a flower so tricky it can reproduce asexually, / making perfect identical selves, bam, another me, bam, another me.” She writes tenderly about bodies: the scarred one of her mother and those of dead animals she passes on the road. Crows and beetles pop up repeatedly, as important to the world of these poems as its human figures. Limón, a powerful writer whose Bright Dead Things was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry, uses the straightforward language of deeply felt experience in The Carrying and urges readers to do that trickiest of things: to consider, even countenance, dueling emotions at once.
— Jane Yong Kim
Circe, Madeline Miller
It’s been a rich few years for classical stories retold by characters on the margins. In 2012, Madeline Miller published The Song of Achilles, the story of the Trojan War written from the point of view of Patroclus, Achilles’s companion. Her follow-up, Circe, is a stunning novel narrated by literature’s first witch, a character who features only briefly in The Odyssey, but whose story, Miller proves, is epic in its own right. The daughter of the sun god, Helios, and a nymph, Circe is banished to an island after she turns the naiad Scylla into a monster. Alone, and immortal, she begins to practice witchcraft, honing her powers for solace and self-protection. “I learned that I could bend the world to my will, as a bow is bent for an arrow,” Circe recalls. “I would have done that toil a thousand times to keep such power in my hands.” With Circe, Miller fleshes out a fascinating character whose desires, battles, and spirit make her feel newly liberated, and timeless.
— S. G.
After the Winter, Guadalupe Nettel
Guadalupe Nettel’s third book to be translated into English examines solitude in all its pleasing and miserable facets, as well as the pull of human connection that can draw isolated people—at least temporarily—into more communal orbits. Fashioned as a dual narrative, After the Winter follows two such characters: There’s Claudio, a troubled, dislikable man who appreciates the “silence, order, and cleanliness” of his New York City apartment only as much as the convenience of a female “body that lets itself be grabbed.” And there’s Cecilia, a Mexican expat in Paris who has a predilection for cemeteries and lives her days in a “ghostly state,” except when she’s engaging in a kind of “compulsive espionage” on her neighbor. That the two cross paths, and then part, midway through their individual story arcs is integral to the novel’s formal conceit. The pair’s unlikely affair (presented archly via “Cecilia’s Version” and “Claudio’s Version” chapters) will not be the most substantive one of each other’s lives. Previous relationships haunt the characters’ interior monologues, and woven into Nettel’s confident, empathic lines is the sad certainty that the author has explored in her other works: that life, let alone love, is fleeting.
— J. Y. K.
There There, Tommy Orange
To call the Cheyenne and Arapaho writer Tommy Orange’s debut novel “engrossing” would be a wild understatement. There There envelops the reader whole, weaving together history, identity, and intergenerational memory with rapid prose. The novel follows 12 characters as they travel to the Big Oakland Powwow. Orange maps the struggles of “urban Indians … the generation born in the city,” with shrewdness and compassion. He traces his characters’ contemporary conditions back to their historical roots; nothing is a coincidence. The book is unflinching, its characters’ arcs at times devastating. There There, with its palpable commitment to revering Orange’s inspirations and forerunners, functions as both an engaging story and a record of trauma.
— H. G.
The Perfect Nanny, Leila Slimani
The Perfect Nanny begins with an atrocity, stated simply. “The baby is dead,” Leila Slimani writes. “It only took a few seconds.” The story, inspired by the unthinkable murder of two children in New York by their nanny, is relocated to Paris by Slimani, a Franco-Moroccan writer who uses her innately and immediately distressing setup to prod anxieties about working motherhood, class, and the strange emotional intimacy embedded in taking care of someone else’s children. The novel, told from the perspective of both the children’s mother and caregiver, tries to imagine how such an event could have happened—to flesh out the details and the conflicts that might help such a contradictory story make sense. It gets close. One of the more resonant elements in The Perfect Nanny is how it portrays two women both continually suppressing their instincts, out of the simple need to get through the day.
— S. G.
Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires
Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s debut story collection, Heads of the Colored People, is a vivid, sometimes unnerving tapestry of emotion. In each tale about characters with fraught relationships to their racial identities, Thompson-Spires toys with humor to disarming effect. The author’s winks begin with the first line of the introductory story: “Riley wore blue contact lenses and bleached his hair—which he worked with gel and a blow-dryer and flatiron some mornings into Sonic the Hedgehog spikes so stiff you could prick your finger on them, and sometimes into a wispy side-swooped bob with long bangs—and he was black.” At times her knowing ribs are uncomfortable; in some scenes, they soothe. Heads of the Colored People is particularly mischievous in its exploration of the fissures among black people: upper-middle-class academics, private-school attendees, the author’s own readers. She writes with verve and acuity about the self-perpetuating chasms that privilege creates. Each story is the equivalent of a raised eyebrow, somehow pleasurable even if you find yourself on the receiving end.
— H. G.
His Favorites, Kate Walbert
At just 150 pages long, His Favorites, Kate Walbert’s third novel, is impossible to put down. It is by no means an easy read. The narrator is a 15-year-old girl who is wrestling with twin traumas: an accident that killed her best friend, and the abuse of a predatory teacher. In retelling events that read as nearly inevitable and exploring power dynamics that currently saturate the news landscape, Walbert achieves something remarkable: She renders the very unexceptional nature of sexual assault and institutional stonewalling as freshly horrifying. Along the way, she creates a striking psychological portrait of grief and illuminates the arcane details of private-school campuses and teen girls’ friendships with surprising humor. The result is a book that’s gutting, and generous, and unforgettably real.
— Rosa Inocencio Smith
Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal, Heather Widdows
The word beautiful shares a root with bene, the Latin for good. That’s in one way an inconsequential thing, a simple etymological quirk; in another way, though, it explains a lot about beauty’s ability to impose itself, as a mandate, on people’s lives—particularly the lives of women. Beauty as goodness made manifest: It’s an assumption that is summoned every time a thin body is treated as a sign of a strong will, every time taut skin is considered to be evidence of hard work, every time a cosmetics company insists that you should buy the elixir because “you’re worth it.” But definitely don’t take my word for it. Take the words, instead, of a philosopher. Heather Widdows, in Perfect Me, considers the far-ranging implications of attractiveness rendered in the imperative, giving beauty itself, in the process, the rigorously intellectual treatment it deserves. The book, an academic title with mass-market implications, considers beauty as a construction, racialized and gendered; beauty as a constriction, often punishing and occasionally cruel; and beauty as a goal that remains, for most, persistently out of reach. Perfect Me is a treatise that often reads, fittingly, as an indictment—a book that recognizes all the ways people are taught, still, to judge books by their covers.
— M. G.
The Female Persuasion, Meg Wolitzer
To begin The Female Persuasion is to feel immersively transported back into the mindset of a young woman just starting to figure things out. Which, it turns out, is a pretty mortifying and uncomfortable place to be (especially if you’ve tried hard to forget most of it). Meg Wolitzer’s 11th novel is about the relationship between Greer Kadetsky, an 18-year-old college student at the book’s outset, and Faith Frank, an elder stateswoman of feminism who becomes a mentor to the shy but ambitious Greer. Faith is the founder of Bloomer, a well-respected but increasingly irrelevant magazine; when it folds, she recruits Greer to work for her new project, a company called Loci, which runs the kind of expensive and ambitious conferences that are frequently derided for their particular brand of tote-bag feminism. The Female Persuasion is a funny, thoughtful work that’s both painfully familiar and notably deft in its consideration of the debates modern feminism fosters, and the question of how women can strengthen their own voices without silencing others.
— S. G.
Red Clocks, Leni Zumas
At the beginning of the year, when I reviewed Red Clocks, the idea of America outlawing abortion felt more outlandishly dystopian than it does now, with Ohio’s “heartbeat bill” heading to the governor and another justice who’s opposed to abortion rights installed on the Supreme Court. The most striking thing about Leni Zumas’s book is how it captures the ordinariness of how the world might change for women, without warning. Through the accounts of four female narrators living in small-town Oregon, Zumas explores the consequences—big and small—of living in a woman’s body. One of her characters, Ro, is a writer who’s trying to conceive after IVF has been outlawed; another is a pregnant teenager who’s flat out of options, facing a “pink wall” at the Canadian border and a government that charges girls seeking abortions with conspiracy to commit murder. Thrust into an anachronistic society almost overnight, the women in Red Clocks find themselves drawing on old ways to help one another.
— S. G.
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