2013 Top 10 Fiction

1. The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner (Scribner) Young woman moves to New York to make it as an artist, falls in with an older lover/mentor, becomes entangled in ’70s radicalism—pulled from their context, the plot threads of Rachel Kushner’s novel scan like an intellectual potboiler. Submerged in her coolly observant prose, however, they limn a beguiling exploration of identity, art, and class that still manages to rattle the lid a little. (Lee Gardner)

2. I Want to Show You More, by Jamie Quatro (Grove) Tied together by the recurring motif of an almost-adulterous wife, Quatro’s collection highlights the religious aspects of sex, cancer, and long-distance running in extraordinary ways that reinvigorate the short story, language, and, ultimately, the world. With these stories Quatro proves herself a master of the form. (Baynard Woods)

3. Vampires in the Lemon Grove, by Karen Russell (Alfred A. Knopf) U.S. presidents reincarnated as horses, young women transformed into silkworms, and geriatric bloodsuckers populate the Swamplandia! author’s first collection of short stories, but their finely observed emotional travails feel real. Russell’s tales offer a mutant hybrid of genre-fiction uncanniness and adroit literary pathos as compelling as any sanguinary craving. (LG)

4. The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud (Alfred A. Knopf) Nora Eldridge looks back in calm, seething rage at the decisions that led to her being a single elementary schoolteacher in her 40s instead of the artist she once imagined herself to be, reflections catalyzed by a visiting scholar and his cosmopolitan artist-wife and son. A patiently gripping psychological portrait of ordinary mediocrity’s disappointments. (Bret McCabe)

5. Tide King, by Jen Michalski (Black Lawrence Press) Michalski joined the big leagues with this stupendous novel whose magical realism is heavy on the realism as she follows her characters through war, love, and a cross-country country-music tour. Gorgeous. We’re lucky to have Michalski before the rest of the world discovers her. But they will. (BW)

6. Wrecked, by Charlotte Roche (Grove) Charlotte Roche mines contemporary femininity with the ruthlessness of Chuck Palahniuk’s and Dennis Cooper’s autopsies of masculinity, and in Wrecked she fearlessly explores how one woman navigates being both wife and mother following the deaths of her brothers and mother in a car crash. A complicated and ribald meditation on the prison houses of gender. (BM)

7. Tenth of December, by George Saunders (Random House) Saunders’ quietly terrifying new collection introduces us to tomorrow’s nightmares—pharmaceutical-penitentiary industrial complex, decoration slavery—while holding a mirror up to the societal misunderstandings that color modern life. What makes these stories sting is the generous humanity the author imbues them with, the warmth and relatability that animates his characters. Saunders is adept at making us root for miscreants, killers, and the sorts of awful, everyday folks we despise in regular life. (Raymond Cummings)

8. The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf) Extrapolated from the real-life tale of two Indian-born brothers involved in the violent, contentious Naxalite movement of the 1960s, The Lowland is a masterful testament to the myriad ways in which best intentions can fall far short. Strident idealist Udayan gets in over his head in Indian politics, while studious, insular Subhash defects to the United States for graduate school. Gauri, Udayan’s pregnant bride, is inextricably linked to both brothers in ways that ultimately prove devastating. (RC)

9. The Isle of Youth, by Laura van den Berg (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux) These stories cycling around slightly-to-seriously out-of-control lives of women on the verge of major changes are tough, cool, and full of heart. Van den Berg used to live here, and it’s a great loss to the city that she’s gone—though she will be reading at the Ivy Bookshop next month. (BW)

10. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., by Adelle Waldman (Henry Holt and Co.) Waldman, a Baltimore native, witheringly dissects the status symbols of the Brooklyn literary scene. What sounds like the definition of navel-gazing tedium on the surface is, in Waldman’s hands, a superb portrait of the Gilded Age 2.0, especially the sexual mores of its male inhabitants. (BW)