THE 2006 BELIEVER BOOK AWARDS
FEATURING THE RESULTS OF A READER SURVEY AND A WRITER SURVEY
Cormac McCarthy won.
In years past, the Believer Book Award went to the novel or story collection the magazine’s editors agreed was the best—the bravest, the most affecting—of the year. This time around, for the third annual award, we decided to look beyond our fetid chambers for a winner. The February 2007 issue of this magazine contained a survey asking readers to name the three works of fiction from 2006 they considered to be the finest. We also queried ten excellent writers about which books moved them the most. The results of both surveys follow.
READER SURVEY RESULTS
Two spots on the following list, for books whose authors are associated with this magazine, have been intentionally left blank because it would look creepy to include them. Many additional books have been completely omitted because they weren’t published in 2006, weren’t works of fiction, or because they don’t exist.
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road
- ___________, _________________
- Chris Adrian, The Children’s Hospital
- Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day
- David Mitchell, Black Swan Green
- Richard Powers, The Echo Maker
- Gary Shteyngart, Absurdistan
- Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
- T. Cooper, Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes
- Daniel Handler, Adverbs
- Haruki Murakami, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
- George Saunders, In Persuasion Nation
- Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française
- Jennifer Egan, The Keep
- Tom Franklin, Smonk
- Chris Bachelder, U.S.!
- Kathryn Davis, The Thin Place
- Brian Evenson, The Open Curtain
- Kevin Brockmeier, The Brief History of the Dead
- Max Brooks, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
- ___________, _________________
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun
- Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
- Deborah Eisenberg, Twilight of the Superheroes
- Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants
- Mark Haddon, A Spot of Bother
- Amy Hempel, The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel
- Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country
- Joe Meno, The Boy Detective Fails
- Alice Munro, The View from Castle Rock: Stories
- Yannick Murphy, Here They Come
- Heather O’Neill, Lullabies for Little Criminals
- Philip Roth, Everyman
- Dana Spiotta, Eat the Document
- Virgil, The Aeneid (2006 translation by Robert Fagles)
- Stephen Wright, The Amalgamation Polka
- Chris Abani, Becoming Abigail
- Kate Atkinson, One Good Turn
- Emily Barton, Brookland
- T. C. Boyle, Talk Talk
WRITER SURVEY RESULTS
Andrew Lewis Conn
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is the book that had the most lasting impact on me in 2006. That said, it was also the book I was most resistant toward: I’d never read McCarthy before, and was drawn to this novel primarily out of curiosity about how so venerated an author would handle so seemingly disreputable a genre. (In other words, what’s McCarthy doing mucking around in the Thunderdome?) At first, I found myself pushing against the author’s style: language so stripped down it makes Hemingway seem effusive, a fire-and-brimstone act that verges on self-parody. (Though the courage to approach self-parody asymptotically, while never crossing that line, may be as good an artistic litmus test as any other.)
For all that, the book left me shattered. The Road was the book I found myself thinking about most, discussing the most, referencing the most (in relation to the news, to films). It’s the book that invaded my dreams. The Road is a book of visions, and one that will last. And, as Michael Chabon explained so well in his review, it perfectly illustrates the exhilarating contradiction of apocalyptic fiction: that, in order to present a blasted world, one must first convincingly create it through language.
Paul La Farge
Am I allowed to vote for Littell’s Les Bienveillantes? If not, I vote for Against the Day… and if that turns out not to be a contender, may I transfer my vote to Bolaño’s Last Evenings on Earth? Or somehow vote for all three…?
How about I put in my vote for Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. I’ve never read anything quite like it, which, this late in the afternoon, is the most articulate assessment I have.
The best book I read this year was Suite Française by Irène Némerovsky. It’s gorgeously written, funny, tragic—everything a fine novel needs to be. The appendix—with her notes for the third, unwritten section and the letters from her and her husband as they scrambled desperately to survive—was my favorite part of the book.
The one 2006 book that made it past my entirely unintentional boycott of all things 2006 was Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital. I found it to be absolutely magnificent. Perhaps so much so that, unconsciously, of course, I dared not give it any companions for compare.
A great many writers aspire to write the ultimate post-9/11 novel. Laird Hunt may actually have pulled it off with The Exquisite, a watercolor sketch of a halfhearted hit man rambling through a para-noir, paranoid, paranormal Manhattan. Every time “murder” comes out of Henry’s mouth, the word sounds slightly different, until the voice becomes comfortingly reliable in its unreliability.
Among the very best novels of 2006—and the most disparaged of all the big books last year—was John Updike’s Terrorist. It’s odd, what’s happened to our bard of suburbia. Not too long ago, Nicholson Baker came out with U and I, a book about Updike’s “omnipresence and best-selling popularity.” The challenge, Baker told us, would be “to write about Updike while people could still conceivably sneer at him simply for being at the top of the heap, before any false valedictory grand-old-man reverence crept in, as it inevitably would.” Well, Nicholson, it hasn’t. John Updike has not gotten the G.O.M.R.T (Grand Old Man Reverence Treatment); he’s gotten ignored. Writers have turned their noses up at him.
Terrorist was Updike’s best, most ambitious book in fifteen years. Was it flawed? Sure. (Find me a book that isn’t.) But who can write a sentence as Updike can? (“Blue plastic barrettes pull her glistening hair back as straight as it will go; the plump edge of her right ear holds along its crimp a row of little silver rings.”) And who but the bravest of WASP novelists would be bold enough to try showing American readers the psyche of an Islamicist suicide bomber?
But—as they often bafflingly do these days—reviewers docked the novelist for his ambition. Even the esteemed David Gates, in the pages of Newsweek, took Updike to task merely for the attempt. “Updike, unfortunately, does take us inside the mind of a would-be suicide bomber,” Gates wrote about this “lame-brained, improbable” book. Updike may be many things—even his best writing may have real defects—but the man is never “lame-brained.”
He still sees things, still catches the truths hidden in everyday life, with the hyperclarity of a faithful talent. Look, for instance, at his dissection of TV today:
It’s slop…. But the commercials, they are fantastic. They’re like Fabergé eggs. When somebody in this country wants to sell you something, they really buckle down. They get intense. You watch a commercial twenty times, you see how every second has been weighed out in gold. They’re full of what physicists call information. Would you know, for example, that Americans were as sick as they are, full of indigestion and impotence and baldness, always wetting their pants and having sore assholes, if you didn’t watch commercials?
It’s weird to feel the need to defend a guy whose career has seen the abundant successes and lotto-size returns that Updike’s has. But, when he’s gone, a hundred lesser writers will line up to say that Updike “never reached his potential”; they’ll say—as I’ve heard people already opine, in different ways—that he’s the greatest American writer never to have written a great book. That’s bullshit. Terrorist isn’t one of Updike’s very best books. But it is one of the very best of 2006.
The Road is a masterpiece but I suspect most interested readers know that by now, so I’m going to recommend The Dream Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin. The reviews I’ve seen have noted that it chronicles the unraveling of a Communist party functionary—the editor of a magazine of art criticism who sold out his talent and beliefs—at the start of glasnost. Grushin’s brilliant, tricky, moving book is indeed fascinating in its particularities of time (1985), place (Moscow), and politics. But it also transcends its setting, requiring us to consider what it means to make—and to perceive—a work of art; how to reckon with the malleability of our convictions; and how to contain a riotously complicated inner life, one saturated with loss, desire, and elusive personal history, as we make our way in a world that is equally complicated with practical and political exigencies. At its heart, Grushin’s astonishing, formally adventurous, debut novel is about the dream life of all of us.
Colson Whitehead’s Apex Hides The Hurt, which I read in a single sitting last May. It made me decide that no book should ever be longer than 212 pages.
Hands down the book that I enjoyed the most and thought about constantly was Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. Seems like BSG was taken only at face value by a lot of reviewers as a simple coming-of-age novel. And it is that. Beautifully. Boyhood (miserable and delightful) is deftly evoked. But then it’s opened up, completely reexperienced, subverted, and magically changed into something that I’d almost forgotten it could be: complex and precious and, yes, soulful. While reading I felt the most perfect sensation of inner equilibrium between boyhood and adulthood, how both make up the same ongoing person, and how you need both. I don’t know how Mitchell did that. Voice, for one thing. That he could write this and write Cloud Atlas, share one amazing character between them, and make all these voices variously convincing (or necessarily unconvincing) convinces me that he is real a master. Also, it’s a very moral novel, but not at all preachy— I think he’s been reading Philip Pullman, and making some leaps. How did he not make the Booker Prize short list?!?!?!
Other authors whose books made our survey’s “long list” include: Jessica Abel, Elisa Albert, Isabel Allende, Gary Amdahl, J. G. Ballard, Peter Behrens, Mark Binelli, Robert Olen Butler, Ryan Boudinot, Peter Carey, Brian Chippendale, Michael Crichton, Douglas Coupland, Charles D’Ambrosio, Mark Z. Danielewski, Louise Dean, Gideon Defoe, Alan DeNiro, Kiran Desai, Roddy Doyle, Tony D’Souza, Pete Earley, Elizabeth Ellen, Delia Falconer, Thomas Fleming, Michael Friedman, Sara Gran, Kerry Hardie, Jim Harrison, Steven Heighton, A. M. Homes, Paul Hornschemeier, Michel Houellebecq, Shelley Jackson, Edward P. Jones, Daniel Kehlmann, Roy Kesey, Verlyn Klinkenborg, Tyler Knox, Chris Kraus, Douglas Lain, Jay Lake, J. M. Ledgard, Rebecca Lee, Ali Liebegott, Judith Lindbergh, Brad Listi, Dustin Long, Jim Lynch, David Markson, Stephen McCauley, Alice McDermott, John McGahern, Heather McGowan, Thomas McGuane, John McNally, Maile Meloy, Kevin Moffett, Christopher Moore, Brian Morton, Laura Mullen, Antonya Nelson, Carol O’Connell, Lance Olson, Peter Orner, Francine Prose, Dana Reinhardt, Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum, David Rozgonyi, Karen Russell, José Saramago, John Scalzi, Diane Setterfield, Ali Smith, Scarlett Thomas, Lynne Tillman, Anne Tyler, Daniel Woodrell, Jess Walter, Colson Whitehead.
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