March 2012

The Believer Book Award

Editors’ Shortlist

The winner will be announced in the next issue.

Each year, the editors of the Believer generate a short list of the novels and story collections they thought were the strongest and most underappreciated of the year. The 2011 list appears below. In the January issue, we asked our readers to send in their nominations for the best work of fiction from 2011; their answers, along with the winner from the following short list, will appear in the May 2012 issue.

The Curfew

by Jesse Ball (Vintage)

In its first half, The Curfew unwinds a tortuous snake of a story, each twist raising the stakes until all that’s left to be waged is death. As in much of Ball’s work, a vague and sinister government pulls strings behind his third novel, and halfway through, when the narrative is hijacked by a morbid puppet show, the book folds in on itself—an ouroboros swallowing its own tail.

Lightning Rods

by Helen DeWitt (New Directions)

Helen DeWitt has written a really funny and really serious book about contemporary America’s certainty that sex is so important, and that business is so important. Like her first novel, The Last Samurai, it’s preoccupied with the question of what genius looks like (in this case, it looks like following your passion, even if that passion is a masturbatory fantasy), but unlike her complex second novel, Your Name Here (cowritten with Ilya Gridneff), Lightning Rods is structurally straightforward, even simple: a simple tale wickedly conceived and buoyantly told.

Spurious

by Lars Iyer (Melville House)

Suffused with bleak, terminal laughter that will be familiar to admirers of Bernhard and Beckett, the pleasures of Lars Iyer’s first novel lie in its professorial heroes’ deep awareness of their own failures—in particular their inability to think, say, or do anything of any value whatsoever. (They also drink too much.) As Casey Walker wrote in his review in this magazine, the pair is like “Vladimir and Estragon, if Vladimir were the most withering member of Estragon’s tenure committee.”

Widow

by Michelle Latiolais (Bellevue Literary Press)

With the urgent attention and introspection of those forced to inhabit a suddenly strange world, Michelle Latiolais’s narrators navigate familiar landscapes rendered nearly impassable by grief. The protagonist of her title story is overcome by a sense of “ecstatic desperation,” as if “every cell in her body were popping with excitement, ebullient, effervescent,” and the linguistic joy of Latiolais’s exacting prose dissects life’s rawest bits without bleeding them—or the reader—dry.

Leaving the Atocha Station

by Ben Lerner (Coffee House Press)

A young American poet spends a year in Spain on a poetry fellowship in Ben Lerner’s first novel (his first three books were collections of poetry). The protagonist, Adam Gordon, frets about war, women, writing, and whether he has a true self or just a series of false selves, in a way that’s so contemporary and American. The sentences seem to have been chiseled patiently out of stone, yet the book feels fresh and living.

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