Best books of the year, 2018

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday December 18, 2018
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Gay literary fiction devotees await a new novel by Alan Hollinghurst the way fans of George R.R. Martin await his latest, if more politely. In 2018 the British master of the 21st-century 19th-century novel came through with a book, "The Sparsholt Affair" (Knopf), well worth the wait. Typically for Hollinghurst, it's a multigenerational saga spanning the lives of a British father and son coping imperfectly with their respective generations' regard of their homosexuality. Despite its Tolystoyan cast, the novel has no minor characters. It's "like a Merchant Ivory movie with more credible sex," I wrote in March, and I stand by that. But the range of its themes is large, and the force and finesse of its storytelling have made it a book I happily can't shake off.

The initial stir about Alexander Chee's "How To Write an Autobiographical Novel" (Mariner), which, with "Edinburgh," Chee had done early in our century, was whether the title of his first essay collection constituted truth in advertising. But the way the 16 essays probed Chee's own changing sense of self — insisting, if anything, on being a work-in-progress at all times — gave the book legs. Reflections on his two years in San Francisco, as an AIDS-activist bookstore clerk with an electrifying one-night stint as a drag queen, are highlights.

Acknowledged polymath Stephen Hough, best known as a concert pianist, came out (hardly for the first time) with his first novel, "The Final Retreat" (Sylph Editions). An unflinching look into the tortured soul of a Catholic priest embroiled in a sex scandal with a rent boy (though there were many), it reinserted compassion into what is better known as an international crime story generating headlines and public rage. It also contained the year's best sex writing.

The best thing about the year was the way LGBT writers — old hands and debutantes alike — went wild. Their noisy refutation of any notion that the novel is dead provided a forceful, perhaps unconscious collective response to renewed, deadly threats to the LGBTQ community.

At the crest of the wave of great writing by all manner of trans authors, Jody Rosenberg's novel "Confessions of the Fox" (One World) fused the completely reimagined historical novel (about an 18th-century legendary criminal re-envisioned as a trans man) with scholarly reflection on found originals (it has footnotes that gradually take over the book, riotously) floated on high-flying picaresque action.

Joseph Cassara's more somber "The House of Impossible Beauties" (Ecco) deployed comparatively standard narrative devices to revive a time and range of characters that blossomed like night-blooming jasmine. Cassara vividly depicts life in and around a New York sanctuary (with a historical precedent) for outcast drag queens, often cum trans people, making new family out of their own, sundered, dysfunctional ones.

The ground broken in Dale Peck's "Night Soil" (Soho Press) is what its title refers to, (leaking) containers of human excrement. It's a novel that takes deadly seriously the reality of LGBTQ internal homophobia, here inexplicably leavened by leaping language that recounts the sins of generations of a once-wealthy American clan dead-ending in a physically grotesque-from-birth queer man, Judas Stammers. It's a profane, exhibitionist American "Sparsholt Affair" unafraid of the word shit and odors and malodors of any kind, vaulting taboos with brilliantly transgressive language.

Two novels as extraordinary, if in altogether different ways — about which more soon — took as their launching pads imagined periods in the lives of great gay creators about which there is no historical record. Ersi Sotiropoulos' "What's Left of the Night" (New Vessel Press) looks at the three days Constantine Cavafy spent in Paris before returning to Alexandria, where he became one of the 20th century's greatest poets, chronicling his internal passage in language of unfettered imagination. Mathias Enard's "Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants" (New Directions) builds a readable language of its own to imagine Michelangelo in Constantinople, bidding on a bridge over the Golden Horn whose design by Leonardo da Vinci was declined. Queerness, Michelangelo's the roughest, abounds.

Paul Kildea used equally imaginative nonfiction prose in "Chopin's Piano" (Norton) to chart a history of Chopin's Op. 28 Preludes, framed by the composer's fraught relationship with the mannish George Sand during his lifetime and the advancement of his pursuit by the legendary lesbian harpsichordist, fellow Pole Wanda Landowska.

Ronan Farrow — who, as I write, obtained his (real, not honorary) Ph.D. from Oxford — saw his brilliant and superbly written "War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence" (Norton) appear at the same time he won the Pulitzer Prize (for other journalism), came out publicly and was named one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People. Its hair-raising account of the degradation of the State Department over successive presidencies includes Farrow's interviews with the living major players in the saga.