Darcy’s infuriating backhanded proposal to Elizabeth Bennett. Gatsby’s long line of crisp shirts fluttering to his closet floor. Anne Boleyn quivering on the scaffold, waiting for the executioner’s neck-bound sword. Some scenes in literature leave such an impression that they come back to you unbidden as you try to fall asleep at night or wait for an overdue subway. This year’s crop of great reads offered up sticky sex with aquatic creatures, a menacing chicken carcass, and a murder confession that will leave you rooting for the killer. These scenes — the very best from 2018 — are the kind you’ll double-underline, dog-ear, and return to for years to come.
10. The Pisces, by Melissa Broder (Hogarth)
As I pulled him across the beach, there were just a few stray joggers and assorted weirdos nearby. His blanketed tail jutted off the wagon, but it wasn’t the strangest thing to happen in Venice. No one seemed to notice or care. It wasn’t like I was smuggling a dead body.
The basic premise of The Pisces is (relatively) simple. The narrator, Lucy, has fled her crumbling Ph.D. thesis and ex-boyfriend in Arizona and landed in Venice Beach, California, where she embarks on a love affair/sex romp with a merman named Theo. What’s complicated are the, uhm, mechanics of exactly how a sea creature and a human find a place to copulate in private. In one of the pitch-black-funny novel’s best moments, Lucy carts Theo to her sister’s house, where she’s dogsitting, via a children’s wagon (he can stay out of the water for a few hours at a time) so they can hole up and screw. The journey to the couch is harrowing, the sex is realistically sticky, but the real acrobatic feat is Broder’s complete gender flip, turning Lucy into the heroic, muscley seducer who physically drags home a man of mythical beauty and ravishes him.
9. Severance, by Ling Ma (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
I chose L’Occitane, one of the smaller spaces. It seemed cozier than the others, with faux-wood-lined walls and red tiled floors.
Candace Chen is one of the only people left in America after a strange nostalgia-induced fever turns her friends, colleagues, and neighbors into tame, zombie-like creatures. She takes to the road with a ragtag group of strangers (who intently Google things like “how to start a fire” before the web goes down), and together they head for “the facility,” a building their leader says can keep them alive for years. It’s a mall. In this hilarious apocalyptic projection of the crumbling American Dream, each member of the gang brings a parlor game to life as they choose which store they want to claim as their “room.” J. Crew, with its “blonde-wood floorboards” is claimed first; others choose the Apple Store, Abercrombie and Fitch, and Journeys. Bob, the deluded-with-grandeur leader who “had played every iteration of Warcraft with a near-religious fervor,” chooses Hot Topic, “with its cavernous black interior and faux-iron doors.” In a novel that meticulously dissects the absurdity of American life, this is the moment when Ma really nails it.
8. Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday (Simon & Schuster)
Alice picked it up — Bridgehampton National Bank, it said on the front, next to a logo of a sailboat regatta — and took out six one-hundred dollar bills.
A young book editor, Mary-Alice (based in part on Halliday), is pursued and wooed by an older, prize-winning (well, everything except the Pulitzer) novelist, Ezra Blazer. The two settle into a harmonious little domestique à deux, puttering around Blazer’s Manhattan apartment, ordering in, and tossing zingers over the televised baseball game. But at the heart of the relationship is a deep discrepancy, not just in age but in possibility. There’s a small moment — tiny, really — when Ezra slides Mary-Alice an envelope full of cash “for an air conditioner.” The money is largesse but also power, which she subverts in her own way. She buys the air conditioner and then, “with the money left over, she bought a new toilet seat, a tea kettle, a screwdriver, and a small wooden dresser.” It’s a radical act, raising questions beneath the surface of the simple text.
7. Bitter Orange, by Claire Fuller (Tin House Books)
Now, the dress rucked and creased itself around my stomach, and as much as I tugged the sides together, it gaped, surprised I was attempting to wear it.
Frances Jellico, the only young woman not rebelling in 1969, first spies her fellow inhabitants of the crumbling English country manse known as Lyntons — Peter and Cara, a young couple with a chaotic relationship and confusing history — through a peephole built into the floor of her attic room. The three form a fast friendship (although this underappreciated chest-clutch of a novel begins, and ends, with one of their bodies dead in the bathtub). For Frances, who has made it to adulthood without a single friend, these relationships are intoxicating and befuddling at once. So when Peter and Cara invite her down to dine with them for the first time, she dons her dead mother’s long-passé velvet evening gown and cape, along with a girdle that turns her stomach into “a child’s inflatable swimming ring.” Her entrance into Peter and Cara’s room, where he lounges in pajamas and she has merely thrown on some beads over a sundress, provides Frances with the first inkling of just how wide a gap separates her from her peers — and the rest of the world.
6. Girls Burn Brighter, by Shobha Rao (Flatiron Books)
He said, Oh yeah, like that, like that. A pain hit somewhere behind her eyes, and she turned away. But the pain was thunder, it broke and it broke.
Novels with the word “girls” in the title left me a little cold after the recent onslaught of copycat Gillian Flynns. But Shobha Rao’s bleak and moving story of two Indian girls separated by tragedy, and then by oceans, had one of the most stomach-churning scenes in recent memory. Essentially sold into slavery as a house cleaner in Seattle, one of the girls, whose hand has already been amputated by a cruel pimp, is brought into a bedroom by a fetishistic monster. “When she lay on her back, he said, No you’ll do the other thing. … He had a bottle of something clear that he smeared over her stub, and then he showed her. He said, like this, and then he got on the bed. On all fours.” The violation nearly kills her, and the scene left me physically nauseous — as it should.
5. The Perfect Nanny, by Leila Slimani (Penguin)
A chicken carcass sits on a plate. A glistening carcass, without the smallest scrap of flesh hanging from its bones, not the faintest trace of meat. It looks as if it’s been gnawed clean by a vulture or a stubborn, meticulous insect.
At first, Louise is a savior to Myriam and Paul, a well-to-do Parisian couple eager to leave the logistics and headaches of parenting to a nanny. She stays late without asking and cooks elaborate meals for their dinner parties, then slips out quietly before the meal. But as the boundaries between family and employee grow fuzzier and Myriam begins to resent the intrusion of another creature into her family, Louise commits an act of pedestrian horror, too strange to overlook and too tame to categorize as dangerous. She fishes a mostly eaten chicken from the trash, lets the children pick it clean, washes it with a “sweet almond … washing liquid,” and places it on the table, like the mouse that a cat shakes in its teeth and insidiously leaves at your feet. We know from the first sentence that the children will end up dead; it’s in this moment that we see how and why that might happen.
4. My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Ottessa Moshfegh (Penguin Press)
“There, there” I said, sucking down the coffee. I was intensely bored of Reva already.
Ottessa Moshfegh’s serrated-edged sophomore novel about an “Amber Valletta”–resembling orphan who’s determined to sleep away a year of her empty life was most notable for the unfiltered selfishness of its unnamed narrator. After her (only) friend Reva’s mother dies, she drags herself out to Reva’s family home for the funeral, clad in a black Theory suit and fur coat she bought during a bout of sleep-shopping, and insists on a nap. Then, she asks Reva to come upstairs and dig through her mother’s closet to find her a pair of shoes for the occasion. “I can’t look in her closet,” Reva says, “It’s too upsetting.” The narrator replies with the most witheringly cruel response imaginable: “I can just stay down here if you want and miss the funeral, I guess.” Reva gets the shoes. The narrator takes another nap. Moshfegh’s cold, poisonous prose carries on.
3. The Witch Elm, by Tana French (Viking)
The whole reason for this was so that Dominic Ganly’s horrible little mind wouldn’t be our problem anymore.
Tana French’s first stand-alone mystery outside of her wildly successful (and brilliant) Dublin Murder Squad series doesn’t just have a twist: It has a parade of them, each bleaker than the last. First Toby Hennessy is robbed and beaten senseless; then, after he’s sent to convalesce at his beloved Uncle Hugo’s family manse, a body turns up in the garden, and his formerly charmed life turns into a nightmare. But at the heart of this story of one man’s self-pitying contortions is one of the longest, most intimate confessions I’ve ever encountered in any form. Over 53 pages, every facet of the murder of Dominic Ganly — killed a decade earlier when he was a teenage boy and stuffed inside the trunk of the titular tree — is revealed: the who, the what, the how, and, most achingly, the why. In unflinching detail, the motive unspools, and Ganly is unmasked just as forcefully as his killer.
2. Kudos, by Rachel Cusk (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
“I admit,” she said finally, “that I took pleasure in telling you about my life and in making you feel envious of me. … I remember thinking, yes, I’ve avoided making a mess of things, and it seemed to me that it was through hard work and self-control that I had, rather than luck.”
Cusk’s Kudos, the finale in a trilogy composed almost entirely of wide-ranging conversations between Faye, the ambiguously Cuskian protagonist, and the various people she meets on a daily basis, broke new ground in the democratization of experiential storytelling. In one of the novel’s boldest moments, an interviewer who met Faye ten years prior entirely unwinds the narrative she’d erected of a pleasant life in a “placid neighborhood” with her happy children and doting husband. Over pages and pages she confesses, “I only wanted to make my life seem enviable so that I could accept it myself.” It’s a brilliant undoing of the mandate that we accept one version of a fictive story as its reality.
1. The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner (Scribner)
“I used to feel sorry for you bitches,” Jones said. “But if you want to be a parent, you don’t end up in prison. Plain and simple. Plain and simple.”
Romy Hall, the somewhat guilty murderess at the center of Rachel Kushner’s shatteringly incisive social-justice warrior of a novel, is serving back-to-back life sentences in a California maximum-security prison when she’s summoned to an office with the news that her mother, her only living relative and the caretaker of her 7-year-old son, has died. Her maternal instincts — “I need to get there,” she yells out absurdly — are savagely smothered by the guards, along with the entire justice system’s unspoken mandate to seek and destroy every bit of humanity tucked away inside its prisoners. It’s the loneliest scene I’ve read this year — in the past five years maybe. Romy screams, “That’s my son! That’s my son!” as the guards hold her down, “until every part of [her] was pinned.”