M Train by Patti Smith
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Exit West is an excellently written and beautifully observed piece of fiction. It seems necessary to state that outright, lest it get lost to the buzzy political context surrounding the novel. Because that context is hard to ignore: The book seems so pertinent to our ongoing political climate that it’s tempting to imagine that Mohsin Hamid employed a seer while crafting the novel.
The story of a young couple’s burgeoning romance, Hamid’s story is set against the backdrop of an anonymous Middle Eastern country on the brink of civil war. As war becomes inevitable, the novel brings the dissociative reality of a familiar city being transformed into a network of checkpoints and battle zones into sharp relief. But the story also takes a turn for the fantastical with the slow reveal of a series of doors that transport people to various countries around the world. Able to scrape together the costs for their passage, the couple takes a leap of faith — only to find themselves transported from the hell of war to the extreme discomfort of life as a refugee.
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
Tenth of December by George Saunders
When I was putting together this list, I thought of this collection, and then convinced myself it hadn’t come out this decade. It feels that foundational to modern fiction — I couldn’t imagine that it came out as recently as 2013.
George Saunders is one of the most celebrated living authors for good reason, and those reasons are on vivid display in this collection of ten incandescent, strange, and utterly unique stories. Saunders combines deep pathos with an irrepressible ear for humor, and manages to make extremely eerie — even violent — scenes feel human, and finally revelatory. These are stories that stick with you, that pop out of your unconscious in weird moments and prompt you to examine the world around you a bit more closely.
Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
At one point in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s celebrated book, he writes:
“I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”
This statement encapsulates both the thesis and the experience of reading Between the World and Me. The book is written as an essayistic address to his teenaged son, as Coates grapples with America’s history of racism, his own experiences growing up black in this country, and the most recent displays of police violence against the black community — so often directed at boys barely older than his son. It’s a hard look at the violent paradigms upon which our society is based, and it’s often painful to read; such a harsh light shining on that reality is blinding. But for so emotionally and intellectually devastating a book, I couldn’t bear to put it down. Coates writes these brutal truths poetically, celebrating the beauty of the black body even as he describes all the ways that it is threatened and destroyed. There are no simple solutions in this book, nor are there any empty promises of hope for a better future. But that’s not Coates’ goal here. Instead, he serves as a voice to offer us the questions, to spark our own wrestling journey towards some answer — to be made conscious of the terror and the beauty.
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee
It’s tempting to compare Chang-rae Lee’s beautifully eerie literary dystopian novel to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Both bend the expectations and perceived limitations of literary fiction and dystopian sci-fi; both eschew the more overt tropes of the latter genre, painting a picture of a future that is quietly devastating in its realism. In both novels, the future presented is less shocking in its outlandishness than shocking in its feasibility, in how terribly easy it is to see us in them.
In On Such a Full Sea, that recognition comes in the extreme social stratification of his future America. The story begins in B-Mor, a city placed squarely in the middle of the tripartite social classes. B-Mor, it becomes apparent, was once Baltimore — its creepily well-maintained subterranean mall and work camp atmosphere revered by current occupants for having grown out of a city that, they are taught, became unlivable due to the extremes of poverty, neglect, and implied climate change, hundreds of years previously. The story, in fact, is narrated by the collective residents of B-Mor, in an eerily subjunctive mood that only allows the swelling unrest of the city to shine through in glimpses. It’s uncomfortably easy to see how the current system of power abused, freedom denied, and minority rights trampled could one day evolve to look like B-Mor.
Dystopian fiction works when it reflects back our own worst selves, walking a fine balance between escapism and cautionary tale, functioning as fantasy as well as wake-up call. On Such a Full Sea achieves both with a grace, subtlety, and realism that makes these reminders of the precariousness of our world more palatable, if no less devastating.