Arts & Culture

Fall books: The best new fiction

Fiction is an arena for audacity, where a writer’s imagination, love of language and avidity for story, description and inquiry blossom.

Sure, we love good old-fashioned yarns, when the telling becomes invisible, and we’re utterly caught up in the characters and their predicaments. But there is also profound pleasure to be had in watching a writer revel in the gleam of words, the structure of sentences and the surprise of metaphors.

This fall already has seen a crop of novels that are dazzlingly inventive, even as they address harsh realities and rely on the tried-and-true. Here’s a look at some of the best that hit shelves over the past couple of months.

Russell Banks takes on crime, injustice and tragedy with integrity, artistry and compassion in hard-hitting novels such as "The Sweet Hereafter" and "Cloudsplitter." In "Lost Memory of Skin" (Ecco; September), he portrays the Kid, a 22-year-old damaged by a childhood bereft of love and education who becomes even more severely alienated by his addiction to online pornography.

Ludicrously convicted as a sex offender, the Kid is out on parole, only to discover that the only place he can live is among his fellow pariahs in an improvised encampment at the water’s edge in a big Florida city. There he tries to keep his beloved pet iguana safe and figure out what the Professor, a sociologist of titanic appetites and treacherous secrets, wants from him.

Banks’ stormy tale of deprivation and ostracism, sterile digital illusions and the drenching sensuousness of life poses urgent questions about human nature.

Because there’s no denying that truth is stranger than fiction, many writers anchor their novels to real-life figures and historical events.

With "Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes" (Viking; October), William Kennedy, whose many honors include the Pulitzer Prize, continues his masterful Albany Cycle, a series of novels about his hometown, Albany, N.Y. Previous novels include "Legs," "Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game," "Ironweed" (Kennedy also wrote the screenplay for the film version starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep) and "Roscoe."

In his latest, Kennedy draws on his past as a young journalist in his portrayal of Daniel Quinn, a son of Albany with a reporter’s job and literary dreams. Quinn goes to Cuba in 1957 and on one fateful night meets Ernest Hemingway and the love of his life.

Kennedy’s Hemingway is funny and ferocious. (He advises Quinn: "Shun adverbs, strenuously.") Beautiful Renata is a wealthy socialite and a secret gunrunner for Fidel Castro (who makes an appearance). When the story shifts to Albany, Kennedy delves into another revolution: the fight for civil rights.

Rich in music and bittersweet memories, Kennedy’s gripping, sexy, witty and tough novel is a tale of taking risks and doing right.

Ha Jin never shies away from difficult subjects as he dramatizes life in China present and past. Winner of the National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner and PEN/Hemingway awards, Ha Jin wrote about the Tiananmen Square protests in "The Crazed" and about China’s civil war and role in the Korean War in "War Trash."

In "Nanjing Requiem" (Pantheon; October), he tells the staggering story of the Japanese atrocities perpetuated against Chinese civilians during their invasion of Nan-jing. Ha Jin’s focus is the harrowing experiences of a real-life American missionary, Minnie Vautrin (1886-1941), one of a circle of foreigners who helped the Chinese survive the hellish siege.

A master of rinsed-clean prose, Ha Jin turns steady matter-of-factness into a literary art form of immeasurable impact.

British writer David Lodge likes to have fun on the page, and he is quite intrigued by the masters of fiction who have gone before him. He mischievously fictionalized Henry James in "Author, Author," and now, in "A Man of Parts" (Viking; September), he turns to James’ opposite and adversary, the prescient, inventive and sexually rampant H.G. Wells, author of "The Time Machine" and "War of the Worlds."

This is a grand romp of a novel with a cast of fascinating and indomitable real women, a wealth of genuine biographical information and provocative psychological insights.

History has played a role in Alice Hoffman’s previous bewitching novels, especially "The Red Garden" and "Blackbird House," which are rooted in New England’s Colonial era.

With "The Dovekeepers" (Scribner; October), Hoffman executes a bold departure. Time-traveling to ancient Israel, she portrays four women of exceptional power in an in-depth and preternaturally empathic fictionalization of the months-long Roman siege of the mountain fortress of Masada, where 900 Jews were massacred.

Novelists are thieves, borrowers and mimics, so why wouldn’t they freely commandeer and improvise on classic works in modern guises?

David Guterson, of best-selling "Snow Falling on Cedars" fame, looks to anarchetypal Greek tragedy for inspiration in his new novel, "Ed King" (Knopf; October), an Internet age variation on Sophocles’ "Oedipus."

Born to and promptly abandoned by an underage British nanny whose employer seduced her, Ed goes through some rough times, as does his mother, and develops a yen for older women that will have catastrophic consequences.

The grand 19th-century novels of family, marriage and self by Jane Austen and George Eliot provide the foundation for "The Marriage Plot" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; October), the long-awaited third novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, who received the Pulitzer Prize (and wide readership) for "Middlesex."

In this Reagan-era tale about a love triangle among brainy, graduating college students – English major Madeleine, scientifically inclined Leonard and Christian mysticism-steeped Mitchell – Eugenides considers the ongoing viability of the novel and the nature of meaning and love.

In "1Q84" (Knopf; October), the phenomenally imaginative Japanese writer Haruki Murakami ("Kafka on the Shore," "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle") has written a massive and complex novel paying homage to George Orwell’s epoch-defining "1984."

It’s a many-faceted tale involving an assassin, writers, an editor, a high school student, parallel realities, a commune, violence and dwarves.

Colson Whitehead, a jazzily creative and protean writer with a stinging wit, spectacular command of language, gift for parody and unerring pop-culture antennae, follows his disarmingly subtle novel "Sag Harbor" with "Zone One" (Doubleday; October).

It’s a rampaging zombie saga, set mostly in decimated New York City and fully loaded with all the requisite macabre tropes. Though it is viscerally jolting and suspenseful, the canny Whitehead doesn’t sacrifice his psychological or social acuity.

Novelists love a good microcosm, in which characters occupy a small, controlled environment to create a laboratory for studying human nature. Two Booker Prize winners will beguile and rile readers with fall novels in which characters are changed for better or worse in their small worlds.

In "The Cat’s Table" (Knopf; October), Michael Ondaatje, the author of "The English Patient" and "Anil’s Ghost," places an 11-year-old boy on a ship sailing from his native Ceylon in 1953 to England, where he’ll be reunited with his mother.

During the three-week voyage, adventure and intrigue jumpstart young Michael’s coming-of-age, an interlude he looks back on as an acclaimed writer. Yes, there is a touch of autobiography: Ondaatje was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and then moved to England at age 11, ultimately making his home in Canada.

Aravind Adiga, author of "The White Tiger," creates a microcosm in "Last Man in Tower" (Knopf; September) out of a crumbling apartment building on the swampy edge of Mumbai.

The condo owners are thrown into dire conflict when a wealthy developer courts them with cash, intending to buy everyone out and tear the tower down to make way for a luxury complex. But Dharmen Shah has underestimated Masterje, a retired teacher reluctant to lose his anchor to the past in a violently changing world.

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