This fall the dead will walk (down Broadway, no less), a family of flash mobbers will incite unease, convicts will change color, and flowers will talk.
The high-profile raconteurs are back. In some cases, as with Paul LaFarge, this will be their first book since their last book splashed down a decade back. That was a whole other era, and as much as we might think that we'll never return to those halcyon days, word on the carpet at this year's Book Expo was that "literary fiction" was "back." I'm glad. I like literary fiction. And nothing says "I'm back" like publishers emptying their pockets to acquire debut books from unknown authors.
The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern's debut about a magical rivalry set 100-some years ago, has already sold to more than 20 countries; a film version is in the works. Let us hope that it's more The Social Network than Like Water for Elephants. Vanessa Diffenbaugh's debut, The Language of Flowers, narrated by a girl just aged out of the foster care system, was bought at auction for a truckload of money in the U.S. (and another lorry load in the U.K.). The author has started a network dedicated to helping kids make the transition from foster care. So, yes, she's both richer and better than you. On the shores of Lake Michigan, a young baseball player seems destined for the big leagues until a bad throw changes everything, in The Art of Fielding. Like bugs at a ballpark, this debut by Chad Harbach, an editor with literary journal n+1, is generating tremendous buzz.
Kevin Wilson's novel, The Family Fang, was one of the most talked about titles at BEA. With whimsy reminiscent of a Wes Anderson flick, he presents a family of performance artists specializing in creating chaos. It's not all fun and games, though, and Wilson pulls the fuzzy line between art and life very taut when the parents go missing. Are they in danger, or is this just another part of the act? The Nigerian-born Cambridge grad Helen Oyeyemi published her first book at the age of 20. That's right, 20. Some salt for that wound is her lovely English accent. Though inspired by classic fairy tales, Mr. Fox, her fourth book, deals with the ways in which the violence that men bring upon women becomes normalized. Hillary Jordon's debut, Mudbound, won the Bellwether Prize; she's back with When She Woke, a jagged shard of dystopian future-shock that mines the racial concerns of her first novel in a totally different way: in a theocratic near-future America, the skin color of convicts is changed to match their crime. Colson Whitehead finds something just as dystopian about America, but maybe even more nightmarish, in Zone One. The funny thing is, a postcatastrophe Manhattan crawling with the infected undead isn't what's scary; what's scary (and brilliant) is that the apocalypse, in Whitehead's hands, is merely another branding opportunity. It even produces its own clean-up anthem: "Stop! Can You Hear the Eagle Roar? (Theme from Reconstruction)." Now that's biting.
Come October, we'll have a number of major new works by major old writers, from Haruki Murakami to Jim Harrison. Jeffrey Eugenides and Russell Banks both return, with The Marriage Plot and Lost Memory of Skin, respectively. And I personally hope that Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table, the tale of a young boy's journey from Ceylon to the U.K. in the '50s, is a return to form. When he's on, Ondaatje conveys life's wondrous little details like nobody else.
PW's Top 10 Literary Fiction
The Night Circus
Erin Morgenstern. Doubleday, Sept.
The Language of Flowers
Vanessa Diffenbaugh. Ballantine, Aug.
The Art of Fielding
Chad Harbach. Little, Brown, Sept.
The Family Fang
Kevin Wilson. Ecco, Aug.
Helen Oyeyemi. Riverhead, Sept.
When She Woke
Hillary Jordan. Algonquin, Oct.
Colson Whitehead. Doubleday, Oct.
The Marriage Plot
Jeffrey Eugenides. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Oct.
Lost Memory of Skin
Russell Banks. Ecco, Sept.
The Cat's Table
Michael Ondaatje. Knopf, Oct.