With a Bang: The Best Debut Novels of 2011

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In what seems like a pretty clear argument against all the publishing industry doomsday hype, 2011 has been an uncommonly good year for debut novels. This year, it is more evident than ever that yes, people are still writing, publishing and buying great new fiction (and non-fiction, of course, but that’s a point for another post). Four of the New York Times‘s five best novels of 2011 are first novels, which seems to us to reflect the nature of the year. Here, we’ve picked out our favorites from the pack, all from first-time novelists that we can’t wait to read more from. Click through to see our list, and let us know your own favorite debut novels of the year in the comments.

We the Animals , Justin Torres

From the first lines of this small but powerful novel, you know it’s going to be something else entirely: “We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.” Presented in a series of vignettes rather than a linear, cohesive narrative, this coming of age story gradually narrows its scope from the wants and needs of the ‘we’ to the lonely confusion of the ‘I’ as the narrator figures out who he is and what makes him different from his brothers. If you love the smell of language and the taste of the perfect syllable, this book is for you.

You Deserve Nothing , Alexander Maksik

The premise, it’s true, is one you’ve heard before: charming, inspirational teacher gets involved with a female student, things go down the drain. But Maksik’s treatment of this time-honored tale is absolutely fresh — his teacher, Will Silver, a modern-day Meursault who has left his wife and moved to Paris to instruct well-bred students at the International School of France, is as complex as you could hope for, and as fun to read. You will find yourself just as riveted as Will’s students when he lectures about Camus, Shakespeare, and Sartre, but even more riveting is Maksik’s tight, steady plotting and satisfying prose, which will keep you up all night, “studying.”

Swamplandia! , Karen Russell

To be fair, we knew great things were forthcoming from Karen Russell when we read her incredible collection of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves , back in 2007. Swamplandia! is an adaptation of one of those original stories, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” extended to book length and satisfyingly fleshed out and explored. The novel is a lush, semi-magical adventure story set in and around a rundown tourist spot deep in the Everglades, where Ava Bigtree’s sister Osceola falls in love with a ghost, her brother Kiwi defects to the World of Darkness, and Ava begins an epic journey led by a mysterious Bird Man. It’s a coming-of-age story, it’s a save-the-farm tale, it’s a strange love story, and it’s a wonderful debut.

Open City , Teju Cole

This novel has readers riding alongside a very intelligent, fascinated (and fascinating) man with a concentrated wanderlust as he explores the streets of New York City. That man is Julius, a Nigerian finishing a psychiatry fellowship who wanders New York ruminating on everything he can think of (his own life, “The Last King of Scotland,” J.M. Coetzee, bedbugs) and meets quite a few people on the way, and he makes for a wonderful guide to the landscape of humanity.

Busy Monsters , William Giraldi

Improbably, this novel is about a man whose wife has run off to chase a giant squid. Well, to be fair, she’s run off with a giant squid hunter as well, and Charles Homar means to get her back, by hook or by crook. Thus launches a hilarious, strange satire (of quest literature, of traditional masculinity) all couched in Charles’s ridiculous voice as he laments: “I mostly just sat slumped at the mouth of my tent, feeling opportunity flutter away, visited by the same thoughts that had clobbered me in prison for three months straight: my Gillian in the mitts of that mustachioed scallywag.” For those of you that love this kind of loose playfulness with language (we do, so much), and those who wouldn’t mind a good skewering of the mystical monster tale (us again), this debut is not to be missed.

Leaving the Atocha Station , Ben Lerner

We think Ben Lerner, whose first novel comes after three books of poetry, might just know something about this topic: the book is about a young man in Madrid on a fellowship, trying to write heady poetry and coming up against the relationships between language and life, between life and truth, between truth and art over and over again — slip-ups, jokes, and poignancy ensue. The novel is, among other things, devastatingly true to the experience of being young and alone and existentially troubled in another country, at least if you’re the poetic sort. Or, as Jonathan Franzen put it, “hilarious and cracklingly intelligent, fully alive and original in every sentence, and abuzz with the feel of our late-late-modern moment.”

The Borrower , Rebecca Makkai

This novel, about Lucy Hull, the head children’s librarian in a town called Hannibal, Missouri, is filled with lovely but unsentimental writing — something of a feat considering the material. That being Ian, the ten-year-old boy who reads everything he can get his hands on, though shackled by his Fundamentalist mother (who has enrolled him in weekly anti-gay classes with Pastor Bob). He asks Lucy to drive him to his grandmother’s house, a flimsy premise, and she helps him to run away, more or less running away herself. In the end, of course, it’s not Lucy who can change the child’s life, but the child himself.

The Family Fang , Kevin Wilson

We think it probably means something that Kevin Wilson’s very first novel was optioned by Nicole Kidman for a feature film within, oh, three months of its release. Not a bad start, that. But even if this book had been ignored by everybody, it would still have been the quirky, Wes Anderson-flavored triumph that it is: a meditation on the weirdest, most theatrical of families you could possibly imagine that still manages to come out tender and emotionally believable.

The Art of Fielding , Chad Harbach

We know — you’re tired of hearing about this book. It’s about baseball, but better than any other book about baseball! It’s about the human experience but just happens to be about baseball! It’s not really about baseball, you guys! Whatever. Harbach’s debut is a compulsively readable, pitch-perfect (no pun intended, really) novel that will take over your soul, whether you like sports or not. Think of it this way: if the book made grouchy Jay McInerney want to read through his meals, you don’t stand a chance.

Ten Thousand Saints , Eleanor Henderson

Set alternately on the Lower East Side of 1980s NYC and in Vermont, this vividly written coming-of-age story follows Jude, a drug-addled child of the hippie generation who moves to New York and joins a gang of straight-edge Hare Krishnas after the overdose of his friend. But the straight-edge life is just as addicting as the drugs his former self enjoyed, and Jude is left to figure out where to go from that realization, walking the reader through a nostalgic look at the ’80s youth culture in the process.