The febrile US political atmosphere seems to have stirred something long-dormant in three major American novelists, all of whom publish fine new books in the coming months. First, there’s Michael Chabon’s Moonglow (Fourth Estate). Taking in radicalism and rocket science, this is a wildly inventive and often very funny novel, and such a relief after its tedious predecessor, Telegraph Avenue. Speaking of tedious, Jonathan Lethem’s career has never quite regained the heights of Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude. The Blot (Jonathan Cape), out in February, tells of a telepathic backgammon shark with a brain tumour. It’s a return to form, absurd and digressive in a way that makes clear Lethem’s debt to Thomas Pynchon. Finally, and most surprisingly, there’s Paul Auster’s 4321 (Faber). Auster is 70 in 2017, which shocked me rather – I still think of him as a sprightly iconoclast. His new novel is so much better than anything since The Music of Chance, you wonder if it can really be by the same author as Invisible or Oracle Night. This meticulously plotted book weaves four possible stories out of the life of one man – Ferguson – who makes his way through the second half of the 20th century being buffeted by forces political and personal. Think a postmodern take on Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.
One’s heart goes out to the contemporary American novelist, for whom daily reality seems to outstrip the reach of both satire and dystopia. All the more impressive that a debutant, Nathan Hill, with his scintillating The Nix (Picador), has given us a character who comes close to out-Trumping Trump. Sheldon Packer is a bilious demagogue, just one of the many pleasures of this engaging story of a mother and son whose private travails become front-page news. Other first novels worth looking out for are Sympathy (One) by Olivia Sudjic, the best fictional account I’ve read of the way the internet has shaped our inner lives. A literary thriller that confirms the arrival of a major new talent. There’s also The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times (Salt) by Xan Brooks – a fairytale wrapped within a historical novel, it’s as quixotic and dreamlike as Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. Elif Batuman’s memoir of a life in love with Russian literature, The Possessed, was stunning and her first novel, The Idiot (Cape), is just as good – a moving, continent-hopping coming-of-age story.
Brian Catling’s The Vorrh blew me away (along with my ideas of what fantasy novels should do) when it came out in 2012. I’ve just finished the second of the trilogy – The Erstwhile (Coronet) – and it’s even better. Set in London, Germany and Africa, the book features William Blake alongside its cast of monsters and adventurers. These are luminous and visionary novels – Gormenghast reimagined by Alan Moore on opium. Speaking of trilogies, Anthony Quinn’s Eureka (Cape), out in July, concludes the series that started with Curtain Call and last year’s excellent Freya. Mixing the Beatles, Antonioni and Henry James, it’s a joyful hymn to the 1960s.
In translation, there’s the second novel from Laurent Binet, whose HHhH, published in 2010, is one of my favourite books. The Seventh Function of Language (Harvill Secker), again translated by the superb Sam Taylor, is a rollicking crime caper about the death of Roland Barthes. It had me rolling on the floor of the Paris Metro when I read it last year. There’s also The Sad Part Was (Tilted Axis) by Prabda Yoon, translated by Mui Poopoksakul. These are evocative, erudite and often very funny stories of Bangkok life.
This year’s historical fiction highlights have about them a distinctly macabre flavour, with Sarah Schmidt’s gory and gripping debut See What I Have Done (Tinder Press) reimagining the crimes of Lizzie Borden. Ben Myers’s The Gallows Pole (Bluemoose) may well turn out to be 2017’s His Bloody Project. It’s a windswept, brutal tale of 18th-century Yorkshire told in starkly beautiful prose. There’s also The Fatal Tree (Sceptre) by Jake Arnott. The fictional memoir of gangster Edgeworth Bess, this is a work of dazzling imagination and linguistic inventiveness.
Finally, three short story collections that catch the eye. Tessa Hadley’s Bad Dreams (Cape) is typically lapidary, full of the most gorgeous sentences and brilliant observations. Adam O’Riordan’s Burning Ground, (Bloomsbury), a collection of stories set in California, is wonderfully lyrical and bittersweet. Then there’s Pulitzer-winner Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees, whose eight heart-wrenching and hopeful stories ought to be required reading for every politician in this era of wall-building and xenophobia.
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