We do not have a Novel of the Year for 2016. Our committee looked for superbly written stories with engaging characters set in a fallen world, clean (or almost-clean) language, and a redemptive flavor without preachiness. That’s a tall order these days: We list five good ones on the next page, but none really stands out.
Instead of reading a new work of fiction, you might try three published in past years that are oddly relevant to our own time. First is the oldest of the oldies but goodies: Homer’s The Iliad, in a new translation by Barry Powell (Oxford, 2014). Forced in college to read this eighth-century-B.C. epic in a translation that made Greco-Trojan wrestlers sound like British lords, I was bored—but Powell’s vibrant work makes the ancient belligerents sound like Republican candidates insulting each other during debates.
For example, Agamemnon attacks the media: “Prophet of evil, never have you said a word pleasing to me.” He tells his chief adversary among the Greeks, Achilles, to get lost: “There are plenty who will honor me, and Zeus above all, whose wisdom is great. You are most hateful to me of all the god-reared chieftains. … I don’t like you. I don’t care if you are angry.” Achilles fires his verbal torpedoes: “Shameless fool! Greedy, how now can your speech gladly persuade any of the Achaeans either to go on an ambush or to fight in the hand-to-hand?”
Remember Donald Trump’s sneers at “Little Marco” Rubio? Here’s Trojan hero Hector reproaching his younger brother: “Little Paris, nice to look at, mad for women, seducer boy—I wish you had never been born. … Evil Paris pretty-boy, girl-crazy, con man.” Meanwhile, polytheistic gods Zeus and Hera are locked in a bad eternal marriage: Hera mocks him—“Who, my clever fellow, have you been making deals with?”—and “Zeus, who assembles the clouds” responds with invective: “Shut up and sit down! Obey my word, or all the gods in Olympus will do you no good as I close in and lay upon you my powerful hands.”
This energetic translation of The Iliad does have bits of bad language along with many explicit depictions of battlefield deaths—and that note leads me to a second book, Jose Gironella’s The Cypresses Believe in God, a novel about the five years (1931-1936) that led to the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and 1 million battlefield deaths.