Books of the Year 2016

books-of-the-year-2016

Transit, by Rachel Cusk (Jonathan Cape)

I loved Outline, and I love this, its sequel and the second in a projected trilogy. Transit shares with the earlier book its dispassionate writer-narrator, Faye, and a super-cool novelistic intelligence, and the simple but effective premise that Faye narrates her dull, everyday encounters – with her ex, her hairdresser, her Albanian builder and others ­– without explicitly ever giving her side of the conversation.

We get what they say in direct speech, but what she says only in paraphrase. She is utterly reserved, absent in except in her reflections, appraisals, judgements. There is no plot arc, no sense that any of these people suspect that this person is spending the entirety of their time together processing and narrating it, rather than committing to the encounter on equal, human terms.

The risk with these books is that they avoid the tricks writers usually use to make their stories stick in your memory, and this does mean that they start to lose traction the moment the reading ends. Six months on, all I could really remember from Transit was two great set-pieces: a damp literary festival, and the Cotswolds dinner party that ends the book.

This isn’t one of the great dramatic, explosive literary dinner parties (think of James Meek’s We Are Now Beginning Out Descent), but what it is, is true to life, rather than true to books. Doubly so, in fact. It is realistic both in how these kinds of things pan out, and in how we see them as they’re doing their out-panning, from behind a pane of glass called consciousness.

I remembered, too, that the book ended brilliantly, that it makes most novel endings seem bluntly contrived.

This is the Place to Be, by Lara Pawson (CB Editions)

I reviewed this in brief for The Guardian (not available online, alas) and it’s hung around in my head, as I knew it would from the moment I opened it on the tube. Brilliant and uncompromising is what I said in the review, but there is more to it than just the brutally candid reflections of a one-time BBC correspondent on her time reporting in war-torn Angola, and on what awaited her when she tried to re-enter ordinary life.

The book’s brilliance is in its discovery of a form to match the subject matter. This is the Place to Be is written in fragments, in unindented block paragraphs separated by white space. Sometimes the link between paragraphs is obvious, sometimes not, sometimes tangential, sometimes delayed. Writing in fragments is a risky business, but this is textbook stuff. (Literally so, if I ever get around to writing the book I want to.)

The awful complexity of a corrupt country at war with itself; the stumbling block of gender; the brute blank wall of violence: Pawson is saying these cannot simply be woven like so many narrative threads into a single elegant and intelligible tapestry, for our happy enlightenment. They are tough ideas, and by writing in fragments Pawson hands some of the toughness over to the reader.

By the Same Author, by Jack Robinson (CB Editions)

Also from CB Editions is this slim marvel, the first book I read in 2016, but another one that, from the first page, told me it was going to stick around long after I had put it down. And I’ve picked it back up a fair few times since then. I wrote about it at length here, but let’s just say that this is a book not so much for People Who Love Books, as for people who define themselves primarily in relation to the books they read, and to those shadowy figures, the authors who wrote them and hide behind them.

It’s a celebration of reading, I suppose, or the perils of reading, and yet books, bookishness and authors are never fetishized, or twee-ified. If books for you are more than the sum of the tote bags you got free when you bought them, if you think that books might have blighted your life as much as they have raised it up, then this might be best fiver you can spend on yourself.

The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson (Melville House)

Also written in block paragraphs, but less fragmentary than the Pawson, this is a fascinating book about heteronormativity and its many opposites, about kinship, about parenthood, about maternity, about queerness, about love, about family. Some of these things are familiar to me from my own life, some not, but all of it was made fresh in my mind through Nelson’s erudition and startling candour (that is only startling – and this is the point – because I have been living and reading in such a bubble all these years) and clear, useful thinking, imaginatively and eloquently expressed.

The world today is in many ways very different from the one I grew up in – in which I grew up intellectually, to put it clumsily – and this is one of the books that has helped me see that I shouldn’t be scared by the new ideas crowding the horizon, precisely because, for the people expressing them, they are not new ideas at all, but what they have grown up with, and into, and now they want to share them with the likes of me. (Or so it seems. The fraught politics of assimilation, appropriation and difference are part of what this book is about.)

The Good Immigrant, ed. Nikesh Shukla (Unbound)

The same goes for this. I’ve obviously got no idea what it’s like for BAME Brits to see themselves reflected, or represented, or misrepresented in the collection of essays, but I know what it’s like for me to read them, and I’m grateful. My three boys will be getting copies, though as they’ve got a much more ethnically diverse friendship group than I have, perhaps they need it less than me.

Particular favourite entries: Darren Chetty on colour in the classroom, Vera Chok on contemporary Orientalism, Inua Ellams on blackness at home and abroad, Chimene Suleyman on the history packed into her name (and she does not want to know what my computer autocorrected her to…)

Also amazing about this book is how quickly Nikesh Shukla got the book from his imagination to my hands. When I’m reading and hearing about books that will be coming out in Spring 2018, it’s brilliant that Shukla and Unbound could make an urgently needed book appear when it was needed, not 12 months later.

The Aesthetics of Degradation, by Adrian Nathan West (Repeater Books)

An avowedly theoretical essay about hardcore pornography doesn’t sound like the easiest of sells, but West does a couple of very interesting things in this slim book. First, he delegates the essay-writing to a semi- or uncertainly-fictional alter-ego/narrator, which allows him to put some distance between himself and the actual watching of the pornography. Second, while he engages with his subject with all the seriousness it demands – taking in consent and abuse, shame, degradation, sadism – he makes the book about more than this.

It is thrilling to read sentences and paragraphs that make theory (or Theory) elegant, and chastening that it does so in discussion of something so unremittingly nasty. Considering that its central topic is the many terrible ways that men treat women on screen, and how this effects our treatment of them off it, it is, I think – I hope – about as far from mansplaining as it’s possible to be.

The Vanishing Man, by Laura Cumming (Chatto & Windus)

I saw Velázquez’s phenomenal Las Meninas at the Prado this year, and it made me cry: not a reaction I am used to getting to works of art. Laura Cumming would clearly love to write a whole book about, or hung on, this painting – she talks about how it was her way back into being able to even look at paintings after the death of her painter father – but others have been there before her. Instead she stumbles on, and revives, a wonderful mystery.

The Vanishing Man is the history of a Velázquez portrait of Charles I before he was king that was bought by an English printer from a country house sale in Berkshire in 1845. It was shown widely in Victorian London, and on Broadway in New York, but is now lost. In one way the book Cumming makes out of this is far from original, especially in the way the chapters alternate between the trials (literally so in one instance) of John Snare and the life of the Spanish painter. Sometimes I felt she had overplayed her hand in terms of how much of all of this is new knowledge, but then this is an area about which I know practically nothing, and she writes wonderfully, so I’m absolutely ready to give her the benefit of the doubt.

She is as good a historian as she is an art critic, so I found my understanding expanding, or being filled in, not just with regards to the individual paintings, and the painter himself, but to the past workings of the art world: how the fact that paintings rarely had titles affect our knowledge of them; how so many European old masters ended up in English stately homes; and how art was exhibited to the paying public before the era of the great public galleries.

Above all, Cumming is forthright about her personal response to the art, which as she says is missing from most of the reams of writing about it: “There seems to be some collective recoil from the idea that art might actually overwhelm, distress or enchant us, might inspire wonder, anger, compassion or tears, that it might raise us up as a Shakespeare tragedy raises its audience.”

She helps me understand why I cried at that painting (and god knows I cry at any old tat on television: I cried at The Sixth Sense yesterday, despite the fact I’ve seen it before and think it’s rubbish) and for that I’m hugely grateful. The Vanishing Man came out at the beginning of 2016. I was reading the paperback, out early 2017, and I recommend it hugely.

And I recommend going to see Las Meninas at the Prado in Madrid. It may well be the greatest painting in the world, but seeing it was certainly one the most important aesthetic moments of my life.

The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories, ed Joost Zwagerman

I knew I wanted to read this just as soon as I heard about it. Here’s a weird thing, I thought. Two of my favourite contemporary novelists are Dutch (Gerbrand Bakker and Cees Nooteboom: get hold of The Detour and Rituals if you haven’t read them), and yet I know practically nothing about the country’s literature beyond that, or before them.

Well, this book did two things. It introduced me to plenty of great Dutch writers I didn’t know about, and it explained that surprising absence of big Dutch literary names in the European canon. I wrote more about it for Minor Lits here, and will most likely be speaking about it at High Impact, a Dutch-themed literary do at the Tabernacle in London in January (details here).

(Pessoa fans, there’s a story in this book that I just know you’re going to love!)

Sergio Y, by Alexandre Vidal Porto, translated by Alex Ladd (Europa Editions)

A great book, about which it is best to say nothing. I wrote here about how important it is to read books about which you know nothing.

‘Hugh Lomax’ by Bridget Penney (in Gorse 6)

One of my favourite reading experiences of the year was this piece in the great Irish journal Gorse. I don’t know anything about the writer. I don’t want to say anything about what it is that she’s written, or what happens in it. I read it blind, and was very pleasantly wrong-footed, and I advise you to do so, too. A real low-key charmer. (Gorse 6 also includes a great personal essay by Lauren Elkin about Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George.)

***

Looking at this list, I see that on it there are:

  • two novels
  • one collection of short stories, one short story and one short work of fiction
  • one collection of essays and one book-length essay
  • one non-fiction book
  • two memoirs

But many of those works of fiction either present themselves in the form of non-fiction (Sergio Y., ‘Hugh Lomax’, By the Same Author) or tempt you to read them as autobiographical (Transit), while many of those non-fiction works happily trespass across the border into fiction (Aesthetics of Degradation) or else play up the imaginative aspect of so-called factual writing (This is the Place to Be).

The point I draw from this, however, is not so much that there is a lot of this stuff about, but that perhaps there always was, but we are not so much attuned it in older works, because we do not have the context. I’m struck by the fact that, when I was growing up, by which I mean developing as a reader, I somehow learned that there was no weaker literary form, no literary form more pathetic, than the semi-autobiographical novel. As if taking the facts of your life and dressing them up in borrowed clothes showed a lack of ambition. And yet, today, the borderline between fact and fiction is one of the most celebrated literary territories, a place where the greatest and most significant writers feel most at home, or are most keen to be seen planting a flag. The change in taste is not so much in what is written, but in how we read.

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