In going back through my Monthly Reading blog posts for the year I’ve identified 12 books published this year that I more than thoroughly enjoyed, that I think are great to brilliant examples of what they do, and that I feel will frame and influence my future reading. (A thirteenth, The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem, is not pictured because I’ve loaned it to someone.)
A quick scan of the books shows me Faber have had an excellent year – four of the twelve – and it’s no surprise that Fitzcarraldo and CB Editions show up, both publishers very close to my heart. (It’s only fair to point out that those books were complimentary/review copies, as was the Heti and the Johnson. All others bought by me.) And a shout-out to Peninsula Press, whose £6 pocket essays are a welcome intervention to the literary scene. Eight women to four men writers. Only one BAME writer. Two books in translation. Two US writers.
I’m not going to write at length again about each book, but rather provide links to the original monthly blog posts or reviews, but I do want to take a moment again to think about Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which seems to stand out for me as a Book of the Year in a more than personal way. In a year that the “difficulty” or otherwise of Anna Burns’ Milkman (which I haven’t read, and very much want to) became a hot topic, I think it’s worth considering just how un-difficult Rooney’s book is, and how that absence of difficulty, that simplicity, that ease-of-reading – allied to the novel’s clear intelligence – is central to its success, both as a novel unto itself, and more widely. You can see precisely why an organisation like Waterstones would make it Book of the Year: it is utterly approachable; it finds an uncomplicated way of narrating complicated lives and issues.
I read Normal People in September, a borrowed copy, but bought it again recently, and was pleased to find that Marianne and Connell drifted back into my life without so much as a shrug. I think it’s a brilliant accomplishment, while I’m also very aware that this is a book aimed squarely at me: white, middle class, educated. I embrace it because it reflects my situation and concerns, and in addition romanticises and bolsters the generation I now find myself teaching at university. I want it to work, and it does, for me.
Yet I am astonished that it does so much with so little. Present tense, shifting close third person narration. Unpunctuated dialogue. A drifting narrative almost without plot, chopped into dated sections.
I wrote here about how I didn’t want to have to buy it in hardback (though I did) and I wrote here about how these anti-technical techniques made the book a potentially dangerous model for Creative Writing students – it looks like you can get away with Not Much – and it is true that Rooney’s book seems to throw a harsh light on some of the other books on my list, sitting with it in that stack. They seem to be trying so hard: Jessie Greengrass’s Sight is so unashamedly intelligent, Will Eaves’s Murmur so oblique and poetic, Tony White’s The Fountain in the Forest so formally inventive (and in a number of different ways), Sheila Heti’s Motherhood so disingenuous in its informality, its seeming-naturalness. (I hope it’s clear that I love these books for the very aspects I seem to disparage.)
By contrast, Normal People seems written at what Roland Barthes called ‘writing degree zero’, by which he meant writing with no pretension to Literature – “a style of absence which is almost an ideal absence of style”. His model for this is Camus’ L’Étranger, and the comparison seems apt, except that L’Étranger is written in the first person. Everything extraneous is taken out. It’s interesting to note that David Szalay’s All That Man Is is written in a very similar way to Normal People, the only real difference being the use of single quote marks for dialogue. Yet they seem a world apart to me.
Here is Barthes again:
But this time, form as an instrument is no longer at the service of a triumphant ideology; it is the mode of a new situation of the writer, the way a certain silence has of existing; it deliberately forgoes any elegance or ornament, for these two dimensions would reintroduce Time into writing, and this is a derivative power which sustains History. If the writing is really neutral, and if language, instead of being a cumbersome and recalcitrant act, reaches the state of a pure equation, which is no more tangible than an algebra when it confronts the innermost part of man, then Literature is vanquished, the problematics of mankind is uncovered and presented without elaboration, the writer becomes irretrievably honest.
The greatness of Rooney’s novel is that it does seem “irretrievably honest” – honest with regards to its characters, who are served up as if without barrier or interference, which is where Szalay rubs me up the wrong way. I’d certainly question Barthes’ suggestion that this “colourless” writing can lift itself above History – as I say, Rooney and Camus both sit in the same intersection of the social Venn diagram as me – but the “problematics of [this particular subset of] mankind” is effectively uncovered through the story of Marianne and Connell.
My Books of the Year, then, with links to my original posts or reviews, where applicable:
River by Esther Kinsky, translated by Iain Galbraith (Fitzcarraldo Press)
What a brilliant start to the year, with River and Sight both blowing me away, for different reasons. River is a wonderful evocation of the River Lea in East London, the people and places around it – and rejoices in a superlative translation by Iain Galbraith. No one reading this without foreknowledge would ever think it had originated in another language, or that its writer was not a poet of sorts.
A passage describing a man in a recycling yard – as seen by the narrator stood waiting on a train platform – attempting to incinerate a large cardboard box in an oil drum has stayed with me as a kind of talisman, burned into my reading brain, or identity. From my my review for The Guardian:
This is a book to relish for its precise descriptions of landscape and weather, for its interest in the detritus of other people’s lives that we routinely overlook, and for its international reach as well as its localised intensities,
Sight by Jessie Greengrass (John Murray)
This is one of three books that have made me think deeply about maternity (or parenthood) and creativity this year. The second is Sheila Heti’s Motherhood; the third is Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso. From my review for The White Review:
the book reads like a cross between Brian Dillon’s memoir IN THE DARK ROOM, about his early life, his family and the house they lived in, and Rachel Cusk’s recent novels, OUTLINE and TRANSIT; as if Dillon’s memoir had been written with Cusk’s slippery, elusive narrator implanted at its hollow centre
Who is Mary Sue? by Sophie Collins (Faber)
Perhaps not as immediately, compulsively compelling as small white monkeys, published last year, this still seems like a vital intervention in the ongoing realignment of literature away from dead white males. And even there I show myself up, and get myself entangled in the debate it engages in, for Who is Mary Sue? is less personally revealing than that previous book. So it’s less good because it’s less revealing? I DON’T KNOW!
The Fountain in the Forest by Tony White (Faber)
A delightful novel that operates on at least three levels, the least interesting of which is its OuLiPoan games. Something that I have yet been able to articulate to my Creative Writing students or elsewhere is the idea that novels have a shape, or rather a series of shapes that overlay each other, that present themselves in non-verbal ways to the reader. What White does with his diverse narratives in this book rises far, far above the dry postmodern tactic of setting different narrative strands in contrast to each other. The differences in style or mode or genre act more organically, more emotively than that. Barthes talks in that same book about a “morality of form” and that is what White has excels at here. Thrillingly, it’s the opening book of a trilogy, and I’m stoked to think what will be coming next.
So it’s not those [OuLiPoan] elements that I enjoyed in White’s novel – or, if I did, it was because they were balanced out by the more prosaic joys of well-drawn characters, recognisable milieus (down to some useful recommendations for fry-ups, fish and chips and boozers in central London) and intriguing and credible plot developments. None of which I’ll share with you here. I had purposefully not read up on the book beforehand, and I suggest the same for you: its pleasures and surprises will be all the better for it.
Mothers by Chris Power (Faber)
I know Chris in a London literary bubble way (ditto Tony White, and, further back in time, Sophie Collins, so feel free to take this with a pinch of salt – although there are quite a few books by writers and publishers I know published this year that aren’t on this list) but I’ll stick my neck out and say this is one of the best story collections published in recent years.
Power’s book has got two things going for it: a handful of head-thumpingly good hand-grenade standalone stories, and a trio of stories that, leaning together, provide a kind of superstructure from which the other seven can safely depend. Two of these stories are among the best stories in the collection, but more than that, their deployment in the collection show Power as a canny structural engineer of the collection. Sometimes a story collection is just a collection of great stories. Sometimes – as with Jesus’ Son – it is something more than that. Power seems to know this, and seems to have found an original and compelling way for a collection to show, and own, that something more.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson (Jonathan Cape)
Here are two notes scribbled in the front of my copy of this strange collection:
Denis Johnson = F Scott Fitzgerald?
Narrative sliding obliquely sideways, like a car on ice, in slow-motion, towards the ditch. When it ends up in the ditch, it does so abruptly, and the car – the narrative – is wrecked, and will not carry anyone anywhere again.
It is still too soon to see if Johnson’s work will last. He never achieved the Updike/ Bellow/ Roth level of literary-patriarchal establishment, so he may not be subject to the same instant forgetting as a prelude to reappraisal.
Motherhood by Sheila Heti (Harvill Secker)
I reviewed this for The Brixton Review of Books. I think it’s brilliant. Like Sight it made me think about creativity and mother/parenthood. It made me think. Like Sight it is a crucial intervention in what is called autofiction, a ‘genre’ or mode of writing that, Knausgaard apart, is predominantly female. It occurs to me that ‘autofiction’ might just be a placeholder name for whatever form literature emerges out of the crucial groundbreaking work of Cusk, Ferrante, Heti, Kraus etc – i.e. the talismans evoked by Olivia Sudjic in Exposure.
The Years, by Annie Ernaux, translated by Alison L. Strayer (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
It’s astonishing how well this book fits into our contemporary literary narrative in the UK. It’s a further hint that the division that autofiction wants to overcome or dissolve is not between the novel and the autobiography, or the memoir, but between the novel and the essay.
Ponti by Sharlene Teo (Picador)
An oblique, ragged and inconclusive novel (I mean those things in a good way) that leaves you wanting to know more about the characters. Where Normal People serves Marianne and Connell up on a plate, Ponti whisks Szu, Circe and especially Amisa away from under our noses before we can feel we know them.
Normal People by Sally Rooney (Faber)
Exposure by Olivia Sudjic (Peninsula Press)
A fine personal essay on the theme of anxiety based around a series of personal literary “talismans”: Rachel Cusk, Elena Ferrante, Sheila Heti, Olivia Laing, Chris Kraus and Clarice Lispector. No shame that it never quite reaches the scintillating heights of those writers, but an excellent piece, and one I’ve shared with Creative Writing students.
Murmur by Will Eaves (CB Editions)
A balletic novel-in-prose based on the tragic life and surreal afterlife of Alan Turing. Why novel in prose? Well, because half the time the wonder of it is that it is written in prose at all. It feels like it’s been downshifted into words on the page from some higher dimension
There we go. Thank you 2018.