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. Continue reading
October began with finishing Will Eaves’s Murmur, his 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. It starts and finishes with putative journal entries from a Turing avatar (Pryor) suffering the chemical castration that drove the scientist to suicide, with, in the middle, a longer run of letters mixed, improbably, with dream narratives. It is at once as weird as that sounds, and absolutely plain and straightforward.
I have long had a problem with novelisations of real people’s lives. It feels like the biographers have done all the hard work: primed the canvas, blocked in the background, worked up the figures, and all that remains for the lazy novelist to do is to dot in a few highlights, idiosyncratic and humane, to ‘bring it to life’. Rather as a mortuary assistant might make up the face of a corpse, you might think.
This book is nothing like that. For a start Eaves has clearly worked incredibly hard on it, thinking through the implications of artificial intelligence on consciousness as assiduously as any critical biographer, quite apart from the nasty effects of the drugs on Turing’s body and mind. And the ‘novelistic’ touches are anything but perfunctory. The journals entries are quite compelling enough, in their view of closeted gay life in 1940s England, and the way it shattered class boundaries, and how it was treated by the establishment. But it is the dreams and letters that take the book definitively out of the realm of the mundanely novelistic.
They move backwards and forwards through aspects of Pryor’s life, from gorgeous, creepy remembered childhood to an imagined future that even goes so far as to include parenthood as part of a heterosexual couple. If this is disorienting, then it is also tangentially illuminating. Is it too much to say that it reads like alternate quantum lives peeling off the central narrative and floating wispily away? Well, yes it is too much, if only because I’m now well outside the limits of my scientific understanding, unlike Eaves’s. If you’ve read his columns in the Brixton Review of Books, or his interviews (like this one, or this one, in which he navigates the TLS 20 questions with greater dexterity than anyone before or since, especially the last 10) then you’ll know he is as at once forbiddingly intelligent and engagingly – mercifully – sympathetic.
It’s a quite brilliant book. I need to read it again. More slowly.
(Aside: it’s odd, isn’t it [no it’s not] that ‘sympathetic’ has turned into such an ambiguous, two-way road of a word. Its original meaning is of someone who is characterised by sympathy, i.e. who is able to reach out and understand the feelings of others, usually in a benign, benevolent way. But it has also come to mean, more simply, nice, attracting the liking of others. It’s almost as if – gasp – we tend to like people who are kind and understanding, and then tend to attribute the fact of that liking to us, rather than them.)
Last month I also read Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter, a first of hers for me. Her name is one of those that bounces around a little on Twitter, and turns up on the Backlisted podcast. The Vet’s Daughter is an odd, short novel, that trips between a down-at-heel Edwardian realism and glum Gothic fantasy. I didn’t really enjoy it. There is a horrid bullying father, a dying then dead mother, and a bright daughter who can’t escape the awfulness of her life except, occasionally, by spontaneously levitating into the air. Only, of course, even that offers no escape. It is all very depressing. It is also all rather desultory.
A book that did so much more for me was the long, big, wonderful For Love Alone by Christina Stead, another woman writer in the permanent state of being ‘rediscovered’. Continue reading
There are some books missing from this photo: Normal People by Sally Rooney, given back to the kind student who lent it to me; The Trick to Time, sat on a shelf in my university office; and In Our Mad and Furious City, donated to the university library – I wanted to get an extract from it straight into the course reader for our undergraduate Writing London module and this was the surest way of doing it.
Let’s start with Guy Gunaratne’s novel. I liked it very much. As with many other readers I was bowled over by the confidence and fluency of its interlocking narrative voices, and the sense that the characters and events, big and small, were coming straight up out of the city and onto the page. It is an easy and impressive read: the individual sections flow swiftly, never getting snarled up, as interior monologues can, and the sense of adjacency between these few characters living out a few days in a north London housing estate matches the theme of frantic, disconnected urban living. We are linked closer than we can know.
I gave it to my 16-year-old son, to try a chapter, just to see how he responded to the writing. Some of the YA fiction he reads is likewise concerned with contemporary social issues: would he buy someone doing the same in a more sophisticated narrative mode, with a wider historical reach? He liked it, though not enough to want to read on right away.
Interestingly, he queried the use of ennet for innit in black British teenager Selvon’s chapters. ‘Why does he do that?’ he asked. It was the right choice, I think: innit is too familiar as a locution, and can seem reductive, even parodic. You want your character to seem ‘street’: you make her or him say “innit,” innit? And Selvon’s ennet is part of his interior monologue; it’s not actually voiced, and in that context it sinks happily into the drift of his thoughts, bobbing up every now and then as a form of semi-digested punctuation.
Gunaratne’s novel was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but not shortlisted, and it has been shortlisted for the Goldsmith Prize. I’d say that sounds about right. His approach is fresh, and structurally lively – on the surface, at least. By skipping around between five or six narrative voices, he jumps about his environment and orbits his central events rather in the manner of The Matrix’s bullet-time – the novel does feel three-dimensional – but two problems emerge.
Firstly, two of his narrative voices belong to elderly people, both of whose monologues focus almost exclusively on the past – the British civil rights movement of the 1960s, and Northern Ireland during the violence of The Troubles. They are interesting, and show real range in the writing, but all this harking back has a braking effect on the narrative.
Secondly, and more generally, the breadth of these different narrative voices also slows down the novel’s movement. The events it describes take place over 24 or perhaps 48 hours or so (writing from memory) and the lead-up to the quite substantial climactic event is so brief as to largely defuse any sense of drama. It’s like a pocket-sized version of Underworld, and it needs, if not a bigger canvas then certainly a longer timeline to make the impact it might – as a novel. It’s brilliant at set-up, character, the ambient noise of a true dream of life, but it’s less good at acts and scenes.
Normal People was also on the Man Booker longlist and not the shortlist, and again that feels about right to me – though I say this without having read any of the ten other longlisted novels. No particular kudos to them, then, but Normal People feels like a brilliant novel that needed a final twist to make it completely outstanding. I wrote at length about it here, but in short: it does character, and dialogue, and environment just as well as In Our Mad and Furious City – albeit far more restrictedly in terms of its social reach, engaging class and gender relations but not race or ethnicity – and it does time much better than that book, showing how people change, and don’t, over months and years. But it is lacking a novelistic backbone, or skeleton.
Furious City’s novelistic backbone is missing too, which Gunaratne tries to make up for with his rushed climax that feels like nothing. The more I read Normal People, on the other hand, the more I felt like it was about to make a killer statement about the novel form – how life simply doesn’t have a shape like novels do, and so the novel form is a lie – but it never quite did. It doesn’t work like a novel, but doesn’t really find a way of making its meandering narrative form seem like a serious conceptual alternative.
Along with Normal People the highlight to my reading month – and surely one of the highlights of my year – was Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince, which I picked up for a quid from a charity shop (having thoroughly enjoyed Catherine Taylor’s piece about it in the Brixton Review of Books) and launched into straight away. Continue reading