Monthly Archives: January 2015

Folio Season #6: McFarlane, O’Neill, Thomas, Costello

Introduction I’ve set myself the challenge of reading all 80 books nominated for the 2015 Folio Prize. Several I’d already read before the list was announced – which was what gave me the perhaps inaccurate idea that it would be possible, or a good idea, to read all of the remainder. I’ll be posting weekly updates between now and the date of the award, covering all the titles I’ve been zooming through in the past seven days…

When I’m not embarking on silly self-challenges, I tend to have a couple of ‘reading strategies’ on the go – a speedy, voracious reader has to, I think. Customarily I try to read authors I haven’t read before, whether they’re contemporary, or classics I never got round to in the past. I’m particularly fond of first books (as the author of one such myself, I like to keep tabs on what’s happening in other debuts), and was pleased to see so many on this list: almost a quarter, if I’ve counted correctly, are by first-time authors. You come to these writers with no preconceptions: they glow with the potential to overwhelm you or appal you. This week I read two debuts, plus the first novel by an award-nominated writer new to me, and the latest book from a writer both nominated for this prize and longlisted for last year’s Man Booker…

The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane (FSG Faber)
Night Guest
Ruth, widowed and living alone with her cats in a ramshackle house on the Australian coast, wakes up one night convinced she’s heard a tiger moving around her home. Even the cats are startled. The next day, she receives a visitor: Frida, her new carer, sent to her as part of a free government programme to look after the elderly and infirm. Frida is by turns brisk, caring, hectoring, and overfamiliar – and as this terrific first novel progresses, it starts to become clear that we’re not getting either Frida’s full story, nor Ruth’s. Once the slightly overwritten prose of the first quarter of The Night Guest relaxes, what ensues is an increasingly claustrophobic, tense and moving book. It’s clear that Frida is up to no good, and the outline of her plan is perhaps predictable, but there’s a clever withholding of all the details that keeps the reader guessing until the end. Ruth is suffering from something like Alzheimer’s, and her decline, which is swift and merciless, is matched by an increasing avidity on Frida’s part; the reader, held in tension between them, can see how badly this is all going to go. It culminates in a chapter which involves the increasingly confused Ruth handing over a large sum of money to Frida, one of the tensest scenes I’ve read in a long time. You’re fully invested in Ruth by this stage of the book, able completely to understand what she’s doing and why, yet hoping that she’ll see sense and not let Frida have the money. What happens next is horribly inevitable, but there is still a twist to come. Only a final chapter, the only one not narrated from Ruth’s point of view, sacrifices the book’s wonderful, obliterating claustrophobia. The tiger, of course, is never quite identified as such; it comes in and out of the book, appears to cause havoc, and is fought off out of shot, as it were, by Frida. It may – just may – be a metaphor. This is a really excellent debut.

The Dog – Joseph O’Neill (Pantheon)
Dog, TheOne consequence of reading all these Folio-nominated books in quick succession is that a certain amount of repetition can occur. I spent much of the first half of The Dog trying to forget having already read Ben Lerner’s 10:04, with which it bears certain tonal similarities – until there came a scene set in a sperm donation clinic where the narrator flails around comically, a scene also found in Lerner’s book, with, albeit drastically different consequences. (Sidenote: in that particular setting, is anything except a farcical scene possible?)
O’Neill’s prolix unnamed narrator (his ‘horrifying’ name, undisclosed but beginning with the letter X., works as a sort of running gag throughout, and I say ‘sort of’ because it isn’t actually funny) is employed as the ‘family officer’ – dogsbody, really – to two immensely wealthy brothers engaged in high-level, mysterious (and, you’ll be unsurprised to learn, shady) business in Dubai. With nothing much to do but reply to incomprehensible emails and await further instructions, X. has time to riff on the pitfalls of the post-financial crisis capitalist world; his tone is alternately poetic and legalistic (and taking pleasure, one feels, in the anti-poetry of International Business English). Nothing much happens for much of The Dog: a skimpy plot about an expat who’s vanished amid stories of his being a twice-married bigamist – one wife in America, one in Dubai – neither engages nor, to be kind, detracts from the book’s principal enjoyment factors, fine writing and a kind of serious-minded observational comedy. It brings ‘news from elsewhere’, telling of everyday life in Dubai: vast expenditure on both the personal and the corporate scale, the grappling for ever more stratospheric heights for new buildings, the endless deployment of empty-signifier brand names to denote status and success, the complex and internecine regulations by which expats and locals have to live. X. is lonely, his friendships contingent and his relationship recently ended; he seems to find solace – through necessity more than anything – in his job, which is so wide-ranging and nebulous (he is childminder, legal representative, agent and more) it seems that almost anyone could do it. I didn’t quite believe wholly in the narrator, however; he seems basically unimaginative, yet O’Neill allows him long poetical musings and a dictionary’s worth of ten-dollar words, along with a kind of superiority complex the book itself endorses (‘The incandescence of the aquarium flooded the ruin which now was subsumed by the thalassic realm and, so it felt to me, teemed with silent pelagic beings. “This is so cool,” my companion said.’ (p.75)) – which sums up a certain density of prose deployed to capture some very superficial things. Responsibility – the accepting of it, the avoiding of it, or, in the end here, its being foisted on you whether you wish it or not – is the big theme of this book, chiming obliquely with its depiction of a place that feigns being unaffected by worldwide financial crisis, and certainly unwilling to change its ways in its aftermath. It’s a fascinating premise and setting; for me, The Dog doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts.

We Are Not Ourselves – Matthew Thomas (Simon & Schuster)
We Are Not OurselvesThis sweeping debut novel tells the story of Eleanor Leary, née Tumulty, an Irish-American in New York, and, through her, seeks to tell the story of the American century. The first part, which tells us of Eleanor’s immigrant parents’ lives and deaths, is one of those grand, almost fableistic bits of storytelling which tend to leave me feeling rather cold. Every so often I feel a bit of fiction fatigue creeping over me, and a book which only just shies away from phrases of the ‘And so it came to pass’ variety, describing in long-shot characters we don’t really get to see in close-up, is often the trigger. Every confident pronouncement – ‘In the Spring of 1952, Eleanor’s mother made the amazing announcement that she was pregnant’ – seems a reminder that all of this is made up, and that its attempts to make me care about fictional people are doomed to failure.
Fortunately, once we zero in on Eleanor’s own life, things become more engrossing. She marries Ed, a science teacher at a community college; they have one child, a son named Connell (after the author, we’re told, of Mr Bridge, one of those moments, rare in this book, when you sense the author too clearly through the text); a homemaker, Eleanor longs to move house, but Ed refuses to leave the family home, so Eleanor goes househunting by herself. (I loved the conversations in which Ed won’t even discuss the idea of moving house. They reminded me of a real-life couple I know, whose conversations on this topic must replicate these fictional ones verbatim.) Their son is moderately unhappy, and responds to bullying (there’s no very clear reason for this) by body-building and Being Unhappy. It is, you might say, the Middle-Class Westchester novel. Eventually Eleanor gets her way, and they move house, to a fixer-upper, but soon afterwards Ed is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Eleanor, who carries most of the story, and whose psyche and outlook, wishes and fears Thomas unsparing lays bare, is a comprehensively imagined creation, and yet I wasn’t really at any point that engaged by her dilemmas, nor bothered about what would befall her. While the family’s burgeoning wealth stands for the way the American middle class grew and grew throughout the 20th century, there’s so little reference to the outside world that it may as well take place in another century entirely, or aboard a moonbase.
It doesn’t help that the Alzheimer’s plot, while not as nakedly an attempt on your heartstrings as it might be in other hands (both Ed and Eleanor are sufficiently interestingly flawed for this not to be a straightforward weepie – Eleanor’s incipient racism is particularly striking) is introduced around the halfway mark, letting Thomas wring out another 200+ pages of angst and wistfulness. It’s at least an earned kind of sob-story, as we’ve come to know these characters pretty well by this point, but I didn’t find it especially emotive either.
On the back cover of my copy – the American edition – there’s a quote from fellow Folio nominee Joshua Ferris, praising this book for possessing ‘the epic sweep and small pleasures of the very best fiction’. Well, now: one of the best things about the very long list of nominees for this prize is that it doesn’t cleave to so narrow a definition of what the ‘best’ fiction is. I’d suggest that the word ‘saga’ is a more apt final word for that quote – there’s little pleasure to be derived from this kind of writing style, which works hard not to get in the way of story and character: I’d have sacrificed some of the comprehensive chronicling of these moderately disappointed lives (for the most part, Connell’s plotlines go nowhere and could easily have been cut) in favour of some more pyrotechnics in the actual writing. (Sidenote: There’s also a quote from Chad Harbach, who famously/notoriously jettisoned a more experimental draft of his big-news debut novel The Art of Fielding – a book which tried to be the Moby-Dick of baseball novels, but committed the fatal error of thinking Moby-Dick was about a whale – in favour of something as MOR and sweeping as this novel. Like Harbach’s book, various scenes here go on (and on) about baseball games, the cultural status of Babe Ruth, the totemic ball itself, batting averages, etc, etc. This is, of course, padding, and made this writer wonder: what is it about American writers and baseball? Is writing about the game a transparent bid to bridge the perceived gap between sports fans and book fans? I wish they’d stop. Everyone considering putting this material in their book should be forced to (re)read Philip Roth’s dullest book, baseball-fixated The Great American Novel, and think again.)
In the end, despite having concentrated so intensely on the unravelling of one main individual character, Thomas’s novel winds up feeling oddly generic. After 620 pages, I can honestly say that We Are Not Ourselves gave me the feeling of having lived alongside Eleanor her whole life. Just not in a good way.

Academy Street – Mary Costello (Canongate UK)
Academy Street
Somewhat complementarily, Academy Street – a debut novel from Mary Costello, previously author of a well-received collection of short stories – is also concerned with the life of an Irishwoman, Tess, who leaves rural Ireland for New York and whose fate we follow through the decades, from the 1940s (when her mother dies) through the 1960s (when she falls pregnant after a one-night stand with a caddish man) and into the first years of the 21st century (when her son dies, a 9/11 victim). Oh, and her sister dies too, though by this stage (“The phone rang. Claire had Lou Gehrig’s disease.”) I was starting to suspect that this short, relentlessly grim book was intended to be comic, a parody of those memoirs to which Waterstones dedicates a ‘Painful Lives’ section in which misfortune is larded on horrendous misfortune. It’s also a deeply conservative book: when Tess at last returns to Ireland (for a funeral, unsurprisingly) another character points out that ‘“All America ever brought this family was misfortune”’ – the implication being that you shouldn’t go off and try to live your life differently, because all that will come of this is disaster, a moral that the book, delivering unremitting blows to bovine Tess, seems to support. All this is told in lustreless prose, in which – as with We Are Not Ourselves – we are told of Tess’s reactions but remain unconvinced by her. Neither she nor her supporting characters lives or breathes on the page; the dialogue they speak in is trite; and the characterisation of Tess’s only friend in New York, a black woman named Willa, suggests that her nearest fictional cousin must be the disembodied voice and legs of the maid in Tom and Jerry: full of aw-gee-honey homespun wisdom, she’s as drippy as Tess, and as difficult to believe in. When subjected to racist barbs she meekly accepts them, because this is a book that celebrates passivity over any other logical response. (Tess, later, is mugged on a dangerous street: her assailants, of course, “teenage boys”, “all black”. You think: has Mary Costello ever left the house? Has she actually thought about the implications of any of what she’s written?) In a book this bereft of good sense, it’s inevitable that of all the places Tess’s son Theo should be on 11th September 2001, it’s in one of the World Trade Center towers: it’s good that fiction doesn’t shy away from real-world horrors, but to employ this disaster as a McGuffin simply to give Tess the ultimate in tough breaks is a charmless, tasteless piece of attempted emotional manipulation, the tears Tess sheds utterly unearned. Despite its contemporary setting, this book seems to have fallen through time from about the eighteenth century, its lacklustre, luckless heroine a dire anachronism in 2015. Maybe the idea is that the reader should empathise with Tess and feel deeply, alongside her, for every bit of bad news she’s battered down with, but as she’s inert rather than stoical, and so insipid right from the get-go, I ended up rooting instead for the powers of darkness. A bland, dull, bad novel.

Running total at 30th January: 35 read, 45 to read, 52 days until the winner is announced. Next week, I’ll be picking the books that, based on what I’ve read so far, I think should make it to the eight-title Folio Prize shortlist, due to be announced on 9th February.

The eighty nominated titles — with the ones I’ve read struck through (and links to reviews, where applicable) — are:

10:04 – Ben Lerner
A God in Every Stone – Kamila Shamsie
Academy Street – Mary Costello
After Me Comes The Flood – Sarah Perry
All My Puny Sorrows – Miriam Toews
All Our Names – Dinaw Mengitsu
All The Days And Nights – Niven Goviden
All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
All The Rage – A.L. Kennedy
Amnesia – Peter Carey
Annihilation – Jeff Vandermeer
Arctic Summer – Damon Galgut
Bald New World – Peter Tieryas Liu
Bark – Lorrie Moore
Be Safe I Love You – Cara Hoffman
Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi
Can’t & Won’t – Lydia Davis
Dear Thief – Samantha Harvey
Dept. of Speculation – Jenny Offill
Dissident Gardens – Jonathan Lethem
Dust – Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
Em and the Big Hoom – Jerry Pinto
England and Other Stories – Graham Swift
Euphoria – Lily King
Everland – Rebecca Hunt
Eyrie – Tim Winton
Family Life – Akhil Sharma
Fourth of July Creek – Smith Henderson
How to be both – Ali Smith
In Search of Silence – Emily Mackie
In the Approaches – Nicola Barker
In the Light of What We Know – Zia Haider Rahman
J – Howard Jacobson
Kinder Than Solitude – Yiyun Li
Lila – Marilynne Robinson
Life Drawing – Robin Black
Lost For Words – Edward St Aubyn
Love and Treasure – Ayelet Waldman
Nora Webster – Colm Tóibín
On Such a Full Sea – Chang-Rae Lee
Orfeo – Richard Powers
Outline – Rachel Cusk
Perfidia – James Ellroy
Road Ends
– Mary Lawson
Shark – Will Self
Some Luck – Jane Smiley
Stay Up With Me – Tom Barbash
Stone Mattress – Margaret Atwood
The Ballad of a Small Player – Lawrence Osborne
The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell
The Book Of Gold Leaves – Mirza Waheed
The Book Of Strange New Things – Michel Faber
The Country Of Icecream Star – Sandra Newman
The Dog – Joseph O’Neill
The Emerald Light in the Air – Donald Antrim
The Emperor Waltz – Philip Hensher
The Fever – Megan Abbott
The Heroes’ Welcome – Louisa Young
The Incarnations – Susan Barker
The Lie – Helen Dunmore
The Lives Of Others – Neel Mukherjee
The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan
The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane
The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters
The Tell-Tale Heart – Jill Dawson
The Temporary Gentleman – Sebastian Barry
The Wake – Paul Kingsnorth
The Zone Of Interest – Martin Amis
Their Lips Talk of Mischief – Alan Warner
Thunderstruck – Elizabeth McCracken
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour – Joshua Ferris
Travelling Sprinkler – Nicholson Baker
Upstairs at the Party – Linda Grant
Viper Wine – Hermione Eyre
Virginia Woolf in Manhattan – Maggie Gee
We Are Not Ourselves –Matthew Thomas
What You Want – Constantine Phipps
Wittgenstein Jr – Lars Iyer
Young Skins – Colin Barrett
Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? – Dave Eggers

Folio Season #5: Atwood, Amis, Eggers, Barbash

Introduction I’ve set myself the challenge of reading all 80 books nominated for the 2015 Folio Prize. Several I’d already read before the list was announced – which was what gave me the perhaps inaccurate idea that it would be possible, or a good idea, to read all of the remainder. Each week, I’ll update with the books I’ve been reading ‘new’, as it were, plus, while I catch up, some of those I read beforehand.

I’m in New York for the next while, researching my next novel (this is the current one, should you be interested), and so these books are largely being brought to you courtesy of the dizzyingly wonderful New York Public Library (and that’s why the publisher details below have become US, rather than UK, imprints).

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? – Dave Eggers (Knopf)
Your Fathers...
An astronaut wakes up, tied to a post in a building within an abandoned military camp. His captor – also his kidnapper – insists that they know one another, and questions Kev the astronaut about his feelings on being told he’s not going to go in the space shuttle as he’d expected. Kev’s answers don’t quite satisfy his captor – so he goes away, drugs and kidnaps someone else, and starts questioning them in the next building along. And then someone else. And then someone else… Told entirely in dialogue, Dave Eggers’s novel gradually proves (slightly disappointingly) not to be about astronauts or the diminished aims of the US space programme after all, but about an incident in which a mentally unstable young man is shot to death by a squad of armed police officers because they believe him to be dangerous. The incident, pieced together in responses to these sets of inquisitions, is gradually elucidated; the inquisitor’s state of mind likewise, although this book occupies an uneasy space. Seemingly about the America of today – timely, or even prescient, given the spate of shootings of (likely) unarmed young men by police at the end of 2014, it also has the quality of a fable: with ease, our deluded kidnapper drugs half a dozen or more victims and assembles them at the disused camp; when helicopters arrives to capture or kill him, it’s as if they know they’re in a novel and have waited until its story is told. It also has the air of a formal exercise, the story told entirely in speech, which made me rather wish I’d seen it performed rather than read it. Enjoyable but dispensable.

Stone Mattress – Margaret Atwood (Nan A. Talese)
Stone Mattress I blow hot and cold with Margaret Atwood’s work – I’m maybe the only person who doesn’t like The Handmaid’s Tale – but the last book of hers I read was a collection of stories, Moral Disorder, which I enjoyed thoroughly. Stone Mattress is a book of nine ‘tales’, rather than stories, a distinction Atwood explores in an afterword; some have fairytale elements of bodily transformations; in several others, premeditated murder is commonplace as a kind of easy solution to all kinds of problems. Elderly characters populate these stories: dying, they think of their history and their legacy; but when they do die, their survivors don’t always respect their wishes, and they aren’t remembered as they might wish. Sometimes they don’t even need to die for indignity to be visited on there: in the terrific final story, ‘Torching the Dusties’, the residents of an old people’s home are threatened by Our Turn, an Occupy-ish movement which sees the elderly as a growing drain on resources rightfully theirs, and has taken to burning down old-folks’ homes to rid the country of their plague: a wicked ‘what if’ taken to a logical conclusion. Old age, as they say, is not for the weak. Revenge, for indignities real or perceived, powers these stories; in some, its corollary, a kind of charged, contingent forgiveness, forms the conclusion. Their experiences have made these characters – Verna, Constance, Wilma and other tremendous names – snarky and disagreeable, but, like the disembodied hand that can’t bring itself to strangle its ultimate victim, under it all they’re sentimental creatures. Calling these ‘tales’ lets Atwood give some of her characters happily-ever-after resolutions without the stories themselves turning soft. As with several collections of stories, two or three are powerfully memorable, the largest number blur together rather, and only one here, a sequel to Atwood’s novel The Robber Bride, concerning a dog that may be the reincarnation of three friends’ dead compatriot, left me totally cold; this is in the manner of watching the deleted scenes on a DVD before you know anything about the main feature. With reference to the Folio Prize, while it is refreshing to see collections of stories nominated alongside novels, it seems like the spottiness of such collections can work against them. You’d almost rather a single story like ‘Torching the Dusties’ be put forward as a standalone; it’s better than certain of the full novels on this longlist.

Stay Up With Me – Tom Barbash (Ecco)
Stay Up WIth MeHaving said that about the bittiness of some short story collections, here’s one that bucks the trend: thirteen stories that, while not linked, are thematically congruent enough to make a striking collection without ever being repetitive. A trainee realtor can’t bring himself to be as unscrupulous as he senses he should be. The progress of a young tennis prodigy is reported in a series of letters from an over-familiar coach. A journalist exposing the undertones of bigotry and violence in a small town outside New York City is summoned to account for himself. Certain devices recur — car crashes, snowfalls — as do certain underlying emotional issues these narrators are going through: more than once, a partner seems to turn into a stand-in for an absent parent, or a child for a parent’s absent partner. This strengthens rather than weakens the collection, which reminds me of similarly striking collections from Adam Haslett and David Means — they share a certain limpidity of prose which, if I were being hyper-critical, one might term Creative Writing MFA-ese. (I wish, too, that those workshops had convinced Barbash not to give his characters so many Significant Dreams, a particular pet hate of mine, and one which appears in too many — ie any — of these stories.) Like those other two books, though, which came out over a decade ago, this collection seems likely to linger and haunt the reader. Something I was looking forward to when I set out on this Folio Season project was reading writers I’d never read, or in Barbash’s case even heard of, before; in this instance it’s paid dividends. This is a hugely enjoyable book.

The Zone of Interest – Martin Amis (Knopf)
Zone of Interest, The
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the nice synchronicities that link one book, selected more or less randomly, to another read in close proximity: one of the characters in Atwood’s book alludes to the witches’ spell scene in Macbeth (‘Eye of newt! Toe of frog!’), and Martin Amis opens his new novel with a page-long epigraph: the whole spell. No relevance, just a neat passing coincidence. Amis is in that presumably dispiriting position: that of the author of well-regarded novels who hasn’t died or stopped writing yet. Thus each new novel he brings out – there have been three in the last five years – is hailed by some reviews as (that horrid phrase) a return to form, or ‘His best since…’. (I haven’t bothered since the double whammy of Koba the Dread and Yellow Dog.) With The Zone of Interest, he returns to some of the concerns of one of his actual enduring works, Time’s Arrow, in which a former Nazi concentration-camp guard’s life goes backwards through the Holocaust. In Zone, we follow the stories of three overseers of one camp: the commandant Paul Doll, known as the ‘Old Boozer’; Thomsen, a junior with designs on Doll’s wife; and Szmul, a Sonderkommando: a prisoner-turned-guard called upon to do unspeakable things to his own people.
I’m a bit torn about this book: it seems a valuable task to literalise the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ as a way to reactivate that notion, to try and forestall its becoming a cliché itself. And this material seems to bring out Amis’s better prose, which is less self-consciously coruscating than in his lesser books. There’s a striking and pleasing stateliness to the writing – he still strives for the original coinage or the pithy phrase (Chapters are named ‘Dead and Alive’ or ‘Night Logic’), but not at the expense of the subject matter, as if he’s fearful of appearing disrespectful. The most flamboyant stylistic tic is Paul Doll’s thinking of numbers as numerals rather than words: ‘“When a ¼ of 1,000,000 men joyfully give up their lives […]”’)  — presumably this is to suggest the play of statistics on Doll’s mind, though the narrative seems to go out its way to include examples. So it’s a solemner, more sensitive Amis writing here – and maybe that’s the problem: the idea of an Amisian comedy among the death camps – the very fact of calling the camps and the book The Zone of Interest – suggests a certain frisson that the text seems consciously to be working against. Fireworks would be inappropriate. Instead, this is a book about people who, no matter how appalling their actions, remain people: they deploy middle-management language to discuss and describe not 21st century marketing jobs but transports full of doomed Jews; they flirt or are sexually disappointed; they complain about their workload… They’re as petty, in short, as any other people in any other context – and they’re caught up in a sort of oblique Catch-22 in which nothing ever progresses or, maybe, that nightmare where you can see what should happen next but can’t complete the task. In an inevitable yet memorable setpiece, Szmul has to murder the teenaged friend of his own sons, themselves long dead. It’s peculiar and unpleasant that this remains the most memorable scene in a novel that wants to avoid that mixture of the sentimental and the inhuman, at least until its final section, in which the sentimental is allowed to bloom. There’s even an afterword, in which Amis pays (fairly) humble homage to historical sources and non-fiction inspiration; my feelings about this chime precisely with those Michael Hofmann espoused in his merciless reading of this novel for the LRB.

Running total at 23rd January: 31 read, 49 to read, 59 days – or just under two months – until the winner is announced. Next week: Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog, Fiona Mcfarlane’s The Night Visitor and more.

The eighty nominated titles — with the ones I’ve read struck through (and links to reviews, where applicable) — are:

10:04 – Ben Lerner
A God in Every Stone – Kamila Shamsie
Academy Street – Mary Costello
After Me Comes The Flood – Sarah Perry
All My Puny Sorrows – Miriam Toews
All Our Names – Dinaw Mengitsu
All The Days And Nights – Niven Goviden
All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
All The Rage – A.L. Kennedy
Amnesia – Peter Carey
Annihilation – Jeff Vandermeer
Arctic Summer – Damon Galgut
Bald New World – Peter Tieryas Liu
Bark – Lorrie Moore
Be Safe I Love You – Cara Hoffman
Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi
Can’t & Won’t – Lydia Davis
Dear Thief – Samantha Harvey
Dept. of Speculation – Jenny Offill
Dissident Gardens – Jonathan Lethem
Dust – Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
Em and the Big Hoom – Jerry Pinto
England and Other Stories – Graham Swift
Euphoria – Lily King
Everland – Rebecca Hunt
Eyrie – Tim Winton
Family Life – Akhil Sharma
Fourth of July Creek – Smith Henderson
How to be both – Ali Smith
In Search of Silence – Emily Mackie
In the Approaches – Nicola Barker
In the Light of What We Know – Zia Haider Rahman
J – Howard Jacobson
Kinder Than Solitude – Yiyun Li
Lila – Marilynne Robinson
Life Drawing – Robin Black
Lost For Words – Edward St Aubyn
Love and Treasure – Ayelet Waldman
Nora Webster – Colm Tóibín
On Such a Full Sea – Chang-Rae Lee
Orfeo – Richard Powers
Outline – Rachel Cusk
Perfidia – James Ellroy
Road Ends, Mary Lawson
Shark – Will Self
Some Luck – Jane Smiley
Stay Up With Me – Tom Barbash
Stone Mattress – Margaret Atwood
The Ballad of a Small Player – Lawrence Osborne
The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell
The Book Of Gold Leaves – Mirza Waheed
The Book Of Strange New Things – Michel Faber
The Country Of Icecream Star – Sandra Newman
The Dog – Joseph O’Neill
The Emerald Light in the Air – Donald Antrim
The Emperor Waltz – Philip Hensher
The Fever – Megan Abbott
The Heroes’ Welcome – Louisa Young
The Incarnations – Susan Barker
The Lie – Helen Dunmore
The Lives Of Others – Neel Mukherjee
The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan
The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane
The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters
The Tell-Tale Heart – Jill Dawson
The Temporary Gentleman – Sebastian Barry
The Wake – Paul Kingsnorth
The Zone Of Interest – Martin Amis
Their Lips Talk of Mischief – Alan Warner
Thunderstruck – Elizabeth McCracken
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour – Joshua Ferris
Travelling Sprinkler – Nicholson Baker
Upstairs at the Party – Linda Grant
Viper Wine – Hermione Eyre
Virginia Woolf in Manhattan – Maggie Gee
We Are Not Ourselves – Thomas Matthew
What You Want – Constantine Phipps
Wittgenstein Jr – Lars Iyer
Young Skins – Colin Barrett
Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? – Dave Eggers

Folio Season #4: Lerner, Kingsnorth, Dunmore, Rahman and more

Introduction I’ve set myself the challenge of reading all 80 books nominated for the 2015 Folio Prize. Several I’d already read before the list was announced – which was what gave me the perhaps inaccurate idea that it would be possible, or a good idea, to read all of the remainder. Each week, I’ll update with the books I’ve been reading ‘new’, as it were, plus, while I catch up, some of those I read beforehand.

This week it’s the last five of those ‘pre-read’ books, with novels from Ali Smith, Joshua Ferris, Linda Grant and Tim Winton — but before them, Ben Lerner, whose work I revisited this week, plus debut novels from Zia Haider Rahman and the Booker-longlisted Paul Kingsnorth, and a new novel from the one of the best-established authors among the Folio nominees, Helen Dunmore.

10:04 – Ben Lerner (Granta)
10.04
Ben Lerner’s second novel takes its title from a moment in a film (Back to the Future) which is excerpted for Christian Marclay’s video artwork The Clock, a 24-hour piece made up of fragments of films in which time is referred to, so that it functions, alongside its entertainment value, as a kind of clock itself. I went to see The Clock when it was in London a few years ago, and had exactly the experience the novel’s narrator Ben describes: glancing at my watch to check the time, then realising that what I was watching was also a vastly scaled up and complexified version of the watch on my wrist. The pairing of the minimal with the vast, the détournement and refiguring of existing works, and the setting of the often bathetic subjective experience against the monolith of art, or history, or the world, this moment of simultaneous inward- and outward-looking — it all seems to be 10:04 in microcosm.
I actually read this late last year in its US edition from FSG (prettier by far than the uncharacteristically drab Granta edition, which ignores the text’s elaborate mention of the image that should be used for its cover). I wanted to hold off writing about it until I’d been to see Ben Lerner read at Foyles this week. He’s as rigorous and articulate as you’d hope from reading this novel, in which a character who shares some similarities with the author (his name, the fact he published a well-received first novel) ruthlessly interrogates his own feelings and statements, trying to get closer to a kind of truth, though highly aware, too, that in fiction ‘truthfulness’ remains a ruse, a technique. To bolster the illusion, partway into the book, a story the real Lerner published in the New Yorker is reprinted, and seems to be a fictionalised version of real events the fictive Ben has spend the preceding section of the book discussing. Seemingly aleatoric in structure, certainly more patterned than plotted, 10:04 takes in descriptions of literary, gastronomic, and social New York, a writer’s retreat to Marfa, Texas (which made me even keener to visit, despite the hilarious and horrific description of a party Ben attends there), the composition of poetry, the difficulty of going to the toilet while you’re the sole adult in charge of a small child in a public space, and the large and small indignities and rewards of (privileged) 21st-century life. This is a novel (is it a novel?) that’s smart and intelligent — not always the same thing — and funny, and moving. The party in Marfa, and a scene in a sperm donor clinic, are two of the most memorable moments in a book full of them. They seem the kind of things that will come to mind at odd junctures in the future, unmoored from the text they appear in, like the cutups in Marclay’s work.

The Wake – Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
Wake, The
Two notable facts about this book: it was ‘crowdfunded’ via online donations, and it’s written in a language that resembles Old English. It’s been a while since I tackled ‘Se yflan cnapan bindeth thone engel’ and so forth, and thankfully, depsite the initially forbidding look of the text, Kingsnorth’s ‘shadow tongue’ is significantly less dense. The syntax is – despite the unusual sentence structures, absent punctuation and incantatory repetition – close enough to contemporary English that, once you’ve acclimatised to the vocabulary (much of which, said aloud, sounds to me someone essaying a Dorset accent), it breezes along. In the wake of the invasion of England of 1066, displaced landowner Buccmaster seeks to fight back against the French invaders, with great visions of a vast uprising of Englishmen that ejects the invader. What’s interesting is that with Kingsnorth sticking to an Old English vocabulary, interiority and emotion has to be conveyed through means other than what we might be accustomed to in a novel: Shakespeare is still five hundred-odd years off, stream of consciousness and the vocabulary of psychoanalysis five hundred more. Restricted vocabulary – there’s a lot of ‘ire’ having to stand in for a subtler range of emotions, say – is compensated for by a quasi-mystical tone, in the actual visions Buccmaster sees, and in the book’s own beautiful rhythm and prose. ‘oh i can say these words’, Buccmaster reflects, as though aware of these limitations, ‘and try to tell what it was lic there but naht can gif to thu what was in my heorte as I seen all of this cuman in to place. sum folcs who is dumb thinks the world is only what can be seen and smelt and hierde but men who cnawan the world cnawan there is a sceat a sceat of light that is between this world and others and that sum times this sceat is thynne and can be seen through’ (p.240–1: ‘sceat’ is ‘sheet’, ‘heorte’, ‘heart’). What he sees through it – a warrior’s inspiration, a vision of the Old Gods of England (Norse myths refigured) – will guide him to his fate. If the book sometimes seems a little padded – it takes Buccmaster two years to get back to more or less exactly where he started – it’s a thoroughly enjoyable journey for the reader, and a truly impressive feat for the author. That this looks to be the first in a trilogy spanning two millennia is just a bonus. I can’t wait to see what Kingsnorth does next.

The Lie – Helen Dunmore (Windmill)
Lie, The
In a Cornish cottage, a dying old woman is  watched over by a soldier recently returned from war. It’s 1920, and when Mary Pascoe dies, Daniel respects her wishes, buries her on her land – and doesn’t tell anyone what’s happened. Haunted by the death of his closest friend in the Trenches, Daniel has come home to try and make amends, and to rebegin his life – but Frederick’s ghost still appears to him every night. This is the first Helen Dunmore I’ve ever read, and it’s impressive, pairing the bucolic atmosphere of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country with a searing recreation of First World War horror. She’s particularly good on the smell of war: ‘that smell […] that you never know before the first time you go up the line. Raw mud, old gas, cordite, shit, rotting flesh’ (p.154); ‘Chloride of lime, cordite, raw mud, latrines, petrol-tainted water, rotting flesh.’ (p.244.) As Daniel seems to be healing, the lie that gives the book its title is almost forgotten about; it’s only three quarters of the way through that you start to glimpse the danger that he is in. I found the ending, in which his deception catches up with him, a little neat – its inevitability seems more pat than doomladen – but the sensitive depiction of the relationship between Daniel and Frederick, and then between Daniel and Frederick’s widowed sister Felicia, is this book’s triumph: war makes strange companions of them all, breaks them apart, reforges them out of shape, clinging together in the wake of such horror.

In the Light of What We Know – Zia Haider Rahman (Picador)
In the Light of What...
I read Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel several thousand feet over the Atlantic, which seemed appropriate for a novel which travels between London and New York, spans at least two decades, and which seeks, as from a position of great height over the world, to encompass everything in it. The narrator’s long-lost friend Zafar – mischievous, opaque, charismatic – turns up one morning at his house, with a story to tell. But first, he needs to tell the narrator an awful lot of stuff. While the novel starts promisingly, with a great scene where Zafar outwits some skinheads, then gives the narrator pause to wonder if the whole thing has been a careful setup, it soon becomes a lengthy and often tedious didactic tract. In the middle stretch, before a plot finally starts to grind into gear  two-thirds in, it seems as if the novel’s title could have been compacted to just its final three words, as the conversations that fill it seem to run to the formula ‘Do you know/have you read/heard of X?’ — ‘No.’ — ‘[Lengthy explanation of X]’, over and over. Pub bores would think twice about such constant showboating of arcane knowledge. The pedagogic tone becomes most irksome when the reader has heard of X, or read a book about X, and doesn’t necessarily want to read a short discursive essay barely dressed up as dialogue (no-one, not even charismatic raconteurs like Zafar, speaks in paragraphs like these) regarding X. It seems that even Rahman realises this could be problematic, though, intriguingly, not necessarily consciously:

Do you know what an axolotl is? Zafar asked.
At this point, I’m certain I merely rolled my eyes.
(p.311)

Me too. When exchanges of this sort occur — the narrator accuses Zafar of condescension, Zafar criticises the narrator for his didacticism — you sense Rahman in the background, flailing in the bloat. Earnestness goes some way, but a novel needs a bit more than earnest men telling one another stories about life, even when those stories are about war politics in post-invasion Afghanistan, or the financial crash of 2008, vast events in our lives that need talked about — just not necessarily by these two boffins (they’re not good on jokes, either, which would do a lot to leaven a heavygoing book: when a joke tentatively pokes its nose out, on p.497–8, it’s quickly battered into submission: “But what if she’d had cold feet? Or would have cold feet in the next few hours? Were there not signs that her feet were cooling? — if I may take the feet image a step further.” Yes. We get it. In addition, Rahman’s decision to swell an already long book by opening each chapter with lengthy epigrams from, mostly, giants of canonical literature (Eliot, Shakespeare, Roth, Greene, Mann, Tolstoy, Tagore…) bespeaks a vast failing of confidence more than anything, as if he feels that, as a debut novelist coming late to the game, he needs to surround himself with quotes that show he knows the territory. The text gives itself a get-out by suggesting these are all quotes from Zafar’s own notebook, making him the one lacking confidence, but that doesn’t help the reader much. Likewise the footnotes, purportedly the narrator’s gloss on certain elements of Zafar’s discourse, are distracting and pointless; invoking David Foster Wallace in one such seems particularly on-the-nose. This is largely a novel about education: the narrator, who works in finance, makes the point that the public doesn’t understand the first thing about the circumstances of the 2008 financial crash, nor, assuming it receives its pay packet and can afford its rent, does it much care; the light this book wants to shed is on that murkiness, and on the plots and counterplots of the American campaign in Afghanistan. Yet what In the Light of What We Know reminds us mostly is that, in defiance of the mathematical certainties that the narrator trusts in, less, sometimes, is more.

In brief: The last batch of books I’d read before the announcement of the 80 nominated titles. Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant (Virago) just about redeems itself by the end, as its chronicling of the fates of a bunch of girls who met at college in the 1960s approaches the present day; the 60s sections – pretty much the first half of the book – recall a jolly-hockey-sticks tale of life in boarding school; the problem with devising deliberately naïve characters is that the reader may, as I did, swiftly tire of trite dialogue of the ‘Gosh, isn’t Communism jolly exciting!’ variety (‘Turn on the TV, there’s a crisis in the Suez Canal that’s sure to prove historically significant’) and sketchy characterisation. In Eyrie (Picador), Tim Winton trades the vast landscapes of interior Australia for the high-rise suburb of Fremantle, outside Perth, and finds as much majesty and misery there as in the desert. Once the somewhat offputting staccato style has relaxed a bit – it takes a while; this is a long novel which seems oddly lacking in confidence at the outset – this becomes a gripping psychological drama, a vehicle careering out of control, populated with damaged people who’ve seemingly decided that if they’re going to fall apart, they’re taking down everything around them too. Tragedy has already struck by the time Ali Smith’s How to be both (Hamish Hamilton) opens – or at least, it has in my copy; because here, Smith, who matches peerless psychological insight with a never-cloying whimsical streak and formal playfulness that’s never out of service to the narrative, has hit upon a playful formatting trick so simple it’s taken a genius like her to think of it: How to be both contains two stories, one a contemporary piece and the other set in the fifteenth century. In half the print run, the historical story appears first; in the other, the 21st-century story (both are called ‘Part One’). It bears some resemblance to the formal innovation of BS Johnson or Julio Cortazar and their strategies for imposing randomness on the text, but acknowledges the limitations that a hardback book (as opposed to an electronic text, say) faces. There’s clever intertwining of Smith’s themes in these two halves; I preferred the contemporary story, in which a teenager is mourning her mother’s death, to the story of the fifteenth-century artwork and its makers, but the great joy of this book is that, on reaching the end, you want to start again and see how the second story influences the first. A brilliant, brilliant book. And Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (Penguin) is a story of identity theft, the gulf between the personal and the public, and self-doubt, in which dentist Paul O’Rourke finds that someone has been posting religious polemics about a long-forgotten religious sect, the Ulms, giving his name as the author. Paul – fussy, bad with relationships, mildly obsessional, and a devout atheist – is perturbed, then infuriated, as his name appears in more and more websites, bringing the Ulms’ tragic story to ever-wider audiences. Some of the material about the origin and fate of the Ulms tested my patience – the problem with drawing inspiration from the more tedious of religious tracts is that the tedium comes along too – but this is a clever novel, not laugh-out-loud funny, but amusing at first and increasingly serious as the rather forced setup (he’s a dentist who wishes everyone would floss more!) gives way to Ferris’s actual concerns. The obvious – if unfair – comparison is to Philip Roth’s novel of Jewishness and identity theft, Operation Shylock, but this is a novel with a very different tone and spark.

 

Running total at 16th January: 27 read, 53 to read, 66 days to go… I’ll have to get a move on.

The eighty nominated titles — with the ones I’ve read struck through (and links to reviews, where applicable) — are:

 

10:04 – Ben Lerner
A God in Every Stone – Kamila Shamsie
Academy Street – Mary Costello
After Me Comes The Flood – Sarah Perry
All My Puny Sorrows – Miriam Toews
All Our Names – Dinaw Mengitsu
All The Days And Nights – Niven Goviden
All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
All The Rage – A.L. Kennedy
Amnesia – Peter Carey
Annihilation – Jeff Vandermeer
Arctic Summer – Damon Galgut
Bald New World – Peter Tieryas Liu
Bark – Lorrie Moore
Be Safe I Love You – Cara Hoffman
Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi
Can’t & Won’t – Lydia Davis
Dear Thief – Samantha Harvey
Dept. of Speculation – Jenny Offill
Dissident Gardens – Jonathan Lethem
Dust – Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
Em and the Big Hoom – Jerry Pinto
England and Other Stories – Graham Swift
Euphoria – Lily King
Everland – Rebecca Hunt
Eyrie – Tim Winton
Family Life – Akhil Sharma
Fourth of July Creek – Smith Henderson
How to be both – Ali Smith
In Search of Silence – Emily Mackie
In the Approaches – Nicola Barker
In the Light of What We Know – Zia Haider Rahman
J – Howard Jacobson
Kinder Than Solitude – Yiyun Li
Lila – Marilynne Robinson
Life Drawing – Robin Black
Lost For Words – Edward St Aubyn
Love and Treasure – Ayelet Waldman
Nora Webster – Colm Tóibín
On Such a Full Sea – Chang-Rae Lee
Orfeo – Richard Powers
Outline – Rachel Cusk
Perfidia – James Ellroy
Road Ends, Mary Lawson
Shark – Will Self
Some Luck – Jane Smiley
Stay Up With Me – Tom Barbash
Stone Mattress – Margaret Atwood
The Ballad of a Small Player – Lawrence Osborne
The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell
The Book Of Gold Leaves – Mirza Waheed
The Book Of Strange New Things – Michel Faber
The Country Of Icecream Star – Sandra Newman
The Dog – Joseph O’Neill
The Emerald Light in the Air – Donald Antrim
The Emperor Waltz – Philip Hensher
The Fever – Megan Abbott
The Heroes’ Welcome – Louisa Young
The Incarnations – Susan Barker
The Lie – Helen Dunmore
The Lives Of Others – Neel Mukherjee
The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan
The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane
The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters
The Tell-Tale Heart – Jill Dawson
The Temporary Gentleman – Sebastian Barry
The Wake – Paul Kingsnorth
The Zone Of Interest – Martin Amis
Their Lips Talk of Mischief – Alan Warner
Thunderstruck – Elizabeth McCracken
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour – Joshua Ferris
Travelling Sprinkler – Nicholson Baker
Upstairs at the Party – Linda Grant
Viper Wine – Hermione Eyre
Virginia Woolf in Manhattan – Maggie Gee
We Are Not Ourselves – Thomas Matthew
What You Want – Constantine Phipps
Wittgenstein Jr – Lars Iyer
Young Skins – Colin Barrett
Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? – Dave Eggers

Folio Season #3: Mengestu, Warner, King, Eyre and more

I’ve set myself the challenge of reading all 80 books nominated for the 2015 Folio Prize. Several I’d already read before the list was announced – which was what gave me the perhaps inaccurate idea that it would be possible, or a good idea, to read all of the remainder. Each week, I’ll update with the books I’ve been reading ‘new’, as it were, plus, while I catch up, some of those I read beforehand.

Something I’ve started to detect that these books have in common is an emphasis on writing, more than on plot, at least as far as the novels go: it’s no insult to say these aren’t page turners in the ‘readability’ sense, but rather the emphasis is more on the prose, and on the level of the sentence, these are frequently striking books. I don’t have a problem with a lack of narrative drive, and one of this

Viper Wine – Hermione Eyre (Jonathan Cape)
Viper Wine
This was one I didn’t know anything about when the nominees list was announced, and one of the first I sought out. Set in the first half of the seventeenth century, this is a novel about the cutting edge of technology in the pre-Enlightenment age, where ladies did all they could to stay young-looking. Not much, of course, has changed between the fad for drinking the eponymous brew in the belief it’ll reverse the ageing process, and the fad for having snake venom injected into the brow to prevent furrowing. Noting this, Eyre builds in 20th-century references to her history: when one character calls a press conference, it’s attended by Parkinson, Paxman and Wogan; one character quotes David Bowie’s ‘Starman’ to another, and Sir Kenelm Digby experiences odd daydreams and visions of contraptions that won’t be invented for another 300 years. This all sounded right up my street, a sort of Pynchonian mix of past and present, fact and conjecture, history and pulp fiction, but the modern references didn’t, for me, add much to the mix. Eyre can’t quite decide whether she’s overtly telling the story in a postmodern way and commenting on parallels between then and now (she appears in the text, of course, clutching a notebook headed Viper Wine and taking notes at Sir Kenelm’s press conference) or whether it’s a straight historical novel that needs to assign its characters’ futuristic quasi-magical insights to, for instance, a primitive radio transmitter (which would not, of course, give Sir Kenelm the ability to see into the future). She settles for neither, leaving this book oddly half-hearted: I’d have liked to it have been a lot wilder in its counterhistorical aims. As it is, the depiction of women seeking the secret of eternal youth, and the men who exploit their search, is interesting but never fully engrossing.

All Our Names – Dinaw Mengestu (Sceptre)
All Our NamesIsaac is the name of a student in 1960s Uganda, instrumental in first a ‘paper revolution’ that involves various quasi-anarchic acts on campus, chronicled by his best friend there, and latterly in a real revolution that involves real bloodshed. Isaac is also the name of an immigrant to the small US town of Laurel in the early 1970s, whose caseworker Helen takes more than a professional interest in helping him settle into American life. Are they both the same Isaac? If not – or even if so – what’s in a name? Technically a historical novel, telling of times and places that I didn’t know much about, this is a book oddly light on historical detail; the Midwest setting seemed bereft of 1970s signifiers (the absence of mobile phones and the like is the giveaway). You don’t necessarily want hints of the ‘we were all listening to Ziggy Stardust’ variety, but it took me, stupidly, quite a while to realise when this actually was set. That the casual racism Helen and Isaac encounter as they’re seen about town together didn’t immediately strike me as implausible for a contemporary setting says as much about post-Ferguson America as about post-Vietnam America. I much preferred these US chapters; the bloody politics of an Ethopian uprising I found less engaging than Isaac and Helen’s attempts to build a relationship together in the States. This is a delicate and precise book, with a subtle emerging theme about names, nicknames, and the way the latter can reflect more on the bestower than the recipient. There’s a good, literary twist of the best sort – unguessable on a first read but obvious in hindsight – and a terrific, moving and memorable ending.

Their Lips Talk of Mischief – Alan Warner (Faber)
Their Lips TalkIt’s a long time since I read an Alan Warner novel. (Actually, as I’m an inveterate list-keeper, I can be precise: I read The Sopranos, which I loved, and Morvern Callar, which I did not, around October 1999.) I was curious to see how Warner had grown as a writer: those early books, and the theme of a subsequent novel, The Man Who Walked, suggested quirkiness might remain his preferred tone. Their Lips Talk of Mischief is a pleasant surprise: serious-minded and mature, it’s a book about guilt, about books, about the 1980s, about men, and – increasingly, as it goes on – about religion and metaphysics. One loser with big ideas, disgraced Literature student Douglas Cunningham, meets another – would be writer Llewellyn Smith, and before long the two are living together, trying to outdo one another in discussions of obscure books, in efforts to write (or avoid, or sabotage, writing) their own books, and even in their courting of the same woman, Llewellyn’s fiancee Aoife. The story unfolds fairly leisurely; there’s not a huge amount of narrative drive, and the pleasure is in the prose and the characterisation, of the two men at least: Aoife’s seems shaky at times – often astute, she will ask in one breath ‘What is benign?’ yet drop a ‘repugnant’ into her next sentence – though even Douglas, who narrates the novel, starts to suspect a slyer operator than he’s given her credit for. Douglas and Llewellyn reminded me strongly of two university friends of mine – aggressively sure of themselves, and censorious of anyone they thought stupider than themselves (which was most people) – who I last saw with any regularity around, oh, 1999. I don’t think I’ll look them up, but on the strength of this very pleasurable book I might revisit some of the Alan Warner novels I’ve missed out on.

Euphoria – Lily King (Picador)
Euphoria
Euphoria‘s a book I kept picking up and putting down in bookshops in New York when it was published last year (I was living out of suitcases, really, at the time, and trying not to buy books, especially hardbacks). The story of a love triangle among anthropologists working among remote tribes in the interwar years, it’s beautifully put together, and packs two incredible punches late on in the text. Much of the time, it reminded me a little of that other contemporary work on anthropologists whose studies of one another almost supplant their professional work, Norman Rush’s Mating, but with the triangle a novel element; it shares that other book’s insightfulness into the human condition, and fascination with the work of anthropology in its pure form. Narrator Andrew comes from a family of ‘hard scientists’ and is almost apologetic about his working in this comparatively new field which, nonetheless, is racing against time to study the last remaining unspoiled tribes of the world, whose rituals remain mysterious, and who are at least as capable of reading the anthropologists as the latter are of reading them: you think of Margaret Mead, famously hoaxed by the people she studied and had taken to be incapable of such deceptions. Andrew, his colleague Fen, and Nell — the woman they both adore — aren’t taken advantage of in this way, but their great research breakthrough, a ‘Grid’ which categorises each and every human being a as Northern, Southern, Western or Eastern depending on their character, will prove to be abused in far more chilling a way. This is a hugely enjoyable, enlightening and at times startlingly erotic book.

Bald New World – Peter Tieryas Liu (Perfect Edge)
Bald New World
I like encountering strange coincidences, echoes and confluences in what I’m reading, almost as if text is seeping from one book into the next. This week we’ve already seen two novels based around love triangles, and in Bald New World, there are references both to the rejuvenating potion known elsewhere as viper wine, and to Soma, the drug that appears in the novel this one’s title riffs on, and which is discussed by the characters in Their Lips Talk of Mischief at the very point where Aoife knows what ‘repugnant’ means, but not ‘benign’. Similar randomness seems to inform some of the way this debut novel is plotted; narrator Nick Guan is bounced from one outlandish setpiece to the next, in the service of a novel with a strong high-concept starting point (what if everyone in the world went bald overnight?) but no clear sense of direction or purpose. There’s something interesting to be said about how a culture fixated on the cosmetic and aesthetic would respond to the Baldification — this novel is set in the late 21st century and its culture extrapolated from our own — but it gets lost in this OTT, hyperactive novel, and that starting point just isn’t weighty enough to justify the breakdown in society the ensuing novel describes. It’s an odd dystopia, where Orwell has been forgotten (‘Big Brother’ is invoked, but its inventor’s name has been lost to time) yet incidental characters are named Tolstoy and Beauvoir, and the narrator — recognising these as authors’ names — doesn’t, as it were, blink an eye. What it’s most like is a computer game, and a protracted (ie: interminable) fight scene that takes place in a chamber full of arcade machines (Street Fighter et al) seems to acknowledge that this is Liu’s inspiration. Much of the book reads like the novelisation of a game; visual ideas abound but there’s little psychological insight (Nick’s yearning for a family is the only glimmer of character he has), plenty of adolescent bang-crash-wallop action and jetting around the place, and not much for the reader to care about, either in terms of plot or writing. There are some solecisms (the words ‘startled’ and ‘repellent’ are both slightly misused), and sentences like “The pain followed a few seconds later as my sensors cried havoc and let slip the Chihuahuas of war” are neither clever, funny, nor meaningful. “[M]y skin ruptured long its surface and all my cells were panicking that their ozone was being penetrated” — no, they weren’t. (The sentence that follows that one is even worse: p.185-6 if you want to see for yourself.) Whatever conspiracy is going on in Bald New World, I found it hard to care about; this is a pleasureless read, out of step with every other Folio contender I’ve read so far.

In brief Catching up on some of the books I’d read, serendipitously, before the nominees were announced and I embarked on my ‘Folio Season’ challenge: After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail) is a hallucinatory, engaging debut that follows the arrival of its clearly traumatised central character (and his assumption of a new identity) in an isolated house populated by a similarly opaque group of people. Over his week’s stay, John starts to unravel the connections between these others, and to upset their equilibrium by his presence. Perry seems able to sense how much mystery the reader will put up with – I was starting to fear an open-ended, Unconsoled­-ish extended dream sequence – and the explanation of what everyone is doing in the house is presented at the right time to open the story up: pleasingly, it becomes more, not less, intriguing once you know more of what’s going on. There are some terrific set-pieces (the lost child will stay with me a long time), and the atmosphere of stifling weirdness is sustained well throughout, but I found this an easier book to admire than to take to heart. Niven Govinden’s All the Days and Nights (The Friday Project) is a compact, cleverly structured short novel about two artists in their twilight days in early 1980s New York. While John Brown goes off in search of his old paintings, his partner, collaborator, and portraitist Anna stays at home, waiting for his return, distracting herself by making a new portrait of John’s ebullient gallerist, while musing on their lives together and apart. A novel that’s rich and insightful about art and artists, though perhaps not as moving as I’d anticipated. I greatly enjoyed some of the stories in Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck (Jonathan Cape), especially the opening ghost story ‘Something Amazing’ and the closing title story – by coincidence I liked the first and last stories, too, in Bark by Lorrie Moore (Faber) (maybe there’s a recency-and-immediacy effect with short story collections?) – but where McCracken’s stories are consistently good, Moore’s lesser stories in her first collection in 15 years are really lesser, her whipcrack wit and ear for dialogue turned leaden and, at times (‘Foes’, in particular), stories that seem intended to be comic turn out clunkers so unfunny that you’re embarrassed for her.

Running total at 9th January: 24 read, 56 to read, 73 days until the prize is announced. That’s an average of… no, I shan’t work it out, it’ll only alarm me. Next time: Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, Ben Lerner’s 10:04, and more.

The eighty nominated titles — with the ones I’ve read struck through (and links to reviews, where applicable) — are:

10:04 – Ben Lerner
A God in Every Stone – Kamila Shamsie
Academy Street – Mary Costello
After Me Comes The Flood – Sarah Perry
All My Puny Sorrows – Miriam Toews
All Our Names – Dinaw Mengitsu
All The Days And Nights – Niven Goviden
All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
All The Rage – A.L. Kennedy
Amnesia – Peter Carey
Annihilation – Jeff Vandermeer
Arctic Summer – Damon Galgut
Bald New World – Peter Tieryas Liu
Bark – Lorrie Moore
Be Safe I Love You – Cara Hoffman
Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi
Can’t & Won’t – Lydia Davis
Dear Thief – Samantha Harvey
Dept. of Speculation – Jenny Offill
Dissident Gardens – Jonathan Lethem
Dust – Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
Em and the Big Hoom – Jerry Pinto
England and Other Stories – Graham Swift
Euphoria – Lily King
Everland – Rebecca Hunt
Eyrie – Tim Winton
Family Life – Akhil Sharma
Fourth of July Creek – Smith Henderson
How to be both – Ali Smith
In Search of Silence – Emily Mackie
In the Approaches – Nicola Barker
In the Light of What We Know – Zia Haider Rahman
J – Howard Jacobson
Kinder Than Solitude – Yiyun Li
Lila – Marilynne Robinson
Life Drawing – Robin Black
Lost For Words – Edward St Aubyn
Love and Treasure – Ayelet Waldman
Nora Webster – Colm Tóibín
On Such a Full Sea – Chang-Rae Lee
Orfeo – Richard Powers
Outline – Rachel Cusk
Perfidia – James Ellroy
Road Ends, Mary Lawson
Shark – Will Self
Some Luck – Jane Smiley
Stay Up With Me – Tom Barbash
Stone Mattress – Margaret Atwood
The Ballad of a Small Player – Lawrence Osborne
The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell
The Book Of Gold Leaves – Mirza Waheed
The Book Of Strange New Things – Michel Faber
The Country Of Icecream Star – Sandra Newman
The Dog – Joseph O’Neill
The Emerald Light in the Air – Donald Antrim
The Emperor Waltz – Philip Hensher
The Fever – Megan Abbott
The Heroes’ Welcome – Louisa Young
The Incarnations – Susan Barker
The Lie – Helen Dunmore
The Lives Of Others – Neel Mukherjee
The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan
The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane
The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters
The Tell-Tale Heart – Jill Dawson
The Temporary Gentleman – Sebastian Barry
The Wake – Paul Kingsnorth
The Zone Of Interest – Martin Amis
Their Lips Talk of Mischief – Alan Warner
Thunderstruck – Elizabeth McCracken
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour – Joshua Ferris
Travelling Sprinkler – Nicholson Baker
Upstairs at the Party – Linda Grant
Viper Wine – Hermione Eyre
Virginia Woolf in Manhattan – Maggie Gee
We Are Not Ourselves – Thomas Matthew
What You Want – Constantine Phipps
Wittgenstein Jr – Lars Iyer
Young Skins – Colin Barrett
Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? – Dave Eggers

Folio Season #2: Hensher, Barrett, Barker and more

I’ve set myself the challenge of reading all 80 books nominated for the 2015 Folio Prize. Several I’d already read before the list was announced – which was what gave me the perhaps inaccurate idea that it would be possible, or a good idea, to read all of the remainder. Each week, I’ll update with the books I’ve been reading ‘new’, as it were, plus, while I catch up, some of those I read beforehand.

The Emperor Waltz – Philip Hensher (Fourth Estate)
Emperor Waltz, TheIn 1922 Weimar, student Christian Vogt is about to embark on a course of study at the Bauhaus. In 1979 London, Duncan Flannery establishes The Big Gay Bookshop, the city’s first ‘out’ bookshop for gay readers. In AD302 Rome, a merchant’s daughter, fascinated by the new cult of Christianity, becomes a convert and submits to sacrifice. And in 2014 London, Philip Hensher is in hospital for a foot infection. I’ll admit this was a book I wasn’t greatly looking forward to reading – a dedication to Thomas Adès stops the browsing reader dead in his tracks, and I have an allergy to novels in which ‘real people’ appear as characters: in this case we encounter, among others, Paul Klee, Paul Bailey and, er, Philip Hensher – but it won me over almost completely. The links between disparate times and places in this huge and intriguing book are associative rather than direct (a gesture recurs, an artefact, a name, and the piece of music which gives Hensher his title), but in each setting the focus is on groups of people that might be described as cults: in Weimar, alongside the Bauhaus student body, despised by the townsfolk, there are members of an actual religious cult; in 1970s London, The Big Gay Bookshop’s founders and their friends are discriminated against by their neighbours and discriminate, in turn, against the hypocrites or the humourless among their own number. Always there are families, biological or post-nuclear, with their own rites. While cults will come and go, as various characters observe, some endure, and stop being cults, for a while, anyway: killed for her faith, St Perpetua knows that among the Christian-haters in the audience at her execution, some will be moved and undergo the conversion she herself has. Sometimes you need to suffer in order to move society forward; sometimes you suffer, are punished, and nothing changes. I did feel at times that the gay characters were benefiting from a kind of special pleading: in one of his first scenes, Duncan Flannery is cruelly taunting his dying father with the information his estate will be used to found a bookshop for “perverts”, yet we never have much sense of a reason for the animosity between the father and son: liberal, novel-reading folk are, it seems, expected to side with the put-upon gay character from the off. The two sections set in contemporary London, one of which bravely features teenage characters and their slang (by the time The Emperor Waltz was published, probably no-one was saying “bare long” for “really boring” any more), seem surplus to requirements somewhat. On the whole, the book is a bit too bitty for me, and not quite as wholly thematically integrated throughout as it might have been – but for long stretches, particularly the 1970s sections, this really satisfied me as the kind of book I wanted to vanish into for hours over Christmas: a big, broad, densely peopled, fully imagined novel with a point to make.

Young Skins – Colin Barrett (Vintage)
Young SkinsSmall town Irish life laid bare in these six stories and one novella, ‘Calm With Horses’, in which the youthful characters are caught up in an escalating series of violent reprisals for territory-overstepping. At a loss for anything better to do, the youths who “have the run of this place” are bristling for a fight or a shag; their loyalties are fiercely defended, and in the most placid of them runs, just beneath the skin, the capacity for violence, thuggery, coldly premeditated murder. A contingent kind of happiness, or at least satisfaction, creeps in at odd moments, too; ‘Diamonds’, one of those one-thing-happens-then-another stories I like so much, where the themes – despite the on-the-nose title – are subtle and associative. These stories – thematically linked but diverse, and written in some of the finest prose I’ve read this year, worked but not overworked – are very good indeed; Barrett has already landed the 2014 Guardian First Book prize for the collection. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this shortlisted, though, as with lots of first short story collections where the author is setting out a stall to some degree, writing to the limits of it but no further, I find myself already looking forward to Barrett’s next book: he’ll muscle through any self-imposed limits into wild new worlds.

In the Approaches – Nicola Barker (Fourth Estate)
In the ApproachesWhat are Nicola Barker’s books about? In the Approaches is a love story between odd folk – of the same type, though hardly the same style, as Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection. Where that book was sentimental, Barker is caustic; her natural tendency is to highlight the odd, the slapstick, the vernacular. Nominally about an academic who’s come to a small town to investigate a famous but tragic artistic family that lived there before, this takes in unexpectedly resurrected dogs, the rivalry between a parrot and a Mynah bird, a character well aware he’s in a Nicola Barker novel (and not happy about it), and a Mrs Overall-esque housekeeper. Tiny mysteries occur and are swiftly resolved, and there are some neat surrealist strands, but there isn’t much plot to speak of. Barker is never less than pleasurable to read, but your impression on finishing In the Approaches is that it was written swiftly and edited only slightly, and that come late 2015 or early 2016 she’ll have out another 500+ pager on the weirdnesses and involutions of small-village life.

 

In brief: Among the books I happened to have read before the Folio Prize list was announced were Donald Antrim’s The Emerald Light in the Air (Granta), which I found patchy: too often, the confusion in the characters’ minds – many of them are in recovery, or being treated for mental illness – seemed to leach into the text of these stories. The opening, gloriously antic ‘An Actor Prepares’ (its portentous title only making the shagginess of the text funnier) and the concluding, more stately title story are the exceptions. They’re always enjoyable stories, but sometimes waffly where they should be sharp. Though I enjoyed much of it, I did lose patience when Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation (Granta) veered from its initial pithy, insightful, apothegmatic remarks on a relationship’s highs and lows gave way to ‘My child says the cutest things’; one’s patience for other people’s babies is exhausted as quickly by fictional as real-life ones. At its best, this fragmented text is funny, candid and a little shocking: ‘Is she a good baby? people would ask me. Well, no, I’d say.’ Unfortunately this does mean that pretty much every paragraph is excerptable as a ‘favourite quote’ on the book’s Goodreads page. In some ways – quotable and Tweetable – it’s the most 2014 book possible. Akhil Sharma’s Family Life (Faber), one of my favourite books of 2014, is a super-dense, controlled and enjoyable family saga. I read it shortly after the third volume in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle; Sharma’s book is like the incredibly refined single-plate meal to Knausgaard’s vast and sprawling banquet. Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others (Chatto & Windus) (full disclosure: Neel and I are good friends, and he kindly gave me a cover quote for my own book, The Glasgow Coma Scale) is a massive, sprawling, breathtakingly impressive saga of Naxalite uprising and internecine family relationships. There is a streak of cruelty through the book that might remind you of Hardy, or one of the philosophers who postulates a vast and indifferent universe in which no good deed, as the saw has it, goes unpunished. The vast cast of this novel suffer in their different ways; the book open with a moment of personal cruelty and concludes with one of mass destruction. No-one gets out of this world alive. It seems unfair to judge Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation (Fourth Estate) by itself, as it’s the first volume in his Area X trilogy; it’s one of those books you imagine the Booker running from in fright as it is, really, science fiction, or ‘weird’ fiction: the account of an exhibition to the mysterious Area X by one of the investigating team, who first chronicles then starts to succumb to the strangeness of the place. I haven’t read the remaining volumes (Authority and Acceptance) – not through lack of interest but through a desire to wait until I’m back in the US and can purchase the beautiful FSG paperback editions of the two concluding books.

 

Running total at 2nd January: 20 read, 60 to read, 80 days until the prize is announced. There’s a lot of nice round numbers. Next time: Dinaw Mengestu, Hermione Eyre, Tim Winton and more.

 

The eighty nominated titles — with the ones I’ve read struck through (and links to my reviews where available) — are:

 

10:04, Ben Lerner

A GOD IN EVERY STONE, Kamila Shamsie

ACADEMY STREET, Mary Costello

AFTER ME COMES THE FLOOD, Sarah Perry

ALL MY PUNY SORROWS, Miriam Toews

ALL OUR NAMES, Dinaw Mengitsu

ALL THE DAYS AND NIGHTS, Niven Goviden

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, Anthony Doerr

ALL THE RAGE, AL Kennedy

AMNESIA, Peter Carey

ANNIHILATION, Jeff VanderMeer

ARCTIC SUMMER, Damon Galgut

BALD NEW WORLD, Peter Tieryas Liu

BARK, Lorrie Moore

BE SAFE I LOVE YOU, Cara Hoffman

BOY, SNOW, BIRD, Helen Oyeyemi

CAN’T AND WON’T, Lydia Davis

DEAR THIEF, Samantha Harvey

DEPT. OF SPECULATION, Jenny Offill

DISSIDENT GARDENS, Jonathan Lethem

DUST, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

EM AND THE BIG HOOM, Jerry Pinto

ENGLAND AND OTHER STORIES, Graham Swift

EUPHORIA, Lily King

EVERLAND, Rebecca Hunt

EYRIE, Tim Winton

FAMILY LIFE, Akhil Sharma

FOURTH OF JULY CREEK, Smith Henderson

HOW TO BE BOTH, Ali Smith

IN SEARCH OF SILENCE, Emily Mackie

IN THE APPROACHES, Nicola Barker

IN THE LIGHT OF WHAT WE KNOW, Zia Haider Rahman

J, Howard Jacobson

KINDER THAN SOLITUDE, Yiyun Li

LILA, Marilynne Robinson

LIFE DRAWING, Robin Black

LOST FOR WORDS, Edward St Aubyn

LOVE AND TREASURE, Ayelet Waldman

NORA WEBSTER, Colm Tóibín

ON SUCH A FULL SEA, Chang-Rae Lee

ORFEO, Richard Powers

OUTLINE, Rachel Cusk

PERFIDIA, James Ellroy

ROAD ENDS, Mary Lawson

SHARK, Will Self

SOME LUCK, Jane Smiley

STAY UP WITH ME, Tom Barbash

STONE MATTRESS, Margaret Atwood

THE BALLAD OF A SMALL PLAYER, Lawrence Osborne

THE BONE CLOCKS, David Mitchell

THE BOOK OF GOLD LEAVES, Mirza Waheed

THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS, Michel Faber

THE COUNTRY OF ICECREAM STAR, Sandra Newman

THE DOG, Joseph O’Neill

THE EMERALD LIGHT IN THE AIR, Donald Antrim

THE EMPEROR WALTZ, Philip Hensher

THE FEVER, Megan Abbott

THE HEROES’ WELCOME, Louisa Young

THE INCARNATIONS, Susan Barker

THE LIE, Helen Dunmore

THE LIVES OF OTHERS, Neel Mukherjee

THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH, Richard Flanagan

THE NIGHT GUEST, Fiona McFarlane

THE PAYING GUESTS, Sarah Waters

THE TELL-TALE HEART, Jill Dawson

THE TEMPORARY GENTLEMAN, Sebastian Barry

THE WAKE, Paul Kingsnorth

THE ZONE OF INTEREST, Martin Amis

THEIR LIPS TALK OF MISCHIEF, Alan Warner

THUNDERSTRUCK, Elizabeth McCracken

TO RISE AGAIN AT A DECENT HOUR, Joshua Ferris

TRAVELLING SPRINKLER, Nicholson Baker

UPSTAIRS AT THE PARTY, Linda Grant

VIPER WINE, Hermione Eyre

VIRGINIA WOOLF IN MANHATTAN, Maggie Gee

WE ARE NOT OURSELVES, Thomas Matthew

WHAT YOU WANT, Constantine Phipps

WITTGENSTEIN JR, Lars Iyer

YOUNG SKINS, Colin Barrett

YOUR FATHERS, WHERE ARE THEY? AND THE PROPHETS, DO THEY LIVE FOREVER?, Dave Eggers