Monthly Archives: February 2015

Folio Season #10: Robinson, Lethem, Waldman, Osborne 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. I’m now posting weekly updates on the titles I’ve been zooming through in the past seven days…

ViequesA bumper edition this week (now the holiday [above] is over): reviews below of Lila by Marilynne Robinson, Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem, Love and Treasure by Ayelet Waldman, The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne, Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut, Lost for Words by Edward St Aubyn, Kinder than Solitude by Yiyun Li, Nora Webster by Colm Toibin and and On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee. Whew!

Lila – Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux US)
LilaLila isn’t her name; she doesn’t have a name of her own, only ‘a likeness of a name’. Lila is a name given to her; her surname, Dahl, a corruption of the name of Doll, the woman who rescues – or steals – Lila as a baby from a household where she’s neglected and abused. Over the course of her life, Lila is a scavenger, a wild girl, a prostitute and, finally, a wife and mother. The undertow of her life on the run with Doll and a ragtag bunch of travellers still calls to her; even when happily married and with a daughter of her own, she still feels that one day she might have to leave her adopted home and run again. It’s a while since I read Home and Gilead, the two novels to which Lila is successor and part sequel, and so I have lost track a little of the Ames and Boughtons of those books, and the various quiet struggles and betrayals of their backstory; here, Lila marries the elderly reverend, John Ames, at the very end of his life; I suspect that to re-read those other two books (as I intend to) with this foreknowledge will cast an interesting new perspective on this quiet saga, in which marriage is undertaken for deceptively simple reasons: ‘“I’m going to keep you safe. And you’re going to keep me honest.”’ Taken on its own merits, though, this is a subtle, beautiful, tremendously moving novel, one of the best on this list.

Dissident Gardens – Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday US)
Dissident GardensIt took me quite a while to get into this book, which wouldn’t normally be a problem, but as I’m reading against time, as it were, was irritating. Partly I was put off by what seems its opening’s flagrant… um, homage, shall we say, to Philip Roth. “Quit fucking black cops or get booted from the Communist Party. There stood the ultimatum, the absurd sum total of the message conveyed to Rose Zimmer by the cabal gathered in her Sunnyside Gardens kitchen that evening. Late fall, 1955.” That’s the first line of Lethem’s book; compare the opening of Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater: “Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over. / This was the ultimatum, the maddeningly improbable, wholly unforeseen ultimatum, that the mistress of fifty-two delivered to in tears to her lover of sixty four […]” Let’s say that Lethem’s a fan. A scene shortly afterward in which Rose remonstrates, hysterical and half-naked, with her daughter Miriam (for going on a date), seems like what might happen if you fed every Roth novel into a kind of condensing machine and produced a five-page summary: the most Rothian of rants. The book’s concerns – political activism, the generation gap, protest songs, Jewishness, Communism (the “twentieth-century Americanism”) and What It Means To Be An American (for one character, it’s “to be presented with an unrecognisable image of yourself which you must not fail to claim as yourself”) – aren’t unRothian either. It must be deliberate, surely? Set yourself up against the master at your peril, I say: Lethem’s book has the density of prose of late high Roth, as well as some of the concerns about the intersection and overlapping of the personal and the political (see I Married a Communist, American Pastoral), but little of his elegance nor the killer plotting. Dissident Gardens has some memorable setpieces – often involving games, oddly, whether chess or TV quiz shows – but I struggled my way through it, wishing for a bit less hero-worship and a bit more clarity of purpose, as well as of prose. A clunker.

Love and Treasure – Ayelet Waldman (Knopf US)
Love and TreasureLike All the Light We Cannot See last week, this is one of those generations-spanning, world-tramping novels that takes real events in World War II as its starting point. Jack, stationed in Salzburg at the very end of the war, is charged with guarding a train filled with the valuables of Hungarian Jews sent to concentration camps: their jewellery, silverware, artworks. A century later, his granddaughter travels to Budapest to try to reunite a particular piece of jewellery – a bejewelled peacock, purloined by Jack – to its rightful owner, or as near to such a person as possible. And in 1913, at the dawn of the fight for women’s rights, a psychoanalyst is called in to help a young Hungarian proto-suffragette whose story will become entwined with the peacock ornament’s. I liked the leapfrogging structure of this book, which moves through three distinct time periods, united by works of art; it’s uneven, however, since compared to the engaging WWII narrative and the psychoanalyst’s notes on his young charge, the central present-day narrative, which should be terrific (it’s a kind of who-owns-it, rather than whodunit, based around stolen and lost artworks, and has a nicely hubristic ending) is just a series of rather dry deductions in which coincidence – which plays too big a part throughout the book – figures heavily. I also rather resisted the very programmatic links between Waldman’s title and her text: a series of love affairs, a number of priceless treasures – it’s all a bit ‘Do you see?!’ Likewise, the analyst’s account is a little too tinged with hindsight: we enlightened readers know that Nina is ‘right’ to insist on equal rights for women, her father a baddie for sending her for treatment for dementia praecox, and well-meaning Dr Zobel ‘ignorant’ for obstructing her, so this section, while convincingly written, seems somewhat an exercise in knowing historical reinforcement: look how unenlightened people were a hundred years ago! When it hits its stride, it’s very readable, but that only comes in fits and starts; the opening, in which Jack and his granddaughter are reunited a day before his death, is particularly stilted.

The Ballad of a Small Player – Lawrence Osborne (Hogarth US)
Ballad of a Small PlayerThis is partly why I set out on this Folio Season business: here’s a writer I’ve not only never read before but hadn’t even heard of, though Osborne is the author of several other books. The Ballad of a Small Player is a short, claustrophobic novel set on the gambling island of Macau, where time and daylight disappear and our narrator, known as Lord Doyle, can escape his criminal background, adopt a new name, and win and lose all day long. Like any gambler, he has runs of luck, but his latest is his most bizarre: playing baccarat, where the best cards are a four and a five, he is dealt exactly this hand over and over, winning and winning and winning. Statistically it’s not impossible, but it is deeply improbable. Still Doyle keeps testing the run, wondering when his luck will run out – or if it ever will. Has he been blessed? Cursed? I liked this novel a lot, even when its strangeness crossed over from the statistical to something like a ghost story. There’s a telling central metaphor about Chinese versions of Hell and of ‘hungry ghosts’: ‘Continually suffering from hunger or thirst, they cannot sate or slake either craving.’ A late-stage twist is, if not exactly predictable, satisfyingly apt for the story Osborne is telling. I’ll certainly be seeking out more of his books.

Arctic Summer – Damon Galgut (Europa Editions US)
Arctic SummeGalgut’s novel follows E.M. Forster as he travels to India for the first time, exploring the reasons for his visit (romantic, sort of) and the consequences (a novel widely accepted as Forster’s masterpiece). It’s slightly puzzling to me why books like this exist. A good biography – though I’ve not found any of the books on Forster I’ve read to be especially good – would cover much of this material; what a factual account might eschew, Galgut does very well, however, extrapolating from what’s known of Forster to generate fictive scenes of thwarted passion, for instance, which have the ring of truth about them even if they’re largely invented. I’m a bit torn about this book: novels about novelists are one thing, novels about real novelists another, and novels which seek to dramatise poetic inspiration can be reductive. On the other hand, the shorthand view that suggests writing is a kind of quasi-mystical business (present in the word ‘inspiration’, as though the writer or artist has been ‘breathed into’ by some unknowable higher power) can be irritating – so this book has a fine line to walk. I’m not convinced that it’s more than the sum of its parts, though the writing is good and the subject matter interesting. I suppose it comes down to whether it’s more interesting to the reader to witness process or outcome; this book suggests that the two are very close — this fictive Forster synthesises various experiences and real characters for A Passage to India, but much of what he witnesses ends up in his novel unmediated, as it were, which seems to slightly do a disservice to his work.

Lost for Words – Edward St Aubyn (Farrar, Straus & Giroux US)
Lost for WordsIt takes some chutzpah, you might say, for an award-winning author to write a comic novel that suggests (some) literary prizes are administered by idiots and hypocrites, riven with infighting, prey to conflicts of interests, and awarded almost inevitably to the least deserving, lowest-common-denominator finalist. It may reflect some humour on the part of literary prize boards that Lost for Words should have been listed for this prize. For me, this is a slight confection, rife with the sort of farce and comedy that perhaps works better on screen or in the theatre than on the page. The targets are either easy – the establishment of the Folio Prize in response to an especially anaemic Booker Prize year is a more fitting response than St Aubyn’s book – or bizarre (a maniacal publisher with bad hair implants is named, at once pointedly and pointlessly, John Elton), and the climactic awarding of the Elysian Prize to a cookbook mistaken by some judges for a novel is a cop-out, skewering neither the literary pretension some real-life prizes are castigated over, nor the focus on ‘readability’ for which some others are criticised. Excerpts from the shortlisted books are troublesome too: it beggars belief that a (very) sub-Irvine Welsh book, wot u lookin at, might be considered for the prize; it’s worse that Lost for Words then points out its sub-Welsh-ness. And in a book where characters decry clichés in the books they read, a single paragraph that contains the phrases ‘Penny was lost for words’ and ‘she really didn’t appreciate having her head bitten off’ might want to set its own house in order. I did, however, like the idea of Ghost, a writer’s software which suggests not just synonyms but clichés expanding from a particular word or phrase, and which allows the user to bump up the wordcount of her novel-in-progress ‘in leaps and bounds’. But there’s that unabashed deployment of cliché again!

Kinder than Solitude – Yiyun Li (Random House US)
Kinder Than SolitudeSubtle to the point of glacial, this novel starts with the death of Shaoai, who’s been in a coma for 21 years. As news of her death reaches the three people who knew her best in the late 1980s, their past starts to unfold in their reactions and memories. Shaoai’s coma was the result of her poisoning, possibly at the hands of one of this trio – but who? And why? And does it really make any difference? I was very taken with the story of Ruyu, adopted by Shaoai’s family and a kind of brutally passive character whom Shaoai taunts for her refusal to engage with the world. Her former peers, Boyang and Moran, are equally solitary creatures at odds with the world. The preoccupations of this book are there in the title (what do you sacrifice by being stoically solitary? Is it better to engage with others and, essentially, risk your life, as Shaoai does when she participates in a political protest?) but the frequent recurrences of ‘kind’, ‘kindness’, ‘solitude’, and all their variants, in the text drive the point home a little too hard. At times this really came to life for me; the central conceit – ‘the habit of being opaque allowed [Ruyu] to be a mystery in people’s eyes. To want to know any person better requires one to give up that position ad to become less inscrutable’ – I found intriguing and unusual, and the book explores its ramifications well. I liked, too, the way that an ostensible mystery (who did the poisoning?) is allowed to disappear for long stretches, its resolution not unclear and yet something of a shrug: now that you’ve read all about these characters, does it matter whether Shaoai killed herself or was poisoned? Something about this ambiguity is, paradoxically, not at all disappointing.

Nora Webster – Colm Toibin (Penguin Viking UK)
Nora WebsterMore subtlety. The eponymous main character of Toibin’s limpid, moving novel is a recent widow, bringing up two boys in the Ireland of the late 1960s. Over three years, her grief shifts, ebbs, waxes, changes: she starts to return to real life, and is both cossetted and hindered by the people of Enniscorthy, the small town near Dublin where she lives: this is a place where everyone knows everyone else, a support network that’s more of a trap to get tangled in. The disapproval that greets Nora’s dyeing her hair, or buying a brightly coloured dress, is palpable and tangible. This sort of suffocating atmosphere pervades this novel; weirdness thrums at a low level – something odd happens to Nora’s sons Conor and Donal, yet, trying not to be as fussy and busybody as her own parents, she doesn’t quite sufficiently investigate what has transpired. It’s a short book into which a vast amount of slow-burning, almost imperceptible action is packed; Nora is hindered and helped in her return to post-mourning life, but judgement – whether approving or not – is always being made, as she is judging others. In the background, too, the Troubles are starting: the other side of the country may as well be a half a world away, at least until locals start getting involved. You come away from this book feeling almost clammy: it’s a terrific achievement.

On Such a Full Sea – Chang-Rae Lee (Riverhead US)
On Such a Full SeaA dystopia set five minutes in the future, where the city of Baltimore – now known as B-Mor – is a kind of island fortress whose inhabitants live a balanced, peaceful, self-sufficient life. It’s a world of handscreens and vids, technological extrapolations only slightly removed from those of our own time, but also a world where every human being will die of ‘C’ (cancer)… or maybe not quite every one. Fan, a fishergirl who looks after the fish on which B-Mor depends, sets off on a quest beyond B-Mor to the rich Counties in search of her boyfriend Reg who, it’s rumoured, has never had ‘C’ and has perhaps been taken to the Counties for monitoring or experimentation.
There’s lots about this book that I liked: for one, the structure, which alternates between Fan’s story and a “we” voice that relates what happens in B-Mor in her absence, as the inhabitants grow dissatisfied with their seemingly idyllic life and anarchy starts to bloom. Those unnamed communal voice narrates Fan’s adventures elsewhere, too, and so there is a sort of double fable thing going on: the B-Mors’ acts are put in a kind of passive voice, as if everyone yet no-one is responsible for their graffiti and littering, and it’s by no means certain if what they describe Fan doing is a true account or a kind of myth. These adventures can be less or more involving – one in which Fan faces down cannibals is too familiar a horror, but one in which she’s inveigled into a cult of identically genetically altered girls with numbers for names and an obsession with making art is terrific – seem arbitrarily plotted, as if this could have been a much longer or much shorter book without suffering unduly. Fan herself, as befits a mythic figure, is somewhat sketchily characterised, but that doesn’t seem to matter too much. On Such a Full Sea is an uneven book, not always a satisfying one, but memorable all the same.

62 books down, 18 to go, and 24 days until the prize is announced. Next week: Constantine Phipps, Jane Smiley 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 –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 #9: Black, Cusk, Doerr, Hoffman, Carey, Jacobson

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’m now posting weekly updates on the titles I’ve been zooming through in the past seven days…

Still on holiday.

Life Drawing – Robin Black (Picador UK)
Life DrawingIt’s hard to write well about art – I gave it a shot in my novel about art, artists and failure – and one of the things I liked most about Robin Black’s first novel is the precision with which she writes about that craft. Her narrator, Augusta (known, like the female artist in Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, by a masculine nickname, Gus) is working on a series of paintings about young men killed at war; at home, meantime, her author husband Owen is going through a prolonged writer’s block. They live in an isolated house with only one cottage nearby, and when a woman named Alison rents the cottage for the summer, the interdependent life Gus and Owen have built for themselves is broken apart in ever more destructive ways. This is a short, compact, sensitive novel, let down somewhat I felt by an overly dramatic final act; I was much happier reading about the to-and-fro of damage and solace between the couple, the push and pull of forgiving but not forgetting, and about the neighbour who’s first a confidante to Gus, then a kind of invidious presence whose arrival in their lives will change them irrevocably. Largely, a very good novel.

Outline – Rachel Cusk (Faber UK)
OutlineA strange, oblique book, shortlisted for the Folio Prize. Faye, a teacher of creative writing, travels to Athens for a few days’ teaching. She is fleeing the breakup of her marriage and of her family life, “something I could no longer definitively call either a reality or an illusion”, and everyone she meets tells her stories: either because they sense something in her that lets them talk, or because she’s specifically requested they tell her things (her creative writing students). This is a book about absence, and about transference: on the plane to Athens, Faye gets talking to (is talked at by) her neighbour, once a very rich man who’s gone through two difficult divorces and is now of much reduced means (he has a speedboat now, rather than a yacht). They meet up several times in Athens, and on one occasion he makes a move on her. Occasionally in fiction, one wonders why the protagonist finds anything likeable in the person he or she falls for – I’m thinking specifically of Michelle de Kretser’s wonderful The Lost Dog, in which men fall willy-nilly for a female character who seemed to me irritating beyond belief – but I think in Outline we have that almost unheard-of situation where we know so little of the narrator that it seems extraordinary anyone should fall for her. The neighbour is projecting; into her almost uncanny ability to listen and absorb what he says, he reads that he is fascinating. (Unlike the infuriatingly passive central character of Academy Street, battered hither and thither by misfortune, however, Faye you feel is in a kind of chrysalis, clear-eyedly detailing everything around her, learning from it, storing it up as energy, getting ready to change her life.) Little happens, per se, in Outline; the students come and tell stories, various characters wander in and out, narrating their experiences, and Faye reports back to the reader, as it were, fairly bloodlessly, what she’s heard. I rather like books in which not much happens, but happens beautifully; if there’s a sense of something missing in Outline, that’s surely deliberate, as Faye absents herself as much as possible from her own story.

All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr (Fourth Estate UK)
All the Light We Cannot SeeJonathan Franzen, the Oscar the Grouch of American letters, was back in the news last week, opining that a lot of popular literary fiction is essentially Young Adult fiction without that banner printed on it. That seemed to me entirely true of this well-received and vastly popular new novel from Anthony Doerr.
As occupying forces close in on wartime Paris, a blind little girl and her locksmith father flee for the safety of St Malo where they can hide out in the house of her agoraphobic great uncle. Elsewhere, a bright young German orphan, Werner, is spared certain death working in mines when his ability to work with radios is noticed. And in the museum where the locksmith once worked, a German officer hears of a priceless blue diamond known as the Sea of Flames, with which the locksmith may have absconded.
For a book of 530+ pages, this is a swift and breezy read, sweeping in its scope but very personal in its concentration on only a handful of characters. It’s told in brief chapters, generallty alternating between Werner’s plot and Marie-Laure’s; occasionally the diamond hunter (boo!) or a St Malo-based informer (boo! hiss!) get a chapter. I was reminded irresistibly of the film Titanic, in which human tragedy plays second fiddle to a plot about a lost necklace: Doerr builds in his adventure story about the priceless diamond perhaps as a nod to readers for whom the depredations of a world war offer insufficient drama. The more I read of it, the more I was reminded of Franzen’s gripe; the writing is that clean, stately prose that only rarely (describing weather, usually) draws attention to itself; and there is very little in the way of moral complexity here – ‘Is it right to do something just because everyone else is doing it?’ is about as deep as it gets – and in the depiction of the blind poppet and the goodnatured German boy, it’s all a bit gooey and softcentred. That the moment when the two characters’ stories finally intersect should be so brief and inconsequential is itself a cliché of this kind of parallel-plot book, a sort of programmatic reinforcement that even in as kindly a universe as Doerr’s, coincidence still has its place. It’s an easy read that will sell squillions of copies and be made into a film like Titanic, or maybe Chocolat: a reassuring confection in which good intentions and niceness win out in the end against all that nasty Nazi warmongering.

Be Safe I Love You – Cara Hoffman (Simon & Schuster US)
Be Safe I Love You
I think this is the first novel I’ve read about the experiences of a female soldier coming home from one of our many modern-day wars. It’s a valuable story to tell, and Cara Hoffman’s second novel does it reasonably well. We follow the attempts of Lauren Clay, on terminal leave from tour of duty in Iraq, to return to her home town of Watertown, New York, and readjust to everyday life there. Her father, once a recluse, seems to have recovered his mojo in her absence; her younger brother has grown up, and her best friend has had a baby. Everything has moved on and yet everything is the same, and Lauren, who at first seems relieved to be back, grows steadily more disorientated and unhappy. Hoffman’s prose and dialogue aren’t always brilliant, but this is a really well structured novel, and there are a couple of enviably good twists late on; the unexpectedly redemptive ending seems appropriate and earned. A thread that runs through the book, and which generates one of the twists I didn’t see coming, concerns the career Lauren might have had if she’d not gone to war: she would have been a singer, and her appreciation for music and especially the chill, spare work of Arvo Pärt lends this book an extra dimension. Very slightly a missed opportunity, for me: better prose (especially dialogue, which is often soapy and pat) and the excision of a strange subplot in which a bar is burned down and lots of characters claim responsibility would have put this into the unmissable category.

Amnesia – Peter Carey (Knopf US)
Amnesia
I hadn’t intended to read the new Peter Carey until I took on this Folio Season project; his last couple of novels really haven’t been to my taste, and while I didn’t mind His Illegal Self, I don’t think I’ve really fallen for one of his novels since My Life as a Fake, a decade ago now. I’d assumed we’d quietly parted ways, yet here we are: my twelfth Carey book. In Amnesia, he tackles hacktivism, rogue programmers, and a kind of cyber-cold war that tangentially posits the US’s attempts to arrest Julian Assange as the outcome of a decades-long international relations tussle between America and Australia which started with the CIA being implicated in the toppling of the then Australian government back in 1975. For the first half of the book we’re in the company of disgraced journalist Felix Moore, who in an offer-you-can’t-refuse kind of way is invited to write a book about a young woman, Gaby Baillieux, accused of a cyber terrorism attack that’s unlocked jails across Australia and beyond. It’s a winning, timely setup, and while the book itself turns out something of a hotchpotch, crossing from first to third person and exploring the backstories of Moore, Gaby, and Gaby’s mother (whom Moore also encountered when he was a gauche young student), it’s a relief that great swathes of it remind you that, sentence on sentence, Carey writes the most terrific prose (his jettisoning of a comma in lists and direct addresses in dialogue is annoying, though: “Gaby Sando and Frederic were on a Melbourne tram” reads like the account of two, not three, people’s journey). Felix is a winningly hangdog narrator – sometimes hungover, sometimes being kidnapped and driven to a remote location where he’s only a typewriter and a batch of tape recordings of the Baillieuxs’ stories to work on – and it’s a shame when the text moves from his first person account into the spottier, less consistently engaging Baillieux stories. I’m a sucker, too, for stories set in Melbourne: if I were giving out star ratings, the happy thrills of reading about South Yarra and Carlton, all those familiar spiritual-home streets, would probably have netted Amnesia an extra half. As it is, this is a flawed and oddly shaped book with enough of the old genius in it that I maybe – maybe – won’t give up on Carey quite yet.

J – Howard Jacobson (Hogarth US)
JOr, more properly, J by Howard Jacobson: in this book, the letter seldom appears and when it does, in words like ‘joke’, ‘jest’ and ‘Jesus Christ’, it’s struck through twice. The strange notation comes from main character Kevern’s father, who won’t pronounce the letter aloud but places two fingers across his lips to signify the secret character – a tic Kevern has inherited. Other words have vanished or been altered, too: J take place in the wake of an apparent holocaust no-one seems quite prepared to talk about or even fully acknowledge (it’s known as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED; ‘Remember everything’, one character suggests, ‘and you have no future’), all citizens have been assigned quasi-Jewish names, all placenames have been changed, and no-one even mentions what you might call the real “J word”, because everyone Jewish has been exterminated — or so we think. This is a strange dystopia where dynamic music and jokes have been not banned but “encouraged to fall into desuetude, like the word desuetude”, the catastrophe that sparked it only partly sketched in – guards, heaped bodies, trains taking people away – but striking, and horribly familiar, if never perhaps plausible. Rather belatedly, it was only when Ailinn and Kevern visit the nation’s capital, known as the Necropolis, that I twigged that this was London and the setting the UK; even then, over London is superimposed a place like Egypt, or maybe Israel. The central plot about these two awkward lovers, riddled with tics and paranoias, is obscured somewhat by other plots about a series of murders in Port Reuben where they live (one victim is a cat, described as possessing eyelashes: someone get Jacobson a research cat, stat!), and an art lecturer turned Quisling. These offshoots of plot contribute to the unsettling atmosphere of this book: it possesses a constant thrum of wrongness, like some subsonic rumbling, and I loved it almost unreservedly.

53 books down, 27 to go, and 31 days until the prize is announced. Next week: Yiyun Li, Marilynne Robinson 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 –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 #8: Abbott, Owuor, Oyeyemi, Ellroy, Davis, Barry, Iyer

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’m now posting weekly updates on the titles I’ve been zooming through in the past seven days…

I’m on holiday, which is why I’m getting through so many books currently.

Fever, TheThe Fever – Megan Abbott (Penguin US)
A mysterious illness is rampant among a group of high school girls. The girls’ heads snap backwards or jerk fearsomely side to side; they go into spasm, they are hospitalised. Is it something to do with the HPV virus their school insists they’re inoculated against before they reach puberty? Is it something they pick up from the disgustingly algae-clogged lake they dare one another to swim in? Or is it something even weirder? The ‘Hey girl’-ing and boycraziness of the teenage protagonists (and their ways of talking to one another) feel a million miles away, but this is a mostly engaging story whose brisk forward momentum makes up for the silliness of its plot. Not one but two explanations are eventually given for the girls’ seemingly inexplicable symptoms; neither is very feasible, and a revenge-story plot creaks very badly, relying on a case of mistaken identity for which all involved would have to be near blind. The reactions of parents and teachers of the girls, stricken by these changes in girls who no longer seem to be themselves, is far more believable.

Dust – Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Penguin US)
Dust
Odidi is dead, gunned down in Nairobi as he races home to his sister, Ajany. Meantime, an Englishman, Isaiah, is on his way to meet Odidi to try and learn the fate of his father Hugh, whose family history is intertwined with that of Odidi and Ajany. A debut novel written in the toughest of prose and telling the story of the invention of modern Kenya alongside the fates of its protagonists and their forebears, this is a very striking, memorable novel, if not one that ever quite caught light for me. It’s most extraordinary when it’s most upsetting, both in terms of the events Owuor describes and the reactions she gives her characters: death hangs over this book, and massacres and murders pepper it. ‘This is how we lose the country,’ reflects one character, witness to a murder, ‘one child at a time.’ In the aftermath of the 1969 political assassination of Tom Mboya, who led negotiations for Kenya’s independence from Britain, ‘everything that could die in Kenya did, even schoolchildren standing in front of the hospital that the Leader of the Nation had come to open.’ Against this backdrop of almost unimaginable horror, which Owuor does make (horribly) imaginable and real, the prose sometimes feels like it has to strive to make itself noticed: a sex scene in which the man and woman ‘will grope secrets, share unanswered questions and infinite presences [and] dance between tombs of demoniacs’ seems just that bit too rich and poetic.

Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi (Riverhead US)
Boy, Snow, Bird
A gorgeous novel, set in New York in the 1950s, that tells the story of the almost albino girl named Boy, the stepdaughter she adopts and then abandons, named Snow, and her biological daughter, the equally distinctively named Bird. When Bird is born, she is incontestably black, and her father has to confess a family history of ‘passing’ – that phenomenon whereby black people with a light enough skin colour can pass as white. The names, and this real-life slippage between one form of identity and another, mark this as a kind of retold fairy story, and embedded in Boy, Snow, Bird are all manner of allusions to fables (a wicked stepmother, faces that don’t show up in mirrors) and stories about stories – yet it is never twee, only insightful (she was ‘one of those women who are corpselike until a man walks into the room, after which point they become irresistibly vivacious’), beautifully written, uncompromising (Boy becomes progressively less sympathetic after Bird is born) and transporting. I loved this book – I knew in the week the Folio shortlist was announced I’d be bound to read at least one novel that should’ve been on it; this one is it.

Perfidia – James Ellroy (Knopf)
Perfidia
I’ve never read anything by James Ellroy before, though unless I’m misremembering, his White Jazz was one of the books a forward-thinking Eng Lit lecturer suggested we might read as a modern classic that transcended its nominal crime genre. Perfidia is, unless I’ve missed something, the only crime novel that appears on the Folio list; it’s a big, brutal (and brutish) book, compelling and repulsive in equal measure. We’re in LA in December 1941, where the LAPD’s investigation into the apparent ritual killing of a Japanese family is suddenly overshadowed by the bombing of Pearl Harbour. Racial tension, the inevitable corporate-government conspiracy, and the weird glamour of Hollywood all play into the book: Bette Davis’s turn in a subplot about her relationship with one of the senior police investigators seems to me a rare instance where using a well-known real-life person as a fictive character strengthens, rather than weakens, the book. But it’s a grimy, grubby, unsettling sort of book, even if the various crimes do generally get solved; having been immersed in foul language (every other word’s an expletive, a racial slur, etc), extraordinary violence and a general ambience of damaged and awful characters doing awful damaging things to one another, it’s a relief to come up for air. Vastly impressive, if not hugely likeable.

Can’t and Won’t – Lydia Davis (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Can't & Won't Back when I used to work in a bookshop – no names, but it was an international chain which went out of business about seven years ago – we used to enjoy unpacking the books from the new pallets, which were bulked out not with Styrofoam pellets but with some form of maize-based biodegradable packing material not dissimilar to Cheetos, and in fact rather tasty, if insubstantial. Which leads me neatly to Lydia Davis’s book of… what? Poems, stories, aphorisms, short translations from Flaubert, jokes, observations, boredoms, and occasionally a story, which one falls upon much as one would on finding an interesting big book among all the packing peanuts in those pallets of books – and all of it divided into five sections for no very obvious reason. While the gags and things are often enjoyable (‘I’m Pretty Comfortable, But I Could Be a Little More Comfortable’ could be the basis of a very entertaining stand-up comedy gig, and the renderings of stories from Flaubert are almost always gorgeous), the distilled emotional heft of a story like ‘The Seals’ makes the rest seem like all so much static. On the other hand, the long ‘The Cows’ pretty much proves my belief that boredom is a weapon that can be deployed against a reader. Elsewhere there are various short pieces footnoted ‘dream’, which are, it transpires, based on, well, dreams that either Davis or her nearest and dearest have had; what you come away thinking about is ‘Could anyone be a writer? Is it worthwhile to note down the weird illogic of our dreams? Is it worthwhile to read someone else’s?’ I concluded it was not.

The Temporary Gentleman – Sebastian Barry (Penguin Viking US)
Temporary Gentleman
I came back reluctantly to Sebastian Barry, having not been won over by his The Secret Scripture, which posited itself as a kind of family mystery with the most obviously signposted revelation I can remember in years – a bit like a murder mystery with only one suspect. The Temporary Gentleman is (mostly) great, though: starting with its narrator McNulty surviving the wartime torpedoing of a ship he’s travelling on, the book looks forward into McNulty’s new life in Accra as a UN employee, and back to the circumstances which led him to Ghana. Unusually, I found both narrative strands equally compelling: his courting of and marriage to the enigmatic Mai in Dublin, and his shaky attempts to stay out of trouble in Accra. In both strands, contentment is depthcharged by alcohol, and the material about alcoholism, drunkenness and its awful consequences is sharp and scarifying. Only a slightly bolted-on ending lets this book down in the end, coming after a strange and memorable scene in which McNulty’s Ghanaian ‘fixer’, Tom, appears to die and come back to life, a recurrent theme in this book.

Wittgenstein Jr – Lars Iyer (Melville House)
Wittgenstein Jr
He’s not really Wittgenstein; he doesn’t even really look like him – but ‘Wittgenstein’ is what his students decide to call their Cambridge philosophy tutor, whose unsettling questions and long pauses don’t, to them, seem to constitute any kind of ‘model for learning’. Yet his very enigma becomes compelling to most of his students, especially to the narrator, Peters, for all he denies it. I laughed a lot at this book, which is less about philosophy and more about its end, or perhaps about something that gets called philosophy but is really something else: in the many discussions of what will follow ‘the end of philosophy’, you feel you could substitute ‘history’ or ‘religion’ and the gnomic pronouncements Wittgenstein makes remain no less gnomic. It’s not all comedy set-pieces (though there are lots of these, and they’re very good): the account of Wittgenstein’s brother’s suicide is unexpectedly moving. Only after finishing this book did I remember sitting in my first-year philosophy class (not at Cambridge) in agonies of silence before a young nervous tutor who might, it turns out, have been a Wittgenstein-like genius consumed in his own agonising thoughts.

47 books down, 33 to go, and 38 days until the prize is announced… 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 #7.5: The Shortlist

The eight titles shortlisted for the Folio Prize were announced today. They are:

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
10:04 by Ben Lerner
Nora Webster by Colm Toibin
Outline by Rachel Cusk
How to be both by Ali Smith
Family Life by Akhil Sharma
Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

I’m delighted to see so many of the books I’ve loved (and predicted as shortlistees!) appear here, and pleased too that there are a couple I haven’t read yet, Nora Webster and Outline. Also gratified that none of the titles I’ve thought on no account deserved to be shortlisted have been! It’s an exciting shortlist, one that rewards formal innovation (in Smith’s and Lerner’s books in particular, and in Cusk’s too, I believe) and is as diverse as you’d hope an eight-book prize list in 2015 would be. Slightly surprising is that there are no short story collections shortlisted, but the presence of a couple of debut novelists is very pleasing. It’s left me intrigued to read the remainder of the longlistees — there are bound to be some among the 30+ still to go that I’ll wish had been on this list…

Links above are to my existing reviews of these books (one or two very brief — if there’s time, I’d like to revisit How to be both and Family Life, both of which I read some time ago now). Dust will be one of the titles I look at in my next weekly Folio Season roundup, due this Friday.

Folio Season #7: Dawson, Pinto, Waheed, Mitchell, Baker

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’m now posting weekly updates on the titles I’ve been zooming through in the past seven days…

Something new this week. I am at large on various sun-drenched islands this week and next – the freelance life! – and, having weighed up, quite literally, the number of books I’d need to howk around with me on my travels, and the attendant risk of doing my back a permanent injury, I bought an e-reader. Long suspicious of these devices, I was instantly vindicated by spending three hours trying to copy an e-book on to the damned thing, which involved downloading three new computer programmes, and the purchase of a book I will, by the looks of it, never be able to read. (Say what you will about the march of paper versus e-ink or whatever it is, but it has never taken me three hours to work out how to open a paperback book and start reading it.) Anyway: two of the books reviewed below I read on my e-reader, in a spirit of not being snobbish about the march of technology – even if the act of purchasing the device made me feel the same self-loathing nausea I imagine I would experience if I cheated on my fiancé.

So, this week I read new books by Jill Dawson, Mirza Waheed, David Mitchell, Nicholson Baker and Jerry Pinto: four familiar names and one new to me…

The Tell-Tale Heart – Jill Dawson (Sceptre UK)
Tell-Tale Heart, TheIt’s many years since I read a Jill Dawson novel – Fred and Edie – and I was looking forward to this new one. Our narrator, Patrick, wakes up after undergoing an experimental form of heart transplant (‘beating heart’ surgery in which the heart is transferring still, er, beating from the donor to the recipient). An academic with a complex and stressful home life, his heart gave out under the various strains it was placed under – and in his chest now beats the smaller heart of a 16 year-old, Drew, killed in a motorbike accident. As Patrick starts to recover, he also starts to wonder about his donor’s life – and to consider the possibility that something more than mere flesh has been transplanted into him… If this sounds like the setup to a Hammer Horror, Dawson has her characters question or even mock the kind of thinking that suggests things like ‘cell memory’ might move from body to body, while also letting her book dabble in a bit of uncanny doubling and some hallucinatory scenes. We see Patrick’s story of his recovery and his attempt to put his life back on track, intercut with the story of how Drew came to lose his life. There is a bit of mirroring – I especially liked the way that Patrick’s timid attempts at a new relationship seemed to focus on a woman who could be the double of the teacher Drew falls for. This is a well-structured, well-written novel with good dialogue, precisely observed characters and an acute handling of – in all senses – matters of the heart.

The Book of Gold Leaves – Mirza Waheed (Penguin Viking UK)
Book of Gold Leaves, TheI read Mirza Waheed’s much-feted debut The Collaborator a few years ago and, unusually, can’t remember anything about the content or the text. I do remember I didn’t love it, and am happy to report that I really liked The Book of Gold Leaves, despite a couple of misgivings. To get one minor one out the way: too many sentences, especially at the outset, look like thickets that an editor should have helped untangle. Here’s one from the foot of the first page: ‘Such was the dread that the government filled in a young Faiz, its building, its dark classrooms, its memorably coarse jute mat, and its oppressive teachers, that on at least three occasions he buried his books in the marshy soil of Dembh, each time claiming he had lost his schoolbag while playing cricket after school.’ Clearly ‘filled in me’ is wrong (‘instilled in me’ or ‘filled me with’, surely), and on a first read the abundance of commas makes it seem that this dread fills also the building and classrooms et al. These overburdened sentences calm down as the book goes along, but every so often there’s a real clunker that interrupts reading as you furrow your brow and think of less inelegant ways things might have been phrased.
We are in Srinagar, Kashmir, near the Pakistan border, where a dreamy young Shia man named Faiz, who makes papier maché art for a living, falls for a strong-minded Sunni girl, Roohi. Aware of the obstacles their respective religious backgrounds might put in their way, the couple meet in secret in the city shrine and their relationship blooms. But Srinagar is destined to be rent by civil war, and the young couple will have to pick sides, whether they want to or not…
We’re in Romeo and Juliet territory here, but transposed to a fascinating and terrifying setting, where military vehicles patrol the streets snatching up insurgents, and a school is converted to a prison camp. It’s a vivid, illuminating backdrop for an engaging story of young lovers. The notion of the vast painting on which Faiz works on and off, and the small detailed painted boxes he sells for money, initially suggest a magical-realist setting, and there’s something fableistic about the way Waheed unfolds his tale, but the dangers the couple and their families face are all too real. Right at the end there’s another moment where magical realism or a kind of overcooked poetic justice juts slightly distractingly into the book, but by then I was fully invested in Faiz and Roohi’s story and almost exclaimed aloud – no spoilers! – when I saw how things were going to go for them.

Em and The Big Hoom – Jerry Pinto (Penguin US)
Em and the Big HoomThe peculiar title of this debut novel (which, for some reason, I had imagined would be about jazz – no idea where that came from) is instantly explained: Em is the nickname two children give their mother, The Big Hoom their father, the reasons for each name lost in time and family history. This is a novel that’s big on family history: it’s the story of Em (really Imelda), who announces shortly after the birth of her second child that a kind of black tap of depression has gone on in her brain. She states that she is mad, that tiny word containing multitudes, and the story of her suffering and treatment is the story of this book. I don’t know what it says about me that I enjoyed this book nearly as much as its fellow depression-centred Folio nominee All My Puny Sorrows, in which a family is brought closer together, rather than riven apart, by one wildly unwell member, but like that book, Pinto’s is funny, sad, tender and rich. The jokes and puns are non-stop, which could get a little wearing in a longer novel, and yet in scarcely 200 pages Em is evoked so richly that she seems to step off the page: by turns outrageous, wily, washed out by her depression, and fully alive throughout. Pinto uses the device of having Em’s story told to and by her son, in dialogue and in diary extracts, and yet despite that intentional distancing, she steps right off the page, a hugely memorable character in an intriguing debut.

The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell (Sceptre UK)
Bone Clocks, TheIt is entirely possible that David Mitchell is not only the nicest man in publishing, but the nicest man alive: genial, self-effacing, cheerful, humble. Which makes it a sad thing to report that while I devoured his new novel The Bone Clocks, I did so in the way you gulp down a poorly prepared meal so that you can move on to something nicer. As is usually the case with his books, you get not just one but several here, essentially a suite of interlinked longish short stories. We begin with teenage runaway Holly, who leaves her family for her boyfriend, then finds him in bed with her best mate, and runs even further from home. She doesn’t quite know where she’s going – but along the way she gets caught up in horrendous events that seem to defy logical interpretation. This is Mitchell’s most overtly fantastical book yet, a story of a secret war between two clutches of immortal beings. One lot, the Atemporals, find themselves resurrected in a new body, typically a child’s, any time the old ‘host’ dies. Their rivals, the Carnivores, have devised a way to stay immortal that involves kidnapping and killing children. All of this means that great swathes of the book are given over to lines like ‘Did you not know that the Chapel is the Cathar and the Cathar is the Chapel? Holokai’s soul is ash. Xi Lo’s soul is nothing’, and talk of ‘subasking’, ‘suasioning’, ‘the Psychosoterica of the Shaded Way’ etc. Admittedly we’re not meant to understand this yet, but it’s a risk to start your 600-page novel with an utterly unconvincing narrator, all ‘Totes amazeballs’ and ‘well jel’, another to involve sci-fi gobbledegook about which swirls not the mystery of matters beyond understanding but the whiff of sub-Rowling YA fantasy. Mitchell’s always worked around the edges of slipstream fiction – in which a seemingly naturalistic story is revealed to have weirder, fantastical elements – but for it to work, I think, the realistic stuff needs to be thoroughly believable and imagined for the weirdness to present a destabilising or unsettling contrast. Mitchell’s attempt, as a 40-something man, to write as a young girl is so weird that duelling sects of immortals isn’t actually any weirder or more jarring.
Also bizarre is his third novella here, which concerns an author improbably named Crispin Hershey, who seems to be a Martin Amis analogue (his books include Desiccated Embryos and Red Monkey and he’s the author a memoir about his artist father, albeit a filmmaker rather than another writer), taking revenge on a critic for savaging his latest novel: your correspondent worries slightly about being mean about Mitchell (James Wood, though, must have more cause for concern), but there’s no nice way to say that this section, delivered mostly in a kind of drunken first person, reveals a tin ear for monologue. Whether it’s the dissolute husk of this Wild Child of British Letters, a bragging, over-privileged student, a military commander in Iraq’s Green Zone, or a teenage girl, all Mitchell’s voices sound the same: they describe things in exactly the same clever writerly ways: opening a can of Coke, Holly says ‘My first gulp’s a booom of freezing fizz’; Hershey tops up his ‘sparkling water, Glug-splush-glig-sploshglugsplshssssss’ [sic] and, on tasting a cup of tea, reports ‘Soily leaf and tannin sun bloom across my tongue.’ Everyone in this book talks like one everyone else, and I don’t think it’s deliberate. Action sequences — fight scenes, combat sequences, a skiing accident — are related in the same breathless and unconvincing tone, no matter who’s relating the incident: their prose is always Mitchell’s, and it’s bad.
Perhaps oddly, the section that works best is one set in 19th century Russia, where the voice – that of an immortal in the body of a 13 year-old servant girl – ditches the slang, the ripped-off Simpsons lines (c’mon, David!) and the tiresome ‘y’know’s of the contemporary teen narrators and their fifty-something author pals, and tells her story directly, simply, and arrestingly. You get the impression that Mitchell doesn’t know what he does well and what he doesn’t; the interlinked novellas told by different narrators represent a kind of throwing everything at the wall. It wouldn’t be so bad if he weren’t hyper aware of these kinds of criticisms, nor did he seek to undercut them by having the text point out the writerliness, or the unlikely metaphor. Whether or not you feel that ‘filling the spaces between atoms with the atonal chords of destruction’ (p.256) is too writerly a way to describe the noise of a vast explosion, or that Mitchell’s descriptions of Second Gulf War combat are too book-smart to convince, surely it does the reader no favours to have the text itself call the first phrase ‘florid’ (p.257) or point out the writerliness of the second (‘the closest this pallid boy ever came to armed combat was group feedback on his creative writing MA’, p.288). And the meta-self-critiquing of having a character declare ‘Modesty is Vanity’s craftier stepbrother’ (p.325) is enough to make your teeth hurt.
Thematically, this is a book about systems of control, and the way that hidden – or not so hidden – forces influence and shape our everyday lives. Should you be in any doubt about this, or that the immortals are a metaphor for real-life ‘hidden interests’, every so often a character will say something like ‘“An invisible war’s going on […] all through history – the class war. Owners versus slaves, nobles versus serfs, the bloated bosses versus workers, the haves versus the have-nots. The working classes are kept in a state of repression by a mixture of force and lies.”’ (p.55) Yes, yes. But what do novels like this – substituting actual monsters for governments or corporate interests – do to alter the status quo? Latterly, when Mitchell goes full-throttle for the fantasy stuff and it’s all ‘Incorporeally, I pour psychovoltage into a neurobolas and kinetic it at our assailants’, it actually gets rather better, because this is at least consistent hokum; likewise the final section’s dystopia, set in 2043, in which part of Ireland has become a ‘Lease Land’ in Chinese control, is convincing and intriguing: a properly imagined world, instead of fantastical gubbins grafted willy-nilly on the familiar. A full-length Mitchell dystopia might actually be worth reading. But as it is, this is an adolescent book, poorly written, and successful neither as a state of the nation/world address nor a fantasy novel. You can only hope that the not very subtle references to Mitchell’s other novels that litter this book – though I do like that all his fiction is set in the same ‘shared universe’ – mean a kind of clearing of the palate in preparation for his next time producing something new, different, better.

Travelling Sprinkler – Nicholson Baker (Blue Rider Press US)
Traveling SprinklerGoodreads, which I generally deplore, is good for some things: it was only through the site that I learned that Travelling Sprinkler is the follow-up to Nicholson Baker’s novel The Anthologist, featuring the same lead character: disaffected poet Paul Chowder, here turning away from writing sad poems and towards writing sad songs, or maybe a book about trying to write sad songs — ‘”in other words […] sad poems that are made happier by being singable”‘ — or maybe something entirely different. Whether the reader of Travelling Sprinkler suffers by not previously having read The Anthologist is moot: I loved this book on its own terms. Digressive, discursive, silly, moving and insightful, it’s the obverse of those other serious-minded discursive fictions on this list, like 10:04 or The Dog, in that it seems entirely playful and light, as well as an educative chronicle of its narrator’s obsessions (as well as his mini essays on Debussy, chord progressions, the history of bassoon music in film scores and classical music, poetry composition, the Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’ and Quaker meetings, I enjoyed Chowder’s 15-song playlist history of dance music), but is really tackling some big and important questions . What have we in the US given to the world?, Chowder muses at one point (p.115). ‘What do we have to be proud of? Warfarin and Risperdal and Effexor and Abilify and Hellfire missiles and supermax prisons and the revenge killing of Osama bin Laden — and the Staple Sisters. Music. I’d give another to single like the Staple Singers… The Staple Singers is what we’ve given to the world.’ The positioning of small good things like writing a silly song against large-scale achievements of dubious morality is what this book discusses; this seems (pace Mitchell) a rewarding, interesting way of looking at what it is to be a more or less powerless individual in a big violent unstable world. It’s also a very sweet, elliptical love story between middle-aged folk, though the ambling way the plot unfolds makes its title — the book is named for another of Paul’s borderline obsessions — a little on-the-nose. Whether or not you find it funny, meantime – I thought it was brilliantly comic – is perhaps a matter of whether you think this sensitive, nervy, thoughtful, slightly hangdog narrator’s responding to the collapse of a barn containing various precious artefacts of his long life with a long pause then the phrase ‘Fuckaroo-banzai’ is funny or not. Me, I breezed through 200 pages of musings and insights about love, life, form and poetry and wish there had been several hundred pages more. The revelation that The Anthologist exists is a bonus.

Shortlist predictions The eight-title shortlist of Folio Prize contenders will be announced on 9th February. Having only read half the nominees so far, my predictions/hopes are necessarily a bit hampered. Nonetheless, of the books I’ve read, I’d be extremely pleased to see the following (and even this list involved a bit of agonising) make it through to the next round. Quotes are from my Folio Season reviews and posts, and from these I discover that I overuse the word ‘enjoyable’.

10:04 – Ben Lerner: ‘smart and intelligent… funny and moving’
All My Puny Sorrows – Miriam Toews: ‘blazingly confident… superlative’
Euphoria – Lily King: ‘hugely enjoyable, enlightening and at times startlingly erotic’
Family Life – Akhil Sharma: ‘super-dense: controlled and enjoyable’
How to be both – Ali Smith: ‘A brilliant, brilliant book’
The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane: ‘a really excellent debut’
The Wake – Paul Kingsnorth: ‘thoroughly enjoyable … a truly impressive feat’
Young Skins – Colin Barrett: ‘some of the finest prose I’ve read this year’

Even this is difficult to winnow down to eight (I feel sorry to have snubbed The Emperor Waltz, for instance, and Traveling Sprinkler for that matter) so I take my hat off to the Academicians who’ll have boiled down all eighth contenders to a mere eight!

Forty books down, forty to go, and 45 days until the winner’s announced. 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