Getting in just before the year changes…
I read 110 novels this year, it turns out, and 30 books of non-fiction. But only one book of poetry, rather shamefully (though it was the Vintage Classics edition of Anna Akhmatova’s Selected Poems) and only one graphic novel (Laika by Nick Abadzis) – so I’m going for quality over quantity in both those categories.
Of the ‘new’ fiction I read this year – hardbacks and new-edition paperbacks – the standout was undoubtedly Familiar (published by Serpent’s Tail), J. Robert Lennon’s astounding, terrifying novel of a wrecked family, which I’ve raved about at length on Civilian – and indeed to anyone who’ll listen, as I’ll continue to do throughout 2014. Wayne Macaulay’s The Cook (Quercus) tells an intriguing story in a marvellously sustained voice that’s part James Joyce, part Wayne Rooney; and there’s another triumph of voice in Eimaer McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (Galley Beggar Press), an intense short novel which overcomes a certain familiarity of plot with its astounding narrative voice, all stutters and hesitations and obliquities, which never falters and never obscures.
The big novel this year, in all senses, was Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (Granta), in which I’ll admit I found less to love than most readers. It blazes in the memory, though, and I think – well, hope – Catton’s unapologetic discussions of the complex structural conceits she used to plot the book are going to prove influential. A books culture which often seems embarrassed or bewildered by anything approaching highminded or experimental fiction could do with a bit more of both; Catton’s skill in this book is in her lightness of touch. It’s only as you read that you begin to grow aware of how cleverly it’s structured, and how many modern-day resonances have been snuck in under the radar of an ostensibly historical novel.
I also greatly admired Peter Stamm’s Seven Years (Granta), Evie Wyld’s brilliantly structured All the Birds, Singing (Jonathan Cape), Arcadia by Lauren Groff (Vintage), Adelle Waldman’s dissection of arrested-development male psychology in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (Heinemann), Gerbrand Bakker’s cool, disarming The Detour, and The Girl on the Stairs by the ever-excellent Louise Welsh (John Murray), probably my favourite of her novels to date. Enrique Vila-Matas’s very enjoyable Dublinesque (Vintage) is going very well indeed until for some reason the intertextual japery of the book embraces not just Joyce and Beckett but, inexplicably, Coldplay. And while I can’t say I loved The Flamethrowers (Harvill Secker), Rachel Kushner’s second novel certainly sticks in the mind: there’s some terrific writing, and a sense of scale that lots of novels I read this year didn’t strive for. I don’t think its various elements – the art world, motorbike racing, anti-capitalist protests – quite hang together, but, like the motorbike ride out on the salt flats that opens the novel, it’s incomparably thrilling while it’s going well.
In short stories, Claire Vaye Watkins’s Battleborn (Granta) contains some corkers (and a couple of duds), and Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (Phoenix) is so good it even overcomes that title.
In non-fiction, Ellen Ullman’s Close to the Machine (Pushkin Press) is an eye-opening insight into the very weird world of computer programming in the 1980s. Female, bisexual, emotionally articulate, Ullman was an anomaly in a very constrained world, and this is a fascinating book. She’s also published two novels, which I read in quick succession, though that made her novel on programming, The Bug, feel slightly like a retread of Close to the Machine for people who wouldn’t read non-fiction. The ever-excellent A.L. Kennedy’s On Writing (Jonathan Cape) compiles her Guardian columns and miscellaneous essays and addresses, and gives sensible, candid succour to anyone who feels overwhelmed by the arduous business of writing not just as a career but as a way of life. Sudhir Venkatesh’s Floating City is the fascinating exposé of a sort of grey economy in the contemporary city – he’s specifically writing about Manhattan but what he uncovers about the low-waged and the near-invisible is applicable everywhere. And it’s almost a guilty pleasure, but I devoured Richard Marson’s jawdropping biography of 1980s Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner (JN-T, Miwk Publishing). Larger-than-life – known for his Hawaiian shirts, headline-grabbing PR stories, and ability to insinuate himself into photocalls – Nathan-Turner was the precursor of the ‘showrunner’ producers that big TV shows almost invariably have nowadays. He was also deeply conflicted, and alternately neglected, overburdened and screwed over by his bosses; Marson’s biography, which pulls no punches, seems at first to depict a very different kind of BBC to the one we have today – until you realise that the sex scandals, cronyism and mis-spending of funds isn’t all that different. Anyone interested in Doctor Who or in television in general should make a bee-line for this book – though you’ll have to prise your eyebrows down from the top of your forehead at certain points.
Catching up on backlist, I was delighted to discover Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers (Granta), a riotous, hallucinatory take on what one might call the post-funeral novel, which put me in mind of the great Robert Coover. Very belatedly, I read Middlemarch (Penguin English Library), long my best friend’s favourite novel – in the last couple of years, I feel like I’ve emerged from the decade-long shadow of my undergraduate degree and been able to tackle some of the classics I failed to read at the time. I sat out for four days on a beach in Thailand, mainlining George Eliot in 250-page chunks, unaware that I was sustaining quite bad sunburn on one un-parasolled shoulder. This is possibly the world’s first George Eliot-related injury. And I retackled A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which, for some reason, I’d attempted to read while in school, aged about twelve, and which went far, far over my head. It made a lot more sense this time.
Addicted as I am to the New York Review Classics series, I picked up and loved Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark, which reminded me of such writers as Joy Williams and Deborah Eisenberg in its pithy black comedy, and Edward Lewis Wallant’s The Tenants of Moonbloom, which has a touch of its near-namesake The Tenants by Bernard Malamud (an all-time favourite I reread again this year) but is unequalled in its depiction of a vanished New York of slumlords, jazz singers, queers and Yiddish immigrants.
I treated myself to my third Madame Bovary in as many years. It’s unfair (probably) to compare translations, but Lydia Davis’s new version for Penguin Classics is by far my favourite of the trio – even if, as in the modern translation I read in 2012, you feel as you read it the translator’s dread of approaching that line about moving the stars to pity. The anxiety of influence at work.
Discovery of the year for me was Lydia Millet’s How the Dead Dream (Vintage). Her books are like hens’ teeth in the UK, though this one seems widely available, and it bowled me over: it’s the story of T., who begins the book a precocious pre-teen building a business empire on pocket money and loans to schoolfriends, and ends up a middle-aged man breaking into zoos to rescue the animals. What happens inbetween is very weird, very sad and very funny – with touches, again, of Williams and Eisenberg.
In non-fiction, Celeste Albaret’s Monsieur Proust (NYRB Classics) is a good postscript to reading Proust himself, though it’s about as true to life as one might expect of the post hoc recollections of a master novelist’s devoted housekeeper. Jennie Erdal’s Ghosting (Granta) and Bill Buford’s Heat (Vintage) offered the luxury of a look into the sort of life you feel you might like to have – as ghostwriter and as put-upon trainee chef in New York’s most demanding restaurants, respectively – without the near-psychosis each author seems to succumb to in the course of their vocation.