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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‘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