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Folio Season: The Final Roundup

Family LifeWell, I feel a bit bereft now that the Folio Season is over, and I have to go back to picking books to read for myself. But one major silver lining comes with the news the committe has picked a terrific winner for the Folio Prize 2015: Family Life, by Akhil Sharma (Faber UK/Norton US). I read this book last June, long before the nominees list came out, and am absolutely delighted that it’s won this prize. It’s a brilliant, mercilessly compact novel – the other story building up around it is the account of its taking Sharma 13 years and endless drafts to compose what is, in its final version, a book barely 200 pages long. (Sharma’s UK editor at Faber, Lee Brackstone, writes that he saw some 3,000 pages’ worth of various versions over the years.) It’s that wonderful thing, a short novel that seems to enlarge itself before your eyes (and mind) as you read: a saga in miniature, a very personal, semiautobiographical family story that blooms into something universal. It’s moving, funny, and Sharma’s writing always puts incident and character ahead of showy prose – which is not to say that Family Life isn’t also beautifully written. I can’t wait to reread this brilliant, subtle prizewinner.

That’s it – until the 2016 nominees list gets announced, anyway. There’s an index to my reviews and notes on all eighty books on the dedicated Folio Prize page (click here, or on the title bar at the head of this page.)

If you’ve enjoyed reading my experiment in Folio fiction, please consider purchasing my novel The Glasgow Coma Scale, available online from Foyles, Wordery, Amazon.co.uk, Waterstones.com, and all good bookshops.

Things I’ve learned from the project:
– World War One and World War Two remain popular topics for novelists. Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North seems to me the standout among the Folio nominees that fall into this category, for bringing new information (about the ‘Death Railway’) – but I wonder if my conclusion is coloured by knowing that he’s telling his father’s story and therefore the ‘novel of research’ tag/insult doesn’t apply so much
– Great sweeping panoramic family sagas aren’t for me
– Neither are books which deploy historical incident as a kind of wallpaper: ‘Look at the television, there’s some kind of missile-related crisis going on in Cuba!’
– If you’re going to reinvent the English language from the ground up for your novel, there had better be a gripping plot to go with it, and it had preferably be a short book
– Assumed conclusion: relentlessly grim books are easier to write than comic novels
– It’s 2015, and the novel isn’t going anywhere: for me, formal innovation trumps the painstakingly realist nineteenth century-style novel (not an infallible rule – Nora Webster is realist and brilliant), but I’m glad both exist side by side.
– I lost count of how many books included their characters’ having Significant Dreams, one of my pet hates: it feels disingenuous for a novel, which is after all a platform for all kinds of symbolism, metaphor and weirdness to legitimately take place, to relate fictional dreams; it feels like a pressure valve, perhaps, for the realist novel, or a sort of cumbersome sleight-of-hand to try and distract the reader from what the author is really up to.
– Similarly, I started to become hyper-aware of the number of literary references creeping into these books. Characters are forever reading Anna Karenina, or going off to study the classics, or musing on a bit of Dickens that comes conveniently to mind. It’s understandable that the literary canon comes easily to authors’ minds, but it started to strike me as a kind of unsubtle pleading on these books’ behalf: by citing canonical works, it’s as if they want to make their case for being treated seriously, or inserted into the literary canon themselves. (Personally, I scrubbed any overt reference to real books, or indeed music, from my novel; so maybe I should rethink that.)
– Four books I’d have liked to have seen on the nominees list (but which may for one reason or another have been ineligible, of course): May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break (CB Editions), Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper (The Dorothy Project), Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World (Simon & Schuster US/Sceptre UK), and Anneliese Mackintosh’s Green Carnation-winning, formally inventive Any Other Mouth (Freight).
– My ideal shortlist of eight, as someone asked about on Twitter, would have kept All My Puny Sorrows, Family Life, Nora Webster, 10:04 and How to be both from the actual shortlist, but substituted in Marilynne Robinson’s incredibly moving Lila, Helen Oyeyemi’s beautiful myth Boy, Snow, Bird, and Colin Barrett’s supremely assured short stories Young Skins in place of Outline, Dust and Dept. of Speculation.

 

Some stats, hastily calculated:

– 46.25% of the Folio-nominated books are by women (37 of 80)

– The 80 books comprise 70 novels, 9 books of short stories, and 1 epic poem. (Wiggle room here for books which seem to exceed or transcend the novel form, books like Dept. of Speculation, How to be both, 10:04)

– A healthy 14% of the list – 11 out of 80 – are debut books – for some reason, it felt like there were a lot more (perhaps because of the writers I was reading for the first time)

– Broadly speaking, 32 of the 70 novels nominated have a contemporary or 21st-century setting and 29 are either purely or largely historical, even if that means they’re set in the 1980s, which still to me seems like it couldn’t possibly mean its being a historical novel (some are a bit fuzzy, like Linda Grant’s Upstairs at the Party, which is mostly set in the 1960s but has a contemporary element later on, or Susan Barker’s The Incarnations, a contemporary book with interpolated historical stories). A few – the books by Mary Costello, David Mitchell and Matthew Thomas – are generations-spanning and occupy a third category. Typically enough, Ali Smith’s How to be both doesn’t fit in any other category, being set simultaneously in mediaeval times and the present day; the same goes for Rebecca Hunt’s Everland, which is set in both 2012 and 1911. Oh, and a last 6 are set in the future – or in some reality sufficiently unlike our own to be taken as such.

 

 

Folio Season #13: Barker, Powers, Gee, Waters, Newman, Shamsie, Henderson

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. And now, with awarding imminent of the Folio Prize 2015, it’s the final seven nominees…

The Incarnations – Susan Barker (Doubleday UK)
Incarnations, The Someone has been leaving letters in Driver Wang’s taxi, tucked under the mirror for him to find. The unknown writer swears he or she knows Wang – not just as a cab driver in Beijing in 2008, but in all the various incarnations he has lived before: as a eunuch in AD 632, as an imperial concubine in 1542, as a kind of head prefect of a girls’ school in 1966 — always returning to life at some contested, politically charged time. The writer has lived alongside him in all these past lives: sometimes as his child, sometimes as his tormentor, sometimes his victim. And now it’s time for them to meet again. Reincarnation is big at the moment – Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life leads the field, but there are a bunch of books doing the rounds in which life after death is a crucial plot point – but Barker’s excellent novel plays with the possibility that the letters describing Wang’s pasts are fantasies, designed by some enemy to discredit and destroy him; as the book goes on, his family and friendships disintegrate, and he starts to accuse those around him of a campaign against him. Is he cracking up? Is someone really out to get him? Or are they genuinely trying to open his eyes to the notion that he’s lived before, and will again, over and over? The sections dealing with the ‘real’ Wang are necessarily less compact than the short chapters depicting his previous lives, but each one is crammed with incident – even if a central dilemma which sees him ‘relapse’ into a homosexual relationship with another former patient at the institution where he was once treated for depression didn’t quite ring true (and since Wang isn’t gay but develops these feelings during treatment, there’s a slightly problematic alignment of homosexuality, or homosexual urges, with mental illness). The book falls apart a little at the end, which tries to have it all: the truth about the letter-writer is more prosaic than supernatural, but for it to work requires heavy use of coincidence and what might be called ‘convenience plotting’ where characters steadfastly refuse to ask quite obvious questions so that the plot can do its thing unhindered. A tragic act right at the end, too, gets rather muffled amid all the revelations. But for the most part this is a terrific novel mixing its snippets of past revolutions in China with a depiction of Beijing experiencing a new crackdown on free speech the run-up to the Olympic Games (think Ai Wei Wei). The Incarnations suggests that no revolution lasts forever, but neither will any new dawn.

Orfeo – Richard Powers (W.W. Norton US)
Orfeo I always really want to like Richard Powers books – and I never quite do, wholeheartedly, which is odd since they should, theoretically, be right up my street: his interest is in exploring the grey area where the artistic and the technological meet, where creativity and invention are facets of the same process, but subtly different. In Orfeo, we’re with Peter Els, an avant garde composer whose latest work involves attempting to genetically manipulate a biological culture to inscribe a composition within its actual cell structure. Powers goes to great lengths to make this seem like the kind of thing a certain sort of person might casually decide to do, no weirder than dabbling in compositions on a home computer, for instance, and around half of the book tells the story of Els’s life and career in which a constant striving to find new forms and avoid replicating what’s gone before makes this latest effort at innovation seem a natural next step. The other half of the book deals with the fallout from the experiments: in a post-9/11 age of heightened paranoia, Els’s experiments attract the attention of the authorities who link them with an outbreak of viral illness. As news gets out, Els, soon media-christened the “Biotech Bach”, fearing some Guantanamo-esque incarceration, goes on the run. The novel has to do a lot of work to make this seem a convincing response to events, perhaps because it’s an unexpectedly emotional rather than intellectual response for a character who more often seems ruled by the head than the heart, and it never quite convinced me that he’d behave in this way, even if its pitting of one paranoia (an individual’s fear of the government) against another (the authorities’ fear of lone-wolf terror agents within its walls) is nicely done. Powers is always a bit hit-and-miss, I find, the density of the prose and the high-concept ideas not necessarily always yielding something that’s likeable more than admirable, but at certain points, they really come to life. In Orfeo, it’s the last phase – or phrase? – of the novel, as Els starts to see the potential in a musical composition which cannot be played or listened to yet is still music, a transcendent revelation, really wowed me.

Virginia Woolf in Manhattan – Sue Gee (Telegram UK)
Virginia Woolf in Manhattan
Part tribute to Virginia Woolf, part comedy of manners, this is an unusual, entertaining and clever novel – the first of Maggie Gee’s I’ve read. As author and critic Angela Lamb is on her way to New York to conduct research into the Virgina Woolf papers kept at the New York Public Library, her plane is struck by lightning. Landing safely, and making her way to the NYPL, she is astonished to recognise another reader – it’s Virginia Woolf, brought back to life in the twenty-first century. What ensues, as the two women team up, is a kind of bizarre buddy movie: one rather highly-strung novelist meets her literary forebear. There are high-jinks as Virginia sells her own personal first edition of To the Lighthouse to a startled antiquarian bookstore so the two women can stay on in their fancy hotel; and there is comedy from misunderstanding and misinterpretation, as the rather pompous Angela learns that perhaps one should never meet one’s heroes. In a way, it’s the perfect response to Damon Galgut’s portrait of E.M. Forster in Folio-nominated Arctic Summer: by transplanting Woolf-the-person to this new environment, Gee can lightly satirise her responses to such things as laptops and transatlantic aeroplanes without ever mocking her: you laugh with Woolf, but never at her. The novel’s structure, and certain clues along the way, is such that it’s never in doubt that the conclusion will involve that ‘It was all a dream… or was it?’ cliché where some object or artefact from within the fantasy suggests it might have been real after all; I’d take points off for this, and an odd subplot regarding Angela’s very self-assured teenage daughter, who embarks on an implausible adventure of her own, even if that is intended to be a dream or fantasy itself. But the prose is often beautiful – it takes some bravery to set out to respectfully pastiche Woolfian style, and talent to pull it off, which Gee does, I think – and the general tenor of a respectful yet playful celebration of a literary giant that makes of her something new, rather than treating her as some unassailable icon, is refreshing. On balance: great fun.

The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters (Riverhead US)
Paying GuestsIt’s 1922. Unmarried Frances Wray and her widowed mother, living in well-to-do Champion Hill, on the outskirts of London, have decided that to make ends meet, they have to take in lodgers. A couple, Leonard and Lilian Barber, are duly installed. Len is a flirt, and a bit of a spiv, but Lilian is something else: a woman who reignites long-repressed feelings in Frances. Soon, the two women have embarked on secret affair they will do anything to keep secret – a pledge that will have terrible consequences.
I’ve always thought of Sarah Waters as a demon plotter, and this book unfolds at the perfect pace, the stakes getting ever higher as the risks Frances and Lilian take grow greater. It’s the sort of book you sit up till 3am reading – a love story that becomes a crime story, then a police procedural, and finally a thriller. With its unrelenting forward momentum (will Frances and Lilian become lovers? Will they be found out? What will they do when they’re found out? And, as always in this kind of story, ‘how will they get out of this one?’), The Paying Guests is never less than compelling, but along the way, I felt, there are infelicitous and convenient bits of plotting that clunk somewhat as the book travels over them: I simply didn’t buy that repressed, nervous, love-scarred Frances would confess her sexuality to Lilian so readily, and so early on in their emergent friendship; an incident in which Len is mugged but fudges his story of what happened may as well have an enormous note in the margins beside it: PAY ATTENTION! THIS WILL PROVE SIGNIFICANT! Nonetheless, as should be the case with a thriller, the book makes the reader try to predict what will happen next yet wrongfoots them at every turn – then makes the unpredictable twist, with hindsight, be the only way the book could have gone. The crime at the heart of the book, for instance, is inevitable, but only in retrospect; until it happens, you’re kept guessing. As ever in Waters, the prose takes a back seat both to incident and plotting; I didn’t mind too much, until the last section, at which point this book seemed to become simultaneously overlong and rather rushed: as near the start, the pacing seemed a bit off and the characters’ reactions somewhat artificially telescoped in service to the story. Nonetheless, this is a thoroughly engrossing, entirely pleasurable read, with – as always in Waters – an intriguingly subervsive agenda ticking away below the thrillerish surface: here she’s writing about a disarrayed England in the wake of World War One, a country whose ‘best men’, one character opines, are all dead, and where, for better or worse, the old certainties (about money, about society, about gender roles) are all upset.

The Country of Ice Cream Star – Sandra Newman (US)
Country of Ice Cream StarI think this may be the longest ever break I’ve had between reading one book by a particular author – in this case, Sandra Newman’s terrifically-titled debut, The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done, which I read in 1999 – and a second. The Ice Cream Star of the title is Newman’s narrator here, in a tale of a dystopian Massachusetts, riven with diseases (‘the posies’) which kill most of the populace before they turn twenty. When talk of a cure for the disease reaches Ice Cream, she embarks on a dangerous mission through a battle-scarred America filled with warring religious sects, Russian invaders, and violence on all sides. It takes some perseverance to learn even this much: like Paul Kingsnorth’s Folio-nominated The Wake, The Country of Ice Cream Star is written entirely in a language of the author’s invention: syntactically, it’s a kind of patois, peppered with corruptions of familiar words (with ‘bell’ for beautiful and ‘uggety’ for ugly, for instance, are relatively obvious, it took me a long time to twig that ‘bone’ meant good). I tend to rather like books which require and reward interpretive effort on the reader’s part, and it’s an immersive experience to be in Ice Cream’s world; for all that other books have reshaped language in similar ways, this voice is unlike any other I’ve read. It’s a hugely ambitious aim, and the result is utterly consistent and convincing – an impressive achievement. Unfortunately, however, I didn’t find the story especially compelling, packed with incident though it is; as Ice Cream’s mission, a classic straightforward quest narrative, takes her from Massachusetts to New York (where she is installed as a cult’s Virgin Mary leader-figure) and on to Washington, it all rather washed over me, and since the prose’s spiky stiltedness is more intellectually admirable than pleasurable, this was a bit of a misfire for me. You can’t fault Newman’s ambition, nor her success in worldbuilding, but the story involves one twisted religious cult after another, one massacre after another. Blood is shed by the gallon, tears by not much less. It gets wearing, and it means that a significant death about two-thirds in has little impact.
My feeling is that a novel this stylistically brave should perhaps get in and out quickly; the point it’s making is likely diluted, rather than bolstered, by a high page-count. At 600 pages, The Country of Ice Cream Star is bloated (and an endnote which perhaps unwisely notes that the novel’s first draft ran to 900 pages meant that I spent much of the time wishing that rather more than a third had been lopped from that manuscript before it became this final draft), and ultimately, sadly, even though this is a novel which will make almost anything you read after finishing it seem flimsy and under-imagined by contrast, I found it a bit of a drag.

A God in Every Stone – Kamila Shamsie (Atavist US)
A God in Every StoneIt’s unusual for a woman to be an archaeologist in Turkey in 1914, but that’s what Vivian Rose Spencer is when this novel starts, her love of the past mingling with her love for Tahsin Bey, her tutor. It’s even more unusual, when the novel later finds her in Peshawar in 1930, for a young Pakistani boy to go to her for tutoring in the Classics, but that’s what Najeeb does. There are wheels within wheels: Najeeb’s older brother Qayyum, a soldier who fought for the allies in Ypres in 1914, has already met Vivian by chance and reencounters her in Peshawar, where a movement is afoot to throw off British colonial rule. The personal is political in this novel: Vivian has already inadvertently made a terrible betrayal by revealing Tahsin Bey’s divided loyalties, and as A God in Every Stone proceeds, the loyalty to the foundering British Empire of whole territories is at question.
Kamila Shamsie’s novel is about war, archaeology, loyalty, and what symbols are left behind once the great sweep of history has passed over events. Nominally, this is a book about a missing artefact, a circlet worn by a historical explorer, Scylax, working in the 5th century BC; in the end, as the stories of Qayyum Naheem and Vivian overlap – Shamsie is excellent in showing events from different perspectives – the events of the anti-British uprising in 1930 put forward a new, very modern kind of symbol instead: an innocent girl, gunned down in the mob violence, whose body is removed by the authorities amid a cover-up over civilian deaths. Pakistan in 1930 suddenly feels very present in 2015. It’s in this last phase of the book that it really came to life for me; before, it gripped only intermittently, though the writing is excellent and the female characters in particular are vivid and memorable.

Fourth of July Creek – Smith Henderson (HarperCollins UK)
Fourth of July CreekI’m very pleased to be concluding this Folio Season experiment with two books by writers new to me, and especially so that this final book should be a debut novel. Henderson Smith may be a first-time writer, but this novel feels, however, familiar in ways that are sometimes intriguing and sometimes exasperating. It’s a macho, punchy, fistfight-crammed none-more-American novel, set in 1980, and populated by variously damaged people. Our lead character, Pete, is a Department of Family Services officer intervening in domestic disputes in smalltown Montana: he loves his town, he’s frustrated by its people (including his no-good brother) and, being a Good Guy, he gets drawn into dangerous situations where he believes he can help. An encounter with a young runaway brings Pete into contact with the boy’s father, Jeremiah Pearl: a rough-living, war-obsessed apocalyptic who mints his own currency and mutters about a coming war against the antichrist and the whole outside world. Helpfully, almost everyone Pete encounters has also met Pearl and can help fill in his story, upping the ante for an inevitable confrontation between the two. The surprise is that the pair end up colluding, to some degree: their relationship isn’t, at least initially, out-and-out antagonistic. That’s one way in which this novel – whose blending of pseudo-Biblical cant, intense violence, damaged masculinity and American landscape recall, inescapably, Cormac McCarthy – strives for originality. Another is in an odd subplot in which Pete’s daughter Rachel, taken from him when he and his wife break up, has her own adventures, becoming a runaway, a hitchhiker and ultimately, with vexing inevitability, a prostitute. (This is a book that’s big on men but notably weak on female characters, almost all of whom are whores, traitors or killers, and the only one who isn’t – a fellow DFS caseworker – is a character whose name Pete can’t properly remember. Focused on masculinity this novel may be, but I didn’t feel that this kind of chauvinism was a necessary by-product.) Rachel’s story is told in a strange catechism, stuck on the end of chapters, between the girl and a mysterious interlocutor who might be thought to be Pete, Rachel’s idea of Pete, the reader himself, or the book’s editor asking pertinent questions about the runaway’s story.
In this, as in other respects, this is a long novel overstuffed with incident and plot threads: too many runaways spoil the broth. To extend the metaphor unhelpfully: this is a broth overspiked with some Fine Writing. To name a character Pearl is one thing; to riff on this – “He was nacreous, mother-of-pearl, this son of Pearl” – is a bit much. Most of the time, though, the prose relaxes and is content to be good rather than overreaching. The novel comes to an end that is open, ambiguous and bittersweet: no surprise, but justified by what’s gone before. A promising debut that makes me look forward to what Henderson writes when he’s thrown off some of his influences.

So there we are: I’ve read and reviewed all eighty Folio Prize titles. The full list is below, with links to each review. It’s been a fascinating, enlightening process — it’s challenged certain of my assumptions about contemporary fiction and its various directions, and it’s cemented my feelings about certain others. I’ll put up a final Folio Season post next week in response to the prize, which is awarded on 23rd March (fingers still crossed for Miriam Toews), and talking about some of the things I feel I’ve learned from the project.

Now… what do I read next?

The full list of eighty titles (and, you know, I’d like to remove the scoring-out now, but WordPress formatting for some reason makes that very difficult, so hey-ho):

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 Solace – 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 #12: Swift, Flanagan, Faber, Harvey, Self

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…

England and Other Stories – Graham Swift (Simon & Schuster UK)
England &OSIt’s good to see an established author do something new, and for a writer who claims never to have written short stories until fairly recently, this is an impressive first foray for Swift, scalewise anyway: there are 25 stories here, as though the floodgates have opened. For the most part these are very short, low-key character-centric pieces; if there aren’t Joycean epiphanies, these stories generally involve some shift in their central character or narrator’s state of mind, a reassessment of their priorities or assumptions; the gnomic titles (‘People Are Life’, ‘Remember This’, ‘Was She The Only One?’) indicate a general tone of wistfulness and uncertainty. A man who writes his wife  a love letter after they’ve made their first will together will come to regard the letter with shifting emotions as the years pass; a man conducts a secret affair with his best friend’s wife; the death of a fork-lift driver prompts his friends to consider the meaning of the word “tragedy”. There’s a pleasing interest in work: barbers, coastguards and windowcleaners are among the characters here, too, and their occupations are more than just set-dressing – the way the barber of ‘People Are Life’ interacts with a bereaved client is the story, for instance.
You have the sense, perhaps because of their brevity, that most of these arrived fully formed in Swift’s mind and are here on the page relatively unmediated. Maybe that’s unfair, but it means that there is a winning freshness to most of them, even if one or two (the account of a schoolboy’s seduction by a peer’s mother in ‘The Best Days’, for instance) seem a little pat. Only a pair of historical stories – one set in Victorian times, the other in 1649 – are the odd ones out here, and could, I feel, have been excised.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan (Knopf US)
Narrow RoadI predicted that this would win last year’s Man Booker, despite not having read it at that point; the description of a serious literary novel that mixed history, war and poetry seemed a pretty safe bet, even on a strong longlist. Sometimes I wish I bet on literary prizes; other times, I wish I got round to reading important books sooner. This is a terrific, troubling book, set around the experiences of Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in 1943. With Evans’s fellow Australian prisoners weakening and dying, despite his efforts to minister to their appalling wounds, the Japanese still demand hundreds of men to build the rail route from Thailand to Burma that will become known as the ‘death railway’. Evans’s story is just one of those Flanagan tells: we also see into the lives of those Evans left behind, his fellow prisoners and the prison guards, before and after the war, all their hopes and fates rendered in a prose that’s lush and descriptive without being overweening; when it comes to the scenes in the camp, with its rivalries, punishments, desperate attempts to save lives and unsparing descriptions of death, dying and torture, the prose tends towards straightforward descriptions, brutal and direct – this is one of a couple of books on this list packed with almost unreadable violence (and it’s more powerful than the horrors of James Ellroy’s Perfidia, as it’s based on real events and accounts) – and there’s a great melancholy even after the survivors return to civilian life, leavened with tiny moments of beauty and transcendence; in the camps themselves, an artist prisoner, perhaps based on Ronald Searle, makes beautiful drawings of the horrors he’s seen. This is a deserving prizewinner, one I’m slightly surprised not to see on the Folio shortlist: a terrific book which will stand out in my memory for a long time.

The Book of Strange New Things – Michel Faber (Hogarth US)
Book of Strange New ThingsPeter Leigh, pastor turned missionary, is on his way to spread the word of Christ to the most remote people in existence: an alien race living on a distant planet nicknamed Oasis. The Oasans are a simple people whose agricultural skills supply the human visitors to their planet with plentiful foodstuff; in return they ask for two things from the Earthmen: medication, of any kind, and a preacher to tell them more about the Bible – or, as they call it, The Book of Strange New Things. Reminiscent of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, in which a religious mission to a distant planet goes bizarrely wrong, Faber’s book is at once less eventful and much odder. Peter, unique among the human beings sent to Oasis by the mysterious USIC corporation, is not single: his wife, Bea, remains on Earth, where in the months Peter is away, life gets exponentially worse: natural disasters, food shortages, riots and economic collapse speed across the planet with startling swiftness; initially pining for his return, she starts to warn him he should stay away. This is no hardship for Peter, finding the most rewarding challenge of his life in preaching to the Oasans, whose meekness, simplicity of desires and hunger for biblical stories seems certain – to the reader, anyway – to mask some unpleasant secrets; but the aliens’ real secret will prove to be an assumption in which Peter realises he has been unwittingly complicit. Peter, a former alcoholic and drug addict turned reformed character, is still prey to the unthinking selfishness of his former life; his piety and his deep religiosity are so believable, however, that I found references to his criminal past unconvincing, even if Bea, present in the text mostly through the email-like correspondence she sends Peter, is plausibly a woman who could have helped save Peter. There are several SF-inflected books on the Folio list; perhaps because Faber has, all through his career, written books which straddle the literary and the genre (from his Victorian pastiche The Crimson Petal and the White to his SF novel Under the Skin), this is by far the most accomplished and interesting, the SF elements (weird languages, flora and fauna) balancing the religious material. One very minor quibble: the slightly odd transatlantic tone that both the book and its characters utilise (Faber uses the word “stonkingly” but Peter doesn’t know what “a lush” is) doesn’t always ring true. But this is a fresh and rewarding book, and an almost purely pleasurable reading experience.

Dear Thief – Samantha Harvey (Atavist US)
Dear ThiefSamantha Harvey’s third book is an epistolary novel, in the sense that it’s presented as a single letter from its narrator to Nina, sometimes called Butterfly, the ‘thief’ of the title. Exactly what Nina has stolen will become clear as this stately-paced, beautifully written but ultimately, I felt, rather cold novel unfolds. With Nina robbed of her right to reply, all the reader has to go on is the onesided description of her from a narrator who’s at once furious with her and still entranced by her after a friendship spanning three decades has collapsed. Nina is intriguing, beautiful, mercurial, and also a drug user, albeit of a uniquely considerate kind (she locks away the paraphernalia of her heroin use so that the narrator’s young son won’t find it). She’s also ruthless, and in a book like this – a descendant of what used to be called the Hampstead Novel, in which the middle-class nuclear family is the assumed default and the striven-for ideal – it’s predictable from early on that the most catastrophic thing for Nina to steal is the heart of Nicolas, the narrator’s partner: coming into their lives, she forms a triangle among the adults, and our narrator finds herself on the far vertex of this shap, abandoned and bitter. While the ultimate shape of the novel is not entirely surprising – that no clear resolution is reached, the ending involving instead a kind of suspended wistfulness, is par for the course – it’s the set pieces along the way that are memorable and fascinating: as the narrator’s grandmother dies, she herself out on the far reaches of the Thames finding a stack of old bones; one day, a freak atmospheric effect makes of the landscape a kind of gold-glowing hallucinatory fog in which the characters move semi-obscured. It’s much less calculatedly “literary writing” than in Harvey’s debut The Wilderness, which I wrote about many years ago; sometimes the effects here are rather obvious, and there’s a certain po-facedness to the whole novel, but the quality of the writing and the depiction of female friendship lift this well above the average.

Shark – Will Self (Grove Press US)
Shark
Speed-reading somewhat through the back half of Shark, the second in (heaven help us) a “loose trilogy” of modernist novels by Will Self themed around experimental psychiatry, psychological disorder and the state of Britain in the twentieth century, I started to wonder not quite what the point of this project was (as I had while reading its precursor, Umbrella, in 2012), but exactly how Self wants it to be read. There are, as with Umbrella, no chapters or paragraph breaks, and the narrative moves, as it were, into and out of the voice and mind of its main characters, moving from one POV to another quite far removed without so much as a line break to indicate the transition. The tentpole characters here are psychiatrist Zack Busner, two former soldiers named De’Ath, descendents of Umbrella’s Audrey De’Ath, and Genie, sometimes Jeanie, a 1970s… hippy chick. The effect is dreamlike and hallucinatory, with equal emphasis on very precise detail, typically intricate wordplay and punnery, and sweeping narration. Is the reader, as I found myself doing, meant to move his eye across the page and just let these leaps and surges of narration carry him along? There’s plenty to enjoy here; nominally, the book gets its title both from the film Jaws and an real-life incident in World War II where a shipful of soldiers on the bombed warship Indianapolis is massacred by a vast gathering of sharks; drawn into these large-scale symbols are the characters’ other experiences and preoccupations: Jeannie’s caesarean section is intermingled with an autopsy related from the fiction of Jaws, for instance. In the end, this book – like Umbrella – left me rather cold: I can appreciate the massive intellectual effort that’s gone into not just one but two, soon three, such books, but as to why a writer as articulate and adept as Self has embarked on this project a hundred or so years after modernism’s imperial phase (like at least one other modernist text from the twentieth century, it’s circular, its final sentence fragment feeding into its opening line) remains a little baffling. Nonplussed by that, I suppose one has to take Shark on its own merits, in which case it’s diverting and never less than engaging, if often problematic: the female characters, including the rather hopeless Jeanie and her abusive alcoholic, nymphomaniac Mumsie, are not Self’s most convincing or rounded creations. I hadn’t intended to read Shark until it came up on this list; having finished it, I can’t say I’m much bothered about reading the third instalment when it comes round.

73 books down, 7 to go, and 10 days until the prize is announced. I’m going to make it! Next week, in the final roundup before the prize is announced on 22nd March — well, you can see from the list below what’s still outstanding: Sarah Waters, Kamila Shamsie, Smith Henderson 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 Solace – 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 #11: Phipps, Hunt, Young, Smiley, Mackie, Lawson

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…

Mostly novels by women, this week, happily, and mostly authors I hadn’t read before — one of my chief reasons for reading through this whole list was to discover new favourite writers.

What You Want – Constantine Phipps (Quercus UK)
cover-phipps.jpgOne of the more unusual titles on the Folio list, this is a 350-page novel in verse. Pat’s wife has left him for another man, and on one of the weekends he has custody of their son, Jack, he tries once again, unsuccessfully, to win her back. In his misery, rejected again, he enters into a kind of lucid dream based around the theme park he and Jack visited: a theme park devoted to his own life, his infidelities, and his conscious and unconscious wishes – for money, for beauty, for spiritual satisfaction. In short, all the things that might come under a heading of general desires: what you want. This is a peculiar book, in which historical and real figures appear to give mini lectures on desire and need (Pat’s guide round the theme park of his past is Freud), a kind of mock-heroic narrative which justifies the form – as does Pat’s career as a musician. Interpolated into the conversations Pat holds with various interlocutors are poems that might be characterised as metaphysical, addressed to his wife. These sit slightly uneasily in the midst of the book’s main narrative, which is set in (often ingenious, sometimes wince-inducing) rhyming couplets, which make the text livelier and jauntier than a book about depression and spiritual angst might otherwise be; it’s as if the writer of a book-length poem, or a novel in verse, senses that to be anything other than a fairly easy read might be to ask to much of the reader (an obvious comparison is with Bernardine Evaristo’s excellent The Emperor’s Babe, similarly ‘light’ in form if not in subject matter). I don’t know that the juxtaposition necessarily works, but it’s an intriguing mix of form and content, and makes for one of the more memorable books on the list.

Everland – Rebecca Hunt (Penguin UK)
EverlandEverland is an Antarctic island, uninhabited but for penguins and fur seals. An 1913 expedition to the island ended in death and disaster for a three-man exploratory party, and Rebecca Hunt’s carefully structured second novel tells that team’s story, and that of a centenary expedition that sets off to Everland in 2012, armed with the latest high-tech equipment but prey to the same fears and failures of a century ago. Despite a slight issue with improbable names (I had difficulty remembering whether Brix or Jess was the standoffish team member in 2012, and whether Napps or Dinners is the one fated to die in 1913) this is a confident, subtle and unusual novel. The prose style is often rather chatty, which works fairly well in the modern-day sections, but is a little odd when deployed in the 1913 sections, which again tend to flit between free indirect and an omniscient voice that sounds remarkably contemporary – to have a man’s bruises come up ‘several shades of ugly’, for instance, strikes a slightly off note. (Not that the historical sections ought to be written in some cod Edwardian prose, of course.) It took quite a while for this book to catch light for me, but eventually the parallels, growing ever more marked between the doomed 1913 explorers’ thread and the 2012 team’s, in which life and death are still up for grabs, become compelling.

The Heroes’ Welcome – Louisa Young (Borough Press UK)
Heroes' WelcomeThis is a nicely ironic title for a book about the very different kinds of postwar that old soldiers can have. It’s 1919, and Riley Purefoy returns to England from fighting in the trenches. He has a rebuilt jaw and a new sense of urgency in life, and his hasty marriage to Nadine is greeted with suspicion from both their families. His old CO, Peter, is in a kind of shell shock, neglectful of his wife and son, and lost in painful memories which threaten to overwhelm him. The female characters are making their way in a new world of opportunities and independence – suddenly it’s possible to get a grant to become a doctor, or to run away to Europe, adopt a new identity in its cafés and flirt with strangers (as Peter’s wife Julia does) – while still tied to the old, pre-War world, even though they know full well that it was hardly a utopia worth mourning. This is an interesting slant for the war novel, dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder before the term was really coined. (It’s an interesting complement to Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You, which deals with the aftermath of the Gulf War on a female solider eighty years later.) It’s sometimes a bit too selfconsciously literary – there is a good reason for Peter to compare himself to Odysseus and his experiences to an odyssey, but it feels a bit neat, even if there is a payoff. This is a readable, mostly undemanding book which, though always competent, didn’t quite take off for me; a climactic scene of tragedy, for instance, falls rather flat, and the ways that various characters who’ve spent the book at odds find in the last chapter to reconcile with one another are all a bit clean. A book about the strife of war and the messy psychological effects on those directly and indirectly involved ends up feeling a little antiseptic.
A sidenote: Mention of Julia settling down to read ‘the new Edith Wharton’ struck me as a little glib and knowing here. This week, one of the characters in Jane Smiley’s Some Luck studies literature and lists the canonical titles he enjoys (the prose in eighteenth century literature is too easy for him so he reads Clarissa, Justine and Juliette as well as Pamela for his coursework) and in Mary Lawson’s Road Ends a character keeps ‘a copy of The Grapes of Wrath in the cab of [his] snowplow’ in case there’s a blizzard and no newspapers are available and dislikes Jude the Obscure as ‘depressing’. All this seems to me like a kind of authorial pleading: an insistence that the reader consider the present book in the context of what used to be called canonical English (and American) Literature. It’s never quite as OTT as Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall, whose opening two pages nod to Ulysses, Moby-Dick and half a dozen other titans of world literature, but it does seem a little like begging the question. It shouldn’t be for the book you’re reading to beat you over the head like this: ‘I am a serious novel!’

Some Luck – Jane Smiley (Knopf US)
Some LuckAn ingenious structural device is at the centre of Jane Smiley’s novel, a family saga that begins in 1920 and follows the fortunes of three generations of the Langdons, a farming family. Each chapter progresses the narrative forward a year (we reach 1953 here, with two forthcoming volumes set to cover the century’s remaining 67 years), so the effect is something like receiving one of those end-of-year letters that detail what a person’s been up to for the past twelve months. In these characters’ cases it’s things like surviving drought and the great depression, fighting in World War II, and watching the impact the rise of technology has on the farmland they’ve tended for years. The five Langdon children grow up in the course of the book – mainly it’s about Frank, a self-possessed child who becomes the first Langdon to go to college, move far away from home, and hold a job that isn’t farming-related. The effect is of a family saga made up of Everymen – an Everyfamily – prey to the same strokes of luck as any, seen over long enough a time: births, deaths, ill-advised romances, conflict, more or less good decisions. The problem is that the very familiarity of this material makes the book curiously uninvolving. It isn’t really a novel, nor a series of thirty-odd stories, but a kind of anthology of set-pieces and scenes, seemingly purposefully lacking in the shape of a novel. The interest may come in Smiley’s chronicling of an entire human life, presumably Frank’s, from earliest stirrings of consciousness (rendered by the text, I’m sorry to say, in sub-Joycean baby babble) onwards. Rather like reading the end-of-year letters of a family you’ve never met, there’s only so interested one can be in the very quotidian lives they lead, however.

In Search of Solace – Emily Mackie (Sceptre UK)
In Search of SolaceI’d been wanting to read this for a while, as it was one of the titles longlisted for last year’s Green Carnation Prize (alongside Folio nominee Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others, eventual winner Anneliese Mackintosh’s Any Other Mouth, and, er, my book). How you feel about this book will, I think, largely come down to how you respond to the news that it’s about a search for a character actually called Solace: a little on-the-nose for me. Also aggravating: the twee, pretentious at-arm’s-length narration that grabs the reader’s hand and drags them into each present-tense scene; there’s prolepsis and flashback aplenty in this book, and the sense that Mackie fears her audience – addressed, of course, as ‘dear reader’ – won’t be able to cope without such tooth-grinding mimsiness as ‘We’re not quite [at the end of the story] yet. Not quite yet. Though we are not so far off either. First we must finish up these developing stories, don’t you think? Big Sal, Lucy Westbry, Max and Mr Benson, our loose threads flapping in the breeze.’ (p.265) I’m very happy with books that call attention to their artifice, but there’s a limit, I think (and, really, does a thread ‘flap’? And while I’m nitpicking, in a book which talks a fair bit about art, Lucian Freud’s name really should have been spelled correctly.)
Eventually, I realised that the influence which hangs heavy over this book is Ali Smith’s, but it takes some skill to pull off Smith’s mixture of a deceptively simple, storytelling style and dark subject matter without its becoming sugary. Mackie hasn’t quite got the balance right here, although her central subject, one Jacob Little, is an intriguing creation: for every year of his life, he designs an obsession (guitar-playing, religion) and a character he’ll inhabit who possesses this particular obsession. Mentally unstable, Jacob loses track of himself: having played so many different people, who is he really? Is he looking for Solace (ugh) as a way to connect to the real self he once was, or is this the latest obsession he’s authored for himself?

Road Ends – Mary Lawson (Knopf US)
Road EndsConfession: I vividly remember when I put Mary Lawson’s Crow Lake back on the shelf at Borders, having read the back cover text a couple of times, and decided her work was not for me: it seemed to fit into a category into which I’d also put Trezza Azzopardi and Tessa Hadley, neither of whose debuts I could stand. And so I was bizarrely trepidatious about Road Ends, even though one of the pleasures of this Folio Season thingy has been to ‘discover’ writers I hadn’t read before (especially where they have a backlist I can then work through). We’re in Canada in the mid-to-late 1960s, and the book is formed around a central tragedy, a clifftop suicide. The residents of the little town of Struan are riven by his fate in various ways: for Tom, who found Rob’s body, it has been a paralysing incident; for Tom’s sister Megan, a surrogate mother to her eight brothers, it’s a reason to pack her bags and leave town; so too for their father, watching his family fall apart in their different ways. Inertia, weakness and hypocrisy are the linking elements in this book, which makes Megan’s story, which sends her to 1969 London, the most immediately engaging, all Dickins & Jones and hippie squat-dwelling. She’s the only character with much momentum; the disintegrating family she leaves behind is stuck in its various ways; her father, who resents his wife for her constant pregnancies without, ostensibly, recognising the part he plays in making her pregnant, is a well-drawn character. Showing the build-up to and consequences of Rob’s death, and the reasons for his suicide, lets Lawson explore its distorting effect on a ‘good’ family, but the inertia, and a strange focus on female characters suffering or taking responsibility for the various carefree, misbehaving or ineffectual males in their lives makes this a frustrating book for me. I’m not sure I didn’t make the right call on Crow Lake all those years ago.

68 books down, 12 to go, and 17 days until the prize is announced. Next week, in my penultimate roundup: Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Will Self’s Shark – 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 Solace – 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 #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 #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 #6: McFarlane, O’Neill, Thomas, Costello

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

10:04, Ben Lerner

A GOD IN EVERY STONE, Kamila Shamsie

ACADEMY STREET, Mary Costello

AFTER ME COMES THE FLOOD, Sarah Perry

ALL MY PUNY SORROWS, Miriam Toews

ALL OUR NAMES, Dinaw Mengitsu

ALL THE DAYS AND NIGHTS, Niven Goviden

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, Anthony Doerr

ALL THE RAGE, AL Kennedy

AMNESIA, Peter Carey

ANNIHILATION, Jeff VanderMeer

ARCTIC SUMMER, Damon Galgut

BALD NEW WORLD, Peter Tieryas Liu

BARK, Lorrie Moore

BE SAFE I LOVE YOU, Cara Hoffman

BOY, SNOW, BIRD, Helen Oyeyemi

CAN’T AND WON’T, Lydia Davis

DEAR THIEF, Samantha Harvey

DEPT. OF SPECULATION, Jenny Offill

DISSIDENT GARDENS, Jonathan Lethem

DUST, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

EM AND THE BIG HOOM, Jerry Pinto

ENGLAND AND OTHER STORIES, Graham Swift

EUPHORIA, Lily King

EVERLAND, Rebecca Hunt

EYRIE, Tim Winton

FAMILY LIFE, Akhil Sharma

FOURTH OF JULY CREEK, Smith Henderson

HOW TO BE BOTH, Ali Smith

IN SEARCH OF SILENCE, Emily Mackie

IN THE APPROACHES, Nicola Barker

IN THE LIGHT OF WHAT WE KNOW, Zia Haider Rahman

J, Howard Jacobson

KINDER THAN SOLITUDE, Yiyun Li

LILA, Marilynne Robinson

LIFE DRAWING, Robin Black

LOST FOR WORDS, Edward St Aubyn

LOVE AND TREASURE, Ayelet Waldman

NORA WEBSTER, Colm Tóibín

ON SUCH A FULL SEA, Chang-Rae Lee

ORFEO, Richard Powers

OUTLINE, Rachel Cusk

PERFIDIA, James Ellroy

ROAD ENDS, Mary Lawson

SHARK, Will Self

SOME LUCK, Jane Smiley

STAY UP WITH ME, Tom Barbash

STONE MATTRESS, Margaret Atwood

THE BALLAD OF A SMALL PLAYER, Lawrence Osborne

THE BONE CLOCKS, David Mitchell

THE BOOK OF GOLD LEAVES, Mirza Waheed

THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS, Michel Faber

THE COUNTRY OF ICECREAM STAR, Sandra Newman

THE DOG, Joseph O’Neill

THE EMERALD LIGHT IN THE AIR, Donald Antrim

THE EMPEROR WALTZ, Philip Hensher

THE FEVER, Megan Abbott

THE HEROES’ WELCOME, Louisa Young

THE INCARNATIONS, Susan Barker

THE LIE, Helen Dunmore

THE LIVES OF OTHERS, Neel Mukherjee

THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH, Richard Flanagan

THE NIGHT GUEST, Fiona McFarlane

THE PAYING GUESTS, Sarah Waters

THE TELL-TALE HEART, Jill Dawson

THE TEMPORARY GENTLEMAN, Sebastian Barry

THE WAKE, Paul Kingsnorth

THE ZONE OF INTEREST, Martin Amis

THEIR LIPS TALK OF MISCHIEF, Alan Warner

THUNDERSTRUCK, Elizabeth McCracken

TO RISE AGAIN AT A DECENT HOUR, Joshua Ferris

TRAVELLING SPRINKLER, Nicholson Baker

UPSTAIRS AT THE PARTY, Linda Grant

VIPER WINE, Hermione Eyre

VIRGINIA WOOLF IN MANHATTAN, Maggie Gee

WE ARE NOT OURSELVES, Thomas Matthew

WHAT YOU WANT, Constantine Phipps

WITTGENSTEIN JR, Lars Iyer

YOUNG SKINS, Colin Barrett

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