What I read in 2016

So it was that at the rosy dawn of 2016, I promised myself I would read 50 books. I thought it a modest target. And then David Bowie died. And Prince. And Ali and George Martin and Victoria Wood and Gene Wilder and George Michael. Oh yes, and Brexit. And Trump. And Syria, Corbyn, Article 50 and so on and so endlessly forth: a never-ending ever-rolling nerve-shredding shit-show punctuated by flashes of real horror.

Long story short: I didn’t read 50 books, not even close. Then again, I did read some wonderful books. For instance, there was the majestical The English and Their History, by Robert Tombs, an absolute barnburner, a dazzlingly arrayed cornucopia of new arguments about England’s contested Imperial past, the evolution of the common law, Parliament, England’s ever-fractious relationship with Europe, Scotland, America, the world wars, Thatcher, Blair, and much else besides. A book with much to teach us about our current less-than-rosy present.

I’m not at all sure why I’d taken so long to read Phillip Roth but when I finally read American Pastoral, boy was I floored. Looking back, it’s hard to resist seeing the novel through the prism of 2016; the travails of the Swede and his infuriating daughter underscoring again that not every movement of rage can be explained away through rational argument: sometimes, people just suck and do sucky things. I refreshed the palette with All the Birds In The Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, largely on the strength of a Chabon rave on the cover. A witch! A scientist! In an adventure with cats and assassins and mystical talking trees! A year later and, despite that intoxicating precis and a vague memory of enjoyment, I remember exactly nothing about what happened. Guess that’s the thing with sorbets.

The Quick by Lauren Owen starts off in an authentically dark Gothic register, pale Victorian children scuttling around redoubtable country piles replete with secret rooms and imposing gardens, before the action moves to the city and becomes a kind of vampiric bildungsroman. A nice idea, but despite all the exsanguination, it becomes hard to care about characters who either A. desperately want to feast upon blood, or B. want desperately to not feast upon blood.

Rich characters is one thing that We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler does not lack. Every unhappy family being unhappy in its own way, the way in which this very experimental family is unhappy is surprising and ultimately tragic; but to say more would be to spoil things, so I’ll keep schtum. I followed that with A Brief History of Seven Killings, which, ha ha, is not brief at all but the sort of book critics like to call polyphonic. Though I knew practically nothing of its lightly-fictionalised Jamaica, I was mesmerised by its expertly-woven tapestry of mobsters, politicians (both alive and disembodied), musicians, CIA operatives and ludicrous violence. Excited to read his forthcoming fantasy series; the novel reminded me of nothing so much as a Song of Fire and Ice novel.

Some of the best nature writing I read this year was found within the confines of The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall, in which a steely zoologist is hired to re-wild the Cumbrian estate of a billionaire philanthropist and finds herself isolated in her little house in the valley. Absolutely beautiful writing about our relationship to the natural world,  with bonus landscapes, weather, wolves, sex, pregnancy, solitude and addiction thrown in.

A hike down to Lancashire for a novel at home in the uncanny valley. The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley, a novel of bleak marshes and wind-swept estuaries, of faith and folklore and ghosts: Alan Bennett meets The Wicker Man. As my youngest would say: spooky pumpkin. After that I boarded a 19th century whaler to witness murder and the foul abuse of cabin boys in The North Water, a staggeringly pungent and bloody read.

Kate Atkinson’s The God In Ruins seems at first a simpler book than its majestic predecessor, with none of Life After Life’s multiple timelines; but as this novel weaves back and forth illuminating episodes in the life of Teddy and his family, it becomes every bit as heartbreaking and satisfying as the previous book. And that’s before a final authorial trick recasts everything you’ve read. And, like Ursula in Life After Live, I loved Teddy. Hey, here’s a thought Netflix: these two books would make an amazing TV drama. The Blitz, Eva Braun, rape, murder, birth, death, sex, nazis: its got everything you want for a Prestige Drama.

On a King whim, I read The Fireman by Joe Hill. Much to admire in this Stand-like novel, including a very King-like Big Bad, but its perhaps not as inventive on a page-by-page basis as the astonishing NOS4R2. Then I went back to the motherlode and read by 11.22.63 by Stephen King. Its about a man who discovers he can go back in time and makes it his mission to avert the assassination of JFK. It’s a great baggy beast of a book, but as ever with King, you plow on and it’s normally worth it. OK, it was no Stand or even an IT (despite some cameos from characters from that book) but still just so readable.

Then a run of three remarkable novels. First, a mock Victorian novel, a clash of Faith versus Reason, all set in a befogged estuary land, stalked by a possibly imaginary sea monster and very real tuberculosis. The Essex Serpent has superstition, hysteria, surgery, philanthropy and sea monsters. Perfect. That was followed by one of two sci-fi novels I read in 2016: The Fifth Season by NK Jemesin. Orogenes can from birth cause seismic activity by the power of their minds. Hence they are incredibly powerful and much-feared. I followed that with Howards End, by EM Forster. OK, so you already knew it’s a masterpiece. Good for you. Somehow this knowledge had passed me by. I knew the story, having seen the Merchant Ivory. But the way Forster keeps butting in to offer his two cents on the action is addictive and I wearily know now that I’m going to have to read his other novels.

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes is a kind of novel-length Hannibal episode, with much inventive guignol and fashionable social-media-inflected prose. If it had one demerit it was that its revealing of supernatural elements seemed somehow cack-handed, any ambiguity about the killer’s motivations blithely cast aside: oh, it’s an interdimensional being trying to gain access to our world. Right you are.

That was followed by The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts. The conceit is that a computer scientist has deciphered and unlocked Kant’s philosophical system underpinning reality. That’s followed by a series of only loosely connected chapters that show the working of this system through history and a number of different prose styles. There was much that’s exciting here, but I was never sure that I completely following the author’s project: was it an elaborate parody on Kant’s philosophy, of which I knew not a jot going in? Some kind of deep engagement with existing sci-fi tropes? I get the same sense of bewilderment as I do with some of M John Harrison’s later novels, like I’m witnessing an argument the terms of which I’m completely oblivious too and whose stakes are obscure. That said, the chapter with the touring gay couple encountering Lovecraftian irruptions from the Kantian beyond will stay with me some time.

Finally, Golden Hill by Francis Spufford, a novel set in pre-Revolutionary New York with a very clever narrative device: the main character knows his mission from the beginning, but hides it from the reader until the very end. The prose is a delicious parody of novels of this time, but with lots of the annoying quirks left out (so many Capital Letters, Why?)

So those were the books I read in 2016. I reckon I’ll read more this year. After all, this year has to better, right?

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Atomised by Michel Houellebecq

Atomised by Michel Houellebecq

I suppose the first problem is the translation of the title. In French, it’s Les Particules élémentaires. In the US, it’s The Elementary Particles. Here, it’s Atomised, which you half-suspect is being too clever by half, and which goes some way to explaining why it’s taken me well over a decade to read a book that was a succès de scandale on publication.

In its particulars, the novel follows a pair of equal opportunity hate artists, half-brothers who fail and rage at women and children and society and life in a post-68 France seen through the gimlet-eyes of a provocateur and sensationalist who never misses an opportunity to see the very worst in everyone and everything. It’s practically the definition of anomie.

Here’s Adam Gopnik on the book’s thesis:

“The libertarian advances of the post-’68 generations have led to a sinkhole of violence and despair: that materialism and sexual liberation end inevitably in misery, violence, and hopelessness… It is violently anti-individualist and anti-rationalist … and the only way out it offers lies in the possibility of taking a grimly stoical satisfaction in a scientific apocalypse that will put an end to humanity itself.”

A novel of ideas, then. Or, worse, a novel of hypotheses. Think of it as a book-length screed from Jacques ‘Jacques’ Liverot:

“An optimist sees half a pint of milk. He says ‘It is half full’. A pessimist sees half a pint of milk. He says “It is half empty”. I see half a pint of milk, I say ‘It is sour’.”

Perhaps when I’m older, with the kippered liver and encrusted heart, this novel will resonate with me in ways I can only guess at. At the moment, it doesn’t. I’m kinda glad about that.

Notes:

  • The fourth paragraph on this Digested Read exactly describes the novel’s style and what’s wrong with it.
  • To be scrupulously fair, Houellebecq’s book on Lovecraft is pretty good. Here’s an extract if you’re unsure. 

Things my Granddad said at Latitude 2013

Things my Granddad said at Latitude 2013*: 

1. “Disclosure are OK, but all their songs sound the same, apart from the good one”.
2. “Foals are OK, but all their songs sound the same, apart from the loud one, aka the good one”
3. “Don’t young people know that it gets cold at night?”
4. “You’ll not get me in THAT toilet”
5. “As I suspected, the festival experience is improved 1000% by carrying a chair at all times, and sitting in it most of them.”
6. “SOMEONE must want to sell me a rug, to keep the chill away from my knees.”
7. “That was a good dance, now let’s find a stand selling hot chocolate.”
8. “Please explain Alt-J. I have the patience.”
9. “Phew, I nearly mislaid my ear-plugs!”
10. “Our tent was advertised as having a shag-pile rug. Kindly explain why it does not”.

*OK, fine, Granddad didn’t say these things, he’s long since gone to the middle-class festival of ideas and culture in the sky. I said them, OK?