Monday, January 18, 2010

My Booky Wooks 2009 (Part 1)

Like I wrote in my introduction to the equivalent post last year, I read a wide range of material. Mostly I read older books, but I do read newly published books too, if they interest me enough. In 2009, quite a few did. So, here are some relatively contemporary novels I read this past year, and why you should read them too. Or not, as the case may be:

2666 by Roberto Bolano
Full disclosure: I haven't finished Bolano's final novel. Its a mammoth book, and one to luxuriate in, and I'm reading it just the same way I read The Savage Detectives - in stages. Since the novel is split into 5 distinct parts, I have been reading them as separate books, with breaks and other reading in between. I only have the final book left to go, where Bolano apparently ties it all up, but I'm already awed by his achievement. This book contains multitudes, the writing is inspired, and Book 4, in particular, called "The Part about the Crimes" is one of the most sustained high-wire literary acts I've ever read. Here Bolano unblinkingly details the emergence of a serial killer (or killers) in his fictional Mexican border town of Santa Teresa (inspired by real events in Ciudad Juarez) and describes the discovery and remains of dozens of his mainly uneducated women victims. It is grim, monumentally powerful stuff, and hard to describe - you just have to read it. But its not an easy book - so surreal and personal and dark that it is often tedious and difficult, you have to commit to it to appreciate its greatness, to juggle its many aspects, its hints and suggestions in your mind. Bolano wrote it with the knowledge of his own imminent death in mind, and that much is obvious in the text. But its never a depressing read, really. Horrific in places yes, but Bolano is too interested and curious about life and its energy for that not to communicate itself through his writing, and his book is instead electric.

Jeff in Venice, Death In Varanasi by Geoff Dyer
Dyer seems incapable of writing a conventionally fictional novel. Each of his books mixes essay with autobiography with travelogue with fiction, and this is no different. Split into two sections, the book firstly follows an Arts journalist to a blazingly hot Venice for the Biennale, where he meets a young American woman and they enjoy a brief but intense affair. The second part follows another man - he may be the same character, but it is never made clear - to Varanasi in India where he hangs around for weeks, not doing very much at all. So: the first book chronicles a man's hedonism and pursuit of his desires, while the second reveals a sort of slow death of the self, as all his wants and desires fall away in the heat an inertia of a place where people go to die. As ever with Dyer, the writing is brilliant - witty, transportive and with an understanding of tone denied to all but a few novelists. He is a great observer, casually mining interactions for comedy and awkwardness while also maintaining the ability to suggest a certain profundity in his work. In other words, while he can make you laugh with a riff about the fecal matter in the air being responsible for his stomach problems in Varanasi, he does it while ruminating on the ties - cultural, personal, social - that bind our senses of self to us and what it might take to loosen them.

As The Great World Turns by Colum McCann
What is it with Irishmen writing great New York novels? Last year we had Joseph O'Neil's Netherland, and this year Colum McCann has a go, setting his story of interlinking lives in New York on the day of Phillipe Petit's wire-walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre during the 1970s. That act forms a poetic link - a barely glimpsed backdrop which surfaces at a few crucial junctures of the novel, which is otherwise concerned with the lives of an Irish Missionary Priest in the projects, of an aging and imprisoned hooker, of an artist involved in a car accident, of a Mother mourning a son lost to Vietnam, and of a photographer obsessed with the City's graffiti, among others. The only other McCann I have read is his debut, and while it was beautifully written, the sense persisted that it was teh work of an author yet to fully find his own voice. That sense is long gone, it seems. McCann's writing is rapturous, beautifully stylish and compelling, and the book just flows across the pages on its river of voices. The way it all ties in with Petit's walk - and by extension, with the future fate of the Twin Towers - is marvellously, subtly conveyed in a warm and moving final chapter set in the present day. A lovely book, deserving of all its praise and awards.

The Other by David Guterson
Guterson takes a quantum step forward with this novel. His most famous book, Snow Falling On Cedars, is a literary thriller, original, atmospheric, haunting and never less than gripping, and he followed it with East of the Mountains, a more meditative and difficult novel about faith and mortality and then Our Lady of the Forest, an even darker book, concerned with the effects of a series of divine apparitions upon a small community. The Other tells the tale of two young men, friends from their mid-teens, and the separate paths they take into adulthood. The narrator, Neil, falls in love, marries and becomes a teacher in Seattle, content and contemplative. His friend John William, the heir to a fortune, drops out of society and ventures into the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest in order to live as a hermit, with only Neil aware of his secret. The story is told in long tangents, Neil's life and daily existence mixed with episodes of his experiences with John William and his investigations into John William's past. He seeks to understand what drives his friend but is always loyal to him, even when baffled and frustrated by his behaviour. As such, Guterson's book is a fine portrait of intense male friendship, its beats and tensions, its strengths and flaws. It is also a superbly textured novel of life in one corner of North America, presenting a vivid view of Seattle and its mountainous environs through Neil's appreciation of it. Neil's voice is a lovely one - gentle, wise and reflective, and it is the novels greatest virtue. The eventual 'explanation' for John William's self-destructive life is perhaps it's weakest point, but Guterson never belabors this point, and you can choose to ignore it and focus on the more ambiguous notes of that characterisation if you wish. Either way, its a great novel, Guterson's finest yet, and highly recommended.

Nobody Move by Denis Johnson
I love when an established literary novelist kicks back and indulges himself with some genre-play. Here, Johnson, one of America's finest living writers, who won the National Book Award for his last novel, the Vietnam Epic Tree of Smoke (which waits for me on a shelf) writes a cool, clean piece of pure pulp, and he does it beautifully. Serialised in Playboy, and written in four parts to a monthly deadline, this tale of a loser on the run in Southern California, the femme fatale he meets, a large sum of money driving it all, and the assorted bad men after them maintains a sensational pace from start to finish. Its also full of witty dialogue, interesting characters, great writing - Johnson's control of atmsphere and setting is just as precise as ever - and a couple of impressive action scenes. Johnson is capable of so much more, but this might be the most fun I've ever had reading a book by him, and fun is never to be sniffed at.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower
A collection of fabulous short stories which are written as all great short stories must be - with an exactitude and feel which leaves no room for error. Towers' stories all have a beginning, middle and end, and he deals less in stylish "slice of life" stories than many of his peers. Instead he tells the story of a Viking raid in modern idiom, and makes it moving and funny and horrifying and even very relevant. He drags us through the hilarious, excrutiating trip made by a man, his daughter and his ex-Wife's new Boyfriend together in a car riven by tension and unspoken animus. He lets us into the life of a man unmoored by his father's death and doing some work for an uncle he barely knows while becoming obsessed with his strange new neighbours and their tropical fish. Tower has a particular gift for the undercurrents between people - dislike, attraction, silent grudges, any sort of agenda. But he can also paint a scene with a few lovely sentences and he draws his characters with a telling concision. In short, this is a great collection, and if you don't usually read short stories, I would recommend this book anyway. And anything else Tower might write in the future.

American Adulterer by Jed Mercurio
Mercurio created Bodies for the BBC based upon his debut novel, and the series recently placed in the Guardian's list of the 50 Best TV Drama Ever. But Mercurio has greatly developed as a novelist since then. Ascent, his 2007 character study of the life of a Russian cosmonaut, was a poetic, meditative, brilliantly-modulated novel with a big James Salter influence. American Adulterer is a study of the presidency of John F Kennedy told from a personal perspective. The politics are secondary as Mercurio focuses on JFK's relationship with his wife and children and with the many women he slept with during those years. Some attempt is made to explain the President's compulsive behaviour - he gets headaches when he abstains, as he is reported to have told Harold MacMillan, and he is obsessed with how people see him and is conspicuously comfortable with women in a way his alpha male competitiveness won't allow him to be with men - and this is probably the novel's weakest element. But the way Mercurio balances Kennedy's stress about Cuba and Marilyn Monroe and his relationship with Jackie with his many health problems and the weight of his past is always impressive, and his prose, while not quite as cut-glass perfect as in Ascent, is still stylish and clear.

Beatles by Lars Saabye Christensen
This is the biggest -selling Norwegian novel of all time. And if that's not recommendation enough...
First published in Norway in 1984, it is only Christensen's recent raised status as an Internationally successful novelist that gave rise to a UK release for this novel in 2009. It follows four young middle-class Norwegian boys through the 60s and early 70s as they leave School and begin real lives against the turbulence of the cultural changes and political strife of that era. All the way through as they change and grow apart and fall in love and become politically aware and endure mental illness and family problems, their experiences are soundtracked by the music of the band around which the first bonded; the Beatles.
If it sounds generic and over-familiar, well it is, somewhat. But Christensen is such a wise, observant writer, his characters so warm and likeable, his storytelling so effortless, that it is never less than utterly engrossing. It feels universal - I grew up in Dublin in the 80s and 90s and yet I recognised so many of the experiences and people encountered by the characters, and they were so well-rendered, so understood by the author, that I could not help but feel moved. The specific cultural, social and political references just make it feel more authentic, more of a slice of the writer's life. Despite its bagginess and its rambling pace - for life is a baggy, rambling beast, I suspect Christensen believes, life does not do well-ordered narratives - it gripped me like a good thriller and I cared for these people and believed in them more than I do most fictional characters, which is obviously where that powerful emotional charge comes from. That and the sense of melancholy that early on settles over the novel like an Oslo fog, consisting of the sadness of lost youth, decayed friendships and dreams that never quite came true. There is apparently a sequel, as yet untranslated. Yes please.

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Blogger Mr A. P. Salmond, esq. said...

Wow, I have fallen behind! Time to queue up some readin'.

7:39 a.m.  

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