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Books of the Year 2010, Part Two

January 23, 2011

The final instalment — eagerly-awaited, I know — of ‘Books of the Year: 2010’ covering hardbacks and paperbacks published during the year… wait for it… 2010.

I started the year buying up those books I hadn’t already read from the London Review Bookshop’s list of recommended US short story collections in March. Of these, Justin Taylor’s Everything here is the best thing ever stands out: these look at first like the precocious post-McSweeneys, post-Iowa workshop stories we’re now used to seeing, but prove to have a uniquely unsettling and moving quality that explodes those preconceptions. A story about the end of the world is one of the strangest and loveliest thing I read all year. The same praise cannot, regrettably, be applied to Andrew Porter’s ungainly-titled The Theory of Light and Matter, another debut, whose every story follows the same writing-workshop-pleasing trajectory to conclude, monotonously, on the same suspended, bittersweet elegiac note. Outside this list, the New York Times Book Review recommended Vida by Patricia Engel, a set of interlinked stories, precisely observed, funny and clever, and David Means returned with a third/fourth collection, The Spot (the numbering ambiguity caused by his disowning of his first collection). Means has always been good on freaks of nature, criminal activity and the schemes of down-and-outs, but this time his admittedly meticulous stories have a little of the diminishing returns about them. More invention is to be found in UK author Simon Robson’s The Separate Heart, whose longer stories allow for more emotional investigation. Something about these stories rankled, however: the endings, in particular, are often rather pat.

Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin was one of 2010’s surprise successes. A thriller about a bereaved couple starting their own tiny resistance movement in Nazi Berlin, this fully deserves all the success it’s had — like Irene Nemirovsky before him, Fallada shows us something new in a story we thought we already knew. This is a psychologically acute and properly exciting thriller.

Similarly edging into the thriller category is Simon Lelic’s Rupture, in which a mild-mannered teacher at a British school turns killer after a concerted campaign of intimidation by his students, colleagues and superiors alike. At times I felt Lelic striving too hard to make his point (the female officer investigating the case is subject to some overly parallel workplace bullying), but there’s an interesting structural conceit: the two dozen witnesses get to tell their story in individual first-person chapters. If the voices do sound a little alike at times, it’s worth bearing in mind that few first-time authors would even dare to try something this full-on. Similarly inventive and informed by current affairs, Amanda Craig’s Hearts and Minds is a measured and informed ‘behind the headlines’ novel of immigrant life in contemporary London. The smart reader’s beach book for this summer, I’d say.

At the other end of the same spectrum, Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap seeks to grant us similar insights into Australian machismo and cultural politics, but is populated with such unpleasant people that it sabotages its own task. As a state of the nation novel — or even a state of the State one — The Slap doesn’t connect to the Melbourne, or Melburnians, I know and love.

Of course, there was really only one book in town in late 2010, and like everyone else I settled down with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom equipped, or handicapped, with all those stellar reviews, that Time magazine cover, the words ‘American masterpiece’ all going round my head. Show me a book that can live up to that sort of hype! It isn’t a masterpiece, of course, somehow Franzen’s inordinately wide-ranging interests diluting its clout; the environmentalism theme is hokey and the arms-selling one has wandered in from a rather more bluntly satirical novel; the vast swathes of text (the first eighty pages, for instance) are a plot summary rather than a plot; and the belatedly-introduced character of Lalitha — a McGuffin more than a character, really — is not only a cipher, but one Franzen writes out in the most amateurish way possible (a car crash that conveniently disposes of her at a critical moment? Really, Mr Franzen? Really?). There’s also the not entirely subtle conversations punctuating the text in which characters discuss the notion of freedom — do you see? Freedom? And the book is called… Well, these are big problems I had with a book which is evidently aiming to be the Big Statement on so many things. On the other hand, it’s never less than readable, even when it feels like it’s been somehow skim-written, and Franzen is certainly a master on the level of the sentence. What one comes away with, then, is the sense of an author obsessively revising and perfecting through rewriting a rather poorly-thought-through draft of a novel.

More American big-hitters: Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall likewise boasts some knock-out prose, as his characters muse on life, art, personal happiness, and sex and love. It’s depthcharged for me by what feels like the most implausible plot twist ever (vaguely unhappily married man mistakes his wife’s brother’s outline in the shower for his wife and is thrown into sexual confusion), though as my friend Cray points out this may be something to do with reading it from a homosexual male perspective and other readers might be less unforgiving of the twist. There’s also Cunningham’s seeming strange obsession with placing his work in the context of Great Fiction: we get a Ulysses quote halfway through page one — page one! — and in case the reader is not sufficiently alerted to the project here, there are references to Hawthorne, Melville, Kafka, Flaubert and anyone else you care to mention (off the top of my head, I can’t recall whether he namedrops Woolf, but it’d be decidedly odd if he didn’t) [I’m rushing through finishing this post before I read Adam Mars-Jones’s review in today’s Observer which looks like it is going to make the same complaint]. Expectation mismanagement: this book obviously isn’t in the same league as a Ulysses or Scarlet Letter, but it’d be a lot less overtly lacking if it didn’t constantly remind the reader of these other texts. — I blogged elsewhere about Philip Roth’s Nemesis, and remain on the fencepost slightly, both about its stature in its own right, and about where Roth’s late career is going. — Robert Coover returned in 2010 with a typically playful genre exercise, Noir, told in the second person and displaying its author’s customary fondness for juggling genre tropes, sometimes exploding them, sometimes revelling in their unironic deployment. Thus it’s hard to tell whether the identity of the villain is meant to be quite so obvious (in a postmodern way) so early on. This feels slight compared to some of Coover’s past work (though less annoying than his last novel, Lucky Pierre), but then Coover has always been most readable for fun.

Gary Shteyngart’s third book, Super Sad True Love Story, is his most accessible and in some ways most successful novel of twenty-first century excesses and hapless not-quite-heroes. Here we’re five minutes into the future, in an America where everyone wears a gadget which assesses and rates the attractiveness of those around them (the Facebook ‘Like’ feature taken to an absurdist extreme) and where sad, bewildered hero Lenny is the only person still reading books (those around him find them dirty and smelly, as well as unnecessary encumbrances). The satire generally finds its target, though the book starts to come apart at the seams latterly in ways not unfamiliar from Shteyngart’s previous two — a subplot about a missing friend of Lenny’s parents, for instance, lacks the significant payoff it seems to have been heading towards. Another dazzling, densely written American fantasia turned up earlier in the year in Sam Lipsyte’s much-vaunted The Ask, written in coruscating and sometimes overwhelming prose (to compensate for a rather slender plot — I don’t mean this as a criticism) that creates in some ways its own language. Geoff Dyer’s review in the Guardian mentions a stylistic similarity to Don DeLillo — dead language reanimated — which I hadn’t considered while reading it, but it’s an apt comparison. DeLillo’s own 2010 novel Point Omega continued his run of chill, rather neat, ‘late-phase’ novels, and contained enough ambiguity of plot alongside his ever-beautiful, minimalist dialogue to make for an intriguing epistemological ghost story.

I especially enjoyed the rather less sparse ghost story of Louise Welsh’s Naming the Bones: she’s rapidly becoming one of Scotland’s most reliably excellent authors, even if her publishers still don’t seem to know quite whether to pitch her books as crime or literary fiction; the first half of Geoff Dyer’s sort-of-novel Geoff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (but not the second half as much); Tom McCarthy’s excellent, Booker-listed C, which selects a number of  symbols and wrings, most enjoyably, every possible reading, (mis)interpretation, pun and allusion from them. It also boasts some wonderful set pieces and seemingly disparate scenes aligned by this thematic web: the final scenes of Egyptian tomb-breaking are especially weird and great.

But for book of the year, I’d select James Robertson’s And the Land Lay Still, the expansive, politically- and socially-engaged novel that I think Scotland has long needed. Covering the last decades of Scottish history and politics, Robertson tackles the disintegration of Scottish industry, the rise and (relative) fall of Labour in Scotland, the fight for independence and the somewhat muffled compromise of devolution, and everything else besides: this is a big, broad novel, told by engaging characters — I especially liked the (Muriel Spark-esque?) raconteur holding gatherings of politically like-minded folk in her Edinburgh townhouse. The other characters interact, meet and re-meet in unexpected ways, fall in and out of love — all in pretty much the usual ways in a novel of this size and era (map the characters’ progressions and I imagine it wouldn’t differ too wildly from those found in Franzen’s Freedom, for instance). Where it differs is in those characters’ constant, irrepressible and occasionally annoying discussions of politics. I didn’t always entirely buy that Labour’s policies, budgets cuts or the wounds made to the shipbuilding industry would have possessed the entire population such that the rare conversation here which doesn’t start out being about politics does inevitably turn to the topic sooner or later. (I’m also faintly irked by the suggestion that Michael, the sort-of central character, is the first ‘out’ gay male lead in Scottish literature, since Louise Welsh’s Rilke in The Cutting Room nabbed that distinction over a decade ago — keep up!) These are minor quibbles, though, and overall I found this book so engaging and generous that I sped through it agog, hugely impressed and, in some ways, depressed that the recent history of the country I come from has been shaped by so much adversity.

In non-fiction, I cheered at Barbara Ehrenreich’s typically astute and acerbic dismantling of that modern con, positive thinking, in Smile or Die; spent three months in the not always pleasurable company of John Cheever in Blake Bailey’s exhaustive biography; laughed a lot at Slavoj Zizek’s highly entertaining polemic for Marxism, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (in which, among other cheeky comparisons, he likens Silvio Berlusconi to the Joker from Batman); and laughed in a different way throughout my favourite comedian Stewart Lee’s memoir/scriptbook How I Escaped My Certain Fate, in which he subjects three of his own comedy routines to the same sort of intensive deconstruction as he uses on the subjects of those same routines. (Unfortunately, I am in agreement with those fans of whom he slightly despairs, who giggle most not at the clever crafted investigations of religious, political or societal hypocrisies, but at a joke about a cat’s feet. It’s your own fault for choosing the word ‘feet’, Stu: a lesser comedian would have gone for ‘paws’, and the joke would have been far less funny.) Book of the year, non-fiction-wise, I’ve raved about before: Barbara Demick’s jaw-dropping investigation into real lives in North Korea, Nothing to Envy, which everyone else on the planet should read, to understand why the people of North Korea will never be permitted to.

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