My Favourite Books of 2014

I have to say, people: this year has been a real s.o.b. in a lot of ways, but not where my reading has been concerned. I’m usually very secretive about the books that make an impression on me – it’s all to do with what an unnerving number of people have recently labelled my self-centeredness – but today, in the (ever-expanding) seat of the Season of Goodwill (and eating; I mean seriously, you should see me: this is G-force engorgement over here), I would like to share, in the spirit of giving, ten books that I loved this 2014:

10. ‘U & I’ (1991) by Nicholson Baker

In essence an extended essay, but what with its enlarged font, its binding and its going-price of $19.99, it earns its place on this list. Here, Nicholson Baker, a fairly obscure American writer with a score of experimental novels under his belt, comes head-to-head with his literary hero, the twinkly then-elder but now-late statesman of U.S. letters, John Updike. For the avid reader or fervent writer there is much to relate to in Baker’s bacchanal-cum-stream-of-consciousness crisis-of-confidence, not the least of which is the reassurance that even published writers, those envied accomplished, can be plagued by the feeling that they’re just not good enough.

9. ‘Double Fault’ (1997) by Lionel Shriver

I was reading this when I had it signed by the author, Lionel Shriver, who has written two of my favourite novels: ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ and ‘So Much for That’. She seemed surprised to have been handed it. “Have you read this?” she asked me with the ominous wryness which infuses both her speech and prose. I told her I was halfway through and, after signing it, she seemed to be almost tentative in handing it back. “Pay close attention,” she said, or something like it, “this is a cautionary tale.” And is it ever.

8. ‘Never Mind’ (1992) by Edward St. Aubyn

St. Aubyn has done something really strange here: recast his experience of the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his monstrous father as a scabrously dark comedy-of-social-manners, like Evelyn Waugh by way of ‘The Lovely Bones’. His finest achievement with this book – the first in a quintet which spans the life of St. Aubyn’s alter ego, Patrick Melrose, from traumatizing childhood to fledgling fatherhood – is not just the genuine hilarity of the mannered prose as it grapples with these ill-mannered (or, in the case of the father, outright amoral) toffs, dandies and debutantes, but that the prose and the humor spring so easily from the characters’ pettiness and avarice – and how, by stark contrast, young Patrick’s experience is conveyed with sobriety and terrible sadness.

7. ‘Lolita’ (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov

After many false starts trying to read this book – I hate Humbert Humbert, as well as abhor how the novel’s now packaged, with its prim pink borders, like an Austen romance: he’s a paedophile, damn it – I have to concede that I’m glad to have read it, if only to be able to see its influence on American literature post-the 1950s. Turns out it’s considerable.

6. ‘The Magic Kingdom’ (1986) by Stanley Elkin

It might just as well have been the other Elkin book I read this year, ‘The Dick Gibson Show’, in sixth place: both have bursts of the outright hilarious and both are outlandishly verbally dexterous. But this has a stronger pathos underpinning it, being, as it is, about a father who, after his terminally ill son passes on, arranges to chaperone a group of sickly tykes on an overseas excursion to Disneyland. The sentences are long and labyrinthine and set-pieces inspired – the scene in which a disgruntled actor dressed as Pluto threatens, ineffectually, the coterie of kids in a clandestine hotel room is a brilliant flight of fancy, sublime comic writing – but what makes the novel as a whole even better is the fact that it stands as a testament (as does ‘Never Mind’) to literature’s power to restore and transcend: Elkin himself was suffering from M.S., but produced, from his experience, this masterpiece.

5. ‘The Old Devils’ (1986) by Kingsley Amis

Being such an ardent fan of Kingsley’s son, Martin, it was inevitable that I would acquaint myself with this, Amis Snr’s late musing on the indiscriminate ravages of time. This is a lovely, wistful and leisurely-paced book, but shot through, too, with the satirist’s disdain, and these tones sit in such perfect harmony that it’s something of a wonder; unprecedented, really. I read it because I’d read ‘Lucky Jim’ and liked it a lot, but more specifically because Martin had averred in his memoir, ‘Experience’ – perhaps not quite impartially – that it “stands comparison with any English novel of the [twentieth] century”. I can’t speak for that, but this story of a famous poet who returns to Wales, its rolling hills and his now-rotund friends, is so humane, funny and finely-observed, it might be that Martin is right.

4. ‘A Fan’s Notes’ (1968) by Frederick Exley

An unflinching portrayal of an depressive-alcoholic’s unstinting battle with his self-destructive streak, this book is even more remarkable for being, by all reports, a thinly-fictionalized autobiography. That Exley survived at all is an impressive feat, but that he wrote this book – in such limpid prose and with such saving self-deprecation – is nothing short of an act of heroism. Exley is something of a cult icon now, and his legend is entirely understandable.

3. ‘1982, Janine’ (1984) by Alasdair Gray

This novel charts the mind-patterns of a severely depressed man as he lies in a hotel cot somewhere in Scotland, and it is blissfully insane, incandescent, inconsolable. At one point our not entirely likable hero chooses to overdose on booze and pills, and Gray, ingenious typographer he is, splits the man’s experience into two wavering columns – one for his body, one for his mind – and, in a struggling, fine-print margin, has God try to reason with His gasping charge. These three pages alone are exhilarating, but then Gray goes into heartbreaking, traditional detail as to how the man got to where he is. This is just the best kind of experimental fiction: one in which the innovation, rather than come to the detriment of feeling, acts instead to enhance it. Brilliant.

2. ‘The Zone of Interest’ (2014) by Martin Amis

I’ll readily admit: I obsessed over this book. I read pretty much every review and opinion piece about it pre-, mid- and post-my reading it, and took, moreover, my sweet time doing so, all the while reveling in those Martin Amis standards: his eccentricity, sheer wit and incantatory style. Having heard almost exclusively good things, I had hoped that this would be Martin’s chance at winning the Booker, coming as it did after a stretch of ignominy comparable to his father’s before his ‘The Old Devils’ took out the much-touted prize. No dice: Martin Amis has always been divisive, and no doubt the book’s conceit – put crudely, a “Nazi love story” – did nothing to endear him to the non-aficionado. But a book like this lives or dies on its risks, and this one thrives in its three distinct voices: that of the nephew of the secretary to Hitler, that of the spineless camp commandant, and that – in spare and somber tones – of the Sonder, a Jew recruited to dispose of the bodies of his fellow Jews (tragically, a role that actually existed). Martin Amis has always been a keen purveyor of the comedy of self-delusion, but here he has addressed his talents to the mass delusion responsible for an awful atrocity, and the result is of a work of mad genius.

1. ‘Something Happened’ (1974) by Joseph Heller

Thirteen years after writing the seminal anti-war novel, ‘Catch-22’ (which – full disclosure – I haven’t read), Heller wrote this, an almost-600-page wail from a chronically disaffected business and family man. This book is incredible for its multi-faceted audacity: it’s the soliloquy of the stultified, self-centered Bob Slocum, wherein nothing, besides his neuroses, happens – until, with the deftest and darkest of ironies, something suddenly does – and all of it unspools in repetitive but perfect sentences, increasingly broken, sometimes for pages, with asides which delve further into Slocum’s insecurities. But this book is so honest, so beautifully constructed, that it actually burrows straight into your brain. A brilliant and haunting work.

A Recount of the Journey to Asia I Never Talk About. Part One.

There’s something I have been repressing for, oh, roughly three years now. It’s a trip I took, and no leisurely idle in the outlying countryside, no quick jaunt down the coast. It was, in fact, an epic in a lot of senses, and given its proportions, psycho-spiritual heft, its insistence that it not be left alone, it’s strange that only now can I even conceive of attempting to put it into writing.

So imagine, if you will, yours truly at 24 (fresh-faced, pink-cheeked; unspeakably young) and bolt upright in my chair on a juddering Malaysian Airlines flight to Hong Kong. What was I thinking? Thoughts consistent with complete incomprehension at the nature of my trip and my intentions behind it. What had I been drinking? Initially nothing, but on arrival at Kuala Lumpur I discovered what, exactly, a rest lounge is: a tricked-out grotto or bistro lined like a manicurist’s with deep-seat armchairs, a procession of Sizzler-like, sneeze-guarded food bays, and, at its end, a gold-plated beer tap, in whose sheen might have been foreseen the nature of the trip to follow. I took a few pulls on its pump, let me tell you, and soon I was ensconced in a plush recliner and a neatly accumulating beer-buzz.

And then, for the remainder of the seven hours, I contorted and corkscrewed in that plush recliner while the booze sat immovably inside my gut, made foundations, set up shop. A bakery had started business; my legs would no doubt soon fly apart and I’d deliver, with a ding!, a fresh loaf there. What’s worse was that my neighbours, Malaysian families mostly, were dissipating, making off for their flights, and I soon felt – with all those brass fixtures, the decorous drapes, their maroon festoons – like I had just wrapped up a late-night bender and was loitering, now, in a hotel foyer. By the time I found myself boarding my flight, my head was carrying too much weight. My head was overhead baggage.

What followed was a shorter flight to Hong Kong, marked by a meal of tin-foiled fish whose spices wreaked havoc with my booze fugue. I believe my seat was the only one lit up, my head the only one bolt upright among the slumbering forms of my fellow passengers.

Herman, an old friend from high school, was waiting intently at the cavernous airport, and before I’d had time to acclimatize at all I had been spirited away, my luggage in tow, to a precarious double-decker bus. Here, while the scrubby, rocky scenery through the window gave intermittent way to sweeping sea vistas, Herman struggled to enliven in me any of the bright conviviality I’d given him back home. And wasn’t I convivial. We’d properly struck up our friendship after high school, and over the year before he left for Hong Kong we had laughed and sort of basked in the effusive, Edenic decency each of us never failed to bring out in the other. I was just so fucking nice with Herman. But now, because of my restless rest lounge stay, my ill-advised beers, and those claustrophobic stretches of airborne insomnia, I was finding it impossible to muster more than a pointed and unfair irritability whose target was going to be Herman.

As the bus sped across the sun-bleached expanse of a unrelenting suspension bridge, I cast my eyes out over the yawning bay below and took in, as best as I could manage in my dolorous state, the monolithic cranes or scaffolding or stations that rose, like a robot uprising, on stanchions that sat in the sea. This sight, let me tell you, was doing nothing for my inchoate sense of displacement. Herman was talking about something or other, but from where I sat – wedged right up against him – it came across as nothing but the gnashing of teeth. My beers were now a stone or a rocky outcrop, some immovable nexus in my solar plexus, and on entering the chaos of the city proper it began to palpate like some shitty, unbidden heart transplant. BUT THIS WAS NOTHING COMPARED TO WHAT HAPPENED TO ME NEXT…

Would you like to find out what happened to me next? Maybe not, but I will write it regardless.

An Extract from the First Chapter of Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Purity’

What follows is an unofficial leak of the very first parts of Franzen’s ‘Purity’. Behold how our Great American Novelist works magical realism in with his social commentary, all the while retaining his personal probity:

It was autumn, and Purity was feeling that unambiguous melancholy at the base of her neck. Yes, she knew of its heritage: how her Yale professor father had sired three daughters with a predisposition to be down-at-the-mouth. But what none of the Smerthson family knew, including, for the moment, she herself, was that Purity possessed a sort of superpower: the power of complete transcendence over mood.

Purity had, as it so happened, been recently embroiled in the Enron scam, this being the autumn of 2001. She and her notably effeminate husband, a slight-of-build, begrudging young tech-head, had both been shown the door the day previous and currently sat at a breakfast table of marmalade jam and toast.
“Purity,” said her husband, Egwitt, while squinting in her general direction, “but why do have that simpleton’s simpering look of elation all over your face?”
“Because…,” and Purity paused. She didn’t know it, but was on the precipice of discovering her true ability and strength. Egwitt was displeased by what he heard next: “I’m happy because Enron was America, dear, and America is rotten through. We are all complicit in an unjust war; our art is no more than a mass commodity; our politicians lie and do it badly and still, as a people, we do not care. Why, Egwitt,” she said, redoubling her napkin, “we don’t even know what truth is anymore. And you’re as much America as Enron is.”

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