I have a dear friend who likes to draw constant attention to my penchant for straight white male writers. Well, dear friend, you might like to note that on this list there are three books whose writers are not white, and one, at Number Three, not only written by a woman but about female companionship, motherhood, feminism! Put that in your traditional Ghanaian Bugum and smoke it.
Here are my favourite reads of 2015:
10. ‘House of Meetings’ (2006) by Martin Amis
This is the inevitable Amis Jnr. inclusion, pipping by a fair whack his overreaching ‘Night Train’ (1997). Some say this too overreaches, being, as it is, a kind of potted history of Russia’s most inhumane modern atrocities, as told by the usual Nabokovian monster with the usual compelling, always fancy prose style. But where some saw the author’s jocular cadence as a count against this (anglicized, pocket-sized) Russian epic, I found its tension with the subject matter aptly queasy-making, suitably magnetic. Undeniably weird and in questionable taste, but this is why I love Martin Amis.
9. ‘The Sellout’ (2015) by Paul Beatty
This year, more than any other I remember, a number of books I read as they were published, and this is just one of the four that made this list. Paul Beatty is an African-American satirist whose novels save no one, excoriate everyone, but focus most intently on the various conceptions of ‘blackness’ in modern-day America. There’s a pleasing audacity in Beatty’s framing the narrative as the extended reminiscence of a present-day slave-driver and school segregationist who finds himself in court – and who happens to be black. ‘The Sellout’ does what few of today’s satirical novels manage: it reads beautifully, provokes with a point, and actually makes you laugh.
8. ‘A Personal Matter’ (1964) by Kenzaburo Oe
On Jonathan Franzen’s recommendation, I read this incredibly honest Japanese novella recounting the scheming and self-flagellation of protagonist Bird after his son is born disabled. Oe’s own son was born disabled, and it’s amazing he could write about this subject matter with such unflinching candour and uncompromising humour. Goodness and compassion prevail in this parable, as has Kenzaburo’s with his son Hikari, who is now, though autistic, visually impaired and epileptic, a successful composer of chamber music. Kenzaburo won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994.
7. ‘Rabbit, Run’ (1960) by John Updike
This is one of the first serious novels I ever read, and my most lasting memory was one of dislike: not of the prose, which I knew had impressed me, but of Rabbit, the protagonist, whose unquenchable maleness had, without the face-saving irony of Portnoy, left me, like he does Ruth, with a bad taste in my mouth. But that’s just the point now, isn’t it, I’ve realised, and have learned to now appreciate the greater earnestness and Protestant ickiness of Updike’s best-loved work. Oh, and technically the writing is near-faultless: the whole reads seamless as a prose poem unbroken, and each of the images has that weird Updike touch of being alien and exact all at once.
6. ‘Welcome to Braggsville’ (2015) by T. Geronimo Johnson
See, friend? Another African-American! Few critics saw fit to compare this to ‘The Sellout’, even though we have here this year’s other venerated satire on race relations and black identity (one or the other, but rarely both if anywhere, appeared on many ‘Best of 2015’ lists). This is less poetic but deliberately so, using different registers and styles and dialects to embody different kinds of prejudice and avarice. And by addressing, within the story line, the legitimacy of irony in today’s age (in the best way I’ve seen done since David Foster Wallace’s non-fiction ruminations on the same) the laughs come harder and speak more deeply than they seem to do in Beatty’s work.
5. ‘Carpenter’s Gothic’ (1985) by William Gaddis
I AM A SCHOLAR OF WILLIAM GADDIS, having written a thesis on his first two mammoth novels, ‘The Recognitions’ (1955) and ‘JR’ (1975). These remain unconquerable, but ‘Carpenter’s Gothic’, a bleak burlesque on American religion, world conquest and global finance, is still a brilliant book, made up of sentences which, though garbled, sans proper grammar and relentlessly unwinding, hypnotise the reader with their comedy and poetry, as art reconstituted from a logjam of jargon, legalese, business-speak and jingoism. Read this if you want to read a genius turning our late capitalist loghorrea into powerful literature.
4. ‘The Anatomy Lesson’ (1983) by Philip Roth
I’ll make no apologies for this: Philip Roth speaks to me very directly, and this, the third installment in the Zuckerman trilogy, has risen to be one of my favourites. I feel a great affinity with most Roth protagonists, but Zuckerman in this book is me this year: struggling to write, suffering back pain, and even more aggressively on everybody’s nerves. I love Roth when he’s this antagonistic.
3. ‘After Birth’ (2015) by Elisa Albert
And speaking of whom… I also adored this book, whose author has admitted she was going for a mixture of “‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and Roth circa 1973.” It’s a dazzling and highly appropriate combination for tackling motherhood and post-natal depression, themes which are deserving of this kind of bruising treatment. The anger and confusion are so palpable in this, so breakneck in places there’s no pause for punctuation, and the voice so vivid, unforgiving and hilarious I can feel it buzzing through my head long after having read it. It’s so nice to read a woman assert her womanhood by tearing up taboos and the tropes of feminism.
2. ‘Purity’ (2015) by Jonathan Franzen
I’m done with my half-hearted dismissal of Franzen and back in the fold with this, his latest novel, which, unlike the overly po-faced ‘Freedom’ (2010), finds him doing what he does so well: the human comedy. The passage on Tom’s marriage, based in part on Franzen’s own experience, strikes that tremulous balance, somehow, between proper heartbreak and deep hilarity, and the rest is entirely engrossing, too, darting as it does between continents and characters, from discourse on the internet and forays into feminism. It is extremely heartening to read new fiction whose profundity and thoughtfulness account for its popularity; it stands as a testament to Franzen’s dictum that good fiction makes us feel less alone.
1. (The Rest of) ‘The Patrick Melrose Novels’ (1992-2012) by Edward St. Aubyn
Edward St Aubyn is my new favourite writer, because despite being raped as a child by his father and the consequently raging drug dependency that lasted throughout his adolescence and early adulthood, he managed to create these five brilliant comedies: ‘Never Mind’ (which I read last year), ‘Bad News’ (these both 1992), ‘Some Hope’ (1994), ‘Mother’s Milk’ (2005) and ‘At Last’ (2011). That he wrote them is one thing, commendable enough, but that they actually concern his own survival while remaining both so funny and emotionally true has to rate as something superhuman. Read these novels.
Well there it is, folks. Let’s just hope Lynne Tillman doesn’t call this one “depressing.”