Fiction Highlights: Review 31's Best Novels of 2015
by Review 31
Marilynne Robinson, Lila (Virago)
Brimming with lyrical prose and lit by quiet insights, Marilynne Robinson’s Lila is a standout piece of fiction and easily the best novel I’ve encountered in 2015. The book is the third in Robinson’s ‘Gilead’ trilogy – a loose series united by its focus on a small town in Iowa – and details the destitute past of Lila, the ‘unlikely preacher’s wife’ previously mentioned but not yet explored. Robinson’s narrative ambles gracefully through stark portraits of early 20th-century America: fields ravaged by the Dust Bowl, drifters sizing up each other’s meagre possessions, cinemas full of ‘ghosts all gathered in the dark, watching the world, seeing all the scheming and the murder and having no word to say about it.’ Her command of natural imagery is masterful, and with it she constructs a ghostly world where wind is vengeful and water redemptive, where a hard winter can transform children from bright-eyed, curious creatures into ‘just folks trying to get by.’
This knotty illustration of nature – partly reverent, partly resentful – illuminates Lila’s struggle to reconcile her lived experience with her newfound Christianity, the novel’s central crux, and anchors Robinson’s brand of morality, which transcends scripture to manifest in the very blades of grass between Lila’s toes, the moonlight trickling through her window. Passage upon passage sees Lila grapple with existential fears, and in each one she invokes her understanding of the natural world to make sense of life’s uncertainties.
Lila is a national allegory of the quietest proportions, eschewing the roaring diatribes of writers like Jonathan Franzen and Philip Roth and instead whispering its truths. Robinson’s observations about American culture, and the human condition in general, are confessions rather than provocations; they resist pretentiousness and seek to disclose, not instruct – to ponder ‘how to live through the next damned hour,’ how to ‘trust sleep [lest] it just leave you there, waiting,’ how to stand ‘not even knowing that you’re waiting at all. Just there on the stoop in the moonlight licking up tears.’ How to cope with being ‘just a body that thinks and talks and seems to want its life, one more day of it.’ These are some of the best ruminations on humanity in contemporary fiction at large, let alone from 2015.
Tom McCarthy, Satin Island (Jonathan Cape)
Satin Island has had a strange reception. Pantingly anticipated after McCarthy's Booker shortlisting for C in 2010, the reviews admitted to disappointment and puzzlement or – in the case of Christopher Tayler's strange exposition for the London Review of Books – a jaded, mostly condescending weariness with what they took to be the effect on the novel of his long draughts from the poisoned chalice of Theory. It appeared on the Booker and Goldsmiths Prize shortlists but doesn't seem to have come even within sniffing distance of the dosh. McCarthy is now, it seems, an establishment novelist to be treated with a certain formal respect, but one that no-one really knows what to do with.
Which is just as well perhaps: despite appearing like a novelistic equivalent of the decayed art parodied in Fellini's 8½ – ‘is your next film about nothingness again?’ – it is, within its blank surfaces and slim bulk, probably the most acute and ambitious attempt to unfold the novel form in late spectacular culture, to think through, rather than sidestepping, the problems that the matrix of capitalist crisis, digital culture, new technologies of image-production and the exhaustion of postmodernism present for the novel. And we wouldn't want too many people spoiling the party with their bad interpretations, would we? (It's striking that so many of the art and lit crowd that loudly proclaim such a devotion to these contemporary questions ignored Satin Island. The cliques that went systematically nuts over 10:04, My Struggle and the reissue of I Love Dick seem to have been sleeping on the job.)
What's it about? An anthropologist-turned-consultant working on a project whose details and aims are unclear – what better image could there be for the “whatever” quality, in Agamben's words, of contemporary labour? – whose efforts to do his nebulous job turn into a paranoiac trawl through the archives of contemporary image-culture. It's also about parachutes, dream interpretation, buffering circles, garbage, surrealism, rave, Malinowski's social anthropology, torture, the difficulty of keeping a tidy desk and the uselessness of apocalyptic thinking. What more could you ask for?
Elena Ferrante, The Lost Child (Europa Editions)
With the English publication of The Lost Child, the last in Elena Ferrante’s tetralogy charting the lives of two childhood friends from Naples, Ferrante fever has run its course – the surreal sweats and chills of the early novels fade into a recognisable time and place. Part of the appeal of the first novel, My Brilliant Friend, came from a setting that feels almost fantastical: the grit and blood of the Neapolitan slums after the Second World War, where families are torn between their allegiances to the Communists or the Camorrists, where violence is a fact of life – children are thrown through windows, mothers murdered, beatings common – and intelligence, hard work or crime seem the only ways out.
The last instalment has Lenu, the writer-protagonist, return to the old neighbourhood in Naples; here she shares the demands of middle-age – child-rearing, work responsibilities, the sputtering of need and ambition – with her oldest friend, Lina. The fantastical gives way to the mundane: Lena goes on book tours, she starts writing on a computer; the neighbourhood’s political ferment evens out into a corrupt and banal capitalism; possibilities cede and are replaced by a range of choices made, with all the regret and anti-climax choice-making can entail. This is where the novel takes us, into the domestic crises of middle age, divorce and squabbling children – a lost child – and then Ferrante flashes suddenly into old age: one of the pair has disappeared, the other remembers her by writing a book, presumably the one we’re reading.
And, mundane or not, it’s a good book. In Ferrante's hands, the emotional landscape always reveals itself to be filled with twists, cliffhangers, tensions and upsets. That’s the true mastery of her writing – imposing structure and narrative on what is complex, unstructurable, untellable. Turning what she describes to the Paris Review Interview as ‘a sort of female alienation-inclusion' into prose as vividly and rigorously plotted as a thriller. She writes in a flat, realist style that occasionally breaks into moments of surreal lyricism. Here she pins her characters’ emotions down onto a page, as on a spreading board, pulls them out and shows us the awful force of them. Another page and everyone's back in their shells again, flitting through the world. But we know the ferment blistering just under the surface, and can't forget it.
Nathalie Léger, trans. Natasha Lehrer & Cécile Menon, Suite for Barbara Loden (Les Fugitives)
The film critic Serge Daney once remarked that cinema is about transition: the ‘complicated movement’ from one point to another constitutes a ‘language of cinema.’ This dialect consists ‘of everything that film-makers from Lumiére to our day have proposed in order to jump from one scene to the next.’ A desire to speak in the language of cinema is at the heart of Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden. This book plays with our conception of the ties between language, vision and the moving picture. Its structure is celluloid – a series of frames – fixed images run through with facticity – bridged by fantasy – that pan through from a real-world study of the life, times and work of the actress Barbara Loden.
Early in the book, Léger reports on a conversation with filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, regarding her efforts to draft an encyclopaedia entry on Loden: ‘I told him about all the difficulties I was up against in trying to piece together the life of Barbara Loden. And he said to me – this man, who never works on anything that isn’t real, said to me quite calmly – “Make it all up. All you have to do is make it up.”’ That instruction signposts the book’s turn from a biographical comment to something more novelistic, reminiscent of cinema’s staging of life.
This is a novel of ‘transitions’ – of the ways in which film can provide a fabric for the fiction writer’s processes that pictures all of the disruptions that writing screens in its interventions into perspective and personhood. Its suggestion is that montage and digression can help paint a personality through prose. It poses a way in which to think on fiction’s possible engagement with the framing of cultural history; a way in which film provides a mode with which to explore the relationship between fact and fiction; and a picture of the possibility that the cultural object obfuscates the mysteries of personality in its hunt for clarity.
Ben Lerner, 10:04 (Granta)
The word singular is thrown around a lot when it comes to art. But when describing Ben Lerner and his second novel, 10:04, it is a fitting tag. Sure, there are some commonly seen themes to be found in his work, particularly given its autobiographical bent and its concern with what the author describes as ‘the possibility of art and authenticity now; what it would mean to care about literary value in a culture that cares so much about money.’ But each of these topics is here approached from a distinctive angle.
One thing that distinguishes the Kansan from the hordes of other creative writing professors fictionalising their life in the big city is that Lerner is a well-known poet. He rejoices in the fact he is something of an outsider when it comes to prose fiction – a sonneteer masquerading as a novelist: ‘Poetry,’ he admits, ‘remains the core for me; it’s where my education was and where my community is – and where my heroes are.’ Few in literary fiction write with such a keen eye for detail, or with such intellectual seriousness. At the same time, though, Lerner’s fiction is suffused with humour. Far from being a po-faced lecturer, expatiating on art and its possibilities, he generously studs the pages with jokes and funny asides. These are frequently at his own expense, when one of his neurotic reflections inevitably spirals down into a rabbit hole.
Like WG Sebald before him, Lerner’s protagonists share biographical detail with the author and take flâneur-ish walks through modern metropolises, reflecting on literature and history. The penchant for interpolating photos in the text is there too. However, the American goes further than his German forebear, including short stories, essays and, of course, poetry into his novel. Lerner has praised the novel’s ‘elasticity,’ describing it as ‘a really curatorial form,’ and through his precisely choreographed dance between fiction and reality, art and the everyday, the reader is genuinely enlightened – a strange incidence in any fiction. Lerner’s text feels decidedly up-to-date: there are references to modern living and digital technology, but they never feel contrived. 10:04 represents a clear development of his skill as a novelist, not to mention his ambition. He has said that his goal when writing essays, poetry and fiction is ‘to capture the beauty and insanity of the contemporary.’ He most definitely succeeds with 10:04.
Quintan Ana Wikswo, The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far: Stories (Coffee House)
When the call came in to report on our favourite novel for 2015, I didn’t have one. I’d read some fine novels over the past year, but most of them were older. I had, however, read some exceptionally good contemporary short story collections over the course of the year, none more remarkable than Quintan Ana Wikswo's The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that I wanted to go and ‘check up on’ after I’ve put it away, but I’ve found myself wanting to do so with The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far. I’ve wanted to check to see if it had changed, whether it’d grown, sprouted something new or if it had caught some debris on it own and was tending to it now like mother to an infant, a monk to a relic. It is just that strange and visceral.
Blending myth and science, war and romance, reality and fantasy, Wikswo works an astonishing alchemy with her writing. Her prose is very organic and felt bodily; there’s a kind of earthiness to the stories. The narrative camera is at times so close that we can lose our way in a nest of underbrush with her protagonist or be carried out to sea. The writing is as sparse and as tight as poetry: ‘The mouth is a pocket of wind and wanting, and also of words. It smells of mother licking its young. One tongue or two, accommodating. Just a flip of muscle, a flap of skin there we call a cheek, the sag that goes taut with shrieking.’
What makes The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far unusual is Wikswo’s inclusion of her photography, taken with a 100-year-old military camera filled with ‘battlefield detritus.’ The images are eerie, surreal and murky, with recognisable images often superimposed onto more expressionistic backgrounds. Nearly all are lush in colour with some combination of landscape and manmade object. At times the photographs are obviously related to the prose, but more often they’re abstract dreamscapes, registering mood, colour or tenor. Combining image and prose heightens the sense that as we read we are moving through multiple levels – different states of consciousness, different realities.
Han Kang, trans. Deborah Smith, The Vegetarian (Portobello)
Although I read The Vegetarian at the very beginning of the year – early enough that I was still accidentally writing ‘2014’ on all my documents – I still haven’t read anything that has had such a lasting impact. Deborah Smith’s translation of Han Kang’s cult classic is textured, visceral and arrestingly corporeal; reading the text is a curiously tactile experience.
The book follows Yeong-hye, although it never speaks on her behalf. It is divided into three parts. In Part One, Yeong-hye’s proudly average husband describes his wife’s decision to stop eating, cooking and storing meat after having several blood-filled nightmares; it ends with an act of violence at a family dinner. In Part Two, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law becomes obsessed with Yeong-hye’s body – specifically, the Mongolian mark, the light blue birth mark in the small of her back – and incorporates her into an art piece, with devastating consequences. In Part Three, In-hye, Yeong-hye’s sister, attempts to come to terms with the sundering of her family and the final stages of Yeong-hye’s fanatical desire to become a plant. Throughout the book, cultural and sexual taboos thread through and under the narrative, suppressed by a concrete layer of custom and belief that holds the characters in place, until it is forced to burst through in an inevitably brutal way, like tree roots bursting through pavement. It is impossible to read the book without an increasing and unnerving awareness of these rooted taboos, technically wordless but implied by the shape of the action and its fragmentation.
It’s difficult not to use food metaphors in writing this and I have deleted several, because their evocations are so clumsy. The Vegetarian is ‘chewy’; it is filled with strange flavours; it is delicious and intoxicating; it is a feast to be consumed. But, above and beyond this, The Vegetarian is a provocation, a challenge to the idea of consumption – meat, bodies (women’s), lives (women’s) – and the unavoidable factor of control by consumption (or lack thereof). Quite often people like to excitedly describe themselves as having ‘devoured’ a book; this book is one that will devour you back.