Fiction Highlights: Review 31's Best Novels of 2016
by Review 31
Tony Tulathimutte, Private Citizens (Oneworld)
Overlooked in the rush to review Autumn’s big hitters and hampered by not making the Booker longlist, Tony Tulathimutte’s debut novel may well be revealed, in decades to come, as one which took the true temperature of the times. Following the fates of four millennials in noughties San Francisco, the book sets out to brutally satirise their world, while inadvertently celebrating it too. There’s ex-addict and aspirant writer, Linda; and her diametrical opposite, the idealist, Cory. Then there’s tech and porn aficionado, Will; and lastly, and most poignantly, the lugubrious giant, Henrik. The paths of all four cross unpredictably over the course of their twenties in the Bay Area maze of tech start-ups, direct-action protests, kitsch uke and karaoke bars, and druggy parties.
All of which makes Private Citizens sound like a heartless, reductive take-down of pitiable stereotypes, without any mitigating humour or humanity. However, the book provides the opposite experience, with an acute observation or laugh on virtually every page. Here are just a few examples: ‘Disrobing in front of your computer to watch other people fuck along with millions of people worldwide seemed like some decisive failure of the human experiment’. ‘I hate the way everyone knows technology and textiles are made by slaves and they still don’t care’. ‘The internet’s a shopping mall. A global corporate holding pen masquerading as public commons’. ‘Not much distinguished his childhood from a kidnapping in progress’. And my favourite: ‘What are skinny jeans but the millennial beret?’
Worryingly sharp and acidic throughout, like Jarett Kobek’s recent debut, I Hate the Internet, Private Citizens forces the reader to take stock of social media’s stranglehold over human transactions. Along the way it decimates the rise of jargon culture, and the philo-capitalism of non-profit organisations, which ends up looking very much like old-fashioned capitalism in action. The book builds to a harrowing episode involving cosmetic surgery, in which Will reaps the terrible rewards of vanity and self-hatred. This is followed by an ending that brings all four characters together for the first time since the start of the book; the Franzenian principle established in The Corrections. It’s a formal finish that justifies the book’s discursive adventurousness, its bile and rancour. Wickedly terse and fraught, politically aware and linguistically nimble, Private Citizens is a bravura performance – a comic gem that will surely shine on beyond the present moment.
Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta)
While reading Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing I learned that in China, last year is described as being ‘the year above’ and next year ‘the year below’; the day before yesterday is the day ‘in front’ and the day after yesterday is the day ‘behind’. As the novel’s narrator, Marie, explains: ‘This means that future generations are not the generations ahead, but the ones behind. Therefore, to look into the future one must turn around…’
Marie, a Chinese-Canadian mathematician, cannot face the future until she uncovers her family’s past. Over the course of the book, she attempts to piece together the fragmented, interconnected stories of her relatives and her missing friend, Ai-ming, an exile from Beijing. Gradually, the lives of three gifted musicians at the Shanghai Conservatory during the 1960s emerge, and Thien manages to give shape, in words, to the emotions classical music allows them to explore. This novel is as much about creative expression as it is about repression. Though it spans the epochal periods before, during and after the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square protests, ‘historical’ would be an inadequate way to describe this book. The narrative travels up and down the decades like notes in a bar of music. Then and now are interspersed, reflecting the ‘bent and elastic and repeated’ nature of time.
Thien’s previous novel, 2012’s Dogs at the Perimeter, was a haunting account of the Cambodian genocide; she does not shy away from attempting to put the unsayable down on paper, from telling the stories of people who were silenced. A truly ambitious novelist, she writes about the full spectrum of human experience with extraordinary skill and sensitivity. I’ve chosen Do Not Say We Have Nothing as my favourite work of fiction from 2016, because I know it will stay with me long after this year is over.
Garth Greenwell, What Belongs to You (Picador)
Garth Greenwell’s harrowing portrayal of the power of desire, What Belongs To You, has been heralded as a masterpiece and an instant classic on both sides of the Atlantic. The story begins on an unseasonably warm autumn day in the public toilets underneath the National Palace of Culture in Sofia where the unnamed American narrator picks up Mitko, a Bulgarian hustler. Though it starts with a transaction, their relationship rapidly mutates into something more serious: ‘I wanted him to myself,’ the narrator admits early on. Their encounters move from public cruising ground to the narrator’s apartment; intimacy – and vulnerability – follow desire. Greenwell’s writing is lyrical but always sharply observed, the economy and depth of the sentences recalling WG Sebald and Françoise Sagan at their best – but it is also a style of prose that feels wholly original.
As the bond between Mitko and the narrator intensifies, the power balance, and the roles both men inhabit, remain noticeably ambivalent. ‘I was performing too,’ the narrator recalls, ‘pretending to believe that his show of passion was a genuine response to my own desire, about which there was nothing feigned.’ The narrator quickly discovers that his erotic obsession is hard to navigate, not least because he has as his guide the holy trinity of desire, shame and guilt. Ultimately, neither Mitko nor the narrator gets out unscathed.
One aspect of what makes What Belongs To You so exceptional is the way language and literary form are the foil to these unravelling forces. Written as a single paragraph spanning 40 pages, the second of the novel’s three parts traces the narrator’s neuroses back to a moment of trauma during his upbringing in the American south. It is one of the most extraordinary passages of writing I have read all year – and certainly the most memorable; memorable for its oppressiveness, its barely contained howl of rage; its honesty. At a time when reactionaries are increasingly railing against ‘identity politics’ and, elsewhere, the advent of same-sex marriage has caused some to say the fight for equal rights is almost over, Greenwell’s novel is an important exploration of queer identity and the question of how queer lives might exist outside of the mainstream.
Jung Young Moon, trans. Yewon Jung, Vaseline Buddha (Deep Vellum)
‘Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.’ This is a sentence from Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures. It’s also a line in John Hollander’s poem ‘Coiled Alizarin.’ It also appears in Vaseline Buddha as a sentence that hold its narrator captive ‘like a charm.’ Here it is again: ‘Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.’ It’s a grammatically correct sentence, but semantically nonsensical. It’s logical in form, but meaningless. Such is Vaseline Buddha, a novel that is a kind of non-novel. Something that is logical in form yet without intelligible meaning is what the narrator of Vaseline Buddha is after.
Written over the course of a year (possibly just a novelistic frame), its narrator recounts past unhappy travels, odd encounters with animals, unsatisfying trysts with women, philosophical asides on world dictators, and strange observations all the while dwelling on his own lethargy and ill health. It’s a perplexing and challenging book told by an unreliable narrator who confesses early on that for some time now he has had ‘a long and difficult and tedious yet pleasant struggle against realism.’ The novel is very much aware of itself as an artifice and its narrator’s musings on the act of writing are clear-eyed and honest: ‘The vague stories that I’d tried to write down but had escaped me began to blossom little by little,’ he says in the opening pages, ‘and I wanted to give them a vague form that suited them.’ The gap between the written word and reality, however, bugs him; and he attempts repeatedly to transcend the abstraction. Alas, even the title of the novel is vague and nonfigurative, a name that ‘could be given to something indefinable, something unnamable, and also meant untitled.’
Vaseline Buddha is the most interesting novel I read in 2016. It is marked by a pleasantly precise language that often wrest the surreal from the weary reality of its narrator. And it’s a remarkable work for its eccentric modes of thought and how it looks beyond the basic novel form and asks important secondary questions of where fiction is left to go.
Yuri Herrera, The Transmigration of Bodies (And Other Stories)
A scabrous, frenetic and compelling tale of warring families, death, disease and banal but brutal violence, Yuri Herrera’s The Transmigration of Bodies is an essential work from one of Mexico’s most exciting writers. Herrera crafts an urban scene which is part Mexico City, part Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles and part biblical cityscape; in which the population, blighted by a mosquito borne plague, exists in a state of extreme dread. The Redeemer, who excels at ‘nothing but the ability to diminish malediction,’ must navigate this fraught world to broker peace between two opposing families, whilst also – perhaps more importantly – finding a way into the bed of his neighbour Three Times Blonde.
This bitter, cynical, yet indefatigably hopeful character is both bemused guide and bewildered witness to the strange world in which he operates, which is populated by such unforgettable characters as the Neeyanderthal, Baby Girl, the Mennonite and the Unruly. Through this tale Herrera crafts an epic noir in miniature, in which all compass points defining morality and truth are scattered, and the transmigration of the title takes place in the basest materialist sense. Herrera’s fast-paced prose, expertly translated by Lisa Dillman, combines a gritty hardboiled quality with dream-like fluency to give this slight but compelling tale great depth. A story of hope amidst the hopeless, and a parable for our violent, perpetually threatened times, The Transmigration of Bodies is indispensable.
Roger Lewinter, trans. Rachel Careau, The Attraction of Things (New Directions)
In a recent article in the London Review of Books, Seamus Perry draws the reader’s attention to ‘the beautifully poised way that Browning deploys the very word things,’ and this put me in mind a bit of one of the most strangely charming books to come into English in recent years, Roger Lewinter’s Attraction of Things, translated by Rachel Careau. Unlike his near-contemporary and near-compatriot Georges Perec (Lewinter was born in France, but has lived in Switzerland since the Second World War), whose Things: A Story of the Sixties (1965) is among the masterpieces of the desolation induced by material desires, Lewinter dwells on the bliss concealed in antique LPs, porcelain cups, or a Kashmir shawl found at a flea market. The consolations they offer, their solidity and constancy, are contrasted with a form of life whose solitude, obscurity, and tragedies Lewinter describes in a prose at once halting and delicate.
The writing is too muted to be passionate: there is a compulsive reticence to the phrases, which stutter, stop, withdraw, and revive amid hyphens, colons, and semicolons. Lewinter seems abashed at whatever resembles an end, and the moments of ecstasy that punctuate the book – if such a word is appropriate to sentiments so discreet – follow reprisals of feelings feared lost, as in ‘La Argentina’, the finest story in the volume, when, informed of his father’s death, and chided by a doctor as possibly responsible for it, the narrator puts on two recordings of the Spanish dancer Antonia Mercé y Luque and remarks: ‘[T]he sharp tap of the castanets sufficed to evoke in its brilliance the entirety of beauty.’ New Directions has also recently published another brief volume by the same author, Story of Love in Solitude, of a similar, almost sumptuous fragility. One hopes more will follow.
Adrian Nathan West
Alejandro Zambra, trans. Megan McDowell, Multiple Choice (Granta)
‘This is not me talking, this is somebody else talking for me.’ It’s late into Zambra’s game-of-a-book, Multiple Choice, that this proclamation is made, but its implications are heady: the publication of this book in a year increasingly strung out on the burr of rolling coverage, that tends to provoke detachment rather than direct confrontation of the urgent terms of the day, feels a poignant thing. Zambra’s work aims to renounce its category and diminish its deference to the commercial demands of literary publication. From the cover down, this refusal sits centre stage. It’s (a.) fiction, (b.) non-fiction, (c.) poetry; (d.) all of the above, (e.) none of the above. As our conception of fiction grows and fattens, assuming the stature of some post-truth dictum or some unstable facticity, Zambra’s attentions zone in on the constraints that beleaguer a reader under the weight of received wisdom, under the encumbrance of imposed frameworks for the receipt of information.
Formally, Multiple Choice is indebted to a particular examination, owing its structural fibre to the Chilean aptitude tests that punctuate high school education and act as a route into, or shutout from, university life. But whilst the structure of examination withstands here, the field of inquiry is broadened. Every question is an open field, every possible an answer an assessment of ownership, a self-portrait in algorithmic clarity. In each and every case, these various questions and plausible answers initiate a conversation about control. We’ve subtle plays on memory, jokes on ambition and expectation, and images or impressions that ripple out to the political – whether remembering Pinochet, or pondering the widening income disparities of Chilean culture. In end, though, this book is an exploration of the limitations that beset our approach to literature. Its pressing imperative is an entertainment of a series of questions: how do we assert a sense of our own authority as we enter a fixed conversation? How do we chart the changing role of the reader under the duress of our own expectations of culture’s transformative power? This book is about our ability to exist under the duress of social constraint and, more operatively, make light of it. Where you find your fun is ultimately, for Zambra, up to you.
Boris Dralyuk ed., 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press)
2016 has been a ghastly year. I remember speaking to a friend at the start of it, and deciding to call it ‘the year of cheer’ – such was our ironic way. Then came a series of deaths (personally I’m still mourning Alan Rickman), untypical British nastiness over Brexit and, to top it all off, Trump. However, we shouldn’t complain in literary terms. 2016 saw the first English translations of Patrick Modiano’s Villa Triste and Gerard Reve’s The Evenings – both ambiguous, understated novels which seem to chime with the times. And Stephen Backhouse’s Kierkegaard: A Single Life also impressed, with its demystifying, emotionally charged look at an often quoted, but rarely read philosopher.
In a good literary year, 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution stood out as my favourite. It combines Russian poems, short stories, vignettes and journalism written between 1917 and 1919. Some of the authors – Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mayakovsky and Bulgakov – are famous, others relatively obscure or never translated into English before. Selected and introduced by Boris Dralyuk, the works strike different poses. Some demonstrate revulsion at the orgy of violence unleashed by the Russian sea change; others glorify ordinary citizens; many scrutinise Russia with a freedom that was soon to be extinguished. (Notable among these is the satirist Teffi, who portrays Lenin as an unoriginal and confused chancer.)
Reading 1917 is like walking into a warzone: people are still reacting to what’s just happened; history hasn’t been written yet. However, this isn’t a book of firsthand accounts; instead, there’s an enticing aesthetic distancing from the horror and appeal of revolution. All of Dralyuk’s selected authors are thinking, feeling and creating human beings. And so, at its best, 1917 is self-reflective, despite a sense of impending doom. This, from Anna Akhmatova, is characteristic:
Heart-on-sleeve Russian writing: beautiful and searching, if often melancholy. There’s nothing quite like it.
I heard a voice. It called me.
‘Come here,’ it spoke consolingly,
‘and leave your senseless, sinful land,
abandon Russia for all time.
I’ll scrub your hands free of the blood,
I’ll take away your bitter shame,
I’ll soothe the pain of loss
and insults with a brand new name.’
But cool and calm, I stopped my ears,
refused to hear it,
not letting that unworthy speech
defile my grieving spirit.
Andre van Loon