Fiction Highlights: Review 31's Best Novels of 2017
by Review 31
Neil Griffiths, As A God Might Be (Dodo Ink)
Unimaginable five years ago, the Republic of Consciousness Prize is open to novels, translated fiction and short stories published by small presses in the UK and Republic of Ireland employing fewer than five staff. The prize (which will surely become known as the 'Conchy') reflects the growing importance of shoestring independent presses willing to commit to non-commercial fiction. The longlist was published earlier this month – 13 books, of which the following six are outstanding: Playing Possum by Kevin Davey (Aaaargh! Press); An Overcoat by Jack Robinson (CB Editions); Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefevbre (Les Fugitives);Attrib. and other stories by Eley Williams (Influx Press); Darker with the Lights On by David Hayden (Little Island Press); In the Absence of Absalon by Simon Okotie (Salt Publishing). Any one of these would be my book of the year, any year. So, come to that, would all the other books on the longlist, so do look them up. I pity the judges when it comes to the final whittle.
The founder of the Conchie is the novelist Neil Griffiths, a tireless and energetic supporter of good writing through a regular online blog, delivered eloquently and off-the-cuff straight to camera, like a latter-day AJP Taylor. I'm going to chose his latest novel, As a God Might Be, as my own book of the year. It combines colossal ambition with emotional honesty and intellectual clarity – a 600-page Dostoevskian theological treatise that is refreshingly conventional in execution, and takes me back to my first encounters with William Golding as a callow youngster in the 1970s. Griffiths offers a contemporary take on Golding's The Spire – in this case a middle-aged man becomes obsessed with building a church by a sea-cliff. Nothing radically experimental, nothing metatextual, no fancy tricks, but a huge number of big ideas negotiated with wit and skill and grace. Not, I thought, my kind of thing at all. But it turned out that it was, and is.
Wolfgang Hilbig, trans. Isabel Fargo Cole, Old Rendering Plant (Two Lines)
Wolfgang Hilbig’s Old Rendering Plant is of a tenuous, bemusing beauty that rebuffs easy description. In its dense, uniform service, where events are barely distinguishable from dreams, it recalls the murkiness of Absalom, Absalom! His feel for nature is a bit like Hamsun, but without the bombast, and with a deep-seated, barely uttered torment. The book is driven onward not by the course of events, but by intensities of thought that clot in the midst of disparate impression: 20 years can pass in a single page, as the narrator, now older, reflects grimly on the inevitability of opening his apartment door, despite the miseries its interior harbours for him. Elsewhere, the play of traffic shadows reflected on the ceiling stretches on at leisure, ripe with inscrutable significance.
It would be inexcusable to talk about Hilbig’s entry into English without mentioning his translator, Isabel Fargo Cole. There is not much plot in Old Rendering Plant, not much character development, and the tension hinges on the rendering of atmosphere, of the forest, the river, the morose interiors; if the language didn’t pop, it wouldn’t be worth reading. But Cole’s word choices inevitably surprise and please: she is unpredictable but not showy, and has a superlative ear for alliteration, assonance, and rhythm. Phrases like ‘the black baldachin of willow wands’ or ‘the rolling racket of a distant train, passing on and on as though all night long its trundle and clatter must never break off’ glimmer amid the gloom of Hilbig’s deliberations. In the book’s second half, the narrator comes to see his kinship with industrial ruins and the ravaged landscapes around them. He travels to the old rendering plant, watches the animals in their death throes, and observes their bloated corpses. After proposing to become a gardener – though he detests gardening – he tells his family he will apply at the rendering plant, Germania II, claiming ‘they were prepared to hire me on my appearance alone.’
Hilbig paints an acid portrait of man under socialism, of weariness and stagnation, but the sense of futility that permeates his book, and its strange relationship to the painterly visions that beset the author, is of a deeper, grimmer character: greasy water, coal-black earth, failing machinery are avatars for a common, dreadful fate. ‘By developing an interest in the simplest of things, you risked losing your hold on the world,’ writes Hilbig. Old Rendering Plant is a moving record of a rare artistic consciousness torn between these two poles.
Adrian Nathan West
Tom Rachman, Basket of Deplorables (Quercus)
The five loosely linked stories that make up Tom Rachman’s ingenious, timely, disturbing collection, Basket of Deplorables are, as well as being extremely funny, prime examples of rapid-response literature. Unlike theatre, or even TV drama, fiction has been slow to address the post-truth world of Donald Trump’s presidency. With slick alacrity, the tales here explore how Trump vs. Hilary and the ensuing Republican victory poisoned the political well. Set on election night, the title story follows a garrulous cross-section of New York’s intelligentsia as they watch their Democratic dreams combust. Narrated by a blind hostess, the tale is all the more excruciating because the reality of USA 2017 is so frightening.
In ‘Truth is for Losers’, a 42-year-old Kalamazoo Starbucks barista is forced to re-evaluate his relationship with a bullying older brother, who dies in a plane crash. He eventually pays a troupe of actors to impersonate mourners at his funeral. The story suggests that the meek seldom inherit the earth, and that the arc of history often bends towards injustice. By the third story, ‘Leakzilla’, the book’s organising principle becomes clear. A minor character in one story becomes a major one in the next, reinforcing the notion that we are all bit-players in someone else’s drama. The story imagines the perils of dating when everyone’s private emails have been leaked, shared, and ‘monetized by some big-tech corp’, with the only people spared being ‘the very young and the the very old . . . and the paranoid, who’d been correct all along.’
While Rachman is king of the one-liner (‘Why isn’t there more sci-fi in the theater?’), he manages to achieve real psychological depth and insight in a couple of stories. In ‘Sad! Wrong! Not Nice!’, a corrupt businessman who we are led to believe died in the Congolese jungle becomes a figure of pathos and epic self-deception. And in the chilling final story, ‘How the End Begins’, a medic discovers an old website which purports to predict the exact circumstances of your death: ‘The internet, she thinks, makes it so hard to respect humanity’. Predicting that the first years of Trump’s presidency will be full of ‘shallow cruelties and . . . dunderhead incompetence’ might be picking low-hanging fruit, but the most affecting moments are those that put a nation’s pain into human terms: ‘Oh, America – like my barista brother – you’ve grown into the most adorable dud’.
Micheline Aharonian Marcom, The Brick House (Awst Press)
Most of my reading this year has been taken up by the news. The wobble of First World countries has been hard to turn away from, and I’ve wished more than once that history stop being made at such an onerous pace. Listed out, the books I actually read in 2017 look like I’m mentally preparing for a disaster – or perhaps just having a rational emotional response to events in the actual world. The list includes memoirs by Zen masters, existentialists, and, perhaps embarrassingly, a few self-help guides by former Navy SEALs.
My response to the ‘actual world’ might be why I chose as my favourite book of fiction this year The Brick House by Micheline Aharonian Marcom. Fragmentary, ambiguous, fantastic, The Brick House is a celebratory work of the imagination. Offering its reader a collection of dreams set in juxtaposition to one another, it has the intoxicating combo of influences from Carl Jung, Italo Calvino, and Yasunari Kawabata along with Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s own signature prose style. A collaborative work, Fowzia Karimi’s illuminations of long-tail birds, erotic amalgams, and grim-faced glyphs also appear throughout the text.
While each dream is unique (including in tone and storytelling technique) they share some common themes – sex, love, death, language, transgression, and ecology. There are many journeys in these dreams and many lost dreamers. Dreams are misinterpreted, and dreams unravel in strange pathways to reveal our hidden desires in what we say: ‘R has taken another sip of her wine and she has asked C if he will fuck her tonight. She doesn’t make her request by use of the interrogative, however, but rather as a savage string of exclamations and small shouts about other, unrelated subjects (credit card statements, an unpaid mortgage, an unfixed fence and toilet, his job).’
In a recent interview, Micheline Aharonian Marcom said The Brick House took ten years to write. To its benefit, the collection has the density and patina of a work that has taken time. The Brick House reveals the multitudes within us: our lightness and darkness – the killer and the creator. These are ancient concepts – indeed, we are told of a dream that waited millennia to be dreamed again – and Marcom acknowledges this by frequently describing written languages that cannot be translated, or mystical writings, or speakers of dead languages, all of which take the dreamers to ‘unlanguage spaces.’
Daniel Magariel, One of the Boys (Granta)
After the break-up of an abusive relationship, an unanchored father absconds with two boys in the back of his car, promising an Americana adventure which sours further with every gas station they pass. The three make an uneasy gang, and as the title suggests, expectations of conforming behaviour are the catalyst for explosive fall-outs, whilst the emotional exploration of unsettling masculine relationships upends any possible free-wheeling highway road trip cliché. The best novellas make the most of their feasibly one-gulp length through continuously evolving plot action and/or drawing out a single sustained emotional tension with a reader compelled to turn just one more page, and one more after that until the end is too near to stop.
One of the Boys takes a go-STOP approach to plot in two linked, distinct scenarios: first with the kinetic momentum of a moving car filled with the promise of adventure and new beginnings, then behind the locked doors of a dangerous domestic environment where even the creaking of a floorboard may reign down trouble. It would be fair to make comparisons with Cormac McCarthy, Donna Tartt, or Jeffrey Eugenides: North American-dwelling young people at the mercy of hostile environments, who depend upon the spirit and courage of their youth to overcome cruelty and malice, and when the reader roots for them, it is both for the immediacy of individual survival and with a cutting sense of injustice that vulnerability is being exploited.
It’s easy to throw around a word like ‘heart-breaking,’ but in reading it I had to take a break, and unstick myself from the theme of domestic violence to view from a little bit further away. Magariel’s greatest writing strength is in the subtleties which signal foreboding. Against a backdrop of grand betrayals, urgent danger, and fear, it’s the inflections of dialogue permeated with unsaid threat ringing around the domestic space, and the maturation of perspective moments when the boys unite against their father to protect one another, which give the text a bone-deep authenticity and elevate it into a human study which is impressive for a debut.
Jennifer Egan, Manhattan Beach (Little, Brown)
Jennifer Egan’s first novel since 2011’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, Manhattan Beach was trailed as its complete opposite, a ‘traditional historical novel’ set in the 1940s around the Brooklyn Naval Yard. That is partly true. The novel does bear certain hallmarks of historical fiction (it meets the 60-year test set by the Walter Scott Prize), but it’s also quite a strange book. It has a few postmodern-esque characteristics – switches of narrative perspective in the middle of a scene, acknowledgements of the opacity of the past – but those are not what make it strange.
Like an impressionist impersonates someone’s characteristics, Egan ‘does’ a historical novel, particularly in her fastidious attention to historical accuracy. But because the book wears its research on its sleeve, it threatens to deaden the prose. Added to its sedate plot, the book has markers of boringness without actually being boring. This is not because it has ‘the atmosphere of a noir thriller,’ as the blurb puts it, even if it is set in the 1940s and its gangster protagonist Dexter Styles thinks of himself as living in a ‘shadow world.’ Manhattan Beach is not pulpy enough for a thriller, and it certainly doesn’t have the pace of one. What attracts the reader is that ‘atmosphere’; Egan’s trademark crisp poeticism conjures a vivid sense of place, and her descriptions of the wintry edges of New York, where the city meets the sea, are wonderful.
The sea is a constant, real presence. The novel’s three protagonists – Dexter, his one-time employee Kerrigan, Kerrigan’s daughter Anna – are all intricately related to it. As a teenager, Kerrigan dives into New York harbour to rescue drowning friends, and as an adult becomes a sailor. Anna is mesmerised by the sea as a child, and becomes a Navy diver. Dexter lives next to it, and has Kerrigan dumped in it after he crosses him. As the novel’s governing motif, the sea also gives us the best way to talk about its effect, which is one of undercurrents. You are pulled in and under, even as you resist its ‘boringness’ and its slowness. It is powerful, but you’re not entirely sure how it works.
Emmanuel Carrère, trans. John Lambert, The Kingdom: A Novel (Allen Lane)
The Kingdom is infuriating. It calls itself a novel, but starts with autobiography, before delving into a psychological, narratological and spiritual exploration of the Gospels. Eventually we learn, after more than a hundred pages of agonising self-examination (‘I was once a Christian and now I’m not, how can this be? Was I stupid then, or now?’) that Carrère intends to think though the silences in several New Testament stories, to complete them as faithfully as he knows how, with a novelistic imagination. Sure, to write ‘a novel’ is to be endlessly inventive, but, as the author delights in provoking us with, The Kingdom is emphatically not a novel, unless you go along with the conceit that speculative thought around different characters is inherently novelistic.
The author patronises St. Paul (uncouth, full of himself) and St. Luke (a bit of a dimwit, spiritually strong but sexually inactive) while following their words and imagined lives with a passion bordering on mania. The book is filled with references to Nietzsche and French and Russian writers and artists, reflecting the author’s own tastes and prejudices. Why, if you’re serious about wanting to understand how on earth people could believe in Christ, then or now, would you stick to the things you know and like? Carrère loves the idea of cleverness, of Nietzschean honesty and disdain, ever the self-conscious French intellectual polemicising against everything and everyone, a smirk on his face.
And yet The Kingdom is, quite simply, the best ‘novel’ I’ve read this year. I get angry, still now, about it: the author’s self-regard, his ridiculous myopia. (Obviously, I feel like shouting, if you spend your days reading Nietzsche you end up less than happy; isn’t that what you wanted?), his excruciating need to bring the apostles and evangelists down or up or along to his level (he doesn’t seem to realise they could have been radically different.) Here I go again, drawn into argument. That is the power of this work. From start to end, Carrère had me spellbound, and makes me want to send him principled, passionate, lengthy emails or letters. (I’ve never felt such a need before.) Despite all the author’s odiousness – such as when he declares he’s obviously rich, intellectual and at the top of the tree – I found The Kingdom’s ceaseless questioning utterly compelling. I love, I guess, to hate it.
André van Loon
Mohsin Hamid, Exit West (Hamish Hamilton)
In Exit West, Mohsin Hamid subtly channels the magical realist techniques of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie, while offering the same delicate nuances of character that make his previous novels so engaging. Hamid’s narrative opens in an unnamed Muslim country – very possibly modelled on Hamid’s own Pakistan – as an IS-like insurgency begins to disrupt the metropolitan lives of two dating university students. We follow these two characters, Saeed and Nadia, at a sometimes breathless pace, through the rest of their lives as they escape their home country, survive a refugee camp on the Greek island of Mykonos and ultimately travel, by way of London, to a new life in San Francisco. The characters’ frequent movement across continents is made possible by the novel’s sole magical element; portals are opening up in disused doors around the world through which a person can step and cross the planet in an instant.
The magical conceit draws the focus onto characters who now have a new world to adjust to, and as the mass movement in the novel is able to dwarf that of our real world, it asks how we, as citizens of wealthy nations, are going to adjust to this changing world. Exit West dwells provocatively on moments of interface between migrants and ‘natives’ in a way that makes clear the importance of respect and humanity within our international political landscape. The magical portals of the novel offer us a way to think about how migration works, how borders figure into our thinking about identity, and how the stateless are once again becoming the yardstick by which we measure our society’s capacity for humanity.
Sam Riviere, Safe Mode (Test Centre)
Safe Mode is a novel about disappearances. Taking lead from Tan Lin’s conception of an ‘ambient’ literature set up earlier in the 2010s, this novel evinces that category by way of a train of anecdotes and asides. A thread of uncollected fragments and insights, we’re privy only to the small corners and cornices of observation, aside or reflection. Emotions fatten and disappear; a various ‘I’s ‘He’s, and ‘They’s emerge only to evaporate. The near palimpsestic overlap of ideas, outlooks and personalities all build that ambience, that bleed of concerns, as – under the adage of digitisation, the blue light of a smartphone, or the cultural centrality of surveillance cultures – the book asks questions as to the ways in which our reflections have been conditioned, our thoughts determined and catalogued, our critical freedoms dissipated. ‘The true horror is exposure,’ Riviere writes, ‘– to what? To understanding.’
In 1999, Mark Weiser of Xerox delivers a little lecture on the looming ubiquity of the domestic computer. Looking for some foundation upon which to build his argument, he suggests that ‘The most profound technologies are those that disappear.’ These technologies, he argues, weave themselves so distinctly ‘into the fabric of everyday life’ until ‘they are indistinguishable from it.’ Attempting to apply a terminological infrastructure to his thinking, Weiser coins these technologies literary machines. These machines do not require our conscious attention, nor present any tangible trial for our levels of literacy; they assimilate themselves into life as a backdrop to action. Information conveyed across street signs, food stuffs, and billboards convey an informational ready-made that, however tendentious, relay opportunity for absorption and understanding at a single glance. They simply need be operated.
The literary machine is not a machine under duress – rendered obsolete by technological progress – but rather a machine decreed unimportant when qualitatively tallied up against the significance of its function, when the importance of the operation to the operator supersedes the device itself. Sam Riviere’s Safe Mode feels like an instrument supportive of that kind of advocacy; like a reminder of the technological status of the codex’s status as a literary machine in a world swamped by all these floating, tendentious texts. It’s a reminder that the book in your lap remains an affordable house for the otherwise itinerant idea, and that its meaning will drift from reader to reader, will change with each operator at each and every literary machine.