Review 31's Books of the Year 2019

by Review 31

Our 2019 fiction highlights range from David Bowman’s ‘vast and hyperactive’ polyphonic survey of 20th-century Americana to the ‘supercharged energy, pace and wit’ of Isabel Waidner’s idiosyncratic portrait of contemporary Britain; to the more phantasmagoric landscapes of Tim Etchells’ short stories — ‘corrupt, ludicrous or even grotesque’ in their linguistic playfulness. The selection includes two particularly timely novels that explore the devastating legacy of US state-sponsored violence: Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive — ‘fiercely political, as well richly associative; brimming with intelligent observation and humanity — and Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto, which combines 'wit and virtuosity' with 'a core of seriousness and rage'.

Isabel Waidner, We Are Made of Diamond Stuff (Dostoyevsky Wannabe)

In her acceptance speech after winning this year’s Goldsmiths Prize, Lucy Ellmann said that she dislikes the term ‘experimental’ when applied to Ducks, Newburyport. She prefers, she said, to call it ‘adventurous’, which her novel most certainly is. Its length has attracted too much attention and comment; what matters is depth and this vast, generous, accessible epic has that in plenty. Isabel Waidner’s We Are Made of Diamond Stuff — also on the 2019 Goldsmiths shortlist — is certainly adventurous; a confident, invigorating challenge to what the author calls (in a text commissioned earlier this year to mark the ICA exhibition I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker) ‘a canon that is largely white, male, cisgender, heterosexual, middle-class and totally commodified’. Waidner’s blazingly original, fearless and subversive short novel is just what the jaded reader needs.

Set on the Isle of Wight in the present day, We Are Made of Diamond Stuff navigates the chaotic uncertainties of Brexit and emerging nationalism, with LGBTQ+ divisions of UKIP and the English Defence League observed marching along the promenade by the narrator, a queer working-class migrant employed in a run-down Ryde hotel owned by a monstrous landlady recruited from BS Johnson’s House Mother Normal (a nod to an avant-garde predecessor). Robert Rauchenburg’s artwork Monogram (the stuffed goat wedged in a rubber tyre) lives rent-free in the basement and the disgraced American ice-skater Tonya Harding is a guest. A sinister creature called a lypard (which is to ordinary leopards what Blake’s tyger it to ordinary tigers) roosts on the ceiling and is averse to paint; Reebok trainers feature regularly as class signifiers.

Waidner’s prose has supercharged energy, pace and wit, with a beneficial shock on every page. No other novelist has sent me dashing so regularly — and rewardingly — to look new things up on the internet: the Russian fashion house PACCBET (pronounced ‘rassvyet’), designers Walter van Beirendonck and Ann-Sofie Back, Stranger Things, the writers Mojisola Adebayo, Jay Bernard and Nisha Ramayya, the British Space Programme’s rocket-testing facility on the Needles Headland, the ‘slum zoo’ in Sandown, the Home Office’s risible ‘Life in the UK’ test, and so on. All this and much more in a brisk hundred pages.

‘Support non-Oxbridge talent’ says the single sentence on the last page of Waidner’s book. It’s a rallying cry we should all get behind because the future of adventurous fiction rests in the hands of marginal, non-native, non-establishment outsiders. Waidner and Ellmann are, in their very different ways, radically re-imagining what forms literature can take.

As is Marie-Elsa Bragg. Her second book Sleeping Letters (Chatto) is structured around the celebration of the Eucharist and consists of a series of letters and poems to her father and late mother, who died when she was six years old. These are embedded within reflections on nature, on life, on grief and on forgiveness. It’s very short, and very deep, and more profoundly moving than anything else I have read this year.

David Collard

Valeria Luiselli, Lost Children Archive (4th Estate)

Valeria Luiselli’s Booker-longlisted Lost Children Archive (her first novel to be written in English) charts a road trip from New York to the Mexican border, undertaken by a nameless journalist narrator and her sound-archivist husband, a man on the trail of the displaced Apaches of Arizona. While the narrator investigates the ‘more than eighty-thousand undocumented children from Mexico’ held in brutal detention facilities, we watch as her marriage falls apart, and the couple’s two children from previous relationships get caught in the crossfire.

The lost children have travelled ‘without their fathers, without their mothers, without suitcases, without passports’. They are dispossessed, at risk of falling ‘into the hands of drug lords who would enslave them in poppy fields, if they don’t kill them’. The narrator assiduously collates information about those ‘who have lost the right to a childhood’ until it forms the archive of the book’s title. Full of visual and aural echoes of the American past, such as ‘footprints left in the mud by someone who’d passed by long ago’, the novel is fiercely political, as well richly associative; brimming with intelligent observation and humanity. It shows how the US portrays ‘nations that are systematically abused by more powerful nations as a no-man’s-land, a barbaric periphery whose chaos and brownness threaten civilised white peace’. The link between the Indian Removal Act and the present-day deportation of ‘illegals’ is made abundantly clear.

With intertextual echoes of The Odyssey, and other literary road trips undertaken by Jack Kerouac and Cormac McCarthy, as well as a novel-within-a-novel and Sebaldian photographs, the book is also acutely sensitive to the rhythms of family life and childhood, with its ‘vomit, bruises, nakedness, wet beds, defiant gazes, confusion, innocence, untamed wildness’. The pain and emotional instability of the ‘blended family’ has rarely been better observed. At one point, the narrator overhears one of her children say to the other, ‘do you remember when we had other parents?’ — a question that might have come from the displaced minors of South America and Mexico. While the book takes risks with form and narrative linearity, it manages to be a resonant and coherent portrayal of documentation and bearing witness, as well as their opposites: erasure and redaction.

Jude Cook

Gina Apostol, Insurrecto (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Oh no, I thought when I opened it — more postmodernist chicanery. The dramatis personae at the beginning of Insurrecto, with Elvis Presley and Piero della Francesca; starting with Chapter 20 instead of Chapter 1; and the general indicia of zaniness evident on the first flip-through all had me dreading the nth mishmash of Coover, Barthelme, David Foster Wallace. I was spectacularly wrong. Insurrecto is admirable, moving, brilliant –– the best novel I’ve read by an English-language author since Paul Beatty’s The Sellout.

‘For the mystery writer, it is not enough to mourn the dead. One must also study the exit wounds, invite the coroner to tea, cloud the mind with ulterior motives.’ With this, tersely, Gina Apostol offers a statement of intent. Insurrecto will use the meeting of two women – American filmmaker Chiara Brossi and Philippine-born translator Magsalin – to tell, not the story of, but the story of the stories of, the Balangiga Massacre, in which American forces retaliated against a Philippine insurgency by killing between 2,500 and 50,000 civilians (the discrepancy in these figures, and between those who endorse them, is a part of what the book chronicles). Brossi composes a script about the events; Magsalin, in lieu of correcting it, responds with her her own. Their disagreements could easily grade into clichés about revisionism, the white saviour complex, or the translatability of cultures, but Apostol is too good a writer to yield to the seductions of preaching to the choir: even her meditations on the eternally chic shibboleth of différance are rich with irony, verbal gymnastics, and a wry but uncontemptuous scepticism toward the limits of sincerity.

Reviewers have compared Apostol with Nabokov, and for once, the observation is apt: her metaphors, her rarefied vocabulary, her mastery of and unremitting subversion of genre offer pleasures reminiscent of Laughter in the Dark or Invitation to a Beheading. But beneath her wit and virtuosity is a core of seriousness and rage, a j’accuse against historical memory as ‘Hagiographical décor, windows of truth without a ledge, hopes grounded on partial knowledge.’

Adrian Nathan West

Tim Etchells, Endland (And Other Stories)

'Days of tension, brite nites of dreams.' So goes this 'garbled, unwritable chronicle of Endland (sic)' with its tales of mass resettlements, dead kids playing football, as well as various 'historical events happening hundreds (100s) even thousands (1000s) of miles away'. Tim Etchells takes what's only possible in live performance and turns it into prose. It's all abt language, he (Etchells) tells us thru such verbal tics as employed to suspend whatever disbelief might still be lingering. Narrating these stories, phantasmagorical yet really real, in a language what can be recognised despite being corrupt, ludicrous or even grotesque.

Here we are in a place where 'the crime itself was very hard to thunder'; where the Guards are 'remarkable (renowned the world over) not for their leniency or fairness, but for their casual, brutal and unsupervised violence'; where the Gods – Vesuvius, Asda, Thor, Colon (etc etc) – jostle w Buzz Aldrin, Richard The Lion Hunt (sic) and such-like at a time when dropping your lover's body down a lift shaft prepares you for Hard Brexit winter.

I dint think I'd read anything like this this year but here we go. Once read it can't be un-read. We must 'TELL THIS STORY TO ALL KIDS ANYWHERE'. Let them know that our fate is probable being decided not in polling booths but in silent discos and dank cellars, on forever-late-running trains and flooded streets, over plastic cups and smart-phones, in the black-and-white noise of bar-codes scanned onto the page. 'Because fucked-up.'

'And the Gods looked down on Endland (sic) and tbh they we pretty unhappy how it turned out' but soon 'they descended to Endland (sic) agen in a fabulous visible form to make a impromptu free concert at Glasto in the toxic rain'. How did he (Etchells) make them do it? By eavesdropping on us and channelling the spoken word into this state-of-the-nation book ©. There is, like the poet ________ sed on the socials, nothing 'even remotely like it’.

Anna Aslanyan

Elizabeth Strout, Olive, Again (Viking)

Though 2019 was a bad year for British politics, American politics, CO2 emissions, biodiversity, human rights, press freedom, civic morale, worldwide democracy, public discourse, university staff, the NHS, the Booker Prize and my family's corgi, Mishka, who had his testicles removed this Autumn, the appearance of Elizabeth Strout's Olive, Again made this a good year for beautifully observed, character-centric fiction, and gave me something to cheer about.

For a while it felt like individuals were disappearing from novels. A bevy of dystopias, dark fantasias and retold myths appeared in 2017-8, chock-full of people called 'The Son' or 'The Mother' or 'The Nightkeeper'. In a time when all conversations returned to structural politics eventually, it made sense that characters were being reduced to their situations. But it wasn't – it never is – the whole truth. How refreshing to be back with Olive – her short temper, her overweening pride, her nightly grief that gets swept away each morning – to be back, in short, with someone real.

An addendum: you could hardly call Mary Gaitskill's This is Pleasure a book in its own right. It's a short story in a novella's clothing. Still, it might be the short story of the decade, and you should secure a copy by any means necessary.

John Phipps

Ocean Vuong, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous (Jonathan Cape)

In a year of 120-page sentences, and with the final abolition of the paragraph looming, the acclaimed Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong published a debut novel that was strikingly ordinary in form but diaphanously poetic in its expressive techniques. An epistolary address to his mother, it relates the family's experience of exile and loss, the narrator's sexual initiation and his helplessness in the face of both hard labour and the cultural incomprehension everywhere offered to the refugee.

It achieves its unsettling emotional effects precisely by not wringing them out. The prose is both garrulously imagistic and often prone to a kind of semantic torsion, so that while some sentences arrive more or less where you thought they would, others have curled back on themselves by the moment the period is reached into thoughts that, as Theodor Adorno might have put it, barely understand themselves. 'That's what I wanted,' the narrator recalls of his sexually emergent teenage self, 'not merely the body, desirable as it was, but its will to grow into the very world that rejects its hunger.’ Vuong is an accomplished artist in both verse and prose, and still in his early thirties. I hope there is much more to come.

Stuart Walton

Angela Readman, Something Like Breathing (And Other Stories)

Something Like Breathing is Angela Readman’s first novel (she had previously published a collection of poetry and short stories) and is set on a remote Scottish island in the 1950s. It tells the story of two teenage girls, Lorrie and Sylvie, with contrasting backgrounds and personalities, as they navigate their burgeoning adolescence and altering relationships with their families, one another, and ultimately themselves. We get a sense that the island community is a place where desires are not easily explored or allowed to formalise. In an Angela Carter-style equation — laden with similarly Carter-esque animal symbolism — sexuality is not represented as bad itself, but seems to contain an implicit threat of unleashing something less accountable.

The fact is that beneath our surface lies mess. Readman’s message is that it’s not just about listening to those younger than us; it’s also about listening to parts of ourselves that aren’t so easy to listen to and that might have been kept down whilst growing older. They are perhaps more youthful voices still trying to find their mode of expression. We owe it to ourselves to find a way to listen to them.

Liam Bishop

David Bowman, Big Bang (Little, Brown)

January 25, 1963. Jacqueline Kennedy and her children are in the breakfast room of the White House, balancing eggs on the table for the Chinese Lunar Year. ‘It’s good luck, Daddy,’ Caroline explains when her father enters. ‘The quicker you can get eighteen eggs to stand, the better luck you’ll have.’ Only, no matter how he places the them, however patient his movements, John Kennedy cannot get a single egg to stand.

This scene is typical of many in David Bowman’s posthumously published Big Bang, a polyphonic novel that recreates modern US history with the ambiguous, farcical tone it deserves. Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra take Nikita Khrushchev to Disneyland, where he wears Donald Duck sunglasses and has a panic attack on Mr Toad’s Wild Ride. Elvis Presley dreams of becoming president. William S. Burroughs drinks Nazi beer in Mexico City with ‘Father of The Pill’ Carl Djerassi and Watergate-planner-cum-JFK-killer E. Howard Hunt. Another Hunt, oil baron HL, rants about communist plots and creeps around the floor like a baby, while Montgomery Clift kisses Adele ‘Norman’s wife’ Mailer, Saul Bellow and Arthur Miller scream together in the Nevada desert and Don DeLillo watches a Lenny Bruce show alone because his wife refused to go.

Bowman’s triumph is linking these seemingly disparate threads into a new whole. The assassination of JFK is the formative event in this quasi-history, an American Big Bang that births a universe in which everything certain and sacred is undermined. Seeping into the cracks, doubt and paranoia embed themselves in the national identity, forming a country that mirrors the novel — vast and hyperactive, flourishing despite the many reasons it should fail. A land of celebrities and conspiracies, dreams and terror and wealth, where even the most prosperous obsess over that terrible thing on the horizon that is surely about to unfold.

When Kennedy finally balances an egg, his son cheers and knocks it to the floor. ‘Well, there goes my whole year,’ he says, watching gunk dribble through the cracked shell. ‘Good-bye, 1963.’ His daughter shouts about do-overs but Kennedy puts his foot down, frowning at the spilling yolk. ‘There are no do-overs for 1963.’

Jon Doyle