Fiction Highlights: Review 31's Best Novels of 2016

by Review 31

As is customary at this time of year, we invited some of our regular contributors to look back over the past 12 months and select their literary highlights of 2016. They produced a varied and eclectic list of recommendations, ranging from Garth Greenwell’s poignant exploration of sexual identity to Yuri Herrera’s bleak panorama of urban decay; from Roger Lewinter’s meditations on the beauty of everyday objects to Madeleine Thien’s poignant exploration of history and memory; and a couple of more experimental works – by Alejandro Zambra and Jung Young Moon – that riff on the porous border between fiction and non-fiction. [read full essay]

Stuff and Things

William Viney, Waste: A Philosophy of Things

reviewed by Jeffrey Petts

How much philosophy is there in a story about shoes? It's a feature of using things, for humans, that it involves more than just a mere description of functioning. Will Viney introduces his account of ‘things’ with stories related to his everyday life, describing the ‘use-time’ (as he calls it) of his running and walking shoes, ‘putting out the rubbish and jogging.’ Then there is ‘waste-time’ too; worn-out or forgotten, not in another ‘space’ but ‘outside time’. (Viney... [read more]

Vicarious Autobiography: John Berger’s Portraits in the Past Tense

John Berger, Tom Overton (ed.), Portraits: John Berger on Artists

reviewed by Dominic Jaeckle

Events are always to hand. But the coherence of these events – which is what we mean by reality – is an imaginative construction. […] Reality, however one interprets it, lies beyond a screen of clichés. Every culture produces such a screen, partly to facilitate its own practices (to establish habits) and partly to establish its own power. Reality is inimical to those with power. John Berger, ‘The Production of the World’ To the world of power I was only childishly... [read more]
 

All Or Nothing

Bernard Porter, British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t

reviewed by Jeremy Wikeley

There are a number of strange things about Bernard Porter’s rise to the position of ‘king of the sceptics’ in British imperial history. Take, for instance, the fact that he seems so keen to embrace the title. Porter frames British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t as popular history, setting out to challenge a variety of myths and misconceptions about the British Empire’s rise, rule, fall and legacy, but it is difficult not to read British Imperial as a good-natured shot across the... [read more]

April in Arizona: Nabokov’s West

Robert Roper, Nabokov in America: On the Road to Lolita

reviewed by Elsa Court

Vladimir Nabokov enjoyed offering lists of his own personal tastes and dislikes, in fiction, in interviews, and even in private. Admittedly, this habit tested the patience of those who knew him personally, but while the list of his most hated things is entertaining, eclectic and seemingly incidental (‘jazz, [bullfighting], progressive schools, music in supermarkets, swimming pools, brutes, bores’), his personal passions are presented as fewer, more carefully elected and often... [read more]
 

Rigor Artis

John Banville, The Blue Guitar

reviewed by James Pulford

‘The past beats inside me like a second heart.’ So says Max Morden, the narrator of John Banville’s Booker-winning novel The Sea (2005), in an aside that could have been uttered by almost any of the soul-searching narrators Banville has created in the past 45 years. Banville has, after all, been writing the same kind of literary humanism for most of his career, and The Blue Guitar is certainly no departure. Like Max Morden before him (and other narrators, such as Alexander Cleave in... [read more]

Death in Life

Roger Luckhurst, Zombies: A Cultural History

reviewed by Imogen Woodberry

Among the classic monsters of popular legend the zombie is often seen as a somewhat subordinate figure. While the vampire conjures gothic associations – of Hungarian castles and elegantly cadaverous counts, Frankenstein, the mysteries of alchemy and the occult – the unthinking, unfeeling, speechless and stumbling zombie is a figure bracketed with the crass horror films and violent videogames of contemporary culture. Yet despite its comparative lack of high-cultural literary purchase, it has... [read more]
 

The Symbolic Economy

Malcolm Miles, Limits to Culture: Urban Regeneration Vs. Dissident Art

reviewed by Harry Stopes

Limits to Culture: Urban Regeneration vs Dissident Art begins with a discussion of urban change in the developed world in the last three decades. Drawing on the research of other scholars, Malcolm Miles examines de-industrialised cities such as Liverpool, Bilbao, and Barcelona, describing how an often piecemeal set of new developments, renovations and city branding projects, driven by private individuals, corporations and local and national governments, has transformed these places. Where... [read more]

Image Discourse

Volker Pantenburg, Farocki/Godard: Film as Theory

reviewed by Alex Fletcher

Choosing to talk about ‘two men at once,’ Anne Carson reasons in Economy of the Unlost, means to ‘keep attention strong,’ to ‘keep it from settling.’ In Farocki/Godard: Film as Theory, Volker Pantenburg deploys this strategy as a means to put in dialogue two of the most prolific European filmmakers/artists of the late 20th and early 21st century: Harun Farocki (1944-2014) and Jean-Luc Godard (1930-). Originally published in German in 2006, Pantenburg’s study remains a significant... [read more]
 

Unsaid, Unknown, Unreal

Steven Millhauser, Voices in the Night

reviewed by Miles Klee

In a universe of overused adjectives, there’s one you rarely hear: 'spellbinding.' Perhaps that’s because very little holds our rapt attention as if by some cold magic. The best Steven Millhauser stories, as fans of his many collections know, do exactly this. They cast a spell from which there is no release. But the sorcery chooses certain victims. I was thrown when my brother confessed he found 2008’s Dangerous Laughter a puzzling antique, its narratives at once too fanciful and... [read more]

Silent Truths

JM Coetzee & Arabella Kurtz, The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy

reviewed by Marc Farrant

In a short essay entitled ‘The Art of Telling the Truth’ Michel Foucault traces two distinct strands of modern thought, derived from Kant’s philosophy and specifically manifested in the text Was ist Aufklärung? (What is Enlightenment?). On the one hand, Kant ‘laid the foundations for that tradition of philosophy that poses the question of the conditions in which true knowledge is possible’ – philosophy as an analytics of truth. On the other, however, Kant in this text poses ‘for... [read more]