Monday, December 27, 2021

Top Books Of Recent Years

In the past I've done brief write-ups of all the books I read in the period of time since my last set of write-ups, and that slowly became too exhausting to contemplate, so I am not going to attempt that again. I did want to mention books that were new, at least, so here's the list of my favorite books released in the past two years. My attention span was sort of fried by the COVID era and I found reading older books often incredibly difficult. By only talking about newer books, this should also function as something of a top ten for the year, though it runs a little long, and includes books published in 2020, as I find the hardcover format gross and often find myself waiting for copies of books to become available at the library. Some are works in translation that are older still. These days, with film in particular, any "best of the year" seems provisional or else false, as many of the best works are on the festival circuit and do not receive much in the way of a real release; discussing books in an honest way that doesn't favor the publicity cycles of major publishers means accounting for work others read earlier.

When We Cease To Understand The World by Benjamin Labatut. Part of my affection for this book surely comes from how it does something interesting with the essay form without including the personal: The first chapter is sort of like Patrik Ourednik's Europeana in the way it lays out information to make a far-reaching point. A note in the back says that chapter contains only one paragraph of fiction, which the subsequent pieces increase, but as a reader I appreciate feeling that the point being made is rooted in the real. The whole book, with its cast of historical scientists being bedeviled by the elusive truths they pursue, is the sort of shit I'm into. A bunch of people are saying this book is good, I'm not riding for any obscurities here. I only wish the NYRB edition made some slight edits to the British spellings of an earlier publication.

Hollow by B Catling. This is historical fantasy, blurbed by Alan Moore, released straight to paperback by Vintage, though Catling has had two books printed by a smaller British press since his Vorrh trilogy concluded. My friend Adam, who says Catling is maybe his favorite living male writer of fiction, says those books were good but it makes sense this is the one a major publisher would bring out. It involves monks and mercenaries and a breakdown of reality as demonic creatures created by Bosch for his paintings emerge into the real world. The Vorrh books also included historical personages -- Raymond Roussel, William Blake -- and here the presence of Bosch's work allows for some neat bits of art criticism. This is an immersive, engaging read I read on a bus and liked a lot. I feel like most of the smartest people I know IRL that are fun to talk to definitely prefer genre writing to the sort of literature that gets talked about in Harper's, which makes sense, because Harper's is increasingly an awful magazine, a legacy publication steered by an old reactionary. 

I bring this up by way of getting into a digression about how a piece Christian Lorentzen wrote about how smart people learn about books from book critics was completely full of shit self-congratulation from someone who should know he works in a dying field and no one cares about what he does, but seriously: No one finds out about books from book criticism, book critics are largely obligated to all talk about the same high-profile releases from big five publishers that have enough of a promotional push a reader could just as easily find out about them by walking into any bookstore. I have another digression about the cultural discussion of books coming further down the list.

Harrow by Joy Williams. I realized this year that "environmental collapse" is the ideal literary subject matter for our era, both because it is the crisis we face that supersedes all others, but also because "environment" is a synonym for "context," and "context collapse" is also one of the conditions we face. A place of context collapse is also where Joy Williams' characters gnomic dialogue seems to emerge from, these issuances that have nothing to do with conversation as generally practiced. This book strikes me as "late style" for Williams, which I don't think reviews addressed. It's really weird, and while I enjoyed it a lot, it's probably closer to The Changeling than any of her other books, and while that may be my favorite of hers, that's not a popular opinion. I really enjoyed a large amount of stuff on pretty much every page, although the ending is particularly cryptic. Maybe I did myself a disservice by rushing it. I justified the expense of buying this in hardcover by giving it as a gift to a friend for her birthday, and I look forward to buying a paperback for myself to reread in a year's time.

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. Very funny, very insightful, and made me cry. Do I think it's weird to call this a novel when it takes it as a given you know all the characters from Lockwood's memoir? Yes. But I read an early draft of some of the material talking about the internet, presented as an essay and that blew me away, and the form of a novel can include all the weird shit it wants. Lockwood's almost certainly the best writer of my generational cohort, and her wide acclaim is both well-deserved and feels borderline inexplicable in terms of how hard it is to imagine older people making sense of her argot. But, for the record, this is what it's like, to be alive and engaging with the internet! It's weird too that she'll talk about reading the writing of Lisa Carver and a few other people she doesn't refer to by name. It's almost like within the world of the book, writers who know what the internet is don't have names, their essence is just an utterance of this larger supercontext, but that might not be as hard and fast rule in the way I'm describing it. The book also moves away from the internet talk into discussion of the tragic and holy, which could be what people who find the talk of memes baffling respond to; Lockwood's register can encompass everything.

Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin. There are popular books about the internet that are either autofiction or close relatives to it, but Schweblin avoids these forms to come to an understanding of what the internet actually is that seems far more accurate: It's a system of mass surveillance that allows people to be voyeurs, and then feel connected through that. This novel employs what would be a science fiction conceit if the technology didn't 100% exist right now. This seems maybe the best way to address one of the defining elements of reality today, and of course, as the nineties predicted, it's a collection of different narratives with no real main character. I liked this more than Fever Dream, the author's novella from a few years back that received some acclaim.

Death In Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh. This is probably Moshfegh's best book to date. An old woman encounters something inexplicable, and makes up a world she projects onto her surroundings accordingly. Obviously, this is a potent metaphor for what's going on in the world, but it never presents itself as such, instead just being a very old-fashioned dark comedy about a person who has to go to the library to look up what's happening.

The Glassy Burning Floor Of Hell by Brian Evenson. A new collection by the contemporary master of horror short stories. This earned an endorsement from R.L. Stine on Twitter, which is funny. Back cover copy tries to make it seems like this is mostly about ecological horror, which is not true. I'm pretty sure one of the stories in here directly connects to Evenson's novel Immobility.

Eleven Sooty Dreams by Manuela Draeger. I am on the record as being a fan of the French author Antoine Volodine, who has a very weird project, where that name is a heteronym, and he has others, one of which is Manuela Draeger, who sometimes appears as a character in books credited to Volodine. Draeger's In The Time Of The Blue Ball, published in the U.S. by Dorothy, A Publishing Project, is a pretty whimsical collection of three short stories (which are individual books in a series for children in France), and is a very intriguing introduction to the whole project in itself. This book is Draeger's first book for adults, and while there's still some whimsy to it, it gets closer to the Volodine subject matter of failed leftist revolutions and Bardo states between life and death. Honestly I've already forgotten most of the details but this is a good one. That I'm forgetting it probably has something to do with its dreaminess, which is a feature not a bug, as they say.

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor. We love a descent into hell that doubles as social realism, right? This one begins with the discovery of a dead witch, and each chapter expands the purview of what's going on, to include more darkness as it reveals more plot detail. I realized a lot of New Directions books don't have any plot -- Their biggest hit in the nineties was Sebald, after all -- but this one does. Have since grabbed an Anna Seghers collection NYRB Classics issued in part because Melchor had a blurb on the back, but I wasn't able to find my way into that one at all.

Machines In The Head by Anna Kavan. This is an NYRB Classics collection of an author I already knew I loved. This is a "selected stories" that includes stuff from books I've already read, but the selections are well-chosen, and the pieces I hadn't read before are good. If you just read this and the recent Penguin edition of Ice, (and I highly highly recommend you read Ice if you haven't yet) that's maybe a better approach than tracking down a bunch of books published in England by Peter Owen.

Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler. Oyler's a fun critic, appreciated by all for her willingness to talk shit. That no one talked shit on this book was taken as an indicator that she wrote a really great book, but really the book's flaws are pretty evident. It's willing to be tedious in its scene-setting for the sake of mimetic detail, to increase the reader's sense that what they're reading must've really happened. Book people are maybe just willing to let her be the mean one, and look on admiringly from their positions of cowardice. The authorial voice of this book is an extension of her critical persona, and while I find that voice an amiable companion, it seems that readers forgive these excesses because they're so self-consciously presented, which is not the same thing as a book being without flaws. It's enjoyable enough, some of the jokes are funny, she knows what she's doing.

There was this "what do you want to see more of in books" survey at, I want to say The Rumpus, from which an Ottessa Moshfegh quote (about wanting less prescribed morality) went briefly viral. One of the people solicited for an opinion was Emily Gould, who said she wanted more examples of authors having fun, citing Oyler's "Middle Section (Nothing Happens)" heading as something she liked a lot and found delightful for its indulgent play with form, instead of a straightforward seriousness. I just want to say, if that's what you're seeking out, you should try reading a comic book, cartoonists make these kinds of throwaway jokes all the time.

Slapstick by Pete Toms. Pete Toms is a cartoonist, and we follow each other on Letterboxd, and he self-released this book digitally. It's a "comic novel," in the sense of being funny, but it's all prose, aside from its cover he drew. I like a little more linguistic bravado but it's pretty clear he's going for jokes and laying out everything in as straightforward a manner as possible. Anyway you can pay $3 to download this inventive collection of goofs. This list is short on obscurities if you're a book person, so if you're a book person who's heard of everything here throw this man a bone and get some laughs. People are writing work that reflects virtues totally absent in mainstream literature publishing, and then they have to self-publish it, because work that's accessible and entertaining and interesting isn't seen as viable by major houses, nor does it fit in with the tightly-defined aesthetic preferences of small publishers.

Vernon Subutex 2 and 3 by Virginie Despentes. I have mixed feelings as to whether these books are good or not, since on a level of language, the writing is incredibly simplistic and prone to cliche. This allows the books to read quickly, and keep their focus on characterization, and the movement between disparate characters to show how they view and interpret one another is pretty clever and insightful stuff. The books do not hesitate to discuss their characters and politics, many of which are aging men who've become increasingly right-wing. There are plot elements and movements towards the magical which reinforce the corniness of the prose and make me self-conscious about recommending it or considering it good.

One thing that's interesting about the books is that, after all of the groundwork laid, treating the characters' attitudes as this background radiation, the third book not only involves frequent mention of terrorist attacks, and captures 2016 as a cascade of rock star deaths, it ends with, and this is a massive spoiler, a mass shooting killing off almost all of the book's major and minor characters. This made me think of how Michael Chabon and his wife were supposedly going to adapt an article about the Ghost Ship fire into a TV show, and got shouted down by the community of survivors. I remember, when that happened, thinking "That just isn't how TV works. The tragedy of mass death, of people who know each other tangentially, and many of them are inspiring and lively, and then they just die in a fire, that's not television, that's not how narrative works." It's fascinating to me that these books do the work of having their narrative work in exactly that way, and not only have they been adapted into a French television series, but within the narrative of the books the tragedy gets turned into a television series courtesy of one of the people who set the tragedy in motion capitalizing on it. I'm willing to give Despentes credit for the commentary being pointed, partly because the whole series begins almost as a riposte to High Fidelity, with a Gen-X-er's record store going out of business and leaving him adrift in the world. For as much as I find off-putting about these books, it does seem to be in service to a vision and perspective I find valuable.

I Wished by Dennis Cooper. George Miles, the inspiration for a five-novel cycle of Cooper's, gets another book from Cooper where he tries to lay out what's special and important about this boy he knew who died, with a bit less transgressive violent sexual content than in the earlier books (though there remains a scene of parental sexual abuse, and it's a little unclear to me if this is being presented as something the real George Miles experienced). The best parts of this book are incredibly gentle, though it still kind of feels like a digestif for those who've read a bunch of Cooper's other books rather than an accessible introduction to an intimidating body of work.

I'm not going to list other books I read and felt more ambivalent towards. I wish I'd gotten around to reading Garielle Lutz's Worsted and Atticus Lish's The War For Gloria. The Lish should show up at the library one of these days, a friend has a copy of the Lutz I can probably borrow. I'm not claiming to have a great handle on the world of books, this is more of an accounting of the work I already knew to pay attention to than anything else.

1 comment:

DerikB said...

You want a copy of Worsted? I can mail you mine, it's in my pile of books to get rid of (it didn't work for me).

Was on the fence about Hollow (I feel like I tried one of the Vorrh books and could not get into it), but will give it a try now. Sounds interesting.

fwiw I _did_ learn about a bunch of these books from book critics: Williams, Lockwood, Moshfegh. I loved the latter, was lukewarm on the where the Lockwood ended up.