The Year in Culture I: Fiction
My favourite novels published this year.
Welcome, dear reader, and happy Christmas!
In time, I intend to use this newsletter as a place for original writing, especially of the kind I cannot place with the mainstream newspapers and magazines that publish most of my work. For now, I’ll be using it to direct attention to things I’ve recently published, but in places either so obscure or paywalled that few people are likely to have read them.
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Of the novels published this year I read, the one I enjoyed most was Ned Beauman’s Venomous Lumpsucker (I reviewed it for the Daily Telegraph in July – unpaywalled link here). The novel is a piece of science fiction set in a not-distant future when capitalism has found an ingenious (or is it?) solution to the extinction of ever more species of life-form. I don’t think the novel, or Beauman’s work more generally, has received nearly as much praise as it deserves. One hypothesis worth entertaining about why that might be so was proposed by the Irish critic Kevin Power in his review for the Guardian: Beauman’s book is ‘fundamentally boyish’, and thus, out of step with the tastes of a literary culture in which ‘the vast majority of literary fiction is, as we are frequently reminded, bought (and, increasingly, written) by women’.
By ‘boyish’, Power certainly doesn’t mean ‘macho’. He means, rather, that Beauman’s are the sorts of novels that ‘skirt the dramatic intricacies of the human heart in favour of the sort of hobbyish enthusiasms we associate with a teenage boy who, let’s say, has a large collection of science fiction novels’. There were plenty such novels and novelists in the 70s and 80s (Barth, Coover, Pynchon, Delillo), who were praised for exactly these qualities, but ‘We have come to valorise this kind of writer less and less; and with this re-evaluation has come both profit and loss.’
I agree entirely. I had written in my review that Beauman’s novels ‘come dangerously close to being what James Wood once dismissed as “books that know a thousand things but do not know a single human being”. But he has always had the curious knack of wrong-footing his readers with a beating heart where one has expected only cleverness.’ This was certainly the case of what remains my favourite of his novels, Glow (2014), but the science fictional scaffolding – and the concern with the world-historically significant extinction of a species – gives the cleverness more, not less, emotional weight.
Running Venomous Lumpsucker a close second in my affections this year was Audrey Magee’s The Colony (unpaywalled link to my Telegraph review here). Magee shares Beauman’s concern with extinction, but in The Colony, it is a language – Irish – that is dying. That abstract concern is embodied in the person of a French-Algerian linguist, whose obsession with saving the language may have its roots in his childhood loss of his mother’s Arabic when his brutish father forced him to speak only French. Magee’s novel is quiet, sad, lyrical, not in the least bit concerned to be clever, although it is wise about many of its subjects – colonialism, what a language can mean even to people who are not native speakers, and why preserving a language can have costs to individuals at least as serious as letting it die out.
I thought it a shame that neither book made it to the Booker shortlist (Beauman, scandalously to my mind, didn’t even make the longlist). I happened to have reviewed the novel that eventually won – Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida (unpaywalled Telegraph review here). While I was an enthusiastic admirer of Karunatilaka’s debut, Chinaman (2010), I was more ambivalent about this angrier, more frenetic, book. I found the jokes more laboured and the attempt to cram in large amounts of political history reminiscent of Salman Rushdie at his unconstrained worst.
(An aside: I have, to my delight, finally had what must be an experience common to newspaper critics. Here is what I had said: ‘The sheer excess on every page makes it hard to take in the moments of quiet truthfulness. But the supernatural conceit, often a distraction, produces moments of real poignancy.’ You will find the second line, with the ‘But’ removed, on the back cover of the post-Booker hardback of the novel. I suppose it must happen to every newspaper critic eventually.)
In my review, I had compared Karunatilaka’s novel unfavourable with a recent Sri Lankan book I much preferred: Anuk Arudpragasam’s meditative, melancholy A Passage North (2021; unpaywalled Telegraph review here). I certainly preferred it to last year’s winner, The Promise, Damon Galgut’s overbearingly caustic story of a declining family in post-Apartheid South Africa (unpaywalled Telegraph review here; but if you only have the inclination to read one review of that book, please let it be Adam Mars-Jones’ masterpiece of careful reading in his LRB review).
PS. It may say something about both my tastes and intellectual formation that Beauman and Arudpragasam, the writers whose novels I have most admired in the last two years, are both lapsed philosophers (Beauman studied the Cambridge Philosophy tripos as an undergraduate, Arudpragasam has a PhD in Philosophy from Columbia). Yet, two more different paths out of philosophy one could scarcely find , even if their ultimate destination was fiction.
PPS. For anyone interested in my other fiction reviews this year, here they are. In descending order of enthusiasm (I’m afraid I haven’t had the time to generate unpaywalled links for these yet).
Douglas Stuart, Young Mungo. From my Telegraph review: ‘The tension of the romance is expertly sustained, as is the sense of the real heroism of being a star-crossed lover in a Jets and Sharks world. Mungo’s Glasgow is a violent place, and there are episodes so brutal they come as a shock, even after Stuart has primed us to expect them.’
Pankaj Mishra, Run and Hide. From my Literary Review review: ‘Run and Hide is not the most novelistic of novels. But then Mishra’s political journalism is often more novelistic than political and his literary criticism more political than literary. Readers coming to this book seeking the usual pleasures of fiction – richness of character, density of plotting – will not find them. The writing has, rather, an intensity that comes from sustaining a single mood – introspective, philosophical – over the course of three hundred pages.’
Daisy Hildyard, Emergency. From my Telegraph review: ‘Hildyard doesn’t offer the narratives of therapy, social criticism or self-development to be found in other English pastoralists (Helen Macdonald, Ronald Blythe or Adrian Bell). Her style is more reminiscent of such contemporary poets as Kathleen Jamie and Alice Oswald, with their quiet and attentive watchfulness to a non-human reality they only half-understand. Her prose calls for, and frequently earns, the same respectful attentiveness from its readers.’
Geetanjali Shree, Tomb of Sand. From my Telegraph review: ‘Tomb of Sand, like any serious piece of literary fiction, does not yield all its secrets on a first reading. I found it hard to warm to all of Shree’s digressions, which range from the sharp and original (such as her remarks on the nature of translation) to the sententious and predictable: “The world is in dire need of literature because literature is a source of hope and life.” But even readers who share these reservations will be struck by just how gracious a writer Shree is, proud to speak up for her language and literary tradition. Such readers may come away with the sense of a large body of Hindi writing waiting to be discovered . . . all available, with only a little effort, in solid English translations. These writers have found in Shree an able advocate, and a worthy successor.’
Nell Stevens, Briefly, A Delicious Life. From my Telegraph review: ‘At one point, Stevens describes [George] Sand, in her first flush of Romantic rebellion, entertaining the thought that the world “is full of cowards” and that “sometimes the opposite of cowardice is playfulness”. This deeply enjoyable, guileful book is the opposite of cowardly in exactly this sense.’
Amit Chaudhuri, Sojourn. From my Telegraph review: ‘I found the effect of all the obliqueness and suggestion to be unnerving, as Chaudhuri doubtless intends. The elegant suggestiveness of the writing, its intelligence and perceptiveness, keeps one turning the pages. But a reader will need to enjoy, or at least to be at ease with, being puzzled.’
Marguerite Duras, The Easy Life. From my Telegraph review of a new translation: ‘A Duras revival would be no bad thing. Her prose is neither as dauntingly cerebral as that of Simone de Beauvoir nor as tawdrily melodramatic and narcissistic as Françoise Sagan’s still-popular adolescent shocker from 1954, Bonjour Tristesse. The style of her much better-known, and indeed superior, later works, what critics have described as “dépouillée” – stripped down – appears here only sporadically.’
Emma Harding, Friedrichstrasse 19. From my Telegraph review: ‘Reactions to Harding’s other technical experiments will prove a matter of taste: the sporadic sections of unpunctuated stream of consciousness and the mid-sentence leaps from character to character, decade to decade. Against these questionable features might be counted the author’s unconditional, unfakeable, infectious love of Berlin, her ability to find in every phase of its bruised, unsettled 20th-century century something to cheer, love or mourn.’
Kamila Shamsie, Best of Friends. From my Telegraph review: ‘Shamsie’s views on the injustices of the British immigration system, the subject of her eloquent political non-fiction, are clunkily inserted into the plot to raise the stakes in her characters’ extraordinarily privileged lives. With a little more patience, a little more craft, a greater willingness to leave things unsaid, it might have worked; as it is, Best of Friends reads like apprentice work.’
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