In 2018, the UK’s biggest fiction prize was again at the centre of a debate about “readability”. Anna Burns’s Milkman (Faber), a novel shorn of proper nouns and signifiers, won the Man Booker Prize and sparked numerous op-eds about whether this was too “difficult” a book to be a major prizewinner. While it’s pleasing that in its fiftieth year the Booker can still generate column inches, one major take-home from reading into these discussions was that the critical apparatus in the UK is simply not robust enough. When dealing with even a gently experimental text like Milkman, the very terms of the debate – the pitting of “difficulty” against “readability” – are woefully lowbrow.
One plot development sees the book turn into something like a Fifty Shades of Grey for people who wouldn’t be seen dead reading E.L. James
For me, Milkman was a worthy winner. Burns’s novel powerfully evokes what it must have been like to have lived through the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Her decision to leave unnamed her characters and even the city in which her novel is set (though we infer it is Belfast) is not a device to deter or alienate the reader; nor are her narrator’s long looping circumlocutory sentences. Instead these are vital to a narrative about a time and place where simply naming things can be fatal. So can being smart, using drugs, speaking out of turn, hanging out with the wrong people, not hanging out with the wrong people – in short, you’re damned whatever you do or don’t do in this claustrophobic social scene. For all its air of paranoia and discomfort, however, Milkman is also very funny: the arbitrary but deadly regulations by which its characters live mean they compile great long lists of unacceptable proper names to give new babies, or become drawn into subtly insinuating arguments in which all parties, unable to speak directly, seem to lose sight of what it is they’re even cross about – if indeed they’re incautious enough to let it be known they’re cross.
Readers in search of that notorious “readable” novel could turn to Normal People (also Faber, having a good year in 2018). Sally Rooney chronicles a will-they-won’t-they relationship between Connell and Marianne, whom we first meet as teenagers in Dublin and check in on in subsequent episodes set sometimes days, sometimes years later, until they’re in their late twenties and maybe finally able to speak freely and honestly to one another. It is a hugely compulsive novel – I read it in two long gulps – whose close attention to the minute subtle recalibrations of this maybe-romance is constantly fascinating. Midway, however, one plot development sees the book turn into something like a Fifty Shades of Grey for people who wouldn’t be seen dead reading E.L. James, and I ended up feeling that Rooney’s star-crossed pair deserved rather better than the plot she’d contrived for them.
Also on the Booker longlist, Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape) traded some of the expanse and zip of her last novel The Flamethrowers for a more tightly-wound narrative set largely in a women’s prison. There’s more than a touch of the dread gothic about the novel – you might elevator-pitch it as “Orange in the New Black via Cormac McCarthy” – and plotwise it did not, for me, quite hang together; but line by line, Kushner’s writing is the most marvellous I read this year. It isn’t showy or purple, but time and again I found myself rereading paragraphs of The Mars Room for her perfectly turned sentences, the music of her prose.
Elsewhere, a debut novel by Lisa Halliday and a new literary crime novel by Tony White were doing exciting things with form and genre. In Halliday’s Asymmetry (Granta) we move from the May-to-December romance between a Nobel-worthy American author and his young lover, to the apparently unconnected story of an immigrant trapped in customs-bureaucracy airport hell as he tries to enter America; White’s The Fountain in the Forest (Faber) starts as a contemporary crime procedural set around London’s theatre district then takes a startling left turn partway through into the story of a young backpacker stumbling upon a crypto-anarchist commune in rural France in the 1980s. Both books pull their seemingly unrelated narrative threads together in ways that are surprising and satisfying. More straightforward than either, Keith Gessen’s novel A Terrible Country (Fitzcarraldo Editions) is about modern Russia and a naïve postgraduate caught up in a world he’s utterly unprepared for. It’s a pleasingly old-fashioned, almost nineteenth-century novel in structure, but alert to the strangeness and darkness of the twenty-first. One answer to the question of how fiction can deal with a world that now more than ever, in Philip Roth’s formulation, is “continually outdoing” the novelist’s “meagre imagination”, is to be found in autofiction, a blurring of the real and the invented, a kind of collapsing of boundaries and, when done well, a form that can be thrilling. Having written three exemplary works of non-fiction, Olivia Laing produced a debut novel in this mould, Crudo (Picador), written in a sharp burst in late 2017, which mingles ostensible memoir with apparent fiction and the events that made headlines during its composition. It’s utterly contemporary without at all seeming disposable.
In his long-running column for the Guardian, Chris Power has adroitly studied and analysed the work of numerous great writers of short stories. His immersion in the form has paid dividends – his own debut Mothers (Faber) is an impressive showcase of ten stories, some interlinked, and showcasing a formidable range of tones in stories set in diverse locations. Hugely enjoyable in its own right, you come to the end of Mothers excited not just to revisit it but excited about what Power will do next.
The final book by an avowed hero of Power’s, Denis Johnson, is The Largesse of the Sea Maiden (Jonathan Cape), a final collection of stories shot through with the dark humour of a writer confronting his own death (one story is title “‘Triumph Over the Grave”, a kind of manifesto for an artist). The title story is a gallimaufry of unobtrusively linked vignettes, whose thematic concerns become evident as it develops; another, “Strangler Bob”, recalls the gritty tone of some of Johnson’s noirish novels and reaches a genuinely breathtaking conclusion. And the stories in Deborah Eisenberg’s new collection, Your Duck is My Duck, overcome that somewhat hampering title by being properly comic, dark, and pushing more than her work ever has before at the ineffable and the unspeakable. Two thematically linked stories, “Merge” and “The Third Tower”, treat language itself as a kind of collapsing structure; not only do characters struggle to find the right words to express themselves, words themselves become slippery, treacherous, decoupled from their meaning. These are stories for and about an America where the common discourse has become infected and paralysed by false and unreliable language.
Infection of a different sort is the focus of Paradise Rot, a debut novel by the Norwegian singer-songwriter Jenny Hval (Verso; trans. Marjam Idriss). In this strange and sticky novel, the reader feels the clammy clandestine hothouse atmosphere of its narrator’s shared home practically breathing from the pages. Transgressive, erotic and deeply odd, this is – and I mean this as praise – a book that makes you want to have a wash afterwards.
Andrew McMillan’s second collection of poems, playtime (Jonathan Cape), builds on his excellent 2015 debut Physical. Formally distinctive – he eschews punctuation in favour of spaces of varying lengths between phrases – it also works on a broader canvas than his very personal first volume: masculinity generally remains McMillan’s focus, and his investigations into its triumphs and toxicities yields great poem after great poem. “personal trainer”, in particular, made me gasp as if thumped in the solar plexus by the title character. The first of Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems (Faber), “You, Very Young in New York”, meantime, is a long, twining poem no less resonant.
Two non-fiction titles held my attention this year, for very different reasons. Richard Lloyd Parry’s Ghosts of the Tsunami (Cape) tells the story of a Japanese school whose disaster preparations were found woefully inadequate when the tsunami of 2011 hit. Many children perished in the disaster, and Lloyd Parry chronicles the ensuing investigation – or lack of it. Mistakes were made, and those culpable seem to slip through the net. His portrait of a suffering community becomes a larger depiction of Japanese mores; a deeply sad book, it’s also a fascinating sociocultural study, beautifully written. Rather more upbeat was Mars by 1980 (Faber), David Stubbs’s history of electronic music, from the pioneering early experiments of Stockhausen and Ligeti, through developments of ambient, electro, house and, well, “weird” music, right up to the seemingly boundless proliferations of contemporary electronic music, from thumpingly unsubtle dance music played to vast festival crowds, to the weirder, murkier and altogether less classifiable work of today’s experimenters. Written with passion and panache, this is a very readable, hugely enjoyable chronicle.
Finally, two reissued titles were among the highlights of my reading year. Daunt Books continues to do excellent work in promoting lesser known authors, and this year brought out two books by the Italian author Natalia Ginzburg; her Family Lexicon (originally written in 1963, and translated by Jenny McPhee for publication in 2017 by NYRB Classics) embodies the saw that the most personal work can be the most universal: the reader is so swiftly drawn into Ginzburg’s affectionate recollection of her happy family’s quirks and quarrels that when her memoir reaches the war-riven 1940s and the family suffers terribly, the book’s blows become doubly horrifying. Yet her tone never lacks humour, even when she’s recalling the darkest of times. And in the late Mercè Rodoreda’s Death in Spring (Penguin; a 2009 translation by Martha Tennent appearing for the first time in the UK) the tone starts dark and gets scarier. Ostensibly the story of a young man kicking against the brutality of a repressive regime in “a village … born from the earth’s terrible unrest” (Rodoreda had fled her native Spain, and is looking back here on the beloved place she had left), it becomes a surreal, symbol-rich fable of sorts, something between a David Lynch movie and living through a nightmare. It’s a profound (and profoundly unnerving) work of art, marrying disturbing images with prose that blackly shines. Written in exile and unpublished during her lifetime, Death in Spring is discovering an afterlife, and deservedly so: it’s Rodoreda’s masterpiece. C