The best books of 2017 | A time to get weird

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Looking for fresh fiction? (Or indeed non–?) Civilian arts editor Neil D.A. Stewart casts his eye back over the last 12 months and gives us his take on the best books of 2017
The best books of 2017 | A time to get weird

The most interesting fiction in 2017 came from smaller presses and authors in translation. British book prizes – if the Man Booker even still counts as one of these – tended to reward the more familiar kinds of titles, while indie presses continued to bring more adventurous readers weirder and more exciting work.

These unnerving stories resonate in – or haunt – the mind long after reading

Not coincidentally, some of this work is very weird indeed. Three works of “weird fiction” were the standouts for me in 2017. Mariana Enriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire (Portobello; trans. Megan McDowell) is a collection of stories set in Argentina, a place with no shortage of contemporary historical horrors. While deprivation, drug abuse and disappearance are never far from in her characters’ lives, Enriquez’s project of mapping more otherworldly weirdness onto their stories emerges slowly and subtly. Notably, her interest is in developing characters rather than in reverse-engineering a story around a particular scare or shock. As in successful horror movies’ trick of keeping the monster mostly unseen, these stories have a nice ambiguity about what’s “really” going on. These unnerving stories resonate in – or haunt – the mind long after reading.

The Doll’s Alphabet

In The Doll’s Alphabet (Fitzcarraldo Editions), Canadian Camilla Grudova mixes longer stories (such as “Waxy”, a story of a loving couple and their newborn living an existence so evocatively grimy that I was glad to read it in the bath) with very short, oblique pieces that feel like the kind of micro-dream you might have if you nodded off for a moment: incredibly brief yet with their own fading, ineffable logic. Like the abstruse symbols in a David Lynch film, figures occur and reoccur in these stories – sewing machines, hair, and of course uncanny dolls – and each reappearance sees them accrue even more of an odd, grimy significance. As in Lynch’s work, you get the sense that each of these symbols has a particular cogent meaning for their author, but it remains oblique and unsettling to the reader. What is meant, for instance, by the title story – a string of letters without explanation or expansion? I stared at the otherwise blank page as if the letters might come alive and unjumble their secret. Unusually, having sped through this collection, I was left wanting more. And maybe another wash.

Fever Dream

Fever Dream is an accurate title for Samanta Schweblin’s short novel (Oneworld), again translated by Megan McDowell. A woman lies in a hospital bed, suspended on the edge of unconsciousness or death, and receives a visit from a small boy named David, who questions her incessantly about the circumstances that have hospitalised her. In the background there’s a subplot about reincarnation, or possession, and by the time the narrator is asking David how long she has left to live, and he’s able to accurately tell her, things have got seriously peculiar.

All three of these books suggest that we’re entering a time when allegory is making a bit of a welcome comeback – rather than putting together creaking, Victorian-realist state-of-the-nation tomes, these are deceptively slight, oblique readings of our past and present, as though snatching glimpses of reality and rendering it in these uncanny new forms might be a more suitable way of tackling the extremes of our fractured times.

Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Angela Carter: The Company of Wolves

Fairytale and folklore informs some of this material, and 2017 saw publication of a welcome biography of the titan of the reworked fairytale, Angela Carter. Edmund Gordon’s The Invention of Angela Carter (Chatto & Windus) manages to be both hugely satisfying and, on another level, frustrating – because the Angela Carter who leaps from these pages is someone the reader dearly wishes he could have met. Gordon’s book is both a hugely engaging portrayal of a wonderful writer – cantankerous and mercurial, sharp-tongued and meticulously observant, possibly rather monstrous – and of the pivotal time in British publishing in which she worked. There are eye-opening accounts (literally) of the nugatory advances Carter was paid for what would become enduring classics of British literature, before the huge advances of the 1980s kick in; at the same time, there came the establishment of the first ever creative writing course at the University of East Anglia, where Carter taught; as a graduand of the course, this was perhaps more fascinating for me than for the lay reader, but it’s a valuable resource, too, for anybody interested in the course that Eng. Lit. and its creative writing offshoot have taken in the last four decades. These are incidental, of course, to the biography itself, which veers close to deserving that reviewer’s cliché that on almost every page there’s a fascinating fact, memorable detail about her life or work, or quotable anecdote.

Night Sky with Exit Wounds

Ocean Vuong’s debut poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape) is by turns moving,  charming and harrowing. They range from retold memories of the Vietnam War to versions of ancient myths (“Telemachus”), from the immigrant experience – his family moved from Vietnam via the Philippines to the US when Vuong was an infant – to tender accounts of emergent sexuality. It’s an extraordinary, muscular first collection from a writer in his twenties, the first in his family to become literate.

At the turn of the century, pop music was in the doldrums: teeny-bop pop in the UK and watered-down rap and R&B in the US seemed to have achieved unassailable chart supremacy. Then, out of New York, came a revival of guitar indie: The Strokes, Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the White Stripes. Lizzie Goodman’s extensive oral history of the first decade of the 2000s, Meet Me in the Bathroom (Faber), maps the emergence of what starts to look like the last big movement in the still-monolithic music industry, before the advent of “blog rock”, iTunes on every computer, and a vastly more diverse and arguably more vibrant music scene. This initially struck me as a dubiously recent history to delve into, though it’s interesting that almost all the New York-area bands who hit the big time during the 2001–11 period she considers have since either self-destructed or gone into extended hibernation. Goodman links this last gasp of rock n’roll to the final, irreversible sanitisation of the New York in which these bands hung out, honed their craft and built their reputations and which became (in Interpol’s “NYC”, The Strokes’s Is This It and elsewhere) something like a character in these bands’ songwriting.

Interpol

From some of the world’s biggest bands of the early 2000s to a fictionalised depiction of some of its most obscure. David Keenan’s This is Memorial Device (Faber) is full of the textures and details of dreich sub-suburban 1980s Scotland and the misfits who found one another, formed bands and committed to C60 tape songs few people would ever hear. Keenan’s novel, posited as a series of 30-years-on reflections from members of his micro-scene, is something like a textual version of a Boards of Canada record, full of invented details catching at the edge of real memories – or what LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy once termed “borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties”.

To Be a Machine

Just as the advent of the MP3 has rendered physical music formats either redundant or unearnedly collectible, so some forward-thinking “transhumanists” are actively seeking ways to upload human consciousness into something like “the cloud”, or otherwise transcend corporeal form. Mark O’Connell is by turns wowed, appalled, intrigued and flummoxed in his investigation of the movement, To Be a Machine (Granta). Some of this is low-hanging fruit but it’s a fascinating and faintly appalling primer on some of the new shades of delusional we’re seeing in the twenty-first century, with O’Connell a laconic guide. It all comes down to fear of death in the end – as unremitting a low-level horror in these tales of utopian thinkers and cybernetics pioneers as in the most chilling of ghost stories. C