For anyone who enjoys the escapism of reading, 2020 has been a challenge. There’s only so much reality we can take, or only so much we can set aside, and I’ve heard so many reports of people who, normally big readers, have found it impossible to concentrate or to commit to books this year. When the time we live through has taken on the tenor of the most outlandish novel or beyond-belief non-fiction, it can be hard to look away. For me, short books, poetry and episodic non-fiction provided, for the most part, distraction in the right doses.
The most interesting fiction in 2020 seemed to come from beyond the Anglophone world
Once more, the most interesting fiction in 2020 seemed to come from beyond the Anglophone world. Top of the pile for me – though by no means a light read – is Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season (Fitzcarraldo/New Directions). The woman known to all in her village as ‘The Witch’ lies dead, and in eight chapters told in long, looping, hypnotic sentences, Melchor explores the backstories of characters complicit to a greater or lesser degree in the Witch’s death, exposing dark small-town secrets, the terrifying and fragile macho masculinity of the village’s men, and the lengths people will go to as they try to set right the unforgivable, or conceal the inexcusable. Its mix of registers, its impressive way with expletives and the unique language Melchor has created for her characters placed unusual demands on translator Sophie Hughes (there’s a fascinating interview on this topic with both author and translator available as part of this year’s – alas – online-only Edinburgh Book Festival) and the results are thrillingly grubby, cheerfully appalling and compulsively readable.
Also from Fitzcarraldo/NDP, Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail (trans. Elisabeth Jaquette) is a short novel in two parts. In the first, the titular detail is a single crime, appalling in itself, but subsumed into the wider story of 1949’s Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The second shows a present-day narrator growing obsessed with the “detail” and the very fact of its being lost in wider accounts of that history. It’s a single-sitting read, by turns cool and sinister, with the historical text echoed in dreamlike ways by the present-day narrative, and a thrilling conclusion.
In When We Cease to Understand the World (Pushkin Press; trans. Adrian Nathan West), Netherlands-born, Chile-based Benjamín Labutat tackles nothing less than the entirety of the universe. His short novel is populated with real historical figures – from Einstein and Hitler to the physicist Niels Bohr and the reclusive mathematician Shinichi Mochizuki – but the connections Labutat makes, and the bizarre coincidences that link his characters, had me checking more than once that these people really did exist. These characters’ desire to see the great underpinning patterns of our world, scientific, mathematical or otherwise, are time and again frustrated as they butt up against the uncanny (solutions they cannot remember hitting on, nor recreate, much less explain their workings to others). Fiction infiltrates the real stories Labutat tells, and the joy of When We Cease to Understand the World is our inability to tell the difference. The “non-fiction novel” seems to be becoming a familiar subgenre, and similar techniques are at play in Selva Amada’s Dead Girls (published by the marvellous Charco Press, trans. Annie McDermott), whose cool title and reportage-like tone belie the strange and tragic stories of the three young Argentine women whose (factual) deaths Amada explores.
Away from reality, I also enjoyed Danish author Olga Ravn’s science-fiction novella The Employees (Lolli Editions, trans. Martin Aitken). Told in a series of workplace reports from the human and almost-human inhabitants of a vast spacecraft which has picked up peculiar samples from one particular planet, it’s an elliptical, intriguing piece of work, with telling gaps in the narrative. Penguin’s 2020 series of science-fiction classics and oddities, which includes works by Kurt Vonnegut and Stanislaw Lem among less familiar names, was an ongoing highlight of the year: I liked the offbeat cool of Angélica Gorodischer’s Trafalgar, about a caffeine-addicted outer space explorer, and the funny, quirky first-contact stories in James Tiptree’s 10,000 Light Years from Home.) I’m happy to see more titles in this series scheduled for the space year 2021.
Mark O’Connell’s Notes from an Apocalypse (Granta/Doubleday) came out in March 2020, both the best and worst timing for a book about the end of the world. Fortunately, none of the cataclysms he and his subjects worry about happened to be virus-related. Moreover, it’s a book less about what form doomsday might take, and more about the plans people make for extreme events, and the psychology of preppers, millenarians and gleeful doomsayers. In his genial, mildly disingenuous way, O’Connell gently connects dots to show what the high-profile technopreppers of our world just happen to have in common (hint: the postapocalyptic utopias they posit are all oddly undiverse) and to suggest we might spend less time worrying about the future and more about the snake-oil salesmen of the here and now.
Once you read a Dennis Cooper novel you’re either smitten or turned off forever: I’m in the former camp, but even those who’ve failed to acquire a taste for his gnarly, taboo-breaking fiction would find rationales for their dislike in Wrong, Diarmuid Hester’s critical biography (University of Iowa Press). Hester’s expert unpicking of Cooper’s influences and techniques of alienation and emotional remove is balanced by some highly entertaining and scurrilous literary-scene setting, and explores the post-Beat poetry world, the minor but influential “new narrative” subgenre that has recently found new expression in the autofiction of Laing, Knausgaard and Cusk. Cooper remains a higher-stakes author than any of these, and Wrong – highly enjoyable in itself – will send me back again to his stellar novels of the 1990s, with Hester’s insights in mind.
The world, as one rather more canonical queer text puts it, only spins forward; but that progress can be cumbersome and lopsided. In The Pink Line: The World’s Queer Frontiers (Profile/Macmillan) Mark Gevisser mixes reportage and broader sociology to report from the front lines of the ongoing battles for LGBTQ+ rights. From the third-sex hijras of India to refugees in Uganda, Gevisser investigates the sometimes clunky, sometimes graceful progress of progress itself. Extensive interviews with individuals are interspersed with broader chapters on topics such as trans rights and the by no means unmitigatedly positive outcomes when rich countries like the USA seek to influence the local politics of countries reliant on their generosity in aid. Gevisser is an optimist but a realist; The Pink Line shows us how far we’ve come, and reminds us that there is always more work to be done.
In poetry, I particularly enjoyed the righteous fury of Inua Ellams’s The Actual (Penned in the Margins), whose power accumulates the more poems you read in a sitting, Rachel Long’s wry and revealing My Darling from the Lions (Picador Poetry), and Ella Frears’s Shine, Darling (Offord Road Books), with its vivid turns of phrases and its especially enjoyable suite of poems inspired by the St Ives artists.
Both Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain (Picador/Grove Atlantic) – which I review more fully here and Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness (Picador/FSG) are enlightening stories about the gay experience, told in clear, clean, often beautiful prose. The title character of Stuart’s novel is the real spark of light in a story of political fallout and human tragedy, where freedom – economic independence, freedom to express yourself – is elusive but worth fighting for, tooth and nail. Greenwell’s unnamed narrator moves through various worlds, articulating some less often spoken truths about desire, need, and how the personal and political can and should interact in times of protest and upheaval. Its nine episodes – many of them perfect standalone stories themselves – are arranged to reflect and subvert one another, and the overall effect is substantial but accessible, a building with all its windows and doors thrown open.
Having trailed this last year ahead of its UK release, I am delighted that Helen Garner’s Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume One 1978–87 (Text) proved as glorious as I had hoped. On every page, her genius is revealed: a paragraph about a bloom on a tree, or a page about her daughter’s school music recital, or a single line of overheard dialogue, any one of them containing a story’s – even a novel’s – worth of humour, humanity and craft. There are three joys here: to read it straight through, a first hungry time; to dip back in afterwards and be dazzled afresh each time; and to relish the prospect of many more volumes to come.
A final word, looking forward hopefully to a better 2021. This year, some of you and those around you were made redundant, or had your working hours and income cut, or struggled to pay rent, or lost some of your livelihood as restrictions and furloughs bit. Maybe you waited months for a one-off government payment that would barely cover a month’s rent. Meanwhile, the richest man in the world saw his personal wealth skyrocket yet again. The books here that I adored (as well as those I hated, or liked-but-not-loved, or felt indifferent to) were all purchased from independent bookshops who have had to pivot rapidly to online ordering, click-and-collect and even personal deliveries on bicycle. Please, as we turn our backs on 2020 and contemplate small ways we can make the world a nicer place, buy local, and don’t feather the nest of men like those Mark O’Connell meets in his apocalypse study – men who can not only weather disasters but benefit obscenely from them. C