Our Year in Books 2016

by M.J. NICHOLLS

Party Headquarters by Georgi Tenev (Open Letter Books)

A peculiar novel featuring a narrator who narrates in an oblique manner events that occurred to him across the course and towards the end of an unpleasant regime (Bulgaria’s transition from communism to democracy), including his sexual relationship with the dictator K-shev’s daughter. Fragmented and perplexing at once, illuminating and lyrical at other times, upsetting and weird for the duration.

Pretentiousness: Why It Matters by Dan Fox (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

An impassioned cri de coeur in favour of pretension as a tool for the furtherance and nurturing of art and artistic impulses in our cynical universe. A fantastic potted history of pretense opens the essay, moving on to musings on attitudes to pretension in the arts, and its importance in lifting us from the slough of mass-market miseries (a bog in which the multitudes, for whom ‘pretentiousness’ is still a sneer-term, are languishing), and the importance of rising from one’s prejudices to embrace the outré and unusual and original. Preaching to the converted, here: however, after reading one might slip the book into an intolerant friend’s napsack and lock them in a car for several hours. That friend might emerge with a fondness for Tarkovsky’s later period and a Spotify playlist featuring Arvo Pärt and Phil Glass. Quote time: “Puncture the word ‘pretentious’ and out scuttles a bestiary of class anxieties: fears about getting above your station, and policing those suspected of trying to m9781910695043igrate from their social background. The word is bent to fit emotional attitudes towards economic and social inequality, and used as shorthand in arguments over authenticity, elitism and populism. In the arts, pretentiousness is the brand of witchcraft used by scheming cultural mandarins to keep the great unwashed at bay. It’s a way of saying that contemporary art is a ‘con’ and that subtitled films are ‘difficult’ — that they do not appeal to everyone and therefore must be aimed at the sorts of people who think they are better that everyone else. The sorts of people who like French or Chinese or Mexican films because they won’t stand up for their country’s alleged clear-eyed pragmatism over another’s pseudery. The intellectually insecure drop the word ‘pretentious’ to shut down a conversation they don’t understand, when simply saying ‘I don’t know’ or asking ‘Can you explain this?’ would be more gracious ways to admit to being in the dark. Cutting someone down for pretension reveals, ironically, the mark of embarrassed arrogance rather than humility. The word ‘pretentious’ is deployed as an insidious euphemism of distaste for sexual difference, a synonym for ‘effeminacy’ or ‘dandyism’. Apply it to the topics of gender, sexuality, and race, and the accusation of pretension swiftly becomes a measure of how antediluvian the accuser’s attitudes are.” (p.129-130)

At the Writing Desk by Werner Kofler (Dalkey Archive Press)

Described as a “satirical send-up of his era’s cultural and literary status quo”, the novel read at times like the metafictional interruptions of Ror Wolf, except riddled with references to the late-eighties cultural and historical zeitgeist. Kofler is either incapable of pulling his novel into focus, scribbling on page after page, starting and restarting the story (what story?!), or performing a sublime literary cocktease.

I Saw Her that Night by Drago Jančar (Dalkey Archive Press)

Five characters recount their experiences with eccentric noblewoman Veronika around the time of her disappearance. Opening with an account of an affair with her horse riding instructor Stevan (an affair that in the time-honoured tradition spells downfall), the novel reveals events from shifting perspectives, teasing out pivotal details from Veronika’s mother, a faithful servant Joži, a German doctor friend, and the traitorous Jeranek until the unpleasant climax. Less inventive in terms of structure than The Tree with No Name, this novel is still an engaging and interesting addition to the formidable heap of war-obsessed literature.

dodge_rose_2frontDodge Rose by Jack Cox  (Dalkey Archive Press)

A striking first novel from an Australian talent with a hard-on for hardcore modernism. Set in the pleasing suburb of Woolloomooloo, Sydney, the novel is split into two parts: the first written from the supposed daughter of Dodge Rose, Maxine, upon the arrival of her niece Eliza who has arrived to claim an inheritance. Narrated in what might be termed Dodgese, the novel forces the reader into a close examination of the text: often the logic and meaning evaporate within a sentence, phonetic spellings are used, dubious French phrases appear, and a string of neologisms or archaic words are dropped at times into the mix. One section is a fifteen-page descent into property law, where terms are hurled into a blender and meaning is pulverized (and later there is a long unpunctuated section mocking banking jargon). The second section is ‘written’ by the young Dodge Rose, told sans punctuation in lower case, narrating fragments from her parents’ lives, never connecting with the preceding narrative in a way that seems meaningful. The star of the novel is the warped syntax that creates a unique and stunning sentence structure, leading to a truly captivating style, and even if the novel seems surreal and aimless, Cox’s Dodgese, a truly crazy invention, carries the work to magnificence.

The Continous Katherine Mortenhoe by D.G .Compton (NYRB)

A 1970s spec classic reissued with a fresh tonguing from Jeff Vandermeer. Set in a dystopic future (this one), where the pain-starved public crave reality shows about the moribund, eager to soak up their final croaks, stiff romance novel editor Katherine Mortenhoe is told about her terminus by a seedy doc in the pockets of a Murdoch-like TV empire. Split between a first-person account of human camera Roddie, tailing the heroine, and third-person narration of the arch and quick-witted Katherine, the novel is a smart suckerpunch to the amoral digital age of the time, an age enhanced tenfold since the seventies, and like the finest spec novels, has predicted the boorishness of the future (the handling of reality TV figure Jade Goody’s terminal cancer was a shameful intrusion on the dignity of dying). Compton’s prose is not sensational but seriously above-par for a spec dealer.

Brightfellow by Rikki Ducornet (Coffee House Press).

As with her two preceding novels, Netsuke and Gazelle, the most recent Rikki production is a more melancholic and personal affair. In Brightfellow, the bookish Stub loses his parents and holes himself up in a campus library, sleeping and self-educating among the stacks until late teenagehood, swotting up on the works of obscure philosopher Vanderloon, when widowed Professor Billy takes the orphan into his home as a lodger. From the window, the dreaming Stub (renamed Charter) becomes fixated on Asthma, the young daughter of Dr. Ash next door, and through her recreates his lost childhood with Jenny, a precocious girl who moved away. Brightfellow is a charming and moving novel with familiar Ducornet echoes: Lewis Carroll (whose spirit inhabits the protagonist) and Gaston Bachelard (whose spirit inhabits Vanderloon’s writings), with a splash of Kaspar Hauser and Great Expectations. There is a return to the impish humour and playfulness of earlier Rikki novels, recalling at times The Jade Cabinet, although the prose is sparser and more deliberately lyrical. Another marvellous addition to a truly enchanting oeuvre.

Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador by Horacio Castellanos Moya (New Directions)

Mr. Lee Klein (the translator), channelling Horacio channelling Bernhard, turns in an acute and perfect translation of Horacio’s acute and perfect novella. An encounter with an enraged art professor in San Salvador, repulsed at his homeland, its inhabitants, its lack of culture, its homes containing members of his family, leads to an hilarious score-settling rant, culminating in a piece of slapstick featuring the timid professor trapped in a hellish night out at a sleazy bar, and even sleazier brothel, crazed in search of the Canadian passport that allows him free pass from his hellish homeland. A satisfyingly brutal read.

Intimacy by Stanley Crawford (FC2)

A strange, opaque novel featuring a suicidal man ambling around and fretting about his socks. The claustrophobic prose, focusing on the sort of banal observation that even Nicholson Baker might scorn, is intended to create an unsettling intimate relationship between the reader and this unnamed consciousness, however, the result is a flat and uncaptivating series of inconsequential scenes, livened up at times with Crawford’s hushed poetic insight and talent for voice. His preceding novel, Seed, is the better of these two late-career efforts.

Natural Wonders by Angela Woodward (FC2)

An intriguing novel riddled with fantastic anecdotal scientific arcana—marred overall by an uninteresting failed marriage narrative between a bland woman and a professor, and the somewhat chaotic unstructured feel of various vignettes brought together in novel form. The two elements make for a strange and frustrating mix. I was relieved when I landed in Helsinki to complete indifference.

untitled Doubles by David Caute (Totterdown Books)

A fast-paced and erudite historical novel concerning a fictional(?) visit by Picasso and Chaplin to Stalin’s Russia in the early 1950s. Told by two elderly ladies whose task was to seduce and wheedle the two superstars, the novel abounds in mischievous intrigue, fantastic puppeteering of the famous personages, excellent dialogue, and a wicked splicing of fiction and fact. And I read

Cry Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre (Maclehose)

Versatile French imp Lydie Salvayre has impressed this reader with her hilarious anti-corporate rants, her strange and upsetting monologues, and her black comic satires, and titles awaiting translation that I long to read. This novel makes a lunge at the mainstream (Prix Goncourt winner) with an entertaining autobiographical tale of the author’s mother’s upbringing in 1930s Spain and the pre-war civil war. Swinging between interview snippets with the scatological nonagenarian mama at her home, whose happiness was concentrated into one month of freedom when the anarchists reigned, and topdown tales of small village skirmishes between brothers and rich kids and the class struggle, this is an immersive, comic, and vibrant personal history, and kicks Lydie into public awareness with panache.

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (Bloomsbury)

Debbie has passed from the cool and profitless corners of the unknown (where the finest books are published), to the Booker-nominated realm of mainstream presses who insist on insipid covers with bikini-clad women to flog their books to “markets” not readers. Despite this brutal shift, Debbie has not altered her lean poetic prose style, her steely Ballardian tone, and her panache for poking into the painful nooks of her damaged personnel. This short novel features a daughter chained to her hypochondriac mother, and a series of events that occur at a dubious Spanish medical resort where the mother seeks a salve for her ailing foot. Blackly humorous, compelling and sweltering with sorrowfulness, on a par with the brilliant Billy & Girl and Swallowing Geography.

Autumn by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)

autumn_hockneyAli Smith is a prolific story writer, critic, and playwright, but her novels alone have blasted her into the mesosphere of critical adulation, and this first part of an exciting seasonal quartet furthers her familiar brand of humorous, gentle, playful, and bedazzling brilliance. Timehopping across the century, the novel focuses on the adopted father relationship between an art lecturer and an enigmatic former dancer, lyricist, and sixties art scenester. Featuring another of Smith’s precocious youngsters (her affinity for these quick-witted pre-teens is evident in other novels like There but for the) and word-loving oddballs, the novel takes a melancholic look at the present political tangles of 2016, reflects on the legacy of British pop-artist Pauline Boty, and muses on the place of storytelling and fabrication in a post-truth (OED word of 2016!) era. Among numerous other charming tangents and tangles. This is a delightful concoction and evocative of the titular season. A beautiful novel of ideas and passions, featuring beautiful characters full of ideas and passions.

The Most Wretched Thing Imaginable by Steven Moles (Sagging Meniscus)

The Emeritus Professor of the Dark Research Meaning Institute returns with another short novel that takes one’s expectations and obliterates them with a mallet coated in buckarastano and bwords. Scholarly trivia, resplendent non sequiturs, elliptical repetitions and recurring motifs, logical puzzles bound to unpeel one’s brain, weaved with panache into vignettes that sparkle with deadpan surrealism, rapturous wordplay and copious Beatles references, rendered for your amusement into the finest bwords and kwank.

The Tiger by Jack Foley (Sagging Meniscus Press)

Having never so much as caught an echo of the name Jack Foley on the wind, and the wind often breathes the names of avant-garde West Coast poets, this volume was a splendid introduction to the sort of berserk and bodacious writer who is a perfect stranger to the phrase “risk-averse”. The tales in this collection are often in the form of fables, or fablish in nature, featuring some lemming-like disciples in ‘Broughton Fountain’, a moronic monster DDD in ‘The Monst’, and a phoney phantom in ‘An E-Mail to George’. Some of the tales produce wondrous bafflement, as in the nutty ‘The Ern Malley Story’ or the scrap of script ‘Adventures of Sally Phillips, Girl Detective’. There are stories in verse, and two short plays, and other pieces of curious humour that will keep you smirking like a smug smirker. Recommended for fans of gorgeously designed small press oddball books (i.e. me, and others like me).

 The Bulgarian Truck by Dumitru Tepeneag (Dalkey Archive Press)

This is the first book ever to be classified as a “building site beneath the open sky” and not a novel. This mixture of unpunctuated Duras-inspired narrative about a murderous Bulgarian truck driver and the author-narrator’s ailing long distance email and phone relationship with a more successful writer (and other women with similar names), is a self-conscious marvel. An anti-novel (as the translator writes) also about the art of translation, and the frustration of being a Romanian ex-pat writing in French, the book takes potshots at translators and the author’s frustration at relying on them to reach a wider English audience. Derived in part from the “oneiric” movement, the text’s unpunctuated sections (which comprise the “oneiric” content) are the least coherent, however, provide a dreamy depth to what otherwise might be seen as an extended old man’s lament at becoming extinct in the digital age.

Empty Streets by Michel Ajvaz (Dalkey Archive Press)

A captivating novel in a permanent skirt on the edge of the ridiculous, featuring a blocked writer who ventures forth in search of the meaning of an obscure motif. Each character encountered likes to speak in super-articulate monologues, pulling the protagonist further into an unsolvable web of intrigue that ends up being solved (pardon the spoiler). If the reader can tolerate the strangeness, then this long novel will provide a lasting mystery long after the riddle has been solved: a call to explore the dark fringes of the urban and to find connections and meaning in everything.

screen-shot-2016-10-29-at-05-35-05Don’t Leave Me by Stig Saeterbakkten (Dalkey Archive)

As the poet quizzed, “Can we ever hope to recapture / that first fine careless rapture?” As the American teens say, and as Donald Trump intends to do with ISIS, this novel “kicked / my ass”. As a heartbreak survivor, and a teenage bullying survivor, this harrowing and inventive novel about those two topics offers resounding thwacks of recognition on the rear cheeks. Told backwards (for the most part) and in the second person, the novel recounts Aksel’s ill-fated teenage romance with a teenage girl who is increasingly disturbed by his aggression and clinginess, and unwillingness to avoid dwelling on her chosen method of losing virginity (to an old sleazy rocker), and as the narrative unfurls, we learn of poor Askel’s unhinged and disturbing behaviour. Saeterbakkten writes miserable novels in a marvellous way, the sort of thing Morrissey should be writing, not novels about sprinters, and this twofer alongside the recent Invisible Hands (a brilliant noir from the same translator) should introduce more non-Norwegians to his wonderful writing.

Margarito and the Snowman by Reyoung (Dalkey Archive)

Any attempt to review this novel will result in headache, the sweats, an outbreak of hives, all three of which I am suffering from already. Even the blurb suggests a panicked last-minute summarising after three weeks of sweating and stewing. Reyoung’s second novel (the first, Unbabbling, is the weirdest novel written—this is the second) is the first post-Trump novel: a shrieking maniacal satire set in a snowpocalyptic landscape where Mexican workers are exploited in bizarre snow shovelling or collecting activities, or whatever the fuck is happening. Similar to the latest HBO success Westworld, we later learn the whole novel is (perhaps) a movie being acted out before our eyes, a cross between Mel Brooks and The Revenant. Turbo-charged lunacy, first-class wordplay, and a dangerously unhinged comic style blasts this insanely incoherent performance into the realm of the essential. Exactly the sort of novel one might expect from a man residing in a limestone cave below the city of Austin.

Gesell Dome by Guillermo Saccomanno (Open Letter)

An unrelenting trip to the Inferno (with Dante as our tour guide, cast here as a discerning hack), featuring a revue of crooked businessmen, politicians, lawyers, and powermakers, stomping on the bedraggled masses in the most violent and messed-up Argentine villa to ever set itself up as a utopian tourist beach resort. Opening with a case of child molestation known as los abusaditos, a foul stench that permates the novel, the pages proceed to pile up with one shooting, suicide, murder, corrupt activity, gruesome child killing after another, most of the citizens of the town depicted as crazed sex maniacs on the steal and shoot and stab, with Dante the lone sane voice, writing emotionless reports in the villa newspaper fed to him by evil mastermind Alejo Quiros. Far from becoming intolerable, the novel piles up the carnage to the point the reader is no longer shocked and appalled (barring several extreme acts), cranking up the pain to comic-book levels of hurt (the author is a former comic writer). As an exploration of modern violence, the novel is less certain—is the writer revelling in the carnage? is he forcing us to confront the animal within?—however, there are moments of reflection and a sombre tone to reassure us that the moral compass is pointing in the right direction.