Wednesday, 22 December 2010

My Year in Novels

I pledged to read a minimum of two hours per day this year, with mostly successful results. Sometimes I’d read nothing all week then catch up with a non-stop weekend binge. Other times I’d read to avoid the terror of writing or communing with others. My tastes have always been a little insular so I was delighted to make full use of the Writers’ Room and read a plethora of amazing material I never would have discovered solo.

Here are my monthly favourites this year:


Alasdair Gray – Something Leather

Not a rip-roaring start, but the pheromones kick in later on. I like Alasdair Gray’s awkward eroticism. This is the funniest of his novels—not as wildly inventive as Poor Things or as dourly dramatic as 1982 Janine, but growing up in Scotland, I know how inconvenient sex can be for speccy misfits. This novel describes a Glaswegian erotic nightmare: the sordid S&M dreamings of lewd private school laddies. Gray never took himself too seriously as a novelist, even if Scotland did, and his impishness shines through here.


John Barth – The Sot-Weed Factor

I’m undecided about Barth on the whole but this humungous epic was an impressive second dish. I find his brand of exhaustive literature exhausting but this one celebrates the 18thC adventure tale in style, with chaste poet Ebeneezer Cooke stumbling through Maryland looking for his darling prostitute Joan Toast. Barth is loathed for his academic coldness, his big beaming smugness, and his female characters are mostly talking vaginas, but anything was forgivable in the sixties. How d’you think Tarantula got published?


Jonathan Safran Foer – Extremely Loud & Incredible Close

Foer is one of the finest experimental writers out there and this is his magnum opus (unless Tree of Codes counts, which it doesn’t). A wonderful 9/11 comedy told from the POV of Oskar, the smartest lad on the upper east side, the novel uses a range of textual and visual techniques to add resonance and emotion to the narrative. The results are magnificent. The prose itself is funny and soaring and wonderful too, so all in all, a real winner.


Gilbert Adair – Evadne Mount Trilogy

These three novels celebrate Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes with three witty and postmodern whodunits. The last book in particular, And Then There Was No One (read on an eight-hour bus trip from the Highlands), is fantastic: a mix of literary satire, playful mystery and autobiography. It also tells the story for which the world is not yet ready, The Giant Rat of Sumatra—a spot-on Holmes parody that amuses and tickles. A formidable threesome.


Graham Rawle – Woman’s World

This is the first ever collage novel—a witty and fabulous narrative composed from cut-out excerpts from women’s magazines. To imagine the effort involved in an undertaking of this magnitude is mind-bending. Power to Rawle for writing (composing) something so dark and devilish and original that would work as a novel, collage or not.


Gilbert Sorrentino – Crystal Vision

My favourite Sorrentino, this one is a masterpiece in so many ways, I can’t even begin to explain. I must. I must. First, the range of voices at work in the narrative is incredible, each given distinctive characteristics to make them identifiable without the narrator’s intrusion. Also, it manages feats of incredible funniness for the entire duration, with such insane creations as The Arab and the Pooka. The tarot card structure is equally lickable.


Nicola Barker – Burley Cross Postbox Theft

Sorrentino dominated this month (and the next and the next), but this novel was a laugh riot and a worthy pick. Although Wide Open is Barker’s masterpiece, this comic work starts on a note of shrieking laughter and sustains its mirth for the duration. It also strives to reinvent the epistolary novel, and area I poked around in for the year (to no avail), and crackles brilliance throughout.


B.S. Johnson – Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry

Johnson was a great loss to modern literature when he packed it in aged 39. This novel can be read as a suicide note, a great huffy sigh, or a wickedly funny postmodern comedy in the manner of Queneau. In this novella, Christie M is a piddling bookkeeper who decides to address the moral balance in terms of his treatment from others. He must kill to keep his books at a steady equilibrium. Amazing.


Roberto Bolaño – Nazi Literature in the Americas

I was recently introduced to this Chilean overnight sensation and find his prose crackling. This novel is a series of short biographies on fictitious writers that act as mini-stories themselves while dealing a satirical punch to the state of South American literature. Wow.


Bernard Share – Inish

A strange and warped piece of literature by an Air Lingus mogul I will classify as “unrepeatable lunacy” or “bonkers insanity” or “no-idea-what-is-going-on-but-i-love-you”.


Will Self – Walking to Hollywood

The latest monsterpiece from the most verbose novelist in Britain. This novel is an autobiographical peregrination around Los Angeles, with hallucinations and fabrications and language so pristine and indulgent one wants to throw down the quill and go back to temping. Wow again.


Boris Vian – Heartsnatcher

I haven’t finished this month yet (nor have you, unless you come to this post from the strange and samey future), but this French classic is so odd and twisted and weird and hilarious I couldn’t resist. I know these summaries haven’t been too erudite or appealing. Just read these twelve books please. Or toss one on a to-read pile. I don’t care. Share my pleasure. And have a devious Xmas.


  1. HALO PEOPLE! I have news for you! BS Johnson is NOT dead. I married him. He IS a stereotypical virgo and picky as all get out, but he is very much alive (and 48 now)--I just call him Bob.

    I think your April pick looks like the 'can't miss' to me. I love satire, and reading and writing mystery, of late, that looks like a perfect match.

  2. Hey, Mark! Thanks for this list of reviews. I always love them.

    Merry merry merry Christmas. I hope you're having a great day.

  3. Sorry I haven't written for a while, it's just that many things are going on, including Christmas, going to my older brother's wedding, and catching what may be the flu. I'm slightly feverish, my head and stomach keep hurting on and off, and I just feel generally icky. Does that sound like flu, or something else?

  4. Chris: You too. Hope all is well with the Allenses.

    Looney: Probably a short-term tummy niggle. Yes, I said "tummy niggle" and I can be forgiven for that because 2010 years ago Jesus died for our sins. (If you believe that sort of thing, which I don't, but hey, we all need a pretext). Happy Xmas!

  5. Tart: My last comment was nonsense. What I meant to reply was: "I see, Mr. Tart is also a BS. Tell him, please, to hurry up with the next novel. We've been waiting nearly forty years!"

    Ho ho ho.

  6. I so respect you. I only read stuff people scrawl on the john, and even that I have trouble deciphering. Why use shorthand in longhand in lipliner? I don't understand. That doesn't make me special, apparently. I love the responses people get from other people with other shades of lipliner. I often contemplate sneaking into the men's, to see what they write with, but am afraid I'll find out. It kind of makes it hard to pee. I share these things with you because my cat left me.

  7. Hey Hilly V. I'm sure John didn't mind you scrawling. And cats make the best listeners.