9. James Joyce — Ulysses
First, about the haste. This book is a page-turner. Forget Stephen King. Joyce is the man you read in bed, furiously tongue-fingering the pages to see what seminal modernist technique he invents, masters, inverts, spins on its head like a circus freak with a whirligig in his bonce. The first five episodes set the pace perfectly, setting the reader up for the all-singing all-dancing feats of outrageous showboating that follow in the remaining thirteen chapters, each adding a few Jenga blocks to the superseding chapters to challenge the reader and keep her on her toes. Look, Joyce loves his reader! He’s the most unpatronising author this side of L.L. Cool J.! Joyce believes in you. He believes everyone has the capacity within them to crack his boggling Enigma code, and if that isn’t some heartwarming Sunday school moral, what is? So what if Joyce was wrong and every reader would need The New Bloomsday Book merely to scratch the surface of this amorphous, expanding superbrain of a book? Ulysses is an infinite novel. Unlike Finnegans Wake, where every attempt at some semblance of lucidity and meaning falls flat—the book a distant satellite fated to drift forever in space—Ulysses is an infinitely re-readable supernova of emotional and intellectual replenishment. Pure aesthetic pleasure. Everything that followed Ulysses expanded, plundered and rehashed Ulysses. It was the end and beginning of literature. If you like any books at all, anything post-Ulysses, you’re an ideal candidate to read Ulysses. It will break your heart, and your brain. End of.
10. Charlie Brooker — Unnovations
Spoof ‘innovations’ catalogue. Russio’s review covers this one adequately—a mostly crude and misfiring curio from the otherwise darkly humorous, clever satirist. In his series Screen Wipe and the Guardian Screen Burn columns Charlie Brooker perfected his one-man lonely bedsit crusader against TV mediocrity routine, before then he was almost as rude and perverted as many of the nitwits he was spoofing. In his series of TV dramas Black Mirror one of the stories revolved around the Prime Minister sodomising a pig—in the drama this was played in a deadpan, serious way—here the pig sodomy appears twice for crude laughs. What a strange recurring motif. Anyway, the entries in this were written by a series of writers (credited in small print in the opening page), so the blame and shame can be shared. Largely sweary, vaguely sleazy male-dominated humour for the self-loathing late twenties cynical male market. The saddest existing market. (For cheapskates or curious the whole thing is archived online here at Zeppotron).
11. Nicola Barker — The Yips
The middle point between Darkmans and Burley Cross Postbox Theft. Attempts the weaving of a series of anarchic comic plots à la the latter with the palpable if underunderstated tone of pathos of the former. The Yips is a yelping comedy, stuffed with manic eccentrics, their manic eccentricities cranked to eleven in the form of larger-than-life dialogue tics—ludicrous overemphasis, autopilot whimsy, cartoony character traits, etc. The book’s linking solvent comes in this questionable notion of ‘embracing pain’—each character learns to accept their shortcomings and internal agonies like religious virtues (one character is a female vicar, another a Muslim fundamentalist manqué) . . . this seems somewhat curious from a writer who wants to see people “lit up by the beauty of their suffering.” Hmm. Pain aside, Barker completely exhausts her laughter muscles in this one—the agenda is largely one of manic tittering at the expense of narrative heft. Sadly, the pace flags and the relentless kookiness of her personnel really does begin to grate after a while, and the investment we have in these characters, esp. the agoraphobic tattooist Valentine, isn’t quite satisfied as the 500th page is turned. Where will her next novel take her? A reprise of the more moody literary wonders of Wide Open or Reversed Forecast? Why not? Newcomers, do Darkmans first.
12. Deborah Levy — Swimming Home
This queer, disquieting novel blends a dark, surreal Topor-topos with a Hollywood noir of forties vintage. Taking place in 1994 over a week in a French holiday resort, the novel centres around stuttering botanist and exhibitionist depressive Kitty Finch and her interaction with a ragbag of unlikeable snobs, poets and snotty brats. Like her 1995 book The Unloved, Levy creates an unpleasant world with little empathy, where language is the only refuge, where the icy shimmer of the exacting prose keeps the reader entranced. The novel brought to mind This Mortal Coil’s Blood. For each moment of beautiful clarity, such as ‘Mr. Somewhere’ or ‘With Tomorrow’ there are oppressive, opaque instrumentals like ‘Andialu’ or ‘Loose Joints’ that create a stifling atmosphere, that strain to add layers of darkness to the already dreamlike beauty of the vocal-led songs ‘You and Your Sister’ or ‘Til I Gain Control Again.’ (I made my own version of Blood a few years ago, cutting out the floatier, drearier instrumentals to create a more ‘perfect’ LP). Anyway, a worthwhile investment and pleased to see this on the Booker longlist.
13. Jerry Kosiński — Being There
Peter Sellers’s last (and best?) performance was in Being There—directed by Hal Ashby with Kosiński’s screenplay—one of my favourite American tragicomedies. The original novella compresses the meat of the movie into straightforward and simple chapters, mimicking the simple mind of Chance, the anonymous simpleton whose plain-talking homilies propel him into the top of American life within four days. The film brings the character of Chance into being through Peter Sellers, who expands upon the simple phrases and bland dialogue in the book to make the character an unforgettable, profound, hilarious and tragic figure, not unlike Sellers himself. So these five stars are for the screenplay and novella. If you haven’t seen the film it’s a beautifully paced, slow-moving and surreal satire, exquisitely performed by all and with a moving melancholy tone, and perhaps one of the most spine-tingling endings in all cinema. Bravo.
14. Osman Lins — The Queen of the Prisons of Greece
The last novel by a noted Brazilian writer (smiling in his author photo—always a good sign). Part highbrow reflection on the art of fiction in relation to reality, part faux-academic analysis of an unfinished manuscript by the narrator’s deceased inamorata. Diaristic in form, immensely creative and erudite in content, Prisons of Greece is a captivating experiment with occasional patches of dreariness and esoterica. Builds to a dazzling and disturbing climax when the writer’s handle on reality loosens completely—a response to unutterable loss? a writer overanalysing himself into madness? absorption into his lover’s manuscript? Loved this. Also from Lins in English, Avalovara and Nine, Novena.
15. Charles Dickens — Bleak House
15. Charles Dickens — Bleak House
Roll back to 1986—I was touring with Loudon Wainwright III upon the release of his More Love Songs album (which includes the famous ‘Your Mother & I’) when Loud strikes up a confab about Dickens. “Nicholls,” he begins, bunk-loafing in his usual roguish manner. “I do declay-ah that Bleak House is the greatest novel of the century, yessir-ee.” I was strumming a zither at the time, co-writing a song that would later appear on History. “Loud, you must be out of your mind. Everyone knows now that Ulysses is the greatest novel of the century.” Never one to miss a literary quotation, Loud shot back: “Thank you, Mr. Burgess. How many other books you read this week, one or two thousand?” Those were fine times, until the drinking and restraining orders, etc. And now, twenty-five-and-a-bit years later, I have read Bleak House, and I can see why Mr. Wainwright was so smitten. Sprawling in his epic sprawlingness—a Gargantua of fog-blocked Weltschmerz—a complex, challenging dual narrative—a scathing satire on the circumambiguities of the law and the chancers who practise—a vibrant and lively Dickens crackerbox of eccentrics and noble memorables—a long long long long saga of such sublime and intolerable long long long longness other long things seem short in comparison—a breathtaking final third where all the plots converge in a most invigorating heartsmacking masterful manner—oh Yes. Take that, Loudon.
Once more Alison Bechdel knocks a stellar work out the park (after half a decade of torturous self-analysis) and repositions the suffering neurotic artist at the forefront of serious art. By turns frustrating and self-absorbed to such mindboggling depths of solipsistic screwdriver-in-the-head nuttiness, the novel slowly reveals itself as a complex rendition of mother-daughter psychodynamics, touching upon Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich and pioneering feminist psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott along the way. A much-too-intimate soul-on-the-page work of quite outrageous braveness and unrepeatable, wrenching and yucky emotional honesty. Read to the end. Honestly, the ending pardons everything. You won’t like her, but you will love her. As good as Fun Home.