9. Ali Smith — Artful
An extended Smith short story, wrapped like bacon around the sausage of her illuminating Oxford lectures, makes up this debut non-fiction collection from the Best Living Scottish Novelist (caps mean cred). Her trope of using the second person to address an absent presence (in this case, Smith is the one being addressed, by her partner) returns, fortunately intermittent between the otherwise un-tampered-with content of her brief lectures. Not unlike Adam Thirlwell’s grandiose Miss Herbert in its weaving of narrative, opinion, fact and quotation, Smith’s book is in a minor, but no less resonant, key, and gambols with the usual passion for language present in her novels—her lectures, unsurprisingly, are riddled with quotations, as she barely suppresses her eagerness to share the marvels she has unearthed in her current literary explorations (in this case Oliver Twist, James’s The Golden Bowl and Katherine Mansfield). Missing from this is her stirring keynote speech at the Edinburgh Book Festival: an absence as heavy as the invisible You that haunts the first half of the story. Cover image of Aliki Vougiouklaki, apparently a Greek Monroe, in looks only.
10. William T. Vollmann — The Rainbow Stories
Loved the street-smart reportage-cum-fiction parts—a blast of surprising grit, candour and pulsing realism all too rare in this navelgazing era. ‘The White Knights’ and ‘Ladies and Red Lights’ is rich in powerful, electrifying vignettes as Vollmann restricts his prose to a splendidly unshowy, detached and oddly empathetic voice. Unfortunately, what follows failed to provoke any reaction from me other than befuddlement and boredom—one cod-Talmudic story, written in a zanily biblical style, and one mind-numbing historical tale about a Chinese Thug gang were endured in the hope of finer things. The awkward romance stories about frolicking yuppies, especially ‘Yellow Rose,’ are precisely the sort of late-eighties all-smart-and-rich-young-people-are-fascinating efforts that Goodreads users rightly treat with contempt, although as stories they are mildly entertaining. But the onslaught of ‘The Blue Yonder,’ a nigh-unreadable stream of codswallop, close to DFW at his most Mister Squishy-like—the prose gummed to death by an overworked, self-regarding flashiness that eliminates all reader involvement, settling instead for vague templates for characters like ‘The Other’ and ‘The Zombie’—pulls the book into the realm of insufferable opaque quasi-philosophical dribbling that does not merit my attention for 180 more pp. Stopped on p360. More Vollmann? TBD . . .
11. Camilo José Cela — The Family of Pascal Duarte
For fans of Spanish miserablism set in a heartless deterministic universe (i.e. this one), Pascal Duarte is the brief novel for you. Duarte’s confession, written from prison, is a beautiful recounting of a life of violent poverty and aimless murder, told in simple and frequently moving prose. Cela’s work is often concerned with the seemingly endless human capacity for violence and conflict and this short work leaves a powerful imprint on the reader with its moments of hair-raising cruelty and almost unbearable tenderness.
12. Alicia Borinsky — Dreams of the Abandoned Seducer
This “vaudeville novel” is precisely what one would expect from a female Argentine ex-pat literature professor based in Boston (at the time this book was published)—freewheeling and chaotic, joyfully flipping off the Aristotelian unities of time, wryly satirical and astringently feminist, Borinsky’s novel is a panoply of voices, surreal scenes, weird commentaries, Argentine chatter and patter, literary opacity in that dangerously meaningless MFA-graduate-style, Puigian homage and bitesize ferocity. Her style is wildly entertaining and unique but meaning is hard to decipher amid the prattle, snark and boogie-woogie, and as the “novel” (more like Lydia Davis’s vignettes) progresses, one can only appreciate the book for any surreal amusement that lingers in the brain. Four stars not three to Alicia Borinsky for being cool, largely unknown, and looking like Deborah Levy. And for moving from Buenos Aires to Boston.
13. Ignácio de Loyola Brandão — Anonymous Celebrity
Spare a thought in 2013, this horrible horrible time to be alive, for the satirist. To satirise the self-satirising effluence that passes for populist entertainment and the pathetic vanity of a self-deifying movie industry is no mean feat in an age comfortable in its metameta cage. Being born into a system that values success, usually financial, above everything else, into an essentially worthless and spoiled world of governments happy to toss art aside in favour of financial dominance and petty power, gives the writer a subject, but limited manoeuvrability in his approach. To merry heck with the leaders who close libraries, theatres and community centres in favour of opening more retail opportunities and call centres to slowly mind-melt the populace. Fuck these zoot-suited capitalist cockslingers with their pus-filled polyps for souls. Because the only respite from the failed system in this failed First World is through literature—not through the ideologues, rhetoricians or motivational yammerers, but through the wonderous drug of fiction. Anyway. This fantastically inventive satire comes blazing from the mind of a Brazilian powerhouse. A fame-dream fantasy gone fatal, the novel is rife with hilarious, ponderous, filthy and sharp reflections on the curse of ordinariness in a vapid and callous age, and contains some absolutely marvellous exploding fonts. Natty cover too.
14. Adolfo Bioy Casares — The Invention of Morel
Lacking in the satirical surrealism found in his later (and some say lesser) NYRB book Asleep in the Sun, unfortunately this one failed to sustain my attention despite forty pages of anticipatory eagerness. The narrator, nameless, mooches around an island spying on a gypsy woman and is evicted from her presence by bearded Frenchmen. Naturally, she is beautiful, naturally he falls in love with her, then something happens to do with photographs and people dying and I didn’t understand most of it, due to the absence of an interesting character or situation or compelling narrative style, and too much technical-contraption-waffle of the kind found in the most boring nouveau roman stuff.
15. Christopher Sorrentino — Sound on Sound
Chris Sorrentino’s debut novel, only and barely available in hardcover, continues the daring and exciting formal adventures found in his father Gilbert Sorrentino’s novels. Structured around five aspects of musical composition and recording, Sound on Sound concerns the hopeless rock band Hi-Fi and their inaugural divebar concert. Making use of Gilbert-approved techniques like detached descriptions (of photos), cryptic footnotes, hilarious parodies, lists, sardonic third-person narration and sly metafictive flourishes, Sorrentino dissects a generation of late-seventies brats posing as nihilists and riffs on the spurious self-mythologizing of rock musicians and the critics who participate. The novel can be read in any order, with the wonderful crankiness of ‘Solo’ and the Q&A format of ‘Vocals’ the most engaging chapters. Chris Sorrentino has an excellent website with an updated archive of his work (including essays on Gil).
16. Hubert Selby Jr. — The Room
Selby’s second novel is his attempt at a knockabout comedy—drunk vicars chatting up girls on the village green, various cream-heavy pastries being lobbed into the faces of pompous landowners, amusing misunderstandings between bachelors and the parents of honourable virgins. The Room’s republication as a Penguin Classic will kick-start that much-needed Benny Hill revival the world has been begging for. On second thoughts, I might have the wrong book. This one explores the tormented psyche of an unnamed convict as he seethes in his cell, planning his revenge against his arresting officers in elaborate civic action and courtroom scenes, and indulging in horrible canine torture sequences in bile-stirring graphic detail, in case anyone might mistake this man as the victim of a brutalizing regime of injustice. Selby’s most inventive book structurally and typographically, and a contender for his most shocking and hopeless (tough competition), The Room is a pitiful howl from a personal abyss (Selby’s?) most people won’t care to hear. More scattershot than the word-perfect masterpiece Last Exit to Brooklyn (Selby was writing without Sorrentino’s editorial guidance at this point), this is still a wrenching and necessary novel from an unflinching visceral realist—long before Bolaño made that sound sexy.
17. Rosalyn Drexler — Art Does (Not!) Exist
Hello, Rosalyn Drexler! Fascinating unknown cultural titan with an amazing career—former professional wrestler, pop-art painter, sculptor, playwright, screenwriter and, if that wasn’t enough (listening Gass?), avant-pop novelist, apparently still around, aged 85 and some months, last book in 2007. Hello! And now the bad news: most of her books are out of print. Paris Review Prizes, Guggenheim Fellowships, Emmy Awards, National Endowments—nope, not enough to keep a writer’s books in print in America. This one, published by FC2 in 1996, was so fresh and unique I mistook the writer for a younger, hungrier specimen—Drexler was in her seventieth year upon publication. A spiky, stabby satirical knife-parade, a loose-lipped and ditto-limbed formal frolic of her own, Art Does (Not!) Exist evokes the savagery of Lucy Ellmann with a dashette more danger and ALL CAPS. A tremendous primer for the Collected Works of Rosalyn Drexler, which you should all read immediately, if they get reprinted.