A novel that fell out of an 1880s drawing room somewhere, from a man born in the wrong century. Doesn’t that title radiate? Doesn’t that title evoke an evening by the fire, cuddled up with your best lass, a plate of strong indigestible cheese on one table, a bottle of Iranian cognac on t’other? AAOWG is novel about the upper classes that doesn’t (seem) to be lampooning the upper classes, but a mere glimpse into the lives of these pampered doddering lunatics shows us a self-lampoon system is in operation. The narrator is an irascible former Princetonian and banker who phones up an old flame once his wife files for divorce. He has daughters and a feckless son and a young admirer to help him bumble thru the pages. Notable here is a pre-DFW use of the floating ellipses “ . . . ” technique for non-responses in two-way conversations (doubtful DFW read WMS—we know the man wasn’t that well-read) and a Gaddisian ear for dialogue. Otherwise, Spackman’s novel is an erudite drawing room comedy that both parodies and celebrates the anachronism of an erudite drawing comedy, especially those published in the late 1970s about the late 1950s. Bloody pre-ironic-post-premodernists! All his work minus poems and criticism is in this.
11. David Foster Wallace — Both Flesh and Not
Not quite up there with ASFTINDA or CTL in terms of sheer stuck-to-the-chair-then-flung-off-the-same-chair-in-squeeing-delight pleasure factor, but BFAN is arguably a more eclectic collection than either, treating us to one courtside tennis feature, one neurotic backstage tennis featurette, an unsurpassable academic-and-not reading of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a deliciously snotty horn-tooting “we’ve arrived, ma!” for his then-emerging fiction contemps, something vague and unappetising about AIDS, a necessary evisceration of Terminator 2, several shavings on being-a-writer and Borges and writing Best Essay intros, a witty and high-level dissection of Math Melodramas, a nasty out-of-character satirical curiosity on “prose poets,” and pedantry from his wet-dream OED contributions. BFAN pretty much traverses the DFW cranium in a startling manner that (arguably) the other two collections miss given the length and content congruencies of the pieces in those respective pubs, and the inclusion of snippings from his private dictionary between each essay here adds to the swirl of facts and data that DFW made it his life’s work to deciderize in charming and unpretentious and intellectually robust ways for his contracted organs and readerships and eventual hardback readers.
12. Howard Jacobson —Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It
When semi-successful novelists publish x number of well-reviewed books and have large enough public or media profiles, broadsheets offer them weekly or fortnightly columns which, depending on their popularity, can run for years and years and provide the novelists with an influx of extra income, saving them from the necessary lunge into teaching or humiliating copyediting work for conglomerate ghouls. This seems a more standard practice in Britain than America, where commissioned articles (i.e. essays or belle-lettrism) of greater intellectual substance for one-off fees seems to be the usual sideline for the novelist to the biennial-book-and-royalties norm that barely provides the writer with enough to fund his kids’ shoes. So you can see why the column would be a more tempting prospect for a novelist (who wants to write novels, damn you!), especially if he can treat the column with only 20% of the seriousness he treats his fiction. Howard Jacobson has been writing for The Independent since 1998, which explains why these pieces are all uniformly 3½ pages in length, and flit between comic musings, barroom chatter, opinionated blather and topical prattle, while although debonair and erudite and entertaining, pretty much ends up seeming like fish-and-chip fodder of the classiest calibre: fun but forgettable. The writer’s financial safety is the reader’s loss—same with Will Self. When will he stop titting about with these samey columns and write lengthy essays that befit his towering intellect? Same goes for HJ here.
13. Mark Z. Danielewski — House of Leaves
Everyone’s favourite stovepipe-hatted feline-loving formal innovator arrived in 2000AD with this quiet little novella starring Stretchy Font Man, Captain Kerning and Bendy Page Gurl. Since then he has published a version of Finnegans Wake you have to “drive” and a book of blank space. I read the whole thing minus the last 30pp or so of the ‘Whalestoe Letters’—a tedious ripoffering from ‘Diary of a Madman’ with the typography Gogol would have used had he been granted access to Doubleday’s photocopiers—and was mildly impressed. I couldn’t resist seeing how Zorro had used his visual effects to service the story, and certainly, these page-bending moments are responsible for the most powerful moments in the text. Otherwise, the excessive footnotes and cute metacommentaries from Truant are tolerable, but since they only serve to buffer the horror story, it all seems a glorious waste of time—a costly, risky, showy, noisy, messy, sticky waste of time, unlikely to blow the minds of ages sixteen and up. Four stars until I hit the yawny appendix material . . . overstays its welcome, so slips down to three.
14. Hubert Selby Jr. — The Willow Tree
To say HSJ mellowed in his old age is like saying Saddam Hussein became a tad less fond of fascism in his pre-hanging weeks. To mention Hussein in the same breath as Selby is heretical—one was a passionate moralist and Christian so devoted to his craft he fell into depressions and addictions and took up to a decade between works, the other is Hubert Selby Jr. (See what MJ did there? Priceless moments). The Willow Tree is a beautiful novel that uses an unapologetic sentimental tone, far closer to the Victorian double-Ds (Dickens and Dostoevsky) than anything written in 1998. Readers of earlier Selby novels will be pleased to note that the suffering and torment in this one starts on page one and ceases to relent until the final page, with the characters’ hysterical responses (fair responses, under the circumstances) cranked to what seems like the highest notch. Unlike in certain Dostoevsky novels, the weeping and lamenting isn’t unintentionally comic, but helps to create the epic push-and-pull of Love and Hate at the centre of the novel. This is a book about murderous burning hatred. About learning to forgive and love those who murder our families. A relationship forms between a Holocaust survivor living in a strange subterranean bachelor pad and a thirteen-year-old Bronx kid out to kill the gang who threw acid in his girlfriend’s face and drove her to suicide. That sort of thing. The tenderness that forms between the two in the midst of this seething pulsing hatred is at times devastating and makes the novel a success. Except Selby exaggerates their friendship (spontaneous laughter almost the moment the two meet), and uses clumsy German speech tics like ‘ya’ throughout, spoiling the integrity of this character somewhat. Also, at this point in his career the run-on sentence seems like a default stylistic tic, and loses the urgency it had in earlier novels. But who cares? This man is the Duke of Devastation.
15. Chris Ware — Building Stories
Beautiful box. Beautiful books and newspapers and foldout strips. An epic of the everyday. The graphic novel response to Ulysses, with all the humour and ebullience removed. Like B.S. Johnson’s book-in-a-box The Unfortunates, each of the separate components can be read in either order, and like that fine novel, each deal in part with loss and devastation and loneliness (and devastating loneliness). The protagonist of this novel is a miserable neurotic woman with an artificial shank whose entire life is an endless succession of shattered dreams and crushing disappointments and suicidal emptiness, with rare fleeting moments of delusional contentment torn apart by crippling self-doubt and self-loathing in a godless universe filled with nothing but cavernous darkness and sickening inevitability. Just like in real life! But with a way more sex! There are moments of heavy-hearted acceptance and way-it-is recognition that will upset and disturb most readers (me included), some of which are powerful and moving on a transcendent-power-of-art level, some of which are merely Radiohead B-sides. The relentless melancholy begins to diminish the impact of many of these moments, and the book fails on a deep human-heart level because it refuses to acknowledge the humour and resilience built into all people, despite the whimsical Best Bee sections. This character, clearly, is a chronic depressive—why doesn’t she see a doctor? But despite the downer, all in all—hats and trousers off to CW for such a bodacious undertaking. Now pass the Prozac-and-opium Pringles.
16. Lucy Ellmann — Mimi
For a while there, Ellmann was the best womanist word-wielder I had ever read. I was tied to a patriarchal literary agenda that barely encompassed a non-comedic novel by a single woman. I liked Ellmann the most because she wrote unlike a woman—all righteous undainty bile-stirring and alarmist CAPS—and in her sixth novel she writes a man flawlessly like a woman. The title, and titular character, is an allusion to Puccini’s La Bohème, mentioned frequently and exhaustively throughout, and the novel is a camp paean to female emancipation that whips itself up into such a froth of comedic indignation it seems to start taking itself seriously, albeit in a trickily unserious way. Harrison is the narrator—an unmale male and plastic surgeon whose conscience about the male’s millennia upon millennia of female subjugation is awoken by a fast-talking funster who disappears halfway through the novel but leaves such an imprint on his male mind he dreams up the ‘Odalisque Manifesto,’ whose central thesis is to make women richer so they might run the world without the wars and hate and those things—all properties of the patriarchy formed post-prehistoric times after women were on their way to being the ascendant sex. Mimi falters since it is difficult to equate the voice of her protagonist to that of a male—Ellmann calls this a “wish-fulfilment” novel—but also since the comedy, plotting and pace are extremely uneven. Simply, the novel seems uncertain whether to take itself almost-seriously or whimsically-seriously, unlike her previous novels where the barbed and madcap antics helped strengthen the strong feminist subtext screeching below (and on) the surface. Dot means it. Mimi might.