I read a lot of stuff in 2012 - here are some of the highlights (and one lowlight). The most memorable novel has to be Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, surprising that this searing poetic novel didn’t win the Pulitzer (even though it was nominated the judges didn’t award this year). A short, resonant piece, written with a kind of oblique poetry that could easily pall were it not for the fact that it is so tightly constructed and cleverly achieved. The huge, competitive tomes of David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen seem like lumbering hulks compared to the elegance and elegy of this book. Loved it so much I read it twice.
Kevin Barry - Dark Lies The Island – this is the second collection from the Irish writer. His first, There Are Little Kingdoms, was a hit for the small Dublin-based Stinging Fly Press and brought Barry to the attention of the bigger publishers. His novel – The City of Bohane – felt a bit like an Irish in-joke – a dystopia set in a Sci-Fi version of West Cork. But his short stories are marvellous things. They switch between funny and disturbing sometimes within paragraphs and the characters are pin sharp. Beer Trip to Llandudno won the Sunday Times Short Story Prize – an elegy for aging alcoholics done in gently funny, naturalistic dialogue. Other highlights – Doctor Sot and The Fijord of Killary (find it on the New Yorker site here) but they’re all good really. Buy two copies – one to read and one to give away. The earlier collection There Are Little Kingdoms is just as good too.
Sort Of Books are one of my favourite small publishers - as well as republishing the work of the inimitable Jane Bowles they publish the nature writing of poet Kathleen Jamie. Her 2005 book Findings which takes in trips to the Orkneys and the Highlands is not just about the landscapes of Scotland but about our relationship with the wild and the domestic. Her new book Sightlines is no less beautiful. Her work shows the reader how to look at the natural world with the curiosity of a poet. I love her writing. For those who have never encountered her work – buy them both. This is work is to be treasured.
Deborah Levy’s novel Swimming Home is another triumph for the small press – increasingly important in vitalizing a tired publishing culture. And Other Stories publishes new literature in translation as well as some of the most interesting new English language fiction. Ironically the success of Swimming Home means it was republished by Faber and Faber. But this is one of the triumphs of this years’ Booker shortlist. A short psychological thriller of great depth and insight from a writer who is never less than interesting. This is the kind of book that editors at the big houses tend to miss in their hurry to follow the next trend – and the kind of novel that real readers tend to love. Like a clever, taut British film, the story is of the cuckoo in the nest – Kitty Finch – the stranger in the swimming pool who disturbs a middle-class holiday abroad.
My poetry this year mostly came from the States – both Sharon Olds – Stag’s Leap – a devastating collection that deals with the breakdown of a long marriage with great honesty and poignancy, and Dorriane Laux – The Book of Men – who looks at her life through the prism of the men that she has known – including the ones she has admired from a distance like Bob Dylan – but the triumph of the collection is one poem called Antilamentation – which could serve as a blueprint for this writers’ life – is worth the cover price alone. Closer to home Martina Evans’ prose poetry – Petrol – shows a new and exciting way to write memoir. Concerned with her childhood in a petrol station in West Cork – these pieces are like a series of polaroid snapshots from a strange and now-distant childhood and is an exciting way of tackling form. These pieces are neither prose nor poetry but a genuinely exciting hybrid between the two, with narrative as the glue which pins them to the page.
I also very much enjoyed John Jeremiah Sullivan’s collection of essays Pulphead – which take in everything from a Christian rock festival to the death of Michael Jackson and a visit with Bunny Wailer in Jamaica. Sullivan is funny and intelligent company and resists the cynicism and relentless irony of some of his peers. He is also very aware of his Southern roots and his political essays on the Tea Party provided a fascinating insight into something we often find hard to comprehend in the UK – the divisive culture wars which at times seem almost destined to split the US in two.
And the book I most hated . . . well . . . I have to confess I threw this at the wall after about 50 pages but . . . Lionel Asbo – Martin Amis. In light of all of the above largely Irish and American Writers – the offerings from the UK look pretty rubbish in comparison - is fusty old Amis really the best the English have to offer? Embarrassingly out of date, irrelevant to women, obsessed with the working classes he doesn’t understand. I rather just wish he would shut up for a bit. He was good once, when he was young and angry and the times were more monied and more cynical but the cutting edge is really somewhere else – it is partly the fault of the publishers and reviewers who carry on promoting this guff. But if this was a first novel by a new writer I very much doubt it would see the light of day. There is a fundamental lack of honesty in his work which has always troubled me – the truth is always sacrificed for the fancy prose style – which in the end makes for a tone of sneering misapprehension. I rather wish he would write a satire of the privileged international intelligentsia of which he is a part, but that might be asking for a bit too much self knowledge – this to me read like a fusty old granddad still trying to be cool.
There were many others worthy of honourable mentions – especially John Fowles The Magus which I read properly for the first time – I tried as a teenager but it gave me a haircut as it flew over my adolescent head. This time I appreciated what a work of genius this book is – and although probably still hugely unfashionable – but what a clever writer Fowles was - an essay on exactly what, why and how, forthcoming on the Hub in the New Year. Also in the rediscovered pile – Brigid Brophy’s King of a Rainy Country – recently republished by the Coelacanth Press. A funny and still hugely contemporary book which deserves to be as well-known as some of her contemporaries – Highsmith, Duffy, Spark –there are some real laugh-out-loud moments and a sense of the free spirit that Brophy evidently was, riven through the work.