This year has been an odd one for books – with the various doomsayers suggesting everything in publishing is dead from the neck up and now ruled by the Frankenmonopoly that is Amazon, countered by the fightback of the Plucky Indie Press. Mainstream publishing is certainly consolidating in the face of Amazon's might – the new behemoth created by the merger of Random House and Penguin (Random Penguin) has doubtless narrowed the playing field, but then any talk of people not being interested in books anymore has been summarily dispatched by two of the year’s biggest hitters being literally that – Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries – give new meaning to the word doorstop. So the book is dead, long live the book.
Certainly some of the most exciting books I read this year have come via the Plucky Indie Press, in this instance the wonderful And Other Stories. Firstly, Deborah Levy’s follow-up to Swimming Home – the sharply surreal collection of pieces Black Vodka. Like Lydia Davis, Levy pushes the idea of ‘story’ - some of these are vignettes, or ideas, or dreams, but nonetheless haunting and strange, and proof that you don’t have to write 800 pages to leave a lingering aftertaste. Like the title these are shots, potent and punchy, to be read individually and savoured rather than drunk down in one go.
Also from And Other Stories is the extraordinary All Dogs Are Blue by Rodrigo De Souza Leao. The Brazilian author suffered from schizophrenia and was hospitalized for a lot of his short life and was then well-qualified then to write about how it feels to be ‘insane’. This luminous novella takes you inside the mind of someone who cannot define the difference between reality and madness, and while heavily medicated and in hospital the narrator is befriended by Rimbaud and Baudelaire. At once surreal and poignant this is one of the strangest and most haunting pieces I read this year.
I can’t comment about the Booker winner because I haven’t read it yet, but I was rooting for Jim Crace to win – Harvest was a return to form and a reminder of what a unique voice he has. None of the middle class manners here – sorry but I’m bored of the E.M. Forster clones – but a reminder that the English used to be good at writing poetry something which a lot of contemporary English novelists seem to have forgotten – there is more than a touch of Milton in his delivery. The historical context and iambic pentameters won’t be for everyone but it’s exciting to read work which doesn’t treat prose as a separate entity from poetry. Arguably the story flags in the last third but the writing gave me goosebumps.
In a similar poetic vein Niall Griffiths’ Great Big Shining Star takes on the muck of Z-list celebrity culture (think Page 3, TOWIE and Geordie Shore) and sets it against the destruction of the natural world but delivers it with an intense poetry which sings of the mess we’re in – visceral, angry and on the money. No one else writes with quite such velocity about the contemporary moment.
Books that weren’t published this year, but which I finally got round to reading – included Jenni Fagan’s amazing The Panopticon about a girl who, like the author, has grown up in care. Again it sings with the truth of lived experience but is also impressively and craftily structured. And Grace McCleen’s Land of Decoration, was another young narrator, but delivered for an adult audience, this time a girl whose religious parents have driven her close to mental illness. Both of these are also excellent examples of first novels. Anyone writing a first novel could do a lot worse than to examine in detail how both of these jewelled pieces were made.
As for the Americans two books stood out for me this year, the wondrous George Saunders’ new collection Tenth of December and Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby. Saunders stories are extraordinary – hyperrealism, surrealism, Sci-Fi? Who cares? They’re just good. And a mark of a great writer that they seem to exist in a genre all of their own. The satire is underpinned by a humanity and an ear for language which makes the work hum with the, like, invective of everyday American speech. For me the standout track was 'Puppy' which, a bit like 'The End of Firpo in the World', combines linguistic invention with genuine emotional truth.
Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby on the other hand is memoir, or lifewriting, or as Granta, her UK publisher categorized it – anti-memoir. It’s not as dazzling as A Field Guide To Getting Lost but in this new book she takes on her Mother’s decline from Alzheimer’s disease and her own health problems and turns it into a series of meditations on the inevitability of loss and change, and on the renewing forces of the natural world and the interconnectedness of her observed life.
Another memoir which moved me hugely was Sonali Deraniyagala’s book, Wave. Deraniyagala lost her children and her beloved husband in the 2004 Tsunami and her poised and elegant writing brings out of the tragedy more than just abject misery. It's reminder of the capacity that good writing has to rescue what has been lost, to provide a platform if not for healing, then for a kind of acceptance, and is a powerful depiction of the devastation wrought by not just by the natural world but by the chaos of grief itself. It conjured in me too an immense gratitude for my own relatively unscathed life.
Finally to the book which pissed me off the most in 2013 and no it wasn’t written by EL James. Stoner by John Williams – which is Waterstone’s book of the year – had me so cross by the end I was flinging the book against the wall. Yes it’s beautifully written – almost too good to refuse; yes it’s a neglected classic – it sold a few thousand copies on first publication in 1965 and then sank without trace; yes it deserved a wider audience at the time – but by God is it sexist. The eponymous Stoner – the passive college professor who is really the architect of his own tragic life makes a bad marriage to a woman who not only hates him, but sadistically and very woodenly sets out to destroy him. The novel seems to me a meditation on the idea that character is destiny - but Stoner's miserable life is made even more miserable by the cartoon of his horrible wife. After a while there really was only so much male angst I could take without wanting to throw darts at the pomposity of it, never mind the beautiful writing. It belongs firmly in the bracket of the Midcentury Misogynist, and at times it reminded me of an Ian McEwan novel, take that as you will.
Doubtless there are lots of brilliant books that I missed, and still more to be read than there is time to read them in. The book is dead. Long live the book.