2017: A Round-Up

Motivated by the archival impulse that comes upon us all every December, I’ve put together a wee list of pieces I published this year.

A long essay in the Dublin Review of Books – nominally a review of Martin Amis’s The Rub of Time (Cape), but actually a reflection on Amis’s “inspirers,” particularly the inspirer he has acknowledged least: Oscar Wilde.

For Strange Horizons, I reviewed, at possibly excessive length, Adam Roberts’s brilliant SF thriller The Real-Town Murders (Gollancz).

Another long essay appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, this one on the late Thomas M. Disch and his one-act play, The Cardinal Detoxes (1990).

I did a couple of pieces for Literary Review, specifically reviews of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (Hamish Hamilton) and Ned Beauman’s Madness is Better Than Defeat (Sceptre).

For The Millions, I wrote a piece about the titles of imaginary novels, and why they’re usually so awful.

A short story, “The Nihilists,” appeared in Reading the Future: New Writing from Ireland (Arlen House), ed. Alan Hayes.

And then of course there were my usual reviews for The Sunday Business Post – a couple of which are available in full on this blog: Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 (Faber) and Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger (Allen Lane).

What’s next?

A couple of things in the pipeline for 2018: I’ve got an essay coming out in the Spring 2018 issue of The Dublin Review, about what a nightmare it is to work in a call centre. And a short story of mine will appear in the sixth issue of Banshee, a wonderful journal edited by three young Irish writers, also due out in Spring 2018. I’ve also got an academic article in press with The Mailer Review, due out soon. Plus there’s a pile of manuscript on my desk that needs to be transformed into the final draft of a novel: this will be the big project for next year. So: onwards, as they say. But – lest we drown in positive sentiment – I’ll close with my favourite demotivational quote, from that arch-pessimist Joseph Conrad: “Art is long, and life is short, and success is very far off.” Cheers, Joseph. And a happy new year to you, too.

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What is a Critic?

“By a critic, I mean a man with a good ear, a love for his field at its best, and a broad and detailed knowledge of the techniques of that field.” – James Blish, More Issues at Hand (1970).

Culture & Anarchy

“Culture seeks to do away with classes. The great men of culture have laboured to divest knowledge of all that was harsh, uncouth, difficult, abstract, professional, exclusive; to humanise it; to make it efficient outside the clique of the cultivated and learned.” – Matthew Arnold, Culture & Anarchy (1869).

Literary Fiction in Trouble

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Today’s Guardian, citing a UK Arts Council report, suggests that sales of literary fiction are in steep decline. Several causes are adduced: the lingering effects of the recession, the advent of the ebook, and – this is Will Self’s contribution – the rise of postgraduate Creative Writing courses. According to the Guardian,

the report analysed sales data from Nielsen BookScan and found that between 2007 and 2011, hardback fiction sales slumped by £10m. Paperback fiction had a more extreme dip, seeing declines almost every year after 2008. In 2011, paperback fiction sales were £162.6m; by 2012, they were £119.8m.

And why is this happening, again?

One reason suggested by the report for the decline in literary fiction sales is the recession, happening at the same time as the rise of cheap and easy entertainment. “In comparison with our smartphones, literary fiction is often ‘difficult’ and expensive: it isn’t free, and it requires more concentration than Facebook or Candy Crush,” the report’s authors write.

And then there’s Will Self, who says this:

“I think that creative writing programmes are a force for conformity and lack of experimentation,” said Self. He predicted that “as it becomes clear that the massive amounts of writers who are enrolling in these courses are going nowhere [serious fiction] will be a ‘conservatoire’ form, practised by young ladies and gentlemen, and followed by a select group … like classical music or easel painting.”

This is an old complaint – see Elif Batuman’s review of Mark McGurl’s The Programme Era, from 2010, and also Gore Vidal’s prediction, in “French Letters: Theories of the New Novel” (Encounter, December 1967) , that reading serious novels would, in the “post-Gutenberg” age, become the exclusive preserve of English departments. In some ways it’s a moot point: reading art fiction (or serious fiction, or what have you: we still have no useful way of defining what we mean; perhaps “literary fiction” will have to do) has always been a minority pursuit. But “minority” is an elastic term; and there exists a sizable constituency of people who read serious books without themselves being writers or critics or publishers or academics. That this constituency is dwindling is bad news – not just for book-biz types, but for the culture generally.

I want to suggest another reason for the “crisis” in literary fiction, something more intrinsic to the field itself. I want to suggest that too many “literary” novels are currently being published; that too many of them are bad; and that the whole macrostructure of reviews/prizes/festivals/readings/blogs etc that currently mediates between the literary world and the rest of educated humanity is set up in such a way as to promote crushingly middlebrow fiction that discourages well-meaning readers from seeking out the good stuff. It seems to me that casual readers – i.e. those educated, imaginative, intelligent people who like to read but who are not professionally invested in the business of books – are being presented every month with “literary” novels that insult their intelligence and taste – and that they are thereby dissuaded from continuing to pursue their interest in literary fiction.

To limit myself to a single major instance: look at the Man Booker prize lists over the last few years. The Booker, we can safely say, is one of the key ways in which the world of lit-fic talks to an educated general readership. Here’s the best we’ve got: this is the implicit message of the Booker lists. If you’re interested in reading serious fiction, these are the books you should read. But the books themselves are often bad – or worse than bad; they are mediocre, recycling dud ideas in dud prose. Moshin Hamid’s Exit West (shortlisted this year) or Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (which won the prize in 2014): these are not good books. They are, in fact, composted from cliches both aesthetic and political (has anyone pointed out that the Hamid book did well because it appealed to right-on liberal sentiment about the refugee crisis?). That the Hamid, in particular, was greeted with rapturous applause in most major literary venues (with, ahem, at least one exception) is troubling. Imagine an educated, intelligent, imaginative reader sitting down with Exit West (or with the other stinker from this year’s Booker shortlist, Paul Auster’s empty & bloated 4 3 2 1, or with Will Self’s unreadable Umbrella, Booker-shortlisted in 2012). This reader is hoping for a transformative aesthetic experience; she’s hoping to find something new to think about; she’s hoping to find a gripping story told in masterful prose. In these books she will find none of these things. Her trust in literary fiction is eroded. Next time, she will read nonfiction; or genre fiction (where genuinely good & original work appears regularly, particularly in the fields of SF & crime). To put it at its simplest: the novels we’re promoting as if they were the best of literary fiction often aren’t any good. If people are becoming disillusioned with literary fiction, this might be one of the reasons why.

“Literary fiction is in trouble,” wrote Adam Roberts a couple of years ago, when he sat down to read The Narrow Road to the Deep North. He wasn’t talking about ebooks, or declining sales, or competition from smartphones. He was talking about how the lit-fic world consistently promotes bad-to-mediocre novels as if they were the real thing. Good literary novels continue, of course, to be written and published (Joshua Cohen’s Moving Kings, published this year, made no shortlists and won no prizes, but is a genuinely good book). We must learn to tell the signal from the noise – or the noise, increasingly, will be the only thing we hear.

It’s the Little Things that Trip You Up (A Christmas Story)

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This story first appeared, in slightly different form, in The Sunday Business Post Magazine on 21st December, 2014. 

*

Johnny Moynihan – yes, that Johnny Moynihan, formerly a banker (the banker, in certain circles), latterly a pariah – now stood in winter darkness in the car park of his daughter’s school, dusting snow from the lapels of his overcoat, and wondering why he had left the house at all. Three years after he had raised a glass of 2004 Moët at the AGM of Atlas-Merritt Bank and, quoting the French statesman Guizot, instructed his shareholders to “Enrichessez-vous!” Two years after the arrest at the airport. Six months after he had found himself in the walnut-panelled dock of the Criminal Court, charged with multiple violations of the Companies Act. Small wonder if he wasn’t in the mood. But Moira, his wife, had insisted. Claire was performing in the school’s Christmas carol service and her father would be there to see it: no argument. What could Johnny say? He loitered by the car, eyeing with the gravest misgiving the other parents as they strolled happily past, bundled in their winter woollens. A nest of vipers. Glumly he counted his woes. His shoes, the old Cordovan loafers, were already soaked through with meltwater, and his head ached. The old strength – people had called it charisma – seemed finally to have deserted him. His trial had used up the last of it, he supposed. The effort of sitting calmly in the dock for thirty-seven days, disclosing nothing of the turbulence within. The verdict had been Not Guilty, but the public punishment, it seemed, was destined to continue. Well. Perhaps people had stopped caring. Perhaps he was no longer obliged to play the part of Ireland’s Most Hated Man.

Perhaps.

The snowfall had begun in earnest three days before, in the middle of a Monday afternoon. Rapidly the dense white flurries occluded the neighbouring houses, those stout old homesteads with their storybook gables and turrets. Looking out, watching the flakes, Johnny recalled his mother, now dead, mixing Christmas pudding in a blue delft bowl. Sieving flour across the dark oaky stuff beneath, the chopped dates, the candied oranges and lemons, the cherries with their filmy glaze. The snow fell like the flour, covering everything. Soon the neighbourhood was thoroughly floured over.

“Could be dangerous,” Johnny said to Moira, who was going through the year-end accounts of her dry cleaning business, wearing the half-moon spectacles that made her look like a schoolteacher. “Especially if it freezes.”

“Mm,” she said.

“I mean for the neighbours,” Johnny said. He jingled the loose change in his pockets.

“Mm,” Moira said again.

Johnny looked back out at the blizzard, formulating an idea.

The next morning the neighbours were woken at 7a.m. by a vigorous knocking at their doors. They answered to find Johnny, beaming out at them from the recesses of his parka’s furry hood.

“Sorry to wake you so early,” he said. “I dug out the shovel and gave your driveway the once-over. I may as well throw down a bit of salt while I’m at it. I had some in the shed going abegging.”

Most of the neighbours said No, no thank you, that won’t be necessary. But there were some who refused to answer the door at all. Johnny saw them passing behind the frosted glass of their big front doors, moving through the gloom of their own domestic lives like fish in shallow pools. In each case – a firm No or a pointed silence – Johnny smiled and trekked down to the flatbed truck he had parked outside his own gates. There he hefted down a bag of gritting salt and began shovelling it across the iced-over portions of his neighbours’ driveways, covering the worst parts, doing a thorough job. It took him most of the morning. When he reached the house on the corner of the old main road he set up his bag and began to throw the last of the salt, and stopped only when he saw his neighbour, Sean Reynolds, underdressed for the weather in a pair of maroon-and-grey pyjamas, striding down the driveway towards him.

“You fuck off,” Sean Reynolds said.

“It’s the last of it,” Johnny said, gesturing towards the salt. “I might as well.”

“I don’t need you to salt my fucking driveway,” Reynolds said.

“Better safe than sorry,” Johnny said.

“You can get the fuck off my property.”

Reynolds was starting to shiver. Johnny’s impulse, in spite of everything, was to offer the man his parka, or at least to tell him where he could buy one just like it.

“I’m only doing you a favour,” Johnny said.

“You’re a fucking crook,” Sean Reynolds said, “and you’re not welcome here. You fucked this country. You and your gang of shysters. If I want anything from you, I’ll ask, alright? Now fuck off out of it.”

“I have to say I think you’re being very undignified,” Johnny said.

He saw the movement prepare itself in Sean Reynolds’s eyes: the raised arm, the clenched fist. But Johnny Moynihan was still a big man, and Johnny Moynihan was still holding his gardener’s shovel, and the going underfoot was still treacherous for a man wearing – Johnny glanced down at Reynolds’s feet – nothing but a pair of stained brown Hush Puppies.

With a deliberate motion Johnny raised his shovel and scattered the last remaining handful of salt across the melting ice of Sean Reynolds’s driveway.

It was not quite noon but already the day seemed about to turn, the crows rattling on the overhead wires, the light brightening and beginning to fade with the earliest whispers of the evening wind.

Johnny went home and mixed a strong gin and tonic. He found that his hands were shaking, and also that he was fighting off the urge to cry.

Like the fella said: it’s the little things that trip you up.

*

Take his daughter. Earlier that year Claire had undergone some kind of religious experience and become a Presbyterian. She had joined a Bible group at school and was now attending mass, or whatever Presbyterians called it, every Sunday morning in a church in Donnybrook. Well, Johnny thought, once Claire had told her parents what she was up to. I’m not going near that one. But he couldn’t let it drop. He orated at Moira, following her around the house as she ironed, as she ordered groceries online.

“When I was a teenager you rebelled by going out and getting pissed and copping a feel,” he said, gesticulating like one of the barristers at his trial. “The God-botherers were the ones you laughed at.”

“I seem to remember the sodality was where all the good-looking boys were to be found,” Moira said.

“So you think this so-called religious experience is walking around out there in his leather jacket, combing the girls out of his hair?”

“My official policy is to have no policy,” Moira said. “If your point is that you’d rather she was out there getting pregnant or smoking dope, I have to say I prefer the Bible group option.”

“It isn’t the Bible group I have a problem with,” Johnny said. “It’s the… literalism of the whole thing. You’re not meant to take the Bible literally, for Christ’s sake.”

“I think Christ might differ with you there,” Moira said.

“Well of course he would,” Johnny said. “But my daughter shouldn’t. I raised her to be a lapsed Catholic like a normal Irish person. And now here she is, telling me the prophet Isaiah was a real man who really heard the voice of God.”

“You need to let this run its course,” Moira said. “Be patient.”

“I’ve run out of patience,” Johnny said.

And maybe this was so. Two years of public execration consumed the human energies at an abnormal rate. What remained felt thinner, less robust. There were also all the words he had not spoken during his season of notoriety – all the words he not been permitted to marshal in his own defense. Now he brimmed over with arguments and justifications. Exhaustively, for Claire and Moira’s benefit, he rehearsed his innocence. Fruitless, of course, now that he was a free man, publicly vindicated. A waste of energy. But he had to make sure they knew: Nothing he had done had been illegal. What choice had the women in his life but to listen and agree? He talked, he paced, he had it out for the millionth time, the dates, the times, the hibernated loans, the flights to Amsterdam, the accounts in Turks and Caicos. And every single detail, he was at pains to make clear, completely above board and Bristol-fashion. Violating the Companies Act? Johnny Moynihan had practically written the fucking Companies Act! How dare they? The gall! The rank hypocrisy!

“But they found you innocent,” Claire pointed out. “That’s, like, official proof that you did nothing wrong.”

Johnny’s agitations had brought him to his daughter’s bedroom. Claire perched on the bed, tuning her guitar. She wore boys’ clothes: chequered shirts and Converse sneakers. Like her mother, she had endearingly small feet.

“People made up their minds,” Johnny said. “They don’t like to be proven wrong.”

On the dressing table was a book called Talking to God. Johnny picked it up and scanned the blurb. Personal prayers, it said. For times of joy, struggle, sadness and celebration. Who read books like this? What the hell was happening to his only child?

Johnny cleared his throat. Emotion always made him hoarse. “It must have been hard for you,” he said. “In school.”

Without looking at him Claire said, “I knew you hadn’t done anything wrong. So, you know. I don’t care what people think.”

You’re seventeen, Johnny did not say. Of course you care what people think. I mean, look at me. I’m fifty-four, and sometimes I think that’s all I care about.

About her “religious experience” Claire had said little. It had happened on a school bonding hike – one of the extracurricular luxuries for which Johnny (or, he supposed now, Moira) was shelling out three grand a year in fees. Up there in the Wicklow Mountains, on a gusty spring afternoon, Claire had found God. “I suppose He had to be somewhere,” Johnny cracked, before he noticed the expression on Claire’s face. She was always so earnest. And always, as a small child, so keen to do good: to help the old lady fill her tartan trolley at the checkout, to wrap Christmas presents for those she called “the less fortunate.” Perhaps it was this charitable impulse that had led her to the Bible group, the Sunday services. Or perhaps (and here Johnny quelled a bilious upsurge of resentment and regret) Claire had turned to God because of all the horrible things that her family had been through, the arrests, the bankruptcy hearings, the vitriol of former friends. In which case, the ultimate responsibility for whatever was happening to Claire – whatever sad calculations underlay her decision to embrace all this religious nonsense – rested with Johnny, and Johnny alone.

Johnny had never mentioned this possibility to Moira. And Moira, to her credit, had never mentioned it to him. But it sat between them nonetheless, disagreeably, like an unconfessed affair.

Claire herself gave nothing away. She attended her Bible group and she hung out after service on Sundays, rapping with her kindly pastor over tea and scones, as if she had been doing this kind of stuff all her life.

Only once had she opened up to him unprompted. The memory of it nagged at Johnny still. This was a month or so after the trial had ended. Claire had come downstairs at one o’clock in the morning for a glass of water. Johnny, the perennial insomniac, was sitting at the kitchen table with his tumbler of Glenmorangie and his historical novel.

“You okay there, Clairebear?” he said.

She leaned against the countertop and sipped her water. Her expression was speculative.

“You know,” she said, “after all the horrible things that happened to Job, all the suffering and all the illnesses and every member of his family dying. After all the suffering, God made Job rich. He had seven new sons and three new daughters, and his daughters were the most beautiful girls in the world. And he lived to be really old. So he was right not to renounce God, because God rewarded him in the end.”

Johnny felt a tremor of dismay. Then he rallied. If it was his fault that she had succumbed to this gibberish, then surely it was his job to talk her out of it.

He cleared his throat and said, “You can’t actually believe this stuff, Clairebear.”

Beyond the windows, the darkness was absolute. The darkness was pressing against the glass, and all you had to do to let it in was flick a switch.

Claire sipped her water. “You’ll be okay, dad,” she said.

She went back to bed, and Johnny sat there, alone among the ruins of yet another bright idea gone awry.

 *

The school from its low rise looked out across the silvered city. Moira stood by the car, fussing with her handbag, looking like a dowager duchess in her dark fur stole. She was stalling. They both were. Johnny set his jaw in an expression of resolve. The car park was lined with snowy birches, black-barked, terse as Japanese poems. Icicles hung from the branches in uneven rows. Snap one off: a riverine twiglet. Arctic weather, the radio said. Scandinavian birds, lured south, were settling in Irish gardens: pied wagtails, speckled thrushes. This according to the nature programmes Moira listened to religiously. Yes, everybody was displaced, nobody was where he should be. The climate changed and suddenly you were a thousand miles off course, looking for the right way home.

They were the last parents left in the car park. Tacitly they had agreed to wait until the choir was singing before they took their seats. Neither of them wanted to stand around beforehand, being ignored or abused. “Shall we?” Johnny said, proffering his arm. Moira with a small smile linked him and they walked through the school’s deserted Reception as if arriving for a night at the opera. Johnny was wearing one of his more subtly ostentatious ties, a shot-silk number in mauve and green. Rise above, his mother would have said. Living well is the best revenge.

The doors of the auditorium were closed. Recklessly Johnny tugged them open, producing a shriek of hinges that caused everyone in the big dark room beyond to turn and watch as they took their seats. Ah, being the cynosure of all eyes: who wouldn’t cherish it? They found two vacant chairs in the very last row. The couple beside them leaned away as Moira divested herself of her stole. The room had the ineradicable school smells: deodorant, old trainers, sweat.

Up on the stage a blonde girl was plucking at a harp. She played with daunting flair. But then, of course she did. The school was famous for its intellectual austerity, its liberal values. Students went to pony camp, debate club, Model UN. They played obscure instruments to concert standard. This was the atmosphere in which Claire had cast off her skepticism and rationality. The more Johnny thought about it, the more perverse it seemed.

Perhaps there was something he could say or do that would make her reconsider all this God stuff. Perhaps he could say: I know it’s been hard, Clairebear. I know it’s been endless. But it’s important to try to emerge from it all with our values intact.

Or perhaps he could say: Whatever you need, you won’t find it in a Presbyterian church. You’ll find it in your family. That’s what we’re here for.  

But now Claire was taking the stage with her guitar. She sat on a high stool and began to play a complicated arpeggio. Beside her stood a boy, Claire’s age, holding a trumpet. On his slender chin was a sparse goatee. Aha! Johnny thought. Mr. Religious Experience himself! Claire began to sing and Johnny recognised the tune, that old Greg Lake number about how Christmas was a fraud and Santa Claus would give us only what we deserved. During the interludes, when Claire wasn’t singing, the goateed boy parped away on his trumpet, doing the Prokofiev bit.

Johnny turned to Moira with a smile of pride. But Moira was looking down at the fur stole wrapped around her hands, and her hooded eyes were dark. She had withdrawn into herself.

Disconcerted, Johnny looked back at the stage. And there he noticed for the first time the expression on his daughter’s face. How long had it been since he had looked at Claire – really looked at her? He had spent hours pacing up and down before her, unburdening himself of all his old complaints. But how long since he had really seen her? How long since she had met his eyes?

Claire, as she sang, was wincing, as if in pain. And Johnny saw what he had been too selfish to see before. His daughter thought he was guilty. She thought he was guilty of the crimes he had been tried for. And she had turned to God, not for solace, but for forgiveness. Forgiveness for him.

The song was over and the audience were politely applauding. Johnny stood and, taking advantage of the noise, wrenched open the auditorium doors. He walked through Reception and out into the car park, with its imperial cold and its fringe of snowcapped trees like fossilised coral reefs. He walked over to the car and stopped, arrested.

It was snowing again. Gently this time, a slow descent, like an emigration from the heavens. Johnny stood by the car, neither thinking nor moving, aware for the first time in his life that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that he could do to change anything that had happened or anything that ever would.

The snow fell, silently. All those hundred thousand flakes, falling together towards the muffled world. Piling up in gorgeous banks. Showing you what was there and what wasn’t. Under a sky so bright, it seemed like day.

First Person by Richard Flanagan

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My review of Richard Flanagan’s new novel, First Person (Chatto & Windus) appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s a wee excerpt:

Richard Flanagan’s previous novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, won the Man Booker Prize in 2015. It was not a decision welcomed in all corners. Michael Hoffman, writing in the London Review of Books, held The Narrow Road up as an example of “the novel in an advanced and showy state of dissolution,” before going on to call it “entitled,” “cartoonish,” and “rudimentary.”

Hoffman’s review prompted the pen of A.C. Grayling (chair of that year’s Man Booker committee) to flash from its scabbard. Hoffman’s review, Grayling wrote in a letter to the LRB, must have been “written on a bad haemorrhoid day.” Hoffman responded by describing Grayling’s letter as “bullying, untrustworthy, interested, substanceless and witless.” Good fun, if you like that sort of thing. But Hoffman and Grayling’s exchange (descending as it did almost immediately to the level of brute ad hominem attacks) begged some larger questions – such as, what is the purpose of a major literary award like the Man Booker Prize? What truly constitutes literary excellence? And was Flanagan’s novel actually any good?

The Best Books I Read in 2017 (That Weren’t Published in 2017)

  1. We Who Are About To… (1976) by Joanna Russ

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An accident occurs on an interstellar transport ship; a small group of passengers are marooned on an inimical planet. They lack the skills to survive. Blithely, they imagine that they can Robinson Crusoe the shit out of things until help arrives. Only the unnamed female narrator understands the truth: they are all going to die. In the short period before the narrator is proved correct, the poisonous divisions that have bedeviled human society throughout recorded history recur. We Who Are About To… is at once a feminist parable, a work of revisionist SF, and a satire of human nature. It was reissued in 2016 as part of the Penguin Worlds series, with a beautiful cover (above). It’s 119 pages long and completely unforgettable. You should check it out.

2. Mating (1991) by Norman Rush

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Intimidated by the size of Mating – 496 pages of densely worked prose – I started off, a couple of years ago, with Rush’s Subtle Bodies (2013), which turned out to be a strange little masterpiece. Describing the plot of Subtle Bodies (some college friends, former 60s radicals, reconvene for the funeral of their ultrawealthy former ringleader) does hardly anything to prepare you for how rich a book it is – how much it packs into its 236 speedy pages. Rush is one of those writers who has evolved a prose idiolect of remarkable originality – a way of representing consciousness that feels genuinely new, without being remotely arduous to read. He does the same thing in Mating, which I read while the Mrs. & myself were in New York in January (leading our fancy jet-set lifestyle, as we do). Mating is incredible: an unnamed female graduate student (her subject is anthropology) treks alone into the Botswana desert to find a commune founded by the charismatic reformer Nelson Denoon; inevitably, they fall in love. There is a description of Victoria Falls in this book that is one of the greatest pieces of English prose I’ve ever read. I’m saving Rush’s only other novel, the enormous Mortals, for 2018, a year during which I suspect I will need a certain amount of cheering up.

3. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) by Philip K. Dick

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I’m late to the Dick party (oh do grow up) but am now doing my best to get around to his most important books (Ubik is up next). The Three Stigmata is a genuinely visionary novel – a kind of gnostic horror story about the demiurge Palmer Eldritch, who comes back from Proxima Centauri with a new drug, Chew-Z, that allows him to manipulate reality itself – or does it? Dick understood, better than anyone has since, what it means to live in a tech-drowned, politically incoherent world – how slippery your grasp on reality can get, when everything’s gone hypernormal and there seems to be no end in sight.

4. The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin

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Late to the party with this one too – I finally read it for a Gender & Sexuality course I was teaching this semester, having had a copy on my shelf for years – but it turns out, of course, to be the real right thing: a beautifully compassionate vision of human possibilities written in immaculate storyteller’s prose (by which I mean prose that doesn’t get all up in your face about how written it is). It made me feel nostalgic for a time (and there was, surely, such a time) when SF used to assume that the future would be better than the past. No more of that.

5. Haunted Castles: The Complete Gothic Stories (2016) by Ray Russell

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This was, unexpectedly, one of the most fun books I read this year. Russell was a New York writer and magazine editor who worked for Playboy in the 1950s (and who kept up his connection with the magazine after he’d left, editing The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy [1966] and The Playboy Book of Horror and the Supernatural [1967]). Russell’s first novel, The Case Against Satan (hell of a title) appeared in 1963; but before that he had published the three novellas that went to make up Unholy Trinity (1964): “Sardonicus,” “Sagittarius,” and “Sanguinarius.” All three of these are included in Haunted Castles, a Penguin Classics omnibus of Russell’s short gothic fiction. Tonally speaking, the stories are a bit like Hammer horror movies, with an added dose of Schopenhauerian irony. The plots sound bonkers – “Sardonicus” is about a doctor’s attempts to cure a wealthy lunatic who suffers from an extreme case of risus sardonicus; “Sagittarius” resurrects Gilles de Rais as an actor at the Theatre du Grand Guignol – but the stories are preposterously gripping and the prose is a wonderful pastiche of the old Victorian high style. Hat tip: I was first put on to Russell’s work by Will Errickson’s excellent Too Much Horror Fiction blog.

6. In Viriconium (1982) by M. John Harrison

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At some point I’m going to have to do a proper essay on the work of M. John Harrison – he isn’t like anyone else – but I’m still working my way through his back catalogue, so watch this space. In Viriconium is the third volume of the Viriconium trilogy, following The Pastel City (1971) and A Storm of Wings (1980). Viriconium is a kind of parody of the Dying Earth venue patented by Jack Vance – it’s a fantasy city designed to destroy the very idea of fantasy cities. In Viriconium is set during Viriconium’s decadent phase – all wilting artists and syphilitic dandies. A strange plague is encroaching on the city. Gradually we realise that this plague is not a disease but entropy itself: the fictional is losing energy to the real. Harrison should, I think, properly be regarded as one of the major British writers of his generation. He hasn’t had the attention he deserves, though this seems to be changing: no less an eminence than John Gray has written about Harrison’s work for the New Statesman, and the piece is very much worth reading. Gray calls Harrison’s work the “supreme achievement” in the “modern hermetic tradition.” And if that doesn’t sell you on it, I don’t know what will!

7. Metaphor and Memory (1991) by Cynthia Ozick

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I picked this up secondhand in the world’s greatest bookshop (the Strand in New York). Ozick is one of those literary essayists who is dangerous to read, if you happen to be in the business of writing literary essays yourself. She is a consummate stylist, and alarmingly erudite. Her pieces, here, on William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic (1985) and Saul Bellow’s Him With his Foot in his Mouth (1984) are fantastically dense and illuminating. I haven’t been able to get on with Ozick’s fiction: I also read her novel The Messiah of Stockholm this year, and I thought it was just a pallid imitation of Henry James. But I keep picking up Metaphor and Memory and going back to it. And every time I do, I think: Must write better. Must read more.

8. Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen

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…speaking of which: I finally got around to reading Pride and Prejudice this year (aged 36). Yes, yes, I know, disgraceful. For a long time this was my entry in David Lodge’s game Humiliation, in which you name the most famous book you haven’t read. Obviously I can’t use P&P for this purpose any longer. But it’s ok: I still haven’t read War and Peace (though I had lunch with a group of academics the other day – English PhDs, all – and none of them had read it either). Not to worry: I can spend all of 2018 putting off War and Peace (I have gotten very good at putting off War and Peace).

Quick Thoughts on the List

Looking at this list, I’m surprised by how much SF/horror appears – though perhaps I shouldn’t be. SF and horror have always been a big part of my reading diet, though there’s a tendency  – don’t you find? – to pat yourself on the back for reading “literary” fiction and to justify your reading of genre stuff by dismissing it as a “guilty pleasure.” One of the things I want to do in 2018 is review more SF and horror (and perhaps even write some myself – though I have a non-SF/horror novel I want to get around to final-drafting first). And that means I have to keep reading it (what a shame).

A couple of days ago I drafted the opening paragraphs of a blog post about how nowadays I only read contemporary literary fiction if I’m being paid to review it – largely because (I groused) so many of the literary novels that get published every month aren’t worth the trees that died to make their physical existence possible. But I gave up on that: it was just a temporary case of reviewer’s jaundice (a serious disease, this, coming soon to a DSM near you). Complaining is easy. Celebrating is hard. Hence, a celebration of 8 books I read in 2017 that gave me joy, and that made me feel better about the world. Reading good books and talking about them isn’t just an adjunct to civilised life; it’s civilisation itself. In a dark time, reading good books reminds you that human beings have lived through dark times before, and that they have salvaged something from the wreckage. We can do the same. Over to you.

You Can’t Spell America Without Me by Kurt Andersen & Alec Baldwin

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My review of Kurt Andersen & Alec Baldwin’s Trump parody appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. It’s paywalled as always, but here’s a short excerpt:

The Trump manner is easily recreated. Pile on the intensifiers (“phenomenal,” “great,” “really great,” “the likes of which the world has never seen”). Throw in a few capitalised words at random (“TAX CUTS,” “FAKE”). Add a climactic exclamation mark (“Sad!”). Make sure that the content of each sentence is a boast or a lie. Voila: you have the verbal prose of a man for whom language clearly means nothing at all.

In his great essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946), George Orwell observed that political language is “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Trump’s presidency marks a fresh nadir in the story of the political abuse of English, to wit: he doesn’t even try to make his lies sound truthful. When Trump tells a lie, it sounds like a lie. Almost 63 million people voted for him nonetheless – intimating, among other things, that a truly debased political language is no longer an obstacle to electoral success. Plainly, we are in trouble. To put it at its simplest: clear language both reflects and promotes honesty. If large numbers of people no longer care about clear language, it is a sign that they no longer care about being honest.

The Higher Twaddle

“To be painfully candid, I consider a great part of what is offered to students as intellectual discourse, at least in the humanities and social sciences, to be a sort of higher twaddle. This so-called learning, most recently “theory,” seems harmless in so far as it has no meaning outside the classroom, or beyond the journals and conferences that sustain it and establish the hierarchy of its practitioners. But it is deeply harmful in that it wastes time and teaches students to think and write badly, to master as they can the terms and assumptions of twaddle. It lifts words from other disciplines and languages, which for its purposes suggests a sort of sophistication that floats above particulars, above the interesting books and cultures that are its putative subject, for example. Reading, writing, and thinking are so closely linked, and learning by means of them is so highly individual, that the intrusion of fashion-driven academic pidgin between the reader and the text is a defeat of the purpose of education.” – Marilynne Robinson, in the New York Review of Books. See also this.

Foolish Thoughts

“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” – Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” (1946)