I read 33 books this year, including one friend's, one author I started following on Twitter without making the connection to his book that had made it into my TBR pile, 3 works of non-fiction and one large 500 page tome I hope to finish before the year end which had I have completed it in time, might have squeezed into my list here -
even if it did make the shortlist for bad sex in literature award this year. 2015 was also the year I popped my David Foster Wallace cherry with a collection of his short stories, but it was an unsatisfying experience so as yet I'm no further inclined to tackle "The Infinite Jest".
Anyway, here's my top 5.
I've had a mixed relationship with the work of Dave Eggers. Sometimes his literary conceits work for me and sometimes they fall miserably flat. This was almost perfect satire from beginning to end. People talked up "Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookshop" which pitted the ancient book against the new online technology. I found that particular tome vapid, the characters uninvolving. For me Eggers was far more convincing in both spheres. I've heard criticism that the main character is two-dimensional and a mere mouthpiece for the points Eggers wants to get across about the menace of surrendering our lives to public scrutiny by putting ourselves body and soul online. But I found her slow grooming into the "Circle's" value system and global takeover ambitions rather nicely plotted and modulated. The Circle (Google/FB) is shown as a corporate cult, all its employees have to subscibe to the living tenets by which to organise their lives. Clever and spot on.
From my Goodreads review - A fiendishly brilliant satire on the way we as a society are a headed. If 1984 drops you right into an oppressive totalitarian regime, Eggers in this book takes you on the incremental journey how we end up there, not through brute force, but through technology. The oppressor is not the government, but a corporation who outflank the government and make it pay obeisance to them and their data and their surveillance; now politicians can be held accountable to their actions through transparency.
Where to start with this one? Other than to say I revelled in its irreverence. Irreverence towards the notion of story, of language, of everything we comfort ourselves by the notion of a novel. It reminded me of the detonations of language as Ben Marcus' "The Age Of Wire And String". I'll let part of my Goodreads review paint a picture - "This, my bedroom, with the stirrups, and the paneled bleachers stuffed overboard with chunky puppets. The men left encamped inside the father where he burst through all his horse suits like a dickface overall." The key word here, the perhaps lone orienting milepost, is 'stirrups', not in its equine sense, but in a gynecological one. For while I would never proffer the following as the definitive answer to what is the book about, I think this is a book from the fish-eye view of a foetus in the womb, peering out at the carnage and power relationships each time her parents have sex. The book is filled with slits and slots and stoma and a whole myriad of openings for gases, liquids and of course vision to squeeze through. And yes there is the implication of pedophilia too. The whole book reads like an assault, on the senses and the sensibilities, which is why one can never really recommend it, since not every reader is going to be comfortable with it.
But I'm going to be contrary and recommend it now! For readers with fairly strong stomachs probably.
I don't care what people say about Michel Houellebecq the man, but he is a top notch writer and thinker. Curmudgeon at best, misanthrope in the French tradition at worst, he shines a light upon the dreariness of human existence, but he always contextualises it in utterly recognisable ways and his political analysis through the pages is acute and forces the reader to think. No mean feat. This was his best yet, because it was a little less searing in its despair, yet his analysis of religion and race remain trenchant as ever. From my Goodreads review - For all the politics and philosophy and questing for purpose, what it all comes down to is the love of a good woman, or with Houellebecq's jaundiced view, the companionship of a good woman.
The book that was a long time in the making as apparently after his Booker nominated "C", he embarked on this but dumped it all in the bin and started afresh. I'm just going to reproduce a chunk of my review as it gives the picture of what the book is about and thereby its approach and form - A book about writing the great Pandect, the book about everything, 'to name our era, to sum it up'. Only of course this is an impossible task. The moment you make a decision what to start with, you exclude everything else and already have gone down a very singular, subjective track. The protagonist 'U' (echoes of Kafka's 'K'?) just about gets a title by the book's end.
As McCarthy warns us early on, if you're in this for a story, you're in the wrong book. This is a montage, the remarkable application of mise en scene to a work of prose. So parachutes elide with jellyfish and oil spills with a metastatising tumour. U struggles to determine what is a genuine association from that which is synchronous or purely arbitrary.
And why is he charged with this great feat? There are no more Renaissance Men, able to be learned in all branches of knowledge, yet international corporations put all manner of specialists on their payroll to feed into containing and predicting the commercial zeitgeist; U is an anthropologist, throwing ancient rites such as the death of a tribesman to herald the new year practised by the Vanuatuans with the waste landfill of Fresh Kills Staten island.
Michel Faber is probably the supreme stylist writing today. His writing seems so effortless, whether a mammoth tome like this, a collection of short stories or a short novel like "The Courage Consort", the words are sheer perfection. This his latest opus, contains so many elements I shouldn't like, a book about quiet religious faith, the strains of a marital couple separated by distance and dwelling among aliens on their home planet. But this story is like a beautiful tapestry knitted together seamlessly that just aches with the humanity of its two main protagonists even while setting up an alien world of real imaginative interest. From my Goodreads review
As close to a perfect read as I've ever come across.
A story that dissects a husband and wife's love so expertly.
A book that tears back the veil of communication and how double-edged it is and how easy to misinterpret meaning.
A science fiction world that wears its inventiveness very lightly, yet somehow manages to authentically conjure up a truly alien sensibility.
A novel about religious faith which I would normally run a million miles from rather than read and enjoy.