Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Best Books of the 2000s - 5 to 1

Here we go. The top five. You'll notice that the entry by the winner is rather short. This is because I've not yet finished the seemingly mountainous essay I'm writing on it. I will post that later; along with the competition winner's name.

5. Nowhere Man – Aleksander Hemon (2002)

Having been fed on a diet of thick, hulking American novels in the early part of the decade, the lean precision of Nowhere Man was utterly refreshing – as was Hemon’s wide ranging ambitions. Much is made of Hemon’s multi-lingual background, his picking up of English in just six months, but that matters squat if his books are merely exercises in linguistic facility. Thankfully, Nowhere Man is simply a great book, sentence by sentence, scene by scene, a utterly mesmerising portrayal of the immigrant experience, and the personal toils of youth slipping away into adulthood.

Jozef Pronek, the Nowhere Man of the title, is a wonderful character, a stumbling man stumbling through life. Frequently funny, always insightful, Nowhere Man relates Jozef’s experiences with such lush and dizzying sentences that it’s hard not head for the literary comparison website and chose option Nabokov; but it’s there to see, reflected in its ludic, scrambling prose, the impossibly selected adjectives (a sofa is the colour of cat barf; a chair is hobbly), the long snaking rhythms conducted by commas, semi-colons, colons and dashes.

As a rule I tend to shy away from stylists: they intimidate me. I err towards Paul Auster’s ideal that writing should be somehow “invisible”, but with the caveat that I do want beauty in my prose; I don’t like the workaday any more than I like the overly ornate. It’s a bit like a football referee: I need to know he’s there to uphold the rules, but I don’t want him thinking he’s running the show. This is where I think Hemon succeeds where so many other stylistically involved writers fails: he remembers that he readers to impress rather than himself.

Nowhere Man is a book of rare grace, of intelligence and understanding. It is one of the few books I have ever finished with a sure-footed knowledge that I had read something great. Despite its good reviews, Hemon’s novel did not sell in the quantity one would hope for, and has been critically overlooked since. This is a shame, because this is a novel that cracks light on a version of history to which most of us are not privy – and does it with swooning finesse.

4. 2666 – Roberto Bolaño (2009)

You could spend a long time debating whether The Savage Detectives is a better book, but to me 2666 edges it – specifically because it contains The Part About the Crimes. I can’t think of a piece of such sustained writing that has stayed with me so completely months after having read it. At night, I still sometimes find myself wondering about it, thinking about its subtleties and suggestions. The dumpsters, the prisons, the factories, the roadside bodegas, the cops, the lawyers, the wardens and the prisoners: all are rendered with dusty familiarity, with desert swept haziness.

It is not an easy read, however, especially compared to the first three parts; yet it has a power and a conviction that locks you tightly into its maddening plots. How many killers are there? Is there really just one serial killer or hundreds. Is the ugly, often repeated phrase “anally and vaginally raped” significant, or is it just another accidental detail of the brutal murders of these women?

Like a grown up version of American Psycho, The Part About The Crimes asks serious, disturbing questions of its reader. It’s repetition is hypnotic and the reader feels that they are being compelled towards some conclusion. But Bolaño offers no such assurances, and makes the reader almost look forward to the next atrocity, the next part of the puzzle that they are being asked to assemble. And because the reader reach our own conclusions, pick our own theory as to who is committing the crimes, it means the horrific detail of each case is mined for clues, as to which perpetrator we are dealing with. It means that the simple deaths of women, shot by their husbands or lovers, are overlooked; somehow not important as they are not part of a wider framework. Bolaño, I believe is trying to get to an important truth about both fiction and life: that we form our own narratives, which can blind us to the true realities around us.

The other parts of 2666 are addictive, surprising and superbly written (and translated) but nothing comes close to the sheer intoxicating brilliance of that fourth section.

3. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell (2004)

There are contemporary British writers, and then there is David Mitchell. He’s the best we have, the most important novelist we’ve produced and a battle cry for people who love proper books: books that have thought, knowledge, style , fury, sensitivity, love, sex, death, politics, science, nature, nurture, humanity, cold-heartedness, plot, allusion, illusion and soul. Cloud Atlas has all of this and more, a dolls house of a book that remains sharp where others would have allowed it to get baggy. On every level it is a triumph.

What people often forget amongst all the technical wizardry of Mitchell’s writing, is that he’s also uncommonly funny – particularly in Black Swan Green, but also in Cloud Atlas. It might seem an odd thing to point out when there is so much to admire within this constellation of a book, but without that humour (which usually comes thanks to Mitchell’s precise and impeccable ear for the human voice) there might be a tendency to dryness, to an earnestness, which would make his book admirable rather than intensely pleasurable experiences. In all senses of the word, he is playful – with plot, with language, with character – and this playfulness allows him access to worlds and places other writers simply can’t get just right.

Analysing a book that you love without reserve is difficult; going back is like a liaison with an old lover in a provincial town – the possibility of disappointment is exceedingly high. But a cursory re-read of bits from each of the sections revealed more reasons to love it than before. (to take the old lover analogy further, like arriving at the provincial town to find you’ve got the presidential suite, there’s a bottle of chilled champagne on the side, and your old lover looks better than they did before, and are much better in the sack than you ever realised)

I remember reading a comment on the fledgling Guardian website when Number9Dream came out. Someone had said that if it won the Booker, the judges should fly out to Japan and just give the prize to Murakami himself. I don’t agree with that at all – though it made me chuckle – but it reminded me of the unique place that Mitchell has carved for himself in world literature. The aforementioned Number9Dream may have betrayed some of his more obvious influences, but Cloud Atlas shows a novelist striking out into his own territory, and his own field of endeavour. It is a novel to treasure.

2. The Lay of the Land – Richard Ford (2006)

My good friend Will Atkins – who knows just about as much about fiction as any person ever should – said to me once that he re-read the first sentence of The Lay of the Land and didn’t want to read anything else. Ever. An exaggeration, but one that suggests just how good the third Frank Bascombe novel really is. I read it on my honeymoon, looking out onto the pool of the Roman Hotel in Cyprus, but I was so transported to the mind, and the voice, of Frank that I could have been anywhere at all.

To me, Bascombe is a character every bit as important to American letters as Willy Loman, Nathan Zuckerman and Rabbit Angestrom, as important anyone, therefore. He represents a part of America without wanting to, needing to or aspiring to. He just is this slightly melancholic, now slightly crabby in this novel, man whose dreams and goals are small and his insights and feelings acute. Nothing much happens in any of these novels, but that simply doesn’t matter. The thrill of Bascombe is in his disarming turn of phrase, in his ability to see things in himself and others that resonates.

The Lay of the Land is set against the backdrop of the disputed Presidential Election of 2000 and the crackling emotion that time engenders fizzes through the book. The sense of going backwards (with another Bush in the White House) is keenly mirrored by Frank spending Thanksgiving with his first wife; while the sense of a point of departure, of a possibility between opposing outcomes, is echoed by his second wife walking out on him. Bascombe feels that he is comfortably ensconced in a happy middle age, the Permanent Period as he calls it; but like Gore’s campaign, things that you feel you are owed are not always paid out.

Ford’s other masterpieces – The Sportswriter and Independence Day – garnered the instant critical gushings, but this is, for me, an even stronger novel; one that perfectly displays Ford’s astonishing range of sentences, his ease with dialogue and his telling insights into life – both American and more generally. The Corrections might have had the hype, the controversy and the column inches, but The Lay of The Land – quietly, as Frank would want it – is, to me, the defining American novel of the decade.

1. Austerlitz – W.G. Sebald (2001)

How could it not be? Perhaps not quite as knock you down perfect as the Rings of Saturn, Austerlitz stands as the pinnacle of achievement in fiction this decade just past. I will write more when I have the energy to do at least a sliver of justice to its brilliance.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Best Books of the 2000s - Competition Time!

Competition time!

As the top five is so tantalisingly near you can almost smell the foxed pages and slanted boards, I thought a little competition might be in order.

Simply guess the top 5 books according to me and win a copy of each!

Post them in an ordered list in response to this post. You have until midnight (UK time) 30 November to formulate a response.

The judging criteria is that the novels must have been first published in English in the UK between 2000 and 2009. No author has more than one book in the top 5 and Ian McEwan is ineligible.

If there is a tie, the correct order will be taken into account. If things are still equal at that stage, a play off will be cobbled together, possibly to be televised on Sky Arts.

Here is a list of the books already selected. Don’t vote for them, they’re not in the top 5.

Good luck!

6. Night Watch – Sarah Waters (2006)
7. Remainder – Tom McCarthy (2006)
8. Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugendies (2002)
9. The Time of Our Singing – Richard Powers (2003)
10.Unless – Carol Shields (2002)

11. The Road – Cormac McCarthy (2006)
12. The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen (2001)
13. Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon (2000)
14. That They May Face the Rising Sun – John McGahern (2002)
15. Fingersmith – Sarah Waters (2002)
16. Gould’s Book of Fish – Richard Flanagan (2002)
17. The Ministry of Special Cases – Nathan Englander (2007)
18. The Book of Illusions – Paul Auster (2005)
19. My Revolutions – Hari Kunzu (2007)
20. Wash This Blood Clean from my Hands – Fred Vargas (2007)

21. The Confessions of Max Tivoli – Andrew Sean Greer (2004)
22. The Human Stain – Philip Roth (2000)
23. GB84 – David Peace (2004)
24. Dancer – Colum McCann (2003)
25. What is the What – Dave Eggers (2006)
26. The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga (2008)
27. The Crimson Petal and the White – Michel Faber (2002)
28. Gilead – Marilynne Robinson (2004)
29. A Fraction of the Whole – Steve Toltz (2008)
30. The Quick and the Dead – Joy Williams (2000)

31. Falling Man – Don Delillo (2007)
32. Lark & Termite – Jayne Anne Philips (2009)
33. History of Love – Nicole Krauss (2005)
34. Oxygen – Andrew Miller (2001)
35. It’s All Right Now – Charles Chadwick (2005)
36. Embers – Sandor Marai (2001)
37. The Last Samurai – Helen DeWitt (2000)
38. The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz (2007)
39. The Testament of Gideon Mack – James Robertson (2006)
40. The Bear Boy – Cynthia Ozick (2005)

41. Murder on the Leviathan – Boris Akunin (2005)
42. Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami (2005)
43. Netherland – Joseph O’Neill (2008)
44. The People’s Act of Love – James Meek (2005)
45. After the Fire, A Still Small Voice – Evie Wyld (2009)
46. The Horned Man – James Lasdun (2002)
47. Timoleon Vita Come Home – Dan Rhodes (2003)
48. The King is Dead – Jim Lewis (2003)
49. The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffeneger (2003)
50. Callisto – Torsten Krol (2007)

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

50 best novels of the 2000s: 10 to 6

10. Unless – Carol Shields (2002)

By rights, Unless is a book I should intensely dislike. It features a middle aged writer, for a start, it is primly first person present tense, and includes a daughter who drops out from society. But Carol Shields, like Philip Roth, has a way of looking anew at such hackneyed, care-worn concerns.

Unless is a story of loss, of grief and of endings and beginnings. The prose is always subtle, cleverly nuanced and can knock you out with the merest flicker. Just on the first page, the husband of the central character is described as “losing his hair nicely”. It tells you everything you need to know about the two characters in four words; and everything about Shields as a writer.

If any writer has taken the mantle of Jane Austen and spun it into a modern context, it is Shields. She takes the mordant, ironic eye of Austen and twists it into something all of her own. In Unless she adds a dark, cancer-black seam of humour that Austen, I feel sure, would have admired. It is a novel of passion and ideas, of humanity and scotched hope. It’s also one of the best books you’re ever likely to read.

9. The Time of Our Singing – Richard Powers (2003)

Richard Powers has defeated me so many times with his novels that though I was excited about The Time of Our Singing, I did worry that this was going to be another book of his that I admired without loving and once again didn’t finish. I needn’t have bothered worrying. This is just awesome stuff, truly spellbinding in every way. There’s a famous quote about writing about music being like dancing about architecture, which is made to look like sagging bollocks when you read about the music you can’t hear in The Time of Our Singing.

The premise is awkward when spelled out on the page. A German-Jewish man meets a black American woman, they fall in love and have a pair of twins. The twins become famous musicians, bringing ancient music back to modern ears. But though this all sounds somewhat absurd, Powers brings it fulsomely to life, each character real, full-blooded and unique. And though you are never too far away from Powers’ admirable intellect, his learning is always lightly sprinkled and interestingly divulged.

The end of The Time of Our Singing is probably my most favourite ending in contemporary fiction. Unexpected, emotionally side-swiping and somehow plausible, it brings to a close a novel that has the perfect pitch of Ella Fitzgerald, matched to the literary finesse of Scott Fitzgerald.

8. Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugendies (2002)

When I reached the end of Middlesex, I wanted to give it and its author a round of applause. It seemed that kind of novel; a book that was larger than life, in the way that life has a nasty habit of being. It remains a novel of realised ambition, fully the book that it wants to be and fully realising its potential. I can still recall the scenes during the New Jersey riots and feeling as though parachuted into that warzone.

Cal is a character it is hard to forget, not just because of their intersexed personality, but because Eugenedies imbues him/her with such life and energy it’s a genuine wrench to leave him/her at the end of the book. As a marriage of zestful prose, sparkling plot and stunning characterisation it’s very hard to beat.

7. Remainder – Tom McCarthy (2006)

The only thing that eventually came of my first and unpublished novel, The Safety of Sunday, was an introduction to Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. An agent was interested in the book and we met at his private members’ club in Soho. He was very excited about the novel (he would later revise this opinion and quite rightly; my book was a sack of shit. Better than Ian McEwan’s Saturday, but that’s another story) and Justin Lee Collins and Alan Carr were on the next table. I thought fame and fortune beckoned. The agent told me the story of Remainder’s checkered publication history and I was sent a copy. It was like opening a door of a humid house and an arctic blast coming through. This, I realised, was the future of British fiction.

Remainder is special because it understands that being avant-garde doesn’t mean you have to be an ass. My reaction to it was visceral: I could smell the oil at the garage, the liver frying in the frying pan, the sweat in the shirt of the fixer who believes in the project as much as the narrator. It is a novel of astonishing sensory intuition and a book that grips you both with its intelligence and its plotting. Writers like Tom McCarthy are the future: they understand the modern world in a way the likes of Amis and McEwan never could. And this is the book that set the benchmark, the line in the sand. If I was setting a course on the modern novel, this would be one of the first set texts.

6. Night Watch – Sarah Waters (2006)

For me Sarah Waters is the novelist of the decade. I simply couldn’t not exclude either of her two novels on this list; it wouldn’t have been right. So here we are, Sarah Waters: the finest writer of the new millennium.

The Night Watch is, I think, Waters’ masterpiece. Taking the home front of the Second World War and making it her own is no mean feat, but to write with such empathy and understanding about such a diverse range of characters is just astonishing, frankly. The roll of the nylons, the smell of cabbage, the black-out screens, this is an engulfing experience and one that ruins other novels set at the same time. No one has conjured up that world so completely and with such exactitude. Structurally impressive and written with deft grace, The Night Watch is a book that only Sarah Waters could write.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

50 best novels of the 2000s: 20 to 11

Here we go. The last novels not to make the top ten. Will Ian McEwan's Saturday take the top spot (no. it's shit)? Will there be an absence of novels that I haven't read? (Yes, I can see them from here). But will this at least give you an opportiunity to think: I haven't seen that on one of the five billion end of decade lists? (I hope so).

20. Wash This Blood Clean from my Hands – Fred Vargas (2007)

About five months before this book was published, I discovered Sjowall and Wahloo’s Martin Beck series of crime novels. I was hooked on them, hooked by their sense of ennui as much as their plotting. It made me look for novels outside of my usual genre, made me think that though I enjoyed crime fiction, it wasn’t just a sort of guilty pleasure: something that when done right is palatable. I now read a lot of crime, some of it (Ian Rankin’s Exit Music and The Naming of the Dead, James Lee Burke’s The Tin Roof Blowdown to name just two authors who could easily have featured on this list) could easily have featured on this list, but not one crime novel has had the same effect on me as this one, the first Fred Vargas novel I read.

It’s hard to describe just why this is such a special book. Yes, there is an element of the great cop dramas, yes there is the oddness of Twin Peaks, yes there are great characters; but explaining how she gets the atmosphere and the erudition into her works seemingly by stealth is so much more difficult. You read this book breathless, both in readerly appreciation of the plot and pacing, but also in thrall to the sense of place and strangeness that Vargas places on her scenes.

Oh and while we’re at it, Sian Reynolds should also be congratulated for consistently creating translations that read like no such thing. They are awesome, as is Ms Vargas. If you've never read her, you are missing out on one of the great joys of literary life.

19. My Revolutions – Hari Kunzu (2007)

One of the problems about having a monster advance for your debut novel is that it’s easy to poison readers against you even before you've had a book out. With Hari Kunzru it was different. I wanted to like his stuff (I’d heard him on the radio and on the TV and he seemed intelligent and enthusiastic about books) but for some reason I couldn’t engage with his novels: My Revolutions changed all that.

Kunzru’s book has ambition, it has grace and it has fervent understanding of the differences between a nation twenty years ago and the nation it is now. Of all the novels on this list, this is the one that I would say encapsulates some of the pressing issues of the last thirty years (ultra leftist movements, Thatcher, New Labour) and makes superlative fiction of it. A novel that had its plaudits, but not at the level this excellent book deserves. Deserves to be studied and looked at as living piece of fiction and as a piece of art.

18. The Book of Illusions – Paul Auster (2002)

The New York Trilogy is one of my all time favourite books. The Music of Chance is also a winner. I really ummed and ahhed over this one, as The Brooklyn Follies is also a joy. In the end though, this was the book that reminded me that Auster was worth reading after the let down of Timbuktu. And that took some doing.

The Book of Illusions has all the tropes you’d expect from Auster: authorial tricks, that sly, laconic way of writing he has, fate intervening in the most unexpected place, but it also has a warmth that some of his other novels have lacked. My best friend said about Auster’s most recent novel (Invisible, and another worth reading book) he’s the most easy to read difficult author there is. Well said, Mr Oliver Shepherd.

17. The Ministry of Special Cases – Nathan Englander (2007)

For a while in 1999, I was obsessed by Nathan Englander’s debut story collection, For The Relief of Unbearable Urges. And then, like Junot Diaz, he just disappeared. This book came out some eight years after the stories and about twenty pages in I was disappointed. I expected fireworks, something explosive. What I got was smaller scale, at least initially, and I wasn’t hooked enough to plough on. I gave it ten more pages. Then ten more, and ten more again, and then I was so engrossed – in the plot, in the characters, in the prose – that I just kept on with it. I still remember the feeling of loss when it ended.

The Ministry of Special Cases is one of those rare books that tells you about a period of history that you are not perhaps familiar with, but makes you eager to know more. It is an astonishing achievement.

16. Gould’s Book of Fish – Richard Flanagan (2002)

Flanagan is somewhat hide-bound by the fact that it’s hard to know what you’re going to get from him. This isn’t a criticism of him, more it’s a criticism of how we like to pigeon-hole writers. All of his books, especially The Sound of One Hand Clapping, are worth reading; but nothing quite matches this stunning, intoxicating book.

Historically charged, ludic and visceral, Gould’s Book of Fish is a novel of savage beauty – much like the nascent Australia that inspires much of the book. Few novels burn with such passion and spit and ire, and still fewer convince in the interior and exterior worlds we create for each other and ourselves. Gould’s Book of Fish does things of which other novels simply couldn’t conceive.

15. Fingersmith – Sarah Waters (2002)

Waters is technically the best British writer we have. I don’t know anyone who writes such sentences, such scenes, draws such memorable characters. In Fingersmith she often astonishes with a detail, with a plot shift, with a telling piece of dialogue – and still she manages to make her books compulsive page turners. The problem, if there is one, is for the reader trying to slow down to enjoy the richness of the sentences without jumping ahead to see what happens. I still smile thinking of the moments I reached the end of a section, only to realise within a few pages of the next section that I wasn’t privy to the whole facts. Simply brilliant.

14. That They May Face the Rising Sun – John McGahern (2002)

People seem to have forgotten about this book, but personally it was a novel that opened me up to a different kind of writing. I am a city person, always will be, and there’s nothing more likely to put me off a book than a blurb talking about the countryside, isolated communities or the pastoral life. This book changed my opinion. I was rapt, by the conversations, the easy simplicity of the prose, by the yearning of it all.

Depicting a year in the life of a small Irish community, That They May Face the Rising Sun is as full of life as any city novel and as perceptive as any novel published in the first years of this century. The Barracks and Amongst Women may be better known, but this is the novel that I think shows McGahern’s greatest gifts.

13. Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon (2000)

Almost ten years after reading this book I can still see the panels it sketched in my mind. At the World’s Fair, the submarines, the creative processes. Chabon’s best book should have been The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, but somehow that misfired despite its great potential. There are no such misfirings in Kavalier and Clay. It – along with several other books – showed the literary establishment that story would be dominant over the next decade; and that beautiful writing – and Kavalier and Clay certainly has that – didn’t need to be beautiful for its own sale.

12. The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen (2001)

For all its grasping at the nettle of greatness, for all its earmuffs, gloves and blindfolds, The Corrections was only really a partial success. But – and this is the point – Franzen’s novel fizzed with a sort of fuck-you ambition, with a zeal which said “I can do this.” And Franzen certainly could. The section of the novel on the cruise ship is probably the single best piece of writing this decade. The badgering of Gary Lambert to admit that he is depressed is something I return to often. Franzen went for it and stretched the novel in the new millennium, but the odd bum notes (the eastern European segments and those at that vegetarian restaurant thing) just edged it out of my top ten. Perhaps on another day it would have snuck in. But not today.

11. The Road – Cormac McCarthy (2006)

A book so celebrated it doesn’t take me to expound upon why it matters. All I’ll say about it is the moment when they find the underground bunker I wept like a baby; wept because of the simple beauty of McCarthy’s description of the cans of food and the beds, but also because you knew such happiness was fleeting. It is of course a modern classic. But, like The Corrections, it didn’t quite make it into the top ten. It makes the top ten interesting at least...

Sunday, 22 November 2009

50 best novels of the 2000s - 30 to 21

Here we are. The business end of the list starts in a couple of days...

30. The Quick and the Dead – Joy Williams (2000)

I read this book for three reasons. It had a quote from Don Delillo on the front, the jacket image was a David Hockney painting and on the back was a quote from Raymond Carver. I devoured it in two sittings. It’s funny, heart wrenching and just that kind of tear-stained Americana that I just can’t help but fall for every time. Williams writes immediate sentences, sentences that are effortless yet superbly crafted. It’s a book more people should discover.

29. A Fraction of the Whole – Steve Toltz (2008)

Novels that strive to be funny are so often like those people who claim to be zany or mad: they are often neither of those things, but instead intensely irritating. A Fraction of the Whole manages to sidestep this pitfall by being genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. Toltz understands the frustrations, annoyance and dispiriting nature of family life – particularly for the male relationships within that unit – and sets it as springboard to explore everything from the wisdom of crowds to the necessity of hatred. It is the heir to A Confederacy of Dunces in its blend of high intentions and superb humour. It may be a touch overlong, but every page holds a joy all of its own.

28. Gilead – Marilynne Robinson (2004)

At an event at Foyles in late summer, Adam Foulds gave the assembled crowd something to gasp about when he said that Gilead wasn’t such a great novel. I could sort of see what he was getting at, even though he was hopelessly wrong. The reviews both here and in the States suggested that this was a masterpiece, a worthy companion to her debut Housekeeping. At first I wasn’t convinced. It is slow, workmanlike even, and I put it down several times before picking it back up again. And then it sort of worked its magic on me, somehow illuminating just how subtle and yet passionately written it really is. John Ames is a rich character: rich in detail, in emotion and in faith. And for him alone, it would be remiss not to read this superlative novel.

27. The Crimson Petal and the White – Michel Faber (2002)

I fear historical fiction – and there is something about faux-Victoriana which particularly sticks in my craw (blame AS Byatt: I do). But the very opening paragraph of Faber’s dense, consistently inventive novel immediately sets the record straight. He tells us we think we know what to expect, but we do not. That we are aliens from another time, set to spy on the sins of the past. And how right he is! This tale of tarts with hearts, of pornographic libraries and cunning plots is what historical fiction should be like: fresh, light on extraneous period detail just for the sake of it, and instructive both of its time and our own.

26. The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga (2008)

After about 50 pages of Adiga’s first novel, I thought it didn’t have a hope of winning the Booker. Basically because it wasn’t the usual smoke and magic realism mirrors that we’ve come to expect from Indian novels, and because I loved it so much. It is feisty, idiosyncratic, compelling and slightly unnerving. I believe that Adiga has the same passion, fire and insider/outsider eye that elevated Orwell’s best novels from merely good to the truly great. When people have long forgotten the novels of DBC Pierre and Arundhati Roy, the only question raised about Adiga’s books will be why so many people found the award a surprising decision.

25. What is the What – Dave Eggers (2006)

I imported a load of copies of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius at Charing Cross Road Waterstone’s when I heard about it from an American friend. I read it and thought it was interesting and annoying. I read You Shall Know Our Velocity and thought pretty much the same. What is the What, however, just came out of nowhere, a non-fiction novel (but still a novel, just as much as the next book on the list is) that simply staggered me with its depiction of another man’s life, another man’s long and dangerous journey. It’s the novel that delivered on all Eggers’ promises to be something more than a Zeitgeist jumping hipster.

24. Dancer – Colum McCann (2003)

I remember talking to someone from McCann’s publishers the day after the Booker shortlist came out in 2003. He couldn’t understand why Dancer hadn’t been nominated; neither could I. Dancer is simply divine; a real tempest of a novel that combines beauty, sexuality with history and politics. It is unflinching as a portrait of Rudolf Nureyev, but also as a portrait of a time.

23. GB84 – David Peace (2004)

I wanted to ensure that authors only had one book on this list. For the most part, this was easy: in the case of three authors it was agonising. In only one case did I ignore this rule because I couldn’t imagine the decade without them. For David Peace it was a straight fight between The Damned Utd and GB84 – and to me, Peace’s novel of the Miner’s strike is simply too powerful, even up against the force of nature that is Brian Clough. The comparisons to Ellroy are justified, but as no one has had the balls to take on the underside of British life like Ellroy has about the American, it seems to me that we should applaud Peace all the more. I read it in Memphis, Tennessee, and GB84 brought back that time with such clarity it seemed to shut out the humidity and everything else that was going on.

22. The Human Stain – Philip Roth (2000)

I read the revealing part of The Human Stain in Congleton library. I had to read and re-read the paragraph over and over again. Coleman Silk is black? Roth, now you’re just shitting me. But he hit a home run with The Human Stain, a novel that could perhaps have been his masterpiece if he hadn’t already written American Pastoral. Funny, rude, politically suspect and with some of his great ancillary characters (the crushed Vietnam vet especially) The Human Stain is Roth wagging a finger at an America that he recognises only tangentially.

21. The Confessions of Max Tivoli – Andrew Sean Greer (2004)

I rejected Greer’s first novel (The Path of Minor Planets) for publication in the UK. It was interesting but all over the place. The Confessions of Max Tivoli wasn’t looking good either. The conceit of a man aging backwards had been done by Fitzgerald, and also a few years earlier by Gabriel Brownstein. But Greer’s book is so lush, so powdered and decadent the similarity of the plots becomes utterly immaterial. This is stunning writing, stunning plotting, with a yearning sense of romance that runs through the narrative like a heavy perfume. His later novel, Story of a Marriage, is also a wonderful novel, but I would not take back my time spent with Max Tivoli.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

50 novels of the 2000s - 40 to 31

The next batch for your perusal. I also thought you might like some stats on the final standings.

The most nominations come from the year 2005 (7); the least from 2009 (3).

The nominations come from 14 different countries.

Women make up just under a quarter of the entries (12).

Only one author has more than one novel in the top 50.

So on with the run down . . .

40. The Bear Boy – Cynthia Ozick (2005)

The Puttermesser Papers was one of my favourite books from the nineties. The Bear Boy didn’t sound so promising (no golems here). But in this tender, occasionally disturbing coming of age tale, Ozick proves her versatility and her tremendous storytelling powers. A different class from start to finish, it’s a book that makes you yearn for a New York you could never know.

39. The Testament of Gideon Mack – James Robertson (2006)

One of the most inventive and curious novels I’ve read, with a beautifully controlled and dextrous way of describing the inner and outer worlds. Robertson imbues the narrative with so many superb images – disappearing and reappearing stones, the devil's shoes – and so much tension between what is real and what is imagined, that it’s difficult not to be swept up by its crackling prose. If you didn’t read it because it was a Richard & Judy pick: shame on you.

38. The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz (2007)

Drown is one of my favourite story collections and had a huge influence on my reading habits back when I first read it in 1996. Oscar Wao, however, didn’t quite hit me where I thought it was going to. It is a great read, wonderfully executed and superbly detailed. It’s also funny and uses footnotes properly, instead of just as some kind of Po-Mo affectation. I wanted to love this more, but unfortunately it’s merely very good rather than great. Which is still awesome, obviously.

37. The Last Samurai – Helen DeWitt (2000)

A hundred times the book that The Curious Incident... or any number of the genius kid books we’ve had inflicted on us over the decade, The Last Samurai (or The Seventh Samurai, as my proof copy has it) is a touching, beautifully written and utterly believable evocation of a the inner struggle of a boy who understands ancient Greek, but doesn't know who is father is. This is how you do erudite without being tricksy. This is how you do intelligent without being smug. This is how you write the kind of book Jonathan Safran Foer imagined Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close would become.

36. Embers – Sandor Marai (2001)

Male friendship isn’t tackled enough in serious novels. There’s a kind of unspoken devotion and bond that makes such a relationship different to any other kind. Basically it’s a lot like Brokeback Mountain without all the fucking, and Embers manages to express these feeling expertly. It’s dark a brooding affair, and one that makes for great winter reading.

35. It’s All Right Now – Charles Chadwick (2005)

Tom Ripple is the closest we’ve ever had to a English Rabbit Angstrom. He’s an astonishingly normal man, a devote of American crime shows, of cosy suburban living, of regular middle class life. But he is also a lens through which we see thirty years of English contemporary life, and a voice that is stunning in its insight, its exactitiude and its emotional intelligence. It's All Right Now deserves far more recognition than it got at the time, and has received since.

34. Oxygen – Andrew Miller (2001)

Miller’s first two novels were historical and I rather gave them a wide berth; but Oxygen was something quite different. Four characters, all coping with their own strains and stresses, their own failings and mortality – and yet it wasn’t in any way depressing (unlike his follow up, The Optimists). A truly special piece of work, Oxygen is a book I hadn't thought about in years, but once remembered came back to me with almost astonishing clarity.

33. The History of Love – Nicole Kraus (2005)

Nicole Kraus is married to Jonathan Safran Foer. In their house, she wears the literary trousers. Leo Gursky, the mute at the heart of this book is nonetheless a teller of tales, of love stories that cross generations and decades. It is energetic, witty and shamelessly romantic. It should be read, delighted in and savoured.

32. Lark & Termite – Jayne Anne Philips (2009)

This tale of families – those we create and those we are born into – is the first I reviewed for a national newspaper. I was lucky that I got a book so rich and so deftly written. Phillips writes a kind of mythologized Americana, a fuzzy, beat-up kind of place that is at once familiar yet ultimately unknowable. It is, in the truest sense of the word, haunting

31. Falling Man – Don Delillo (2007)

After his two superlative novels of the nineties (Mao II, Underworld), Delillo’s output in the 2000s was somewhat slight. Both The Body Artist and Cosmopolis were not vintage stuff by any stretch, though as with all of Delillo’s work there was always something wonderful to be found. Falling Man is not as good as Underworld or Mao II (few novels are, to be fair) but that’s not to do it a disservice. The opening scene of Keith leaving the aftermath of 9/11 is one of the best things he has written, right up there with Underworld’s opening. The novel’s conclusion in Las Vegas is also the kind of exemplary prose married to ideas we have come to expect from Delillo. What comes inbetween is, however, a little messy, a little underdeveloped. While it’s not his best book, it does remind us that there is no one – and I mean no one – who is better when they’re at the top of their game.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

The 50 Novels of the 2000s - part one: 50 to 41

Everyone's doing the best of the decade, so as a bandwagon jumping exercise I thought I'd do the same. I suspect my list will not be that earth-shattering, but I hope you find some interesting titles that you might ordinarily not have bothered to read. Links will take you to Waterstones.com. I don't get paid on it, just thought it would make it easier to see why I liked the book so much. And remember, these are novels only. No short stories, no poetry and no bloody polemics. Dates refer to the year of original UK publication.

50. Callisto – Torsten Krol (2007)

A snortingly funny and clever book, the kind of thing that Vernon God Little would have loved to have been. Similar in many ways to Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole, this is a satire on contemporary culture which is wise and witty enough to work.

49. The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffeneger (2003)

I cried in the office at the end of this confusing yet winning tale of love across the space-time continuum. It’s the characters that shine through, flawed, occasionally unpleasant but always realistic, despite the conceit.

48. The King is Dead – Jim Lewis (2003)

The first forgotten novel of the 2000s on this list, The King is Dead is a powerful and beautifully written tale of love and fate, of families and their misfortunes. It is also a quiet masterpiece that brings Memphis liltingly to life. There is a moment of supreme power at the start of section 2 that I remember making me draw breath. It’s a scandal this book isn’t more well known.

47. Timoleon Vita Come Home – Dan Rhodes (2003)

Dan Rhodes first novel is a shaggy dog story with all kinds of unhappy endings. It’s also, as you’d imagine from Rhodes, strange and incredibly funny.

46. The Horned Man – James Lasdun (2002)

The Horned Man is a slim, taut volume suffused with dread and unease. A man is being framed – seemingly – for a series of brutal crimes. But what is the truth? And will we ever know it. Lasdun marries sentences you could fall into and swim around in for days with a tight plot and a series of increasingly flawed and surprising characters. Superb.

45. After the Fire, A Still Small Voice – Evie Wyld (2009)

One of only three novels to survive from 2009, Evie Wyld’s debut is quiet, atmospheric and utterly beguiling. The depth and clarity of both the characterisation, the settings and the social and political context – not to mention the generational sweep – of this novel marks it out as something quite, quite special. I suspect Wyld will be one of the key voices of the next decade.

44. The People’s Act of Love – James Meek (2005)

I read this freezing novel of pre-revolutionary Russia in a baking apartment in Kefalonia. It was like air conditioning all of its own. Violent, bloody and entertaining, but entirely serious and intelligent, this is the kind of book you shiver just thinking about.

43. Netherland – Joseph O’Neil (2008)

I expected to go crazy for this novel, considering the hype and the fact it was about cricket, but good though it was – and some of it is truly astonishing – it didn’t quite live up to its amazing reputation. Despite this, it’s still a powerful and subtle look at the nature of home and of ambition.

42. Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami (2005)

The least successful of all Murakami’s long novels, Kafka on the Shore is still streets ahead of most writers' output. While I loved it when I read it, it didn’t settle with me in the same way that, say, Sputnik Sweetheart or Hardboiled Wonderland did. But it's still a brilliant, edifying read.

41. Murder on the Leviathan – Boris Akunin (2005)

I’d just started an ill-fated tenure at Virgin books and was feeling unwell. The doctor recommended some rest, so I went into a bookshop and asked for something light for me to enjoy; a crime novel perhaps. A bookseller recommended Leviathan (as it was then known) and I devoured it in one sitting. Daft, clever, funny and meticulously plotted, with a bunch of characters not easily forgotten, Leviathan is the perfect introduction to Akunin’s unique world.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

In defence of Martine McCutcheon

I once worked in an art house cinema in Liverpool, doling out the tickets and little tubs of Hagen Daz ice cream. On my first shift I got talking to my co-worker.

“What kind of music do you like?” he asked.

“Oh, all kinds,” I said.

“Okay,” he said, “how about Bulgarian communist brass band music?”

He laughingly produced a tape, turned off the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack and put on the horns and bellows of the Eastern Bloc. I lasted about two minutes before pressing stop and putting Little Green Bag back on. It was a brutal lesson of which I was reminded as I read this article – coming hot on the heels of a scathing attack by Marina Hyde in the Guardian – about Martine McCutcheon’s forthcoming novel.

For all the scorn, bile and vitriol thrown her way you’d think that Martine McCutcheon had announced herself the natural heir to Updike, Bellow and Foster Wallace, except with better breasts and whiter teeth. The literary pages, and the commentators below the line, have queued up to laugh at McCutcheon’s leaden prose, to squeal with delight at every rom-com cliché and to mock piteously any thinly veiled piece of autobiography. The smugness, and self-righteousness spreads across the screen like a fog. And it stinks.

McCutcheon’s novel, The Mistress, is a light, frothy bit of fluff to liven up a dull bus journey or a cut and blow dry at Toni & Sassoon; the kind of book left behind at holiday villas next to a dog-eared John Grisham and a pool-bloated Jackie Collins. It was no more written for those of a literary mien as Mr Balfour’s Poodle, Roy Jenkins’ fascinating account of an early twentieth century constitutional crisis, was written for future subscribers to Heat and Grazia magazine. As my cinema colleague so aptly pointed out, not only can you not like everything, not everything is produced with you in mind: so why is it that those who don’t read commercial women’s fiction feel compelled to point and sneer at the ex-Eastender?

The problem can be summed up by what we’ll call the Jordan Analysis. This is a yearly piece of hand-wringing where the Booker longlist’s sales are compared unfavourably to the beach-ball smuggling, orange-glazed freak’s latest ghostwritten epic. As a like-for-like comparison, it’s about as instructive as contrasting the global sales of Mars Bars with Fortnum & Mason’s pickled walnuts in truffle oil. But because it makes good copy, it gets reported, and once again blurs the distinction between the commercial and the literary.

Katie Price’s novels may share the same parameters as those eligible for the Booker prize – published in English, fiction, longer than 200 pages or so, printed and bound – but that’s it: availability, recommended retail price, level of discount and prominence, target market, demographics couldn’t be more different. And then there’s the fact that she promotes the hell out of her books, is in the gossip rags every single day and “writes” about a celebrity lifestyle that is at once familiar and aspirational to her target readership. Try telling Simon Mawr – who is unlikely to be a cover star of any magazine, save for Difficult Fiction About Architecture Quarterly– that it’s a fair comparison.

The Jordan Analysis shows the media’s fundamental lack of understanding of the fiction market – and as this is replicated in many of the literary pages, that’s a worry. It shouldn’t matter that Price has sold more copies of her books than every literary novel since 1960, it should be expected. It needs no commenting upon, Price’s novels – like McCutcheon’s forthcoming books – are commercial fiction and, like Arnie’s Terminator, commercial fiction has only one aim, and only one goal.

Editors might like to think that the aim is entertainment, but that’s only secondary: no one publishes commercial fiction without dollar signs in their eyes. No matter how entertaining, a commercial novel’s success is only measured on its Bookscan figures. That’s it. Sales. Not prizes, not good reviews, not a discussion on Front Row. Commercial fiction just wants your money. It cares only about your cash. Improbably plotted? Who gives a shit, show me the money. Paper thin characters? Go tell it to the pigeons, you fuck, show me the money. Stilted dialogue? Get a copy of Middlemarch, bitch, show me the money. Commercial fiction is Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glenross. It’s all about the sales, stupid.

And if that sounds vulgar and venal, well it is. Major publishers operate on a knife-edge. Most literary novels lose money, which means quite often that commercial fiction needs to help balance the books. This is not as easy as it sounds. For women’s commercial fiction in particular, you need time to build a brand and a readership, and time is something in very short supply. A celebrity name perfectly sidesteps the early painstaking part of this process and can avoid years of careful, spirit-sapping toil.

Martine McCutcheon has the clout to get on every talk show in town, and get her face in every weekly glossy or celeb newspaper pull out – and the supermarkets know that customers will be drawn to her name. So, so long as she delivers what her potential audience expects – a bit of glamour, a few jokes, a bit of romance and a happy ending – everyone’s content. Everyone, that is, apart from those who somehow see this as the equivalent of Martine squatting over Proust’s grave and leaving literature a steaming, dirty protest.

Some of the criticisms thrown like so much shit from a monkey’s paw towards McCutcheon and Pan Macmillan do raise salient points. Celebrity authors and novels can tie up publicity and marketing budgets, deflecting attention away from other authors. True, but that’s the case with any large company acquisition. When Sudoku went massive four years ago, budget and publicity was snaffled from wherever to ensure that sales targets were met. For most writers the knock on effects will be minimal: unless of course you’re a commercial novelist yourself. And those writers are probably the only ones who can justifiably feel that Martine and the oncoming rush of celebrity authors are the horsepeople of the apocalypse.

Commercial writing of any hue is not just about the quality of the prose, jokes or plotting: it’s the whole package. What these celebrity novelists have brought into sharp focus is just how much this is the case. If you were forced to put your mortgage on the winner in a straight sales scrap between a mediocre celebrity title from Martine McCutcheon or an original and snappy piece rom-com from an obese office administrator from Winersh where would your money go? Principles, ethics, belief in the power of books to transform minds – none of these things are important when selecting which pieces of commercial fiction to publish. You’re just betting on the most likely horse.

As a business decision, therefore, Martine is a sound one and that’s all it should be considered. Pointing and laughing at her because she’s not a sexier version of Tolstoy is just plain dumb. To paraphrase from a better Richard Curtis film than the paper cut in the eyeball in which Martine starred, she’s just a girl, whose written a book, asking the public to buy it. She is not asking for literary acceptance, so let’s once and for all draw a line between books published solely for commercial gain and those that have a higher ambition than simple entertainment. We do it with other media (The Wire’s viewing figures are never humiliated in a comparison with Coronation Street or one of ITV’s many cop shows) so why not with books?

Publishers get slated every which way – sometimes justifiably, but often by people who don’t know an awful lot about the business, or those who really should know better – but you can’t blame them for wanting to actually make some money. McCutcheon’s books should do just that – assuming the advance was sensible – and using the windfall, Pan Macmillan can hopefully go out and find the next Roberto Bolaño, Carol Anne Duffy, China Mieville or another history title as good as the aforementioned Mr Balfour’s Poodle. Yes it’s hardly perfect, and yes, we’d all prefer it if only the very best writers in each genre were rewarded for their efforts, but that doesn’t mean we have to live in Cloud Cuckoo Land. Celebrity sells, and that’s something we’re all just going to have to deal with.

Monday, 31 August 2009

B and Me

Nicholson Baker had ordered me a coffee; it was steaming on the table as I arrived slightly harried from yet another panicked dash across London. I thanked him and apologised for both my lateness and my unfortunate reaction to caffeine. His voice was calming, his beard white against his blushed skin, as he suggested I sat down and poured myself some water. It wasn’t quite enough to steady my nerves.

We were sequestered in a chintzy private room, the kind I imagined being used for interviewing supporting actors in action movies. The sounds from Wigmore Street wafted through an open window and I worried that the sound recording function on my mobile phone would prove to be no match for the atmospherics. I had visions of getting home to find that Baker’s rich, sonorous voice was as clear as mulch at the bottom of a well. But it was all I had, so it had to be okay.

We relaxed into a long conversation about technology, dirty realism, David Foster Wallace, Winston Churchill, European literature, modern American literature, poetry, meter and rhyme, and the importance of voice. I would have liked to have talked longer, such was his erudition and interest; but we’d already had two hours and I had already made him late for a lunch date with his agent. I could have listened to him for another two hours without even realising it.

Nicholson Baker’s prose is exacting, personal and distinct: it is his alone. It seems to me that there is a tiny part of literature to which only Baker has access. Take A Box of Matches. Who else could get away with beginning a novel: “Good Morning, it’s January and it’s 4.17 a.m.”? Who else would want to begin a novel this way? The Anthologist begins in the same manner “Hello, this is Paul Chowder and I’m going to try to tell you everything I know.” Such simplicity is both deceptive and a hallmark of Baker’s writing: as soon as you open one of his books you are immediately into the action, into the meat of the book. U&I begins with a specific time and a specific image (Baker propped up on blood dotted pillow cases, writing on his keyboard). Each one is a study in what it means to be here now.

When I asked him about this, Baker talked fulsomely, self-deprecatingly about how he writes, and how he struggles with plot and suspense, two key elements of all books, especially in these exalted times when story is utterly key to a book’s commercial viability. Baker’s approach is that of an American channelling the formal and textual inventiveness of European Literature. The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, in particular, are the kind of books one could well imagine Perec and Queneau nodding along to, appreciating their structural limitations and Baker’s ducks and feints to keep the prose alive.

But while Perec and Queneau are rightly lauded for their Oulipo games, Baker remains a marginal figure in American letters. His taste of fame came in the early nineties, when his two “sex” books, Vox and The Fermata, steamed up the bestseller lists. He could easily have turned out similar novels for the rest of the decade, become known as America’s pornographer in chief and as the Updike of Generation X. But instead he turned an increasingly strange corner.

Writing first about the life of a nine-year-old girl, then about a middle-aged writer, then an almost comic-book-style novel-in-voices about a planned assassination of George W Bush, Baker’s novels since 1994 have been diverse creatures, but they retain his slightly unbalanced view of the world, one that can take your breath away with the precision of a sentence, or a phrase’s unusual placement. There is a great moment in The Anthologist when Paul Chowder is talking about Longfellow or another dead poet and after a long descriptive passage he adds, “I miss my mum and dad.” It is so simple; so heartbreaking and it’s entirely typical of a writer who appears not to be trying so hard, but is in fact straining to get to some kind of truth. Perhaps not one he can fathom, but one that it is being hunted out nonetheless.

As we sat in that softly furnished room, I mentioned of my love for Richard Yates, and Nicholson Baker nodded and mentioned how he had fallen under the spell of Revolutionary Road some time in the mid-1980s. A few months after he read it, he found out that Yates drank at this one bar in Boston. Baker plucked up the courage to go to the bar to see him. Yates was drunk and surrounded by a crowd of people. Baker sat with a tonic water watching them, then saw Yates stagger towards the door.

Realising this might be his only chance to speak to him, Baker followed Yates out and a short conversation ensued, one of those fan-to-hero exchanges that are both awkward and strangely beautiful. Yates went off into the night, Baker back to his place. “It’s not much of a story,” Baker said, “but there you go.” To me though, the idea that these two authors, both of whom mean so much, meeting for that one occasion is quite a lot of a story, quite a delightful anecdote. Not because, as you might think, that there was an element of passing on the baton, but of the opposite.

Nicholson Baker’s fiction owes little to Yates, nor indeed to Updike, but these writers inspire him to write – just not like them. This is something important, I feel. Just because you admire or even revere a writer, doesn’t mean that you should feel like you have to follow their lead. What Baker has managed to do – despite, or perhaps because of his clutchbag of influences – over the years is to cultivate a style that could only come from his keyboard.

Baker’s lasting legacy will not be the use of footnotes in fiction – though through the prism of David Foster Wallace’s death, this might be a short term effect – but the importance of finding an identifying, clear and natural voice. No one aims to ape his style, because it would be such obvious theft if a writer attempted it. In his fiction, Baker sets the bar for new writers. You might not appreciate his language, or his strictures, or the characters he writes, but each world he creates is his own, very own. It’s a lesson that all writers should consider, and why Nicholson Baker should become every bit as important and influential as Updike, Roth, Bellow and all the rest of those grand-daddies of American letters.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

What McSweeny's didn't want

A month or so ago, McSweeny's ran a competition to find some new regular columns and columnists. This was my entry, which did not make the top 33 out of 800 or so submissions.

Exit Interviews with People at Culturally Significant Events by Stuart Evers

1. Brief description of the proposed column

Exit Interviews with People at Culturally Significant Events is a series of fictionalised monologues from people present at subsequently important happenings. Without the benefit of hindsight and cultural baggage, we discover the real stories of those who bore witness. All of them made-up, obviously, but authentic to their time.

In length they vary from the longish to the very short – one, for example is just a single sentence – and they would span the twentieth century, taking place in different cities and towns around the world.

2. Exit interviews with people at culturally significant events – full example

Jim Miller, 31.Office Clerk.

The march on Washington for jobs and freedom, August 28, 1963.

It’s not that I didn’t want to go on the march. Marching’s something I’ve been doing a while now and being part of that crowd and making my voice heard, yeah; that’s something that’s important to me, but if I’m honest I was only there because Anita got in a snit with me about it. She told me all about the march, but we’d been invited over to Phil and Janie’s and, well, we don’t get to see those guys quite so much these days. Not since Janie said those things about the Jews and Anita got all tense about it.

Not that I’m saying we only went on the march because of Phil and Janie. I bet Anita would have wanted to go anyway. All’s I’m saying is she seemed far more keen on Dr King once she found out what the alternatives were. And she always manages to talk me round. “We can see your friends any time,” she says to me. “How many chances are we going to get to hear Martin Luther King?” She always sounds logical, even when she’s just trying to get her own way.

We got here by bus. Anita wanted to drive, but I put my foot down. There was no way I was driving with all these people heading downtown. And anyway, there were buses going from a few blocks up anyway, so it made sense. Anita couldn’t argue with that.

The bus was hot as all hell and when it pulled off this man in front of us turned to talk to Anita. He talked to her the whole way to the memorial.


When we got to the meeting point, we both had a sweat on. I was using my hat to fan myself, while Anita stood on her tippy-toes looking out on all the crowds. She made a noise like she’d been thrown a surprise party and all the people she’d ever known had shown up.


Eventually we got to march. The man in front of me had the strongest body odour I’ve ever smelled. He stank like something had died in his shirt. I kept trying to guide us away from him, but no matter what I did, the guy just stayed right there in front of us. Anita was getting annoyed with me for trying to move her away from him, so I gave up and just smoked a bunch of cigarettes to mask the man’s stink.


When we made it to the Lincoln Memorial, Anita started talking to a bunch of guys dressed in faded denims. Beatniks, you could call them I guess, I’ve never really seen a beatnik up close before. I thought they were supposed to be dangerous. The only dangerous thing about those guys was that their shoe laces were untied.

When the speeches started we were a way from the stage and Anita was pretty much totally ignoring me; she was just talking to the beatniks. Once they all turned round and looked at me, then laughed. I tried to front it out, but it was pretty hard with them all smiling and nudging at each other. I got to thinking that if I left now I could probably get over to Phil and Janie’s for a few beers.

I should have felt bad for thinking about leaving my wife like that, but I was mad with her and it wasn’t like I’d done anything wrong save for trying to see my friends and get out the way of a man who stank like roadkill.

I asked her if she wanted to come and get a soda with me and she just said: “Dr King’s on soon. Nelson here says so.”

And then the kid nodded at me, so I told her I needed a drink and walked off.


I did catch some of Dr King's speech, but it was hard to make out all what he was saying. I heard, the “I have a dream” parts and one of the times he said it, under my breath I said “and that’s to find a goddamn soda.” It cracked me up for a moment, but people were looking at me kind of funny. They were all hanging on his every word, and the words drifted left to right on the wind so the people looked a little like crowds at a tennis match. And that just cracked me up even more.

I guess I’ll see Anita back at home. I mean it’s taken me a whole hour to get this far, and I’m still miles away from the buses. And there’s been no sight of any sodas. You know where I can get one?

Thursday, 20 August 2009

When bad reviews are just plain bad

I love reading bad reviews; it’s a guilty pleasure in the truest sense of the word. I don’t for example feel guilty or wrong-headed for enjoying such artistically questionable fare as I-see-dead-people-cop-show Medium, the albums of Take That and the films of Richard Curtis; I do, however, feel ashamed that I enjoy reading someone kicking seven shades of batshit out of someone else’s long sweated-over creative endeavour.

Of those god-awful reviews I’ve enjoyed over the years, the vast majority have concerned books I have either hated or not read. The only book I loved that got a real good pummelling was Being Dead by Jim Crace. And I laughed that off because it was written by hatchet man, Dale Peck, a huffy old queen whose essays on the sacred cows of modern fiction are a sublime, bitchy joy. His reviews are often so hysterical it’s sometimes hard to take them seriously. Which leads us neatly to George Walden’s review of David Peace’s Occupied City.

Let me begin by stating that I am a huge fan of David Peace; but am far from a zealot. He can be confusing, irritating, pretentious, overblown and relentless; what he isn’t, however, is shit. Which is pretty much what George Walden says in his review. He needn’t have gone into 800 words to say it either. He could simply have daubed Occupied Shitty onto a piece of paper using a shitty stick dipped in shit and then faxed it through. Had he done that, I suspect it would have made a far more cogent and far less bitter argument than his eventual piece.

Walden starts by laying into Peace’s “textual tricks and pseudo-metaphysical mannerisms”. So far, so obvious: they can, after all, be wearying and you certainly have to be in the mood for them. If he’d have expressed why he believed these tricks didn’t work, or why they ruined the book for him, I wouldn’t have bothered commenting on it. But he doesn’t, and this is where the problems begin.

What Walden wants is Peace to deliver “the goods on the hallucinatory horrors of postwar Japan”. Which is, I would argue, the precise reason why Peace uses “textual tricks and pseudo-metaphysical mannerisms” in the first place. The fact that the novel has multiple narrators, that events are replayed from different perspectives, that each chapter is written in its own style, using its own textual variants creates a believable world full of those hallucinatory horrors Walden seems to crave. Take away the repetition, the tics and styles and the very atmosphere, tone and feel of this book is destroyed.

Ignoring this seeming contradiction in his argument, Walden – with all the fusty self-importance of an old man at the Saatchi Gallery – sums up Peace’s style by grumbling that “large parts of the book are scarcely readable”. I don’t know what he found so hard about it, to be honest.

Of Peace’s recent books, this is remarkably easy to follow. Compared to Tokyo Year Zero, which had me baffled for the majority of its pages, it is a doddle. But, confusingly, Walden sees TYZ as an easier read, with Occupied City being built on “ponce-worthy proclivities” (just cutting and pasting that phrase makes me somewhat bilious) which were only hinted at in the earlier book. This either suggests to me that he hasn’t actually read Tokyo Year Zero. Or, most likely, he has and he’s hoping that the readers of the review haven’t.

Because the problem with this review is that it’s not really a review at all. It is an 800-word essay on why the modern British cultural world is a moribund, foul and self-regarding morass of drek and garbage. It’s telling that Walden does not even blame Peace for the faults he finds in Occupied City; instead Walden finds fault in our “bloated culture, with its perpetual need for wunderkin­der.”

I expect doddering old giffers to wring their hands about the modern world; it is their function, as important a job as their keeping garden centres in business and the post sacks at the Radio Times and the Daily Mail offices bulging. But what Walden puts forward is so risible that even the members of his local Conservative Club might raise a Denis Healy-sized eyebrow. His argument is that Peace only got praised for his last book because – and it still makes me laugh this – he is Northern, youngish and writes about class.

That’s right, things have changed so much now that young northern white men are the latest pet project of the left-wing media. They are praised to the heavens, patted on the back for their cleverness and in a few years someone will invent a prize for these poor northern men to run alongside the Orange Prize. When the shortlist for the Booker is announced, there will be plenty of Op Ed pieces about the distinct lack of white northern men who made the cut. It might not be a literary response, but come on, for fuck’s sake: what is Walden thinking?

According to Walden, Peace is the victim of his generation; an unthinking writer who only cares what the critics (or his “betters” as Walden lovingly describes them) think of his work. I’m sorry, George, but this is palpably ridiculous. This is the author of eight novels we’re talking about, not some jejune kid fresh out of UEA. He has developed a style, for better or for ill, from the processes in his own mind, from his experiences as a writer of fiction. He’s not some empty vessel waiting for his "betters" to tell him what to do, and to suggest that he is shows a fundamental lack of respect to a writer. A writer, I might add, who is capable of writing some of the most imaginative and innovative fiction of this or any other generation.

But Walden won’t agree with me on that. No. Because all of Peace’s formal invention has been done before. And according to Walden, if something has been done before any writer should not be allowed to do it again. Capital letters in a text – sorry, son, Hubert Selby did that in the 50s. next! Circular writing? Appolinaire, bitch! When Walden writes “Lines crossed out? Done two centuries ago, in Tristram Shandy," I can imagine him shouting “HA!” at a picture of Peace, "how you like that, experimental boy!”

This whole thing is so wilfully negative, so hectoring and smug that it’s easy to lose sight of how good Peace is. The fact is that the textual innovations of Occupied City exist to create a specific effect – not just to prove Peace’s post modern credentials. Walden, however, implies that this isn’t the case and Peace is little more than ticking po-mo boxes (capitals, check; italics, check . . .). Walden is being both disingenuous and unfair; but then he’s only ramping himself up for the final insult.

“Reading Peace," he writes, "can be dispiritingly like watching a naughty YBA lady putting fried eggs on her tits in the belief that it puts her up there with Tristan Tzara. Sad really, all the more because when Peace is not playing at being quirky and original, his work can be much more interesting than that of the YBAs.”

The comparison is unfair, unwarranted and utterly spurious. There is not the remotest link between Peace and the YBAs, But Walden groups them deliberately to suggest that they have similar aims and ambitions. For the second time in the article, Walden implies that Peace is a delusional airhead, his artistic merit fuelled by hyperbole. Which is objectively untrue. And if I was David Peace I would be fucking livid.

When I asked Peace at a recent event whether he ever thought he’d gone too far with the inventive nature of his prose, he said No. That if anything he hadn’t gone far enough. And all I can say is here, here. It is great news – if only so I can read another entertainingly ridiculous hatchet job from the baffling pen of George Walden.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Controversy, Assumptions and Benjamin Black

Controversy in the book trade is a clumsier, slightly grubbier cousin to its counterpart in the real world. It tends to come from something and nothing – a comment taken out of context, usually – and then obsessively rewritten, rehashed and replayed. Whipping up controversy is easy, but underneath there’s usually such a note of desperation that it tends to feel as manufactured as a five-piece boyband from Rotherham. This is where I find myself at the moment: in the midst of what has been described as “controversy”, but feels very little like it.

Last week I reported upon the Harrogate Crime Festival. There John Banville, aka Benjamin Black, explained the difference between writing his crime fiction and his literary work. From his comments, it was possible to infer that he perhaps didn’t take crime writing as seriously as his other work. I then quoted another writer who agreed with this viewpoint, claiming that Banville saw himself as slumming it in crime fiction.

In the wake of this, there have been comments, threads and other discussions about the piece I wrote, both on the Guardian and elsewhere. I should also point out that the piece was actually about how critics and awards need to take more of an interest in crime fiction, rather than sticking the knife into a writer I hugely admire. Either way, the level of articulate debate that mine and other people’s articles has provoked, was both entertaining and very informative.

But then John Banville waded in to set the record straight in the Guardian. Which is when I officially became part of a “controversy”. A rather small, tawdry and flat “controversy”, but one all the same.

In The Week in Books section of Saturday’s Guardian, Banville described Harrogate with the words of a man whose worst fears have recently been confirmed. “A sheep should not venture into a pen of wolves.” He began, clearly identifying himself as the victim of a savagery. It was hard, however, to tell what was so awful about people writing blogs discussing a bad joke he made about Benjamin Black's hopes of winning the Nobel prize. Then he went on to discuss my piece.

“Another blogger,” he wrote, “did a survey among attendees.”

Obviously I was a little bit put out that I was not mentioned by name, and simply referred to as “Another Blogger” – which I suspect means that I am held in the kind of contempt one usually reserves for ineffective cowpokes and cup-and-ball roadside charlatans. But it was Banville’s implication that I had somehow sought out controversy by door-stepping authors – presumably dressed like one of the tabloid pigs from Spitting Image – that really got my dukes up. Especially as I did no such thing.

Over the weekend, I asked a few authors and critics their opinion on his comments, sure; but I didn’t get my clipboard out and ask any passing writer if they had five minutes to share their opinions on downloading music, the extradition of Asperger’s-suffering computer hackers or the likely effects of Booker prize winners writing genre fiction. There was no survey, there never was, nor had I ever intended there to be, which makes Banville’s next sentence all the more needling.

“One of them, Ruth Dudley Edwards, a good writer who should have known better, allowed herself to be quoted as saying that I was slumming it as Benjamin Black.”

It’s the clause “a good writer who should have known better” that gets me. Presumably Banville means that Ruth should have known better than to consort with nefarious bloggers, desperate to find some kind of “controversy” for their next column. It even reads as though he’s forgiving her because she was somehow snared into making these comments. I wonder how Mr. Banville thought I got this marvellous, malevolent quote from Ruth. Perhaps I got her drunk? Maybe I flirted with her in some sort of attempted literary honeytrap? Or perhaps I simply goaded her into making a comment by pretending he’d called her a bad name?

It would have been far more glamorous had any of these been the case. In the end it was a lot easier than that: I simply attended an event called Emerald Noir.

Chaired by the aforementioned Ruth Dudley Edwards, Emerald Noir was a fascinating debate, one that explained how crime writing in Ireland has flourished over recent years and how a mixture of politics, financial meltdown and self deception conspired to make that possible.

During this discussion, Ruth Dudley Edwards turned to Declan Hughes – a crime novelist who once wrote a scathing review of Banville’s Black-branded novella The Lemur in the Irish Times – and somewhat impishly said, “John Banville is slumming it. He says he isn’t, but he is.” then asked him to comment. With the elegance of Chris Waddle in his Marseille-era pomp, Hughes effortlessly side-stepped the question. But it was still hanging in the air as a few hundred people filed out of the auditorium.

In defending his comments – which I have to say Banville has done magnificently well – he has nonetheless tried to make it sound like he was the victim of a targeted muck-raking; of a concerted effort to embroil him in a literary spat. This isn’t the case at all. Except now it is. Or would be if anyone really cared.

And that, to go back to my initial point, is what makes literary “controversy” so damn limp. Even when it’s got sex and suspicion – as the Oxford Professor of Poetry brouhaha earlier this year had in spades – there’s still a sense of so fucking what. I want real controversy. You know, Will Self calling Ian McEwan a talentless spastic. Jeanette Winterson changing her sexual orientation and obsessively stalking Jeremy Clarkson. Zadie Smith writing a wholly inappropriate erotic novel set in Belsen. That kind of thing. Scandal! Controversy! A side to take!
Until we get something like that, I suggest that we put literary controversy into dry dock and leave it there to rot.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

When is a comment an article? - and vice versa

At Harrogate I met a great many amazing writers; but the person I most wanted to speak to wasn’t around when I was. That was Simon Kernick, a writer I very much enjoy, but would not normally go in to bat for. That was, however, before someone from Marketing Week decided to put their ill-informed and utterly ridiculous opinion across, and I lost it.

My response was, perhaps, longer than the article itself. And while I don't back down from what I said, I don't like the shrillness of the tone, and really hate the fact that I called the author a lazy journalist. But she was. The author of that article, Ruth someone, desperately tried to make it appear that the good people at Transworld were fricking eijits, but in her clamour to do only proved how little she knew about book marketing.

But on balance I am resasonably happy with what I wrote ; I am, however, unhappy about Marketing Week publishing it on the web as an opinion piece with my email address under it. Name: fine; email address: not good. I spoke to the editor and he seemed to broadly understand my issues with what they'd done. And it's a legitimate issue. My comment was used not only as a web article, but also as a whole page in Marketing Week . If I’m honest, I just wanted to get paid, but at no point did Mark offer this as an option. He did however concede that this is an odd situation.

Who do your comments belong to? Are they yours, or a web operative's? If you post something on my site, am I allowed to take control of it? Does anyone know of the legality of this? I complained and my comment has been taken down. Not much of a shock there, I guess, but it's still mental. What happens next?

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Borders Crossing into Night

After a pleasant chat on BBC Radio Scotland, I found myself in the luxurious position of an afternoon off in the centre of London. Somewhere on Great Portland Street I paused and wondered exactly how I would fill my time, which attractions I’d visit, which exhibition to go and see. I plumped for the Photographers’ Gallery, only to find it closed on a Monday. Instead of hitting the bars and reading, which would be my default position in usual circumstances, I remembered that Borders were having a closing down sale and set off for their Oxford Street branch.

The first Borders I ever visited was in Glasgow, a huge and beautiful shop set in an old library or some such other municipal building. It was light and breezy, and had that effortless preppy chic that all the best American stores possess. It looked like the future to me, all those floors, all those books. It was the first time I'd come across Life: A User’s Manual too. I remember writing down the author’s name and reminding myself to order copies of his books for the Dillons store I worked at in Birmingham.

When I moved to London early the next year, I used to wander the shelves of their Oxford Street branch for inspiration, and more than a few times to use their bathroom. It was a good focal point, a landmark, and a place to imagine you’d find an attractive girl who’d see you browsing the novels of Bulgakov and perhaps invite you to discuss them over a glass of wine at a Soho bar. Walking through the doors yesterday, however, put paid to any romantic notions: they were playing Kings of Leon; it should have been the soundtrack to Requiem for a Dream.

The place was a gigantic upended library, a shop shook up like a snow globe. Bargain hunters with the fixed gazes of porn stars flicked through the racks of cds, picked up books and dropped them wherever they fancied Where once the books tessellated at the front of store, they were drunken and haphazardly slung; the stickers on their jackets redundant, the new books uneasy next to the ones parachuted in from other stores in the hope of getting rid.

On the first floor, it was even worse; a ghost ship of a fiction section presided over by two red-shirted Borders employees who looked with terse venom at anyone who dared come near them. Mostly they were asked one of two questions: “Why?” And “Can you tell if you’ve got a book in stock?” To the former they gave a brief précis of the whole sorry debacle, to the latter they just shrugged their shoulders and gave a rueful smile. Talk about twisting the fucking knife.

I spent a thoroughly depressing hour in the store, an hour picking books up and putting them down, an hour wondering what the hell just happened. This was supposed to be the future, wasn’t it? A shiny new one, not some dystopia where books were left on abandoned trolleys, Marie Celeste like, as though everyone just abandoned ship once the announcement to close was made.

I took my purchases and joined the queue. There were more till staff than I’d seen in recent visits. When a cashier became available, they would wave their arms to attract the next punter, something I’d last seen at the Bruce Springsteen show at Hyde Park. Not waving, but drowning.

The woman took my books and I said how sad it was. “How do you think we feel?” she replied. I said I felt for all of them, and I do. In an afternoon when I’d banged on about the role of publishers in the digital age, and about twitter and blogging and match.com and all kinds of other bullshit, I wondered if any of that mattered at all if bookshops were simply left to fester, to become laughably kitsch. In ten short years, Borders, for all its innovation, for all its coffee and range, and dvds, and three-for-twos has seen the future taken from it. And I want it back.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Font of all evil

Last week I picked up a copy of the new David Szalay novel, which I'm reviewing later this month. It's a quite different beast to his debut, London & The South East. Set in the testosterone and cigarette saturated sales-halls of the capital, it was a deft and utterly believable novel let down by a weak last third. Nonetheless, it seemed the novel of someone to watch keenly - so it's a real shame that just thirty pages into it I can't stand it.

It's not that I don't like the writing or the plot. On the contrary, everything is shaping up nicely; a dual narrative exploring one man's changing attitudes to the Communist world around him, his relationship with his best friend that is not quite as strong as it once was, a patient he is treating for total amnesia. All tautly written, all strong material. The problem is that half of the thing is written in Courier. And I hate that font. I fucking hate it.

There is no excuse for writing in Courier New. It's ugly and bruising, a bully of a typeface. It's also got a touch of arrogance about it, a swagger from its lineage: it positively growls, look at me I'm like a Remington typewriter, you know like fucking Hemingway used to use. It's nasty and there is simply no excuse for it.

In fairness to Szalay, I think he's trying to suggest that we're reading a typewritten journal. But since when do we need a special typographic reminder to let readers know how the document would have originally looked? If that was in any way necessary then Richardson's Clarissa and every other epistolry novel would have to written in some kind of handwriting style just in case we dumb readers couldn't get the concept.

Why Szalay has decided to butcher his novel in such a perverse way, I don't know. All I do know is that if I'd flicked through The Innocent at a bookshop, I'd have put it down like a flaming turd. Without a word read either, all because of an unnecessary stylistic tic. And while I'm enjoying what I've read so far, I can't help but feel that Szalay's going to have to take some staggeringly good literary wickets to get past the swathes of that clunky, typewriter-mimicking font.

Friday, 17 July 2009


This is the first post. It is informative.

I will be on BBC Radio Scotland on Monday 21 July, talking about books and Twitter. It starts at 1.15. Listen here .

I will be reading a new short story on 4 August at WordPLAY. Details here.