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.