Friday, 29 November 2013

Books of the Year 2013












It’s been a year of reading in splurges and jags – unsurprising, probably, in a year otherwise occupied with the birth of my first child and writing a new collection of short stories. I’ve probably also read proportionally fewer new books this year than in any previous year: there has been some glorious raiding of the shelves, including The Leopard by Lampedusa, which is still kicking around in my head months after reading as well as collection of Joseph Roth’s journalism, On the End of the World.

All of this has made me feel somewhat removed from this year’s fiction, much of which has not stuck as fast as I would have hoped.  All That Is, by James Salter felt at the time like it should be the apex of the year, but weirdly now feels like a very good meal one has eaten: difficult to remember in detail, despite the few exquisite memories. The Collected Stories, however, do feel like the real thing. A resonant and shimmering collection, one that feels more lasting than this novel.
In terms of novels, the best were uncompromising and unusual, marked by a sense of playing a different game to others. Eimar MacBride’s debut A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (Galley Beggar Press) has to be the book of the year, for its originality, its refusal to compromise and its wholesale re-invention of the tired coming-of-age novel. I have rarely felt as passionate about a debut as I do about this novel, rarely has a book hinted so darkly at a fresh, inventive future for fiction.
David Peace’s Red or Dead (Faber & Faber) was not the book I had expected. When I had first heard about Peace taking on the life of Liverpool manager and icon Bill Shankly, I expected a companion volume to The Damned Utd; all seething hurt and seventies paranoia. But the genius – and I do think this is a work worthy of the word – of Red or Dead was to ignore that. To present a life without thought for expectation but aligned to artistic necessity. This is a novel that feels closer to conceptual art than mainstream literary fiction, and is all the better for it. A much longer piece on it can be found here.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Man in Love (Harvill Secker) was another book that sears itself into your consciousness, and frankly there’s no one else I’d rather read right now. A Death in the Family, the first book in the My Struggle sequence, was excellent, but this novel goes way beyond in complexity and fictional art (You can read my Observer review here). I found a similar excitement in Javier Marias’s The Infatuations (Hamish Hamilton), a spiralling and dizzying novel of lies and loves and death and life. It has led me back to his books, and I am already hooked on his intelligence and craft.
Mention must also be made of Zadie Smith's The Embassy of Cambodia - a short story that suggests the mixed but always interesting NW could prove to be her transitional work. This is peerless, near-faultless writing, perfectly in control of its material. For the space of sixty or so pages I was lost in Fatou's halfway existence, one foot in the past, the other in the future. I can't praise it highly enough. 
Three of the books that I loved this year also happened to be by friends. This should not put you off. Nikesh Shukla’s The Time Machine (Galley Beggar Press) is the best thing he has written, perfectly showcasing his ability to find humour in the dark and warmth in the chill. (it’s only a quid, and some of the money goes to charity, so do buy it). Lee Rourke’s new novel, Vulgar Things (4th Estate), is out next year and I was lucky enough to read an early draft. It is superb: challenging and unusual, strangely beautiful yet maddeningly unnerving. Even for Gavin James Bower, his book Claude Cahun: The Soldier with no Name  (Zero Books) is short, but his depiction of this obscure yet fascinating artist is vivid and arresting.
In non-fiction, Philip Davis’s Reading and the Reader (OUP) was wildly inspirational, and essential for anyone interested in the acts of reading and writing. I found myself going back to books I loved reading sentences in a new light, perhaps the way you would after reading a good biography of a band and listening to their records all over again. It also made me hate Wordsworth less, which a quiet triumph all of its own. Sebald’s essays, A Place in The Country (Hamish Hamilton), are a joy as you’d expect. Another friend, William Atkins, allowed me to read an early draft of his book The Moor: The Landscape That Makes Britain (Faber & Faber). It will be one of the most celebrated and well-reviewed books of 2014.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Writing and the Sound of Silence - a Playlist


Everything I’ve ever published has been written in near silence. And if it were possible, I would prefer absolute silence. Just the keystrokes and movements across the mouse-mat audible. No drills – I can hear one now, pummelling the old playground, ripping out concrete flags and metal joists – no cars slowing and speeding over traffic calming measures, no screams from the nearby schoolyard. No music either. No trance from open car windows, no gospel from the church, no classic rock from a builder’s radio. These especially. Above all, no music.
This was not always the case. In my mid-twenties I wrote a novel while listening to Where You Been by Dinosaur Jnr on constant repeat. Over and over, night after night, day after day. When the resultant novel was a mess, I decided then: no music. Concentration. Rhythm. Solitude. No music at all. It’s a decision, and now a routine, which has affected my relationship with music. If there was once a self-curated soundtrack to my life, populated by favourite bands and brand new sounds; now it’s more a confusingly eclectic pub jukebox: out of my control, and mainly on in the background.
I don’t think this is a unique experience. There is, I’m sure, a difference between the way the youthful listen to records – the way they consume them (in the sense of devour) – and those who have come to be less interested in how that consumption defines us. There is a very specific line crossed when you no longer sniff the vinyl on the bus home after buying a record (as Morrissey once put it), but just enjoy listening to music when and where you like.
I thought about this a lot while writing If This is Home. But until recently I hadn’t realised how much of that had seeped into the fabric of the novel. There is music everywhere, music at every stage – whether explicitly mentioned or not. Music is the vehicle of dreams back in 1990s England. In New York it is a link to the past and an idea of the future. In Las Vegas it is memories of better times – and also confrontation.
The opening scene of the book has Mark, the central character, watch an altercation between two groups of men, one young one old. Mark cannot hear the music that the young men are loudly playing on a ghetto blaster, but I knew it was always The Real Slim Shady by Eminem. The kind of song that was just loud and obnoxious enough, and male enough, to be provocative. Las Vegas was about music and I invented an anecdote around Sammy Davis Jnr’s Candy Man song (which is even creepier than the version in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). And as life is slowly unravels for Mark, a Vegas radio station plays Mariachi band music, imploring Mark to believe in the word of the trumpet.
These were accidents, which they weren’t in the sections which concentrate on Bethany Wilder in 1990. Here the music selected itself. Especially Run, Run, Run, by the Velvet Underground, which is a kind of unofficial anthem for the novel. But also The Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie… that New York sound was always going to inspire a longing to escape to the Bowery. But these dreams of leaving to go to New York, I knew, would not come fully formed. The New York escapist dream was more likely to have its genesis in Simon and Garfunkel and Bob Dylan than anything else. Radio was always important then, but perhaps not as much as your parents’ record collection.
But a soundtrack to anything fails if it just accounts for the records you like, that are obvious. While Bethany is having her hair done at a salon before she is, against her better judgement, to be crowned Carnival Queen, the local radio is playing Sacrifice by Elton John. To her it is everything that is wrong with the town in which she lives, and the country in which she is stuck. Listening to it now, I can take her point. I won’t feel upset if you skip it.
Music changes when the narrative briefly stops in New York. The theme to Somewhere in Time – I love a time travel romcom – fitted in because the solo piano works well with Mark’s increasing isolation. The next five songs on the playlist are the ones chosen by his best friend O’Neil on the first time they meet – “old country songs and rockabilly as well as some fading metal acts.” Do not skip the Poison track, it is immense.
The final tracks are about the inevitable return home for Mark – and Joni Mitchell, who has been haunting the book a little, is finally mentioned. Fugazi are also dropped in, perhaps in the way I would have done when I was 16, as are forgotten dreampop innovators The Telescopes – a local-ish band who briefly achieved a small level of fame in the late 1980s and early 90s. Reacquainting myself with them was a pleasure – though there is little pleasure derived from it for Mark.
Unconsciously, the way Mark shies away from music, the way he doesn’t react one way or the other to the sound of t.A.T.u, is a way to show how he has become stunted, how he has lost an understanding of joy. In the brilliant Un Coeur En Hiver, the reticent Stèphane is forced at a dinner table to offer his definition of music. Music is not art, he says, but dreams. And this is what I wanted to see through Mark, and through If This is Home : what it is like to finally stop believing in dreams.
 
 

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Fiction in the Post Factual World (or why I write novels)


My father retired early. A working life spent in the same job, at the same plant, ended in redundancy and a comfortable pension. He called it parole. He still does, a decade later; and a decade later we still celebrate it: his liberation. There is much to celebrate. Those ten years now belong to him, to us as a family: they are not mortgaged to a corporation, nor have they been lived with a sense of time being wasted. That is something worth marking.

For the first few years, the celebrations were held in Chester, beginning with drinks at my brother’s small apartment and then dinner at an Italian restaurant. Our family are creatures of habit; we stick to a routine if it works. So for as long as my brother lived there, we would have a toast and as dusk fell over the trainlines, walk up the road to the restaurant .
The place was run by an Italian couple – Luigi and Sophia, good hosts both – and they chattered in thick, pleasing Italian accents as we waited for a table or ordered drinks. The exposed brick walls had black-and-white pictures of famous Italians nailed to them, and fairy lights gave the place a holiday trattoria ambiance. We always had a good evening. Wine and pasta. Operatic arias sang as desert was brought. The inevitable hen-do tables.
Then my brother moved from Chester to London, and the parole celebrations had to find a new home. We decided on renting an apartment in York. I planned an itinerary and found a similar sounding Italian restaurant. After eating, my brother told us the following story:
The previous week, he'd been back to visit friends in Chester. On the Saturday morning, he'd been in the town centre and had seen two people he thought he recognised. After a moment, he realised who it was: Luigi and Sophia from the restaurant. They looked different out of their dress clothes, but even in jeans and jumpers it was clear who they were. My brother, in a moment of nostalgia, approached, intent on thanking them for hosting the parole dinners for all those years, and expressing his disappointment that we would not be there the following weekend.
He was behind them when he heard their accents. Not the beautiful Italian accents, but pronounced northern ones.
‘I tell you what, love,’ the woman said. ‘I’ll see you in Marks and Sparks.’
The woman wandered off; then the man shouted back.
‘Get me a sandwich will you? Cheese and pickle.’
She smiled back – the exact same smile she gave when you ask for another drink when she’d already taken your order. My brother turned away. There was nothing to say.
‘What was I going to say after hearing that?’ he asked.
*
This is the kind of story I like: something small, a tiny exhumation from daily life, transformed in its telling to something beyond the humdrum. I suspect it might not be true. I don’t even know whether the names are correct. I can’t even quite remember how authentically Italian their accents were. It has a kind of authenticity to it, though. A feeling of two lives caught in a narrative, one now so ingrained it is impossible to escape. I like the idea of this couple pretending every night that they are Italian immigrants, the high-wire nature of it. What would happen if an Italian speaker came in one night? Would they have enough Italian to get by? And how does it feel, after after another night’s service, to put away the accents along with the bow tie and elegant dress? Why did they start the charade - and do they wish they could, just for once, be themselves?

It is the kind of narrative loop we’re all bound by to a greater or lesser extent. The kind of idea that I was trying to explore in If This is Home – indeed all of my fiction – characters who are caught between who they think they are and who they wish they were, people trapped in narratives of their own construction, men and women metastasized by their own self-deceptions.

The tension between public and private is one of the bedrocks of literature. Not as involving as love, not as divisive as war, but right down there, right at the nub of existence. And while this tension was once the preserve of the powerful – to have any tension, a character’s public persona has to have something to lose – it is now one of the central questions of all of our lives: what is public and what is private? Or to put it another way: what is real and what is invented?
This is what I wanted to explore in If This is Home: how the constant repetition of a falsehood can make something feel real; how a false persona can become more authentic than the one you actually live. This is how the central character, Mark Wilkinson, describes the process of bringing his new identity, Joe Novak, into being:
I realised, as I added to the information over the months, that the humdrum was what gave a life quality, what gave it the ring of authenticity. So Joe’s first proper girlfriend, Katie, was a mousy girl who had decided that their relationship could not survive the distance of university. He sometimes missed her, but there were no hard feelings. She had fallen pregnant in her final year of college and was married with a son. They did not speak anymore.

Joe was present at no cataclysmic events. He had been close to the Wall when it fell, but no closer than a million others. He’d stood next to Joey Ramone in a pub toilet in West London. He had once randomly come face to face with President Clinton while jogging in Central Park. Small tales of almost and nearly. The kind of stories we tell each other all of the time. I read them back, these inventions, and slowly they began to persuade. This was the truth.

We live in an era of extreme personal reinvention. What Mark is describing is simply a more holistic sense of the identities we present online and in life. The invention of Joe Novak is no different to creating a Twitter handle or Facebook profile. We build profiles, but we are actually creating characters, creating ourselves anew. And with this comes pure fiction, pure escapism from reality. And we have become inured to it. Day after day, we wade through so many people’s counter-lives, so many people's projections of themselves it’s a surprise we need fiction at all. Who needs fiction when everything is unreal in the first place? When other people’s lives, and indeed the news, are presented like novels, and can be read as such?
The answer should be no one. Yet writers are in surplus. There have never been as many writers as there are at this moment in human history. Stories are in surplus too. Culled from everywhere, culled from our new sense of self-curation.  The rise of self-publishing is not just down to methods of distribution and eReading, but also down to people understanding how and when to fictionalise their own lives using prose. They are exercising fictive muscles with every Tweet or post. We live in a post-factual world; where rumour, dissent, harangue, terror, self-interest, surveys and vainglory are equally weighted. Consensus is impossible. Facts, unarguable facts, are in short supply.
So what does this mean for the writer of fiction? Does this mean we need to embrace the strange semi-fictionalised world of the world outside of us? Or should we be looking to create narratives that offer succour, that give us clear lines and threads we can cling to? I fall, as writer, into that first proposition (while as a reader I enjoy both camps, a reader being necessarily more pluralistic than a writer). I use the word narrative often to describe my characters and situations: they only become ‘stories’ in the telling. But what they live, what they experience, is a series of interlinked narratives: much as we do in life.

Writing If This is Home I wanted to explore as many narrative techniques as possible – crime, coming of age, romance, homecoming, even computer game narratives – while the characters just wandered on, almost regardless of what was going on around them. I could have made, for example,  If This is Home almost a straight mystery narrative. It might have worked that way, and perhaps would have sold more copies had I done so. But to me, the story is more than the mystery: it is about how we inhabit – an important word here – our own narratives. I therefore wanted to reflect that with cuts across time and across identities. So If This is Home has a first-person narrative and a third-person narrative; one follows Mark in real time in 2003; while the third person follows his girlfriend Bethany Wilder in 1990. This is the first part of the Bethany chapters:
In moments of crisis, Bethany Wilder always thinks of America. Or more accurately, she thinks of New York City. It is just past midnight and she is lying in the bath, smoking a cigarette, imagining its streets and buildings, the sights and sidewalks. Open in her hand is a guidebook that lives permanently in the bathroom and has become bloated and warped from the damp. Whenever she turns a page, the spine cracks and crumples. She’s read the book so many times she knows its words as surely as song lyrics.

The first sentence is her favourite: New York City is a metropolis of unimaginable contrasts; a haphazard, beautiful, maddening construction that cannot help but entrance even the most jaded of travellers. In her edition there is a pencil annotation alongside the words haphazard, beautiful, maddening that reads Just like you. Usually those smudgy letters give her a small kick of pleasure; but now she avoids even glancing at the looping script. She doesn’t want to be reminded. Not tonight.

This was the first bit of If This is Home I wrote; and it started out very differently. It was more overt, more obviously about the narratives to which she inhabits. Only the handwriting on the guidebook survives from that first draft. But in revising it, I got an idea of Bethany through the narratives surrounding her. Does she believe in them, the narratives she is told by others, the narratives she has spun from listening to music and hanging around with her friends? How convincing are these narratives, how immersive?
And this is why novels retain a unique power, even in the face of the novelistic public persona. A novel allows you to see that other side, it strips away the imploring façade: this is how I see myself, please see me in the same way. The novel allows us a free pass into the dichotomy between a character’s self-hood and others’ perceptions or understanding of that character. We can see them from the inside out and still not be certain which iteration is the truth.
This is what I take from fiction, from the books I read and the authors I love: a view of human experience in all its fictive and experiential flux. The novel is a personal confession; it speaks directly to the reader. No other art form allows such radical narrative exchange between creator and consumer; and no other art form asks so much of a consumer. You sit in communion with a great writer’s book and you can be transported, readjusted, made to see the world in a wholly different way, experience images and sentences of such beauty it can make you shiver physically and psychically. And it’s just your experience; no one else can ever see what you have seen. In a world in a battle between public and private, reading a novel is the last bastion of the private: something that is yours and yours alone.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Booker Longlist predictions - 2013

It's been over a year since I last wrote anything on this blog, but I am determined to change that. So here we are: a small post on the titles I think might make it onto the longlist. That said, I've been quite behind the times of late - and I feel that there are loads of smaller books that deserve a place on here, but I've just not come across them as yet. Anyway, here's the list: not necessarily what my choices would be, but what I think they may go for:

1. Nadeem Aslam – Blind Man’s Garden
2. Jenn Ashworth – The Friday Gospels
3. Margaret Atwood - MaddAddam
4. Justin Cartwright – Lion Heart
5. JM Coetzee – The Childhood of Jesus
6. Jim Crace - Harvest
7. Richard House –The Kills
8. Clare Messud – The Woman Upstairs
9. David Peace – Red or Dead
10. James Scudamore – Wreaking
11. Taiye Selasi – Ghana Must Go
12. Rupert Thompson – Secrecy
13. Evie Wyld – All the Birds, Singing

Okay, not massively inspiring, I know. But some gems in there. If there are any I've missed that you think should be on there, do let me know. I'd like some pointers...