After 12 months of hard work, pep-talks, crisis meetings and celebratory hamburgers, I can now — with absolute confidence — confirm that 2014 has seen my re-emergence as a fully fledged reader. I’m once again imbued with passion at the sight of the written word, and once again ready to shower a loving audience with literary recommendations. That foggy period in which I traded reading by torchlight for dancing by strobelight; ‘to be read’ piles for ‘questionable clothing’ styles; bent book spines for late book fines? That’s all over. For reals.
Now I’m just a boy with a reading list, hoping he can show you something you’ve not seen before.
Leaving the Atocha Station — Ben Lerner
You know when you pick up a book, read the first page, and then stop — gleefully, almost conspiratorially — because you know that you’ve found something that you’re going to adore? Leaving the Atocha Station was possibly one of two books to do that to me this year. From the first paragraph, I could see that this was going to be more than a simply enjoyable excursion — the romantic in me saw it as a kind of roadmap. Here was a style of writing to play with, a lifestyle to I could coyly aspire to, a personal journey to mimic.
Leaving the Atocha Station is about a young poet that goes to Madrid to learn Spanish and work on an epic poem, and spends most of his time in Madrid not working on an epic poem. The entirety of the book just feels so honest and well developed:
I wanted to know what she had been crying about and I managed to communicate that desire mainly by repeating the words for “fire” and “before.” She paused for a long moment and then began to speak; something about a home, but whether she meant a house- hold or the literal structure, I couldn’t tell; I heard the names of streets and months; a list of things I thought were books or songs; hard times or hard weather, epoch, uncle, change, an analogy involving summer, something about buying and/or crashing a red car. I formed several possible stories out of her speech, formed them at once, so it was less like I failed to understand than that I understood in chords, understood in a plurality of worlds.
…that I’ve found any excuse to recommend the book to anyone with even a passing interest in literature.
Nothing major happens within the novel, and the main character is a little shitty, and the tone can come off a little intellectual, but these were all elements that drew me in. The book blurs fiction and non-fiction so finely that you sometimes feel like you’re reading a diary, giving you intimacy without coupling it with the cheesy veneer of writing that is ‘confessional’.
Lerner’s follow-up book also came out this year, 10:04, but I didn’t love it as much. Maybe it’s because the issues that he’s writing about now are slightly more alien to me — no longer about a young twenty something stumbling through life, and more about a young(ish) thirty-something stumbling through life — or maybe it’s because I was expecting too much from the author of the book that blew me away. Either way, the chances are that you’ve not read anything by this guy. Fix that.
Stoner — John Williams
William Stoner enters the University of Missouri at nineteen to study agriculture. Later, he becomes a teacher. His life is quiet, and after his death his colleagues remember him rarely.
Yet with truthfulness, compassion and intense power, this novel uncovers a story of universal value. Stoner tells of the conflicts, defeats and victories of the human race that pass unrecorded by history, and reclaims the significance of an individual life.
I loved Stoner. The book was completely ignored when it was first published, and has since been latched onto as a classic that never was — for very good reason. It’s a novel that drags you effortlessly into its slow and meditative rhythm, leaving you noticeably altered once you surface from its pages: life suddenly seems so hectic, garish, and inconsiderate in comparison to the tranquil observations of the narrator and the characters he interacts with.
I often think that the power of a novel comes from the lasting memories that the characters inside it leave you with. I still find myself thinking from time to time about Himself’s ability in the ‘Infinite Jest’ to flag down taxis in seemingly empty streets, or about Lyle, the monk who lives in the main character’s tennis academy, who survives by licking the sweat from the bodies of the willing young tennis prodigies. ‘Stoner’ left me with some similarly lasting images — of the casually indifferent daughter’s constant mantra towards her problems, that ‘it doesn’t matter’; of the wife’s referral to everything in the third person; and of Stoner’s awkward hesitancy as he grasps for the one bit of passion that life has reserved for him.
The style is quite wordy, and the pace is quite slow — you even could comfortably say that nothing exciting happens throughout the novel — but if you enjoy a gripping and atmospheric world, I couldn’t recommend Stoner highly enough.
American Pastoral — Philip Roth
I can’t believe that 2014 was the first year that I read a Philip Roth. It’s not exactly controversial to say this — I mean the guy has won two Pulitzer Prizes — but he writes beautifully. Every sentence he writes feels like it was perfectly crafted. Every time I’d sit down to read a Roth, I felt like I was learning something. About character creation, about switching narrative voices, about writing as a whole. About myself.
I could’ve chosen the very funny Portnoy’s Complaint to put in here, which is basically a novel-length monologue delivered to a therapist about sex, love and family — still shocking and engaging nearly 50 years after its initial publication — but I’ll go for the deeper piece: American Pastoral.
The narrator at the start of the book is exactly the voice that I try and produce when I write. He’s a 60 something year-old writer, warm but somewhat unemotional, bemused yet also amusing. If American Pastoral has taught (and will continue to teach) me anything, it’s that beautiful writing is borne out of beautiful grammar. I love the way that Roth plays with sentence length, drawing you in with a series of short, sharp, almost stabbing phrases, before slowing everything down into a more composed and ultimately detached tone — one in which the narrator or protagonist’s innermost turmoil can spill forwards.
I’m completely aware that my playing around with grammar is nowhere near as refined as Philip Roth’s, so I’ll pull out one of my favourite pieces of description in the novel:
The father was no more than five seven or eight — a spidery man even more agitated than the father whose anxieties were shaping my own. Mr. Levov was one of those slum-reared Jewish fathers whose rough-hewn, undereducated perspective goaded a whole generation of striving, college educated Jewish sons: a father for whom everything is an unshakeable duty, for whom there is a right way and a wrong way and nothing in between, a father whose compound of ambitions, biases, and beliefs is so unruffled by careful thinking that he isn’t as easy to escape from as he seems. Limited men with limitless energy; men quick to be friendly and quick to be fed up; men for whom the most serious thing in life is to keep going despite everything. And we were their sons. It was our job to love them.
On top of all of the ‘raging and elegiac’ prose (The Guardian), American Pastoral is a truly heart-wrenching story. It tells the story of the man who had everything, and for whom everything made sense, until an act of extraordinary violence blew it all away. It’s really really fucking good. You should read it.
One Hundred Years of Solitude — Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Right — hands in the air. Again? Yes, again. Jeez. Let me get this confession out before you start jumping down my throat, brian. Brain. Whatever.
2014 was also the first time that I read a Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And, sadly, I’ll admit that the only reason that I had a burning desire to do so was because I heard that he’d died. Part of me finished One Hundred Years of Solitude and felt like it was a great shame that I’d not been able to celebrate Marquez’s work whilst he’d been alive, but the majority of me disagreed. One of art’s many great strengths is that once something is released, it become timeless — and that every single time that you engage with it, by reading / visiting / listening to it, the art becomes as fresh and relevant as the day it was first produced.
That’s how I feel about this book. There’s no need for posthumous revisions — One Hundred Years of Solitude is a masterpiece.
The story spans a century in a small town, Macondo, following a family whose personal journey echoes the town’s growth from humble beginnings to industrialised middles to serene ends. I know I’m late to the party, but the narrative is so unlike anything I’d read before — the way Marquez swoops through the plot can be dizzying at times, with characters entering, reproducing and dying within one page — that the characters and set-pieces have stayed with me since I finished it. The book is chock full of beautifully magical moments: a scene in which an angelic beauty is whisked away into the heavens; the descent of the matriarch of the family from full-blooded leader to the size of a new-born; the obsessive manufacturing and melting of golden fishes by the failed revolutionary. All of it ties together as a worthy champion of the label ‘magical realism’.
It’s awesome. Most definitely the kind of novel to lose yourself in over a drab winter period.
The Love Affairs of Nathanial P. — Adelle Waldman
‘Mark my words: this book will inspire laughter, chills of recognition and flights into lesbianism’ — Lena Dunham
In about September I had this sense that everything I read was kinda similar. Written by men, for men, featuring inherently male insecurities — ‘I’m worried that people won’t fuck me once I’m bald’, ‘I’m attracted to women that look like my mother in the morning’, ‘I haven’t seen my cat for three days and now I’m stuck at the bottom of this well’ — so, naturally, I felt that I had to shake something up. I had to tap into a different kind of consciousness if I was ever to break away from the literary echo chamber that I’d willingly enclosed myself in.
I read a few different kinds pieces to try and set things straight. I got into Banana Yoshimoto, reading Kitchen and N.P., and liked the prose that was full of western references, but written with a distinct bluntness that came from being Japanese. I read the book which earned the Pulitzer Prize for a woman for the first time — Edith Wharton’s brilliantly reserved tale about New York families in the late 19th Century, The Age of Innocence. And, in keeping with the South American vibe, I had a great time reading my first Isabel Allende. But nothing struck me as much as the one that Lena Dunham (of HBO’s ‘Girls’ fame) assured me would turn me into a lesbian.
Reading something evidently intended to confirm a certain female experience opened me up to some of the blatant inadequacies championed by ‘normal’ and ‘successful’ men. That level of indifference and contempt hidden behind rationalisation — I now see it in many men, and I now see it in myself. That’s the point of art, right? To be faced with The Truth?
“Look, Juliet, it was great to see you. And you do look great. But I’ve really got to go.”
Juliet’s head jerked back. She seemed almost to wince. Nate could see — it was obvious — that she took his words as a rejection. Immediately, he was sorry. He saw her suddenly not as an adversary but as a vulnerable, unhappy young — youngish — woman. He wanted to do something for her, something earnest and truthful and kind.
“You’re an asshole,” she said before he had the chance.
She looked at him for a fraction of a second and then turned away, began walking quickly toward the river and the adjacent strip of restaurants and bars. Nate nearly called after her. He wanted to try, at least, to put things on a better footing. But what would he say? And there was no time.
Aside from teaching certain bloggers about how to be an all round better man, the book is funny, honest, engaging. And convincing. Waldman cites George Eliot’s Middlemarch as the book that taught her to write deep and relatable characters, and the results are clear — you find yourself empathising with Nate, the ‘rising star with a lucrative book deal and the attentions of many desirable women’, even though you’re given opportunity after opportunity to see how much of a prick he is.
Much like Leaving the Atocha Station, Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathanial P., is primarily concerned with character, not plot. That makes it a challenge for some — and an affirmation for others. I loved it, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t too.
So, erm. Yeah. That was the best stuff I read this year.
Many thanks. Or something