Monday, 18 January 2016

Fiction from 2015

Thoughts on writing, reading, and a woman seen through a window. And six cracking books read in 2015

I’ve been meaning to write about my best reads of 2015, but somehow it just hasn’t felt like the end of a year. It’s been a strange winter so far in New York City. After a mild fall, December was almost tropical; on Christmas Eve I walked home from work through Central Park in a temperature of 72 deg F, and I was too hot. Still, three weeks into the new year, it’s getting colder; last night we even had a flurry that whitened the rooves of the cars.  

This morning I walked from Third and 41st to Macy’s, enjoying the clear, high bright skies of a New York winter. The sun’s rays bounced off the modern glass buildings onto the brick facings of older facades opposite and created shimmering patterns so that I had the feeling of walking through an enormous aquarium.

Some way down Park Avenue I passed an office or shopfront that was unoccupied. Just behind the window, marooned in the empty space, stood a young woman in shirtsleeves, a strange contrast to the bundled-up walkers who passed just inches from her in the street, in parkas, gloves and earmuffs. The sun reflected off the buildings opposite lanced through the plate-glass window and made her face glow with a soft, diffused light. I suppose she was in her late 20s or early 30s, pretty in her own way, with a living face, mobile mouth, a large mole and limpid grey eyes. One hand held a cellphone; the other was clapped to her cheek and her face was screwed up with concern. Her lips moved. I could not hear her, but fancied I could. (That’s the conceit of the writer, isn’t it.) Some of the different things she could have been saying:

“Yes, I can make the rent. Tuesday. Tomorrow. I will bring it tomorrow.”
“But the biopsy was clear, wasn’t it, Mom?”
“I can’t do Thursday. You got a slot Friday?”
“No. No, we need a station wagon. Will you listen to me?”
“When do I get the results?”
“Yes, it’s yours. Don’t shit me. I know it’s yours. What? Yes, I’m late by a week.”

I walked another three blocks and swung right into 34th, the mass of the Empire State shining above me in the morning light. As I did so, I stopped thinking about the socks I planned to buy at Macy’s and thought about the stories I could make from a conversation I did not hear. Then I thought about fiction. Why do we write it, and why the hell do we expect readers to suspend disbelief?  

This being too hard for a cold morning in 34th St., I moved instead to thinking about the fiction I’d read this year.

The books discussed below were amongst my high points of 2015. There are several that aren’t there because I’ve already written about them. They include Julian Gray’s Interrogating Ellie, an extraordinary fact-based novel set in wartime Austria, which I described in this blog earlier this year (A Story of Survival in Nazi Europe, March 16 2015). They also include Daniel Clausen’s The Ghosts of Nagasaki and Dana Mazur’s Almaty-Transit, both highly original books that I reviewed here in the summer (Magic, or realism?, July 3 2015). Also omitted is Philip Allingham’s lovely Cheapjack – again, already covered in these pages (Screw the Donah’s Groinies, May 28 2015).  I’ve also left out a couple of books that were sequels. Last but not least, I’ve omitted anything that isn’t fiction as such, which means I’ve had to leave out Harry Whitewolf’s memorable poetry collection, New Beat Newbie – I’ll try and include it in a post on poets in the next few months.

That still leaves a number of remarkable books. It’s notable that none are from major publishers; they are from smallish independent presses, or by independent writers. I’ve included two that are not novels (Carly Berg’s strange and compulsive short-form fiction, and an intriguing short story by Luke F.B. Marsden). Three are English, two American, and one Romanian. All are worth your time.

The Single Feather  
Ruth F. Hunt
I struggled with this book at first and nearly put it aside. I am glad I didn’t. At first I was underwhelmed, but halfway through the book I was suddenly gripped by it. This is an unusual and humane story. 

Told in the first person, Ruth F. Hunt’s novel The Single Feather is set in the north of England. It begins with a young disabled woman, Rachel, escaping from a bungalow, being picked up by her mother outside and driven away as quickly as possible. Why was she being kept in the bungalow? Who were the people in it that she refers to as her guards? None of this is answered, at least for now; instead, we see Rachel beginning a new life, settled by her mother into a house that has been adapted for the disabled. From then on, the story revolves around Rachel’s efforts to make her life anew, mainly through an art group she joins in a local community centre.
It is the diversity of the people in that group, and their reactions to each other, that are the core of this book. Key to this is how they react to Rachel’s disability and that of two other people in the group who are also disabled. At the same time, we see that the rest of the group, as individuals, all have issues and challenges of their own that are not as obvious, but are also real. In particular, one of the least sympathetic turns out to have deep sadnesses in her own life that she can’t express.
The Single Feather has some challenges for the reader. Hunt begins with Rachel’s dramatic rescue from the bungalow, but we are not told until much later why she was held there, or why she was disabled. There are reasons for this, but it is irritating, and in general the pace of the book’s first half is too slow. At times there is too much detail. But then the art group start to plan a show; and that show, and its aftermath, starts to bring the characters to life. The show is followed by a bitter argument between the members over one of their number who is disabled and unwell, and the rights and wrongs of his dependence on benefits. This is so well done, and felt so true to life, that at one point I wanted to leave work early to get back to the book. In its final chapters, The Single Feather delivers a powerful message about perceptions of disability and mental health.
That would in itself be an achievement, but this book does more than that. In recent years many in Britain have felt that the poor, and those who claim benefits of any kind, are being demonized. One of the most powerful things about Hunt’s book, though she doesn’t major on it, is that it asks why. The people in the art group who attack others for being on benefits are not themselves wealthy or privileged. A food bank opens in the town and the locals express disapproval, saying that if people can queue up for food, then they’re capable of getting jobs. At one point, Rachel’s friend Kate asks whether these divisions are an accident; do those in power want to stir up such hatred, she asks? It’s a good question. All over the Western world the less fortunate are being told to blame their ills on those who are even less, rather than more, fortunate than they are. Why? Whose interest is served by these divisions? As a lawyer would put it, cui bono – who benefits?
We do, in the end, find out who Rachel’s captors in the bungalow were, and why she was disabled in the first place. Both are important, and we should have been told earlier. There are also places where this book could have been better-paced and more tightly edited. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter. Ruth F. Hunt’s book packs a serious punch in several areas; not least the way we treat those who are different, and the way our sympathies are manipulated. It also addresses, not only intolerance, but our perceptions of those we perceive as intolerant. Despite its flaws, The Single Feather was one of the reads of the year for me – a thoughtful and moving book for our time.

Coffee House Lies
Carly Berg
From a very English book to a very American one. Flash fiction – short, concise stories as little as one page, and rarely more than four or five – is a form that has emerged with digital publishing. Carly Berg must be one its best exponents. She’s written a guidebook called Writing Flash Fiction that contains some excellent advice on writing in general. After reading it, I wanted to see whether she was any good herself. Having now read Coffee House Lies, I can report that she is, very.
These stories all, in some way, reflect the human condition. They can be bizarrely funny, as in Rock, Paper, Scissors – betrayal comes to light in a hair salon, and is punished, with scissors. Or Saint Jude, about a woman whose poor judgement has thrown her on the mercy of the Church: “They gave an ounce of charity with a pound of moralizing, which made her so mad that one day she came home with the church’s most sacred holy relic in her brassiere.” Other stories are indirect; for example, in Laid to Rest, a woman carefully tends the graves she has made of people who are still alive – the graves are for her relationships with them. My favourites: Everyone Wants to Steal My Man, a masterpiece of revelation; Paris Blue, in which a maid in the Deep South takes elegant revenge on an awful mistress; and Loss of Habitat, a curious story about people and animals and how their fates can be oddly similar.
Part of Berg’s secret is craftsmanship. Her chapter on writing skills in Writing Flash Fiction reveals how aware she is of what makes a good story: avoid exposition, sloppy dialogue, etc. (she gives examples). All that is put into practice here, to good effect. Not one of these stories has an ounce of spare fat. She also has a real feel for language. The last part of Coffee House Lies has a number of very short pieces, sometimes just a few lines; this is from Breathing Underwater:
The family danced beneath the Mississippi
Father and Mother slapped in pretty water rhythm,
Watershadow sister mimed the Mother.

... Mother-daughter swimslap dancers hardened to steamships,
windmill arms to waterwheels.
Hooted twin foghorns,
steamed off down the river.

Berg’s writing is very American. This didn’t bother me (I live in the US at the moment, anyway), but there’s the odd turn of phrase and cultural reference that might puzzle some people. Also, with so many stories in a book, there’s bound to be the odd misfire, and one or two are just too cryptic (I couldn’t figure out one called Triple Penis, Going to Hollywood).
But for every story that went over my head, there were two more that had me chuckling, or nodding in recognition. Coffee House Lies is really very good. It’s also a book for the way people read now – load it on your tablet, phone or phablet, and grab a sandwich and a story at lunch; or bite off one of these pieces to chew on the train or while waiting in a check-in line or a supermarket queue. These are snacks that satisfy.

The Right Place 
Emanuel Grigoras
To Romania next. Emanuel Grigoras’s The Right Place is a novel that revolves around the lives of five or six individuals, mostly youngish, single and working in Bucharest. They do not all know each other, and those who do, do not know each other for the duration of the book. But their lives intersect and they affect each other’s futures. They largely tell their stories themselves, in the first person – not a new idea for a novelist, but still unusual, and hard to do well. But the narratives are also linked by the presence, in the book, of someone called the Author, who has chosen them because he wishes to tell their stories.
Two of those stories are especially vivid. One is that of a young man, Stephen, who has been brutally beaten by his hard-drinking father up to the age of nine, and whose story the Author decides to tell because of the odd detachment and occasional violence that Stephen shows as an adult. The other is a successful young professional, Andrew, who has had casual sex with many women, and finds that he has AIDS. To say what finally happens to these two men would spoil the book, but their stories are compelling. The other characters tell more commonplace, but still readable, stories of love, sex and betrayal. However, it’s what Grigoras does with this plot device of the Author that makes this book so unusual.
It appears that the Author and his characters are both real, and that the Author’s mission is to speak for them. But does he want simply to depict their lives – or is he trying to manipulate them? If so, he fails. Over the course of the book, they move towards the way of life that will suit each one best – this, according to Grigoras, is the “right place” of the title. In fact he states in the book’s blurb that this is an “anti-bildungsroman” – which I take to mean that the characters are meant not to develop or change over the course of the book, but to find where they belong as they already are. Yet the Author seems to want to direct his characters, and seems frustrated when they do not act as he feels they should, and their lives do not shape up the way one might expect. Is The Right Place really about the arrogance of authorship? If so, it is quite a subversive novel.
There are a few problems with this book, good though it is. One is that the translation from Romanian is inconsistent. It’s mostly good, certainly good enough to tell the story, but now and then there are sentences that do not work (and are sometimes too long). It didn’t bother me much but some readers will find it distracting. Also, the format – a number of characters, each telling their own story in short segments – is technically very challenging for a writer. Grigoras does it well, but now and then I felt there were too many characters to follow, especially when a new one was introduced without preamble. There’s also the odd sloppy touch in the way the ebook file has been prepared. Again, this won’t bother everyone but it may irritate some readers.
In the end, though, I liked this book enough to feel that it was one of the highlights of the year. It’s not 100% clear what Grigoras is up to with the Author, but every reader will make up their own mind, and that’s as it should be. In any case, you can, if you wish, just read this as a story of six young adults in Bucharest and the way their lives intersect; it works at that level too. Read it, enjoy it, and if you find yourself thinking about it afterwards, so much the better.

Rupert Dreyfus
If The Right Place is subversive in one way, English writer Rupert Dreyfus’s novel Spark is in a more obvious sense. Dreyfus is also the author of a highly subversive and scatological short-story collection, The Rebel’s Sketchbook, which I also read and enjoyed in 2015. (I said in my review that it was one of the few books that made me laugh and vomit at the same time.) However, it’s Spark that makes it as one of my highlights of the year.

Its hero, Jake Miller, is a youngish professional and former computer hacker who moves to London to take up a job as an analyst at Dynasty Plc, a large bank. From the start, he’s not too keen on corporate life. Moreover the household he’s wound up living in is weird. His landlord, Vinnie Sloane, is a foul-mouthed posh git who makes his living from internet scams while ingesting unpleasant substances. Still, Jake sort of adjusts. Until he’s betrayed by a love interest. Then his hatred for Dynasty, Vinnie et al boils over. He decides to use his ancient IT skills to bring down the whole damn system.

Does he succeed? Read the book. It’s a fast-moving little thriller and is sometimes very funny. In particular, Vinnie Sloane is one of the great comic creations – the most modern of monsters. Nigerian prince with a cashflow problem? That’s Vinnie. A horny Thai maiden who needs a cash advance to join her online suitor in England? That’s Vinnie too. And life in Dynasty Plc: “We were going over the week’s figures together... [which] is like going over the instruction manual of a toaster while you repeatedly punch yourself in the face.”
Yet there are serious undertones to Spark, and it has a very contemporary feel. Jake goes speed dating, and winds up in a bar full of young professionals “gassing to each other in bullet points about how fantastic it is to be in the fast lane. ... Yes I am an achiever. Yes my life is perfect. Altogether now, folks: you are what you earn. You are what you earn. You are what you earn…“ Jake’s plot to screw the system works, in part, by using social media to leverage the fury of Generation Y-bother, the disaffected young who know they will never be able to afford a mortgage and that their student loans will hang round their necks until hell freezes over. Dreyfus is also very clear-eyed about technology. Computers created the modern world and they can also destroy it; it won’t bother them. “You can build a flat pack wardrobe with a hammer or you can break somebody’s leg with it,” says Jake. “The hammer really doesn’t care which.”
Spark isn’t perfect. A serious hole in the plot is the way Jake hacks his way to anarchy; we never hear much about that, and a bit more technical detail could have made this more credible. Dreyfus could have dredged up some nerd from the digital dark side who could have mapped this out for him. There’s also the odd bit of sloppy editing (grinded for ground, parameter for perimeter, passed when he meant past). Not fatal, but irritating, and a good proofread would have caught it.

But Spark transcends these faults. It’s a well-paced and funny thriller with some serious subversion at its core. It is also very timely. I first got involved in politics over 40 years ago, and I don’t know when I have detected more disaffection and cynicism than now. But books like this (and The Single Feather) give me hope. In the 1980s, at the height of Thatcher’s depredations, all we seemed to get from publishers was genteel novels of middle-class adultery; a reflection perhaps of who ran publishing, and who bought their expensive hardback books. In fact I stopped reading novels for years. But the digital revolution is blowing traditional publishers away. Of course, as Dreyfus's Jake says, technology is neutral; it doesn’t care. We get a lot of erotica, fantasy and stuff about vampires; some of it good, to be sure, but much of it really awful. But we also get timely satire like Spark.

The Mirrored Ocean
Luke F.D. Marsden
Like Dreyfus, Luke F.D. Marsden is a youngish English writer, but of a very different sort; contemplative, classical in style and connected to the natural world. The Mirrored Ocean is a short story told, in the first person, by a whale; a rather thoughtful whale that speculates on his surroundings and the meaning of the world above the surface. That sounds like either self-indulgent new-age mysticism or tiresome cute anthropomorphism. But Marsden manages to avoid both, albeit only just sometimes. The result is rather good.
We’re in the mind of a young male cachalot (sperm whale) as he dives for prey, crunches the odd octopus, and passes shoals of brightly-lit plankton in the deep ocean. Every now and then he goes to the surface to fill his lungs with air, as whales must, and wonders what is up there and what the moon and the stars are, and whether they mirror his world. “In these vast oceans, my home, which I understand so well, I have made it my purpose to come to know what happens in that world beyond the surface, that extends as far above it as the depths reach below it – perhaps further.”
Two things lift this story above the average. One is simply that it’s well-written; it’s a highly literate piece with simple but expressive prose. (The same is true of Marsden’s other short stories so far, The Isle of the Antella and The Celestines – both equally original and rewarding.) The other is that Marsden actually has tried to get inside the head of a whale. God knows how you do that, but the narrative has a strange ring of truth. Thus, after diving to a great depth, the whale encounters “a colossal brute of a squid ... Eat him or die. Your belly is sated? It matters not. Eat him or die.” He struggles with the squid but does eat him, and takes a simple pleasure in what he has done: “What a hunt! What food … what … life!” Marsden has said the story – with its two worlds, of the undersea and the air above – is an allegory of the difference between the conscious and the subconscious minds. This is represented by the whale’s instinctive behaviour below the surface, and his conscious speculation on his surroundings when he breaks above it.
Now and then, Marsden does get just a little too close to anthropomorphising his whale – by having it assign the Moon a name, for example, and referring to its grandfather (to be sure, a whale would have one; but would it recognise him as such? I suppose we do not know). Nonetheless I liked this story. It’s a bold idea, but Marsden knows how far to take it; the story’s about the length it should be, so you can suspend disbelief. It’s also, as I said, rather well-written. A story with a whale as a narrator? Not everyone is Jack London, and this story could have fallen flat on its face. It doesn’t, and is oddly memorable.

The Garden of Unfortunate Souls
Eddie Mark
Back to the USA for my final choice. Eddie Mark’s The Garden of Unfortunate Souls opens on a wet and very stormy night in Buffalo, NY. The Mayor, Cornelius Brooks, has a problem. His high-living wastrel of a son, Audwin, has just lost control of a car while in a drunken stupor. He has careered through someone’s garden and into their porch, in a run-down, crime-ridden part of the city. Cornelius goes straight there in the small hours to give the house’s occupant, Loretta Ford, 500 bucks to shut up about it. She does. It gets out anyway, from a source closer to home. But Cornelius is just about to find out that his daughter’s in trouble too. Meanwhile, Loretta has her own story. Over the next ten or fifteen years, the lives of Cornelius and his family, and Loretta and her young son, unfold as they deal with the world as best they can.
Almost all of them are dysfunctional or troubled in some way. This is a story that’s full of crime and sexual and domestic violence. But there’s nothing voyeuristic about it; bad things are there but serve their purpose in the narrative. Neither is Mark trying to do a Bonfire of the Vanities using Buffalo instead of NYC. What interests him is how these people got that way. It’s not the effect of drugs, poverty or crime that he majors on, though there’s plenty of that. Neither is it about race; although the main characters are mostly black, that’s not the point. In this book, people’s troubles began at home, where they were in some way robbed of the vital spark that makes a person more than the sum of their parts, and helps them to transcend their surroundings. In fact the other book this made me think of was not Bonfire so much as The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
Given some of the subject matter, this book could have been a depressing read, but I didn’t find it so. Mark brings his characters alive, and you find yourself caring about them pretty much from page one. There’s also a certain sly humour in the way some of them are portrayed – a lecherous church elder, for example; Mark could have simply made him a monster, but he’s too good a writer for that. Also, the book is written in an unshowy but quite elegant style that makes it easy and pleasant to read.
This is Eddie Mark’s first book, apparently. His author bio on Amazon says he’s currently doing a doctorate, and I know from experience that those tend to be all-consuming – nothing much else happens until they’re done. I hope he does find time to write more books; I’ll be very pleased to read them.

And so...
That’s it on the fiction front for 2015. A good crop. Meanwhile my Kindle and my bookshelves are both weighed down by the unread – and my mind by the unwritten. Who was she talking to, and why? Maybe by the end of 2016 I’ll have tried to tell you.

Mike Robbins's novella Dog! is available as an ebook for just 99c (US) or 99p (UK), or as a paperback, from  Amazon (US, UK, and all other country sites), Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Indigo, iTunes and more. Find all his books on Amazon here.

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