I suspect there might be something inherently unfair in asking about best books any year that J.M. Coetzee has a new novel out. He is truly sui generis and seems to operate at a level that the rest of us can only sort of admire from afar. After the interesting misstep that was Slow Man, he’s returned with the extraordinary Diary of a Bad Year. The book consists of three narratives that share each page: At the top of the page are, in a nod to Nabokov, the protagonist’s “Strong Opinions” – essays on subjects ranging from political life in Australia to al-Qaida. In the second thread, the protagonist “JC”, who bears a striking resemblance to the author, describes his obsession with his beautiful young amanuensis. And the third voice tells that same story from her point of view. The result is an alternating comic and tragic aria for three voices that asks questions no less fundamental than what is it we require of our writers and novels? A painter friend once told me that any serious painter needed to contend with Picasso and Pollock. Anyone who cares for literature must do the same with J.M. Coetzee.
My good friend Garth, writer, rocker, and erstwhile purveyor of Hot Face wrote in with his favorite read of the year.The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst — Callow young aesthete Nick Guest is a devotee of late-period Henry James, whose style, he says, “conceals things and reveals things.” In Alan Hollinghurst’s portrait of politics, money, and sex in Thatcher-era London, style reveals more than it conceals. Among the revelations this preposterously well-written novel offers, in the end: that there’s a little Nick Guest in all of us, that aestheticism is not just a superficial flight from the deeper world but a kind of fumbling toward it, and that Hollinghurst is a novelist of rare gifts. Here he almost single-handedly bridges the divide between the novel of society and the novel of the self, combining the former’s imaginative sprawl, objectivity, moral exactitude, and attentiveness with the latter’s searing emotional investment in its subject. The Line Of Beauty is by turns charming, voyeuristic, sentimental, merciless, witty, affecting, austere, and graphic. Throughout, it is a triumph on par with Brideshead Revisited, Remembrance of Things Past, or the works of the Master himself.