London has become so separate from the rest of England that anyone who wishes to write about it will have to match the essential weirdness of a disembodied city. It is the cultural, political, and financial capital of the country, but also, in parts, the most deprived and conflicted. This means that, of course, there’s a lot to say about London. It has been busy lately. But to take on the capital as a subject for a novel seems increasingly maniacal. A.A. Gill, in a recent piece for the New York Times, called London “the most successful mongrel casserole anywhere.” It has achieved this while having a uniquely unwelcoming atmosphere. For an international city it feels closed, cordoned-off, as if even when you’re there you’re not really there. If you want to be ignored, go to London. Perhaps this is why the best recent novels about the city are radically subjective, interested in perceptions, ghosts, and pseudo-history rather than The Way We Live Now.
Intelligent writers since Dickens have dodged the city-wide survey and focused on their own polemics and pathologies. Iain Sinclair’s novels pack in a lot of factual information about the capital, but he is less interested in shedding light than casting shadows. Peter Ackroyd’s exhaustive peregrinations are strictly solo, partly because he writes faster than we can read, while Will Self and J.G. Ballard have veered towards the satirical and surreal. None of these writers catches the whole thing and, perhaps with the exception of Ackroyd’s non-fiction, they are all as interested in their own obsessions as they are in the social and political reality.
Anyone familiar with John Lanchester’s work will know that he does not sit comfortably with this roster at all. Weirdly he has managed to get half a dozen books into a writing career without establishing a particular style. His first novel, The Debt to Pleasure, is a decadent and Nabokovian riff on gastronomy and murder, completely unlike, say, Fragrant Harbor, which is a teetotal take on the recent history of Hong Kong. That novel was published ten years ago and for a while it seemed like he had ditched fiction for its straighter cousin. After a series of fantastic essays for the London Review of Books, and a family memoir published in 2007, Lanchester wrote I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, a brief and accessible examination of the financial crash and its various follies. “I began working on the subject as part of the background to a novel, and soon realized that I had stumbled across the most interesting story I’ve ever found,” he writes in the introduction to I.O.U. The novel he was researching, we now know, was Capital.
In hardback form, Capital is as heavy as a black cab, its very title – which has already been used by Maureen Duffy for her own London novel – refreshingly immodest. The setting is Pepys Road, a fictional place somewhere in central London where, due to the housing boom lunacy, the properties that were once made for the lower-middle-classes (“the respectable, aspirational no-longer-poor”) are now worth millions of pounds. This is a solid conceit, guaranteeing an automatic cocktail shaker of characters. Eighty-two-year-old Petunia rattles around her £1.5 million house alone, terminally ill and about to make her daughter property-rich. A Muslim family living above a shop can barely afford heating, but across the road a wealthy banker wishing for a million pound bonus lives with an unemployed wife and an entourage of nannies for his spoiled children. Non-residents who nonetheless have many reasons to spend time on Pepys Road include a Zimbabwean traffic warden who vows only to go back to her country when its despotic ruler dies; an urban artist (based on Banksy) called Smitty whose identity is hidden from everyone but his embittered assistant; and Zbigniew, a Polish carpenter who finds himself jammed in an ethical dilemma with a case full of cash.
Capital is a novel in almost entirely discrete segments and many of the characters never have cause to meet. Their parallel lives are tied together by a subplot that starts with mysterious postcards being found on the doormats of every resident. On one side a picture of their house, on the other an ominous message: “We Want What You Have.”
The torment escalates to graffiti and vandalism, but nothing ever feels truly at stake. There is no premonition of 2011’s riots. Nothing slouches towards Brixton to be born. Lanchester is soft on all his characters and the satire never bites. The most enthralling figure (and it’s hard to tell whether this is satire backfiring or part of the plan) is Roger the banker, “a man to whom everything in life had come easily.” To begin with, he is described in the blandest and laziest possible fashion – he is “good-looking” but in “an anonymous way,” with “good manners” and “good fortune.” Taken at face value, he is going to be the least sympathetic character for most readers, which means Lanchester can let rip with stereotypes in a way that would be much more uncomfortable with, for example, a Polish carpenter. You can tell – lazy character sketching aside – that Lanchester relishes the chance to write about the ruthlessly superficial.
Roger is a man who doesn’t appear to do any work all day, but nonetheless expects seven figures for a bonus. In fact, because of his family’s overspending, he needs seven figures. The most entertaining – and tense – set-piece in the book is when Roger is about to discover what his bonus will be for the year.
Roger, who had been feeling cool and even-tempered in his silk knickers, felt his heart rate and blood pressure shoot up. A pound sign followed by a one with six zeroes, one with six zeroes, one with six zeroes. Two with six zeroes? No, that was greedy. One with six zeroes.
His wife, Arabella, is equally fun to be around because she is equally two-dimensional. Obsessed with expensive things, she tries to justify her one-track mind by convincing herself that she hasn’t lost the true value of money. For Arabella, “the knowledge of what money meant gave the drama of high prices a special piquancy.”
Unfortunately most of the book is not about Roger and Arabella, and when we are not in their company the pleasures are scarce. A cynic might say that Capital was rushed for publication to cash in on the Olympic tourists. The cynic, in this case, might be on to something. At times it feels designed for the casual, inattentive reader. Because of the short chapters it feels like the pace is quicker than it really is. Truthfully, Capital is slow going. It was somewhere around chapter 78 – or 67, or 49 – that I realized I no longer cared about what the next vignette had in store. I was simply counting the numbers.
Circumstances are not helped by the suspicion that Lanchester, who showed real literary flair in his debut, has forgotten everything he has ever learned about prose. So, to start the ball rolling, we get the irritating repetition of the word “genuinely” – “a genuinely shitty mood”; “genuinely proud”; “genuinely powerless”; “one of the things Daisy did genuinely love about him” – which after a while begins to sound like an excitable teenager trying to convince you that what they have to say is genuinely important. It is a basic lack of faith on Lanchester’s part. He has to hammer these things deep into our brains. At one point he hypes up the footballing Wunderkind Freddy Kamo by telling us that “there would be a day when everyone in the world with the slightest interest in football, amounting to billions of people, would know that name.” There is something so graceless and hand-holding about that “amounting to billions of people,” as if Lanchester doesn’t trust us to be sufficiently aware of the sport’s popularity. Freddy’s solicitor is “fluent in money,” and later on we discover that the Kamal family is “fluent in irritation.” Why not recycle a phrase or two? Who will notice?
The biggest problem with this novel, though, is its terrible sense of futility. Lanchester has already said everything he can say about the financial crisis in I.O.U., which was a lot shorter and denser than Capital. It was a story of greed and failure that found its way to the heart of the City inside the city, with all the complexity intact. The panoramic novel that has followed feels like the husk trailing the seed. On the shelf, Capital looks promising, bold, satisfyingly baggy. After finishing the book it resembles more of a failed project – well-intentioned but risible, empty, Millennium Dome-esque. We would have been foolish to expect the definitive fictional account of 21st century London, but Lanchester, in muffling the talents he has shown elsewhere, has managed to write a novel that is both amateurish and patronizing.
At the beginning of 2010 I was in Ukraine, and trying to understand what was going on there. Two contemporary historians, both dissidents, helped explain. Georgiy Kasianov writes in Ukrainian, Russian, and English; his history of post-independence Ukraine (in Russian) is a great and funny book that bravely resists the nationalist narrative pushed forward by the Ukraine-for-Ukrainians lobby. In English his edited volume, A Laboratory of Transnational History, is recommended. It includes an essay by John-Paul Himka, a Canadian historian of Ukrainian origin who has for a number of years kept up a lonely moral crusade against the nationalist elements of the Ukrainian diaspora in North America. You would think the margin for historical error in a territory and period as finite as Western Ukraine during the Second World War would be pretty thin; you’d be wrong.
I tend to read books in spurts. After Ukraine, I read a number of dystopian novels for an article I was writing. The best were Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island. I preferred the Houellebecq. In fact, though Elementary Particles is still his best book, this one is his funniest. “In order to pass the time I told him the story of the German who ate the other German whom he’d met on the internet.” Very funny.
At this point, having settled again on American soil, I decided to figure out what was going on with our foreign wars. I read Rory Stewart’s amazing and funny book about walking through Afghanistan in the wake of the American defeat of the Taliban in late 2001 (The Places In Between), and then Megan Stack’s Every Man in This Village Is a Liar, which begins with her entering Afghanistan a bit earlier, right on the heels of the American invasion, tagging along with an Afghan warlord who will eventually try to sneak into bed with her. Stack’s book was so good that I could hardly believe it, so I read Dexter Filkins’ Forever War just to check. It was also very good. Forever War has more bombs exploding; Every Man has more of a comparative sweep.
At this point, almost without intending to (I was waiting for someone to give me their copy of Freedom), I read Ian Frazier’s funny, epic, surprising Travels in Siberia. Then I read Freedom, which is as good as everyone says it is. Reading Frazier and Franzen back to back underscored, first, that they have quite similar names, and, second, the deeply Midwestern quality of Freedom. There’s a great passage at the end of the Siberia book in which Frazier talks about how his father used to berate him, back in his Ohio childhood, for living such a sheltered existence and knowing nothing about the rest of the world. This is a uniquely American, perhaps American-suburban, prejudice–the idea that Ohio couldn’t possibly be further away from, say, Siberia. What Frazier points out, in his quiet, uninsistent way, is that the center of the most economically powerful nation on earth can’t pretend that it’s far away from anywhere, much less one of the world’s largest oil-producing regions, which is what Siberia is. It seems that a deep awareness of the truth of this–of the interconnection of the American suburbs and the rest of the world–is one of Franzen’s important contributions to American fiction and American self-understanding over the past ten years.
In June, my book of interviews about the financial crisis with a hedge fund manager was coming out, and I realized I still knew nothing about the financial crisis. I read as fast as I could to avoid humiliation. Many of the books were bad. Their authors had the difficulty of writing from another country–like the Ukrainian historian Kasianov, who writes partly for Russians–but in a language that the people in that other country (that is to say, us) didn’t know. So they could either pretend that we knew it already, or treat us like idiots. They did a bit of both. The Michael Lewis books–his newest, The Big Short, and his oldest, Liar’s Poker–stood out among all these for their clarity and wit, although I should add that I haven’t yet read John Lanchester’s I.O.U. or Yves Smith’s ECONned, both of which are supposed to be good.
When the HFM book came out, I did mostly manage to aovid humiliation–for example, by sleeping through a scheduled radio interview. But non-humiliation was not enough. I decided to get to the bottom of things by reading Capital. But I couldn’t understand it. I began to read around Capital–David Harvey’s Limits to Capital; Peter Singer’s Marx; Immanuel Wallerstein’s Historical Capitalism; Michael Harrington’s The Twilight of Capitalism; Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station. The only one I really got through (aside from the Wallerstein book, which is like 100 pages long because he uses no examples) is To the Finland Station. I’d inherited the notion somewhere or other that Wilson’s book wasn’t first-rate as intellectual or political history. This is untrue. Of all the secondary sources on Marx, it has been the most valuable to me. It will certainly always be the most entertaining. It gives a different kind of genealogy of Marx, through the French historians rather than the German idealists, and also it has a beautiful and sympathetic account of the relationship between Marx and Engels. Just a lovely book, almost as good as Parallel Lives.
At around this time, about a month ago–and still stuck about a third of the way through the first volume of Capital–I concluded that I would never understand Marx’s obsession with the concept of “price” until I went back to Adam Smith and the original formulation of the theory of price that Marx is taking issue with. So that is where you find me today, about a fifth of the way through the first volume of The Wealth of Nations. Maybe a quarter of the way.
Other great books I happened to read that came out in 2010 were Elif Batuman’s The Possessed; Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask; and Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey. I recommend all three without reservation; they are instant classics. Another book I think everyone ought to read is Thomas Chatterton Williams’s Losing My Cool. It’s a complex, very honest, very entertaining memoir about a young man’s education that has not received anything like the serious consideration and discussion it deserves. And a final book I recommend from 2010 is And the Heart Says Whatever, by my very witty girlfriend, Emily Gould.
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Critics who produce the same tired titles for these infernal end-of-the-year lists are as useless as austere accountants who refuse to fox trot on the dance floor. They are stiff, unimaginative, uncultured, incurious, and, quite possibly, lousy in bed. They are the literary equivalent of unadventurous tourists who cling to tired maps and who are hopeless with a Swiss Army knife.
The authors who are afforded predictable laurels are not to blame for this. Don’t get me wrong. These folks know how to cut the rug. Paul Murray (Skippy Dies), Yiyun Li (Gold Boy, Emerald Girl), Tom McCarthy (C), Cynthia Ozick (Foreign Bodies), David Rakoff (Half Empty), Adam Ross (Mr. Peanut), David Mitchell (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet), Matt Taibbi (Griftopia), Paul Auster (Sunset Park) and Marilynne Robinson (Absence of Mind) hardly need any help from me. Chances are that you’re already familiar with these fine titles. As for some “masterpieces,” well, you don’t really need me to tell you that the emperor wears no clothes.
But who needs such unpleasantness! 2010 was a great year in books! This was a hard list to assemble! There were only two books this year that almost made me consider suicide!
The following list represents an effort to identify books that were completely marginalized, modestly outside the radar, or needlessly condemened by certain hatchet wielders who lacked the grace and/or the intelligence to embrace a peculiar magic.
Allison Amend, Stations West – Jewish cowboys, vagabonds, 19th century multiculturalism, and an elaborate storyline covering a good fifty years. It isn’t often when a novelist crams so much enjoyable story into a taut 250 page container. In addition to the book’s telling but unobtrusive historical details (“inexpensive porcelain dishes” delicately placed inside a glass case for a quiet dignity, the newspapers taking so long to deliver the news, et al.), Amend is very careful in giving the reader much to infer. Garfield, for example, is an indolent trainhopper who becomes something of a politco. The reasons behind this unlikely ascent are skillfully delivered: “As the country entered a new century, so did Garfield. He was tired of the raised eyebrows, the barely polite refusals, tired of fighting just to get the same food or service everyone else did. Just because he had a Jewish surname.” Yet remarkably, this book has received scant notice from the book reviewing outlets. Perhaps because it’s too readable to be true.
Toby Ball, The Vaults – “So he leaned against a thick timber that had at one time served as a post for a jetty and with his collar up and hat down inhaled the sweet, moist smoke and felt the cold become a more-interesting-than-uncomfortable sensation on his skin.” That’s probably the type of hyperspecific pulp prose style that’s going to infuriate the Millions readership. The time has come to loosen up. From a worldbuilding standpoint, why shouldn’t we know the origin point of the post? Why shouldn’t we know how someone faces the cold or contends with competing dermal sensations? These may seem flippant questions. But if we can accept this level of detail in William Gibson or Nicholson Baker, then surely we can offer some wiggle room for an engaging novel that somehow manages to squeeze such intriguing sentences into brisk chapters (did I mention that this book moves?) for a high-octane, multiple character story that involves a parallel dystopian America in the 1930s.
Robin Black, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This – Forget Wells Tower. Robin Black’s marvelous short story collection, which was needlessly ignored by The New York Times and The Washington Post, is very much on the level: far truer to human existence than anything written by that lumbering Young Turk. These subtle and mature stories avoid belabored metaphors and neat conclusions, revealing numerous nuances about the human condition in its careful use of understated language Black knows “the heavy lifting when the conversation sags.” In “A Country Where You Once Lived,” cybersex involves “gasps from behind a curtain of shimmering color blocks.” The striking possibility that humans can surrender to their baser instincts is suggested by “Harriet Elliott”’s narrator sleeping in a bedroom filled with stuffed animals. Some stories are interrupted by terrible accidents, often of the car crashing variety. But these stories don’t just tell the truth; like much great literature, they make a quiet case for perseverance.
Paula Bomer, Baby – These darkly hilarious tales are somewhat reminiscent of Kate Christensen, Iris Owens, and Maggie Estep. Yet Bomer is more willing to investigate that uncomfortable territory between extreme behavior and insanity. In a Bomer story, you’ll find a perverse passage (“She didn’t know what to do. But that was how it was. Babies screamed, you tried all sorts of things, and sometimes, they just kept screaming anyway.”) that makes you ponder why the character hasn’t been arrested for outright neglect. (What “things” did this mother try? And why is her partner so complicit?) Unfortunately, mainstream publishers don’t have the stones to publish such material anymore. Fortunately, Word Riot Press is there to cover the gap.
Jane Brox, Brilliant – In The Journal of American History, Jill Lepore unfurled a Bummer Bertha, suggesting that microhistories, by way of auctorial passion, have little to offer the serious minded. Such a distressingly humorless attitude can be handily answered by Jane Brox’s fascinating book, emerging from a straightforward examination of how artificial light has permanently altered human existence. Before reading this book, I had no idea how difficult it was for astronomers to locate dark patches of the sky. I knew that the end of the curfew had augmented nightlife, but I hadn’t fully considered how swiftly gaslight had superceded candlelight, making such items as theatrical makeup more garish. The common electricity that we now take for granted is a relatively recent phenomenon. Imagine that you’re a farmer in the 1930s who has recently received rural electrification. Now imagine that you’re given the sudden ability to see beyond the circumference of the kitchen table and how this alters your everyday family life. Brox’s book is loaded with such examples. And I include it on this list, with the proviso that you may become as intoxicated by the subject matter as I was: so much so that you will find yourself flocking to the library, seeking the many sources and pondering the vantage point of someone illuminated in 1849.
Andrew Ervin, Extraordinary Renditions – Ervin’s debut novel is one of two Hungary-themed books on this list. I don’t know what it is about Hungary, but maybe the Budapest Tourist Office will explain this obsession to me one day. Extraordinary Renditions was one of those novels (or three interconnected novellas; pick your category!) that made it into my backpack at BEA (I have no recollection of acquiring it; so perhaps it was a plant!) and which I very much enjoyed. Like the Amend and Bomer books, it’s very much the kind of book you don’t see published by a major house anymore. No coverage in The New York Times, nothing in The Washington Post, some coverage in some newspapers. See a trend? Anyway, this book’s about national identity and expatriates running around Hungary. It’s funny, alarming, evocative, and, very often with its internal description, defies its apparent historical setting. It echoes political texts while presenting political folly (and youthful folly). Said folly even extends to the naivete of a celebrated composer of some years, who shuffles the Budapest streets like a young man.
James Hynes, Next – Knowing of my needless difficulties in obtaining review copies from Little Brown, a good friend placed this novel in my hands and urged me to read it. Not only did I finish this tome in one sitting, but I plunged into Hynes’s backlist, discovering the wonderfully twisted book, Kings of Infinite Space. I don’t say this lightly, but James Hynes is very much the real deal. He is as worthy a literary satirist as Sam Lipsyte, Lydia Millet, George Saunders, Jess Walter, and countless others. But you won’t see him in The New Yorker anytime soon. And that is because, from his homebase in Austin, he understands the human condition too well. Hynes knows that what occurs on your way to a job interview is often just as important as whether or not you get the job. The result here is a novel that is both hilarious and revealingly introspective.
Charlie Huston, Sleepless – The prolific and highly enjoyable Charlie Huston has given us some gleefully brutal moments, vampirism afflicting the marginalized, and comic capers involving a crime scene cleanup. But Sleepless signaled an unexpected gravitas and several ambitious steps forward. With its plot set in the daringly recent future (six months from now), with 10% of the population suffering from permanent insomnia and addicted to a massively multiplayer game called Chasm Tide, Huston portrays an increasingly more persuasive world in which life is dictated by the cultural dregs that remain. Where Gary Shteyngart offered little more than expansive (yet enjoyable) detachment with his dystopian epic, Super Sad True Love Story, Huston wants to get at the manner people carry on. Does it come from fatherhood? Some larger sense of responsibility? The ability to withstand horrific torture or loved ones disappearing? Manhood’s certainly part of the game, but the chessboard’s much larger. And Huston only gets better.
Julie Orringer, The Invisible Bridge – This sweeping epic was, at 624 pages, perhaps too much for some critics to take in. One snarky scribbler condemned this book for “feel[ing] birfurcated” without bothering to cite a reason. (Perhaps the events of the Holocaust? Known to unsettle populations and disorder romantic harmony? Just a few wild stabs in the dark.) Such foolish snaps don’t even begin to approximate what Orringer’s magnificent debut novel does. Using beautiful language to depict the near disappearance of an idyllic paradise (“He entered through a floriated wrought-iron gate between two stern figures carved in stone, and crossed a sculpture garden packed with perfect marble specimens of kore and kouros, straight from his art history textbook, staring into the distance with empty almond-shaped eyes.”), this powerful novel is equally unflinching in ilustrating how its colorful cast of characters (including an acrobatic family member) “might grow up without the gravity…without the sense of tragedy that seemed to hang in the air like the brown dust of bituminous coal.” This is a book that approaches unspeakable barbarism with a rare ebullience, feeling neither inappropriate nor unconsidered. It is a call for hope and small acts of resistance. It may be set in the past, but this is very much a novel for our times.
Gary Rivlin, Broke USA – Many flocked to Matt Taibbi’s excellent Griftopia as the high finance expose of the year. But Gary Rivlin’s understated look at predatory lending is also worth a look. The book collects perspectives from every end of the spectrum. There’s Chris Browning, the former manager of a Check ‘n’ Go in Ohio, who was fired because she was required by the higher ups to upsell and lend money to anybody who walked through the door; Martin Eakes, the man behind the Center for Responsible Lending offering a more reasonable APR through his credit union. And then there’s the sordid history of the rapacious corporations that built up their businesses with the refund anticipation loan, disguising the hidden costs of tax preparation. Like Howard Karger’s Shortchanged and John Lanchester’s IOU, Rivlin’s book is vital in understanding some of this nation’s most underreported issues.
Matthew Sharpe, You Were Wrong – Lips are “two fat garden slugs making love.” There is “no worse violation of a soul than hope.” We’re told that “tones can be tough for everyone and were extratough for Karl, who was lately an avid pupil in the urgent remedial project of tones.” Sometimes the reader is subtly addressed. Sometimes not. There is a curious precision to the description in the way the “midafternoon sunbeam entered the house through a bedroom window to the right.” These are just some of the many nonsequitur joys (or planned pleasures?) to be found within Matthew Sharpe’s extremely goofy and very enjoyable novel, which seems to be channeling Flann O’Brien’s madcap spirit.
Scarlett Thomas, Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas’s subtle efforts to examine the relationship between narrative and life – to say nothing of the omega point – were drastically misunderstood by those who expected another The End of Mr. Y. For this masterful novel — defiantly plotless after the success of Thomas’s previous pageturners — is very much interested in how narrative must rely upon contrivances in order to present life. Beyond this, it dares to portray Meg Carpenter, an intelligent woman whose identity is occluded by the driftless mumbling of her flaccid partner. By offering a protagonist brazenly defiant of reader expectations, Thomas subtly channels Henry James’s Isabel Archer (with Meg, like Isabel, even running into some money), while also demonstrating that the quest for the new often leads to the same old cycles.
Donald E. Westlake, Memory – This lost novel in a drawer, published by Hard Case Crime after four decades of dutiful dust collection, revealed that Westlake was far more than a mystery master. The book’s taut and fatalistic narrative arguably aligns itself with Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. And had Westlake pursued more solitary outcasts like protagonist Paul Cole, he may very well have pursued John Banville’s trajectory (ironically, with Banville finding his alter ego, Benjamin Black, in the end). Which isn’t to take away from Westlake’s Dortmunder books or Westlake’s wonderful Parker novels (written under Richard Stark) – all very deserving of praise. Memory confirms that “inferior” genres must be reconsidered by the seemingly discriminating.
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