It’s the most wonderful time of the year! No, not Christmas, the Man Booker Prize longlist has finally been released. The list usually dominates my reading at this time every year and that is reflected in this edition of My Year in Books. This is also the time of the year in which I actually read novels from this year; I’ve been criticised for never reading ‘new’ book before so I’m forever thankful for the Man Booker.
The Sellout (2015) has been on my radar for about a year now. I’d seen a couple of people on Literary Twitter talking about it but I’ve yet to actually see a physical copy of it in any bookshops. I had almost forgotten about it until the longlist came about. So I read it first.
The Sellout is a satire about race in modern America. The novel begins with our nameless black narrator sitting before the Supreme Court. We soon discover (through oneiric but lucid prose) that he is being charged with owning a slave and segregating a school. Before you have a chance to do a double-take the narrator brings you back to his childhood. We discover that he grew up in the town formerly known as Dickens but the town is now disappearing, it barely even appears on maps anymore. Overwhelmed by a literal lack of place our narrator attempts to bring Dickens back from the ashes. In order to achieve this, he ’employs’ one of Dickens’ oldest residents and last remaining Little Rascal, Hominy, as his slave, a job that he is more than willing to do (he even insists on calling our narrator ‘massa’). He will stop at nothing to bring Dickens back.
This is a very heavy book when you think about it. However, Beatty never lets you think about it because scattered between the paragraphs on the ethics of slavery and meditations on modern blackness are jokes. Lots of jokes. This novel about slavery and segregation is one of the funniest books I’ve read in years. However, I wouldn’t go around advertising The Sellout as a ‘comic novel’. Beatty himself has said that people are reading the jokes and forgetting what the book is actually about. I see the humour of this novel as a necessary antidote, like the porter telling dick jokes after the murder of Duncan.
Beatty’s approach is brazen but brilliant. He will have you laughing and then a couple of seconds later you’ll be thinking about why you are laughing. The Sellout is one of my favourite reads of the year thus far. It’s one which plants itself into your frontal lobe and refuses to leave, like a satirical tumour. I’m scolding myself for putting this one off for a year and a half but now I’m calling shotgun on the bandwagon (if it hasn’t already left).
Hystopia (2016) is one of those books where I recognise the cover but I had no idea what it was about. This is David Means’ debut novel after birthing a couple of short story collections into the world. (Note to self: never read any of those books)
Hystopia began so well. Page one and we are hit with an editor’s note. I thought to myself, ‘great, a meta-novel, I already love this’. The first fifty-ish pages consist of editor’s notes, author’s note, and testimonials, all of which are fictional. We are told that the novel presented to us was written by Eugene Allen, a Vietnam vet who has since killed himself. We learn of the hours he spent in his room working on the novel and we read the opinions of the people upon whom characters in the novel are based. In the back of my mind I’m feeling the flickers of Pale Fire but that flame is quickly quenched. The novel within the novel, also called Hystopia, is a mess.
I’ve read reviews for Hystopia that mention great names like Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy. If David Means writes like Pynchon then my reviews read like Dorothy Parker’s. Hystopia is set in an America where Vietnam never ended and JFK doesn’t die in Dallas. It follows a band of outsiders as they violently roam the country, wishing they were being written by Larry McMurtry. I read whole pages thinking, ‘Am I not smart enough for this novel or does it just not make any sense?’, judging by the critical reaction – it’s the latter. It reads like if Kerouac attempted to write an IKEA manuel. A mess begets a mess.
I spent most of Hystopia waiting for it to end. The whole thing reminded me of a movie you’d see on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. What is so disappointing is that Means was really onto something with the meta-fictional parts that bookend the novel. How can they be so good but the novel so bad? Another thing that annoys me is the name. Hystopia. It’s hard to type and when you google it the first suggestion is ‘hysterectomy’. My disappointment in this novel is palpable. I hate this book.
Like The Sellout, I had been aware of Eileen (2015) for a while now. I’ve also been meaning to read it for equally as long. Once again, pushed by the Man Booker, I finally read it. Thank goodness.
Taking place over a week at Christmas in the late 1960s, Eileen tells the story of Eileen Dunlop, a woman in her early-twenties. She works at a correctional institute for young men where she stalks a security guard and spies on the inmates in solitary confinement. At home she sleeps in a cot in the attic where she pees into mason jars and indulges in laxative binges which make her bowel movements ‘torrential’ and ‘oceanic’. Her teeth are rotting from her penchant for sweets and doesn’t shower often because she enjoys stewing in her own filth. Needless to say, Eileen is a divisive narrator. Some have criticised this book for relying on shock value whilst others have praised Moshfegh for creating such a vile but enticing protagonist. My opinion is that Eileen is near a masterpiece.
Remember that scene in Trainspotting where Ewan McGregor is in the filthy toilet cubicle and proceeds in making his way into the toilet and swims around in the cistern bliss? That’s a lot like reading Eileen. You’re aware of the filth and the depravity but once you’re in there it’s actually quite beautiful. Eileen lives with her ex-cop, current-alcoholic father who she fears will kill himself eventually. At work all of her fellow employees mock and bully her for being so filthy. One cannot help but think of Eileen as an endearing character. Her life is tough, even if she brings a lot of it onto herself. You read this novel hoping thing will get better for her, hoping someone will come along and save her from herself. And someone does. From then on, Eileen wouldn’t seem out of place in Patricia Highsmith’s bibliography.
The book is written by the Eileen of right now, reminiscing about the winter that changed her life. It is an incredibly engrossing novel. Eileen is one of the most memorable characters I have read in recent years. The novel just radiates intrigue and has an ending straight out of the best Hitchcock. I will be shocked if Eileen isn’t my book of the year.
It’s currently the book on everyone’s to-read pile, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (2016) was only brought to my attention last week but it has already spread like wildfire through the literary world.
And how I wish I could say that I liked it. Homegoing begins in Ghana in the late-1700s with Effia and Esi, two half-sisters with very different lives. Essia was sold to the white Englishman James and lives with him in his castle. In the dungeons below, Esi is preparing to be shipped off to America. The novel follows Effia and Esi’s descendants through a series of interchanging vignettes up to the present time. My problem with Homegoing lies within these vignettes. Each new vignette presents a new descendent, a new character. I don’t know about how you read but for me it takes a couple of pages to get used to a character, to be able to fully connect with them and their story. However, I found that whenever I finally did connect with the new character I was met with a page break and then a new story would begin.
For me, the idea of presenting this novel as a collection of character-driven vignettes causes it to become a disjointed mess. Fourteen characters get their own stories in this novel and my edition is 335 pages long. That means that, on average, each character got 23.9 pages to themselves. Gyasi just is not able to create whole, believable characters in 24 pages. I wish she either cut the family tree or made the book longer, I would have prefered the former.
Some parts do achieve greatness however. The stories concerning the characters in Africa are far stronger than the ones set in America, in my opinion. The story revolving around Quey and Cudjo being the standout piece of the novel that could work as an independent short story. Marjorie’s story is also the sensation of the novel’s second half. However, these glimmers of gold don’t save the rest of Homegoing from ultimately being a confused novel. I will put most of its problems down to being a debut. It’s easy to see Yaa Gyasi’s potential in Homegoing and thus I will admit that I await her next book with hope.
There was a point earlier on this year when it was nearly impossible to scroll through Literary Twitter without seeing someone gushing about Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You (2016). In my trademark style, I read it months after the hype.
Our unnamed American narrator engages with a hustler, Mitko, whilst roaming a Bulgarian bathroom. The novel follows their relationship in three acts in which we delve into the erotic, the tragic, and the melodramatic. Many have been quick to talk about Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room as an inspiration but I feel that What Belongs to You owes a great deal of credit to Andre Gide’s L’immoraliste. I found Greenwell’s protagonist to be uneasy and unlikeable. He describes all of his sexual experiences with Mitko but all of them feel so empty – emotionally and novelistically. I found myself getting more and more bored as I continued with this short novel.
The first part of this novel, called Mitko, was published as an award-winning novella in 2011 and that explains why it is the greatest section of the novel. The other acts, A Grave and Pox, just pale in comparison and read like lesser works. They feel stitched-on because they were literally stitched on in order to create this novel. There is a clear incoherence between the parts and it caused me to keep checking how many pages were left instead of letting me enjoy the novel. It’s all so disappointing because this novel had been one of my ‘must-reads’ for this year.
I cannot write that I enjoyed What Belongs to You, which really fills me with sadness. I went into this novel expecting such great things and I was left with nothing. It’s a real pity.