A selection of the best fiction read by Seán Sheehan in 2013.
Something Like Happy, John Burnside (Jonathan Cape)
Frank O’Connor wrote how the short story is marked by ‘an intense awareness of human loneliness’ and given the unsettling mix of memory and melancholy that haunts the stories of John Burnside it is tempting to locate the genre in such a desolate landscape. But Burnside’s canvas is larger: his writing has an acuity that goes deeper than a sense of the isolation of the individual’s existence. What F.R. Leavis said about Lawrence helps bring out more carefully the special quality of Burnside’s stories. Leavis, wanting to defend Lawrence against those who saw him as an arrogant and uncouth genius, applauded his reverence towards life. It found expression, he said, in a certain tenderness; not ‘tender-minded’ or soppy, he hastens to add, but something strong and clairvoyant and incorruptible in its preoccupation with realities of living. There is reverence in Burnside too and it exists alongside his ability to evoke the pain of just being alive, of remembering loss and the lacerations of time. This sensitivity – what Keats in ‘The Fall of Hyperion’ calls ‘the giant agony of the world’ — verges on the morbid and risks crossing over into the unrepresentable but Burnside always keeps this side of the border; he also avoids gratuitousness. In ‘Peach Melba’, one of the unforgettable stories in this remarkable collection, he doesn’t surrender to the gestural. Instead, he orders his language to recall with precision the narrator’s memory of someone he once worked with and had known – but only too briefly.
Familiar, J. Robert Lennon (Serpent’s Tail)
Elisa, a woman in her forties, is driving home in her old Honda when she notices that an accustomed small crack in the windshield is no longer there. She realises she is driving another make of car, wearing different clothes and, just as surprising, has chewing gum in her mouth. When her husband phones and mentions that he loves her, Eliza knows that something is amiss. She is still Elisa but her life has followed a different trajectory, a road not taken has been taken but apparently through no choice of her own, and when she arrives home the most shocking change of all awaits her discovery.
The plot of Familiar sounds like science fiction and Elisa is sensible enough to investigate this possibility; she knows the only alternative would be some psychotic breakdown on her part. The reader knows this as well and is drawn into the story as told in a first person voice. It’s a compulsive read and we are with Elisa all the way as she struggles with the turmoil of her family life, past and present. The lean and convincing prose gets under the reader’s skin, making us sense how schizoid our own world feels when the quotidian becomes uncanny. Familiar is itself an unsettling read, disturbing the everyday sense that we know who we are and that we understand our relationships with those close to us. What adds to the discomfort is that the novel’s sense that we want to know what cannot be given.
The Kills, Richard Church (Picador)
The documentary-style writing of The Kills is flat and unemotional — yet it becomes addictive — appropriately matching the deracinated world of a post-invasion Iraq as experienced by American personnel. The characters are civilians contracted for non-military projects involving very large sums of money and handling ‘fucktons’ of dollars is, to put it politely, a challenge for the maintenance of ethically sound behaviour. It inevitably invites shady goings-on – though not for the poor guys who for various cash-strapped reasons allow themselves to be suckered into working at Camp Liberty. Calling it a camp is a misnomer for this is purgatory on planet earth, a deserted place in the middle of a desert where human, animal and chemical waste is destroyed, big time: ‘You take several tonnes of human waste, add the insane heat of the Arabian desert, and you have yourself an intense olfactory experience’ – hence Camp Crapper to those who fill and ignite the burnpits. There are elements of M.A.S.H. and Catch 22 to what is happening and you come to like the poor sods who are so plainly not in control of their lives. Unlike the private security guards, for whom ‘the whole thing gives them a hard-on. They keep coming back until something gets off. Then we’re supposed to feel sorry’, we do feel for the civilian characters in the first two books of this mammoth 1,000-page, four-volume tome. The third book is different in most respects, having only the loosest connection with what has gone before, and it’s questionable how successful this turns out to be. The sense of losing reader’s steam grows in the reading of the last book, even though it returns to the original subject, but perhaps the sense of deflation goes to the heart of the novelist’s sad and sorry subject matter. There is a website (panmacmillan.com/thekills) with digital material added by the author.
Black Star Nairobi, Mukoma Wa Ngui (Melville House)
A political thriller, by the son of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, set in Nairobi in December 2007. It is the best of times: celebrating the beginning of Obama’s campaign to become the first non-white (son-of-a-Kenyan) occupant of the White House; it is the worst of times: the re-election of the Kenyan president is contested for good reason by the opposition and a full-scale crisis is underway. The narrator is a former cop from the US, Ishmael, now a private detective working with his partner Odhiambo. When a corpse is found in a forest their investigations suggest it is connected to a bombing at the Norfolk hotel (a Jewish-owned hotel that was actually bombed by the PLO in 1980) and it seems to be down to al-Qaeda. But…
The first half of the book maintains a steady pace, is satisfyingly hard-boiled and the political setting is intriguing, but when the scene abruptly changes to Mexico and the US a chain of events leaves the reader grasping for credulity. Black Star Nairobi still makes a refreshing and welcome departure from the standard diet of contemporary crime fiction. This is the second outing for Ishmael – Nairobi Heat was the first – and you’re left feeling that the next instalment featuring our intrepid but cool detective will see the novelist honing his narrative skills and breaking new ground in this genre.
Chasing the King of Hearts, Hanna Krall (Peirene)
To say that Chasing the Kings of Hearts is a story about Nazi rule, the plight of Jews and the puzzling nature of love and commitment should certainly put you off reading it. After all, such fare has become the staple markers of a certain kind of indulgent fiction about Nazi-occupied Europe. The Holocaust industry is still thriving and, for fiction at least, this should mean that less is better than more. It should also be clear that traditional narrative forms are incommensurable with the truth of the Shoah. Chasing the Kings of Hearts faces up to both challenges and meets them head on: it is a short book of 168 paperback pages and recounts in a laconic, fragmentary style the odyssey of Izolda Regensberg, a Polish Jew resolved to rescue her imprisoned husband. Izolda is Odysseus – resourceful, cunning, loyal in love but never foolish – but while Homer’s hero reaches home and slays the suitors who have been harassing his wife no such happy resolution awaits the victims of the Holocaust. The plot keeps everything moving but this does not explain why the book is difficult to put down once you start reading. It has a poetic quality without being lyrical either in its vocabulary or the rhythms of its prose, and there is a documentary feel to the story even though separating fact from fiction in this tale is not straightforward. The narrative is epic in spirit but minimalist in its telling; historical but necessarily elliptical. With the homily of Walker Evans in mind – ‘Die knowing something. You are not here long’ — just read it.
Pompey, Jonathan Meades (Unbound)
Any novel that can make Jonathan Swift seem a gentle ironist and Anthony Burgess word-shy has to be one so fired up with disgust for aspects of human behaviour that it explodes with lexical energy. This is Pompey and its style owes a lot to Swift and Burgess; earning its place, through the force of its satirical denunciation of human depravity and blind self-satisfaction, in the tradition they have etched in the hope of the possibility of our salvation. Like them, Meades enjoys language, relishing its ability to mimic the gross and deranged excesses of those who use it. A verbal maximalist, his bolshy prose throws up half a dozen tropes where other writers would rest content with one or two. Indeed, throwing up is what characterises the conduct of many of his characters: vomit, excreta, bodily organs and fluids of every kind – it’s all here in bucketfuls; the work of an author, insouciant to literary decorum, goaded by disgust into being disgusting. Joyce’s description of Bloom’s visit to the toilet, although it seemed revolting at the time to some readers, is lyrical and light-hearted when put alongside the account Meades provides of the visit of his central character, Guy Vallender, to a pub loo. But Pompey is not slush, far from it; Meades is a sedulous author with a historian’s attention to period detail of southern 1950s England, matched by a storyteller’s gift for narrating a family saga with dollops of disgust and an artist’s skill for inventing new words (like cynonominal, gynolatry, uxoricide) founded on solid etymologies. Any doubts about the scholarly side of Jonathan Meades will be soon be dismissed by dipping into the pages of Museum Without Walls (Unbound, 2012), a collection of his iconoclastic articles and screenplays on places and their buildings. Here you will find the same thrilling mix of caustic wit and learning (though woefully short on political knowledge of Marx and Trotsky) delivered with barking provocation, heaps of chutzpah, exhibiting a deep distaste for many architects and most town planners that mirrors the broader misanthropy of Pompey. Both books, like the work of Swift and Burgess, are wonderfully sane, therapeutic and fun to read.
Red or Dead, David Peace (Faber & Faber)
The subject matter of this book, Bill Shankly and his management of Liverpool football club, thrusts itself on the reader as an empirical constant throughout its 700-plus pages. This is non-fiction with a vengeance and any notion of deviating from the essential facts of the games and players he managed would risk incurring the ghostly wrath of Shankly’s spirit. David Peace, respecting the man and his achievement, does not countenance such a peril yet — here’s the rub — his Red or Dead is undeniably a work of fiction, as pure an exercise in literary style as is ever likely to be found in a novel that reaches out to an readership indifferent, tout court, to any poncey brand of postmodernism. The author manages to square this circle by serially enacting in writing (fiction) the exacting facts (non-fiction) of real soccer matches, football practices and training sessions. The writing repeats itself so unrelentingly that the reading of its iterations and reiterations becomes a demanding and boring routine. Reader be warned, this ain’t lubricious prose. But this is what makes the story so poignant for, while success on the pitch obviously requires rigorous preparation and practice, Bill Shankly was a man driven by an obsession so intense that when he is at home it even affects his laying out of cutlery on the kitchen table. Obsessive behaviour usually leads nowhere but then, in 1974 when Liverpool football club stands on the verge of unbelievable success in England and Europe, completely out of the blue Shankly shocks everyone by resigning and retiring. If you’ve shown the stamina to get this far into the book, you’re fascinated to know how the author will handle such a dramatic change in the life and habits of his hero.
Tomorrow we will publish Sean’s favourite non-fiction books of 2013