As I usually do at the end of a year, I thought I would set my thoughts down on some things I enjoyed reading in 2018. I know it’s now the beginning (ish) of 2019 but the idea is the same. In places these thoughts may be fragmentary or only semi-useful… nevertheless, here they are.
One of the first books I read last year (because it was a Christmas present at the end of the previous year) was Joff Winterhart‘s beautifully observed and drawn Driving Short Distances (2017). Whilst examining everyday-type people, its power comes in highlighting the tiny details – winks, grimaces, tufts of hair.
David Keenan‘s novel This Is Memorial Device (2017) boasts the fantastically overblown and brilliantly specific subtitle ‘An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Music Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978–1986.’ Keenan borrows the energy of the most hyberbolic kind of music writing and allows a population of strange characters to reverberate against one another in the claustrophobic small town setting.
Dreamlike in a completely different way, W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants (1992) cast a spell on me. It is however going to be difficult to describe why… it had a haunting quality to it and seemed composed of thoughts which ran from one thing to the next. Beautiful and sad, though more beautiful than sad…
Having first encountered Cesar Aira in 2017, I continued with my Aira fandom last year, and actually happened to meet another fan for the first time, which kind of confirmed that Aira was real. All of Aira’s books proceed in strange and unexpected ways, a product of his ‘constant flight forward’ philosophy, and my favourite of the ones I read this year was How I Became A Nun (1993), which is worth it for the opening few scenes alone – a fiasco in strawberry ice-cream.
Ferenc Karinthy’s novel Metropole (1970), a present from friend Lee, was the most terrifying thing I read all year. A traveller is diverted to another city, one whose language and organisation are both incomprehensible and unfathomable. Struggling to get a foothold, he tries in vain to understand the city’s food, transport, leisure, failing to get anywhere with increasing alarm. The effect is mesmerising, suffocating, frustrating – like the character, there is nothing to which us readers can cling.
My two favourite short story collections of the year were James Baldwin’s Going To Meet The Man (1965) and A Manual For Cleaning Women (2015) by Lucia Berlin. Both wrote with clarity and beauty.
The James Baldwin story Sonny’s Blues (with its sadness leading to a jazz club redemption) and My Jockey by Lucia Berlin (one and a half meticulous pages) were amongst my favourite short works this year. But there was also Doppelganger, Poltergeist, the final piece in Denis Johnson‘s final collection (a friendship becomes defined by a conspiracy theory about Elvis being replaced by a double) and the remarkable reading experience of Triptyks by Ann Quin (a piece of work which doesn’t seem to make any narrative sense, but does progress as you allow another part of your brain to enjoy the cascade of images and scenarios). Plus Defending The Pencil Factory a one-off from one of my favourite current writers, Adam Marek (which pursues a slightly surreal premise before finding an original ending by alluding to another piece of work instead of actually finishing the story). There were probably other great short pieces of writing that I enjoyed and have forgotten, I should keep better notes.
Last but by some means most (by virtue of me deciding this might be my favourite thing I read all year) – Man With A Seagull On His Head (2017). Harriet Paige’s wilfully disobedient novel stubbornly refuses to fit in the template you expect. Despite at first appearing fairly sedate, it is whimsical and unpredictable, and at times seems to hang together by a thread. Much of it revolves around not-quite coincidences, characters not-quite meeting, loose ends not-quite being tied up. I recommend it.