In 2017, I read some fantastic books. I tried to look for some similarities between them, to make this piece of writing flow more easily, and was mostly unsuccessful. But I have grouped them a bit and this first group is all ‘novels where the nature of something keeps changing’.
Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne (2017) has a post-apocalypse physicality, an inventive weirdness and a lot of heart. At its centre is the titular character, a being the nature of which is as elusive as the truth of the situation is unclear. The landscape – and the narrative – is at the mercy of numerous overpowered entities wrestling for control, such that it feels like being picked up by a wave and tossed around.
On similar unstable foundations is Ursula K Le Guin’s Lathe Of Heaven (1971), a novel about a man who can change the world through his dreams. What makes this such an unnerving and discombobulating read is the way his dreams shift not only reality but the way reality used to be, meaning nothing can be relied on for long. The previous pages are being constantly rewritten as the reader presses further in to the redreamt future.
Here (2014), a graphic novel by Richard McGuire never fully explains itself. Fragmented across time, each page is drawn from a static position, the corner of a living room. We jump backwards in time to primordial swamps and forwards to utopian futures and sometimes several time periods are scattered across a single page. It functions as a biography of a specific plot of land and forces the reader to think about everything that has happened in the space they currently occupy.
Then there was brevity.
An Episode In The Life Of A Landscape Painter (2000) was just one of the works I read by the puckish and prolific Argentinian author Cesar Aira, but definitely the best. Compact in its 100 pages, its scope is still vast, drinking in the wide open Pampas and filtering the landscape through the perspective of Johann Rugendas, a 19th Century German painter of whom this is a biography-but-not-really. This is a short novel that never really gives the reader an idea of what to expect next and steals your breath as it completes its journey.
Comparatively long-winded at 150 pages, We Have Always Lived In The Castle (1962) by Shirley Jackson was something I had been meaning to read for a while and once I did I wanted to make everyone else I know read it as well. An unstoppable piece of American gothic, it is relentless in its energy and predictability. Just as the passage of time goes unnoticed during a good film, you will get to page 150 without realising your progress. There’s a film due next year apparently (wince).
In the world of short stories, I enjoyed collections by JG Ballard, Stephanie Vaughn, Stuart Evers and Mirja Unge, but there were two that really stood out.
Shortly before Denis Johnson passed away in May this year, I was recommended his collection Jesus’ Son (1992). These are stories populated by characters on the edge, propelled by addled logic through desparate situations, yet lit up by moments of beauty and clarity.
Less freewheeling, more carefully curated was The Doll’s Alphabet (2017), the debut collection by Camilla Grudova, published this year by the fantastic Fitzcarraldo Editions. This collection of inventive, atmospheric tales reminded me of Eraserhead – the same ubiquitous dissonance, the sense of characters trying to proceed in a world that is unpredictable and unexplainable.
There was of course Reservoir 13 (2017), a new novel by Jon McGregor, his first since 2010. This one follows the life of a village – its people, its wildlife, its landscapes – following the disappearance of a teenage girl. Again McGregor delivered a piece of work which is beautiful and unique, written to a completely different beat.