Sunday, December 30, 2018

Tally Up My Victims: The Best Books I Read in 2018

Hello. Yes, it's been quite a while since I posted, but a lot of things have been going on in my life that unfortunately forced this blog to drop several notches on my priorities list (mainly, I realized that writing sucks). Nevertheless, I couldn't let 2018 (recently voted "The World's Best Year") wheeze out its death rattle without posting my annual list of the best books I read since last January. Like last year, I read several more books than was my average up until 2017, though in this regard 2018 pales next to 2017. Still, I read a bunch, so, because I have so little to brag about, I am again going to list everything I read.

Two things about that list. Number one is, it's incomplete! The literature forum where I used to keep my list went tits up (RIP Palimpsest) sometime in 2018, sort of out of the blue, so I had to reconstruct the list I'd made up to that point as best I could. I did a pretty good job, but I know the list below is short at least one title. Does this small detail bother me? Yes, intensely, but I can't do shit about it now.

The second thing is, you'll see lots of books on there that are considered "classics" or "very good" or were written by authors of whom many people think "very highly," and yet not all of those books made it to my Best Of list. There are two possible reasons for this: one is that I enjoyed the book, but not as much as those which did make the list; another is that the book is actually trash. I am not going to tell you which it is for any of the books you're wondering about, so don't bother asking.

I guess that's it. Let's start this stupid thing. Oh, also, as ever, the Best Ofs are unranked, until you get to the last three, which are pretty solidly the best three I read in 2018. Okay:

You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up by Richard Hallas - A slim, weird little crime novel from the late 1930s, this one's about cults, movies, California, and how impossibly difficult it is to kill another person. This book (written by an Englishman named Eric Knight, using a pseudonym) ultimately has a haunting, nearly surreal, and in any case bleakly absurd impact. One character says of California that anyone who enters it goes insane. Another says that California is a dream.

The Stay-Awake Men by Matthew M. Bartlett - Another slim volume (I read a lot of those in 2018, especially towards the end of the year), this collection of horror stories is of a more traditional (relatively speaking) vein than I'm used to from Bartlett. Most of the fiction I'd read by him prior to this revolves around a demonic radio station and its maniacal broadcasts out of Leeds, Massachusetts ("WXXT - If It Bleeds, It's Leeds"); the stories in The Stay-Awake Men, however, show men and women who are capable of finding horror anywhere. Still, Bartlett's brand of dark comedy pushed well past the edge of sanity is on full display. In "Spettrini," my favorite story in the collection, a down-on-his-luck magician named Greyson turns on the TV and watches the beginning of a late night talk show. The hosts launches into his monologue:

"Have you heard this," he asked. "Have you heard this, have you seen this, have you read this in the newspaper; did someone whisper this to you from a darkened doorway, from the hair-clogged shower drain in a condemned motel, from the tiny mouth of an anthill in a parking lot? Did the sultry but affected waitress hand you this on a grease-stained note with your check, did the leering priest mutter this to an indifferent congregation of layabouts, did the wind whisper this through the trees as you drove through the burnt remains of a forest, did a radio host intone this news from an ocean of static..."

Greyson turns off the TV here, "despite having had a desire to see the first guest, a movie star who had just lost his wife and baby daughters to the new and rampant strain of influenza."

Chicago by David Mamet - This, the playwright's first novel in eighteen years, was my most anticipated book of the year, though it must be admitted that Mamet's take on the gangsters is not unlike his take on the outdoors and rural life (The Village) and Judaism and racism (The Old Religion): that is to say, esoteric, digressive, leisurely, only occasionally violent. And the violence is never graphic, though in one crucial instance the brutality is only emphasized by the absence of detail.

Anyway, this is a revenge novel, about a Chicago reporter trying to track down and kill the man who murdered the woman he loved. Along the way, Mamet finds room for a lot of different stuff (at some point, he evidently became interested in female aviators of the era). If you like that, and you like seeing Mametspeak on the page, as opposed to hearing it spoken by an actor, which I hope we can agree are very different things, then read Chicago. If you don't like any of that, then screw off, that's your problem.

The Bell by Iris Murdoch - I'm so intimidated by Murdoch, because her erudition is beyond my own to such an extent that I'd really appreciate it if we could stop talking about it, that I often forget how purely readable, entertaining, and gripping her fiction can be. As a result, The Bell is only my third Murdoch, but it has energized and inspired me to not take too long in getting to my fourth.

The story focuses on Dora Greenfield, whose fractured marriage to an abrasive art historian named Paul she is attempting to mend by joining him at a convent in Gloucestershire, where he is studying old theological manuscripts. The convent is populated by quite an array of characters, including Nick, the sullen twin brother of Catherine, a young novitiate. These two, along with Dora and another resident of the abbey who has a troubled history with Nick, are the crux of the whole thing, and as usual (in my limited experience) with Murdoch, much that is comical, philosophical, and despairing transpires. Based on this, I plan to up my reading of Murdoch to a minimum of one book a year.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt - For whatever reason, I was dubious about this one -- possibly because too many people said it was great, which is maybe not the most reasonable motivation to become suspicious of something. Anyway, I finally read it. While I get the comparisons to Cormac McCarthy (it's set in Olden Times and is violent as hell), that's a bit easy. DeWitt's novel is its own thing, a funny, bloody, melancholy picaresque, whose sympathetic narrator is in fact a complete psychopath. DeWitt underplays his own climax (you might argue there are two or three of them, but he underplays them all) which is fitting for a novel of such extremes: the big moments in the novel are no bigger than anything that has come before.

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler - What can you say? Or rather, who needs to hear me ranting and raving? Not you guys, probably. If I did start ranting, I would probably choose as my topic something along the lines of how the facts of a certain brand of historical totalitarianism would be erased if certain folks had their druthers so that very same totalitarianism could be reinvigorated with fresh eyes, and that this is why books like Darkness at Noon are so very much worth reading. On the other hand, if that was all that made Darkness at Noon worth reading, it wouldn't be on this list.

Koestler's masterpiece predates the publication of 1984 by nine years, and it feels like 1984, if the events of Orwell's novel had literally just happened. Though the ending of this story about Ruboshav, a Communist now imprisoned for treason by his own party, is inevitable, Koestler gets a lot of suspense out of, for example, ideological conversations between Rubashov and his two interrogators, Ivanov and Gletkin, and the dawning realization that of the three men, only Gletkin, the sinister, soulless true believer, is the only one who isn't hopelessly na├»ve. 

The End of the Road by John Barth - Speaking of philosophy, this, Barth's second novel, seems to be, in part, a condemnation of the very idea of having a philosophy of one's own. This is of course an exaggeration on my part, but everybody in The End of the Road who has a solid philosophical base from which to construct their own behavior and view of the world, is hopelessly fucked. The only one who isn't is Jacob, our hero, who faces the world with a point of view built upon terminal indecision. And that's not a philosophy, it's a psychological condition. (In this sense, The End of the Road pairs nicely with The Floating Opera, Barth's first novel.) 

This is one of those novels that depicts absolutely horrible events in an off-hand sort of way, so that in one case, something happened almost before I realized it had really happened. The effect could be one of stunned progression. Which of course is no way to live your life, but you might not have any choice.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton - My first book of 2018, which I'll admit I read in preparation for finally watching Martin Scorsese's 1993 film adaptation. That film turned out to adhere to what Wharton set down in 1920 with surprising fidelity, but why shouldn't it? There is an inescapable logic to the scenes and sequence of events which tell the story of the romance, in heart only, between successful lawyer Newland Archer and disgraced socialite Ellen Olenska. The logic in the storytelling exactly mirrors the logic by which the characters conduct their lives: each has had their path to success and happiness laid out with clear markers. Only Ellen deviates, and so Ellen moves through the parties and weddings in her social circle, or what was once her social circle, like a cloud of pollution. This is why you don't deviate. The Age of Innocence is about not deviating.

House of Meetings by Martin Amis - This covers ground similar to Darkness at Noon, so I needn't repeat myself on that count. Instead, I'll let Amis do it, thereby killing two birds with one stone. House of Meetings (which is about, in simplified terms, a love triangle playing out inside a Communist labor camp) was thought of as a misfire when it came out. If it's reputation has improved since then, nobody told me. But it should have, because Amis can still, and could then, write like this:

Something strange was happening the Soviet Union, after the war against fascism: fascism. By which I mean an abnormal emphasis on the folk (the Great Russians), together with an abnormal xenophobia. Pogrom was coming. So there were sensible, indeed cynical reasons for Zoya to look kindly on me. It was one thing to stage conspicuous entanglements with your fellow bohemians, and especially your fellow Jews; it was another thing to be the devoted companion of a tall and handsome war hero, with his medals and his yellow badge, denoting a serious wound. Not much fun to say, all that. But I'm telling you, my dear: this is the meaning, this is the daily and hourly import of state systems.

Grimhaven by Charles Willeford - I don't know if it's cheating, or unfair, to choose a book that exists only in manuscript form, was by some accounts never intended to be published, or even to be good (I don't buy that one) and can only be read if you schedule a date with the manuscript at the particular Florida library wherein it is housed, or if the widely shared pdf finds its way to you, but whatever, I finally read Willeford's "unpublishable" second (and last, I have to assume, had it ever been made it to bookstores) Hoke Moseley novel, and I absolutely loved it. Or something like that. There's a very specific reason why Grimhaven was considered unpublishable, and I knew about it before I started reading, but somehow being completely wrong about where in the story The Big Thing occurs gave reading the words in the full context a fresh shock. I once again marveled that this was Willeford's first response to being pressured by his agent to turn Hoke Moseley, the cop from what he intended to be a one-off novel, Miami Blues, into a series character. Talk about, to paraphrase the title of a song that Robert Altman once wrote, swimming through the ashes of the bridges you have burned. Anyway, Willeford eventually caved and wrote three more novels featuring Moseley (it's interesting, knowing Willeford's attitude about all this, to see how Moseley is used in those books), and I like them, but part of me -- hell, all of me -- wishes Grimhaven had actually made it to print. That would have been something.

The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark - Possibly Spark's most famous work next to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. We are told early in this short novel that Lise, our protagonist, will be murdered by the end. Why? This reminded me unpleasantly of Charles Beaumont's short story "Hunger." I mean this as a compliment to both.

Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn - The first of St. Aubyn's novels about Patrick Melrose, and the only one I've read so far (I meant to read them all this year, but I'm bad about that sort of thing, as Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy can attest). The most striking thing about the novel for me, and for probably most people who've read it, and about which I can't say much, is how after an especially awful thing happens, we get the point of view of the man who did it. Not as a way of making him sympathetic -- oh God no, quite the opposite, in fact (though this section does contain one of the darkest jokes I've ever read, having to do with the character's self-awareness, in which he is not entirely lacking) -- but just as a way of seeing through those eyes. It's not that this has never been done, but I don't believe it's ever been done like that.

Nickel Mountain by John Gardner - This is the first novel by John Gardner, an erstwhile fascination of mine, since college, and I was delighted to discover that I can ditch the "erstwhile" from this sentence and just be straight-up fascinated by him again. It tells the strange (naturally) story of a middle-aged man, Henry Soames, owner of a truckstop diner in upstate New York, who eats too much and has a bad heart (perhaps a too-easy symbolic conflict with the fact that Henry is good-hearted), who one day decides to hire a sixteen-year-old girl, Callie Wells. Then, when she gets pregnant and the father scoots, he marries her. Despite that premise, Nickel Mountain is decidedly un-skeavy, and none of the directions it goes could have been predicted at the start of the novel (if you've read Gardner before, though, it's familiar in its own way). It includes religious fanatics (who Gardner does not dismiss with a sneer), odd deaths, dangerous births, furious arguments about God, and one of the most curious, I don't know what you'd call it...implications of serial murder I've encountered. I'm still not sure what to make of that bit, but I'm glad to have that mystery in my head.

The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge - Some years back, I made the decision two read at least one novel a year by both Beryl Bainbridge and Barbara Comyns. I've stuck to it, and since doing so Barbara Comyns has made this "Best Of" list every year, while Bainbridge, whose books I've largely enjoyed, has only achieved this, the highest honor that can be bestowed on a writer, two or three times. Well, this year things are all topsy-turvy! The Comyns novel I read, The House of Dolls, her last one, is perfectly enjoyable, but is also that most putrid of things: a minor work. Bainbridge's The Birthday Boys, on the other hand, is far and away the best of her novels I've read since The Bottle Factory Outing (surely her masterpiece). It's a historical novel about Robert Scott's catastrophic Arctic expedition, from 1910 to 1913, a topic whose details most writers would use to build a monstrous book from, but which Bainbridge expertly sketches and populates with a handful of distinct main characters who take turns narrating. It may go without saying that the last chapter, told from the point of view of a man who, historical records show, did not survive the ordeal, is the most affecting, but it is, and it allows Bainbridge to close out her novel -- a novel that, like so many of hers, has an emotional reserve underpinning the whole thing -- with her own brand of heartbreak. Which is its own thing, to be sure, but genuine.

A House and its Head by Ivy Compton-Burnett - I hope you'll pardon me if it begins to look like I'm running out of steam, but the main thing I want to say about this novel, my first by Compton-Burnett, about a family that loses its matriarch and attempts to welcome a new one, is that the only novel I can think of that rivals it for sheer ice-bloodedness is Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust. Waugh still takes the prize, but even to be in that race with him is something else.

Tell Them of Battles, Kings & Elephants by Mathias Enard - Like Bainbridge, Enard takes a historical subject that other writers would use to fill up 600 pages, and boils it down to its essence, leaving about 140 pages to deal with Michelangelo's frustrations with the Vatican's tight purse, his rivalry with Da Vinci, his trip to Constantinople to design a bridge for the Sultan, ambiguous sexuality, unrequited love, and political intrigue. Told in a series of vignettes, Tell Them of Battles, Kings & Elephants is completely hypnotic, slender yet somehow not sparse, poetic, perfectly judged and balanced.

Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World by Donald Antrim - In his introduction to the 2014 reprint edition of this 1993 novel, Jeffrey Eugenides says at one point that, despite everything we come to know about Pete Robinson, and despite everything we suspect might be true about him almost from the very beginning, despite it all, "we like Pete." Well, speak for yourself, Eugenides, because I never did. Throughout Donald Antrim's absurdist "the dystopia is now" satire, Pete shows himself to be at best temporarily thoughtful of others, and then only if he can pat himself on the back about it later (or while he's doing it), and at worst...well, I'll let you get to that part on your own.

Of course, that description might suggest that Antrim writes Robinson as some kind of shrill, obvious caricature, but he doesn't at all. Despite the wildly implausible events -- missiles fired by the town mayor, that same mayor being drawn and quartered, and that's just in the first ten pages -- Antrim keeps the tone matter-of-fact. Pete my find himself frustrated by many of the things that happen in the course of the novel, but it's not like there aren't people all over the country going through the same thing.

The Pugilist at Rest by Thom Jones - Among all the documentary films I've seen, I tend to favor the ones that seem to be about everything in life, all at once, without ever appearing to try: Errol Morris's Gates of Heaven, the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin's Gimme Shelter, Kristen Johnson's Cameraperson. I found this same feeling of cathartic, mysterious mind-expansion in the title story of Thom Jones's first collection of short stories. "The Pugilist at Rest" is at once a graphic war story, a reflection on art, and knowledge, and desperate push back against encroaching mental illness. The rest of the book is also terrific ("I Want to Live!" was chosen by John Updike as one of the best American short stories of the 20th century), but that title story is a goddamn barn-burner. 

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift - An English estate is empty, save for two people: the male heir to the family that owns the place, and a female maidservant. The two have just had sex, and are very much in love. They're going to part separately, and after he goes, she wanders around the house, naked, thinking about the family and her life and the man she loves. This man, we're told early on, is right now on his way to die in a car accident. The saddest and most beautiful novel I read this year, expertly and seamlessly built by Swift.

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor - I've been hearing forever how great Elizabeth Taylor is, and when I finally read this one -- the novel of hers most often recommended to me -- I realized it was one of those rare instances where everyone was telling the truth. Angel tells the story of Angelica Deverell, a literary prodigy whose fiction gains her fame and wealth, but somehow also helps (or conspires with wealth and fame) to keep her immature, and unreasonable, and frustrated, throughout her life, a state that keeps her forever at war with her aunt, and drags Angel's best friend down with her. 

I was most taken with the relationship between Angel and her publisher, a kind man, and serious about literature, but who takes a chance on Angel when she's a teenager, despite the fact that many object to the fantastical, unintentionally absurd nature of her fiction. The relationship persists throughout their lives, despite how difficult it becomes even to know Angel, let alone publish her. But it's a unique friendship, and a touching one, even if you always want to throw your drink in Angel's face, and a fascinating look at a particular facet of the literary world.

2666 by Roberto Bolano - Talk about novels that seem to be about everything. In this case, I don't think "seem" ever enters into it. It's about Mexico, it's about South America, it's about America, it's about Europe, it's about World War II, racism, drugs, terminal illness, journalism, women, men, abuse, science fiction, Communism (its dream and its failure), poverty, literature, literary criticism, and serial murder. To name just a few things. An awe-inspiring thing, the kind of book whose very conception is baffling to contemplate. It would be a lie to say that "everything comes together" by the end (split into five sections, 2666 has been published both as one volume and as five, with the assurance that each of the five short individual books can be read on their own; I question that assertion), but at the end two important threads do join together. Not in a way that is clarifying, necessarily, but in a way that is right, that had to be, and that is frightening in ways it is difficult to describe.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson - For a long time, I figured it went without saying that 2666 would top this list. And it's not a matter of reading this, Denis Johnson's final book, after reading 2666 -- I read The Largesse of the Sea Maiden months before. But just recently, and maybe for sentimental reasons more than anything else, I realized that, regardless of the amount of time and mental energy expended (and reimbursed) in the reading of 2666, this story collection is the reading experience I value most from this past year. Johnson wrote two story collections (his other, Jesus' Son from 1992, is a classic), and the fact that this was a long-awaited return to the form is bittersweet, coming, as it did, posthumously. The jack copy says that the book was completed "shortly before his death," which leads me to wonder if Johnson knew his time was up as he was writing. Or it would do, if the stories themselves didn't make it obvious. Johnson ends "Triumph Over the Grave," my favorite of the five long stories collected here, this way:

Then after four or five years Mrs. Exroy and I stopped bumping into each other, because she died too. Oh -- and just a few weeks ago in Marin County my friend Nan, Robert's widow -- if you recall my shocking phone call with Nan at the very top of this account -- took sick and passed away. It doesn't matter. The world keeps turning. It's plain to you that at the time I write this, I'm not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.

I don't know what more there is to say, beyond the fact that I will never forget that, and I will always imagine Johnson writing it, and thinking about it, and the powerful sadness he brought to me almost a year after his death, but a good sadness, a sadness of the sort that says we're all in this together.

The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton
The Big Gold Dream
by Chester Himes
A Case Of Rape
by Chester Himes
Cry Revenge
by Donald Goines
Darkness At Noon
by Arthur Koestler
Jane: A Murder
by Maggie Nelson
The Red Parts: Autobiography Of A Trial
by Maggie Nelson
by Graham Swift
Mothering Sunday
by Graham Swift
by David Mamet
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden
by Denis Johnson
You Were Never Really Here
by Jonathan Ames
The Vegetarian
by Han Kang
Lady Chatterley's Lover
by D.H. Lawrence
A Brutal Chill In August
by Alan M. Clark
His Last Bow
by Arthur Conan Doyle
You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up
by Richard Hallas
Letters to a Young Poet
by Rainer Maria Rilke
The Book of Hours
by Rainer Maria Rilke
Big Bad Love
by Larry Brown
I'm Thinking of Ending Things
by Iain Reid
The Ritual
by Adam Nevill
Beast in View
by Margaret Millar
The End of the Road
by John Barth
The Driver's Seat
by Muriel Spark
Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife
by William H. Gass
Paingod and Other Delusions
by Harlan Ellison
No Doors, No Windows
by Harlan Ellison
by Donald E. Westlake
A Frolic of His Own
by William Gaddis
Mrs. Caliban
by Rachel Ingalls
by Lars Iyer
The Dark Dark
by Samantha Hunt
Border Districts
by Gerald Murnane
And Be a Villain
by Rex Stout
The Penitent
by David Mamet
Riding The Rap
by Elmore Leonard
A House and Its Head
by Ivy Compton-Burnett
The Reaping
by Bernard Taylor
Out Of The Woods
by Chris Offutt
The Devil All The Time
by Donald Ray Pollock
The Woods
by David Mamet
Hell And Ohio
by Chris Holbrook
Give Us A Kiss
by Daniel Woodrell
The Rich Pay Late
by Simon Raven
by Charles Willeford
Little Tales Of Misogyny
by Patricia Highsmith
More Tales Of The Callamo Mountains
by Larry Blamire
The Counterlife
by Philip Roth
Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child
by S. Craig Zahler
Black Helicopters
by Caitlin R. Kiernan
by Michael McDowell
The Little Disturbances Of Man
by Grace Paley
by Barry Gifford
by Elizabeth Taylor
by Barry Gifford
Rhode Island Red
by Charlotte Carter
Never Mind
by Edward St. Aubyn
by David Mamet
How I Conquered Your Planet
by John Swartzwelder
Home Land
by Sam Lipsyte
Sharp Objects
by Gillian Flynn
The House Of Dolls
by Barbara Comyns
The Summer Of Katya
by Trevanian
Understudy For Death
by Charles Willeford
House Of Meetings
by Martin Amis
Meeting Evil
by Thomas Berger
Gateways To Abomination
by Matthew M. Bartlett
The Outsider
by Stephen King
The Pugilist At Rest by Thom Jones
Seduction Of The Innocent
by Max Allan Collins
When The Emperor Was Divine
by Julie Otsuka
The Bell
by Iris Murdoch
A Time Of Changes
by Robert Silverberg
Hold The Dark
by William Giraldi
The Bellarosa Connection
by Saul Bellow
A Theft
by Saul Bellow
The Sisters Brothers
by Patrick DeWitt
Of Thimble And Threat
by Alan M. Clark
Daddy Cool
by Donald Goines
The Boke Of The Divill
by Reggie Oliver
by Richard Marsh
Hullo Russia, Goodbye England
by Derek Robinson
by Richard Ford
by Roberto Bolano
by Nick Drnaso
The Birthday Boys
by Beryl Bainbridge
We Sold Our Souls
by Grady Hendrix
The Ballad Of Peckham Rye
by Muriel Spark
Grief Is The Thing With Feathers
by Max Porter
by Jean-Patrick Manchette
The Stay-Awake Men
by Matthew M. Bartlett
Elect Mr. Robinson For A Better World
by Donald Antrim
Tell Them Of Battles, Kings & Elephants
by Mathias Enard
by Stephen Volk
The Guards
by Ken Bruen
Nickel Mountain
by John Gardner
Nothing But The Night
by John Williams
The House On Mango Street
by Sandra Cisneros