Month: December 2012

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2012

In a year when I reviewed only 21 books (and one short story), you might think that I have a cheek in bothering to whittle them down to the dozen that I liked best. You might think I have even more cheek in still not managing to get it down to twelve. I suppose if it proves anything, it’s that when time is tight, it’s the chaff that gets discarded. I regret having no room for Evan S. Connell’s Mr Bridge. I excluded it only because it depends on its companion volume, Mrs Bridge, for full effect, and the latter has had plenty of attention this year since its reissue by Penguin (and was in my books of the year list in 2010). Mr Bridgewill be reissued in February 2013: go get it.

This list is in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

Nicola Barker: The Yips
“That’s the thing about Barker: nothing can prepare you for her.” Well, sort of. Either this book is less demanding than Barker’s previous ‘big novel’ Darkmans, or I am more attuned to her style now. In either event, I loved this baggy, funny and discomfiting report on a certain thread of modern English life.

Greg Baxter: The Apartment
“A book with a careful – but welcome – distrust of significance.” I raved about Baxter’s previous book, a spiky and shouty series of essays masquerading as a memoir. The Apartment, his first novel, is quieter but no less accomplished. It also contains postmodern elements such as infodumps from websites, secreted within the narrator’s thoughts. Baxter says, “I didn’t want to write a book that was clever. I wanted to write a book that was intense.”

Maeve Brennan: The Springs of Affection
One of the best short story collections I’ve read, though to limit it by that description is wrong. It is in three sections, each section describing a family’s life in Dublin, and it is not a laugh riot. “They have the ring of truth, and they hurt.” Depressingly, if unsurprisingly, this book is currently out of print in the UK.

Simon Crump: My Elvis Blackout
Certainly the strangest book of the year, and one of the few on this list (see also Baxter and Ridgway) that I read twice to appreciate better. It has to be read backwards, in the sense that it is only when it is over that its depths and subtleties are absolutely clear. It is “a mirrorball made of highly polished razor blades.” It is sick, stupid, silly and very sad.

Helen DeWitt: Lightning Rods
This is, perhaps more than any other on the list, an entirely unforgettable book. Voice and subject – a sort of bizarre cliché-driven management-speak, and workplace sex, respectively – are so perfectly attuned that it is entirely sui generis. Like Barker and Crump’s books, it is extremely funny and also utterly serious. It is “sneaky, tendentious and deceptive” – in all the best ways.

A.M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven
This is a great – or almost great – American novel which doesn’t beat its own chest but just gets on with it. Riddled with bizarre and amusing details, and pretty straight beneath its colourful surface, it is “a twisted but loving portrait of a time and a country.”

Joseph Heller: Something Happened
I read this book for the fourth time this year to check if its status as one of my favourite books is still justified. It is. What a bold step to take – and to take a dozen years over – after the success of Catch-22Something Happened is long, brutal, horribly funny (the humour only ever comes from sadness) and surely one of the most remarkable novels published in English in the second half of the twentieth century.

Bruno Jasienski: I Burn Paris
With its hypnotic cover design and obscure (to most of us) author, this screams cult classic. But it should have broader appeal: its tale of a man who poisons the Paris water system seems bang up to date with its satire on cultural division. It is “a mad, hyperbolic performance” and deserves your attention.

Keith Ridgway: Hawthorn & Child
I feel almost embarrassed to include this book. What more can I say about it that I haven’t already? Take the word, then, of the dozens of authors, bloggers and other bookish people who have listed it as one of the books of the year also. These include, intriguingly, Peter Stothard, who was chair of the Man Booker Prize this year (he also listed The Apartment). How close, I now wonder, did Ridgway get to the Booker longlist?

Zadie Smith: NW
Imagine my surprise when Smith’s new novel, problematic in places but enormously impressive, was not received with universal hosannas. This is a novel which “unfolds, like an origami water-lily, and contains multitudes.” I think it is Smith’s best novel by some distance, and it makes me excited to see what such a young writer (i.e. younger than me) does in future.

Enrique Vila-Matas: Dublinesque
A very bookish book, the sort of book I would expect to love, this novel met my expectations and more. As well as being a bran tub of literary inspiration (note to self: reread Ulysses, and finish it this time), it is a work of originality and imagination in its own right. “One of the most pleasurable and joyous novels of the year.”

Robert Walser: Selected Stories
The version of this book that I reviewed is out of print (I bought it years ago), but has been reissued by another publisher. Walser is charming, knowing, naive and mischievous. Everyone who reads him seems to love him. He is also very hard to describe accurately, so do try him for yourself. “The impression is of a writer with nothing to hide, guileless and at once hyperconscious and unaffected.”

Chris Ware: Building Stories
To include this book – this box – in an end-of-year list feels like a rote nod rather than a full-throated roar – who hasn’t? – but its ubiquity has good cause. It’s fantastically rich, seriously beautiful, and, if the books on this list seem to fall into ‘sad’, ‘funny’ and ‘both’, it’s firmly in the former category. “Its subject is, more or less, everything it means to be human.”

Simon Crump: My Elvis Blackout

I’ve written about Simon Crump here before – even interviewed him – and I was keeping this, his ‘best known’ book, as a reliable treat. That went the way of all good intentions – of all good books, pushed ever further down the priority list by the clamour of later arrivals, which are more exciting and more urgent simply because of their newness. Fortunately, its reissue this month by Galley Beggar Press, as an ebook, has made it new all over again.

Simon Crump: My Elvis Blackout

My Elvis Blackout was initially published in 2000 by Bloomsbury. It was Crump’s first book, and as a launchpad into the literary world it could hardly have been more dramatic. If you don’t know what to expect from a new author, it’s pretty safe that you don’t expect a book where Elvis Presley buries the mutilated body of Barbara Cartland on page two, and executes Chris de Burgh not long after, only to have the “reedy-voiced, ferret-faced little bastard” come back from the dead as a headless zombie. The problem with this book, then, is that its excesses come at the beginning, and that the silly stuff and the stupid stuff is likely to provoke in many readers the urge – never far off in me – to chuck it aside and move on to the next one.

I persisted with it, but nonetheless finished it up – not long after I started it, as it’s less than 25,000 words long – still uncertain. Still mystified, in fact. Was it funny? Was it serious? Was it any good? The only thing I didn’t doubt was that it was interesting. As a debut, it seemed less fully achieved than Neverland (Crump’s fourth book), and less modulated too: fifty shades of black to the later book’s subtle gradations of colour. I put it aside and pondered it. Then I went back to it, and re-read it, more slowly this time, not by design but for the usual reasons (work, children).

Second time around, it seemed absolutely right to me: or more firmly wrong. One enthusiastic Amazon review of My Elvis Blackout says that it is impossible to describe it without making it sound like one of the worst books in the world, but I am going to try. It is a series of very short stories, scenes, sketches and vignettes, most of which feature Elvis Presley, or a version of him. The Elvis here is disturbed, twisted and violent, driven mad by fame and the permeable membrane between real life and the public image. His story is made from sparks of flash fiction; it is a mirrorball made of highly polished razor blades, reflecting different aspects of the King.

The stories are told by Elvis himself and by people who know him, and they are full of sudden jerks and switchbacks, with comedy flipping into terror and then sentimentality in the space of a page or two, and anticipated punchlines turning to dust. One of the early stories has Angie Crumbaker recounting her fling as a high school girl with Elvis in 1959. “I had missed a lot of fun this year by being Elvis’s girl. Yet I certainly didn’t blame him. It wasn’t his fault that he had problems.” But even she can’t foresee the confession Elvis is soon to make to her:

‘For the last couple of months … well, I’ve been stealing wigs from Eveline’s House of Hair and Feminine Beauty, taking them back and shampooing them, I just can’t stop myself, it makes me feel so good.’

As with so many of the tales here, it soon turns to death, reported both flippantly and tenderly. “At that moment,” says Angie, “Elvis looked so handsome that my aching heart began to bleed.” Later, he is heading up the “Memphis mafia,” with echoes for his friends of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. “Nobody dares laugh, as there’s no telling what Elvis might do.” Thereafter, he kills Chris de Burgh, twice. At times the strangeness seems unexplainable by design; elsewhere, you can see what Crump is up to: extrapolating fancies from slivers of known fact. For example, the story ‘Elvis: Fat, Fucked-Up Fool’ begins: “His greatest fear was of being poor and he dwelled upon it constantly.” True, no doubt, but Crump flings the idea around and turns it into a dark fantasy of underage sex, ice-cream and buried valuables. Jarringly juxtaposed with this is the next piece (‘Ex-Elvis’), a series of single lines laid out centrally on the page like inner sleeve lyrics, and which draw an austere and pitiable picture:

Way back home there’s a funeral.

All the police carry guns.

Something she said worries him.

Somebody stole his crown.

Sometimes he cries in his sleep.

All he has is a radio and a guitar.

There’s a pain in his chest and he throws up all the time.

The more you read it, and re-read it, the clearer it becomes that My Elvis Blackout is at its heart a tragedy: of internal conflict and turmoil, of a man unknowable to anyone including himself, of real life lost to the distorting mirror of fame. Indeed, it ends up seeming like the most eloquent (and violent) expression of the psychopathology of fame since the best of Gordon Burn. I was reminded when reading it of Burn’s observation that “almost everything I’ve written has been about celebrity, and how for most people celebrity is a kind of death.” Indeed, in My Elvis Blackout, Crump seems to merge the twin poles of Burn’s world: the seedy low-key fame of snooker players or Alma Cogan, and the psychopathy of the Wests or Peter Sutcliffe.

Simon Crump: My Elvis Blackout

When Elvis himself speaks in the book, as in the four chapters of ‘An Amazing Talk With Elvis’, he sounds altogether sober and subdued, his reports of life and what brought him here having the tone of a formal witness statement or court report. Here and elsewhere the words read like found material from other sources. Elvis tells of his real history and of how he was remade for public consumption, so that the moral begins to look like Kurt Vonnegut’s in Mother Night: ‘we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be’. There is a terrible confusion of identity, in the story ‘Loma Linda’, where the distinction is thoroughly blurred between reality and delusion (“He sincerely believed that he was a major rockstar”) – yet whichever is the truth, this particular Elvis is still tortured and unhappy. “He refused to eat anything except potatoes. ‘These are buried in the ground,’ he said, ‘and could not be poisoned by radiation.'”

As the book goes on, the tone becomes more muted, although death is still everywhere. (“Under the tangle of dead hairs on the pillow, a dark stain spread out from where her mouth had been.”) The narratives spread beyond Elvis to those known to him, such as his tailor Bernard Lansky, who gets a fictional life, from the plausible (fleeing Nazi Germany) to the fanciful (tried and hanged for witchcraft: “Elvis was present too and accompanied the hurried procession to the drop. Bernard Lansky almost ran towards it”). The witchcraft theme recurs, with a story (‘Jungle Room’) that springboards from the North Berwick Witch Trials. Here one of Crump’s signature moves appears: puncturing something interesting and disturbing with a joke, a technique which walks a line between uneasiness and laziness. Often enough, though, he pulls it back again just in time, and so the effect overall is of a unified vision rather than a limited range. Dissociation reaches its apex at the end of the book, when Elvis impersonators are conflated with the French royalty at the time of the revolution, persecuted by Marat and executed by guillotine. It is a strong and subtle finish, and reiterates the preoccupations of this book – the oddest I have read all year – and the fragile threshold that James Salter described in Light Years, which sums up one aspect of My Elvis Blackout beautifully:

There are really two kinds of life. There is the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, this other we long to see.