2012: The Shelf of Shame

on Sunday, December 16, 2012
You know the drill. Before I go singing the praises of the truly remarkable books that came out this year I must first clear my throat of the phlegm. And so it is with green, mucilaginous glee that I bring you 2012's Shelf of Shame.

Sometimes the shepherds of literary culture lead us into apoplectic anticipation by pulling the wool over our eyes. Time to give the sheep a fringe:

HHhH by Laurent Binet. Sometime in March, I began to hear whispers about a revolutionary work of historical fiction that had won every prize under the sun in France and was about to take over the rest of the literary world. Those of us interested in Holocaust fiction trembled with anticipation, occasionally stopping to wipe the saliva from our shoes. When it finally arrived, HHhH proved to be a crushing disappointment. Hardly a revelation of any kind, it was a simple piece of documentary storytelling (not unlike a Wikipedia entry) with the odd intrusion of a very annoying knob putting in his two cents about the writing process.

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz. Critics went nuts for this. Readers lined up in droves to heap the stars on their online reviews. I, however, saw stasis, not progress. Yes, Diaz is an exciting voice in fiction, but he is starting to sound a little monotonous. I ended up wanting to push Yunior under a train.

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens. Don't crucify me. I believed the hype. One of the great minds of modern times honestly and defiantly reflects on his descent into the abyss. This could have been so great but, when all was said and done, Hitchens found the one topic against which he could rage but on which he seemed to have little true insight. Mortality certainly had moments of epiphany, but they were drowned in a swamp of confusion. Remember Hitchens for everything else he wrote. Let this be just a footnote.

2012 was a bumper year for expectations. Quite a few of my favourite authors published new works. Some came through. Others... well:

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan: Many readers thought Sweet Tooth a return to form after the disappointing Solar (which, it seems, I am the only person to have liked). Strangely devoid of the familiar McEwan formula - catastrophic event befalls ordinary person - this one revisited the mindfuck device he used in Atonement, albeit in a classic 70s MI5 spy context. Unfortunately, lightning did not strike twice. Sweet Tooth is not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a little lazy and ultimately unsatisfying.

The Investigation by Philippe Claudel. Holy shit I was excited about this. Claudel, the author of my favourite novel of the past five years, returned with a book that promised to be part Kafka part Calvino (and, I suppose, part Claudel). Instead, The Investigation turned out to be a self-conscious meta wankfest that wasn't a patch on either of the aforementioned authors and did very little to further Claudel in my estimation. As I said in my review, only one person ever did the Kafka thing well and he died of TB back in June 1924.

Dirt by David Vann. To my mind, Vann has positioned himself to become the true heir to Cormac McCarthy. Equally bleak and nihilistic, with enough originality to avoid simply being dismissed as sycophantic fan fiction, both his debut story collection and first novel absolutely blew me away. This Oedipal mess had its moments but for the most part was an exercise in losing control. I'll allow him this misstep on the basis of "difficult second album syndrome", but I expect far better in the future.

Dishonourable Mentions:
Stonemouth by Iain Banks. Someone please tell me why I still expect good books from this guy.
Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson. This time the joke is on him. Ho hum farce of a middling order.
Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Following all the buzz, I'm not sure what I expected. It was not, however, this amalgamation of Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Dan Brown.

50 Covers of Grey
Yes, yes. Tawdriness is the new Twilight. But must every book that involves fisting and gerbils have the same bloody cover (metaphorically speaking)? I smell a cynical cash-grab aimed squarely at bored housewives. As I said to one bookseller after he sold an E.L. James novel to an ageing tennis mum, "Now imagine her reading that in the bath while masturbating."

It's a tie between We All Fall Down by Peter Barry and Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis

You may recall Peter Barry from last year's list. No, not the shelf of shame. The top ten. His debut, I Hate Martin Amis Et Al was one of the most refreshing, hilarious, gutsy novels I have read. This, however, shared none of those qualities. I'm not sure whether We All Fall Down was sitting in his bottom drawer and pounced upon by the publisher after the unexpected hit of Amis, or whether he quickly cobbled it together in the hope of keeping up the momentum he had suddenly generated, but whatever the reason someone should have nipped it in the bud. We All Fall Down is a boring, turgid, indulgent waste of trees.

If only I could say such lovely things about Martin Amis's latest disaster. Subtitled A State Of The Nation Novel, Lionel Asbo was merely a vehicle for Amis to toss nerf pebbles from his crystal palace at his distorted idea of England. And what a tosser he was! Neither funny nor excoriating, this was about as useless a novel as I could imagine. I'll always love The Information but oh how the mighty can fall. Now I'm with Peter Barry. I too hate Martin Amis.


Post a Comment