2016 In Review: The Shelf of Shame

on Friday, December 23, 2016
Maybe it's the embarrassingly small number of books I've actually read this year (just clocked over the 90 mark, still hoping against hope to hit 100). Maybe it's my impending metamorphosis from reviewer to reviewed. Maybe it's just a food coma from nervous/festive eating. Whatever, I'm changing up this year's Shelf of Shame. No longer will I choose a Worst Book of the Year. The idea is rubbish anyway - I have a highly selective sample and to tar one with such a shitty epithet seems undignified when, in the real world of books, I'm sure there are far, far worse. Also, I've been a little out of touch with the literary hype machine so I can't pick a 'Most Overhyped'. Instead, I'm going to keep it simple. A bunch of books I am ashamed not to have read and a few books that truly disappointed me. Hopefully even in this pared down form, I can still piss off someone.

A slow reading year means a shelf overflowing with unread books. And while I subscribe to Umberto Eco's theory of the anti-library (the unread books on your shelf are just as, if not more, important than the ones you have read), I can't help but feel somewhat guilty at not having had the chance to get to some of these. Needless to say, there are a ton more books I would have loved to get through this year but these are the standouts (along with the new ones from Zadie Smith and Sebastian Barry, neither of which I've had the chance to buy yet):

2016 saw new novels from some pretty heavy hitters. For the most part I was impressed, if not bowled over. Michael Chabon charmed me with Moonglow. Sure, it was no Kavalier and Clay but it was fun, inventive and quite heartwarming. China Mieville gave us two short bursts of typically oddball flair with This Census Taker and The Last Days of New Paris. J.M. Coetzee returned to form with the dark and mesmerising The Schooldays of Jesus. And Colson Whitehead hit it out of the park with The Underground Railroad. Expect to see a few of these on my Best Of lists next week.

Alas, 2016 was somewhat less successful for five of my favourite authors who, it pains me to say, produced books that ranged from decidedly average to outright bad.

I'm not sure why I still get excited by a new Don DeLillo book. He hasn't produced anything great since his 1997 masterpiece, Underworld (though, to be fair, preceding that DeLillo managed the almost unthinkable, churning out a string of novels that could all lay claim to that title - White Noise, Libra, Mao II). Still, reading the promo guff on his new novel, Zero K, I was cautiously optimistic. Would it be the DeLillo of yesteryear, riffing on the possibility of eternal life? Or would it be his Philip Roth-like navel gazing grumble about getting old? Well, wouldn't you know it, it was both. Zero K started brilliantly. DeLillo created an entirely convincing world in which cryogenic freezing is a real option and where people meaningfully confronted the terror of premature death with the benefit of an existential safety net. Bang on, Don. Bang on. Then, of course, it all went to shit. The book became a plodding mess of melodramatic masturbation. And then it just got boring. It seemed that DeLillo himself had grown bored with the whole thing. Of course it's possible that he simply realised that the terrifying near-futures he once so presciently predicted have become our modern reality. Or, to put it another way, the man who once was our prophet has been relegated to the role of contemporary historian. And for that DeLillo is just not cut out.

Speaking of old codgers navel-gazing (well, actually, gazing a few inches south of the navel), Ismail Kadare followed up his astonishing short novel The Fall of the Stone City with unfortunate nad-fondling in A Girl In Exile. I'd have thought a sojourn into the whole "author obsesses over girl who likes his work" thing beneath him but even with the quite intriguing frame of forbidden books, secret messages and meta-narratives Kadare didn't manage to say anything of particular note with this one. To be sure, it was no The Humbling (quite possibly the most embarrassing 'old man book by a great author' of all time) but it was an unfortunate misstep nonetheless.

Holy crap, I'm segueing like nobody's business here. Just as I mentioned the whole framing thing, it jumps from behind the curtain to reveal itself as the achilles heel of two of my favourite authors. Ian McEwan ruined a deliciously sinister tale of jealousy and murder with the spectacularly clunky conceit of having a foetus narrate the tale. Plenty of critics thought it delightful and playful. I thought it was lame. I'm all for the suspension of disbelief, but ask me to be an outright idiot and I raise the middle finger to you, good sir. Given that the actual story this bag of unformed meat matter told us was so vintage McEwan, so reminiscent of The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers, I am forced to raise the second hand, too. Following The Children's Act, you're at two strikes now, dude. Shape up.

A framing device was also the undoing of perennial B4BW fave David Grossman in A Horse Walks Into A Bar. As the title suggests, the novel is about a stand-up comic and takes place over the course of a single performance in which he falls apart on stage while telling the story of his life. As a tale of broken young adulthood, the book is really powerful. It's sad and disconcertingly familiar - we all knew a kid like Dovaleh and probably teased him at some point. That Dovaleh happened to have been a child in Israel immediately after the Holocaust and lived in the shadow of his parents' trauma only compounded the ordinary tribulations of childhood. It's not hard to see why he became a comedian. Unfortunately, that is where the novel really stumbles. Whenever Grossman goes into the joke-telling passages, the gags are uniformly crusty and old. You'll have heard them all before. And they weren't funny the first time. Maybe that was the point. I'm not sure. But even if it was, it is more off-putting than anything else which is a shame, really. A Horse Walks Into a Bar is the best book of my disappointing reads, but following on from To The End of the Land and Falling Out of Time it is greatly disappointing nonetheless.

The same cannot be said of Rabih Alameddine's snorefest, The Angel of History. Holy In and Out Burger, what was he thinking? I'd have hoped that Alameddine, who proved so adept at tackling big issues in the past, might have brought something new to his chronicle of the 1980s AIDS epidemic but, cloak it as he tried with a kind of cool conceit - Satan and Death battle it out over the soul of Jacob (a gay, Yeminite poet living in San Francisco) while Jacob's cat Behemoth watches on -, it was a plodding mess of a book that broke my heart for all the wrong reasons. All I could think of as I trudged my way through its treacly pages was the sheer delight of Aaliya, the narrator of Alameddine's revelation of a novel, An Unnecessary Woman. We learn of Jacob's friends and lovers, we learn of his prostitute mother who gave him away in the hope of a giving him a better life as well as his father - a wealthy client - who promises the world and turns his back on both woman and child. Heck, we learn any number of stories that ought to have moved me more than they did. But it is all a bit too overcooked to lift beyond mere sentimentality and by the end I felt that it had gone nowhere. I'll put it down to a misstep. And I might just go back to Aaliya. And Alameddine's hilarious impersonation of her. God I love him.


Post a Comment