Thumb Wrestling a Paper Giant: The Decade in Review (Part 2)

on Tuesday, December 24, 2019
Only a few days left so I figured I better get my shit together and finish this countdown. I've spent the last few days incessantly juggling the order of the Top 10 and, really, but for the top three there could have been any permutation of what's below. So, here they are: my ten favourite books of the... um... I still have no clue what it's called. Bring on the 20s!

10. The Jesus Trilogy by J.M. Coetzee (2013/2016/2019)
Okay, okay. I know I'm cheating here. But it wasn't until I'd read the final instalment that I came to understand Coetzee's greater project with his Jesus books and I now consider it impossible to view them individually. Indeed, if you do, The Childhood of Jesus (the first salvo) really collapses in the second half and wouldn't stand a chance of making this list on its own. Viewed as a whole, however, it's truly breathtaking and completely puts to rest fears that he had somehow diminished after moving to Australia. Using the surreal fable form that made Waiting For the Barbarians so incredible, Coetzee lands a hefty blow to the soul with this examination of life's true value. The Schooldays of Jesus reads like a philosophical murder mystery and The Death of Jesus rivals any of the great existential novels of yesteryear. Think Sartre's Roads to Freedom trilogy but more magical, timeless and, dare I say better. Read as one, I now suspect Jesus might be Coetzee's masterpiece.

9. What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell (2016)
My 2016 Book of the Year, Garth Greenwell's What Belongs To You is an unrelenting, lustful, homoerotic carnival of obsession and sacrifice. Kicking off with a tawdry quick fuck in the toilet cubicle of Bulgaria's National Museum of Culture, it follows the unnamed narrator's descent into near-madness as he falls for Mitko, an opportunistic rent boy who swans in and out of his life. It might seem an unlikely setup for an insightful examination of the modern human condition but let's face it, we all live in a world of anomie and unfulfilled desire. And Greenwell demonstrates a capacity for profound understanding that most philosophers would kill to possess. His new book, Cleanness comes out soon and promises to "revisit and expand" the world of his debut and I, for one, could not be more excited!

8. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (2012)
There have been some great war novels in the last ten years, the majority having been written by returned soldiers. Phil Klay's Redeployment (ok, it's short stories but whatever), Roy Scranton's War Porn and David Abrams's Fobbit immediately spring to mind. But none shook my soul like Kevin Powers's incendiary debut. The Yellow Birds draws on his own life as a poet and active soldier to craft a riveting tale of one man's struggle to come to terms with the death of his friend during service in Iraq. Not a single war cliche pollutes the perfect prose. The emotion is raw, the anger palpable, the depth of humanity staggering. Check out my original review here.

7. Melisande! What Are Dreams by Hillel Halkin (2012)
Another quiet book that has firmly lodged itself in my heart, Melisande! What Are Dreams? is a book that seems to have been mostly overlooked but thoroughly deserves to be considered a classic. It is, to my knowledge, the only novel written by the acclaimed translator of the Hebrew and Yiddish greats, and one that he wrote quite late in the game. Little surprise then that it is so deeply imbued with the kind of cultural and literary intelligence that very few debut novelists could ever muster. A melancholic story of a marriage in decline, Melisande! What Are Dreams? is one of the most tender meditations on the nature of human relations that I have ever read.

6. The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (2018)
By now the story behind Nunez's National Prize-winning breakthrough is well known. A distinguished, decades-long career of consistently excellent but commercially unremarkable novels and then, suddenly, she's heralded an overnight success. As I wrote in the previous post (I only read it this year), The Friend is all the feels you could hope to find in a book. The story of a woman who is left to care for her friend and mentor's oversized dog after the friend's suicide, it is in turns tragic and funny but always warm and insightful. There is a mind-bending twist, so cleverly executed that it spoils nothing to mention it here; only to note that it is a moment of true narrative genius. I can see myself returning to The Friend over the years like one would a favourite song.

5. The Town by Shaun Prescott (2017)
A debut novel published by a small local press, The Town might just be my favourite Australian novel of all time. It's hard to describe this surreal masterpiece in a way that comes close to doing it justice. Suffice to say, this story of an unnamed writer working on a book about disappearing towns who turns up to a small unnamed town just as bits of it begin to disappear, ranks up there in the pantheon of brilliantly absurd works by Kafka, Bernhard and Borges. Picked up by Faber in the UK and FSG in America (it is finally getting released in 2020), it was my 2017 Book of the Year and came very close to being my favourite of the decade. Check out my Book of the Year citation here.

4. Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill (2014)
It's funny looking back over my top ten lists from each year and thinking that, while I didn't get the order wrong at the time, some books have edged their way up in my memory such that they have lasted in a way that others on the same list simply have not. In 2014, Jenny Offill's masterpiece in miniature landed at number five. Half a decade later and it remains a book that I treasure more so than most that were above it. This autopsy of an ordinary failed marriage is so exquisitely rendered that I melt every time I spare it a thought (which, I should add is often - basically, I'm 60% puddle). Not a wasted word to be found. Check out my original review here.

3. The Infatuations by Javier Marias (2011/13)
When was the last time you read a novel that you thought was worthy of being held up alongside the traditional classics? Marias's sprawling story of love, friendship, death and mourning was my 2013 Book of the Year and probably stands as the most distinguished of the decade. It is a big book, both in size and substance, but one that is endlessly rewarding. As I said when I first reviewed it, it's the only time I've had an inkling of how it might have felt to be alive when Crime and Punishment or A Tale of Two Cities were first published, Oh, and Marias should have won the Nobel before Handke. Just saying.

2. Trieste by Daša Drndić (2012)
If I had to name the book that had the greatest impact on me as a writer and influenced the way I viewed literature, it would unquestionably be Daša Drndić's unrelenting revelation of a novel, Trieste. Framed as the reminiscences of an old woman waiting for a son she had long thought dead, it expands endlessly into a kaleidoscopic overview of 20th century horrors. Structurally innovative, encyclopaedic in knowledge and unflinching in its indictment of human depravity, Trieste proved Drndić the true master (yes, above Sebald) of the documentary fictional form. If this list were about literary achievement alone, Trieste would be my definite number one. It most certainly was my Book of the Year for 2012, the best year for fiction in the entire decade. I only wish she was still here to laugh at me saying all this. Check out my Book of the Year citation here.

1. Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball (2014)
I expect it comes as a big surprise to just about nobody that Jesse Ball would have written my favourite book of the decade. Hell, he was responsible for three of my books of the year (2011, 2014 and 2018). Of those, it was Silence Once Begun that I've picked as the greatest, a bona fide work of staggering genius (sorry, DE) that pays homage to Abe and Endo then transcends them both. The central conceit - a man walks into a police station and confesses to a string of disappearances (and, one is made to assume, murders) before consigning himself to absolute silence. Thus he remains throughout questioning, throughout trial, after conviction, all the way to execution. And se we hear the "testimony" of other players in the story, some likeable, some sinister, all with varying degrees of reliability. You can check out my original review here but, seriously, get off your computer and read the novel instead. Silence Once Begun is the distillation of all that is great about Jesse Ball, and cemented him as the single most exciting novelist of our times. If you haven't read it you pretty much wasted the... um... Jesus Christ can someone just tell me what we called that decade?


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