2021 In Review: And the Winner Is...

on Thursday, December 30, 2021
Mea Culpa. I've spent the past few months so smugly assured of my book of the year that I didn't even bother to check its publication date. Until yesterday. And hoist me on my own petard if it wasn't published in 2020. Never fear, though. My characteristic buffoonery has given me the perfect opportunity to elevate another latecomer to book of 2021, but I still want to celebrate both these strange little masterpieces in my Book of the Year Post because, hell, they both totally blew me away. And so I give you my two favourite novels of 2021, even if one of them wasn't actually from this year: The Employees by Olga Ravn and Mona by Pola Oloixarac.

To be honest I don't even really know where to begin with Olga Ravn's International Booker-nominated novella, The Employees (trans. Marin Aitken). Originally conceived as a companion piece to an art exhibition, it charts the travels of the Six Thousand Ship as it drifts away from planet New Discovery with a host of strange artefacts. Each chapter is told by a different crew member (human, robot and something in between, identified only by number); and examines one of these artefacts as part of a report to some higher authority. Filled with corporate jargon, dreamscapes, triggered memories, sensory descriptions and existential philosophy it gels and chaffs in equal measure, making for an entirely unique reading experience, an expirement in transhumanism. Nothing I can say here will do it justice, though perhaps my original review was my best attempt: I'm not sure what the heck this was but it was my favourite whatever the heck it was that I've read this year. Think Ursula K Le Guin meets Upton Sinclair, refracted through a surreal, fragmented prism. Just extraordinary.

Rare is the satirical novel that can skillfully balance humour and social commentary, and do it without ever showing its inner machinations. Even rarer is the one that can sustain it until the closing page. I can probably count them on three fingers, and only because the outer two act as parenthesese. Mona by Pola Oloixarac (trans. Adam Morris)is by far the funniest book I've read in years, a perfect lambasting of all that is ridiculous about the literary life, particularly when it comes to festivals and prizes. In Oloixarac's sites, no sacred literary cow is safe. If you want a glimpse into the arrogance, insecurity, petty jealousy and sexual lasciviousness (well, mostly desperation) that go with being a writer, and want to laugh your arse off while you do it, look no further. Having lived through way too many of these carnivals of the absurd, I can vouch for just how right Oloixarac gets it. Everything about Mona is a pure fucking joy to read (pun intended), right up to its batshit crazy magical realist horror ending. There is no limit to what Oloixarac will do, no risk she isn't willing to take. That it all pays off is testament to her brilliance and the perfectly contained genius of this little novel. What a book to round out the unpredctable hellride that was 2021.

And that's it. Hope you have a great new year, wherever the fuck you're hiding from the plague, and that 2022, if nothing else, is filled with awesome reading. Hopefully, I'll be back here more often. But then again I say that every year. Oh, well. Might see you soon. Thanks for visiting.

2021 In Review: It's The Final Countdown

on Wednesday, December 29, 2021
One hundred and ninety books and it's come to the pointy end. Here are nine of the ten books I loved most in 2021.

10. Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead.
Granted I haven't quite finished it, but I've read enough of this exuberant subversion of the high-flying, swashbucking tales of yore to have it sitting comfortably in my top ten. Reminiscent of old favourites like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay or Let The Great World Spin, it is a boldly joyous book, filled with grand setpieces, big characters and a plot that hurtles along with the aeronautic dynamism of the flying dreams that lie at its heart. It's also a salient reminder that good literary fiction can still be narrative-driven.

9. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro.
This book could have been a disaster. In fact, when I first heard Ishiguro was trying his hand at an artificial intelligence novel, my first thought was "Hasn't McEwan already punished us enough?" Thankfully, he rose to the occasion, giving us what I think is both his best book since (and a companion piece to) Never Let Me Go. Much like in that book, Klara and the Sun asks what it means to be human. This time, however, Ishiguro goes one step further and asks not only whether life has intrinsic value, but whether there really is such a thing as individuality. Does a person truly exist as an irreplaceable, irreducible individual or is that merely a sentimental construct that we take upon ourselves and then ascribe to those we love? In doing so Ishiguro touches on many of the cornerstones of our existential awareness: family, friendhsip, religion (particularly God, as represented by Klara's belief in the Sun), love and, of course, death.

8. The Promise by Damon Galgut
Back when I first read Catch 22, I marvelled at Heller's ability to frame the central conundrum in so many different ways. I had much the same feeling reading Galgut's Booker Prize winning novel of racial and social injustice. It didn't hurt that every shit fate that befell a member of the Swarts family has befallen the relative of someone I know. Yep, this book cut close to home. Quite coincidentally, I read it at the same time as I was watching The White Lotus, and couldn't help but feel they were companion pieces; excoriarting commentaries on (mostly white) privilege. Galgut has long sat on the periphery of South African literary royalty, never quite achieving the stature of Coetzee, Brink or Gordimer. The Good Doctor should have changed that, but at least this one now has.

7. Aphasia by Mauro Javier Cárdenas
Labyrinthine sentences wind us through an equally intricate story of fatherhood, identity and existence in an incresingly techno-fied world. This is daring literature at its finest: fun, playful, confounding and, at times, infuriating. It's the kind of book sure to send fans of Bernhard and Pessoa into fits of orgasmic bliss. Peppered with hilarious literary in-jokes, it struck me as a fitting successor to Vila-Matas's glorious Montano's Malady. I could read those two in continuous loop and be happy forever.

6. The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk
Umptten years in the offing, Jennifer Croft's English translation of Tokarczuk's The Books of Jacob was probably the publishing event of 2021. Cited by the Nobel Committee in her citation, it is a massive book in every possible sense of the word. Charting the rise and fall of Jacob Frank,the second most famous false messiah in Jewish history, it is a polyvocal spectacular that draws on history, theology, philosophy and multiple storytelling traditions to explore the essence of language and its interpretation. It is, without question, a modern masterpiece.

5. Chasing Homer by Laszlo Krasznahorkai
It seems redundant to talk about anything by Krasznahorkai as "weird", but as a multimedia experiment, this novella was pretty fucking weird. Set against percussive soundscapes accessed through QR codes, it is a claustrophobic, paranoid foray into something resembling the world of cloak and dagger chase stories. I heard him read something tonally similar in New York a long while back and wonder if that was germ from which this grew. Whatever, it's a pretty good entry point for those wanting to dip their toe in to the great man's work. If only because it is almost accessible. Almost.

4. More Than I Love My Life by David Grossman
At this point, David Grossman can pretty much do nothing wrong. And even when he does (I didn't love A Horse Walks Into a Bar) he still wins awards for it. For me, More Than I Love My Life is a late career highlight. A complex, finely-tuned tale of motherhood, intergenerational trauma, storytelling and, well, love, it hinges on a human conundrum that is equal to, but possibly more relatable than, Sophie's Choice. And it was bloody refreshing to read a modern, deeply Jewish novel where the trauma is not Holocaust-related.

3. The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr
One of the first books I read this year, The Prophets set the bar for 2021. The story of Isiah and Samuel, two slaves who fall in love on a plantation, it is beautiful, carnal, raw and bristling with righteous indignation in the face of insurmountable cruelty. In my review back in January I called it equal to the works of Toni Morrison and James Baldwin and now, almost twelve months later, I stand by that. As I said, "Jones has the fiery clarity of, well, a prophet. What he has to say is, often, incendiary, consuming injustice in the flames of his ire." This is a book that just might have redefined a genre.

2. Assembly by Natasha Brown
So far as I'm concerned, zeitgeist books, almost by definition, suck. Everyone jumps on board, holding their literary "insider status" as some kind of wanky membership card. Like, seriously. What a farce. And so I came to this with extreme caution and... whoooooooaaaaaaah. Assembly is an exhilarating bomb placed beneath the classist, racist, misogynist, colonial foundations of British society and set off to spectacular effect. It's a revelation. A supernova. Sure, I've just become what I hate but, in this case, it was worth it.

2021 In Review: Notes From The Antipodes

on Sunday, December 26, 2021
This year I had the surreal and rather fun opportunity to sit on the judging panel for the fiction prize of the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards. More than anything, it gave me a great chance to read a truckload of Aussie novels - seventy-two of them to be precise. Believe me when I say, it was damn near impossible to narrow it down to a shortlist of six. I'm pretty thrilled with the ones we ended up picking and wholeheartedly recommend them all. In case you missed it, the shortlist is:

After Story by Larissa Behrendt
Bodies of Light by Jennifer Down
Echolalia by Briohny Doyle
The Dogs by John Hughes
Smokehouse by Melissa Manning
Permafrost by SJ Norman

You can check out all the books and see our judges' comments here.

For obvious reasons, I'm not including any Australian books in my Top 10 countdown this year, though I can say that at least three of them would definitely have made it. Whether or not they were shortlistees (or the winner) is for you to guess. Either way, here are a few other Australian novels that I absolutely loved but that unfortunately didn't make the final VPLA cut.

First up, literary fiction. Miles Allinson returned with In Moonland, an exquisite novel about the search for meaning, belonging and self, and the inergenerational ripple effects of joining a cult. It also boasted the best first sentence of any book I read this year. Mette Jakobsen gave us The Wingmaker, a subtle and gorgeous story of a woman who goes to a delapidated hotel to repair a broken statue, not to mention her life. I'll humbly join Helen Garner in raving about Diana Reid's brilliantly assured debut, Love & Virtue, a complex and nuanced take on consent and agency in the rarified world of Sydney university colleges. Lucy Neave's Believe In Me was one of the best novels about motherhood I've ever read. Emotionally and morally complex, it asked the fundamental question of whether we can truly know the people we love before we came into their lives. And last but definitely not least, Claire Thomas hit it out of the park with The Performance, a state of the nation novel deftly woven around a production of Beckett's Happy Days.

Australian short stories had a real banner year in 2021, with some very quirky, borderline experimental collections standing out for me. Top of the pile was Chloe Wilson's Hold Your Fire and Patrick Lenton's Sexy Tales of Paleontology, but I also loved the more conventional Born Into This by Adam Thompson and Dark As Last Night by the consistently brilliant Tony Birch.

Venturing out of my wanky comfort zone, I thoroughly enjoyed some great crime/thriller novels. The ever-dependable JP Pomare had me swearing off Air BNB-type arragements for life with his thoroughly creepy The Last Guests. RWR McDonald returned with his feisty kid detective and her hilarious gay uncles in Nancy Business, another top notch murder mystery in what is shaping up to be quite the irresistable series. This one even featured a ferret named after yours truly (to me, the main characterm if only for a page). Lyn Yeowart's debut novel, The Silent Listener, was a cunning subversion of some common genre tropes, and had me absolutely hooked throughout. International glory has rightly found Peter Papathanasiou for outback mystery with a social conscience, The Stoning. And Matt Nable absolutely nailed the historical shit-town noir thriller (sorry, Darwin) with the bloody excellent Still.

To my great surprise, 2021 was the year I was forced to change my snobbish aversion to self-published novels. Usually I run like the plague but it turned out three of my favourite Australian novels weren't picked up by publishers. Blazing its own trail of experimental weirdo mindfuckery was Michael Winkler's spectacular work of "exploded non-fiction", Grimmish. As I said a while back, I totally get why it didn't find a publisher but absolutley cannot believe a publisher wasn't willing to take a punt on what turned out to the most daring book of 2021. Winkler, of course, had the last laugh, with glowing reviews everywhere and word of mouth driving it to near-mainstream status. Another self-published gem was The Hands of Pianists by Stephen Downes, a thoroughly odd Sebald-meets-Poe tale of musicians and the pianos that murdered them. Finally, Daylight by Ben Tarwin was an elusive, elliptical story of elderly brothers falling out over death of one’s son. Pocked by memories of World War 2, it floated between prose and poetry in what can only be described as a narrative dreamscape.

There was one other Australian literary highlight, but this one wasn't a book. Beyond The Zero is a relatively new podcast that appeared pretty much out of nowhere back in July and has since built an almost cultlike following of obsessed book fiends, myself included. I don't know how he does it, but Ben gets the most interesting array of authors , critics and writing types on to the show to chat about their work, their favourite books and all manner of literary things. What's more, he's built an incredible, inclusive literary community that is very active on Twitter (even if they got the winner of the World Cup of Books totally wrong). It's probably my number one place for book recommendations and I strongly recommend you check it out on your favourite streaming service or podcast app.


on Saturday, December 25, 2021
Not quite the blogging year I'd hoped for. Not the anything year any of us had hoped for. Still, here we all are, limping to the end, gazing into the distance with hope only to see the oncoming train of Omicron. If there was any consolation this year, it was that it was an absolute ripper for literature. So many great books were published and, locked in as we were, we had the opportunity to read them... that is, when we weren't overcome with existential dread. I managed 190 or so. And a veritable fuckton of dread. I'm unlikely to be able to do the whole extended list thing this year because I've just moved home, am awaiting the imminent arrival of a baby and, to be honest, I'm just too munted. Still, I'll do my best. As always I start with the peripheral stuff.

The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey. There's not much I can say about this literary prize vacuum that hasn't already been said. Only that it deserved every accolade it has received. A modern Australian classic.
Brodeck by Philippe Claudel On the face of it a strange murder mystery fable, Brodeck is probably the greatest novel about French complicity in the Holocaust that I've ever read. Thanks to Ben from Burgers, Beers and Books with Ben for getting me to give it another go and then come onto the show to fawn over it for an hour.
An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears. I remember this as having been a brilliantly structured 17th century whodunnit, but I'd totally forgotten its incredible political dimensions. Yep, it's still my favourite book of its kind (sorry Umberto).
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Many years ago, when I first read it, I declared The Remains of the Day as close to the perfect English novel as has ever been written. I reckon I've read a couple of thousand books since then and my opinion hasn't changed.
Bear by Marian Engel. I would never have guessed that one of the greatest books about loneliness, existence, nature and companionship would centre around an ageing librarian who fucks a bear in a country cabin. But here we are. An absolutely clawesome classic.
The Most Precious of Cargoes by Jean-Claude Grumberg. A woodcutter's wife catches a baby thrown from a cattle train bound for hell. The child grows up, loved by her new family, while her father struggles to survive. A stunning fable, a moral reckoning, a balm for the soul.
Dangerous Men by Michael Katakis. Steinbeck in miniature, these very short stories of dustbowl America absolutely destroyed me.

One hundred and ninety books and I didn't manage to get to these. How lame.


Look, I'm gonna level with you. This was a pretty shit year for my favourite genres - punk, metal, hardcore (the real kind, not the lame 2010s variety) and indie rock. There were very few standout albums. Most of my favourites were anniversary edition rereleases of old albums (I'm looking at you greatest album of all-time, Propagandhi's Today's Empires, Tomorrow's Ashes) and live albums. Of the new releases, for the first time ever I couldn't even scrounge a Top 20. Which made these sixteen records all the more amazing for me.
16. Crawler - IDLES. Loved Joy As An Act of Rebellion. Didn't like Ultra Mono at all. Wasn't holding out much hope for Crawler. Turned out one of the most pleasant surprises of the year; a dark, brooding, slow-burn of repressed fury.
15. Alone In a Dome - The Copyrights. Ramonescore pop-punk done right. Edgy, fun and criminally overlooked. In a year when their spiritual brethren put out a decent but samey record, only to be plagued by some pretty shitty controversy, The Copyrights really shone bright for me as the best in the game.
14. ULTRAPOP - The Armed. What is this fucking chaos? Glorious. That's what it is.
13. Kids Off the Estate - The Reytons. I was, at best, a casual fan of Arctic Monkeys. I did, however, like a bunch of those other Britpop bands at the time. Fast forward fifteen years and some smart cookie thought it would be a great idea to chuck them all in a blender and see what came out. They were right. It was genius. Derivative as all hell, but genius. What a fun record.
12. No Gods No Masters - Garbage. Who would have thought that Garbage could still be relevant in 2021? Not me. And then they come out with their best album since Version 2.0. What a weird world we live in.
11. How Flowers Grow - Scowl Ten songs. Fifteen minutes. Kick-arse, raging hardcore with touches of melody. Sublime.
10. I’m Sorry Sir, This Riff’s Been Taken - The Hard-Ons The Aussie rock equivalent of a royal marriage sees these punk legends team up with rock god Tim Rogers to someohow pull out the best record either of them has done in twnety years. It almost had no right to be this bloody good.
9. Bronx VI - The Bronx. I'm not sure when The Bronx became a full-on party band, but in a year of constant disappointment and anomie it was an absolute delight to have this ray of sonic sunshine.
8. OK Human - Weezer. It's pretty settled now that post-Pinkerton Weezer routinely bring the cringe. Still, I live in hope with each release that there will be something salvagable amongst the dross. Mostly, it's a song here and there. With OK Human they actually pulled off a really good record with only a couple of duds. Sure, it's not the first two records, but it might well be the best thing since.
7. Moral Hygeine - Ministry. University-era me is passed out in the corner of a dirty goth nightclub, dreaming of a post-apocalyptic future in which Ministry are actually good again. Wakey wakey. Get off the nangs. The future is here and it's almost as excellent as Psalm 69 or The Mind Is a Terrible Thing To Taste.
6. Milestones - Knife Hands. Easily the most exciting Australian punk album of recent times. A perfect blend of melody, aggression, awesome riffage and righteous anger.
5. 21st Century Love Songs - Wildhearts. As a long-suffering Wildhearts die-hard, I approach every new release with extreme caution. I've always been confused by their weirdly inaccessible industrial leanings, and hoped for a return to the melodic brilliance of Earth vs The Wildhearts, self-titled or Chutzpah. Here, we get a strange cocktail of all their incarnations and, who'd have thunk it, it works a treat. Ah, Ginger you unpredictable punk, never change.

4. Daggers - Jim Ward What can I say? This guy can do no wrong. Last year's Sparta record was awesome and here he comes, hot on its tail, with another solo record that's every bit as good as the bands he's played in. Thoughtful, propulsive, urgent and heartfelt, Daggers is another must listen from one of the most consistent artists in the business today.

3. Aggression Continuum - Fear Factory. I've never been a fan of that whole big metal-tinged-with-hardcore-and-industrial scene. Actually, I've never really bothered to give Fear Factory a chance. But in a year mostly devoid of standouts, I thought I'd check it out and... whoooooaaaaaah. Blown. Away. This album is a bloody monster. Everything about it is HUGE. Never has a musical implosion sounded so great.

2. Dreamers - Chaser. A perfect slice of mid-90s EpiFat punk goodness delivered with style, passion and a bucket or ten of fun. Almost an antidote to the shitness of the world right now, this was the album I most needed in 2021. Also, no song made me happier (or more nostalgic) this year than See You At the Show.

1. Now Where Were We - The Exbats
There's something I've always loved about daugher/father duo The Exbats. Every album has been a gem of retro-tinged rock, with killer hooks, goofily enjoyable themes and a palpable joy in the playing. But this album. THIS ALBUM. Holy shit, if you want to hear the most perfect garagey hymn to the late 60s classics then you have to get this album in your ears. From the moment it starts to the final fade, this is pure, unadulterated elation on wax. I cannot stop listening to it and, after one listen, I suspect neither will you.

Novella November 2021: The First Week

on Monday, November 8, 2021
It's been a tough eighteen months to be a Melburnian. The world's longest lockdown has sucked the energy from us all and I, for one, have been creatively bereft. Still, what had to be done had to be done and now we find ourselves at the other end, with life returning to something resembling normal. A newfound vigour is coursing through the air. There's bloody traffic on the roads. I have to talk to people again. Oh well. I suppose it couldn't have happened at a better time for me because it's my favourite month of the year - Novella November. Yep, for thirty days I throw caution, responsibility, real work and life to the wind so I can read a book a day and live tweet it. For those who have Twitter, please follow me @BramPresser. For those who don't I'm emerging from my Blog Coma to do weekly updates for the rest of the month, posting the bite-sized reviews in batches. Hopefully that will also kick me into gear to keep going through December and beyond with usual programming. Anyway, happy Novella Novella. Hope you find as much joy in the perfect literary form as I do!

Water Music - Christine Balint
As always, I begin with a Viva La Novella Prize winner. Drawing from an obscure historical footnote, and riffing on identity, belonging and art, Balint has given us a book about music that, in its lyricism, is itself musical. Bravo.

The Solitary Twin - Harry Mathews
Killer swan song from America’s first Oulipian. A tangle of stories that unfurl in sinews to reveal the truth behind identical twins whose appearance has upended a small town. Sex, deceit, murder and a twist that really stings.

Among the Hedges - Sara Mesa
Teenager Soon wags school in a local park, where she befriends a homeless old man with a penchant for birding. Sinister undertones course beneath the delightful innocence, making for a beguiling, compelling little read.

The Most Precious of Cargoes - Jean-Claude Grumberg
A peasant catches a baby thrown from a cattle train bound for hell. The child grows up, loved by her new family, while her father struggles to survive. A traditional but not cliched fable, it will tear at your soul.

Astral Season, Beastly Season - Tahi Saihate
Kooky Japanese gem about some school kids so hell bent on proving their B-grade idol isn't a murderer that they kill a bunch of people to throw police off the scent. A surefire cult classic in the making with unexpected depth.

Chasing Homer - László Krasznahorkai
Words, images and percussive soundscapes (via QR code) collide in this paranoid, obsessive quest of self-nullification and perpetual exile as a means of escaping unknown, would-be murderers. Intense and utterly mesmerising.

Assembly - Natasha Brown
At last, a zeitgeist book that doesn't suck. Assembly is an exhilarating bomb placed beneath the classist, racist, misogynist, colonial foundations of British society and set off to spectacular effect. Just read it.

Microviews Vol. 61: A Bookcase of Curiosities

on Thursday, January 21, 2021
Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar
Back in 2013, Ayad Akhtar found himself at the centre of quite the political shitstorm. Conservative pundits were up in arms about his Pulitzer Prize winning play, Disgraced, in which one its characters, a Muslim, admitted to having felt a "blush of pride" when the planes hit the towers. That one line was tinder for the close-minded right wingers who gleefully missed the entire point and came at him with proverbial pitchforks. The question of what it means to be Muslim in post-911 America also lies at the heart of Homeland Elegies, though Akhtar revisits it in an altogether different way. The novel, inasmuch as it is one, is a perfectly-executed book of autofiction. Akhtar draws on moments of his own life (with which some readers will be familiar) and seamlessly inserts invented characters and events that flesh out the complicated relationship he has with the country in which he was born but that has since made him "other". So seamless are these insertions, that it took for me to look up a key person in the story to realise he only existed on the page. Akhtar is unrelenting in his self-examination, demonstrating remarkable courage and insight while grappling with feelings of belonging, anger, grief and hope. In so doing, he lays bear the structural and institutional racism that has always existed but that has ramped up to breaking point under Trump's disastrous presidency. That he does so concurrently with an underlying thread of filial investigation - he is as much coming to terms with his father's failings as he is his country's and his own - serves to add a layer of humanity and warmth that (I hope) breaks down the wall of otherness to some readers. Structured episodically in linked narrative essays - elegies, really - that come together to make an astonishing whole, Homeland Elegies is truly a book for our time, one that everyone should read.

Tell Me Lies by JP Pomare
It's easy to dismiss me as some kind of wanky literary snob. God knows I give enough ammunition. So it might come as some surprise that I love myself a good thriller and, when it comes to finding the best ones, JP Pomare has fast become my go-to. That guy knows how to plot. Tell Me Lies started off as a audio short. It was never intended to appear in book form. Alas, the commercial gods demand what the commercial gods demand and so, following the stellar success of the excellent In The Clearing, and to satiate the salivating masses anxiously awaiting The Last Guests, we have something that is, to paraphrase Britney, not a novella but not yet a novel. It starts off unassuming enough - psychologist Margot Scott sees a bunch of clients, including a new kid referred to her by an old colleague. The kid is witty and charming and very, very handsome. He's also inappropriately flirty. It all seems a bit harmless until BAM a molotov cocktail is thrown through her window. Could it be one of her clients? Could it be him? And what is the dark secret Margot is desperate to hide? Kicked into high gear, Tell Me Lies is a ripper thriller, full of unexpected twists, thorny moral quandries and deft psychological mindfuckery. And that last page... Whoah...

Three-Fifths by John Vercher
Speaking of genre fiction, here's one that really hit me in the feels. Hand sold to me by a bookseller friend who is rarely effusive about books and usually leans towards the more traditionally literary end of the fictional spectrum, I bought it without so much as reading the blurb. Three Fifths is a crime novel of sorts. It is also a moving family drama, a story of friendship gone awry and, most importantly, a disturbing snapshot of contemporary America. Bobby works a dead-end job at a local diner. His best friend turns up one day, fresh out of jail. They have not seen one another in three years and, it's fair to say, Aaron is a changed man. Once a scrawny, comic-book loving geek, he in now a buff, tattooed neo-Nazi. A minor altercation with a couple of black kids quickly escalates, and ends with Aaron smashing one of them in the face with a brick, ultimately killing him. It is violent and shocking and, for Bobby, utterly terrifying. Because, other than being made complicit in a terrible crime, Bobby has a much bigger problem. Though he presents as white, his father is black. While the fallout from the crime remains central to the story, it is the examination of racial identity that really lies at the heart of this book. The whole thing careens out of control, towards an horrific, inevitable end. It's ugly and heart-rending. But holy crap it's good. Talk about putting yourself on the map with your debut!

Hole's Live Through This by Anwyn Crawford
For all the notoriety that surrounds her, it's easy to forget quite how incredible Courtney Love really is. Sure, she's been eclipsed in the collective cultural memory by her husband, and is often spitefully (and wrongly) blamed for his death, but one listen to 1994's Live Through This and you will be left in no doubt that she is a superstar in her own right, capable of writing a tune that could kick the arse of pretty much anything Kurt ever did. Hell, even he thought so! Anwyn Crawford's brilliant cultural history of Hole's masterpiece is a must, not only for fans of the band, but anyone even vaguely interested in a musical movement that came to define a decade. Through personal reflection, interview, critical analysis and sharp observation of the cultural milieu, Crawford takes you deep inside the multiplicity of forces that came together in a perfect storm to create what remains one of my favourite albums of all time. Plus, it got me listening to Live Through This on repeat, with a new appreciation, maybe even an understanding, of one of the most complex, controversial and downright impressive figures in the history of contemporary music. Couldn't possibly ask for more than that!

A Country for Dying by Abdellah Taïa
A spot of bookshop serendipity landed this gem in my hands after a very obscure customer order came to naught, leaving it languishing on a shelf in bayside Melbourne. Well, thanks random shitty customer who doesn't respect small indie bookstores! Your dickery is my windfall. Okay, maybe not the most easy or pleasant winfall I've ever had, but I'm still pretty glad I got it. In A Country For Dying, Abdellah Taïa explores the seedy underside of Parisian life through two Arab prostitutes, Zahira and Zannouba, as they make sense of, and find dignity and agency in their lives. Zahira is in the twilight of her career and submits to ever-greater degradations. Little does she know that her former lover Allal has followed her from Morocco with murderous intent. Zannouba, formerly a gay Iranian revolutionary, battles with her identity as she prepares for gender confirmation surgery. Their stories unfurl in an almost Scheherezade-like fashion, with multiple time slips, fables, reminiscences and diversions. It can all be a bit disorientating at times, but you best let it envelope you. Taïa is constructing a tapestry of contemporary immigrant life, one in which the dream of refuge becomes a waking nightmare. Which isn't to say the story is lost to horror. The hope and decency with which he imbues Zahira and Zannouba - not to mention pockets of humour - lifts the novel above the bleak misery of its premise, and transforms it into something deeply moving.

Visible Men: The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr

on Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Like many avid readers, I spent much of 2020 in a slump, barely able to concentrate on anything even remotely demanding. Every now and then I hit upon a book that stoked the reading flame but those moments were few and far between. To that end, The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr was always going to be a litmus test of sorts - had I regained the presence of mind to commit to a 450-page, deeply literary book of big ideas with a large cast of characters, multiple time shifts and a complex storyline? That question, it turns out, is not easy to answer.

To get one thing out of the way first, I'll say this: while it may be a debut, The Prophets is, I'm quite convinced, a masterpiece. I'm not just throwing the term around. It's Toni Morrison/James Baldwin level masterpiece, with echoes of more contemporary greats like Colson Whitehead, and an added overlay of brilliantly-realised gay romance. Having said that, I couldn't quite give myself over to it - a fault that no doubt lies squarely with me and not the book.

The Prophets is historical fiction at its very best; a striking and fresh take on the slave narrative, the like of which I've not read before. At its heart lies the love story between Samuel and Isiah, two young slaves who work the cotton fields of the Elizabeth Plantation (or Empty, as it's known to the slaves). They find solace from the gruelling work and soul-crushing unfairness of their lives in one another's arms. Theirs is a raw, passionate kind of love, played out each night in the so-called Fucking Place. It sustains them, and brings us, as readers, a sense of respite from the relentless injustice heaped upon them. Robert Jones Jr is unflinching in his description of sex and yet, much like Garth Greenwell, it never seems gratuitous. Rather, it functions as a kind of lifeblood to the narrative itself; there is propulsive energy driving a sense of hope. The ultimate expression of otherwise unattainable freedom.

Samuel and Isiah's relationship is something of an open secret. Numerous people have seen them, and come to understand why they have yet to sire future generations of slaves, as is expected by the plantation's owner, Paul Halifax. Paul fancies himself a magnanimous owner; he aspires to treat his slaves better than his father did. But he is beholden to the prevailing mores and, really, any gestures toward decency are acts of self-delusion. Just like those before him, he rapes the women, resorts to extreme corporal punishment (albeit through proxies to keep his hands clean) and trades slaves he deems unproductive with little care for their established familial or communal bonds. He is thoroughly detestable but is not the catalyst for disater. That honour goes to Paul's son, Timothy, who learns of Samuel and Isiah's secret and sees in it a chance to satiate his own desires away from his parents' gaze. From the first time he invites Isiah to his room to sit for a portrait, a new sense of foreboding insinuates its way into an already very tense narrative. It will not end well. And it doesn't.

There are many things that set The Prophets apart from the pack. Robert Jones Jr writes achingly good prose. Every sentence radiates beauty, even when he is describing the most horrific events. He is also daring with form. The Prophets communes with spirits and ancestors as much as it exists in the historical present. There are voices, much like a greek chorus, that pipe up from time to time with etheral premonitions and commentary. Jones takes us to Africa in the time before centuries-old kingdoms are decimated by missionaries and slavers, where history informs our understanding of the deep bonds between those living on the plantation, not to mention a different perspective on sexuality and gender. Perhaps what stood out most to me was the generosity with which Jones writes and inhabits his characters. There are many, many people we get to know, and all seem important and necessary. Jones portrays them with depth, curiosity, humanity and a fullness I would usually expect to only be found in the central characters of a book, let alone one this big. He writes men well. He writes women well. Irrespective of any markers of identity, he writes as if he respects them as people with a story to tell. There are no easy moral signposts, either. Seemingly good people do bad things, and vice versa. Even viewed within its context, you will be challenged by much of what you read. Which isn't to say the book does not positively bristle with moral indignation and righteous anger. Jones has the fiery clarity of, well, a prophet. What he has to say is, often, incendiary, consuming injustice in the flames of his ire.

The Prophets may take as its waypoints aspects with which many readers will be familiar, but it builds on them in surprising and engaging ways. It is epic and ambitious, finely-wrought and devastating. It just might be one of the great American novels of the 21st century. If only I'd been in the headspace to properly appreciate it.


on Wednesday, January 6, 2021
Let's face it. The Nobel Prize is, more often than not, a curse. When JM Coetzee - probably my favourite living author - won in 2003, it took him a couple of novels to recover. Not that Slow Man or Diary of a Bad Year were terrible books, but they certainly were unremarkable by Coetzee's standards. I'd also argue that Summertime and The Childhood of Jesus, whilst steps in the right direction, were no great shakes eaither. It wasn't until The Schooldays of Jesus that he was back on form. And that was 2016. His Nobel was celebrating its bar mitzvah. Coetzee is not alone. Many other authors are either squashed into slience, or fart out works decidedly unworthy of their newfound status. Herta Müller, Elfriede Jelinek, Patrick Modiano, Peter Handke (here's hoping)... Oh, and stop kidding yourself. You only pretended to like Dylan's last two albums (*fight me*). Which brings me to Kazuo Ishiguro, the 2017 Nobel laureate. A bit over three years after he won, and six after his last (and weakest) novel, we get Klara and the Sun.

For those trying to avoid spoiler's in the lead-up to Klara's March release, I'll give you the potted summary first: it's good. Very good. Fans of Never Let Me Go will find themselves in familiar territory, though this is a more complex and meditative work of speculative fiction. Though I think I still preferred Never Let Me Go (I say think because I'm still kind of processing Klara), I can confidently say that Ishiguro has bucked the Nobel curse. Sure, it's no Remains of the Day or An Artist of the Floating World but it's a thoroughly enjoyable, consistently intriguing read that had me contemplating some very big, uncomfortable questions.

From hereon in, beware. There will be minor spoilers. That said, I'll try to keep it a little vague, if only because I couldn't hope to capture all the novel has to offer. Also, I don't want to ruin the experience of watching its many, many ethical dimensions play out on the page. Still, don't say I didn't warn you.

Klara is an Artificial Friend (AF), advanced robot technology created to serve as a companion to lonely (or spoiled) children. AFs are both trend and necessity. When the novel opens, we meet Klara in the front window of a store, where she stands on display with fellow AF Rosa, observing the world, taking in the sun, and hoping to be picked out by a passing child. After some weeks, the two are taken from the window to make way for the newer B3 models that have just arrived. Klara and Rosa have been superceded, and are relegated to the back room bargain bin. Eventually Rosa is sold and Klara is alone. Enter Josie, a shy and sickly child who instantly falls for Klara. Her mother wants a B3, but Josie won't be swayed.

As soon as Josie brings Klara home, we get the sense that things are amiss. The reader, like Klara, is dropped into an unsettling world of shifting perceptual planes, a cruel and dangerous social strata system, and a family tenuously held together by what feels, more than anything else, like existential dread. Of course it's hard to know whether to trust Klara's narration - she is, after all, a robot learning to be part of a family.

Still, there are enough objective markers to know something is not right. The house is kept by an overly officious robot, Melania Housekeeper (yeah, I laughed). Josie's best friend, Rick, who has not been "lifted" (it takes a while to work out what that means) is ridiculed and bullied at an "interaction meeting" with other children. Mother regularly schleps Josie to the city to sit for a portrait with the very creepy Mr Capaldi. Each time he focuses on a single body part, and she is never allowed to see how it is progressing. There's also a downright bizarre outing to Morgan's Falls, where Mother has Klara perform a number of what, at first, we take as demeaning tasks but that come to have a much more sinister, tragic meaning. Klara, too, develops some pretty intense obsessions: with the sun, with a nearby barn and, most importantly, with a machine that spews Pollution through its three funnels.

Underpinning all of these things, and the story as a whole, is Josie's failing health. She is not just sick. She is dying, as did her sister before her. When Klara's purpose is finally revealed by Mother, it is as profound as it is horrific. Sure, there wasn't quite the cataclysmic gut-punch of Never Let Me Go, but that hardly seemed the point. Ishiguro renders the twist intentionally unremarkable; the signs are there for the reader to see and what is revealed feels like the final piece of a smartly constructed puzzle. It doesn't force us to reconsider all we've read but, rather, to engage with Ishiguro's central theme: the human essence.

Much like Never Let Me Go, Klara and the Sun asks what it means to be human. This time, however, Ishiguro goes one step further and asks not only whether life has intrinsic value, but whether there really is such a thing as individuality. Does a person truly exist as an irreplaceable, irreducible individual or is that merely a sentimental construct that we take upon ourselves and then ascribe to those we love? In doing so Ishiguro touches on many of the cornerstones of our existential awareness: family, friendhsip, religion (particularly God, as represented by Klara's belief in the Sun), love and, of course, death. Klara, in a perpetual state of received revelation, is a useful avatar, all the more so because of her inherent unreliability. She is honest and forthright, but necessarily naive. It's kind of great and fun, but to a certain extent, is also the novel's greatest weakness - I found myself thoroughly confused a number of times and, to be honest, there are a few things I still don't get, even after having chewed it over for a couple of days.

Klara and the Sun also lacks the tightness of Never Let Me Go. For a novel so jam-packed with fantastic, genuinely original ideas it felt a little wooly at its edges. There are minor subplots that struck me as underdeveloped and unexplored (the AF resistance movement springs to mind here). There also lulls; they are few and far between but their presence was very much noticed. Maybe it is the novel's reliance on set pieces that caused the connective tissue to visibly strain. Not that it greatly mattered. Sure, I felt as if I was limping through some parts, but it always came good. Indeed, the closing section is one of the most moving things I've read in a long time.

Stripped of use, immobile and with failing circuitry that cast her memories into doubt, Klara is found in an AF junkyard by the manager who first sold her to Josie. They discuss the purpose and worth of her existence and decide that it was good. She fared better than Rosa. But to what end? She exists, an individual, in perpetuity. Forgotten and discarded in a world that might be wholly populated by successive generations of Artificial Friends. Perhaps these ideas of life, of individuality and worth, are all lies we tell ourselves when we reach the end. Because, really, what other choice do we have?