The Only Story by Julian Barnes – Julian Barnes seems to be having a Philip Roth, later-life-like flourish that the older he gets, the more anticipated each book becomes. His books now seem more like transcendent meditations on memory, death, love, and ultimately art, whether they be fiction or non-fiction. His last novel, the truncated The Noise of Time, still managed to be a gentle sonata amidst a bombastic symphony of a life that the protagonist of the novel, Dmitri Shostakovich, was not just living, but could also have been writing. It is this paradoxical sense of passion, but ultimately encased in a quietude that makes Barnes such a compelling, if not necessary, writer. The Only Story, focusing on a character called Paul remembering his relationship with an older woman in his youth, will likely, and appealingly, fit into this bloom that Barnes has crafted in his later age.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Otessa Moshfegh – Perhaps this is a title encased with a subliminal wish for Otessa Moshfegh. Her emergence onto the scene as a writer, came with a fury that might have been brokered when she used Alan Watt’s The 90 Day Novel to propel the writing of the successful Eileen. Moshfegh joked though in an interview ‘the Booker people will be disgusted’ if they find out how she wrote the shortlisted novel. It this kind of alchemy that continually gives a sense of shock, energy and revilement (not to mention humour) that is likely to carry on into this book where a ‘young woman’s experiment in narcotic hibernation’, leads to a year spent under the ‘influence of a truly mad combination of drugs designed to heal us from our alienation from this world’. It is also likely to add to the roster of one of the increasingly consistent, and notable young writers of our time.
Feel Free by Zadie Smith – Whether it be the publication of a new novel, novella, essay or indeed, collection of essays, Smith’s work is nothing less than an event. Smith’s magisterial appreciation of the history of literature seems to be imbued with an indebtedness and sheer love that, amidst the constant opprobrium of her own work, retains a humbleness and honesty that shapes and crafts her writing. Whether she be pastiching E.M Forster in On Beauty, or nodding toward Woolf and other modernists in NW (2012), or apprehending the path laid by Ferrante in Swing Time, her work still consistently has a startling originality. Her first essay collection though varied between articulate mediations on under-appreciated and well-appreciated writers, to reflections on more personal matters like watching Monty Python re-reruns with her dying father. Whatever the subject was, there was always a core of humanity and an appeal that she not just bathes her subjects in, but inadvertently herself as well. We’re lucky to have her and Feel Free I’m sure, at the very least, will be mind-widening.
See What Can Be Done by Lorrie Moore – Lorrie Moore, although not necessarily a Chekhovian writer, has a seemingly Chekhovian ability to combine simple, fleeting elements of a character’s consciousness to construct something unified and complex and wondrously exemplary. Like when I read Chekhov, I go back over Moore’s work to see the moment, the internal glimmer of what holds it all together. Now we have her first collection of prose pieces that might help with this, which go from reflections on writers, to issues in contemporary society, to television. It is a breadth that we often see, and perhaps characterizes her fiction, from high to low, popular to prestigious. Harper’s Magazine said that ‘Fifty years from now, it may well turn out that the work of very few American writers has much to say about what it means to be alive in our time as that of Lorrie Moore’: there’s something hauntingly prophetic about that statement.
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner – When I first read Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers I was left, and can still recall ‘images’, that rather than lingered, remained in my mind. I can’t forget the image of the tyre marks seen from the sky on the Bonneville Salt Flats, or the homeless person in the riots who picks up the stubs of the cigarettes to smoke. One can assume that this is down to great writing but I think it was also something much more powerful than that; either way, I am welcome to muse on it. Kushner’s stories though seem to focus on characters walking, or racing, the precarious line between insurrection and freedom, willing to forego one to achieve the other. That looks even more operative here as it focuses on the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility where Romy Hall begins her two life sentences and six years. Fiction in a walled prison? Expect vigour and quality.
Eating the Buddha by Barbara Demick – Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea was a product, of not just a journalism that was reflective, personal and eerily fictional, but also of a swelling interest in the state of North Korea, a misnomer of closed-door totalitarianism on the global map. Since, the regime has been upheld by a young product of blatant nepotism and control in Kim Jong-Un, who has become engaged in a war of words (for now) with a posturing and equally as dangerous, and erratic sounding, Donald Trump. Demick went to North Korea to explore what was happening behind closed doors, but it seems that should North Korea ‘open’ up, it would be a mightily dangerous prospect. Opening up however is Demick’s game. She documents and elucidates stories and narratives of people in incredibly inhuman positions; because if narrative and story is an element of humanity, the fact that people don’t get the opportunity to tell their stories in places like North Korea and Sarajevo (the subject of her second book: Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood) shows how inhumane these places are. Demick here, focuses on Tibet and the re-emergence of tensions between itself in China, which have been explicit and implicit since the latter’s sovereignty of the former 50 years ago. When Eat the Buddha is published in March don’t expect stories of over-coming and heroism, but wrenching stories wonderfully articulated in overpoweringly unarticulated regimes.
Mothers by Chris Power – Many a quiet afternoon have I lost reading Chris Power’s ‘Survey of the Short Story’ in the Guardian. For those who have read them will see somebody with a quiet, readerly passion, not academic, but intelligent and giving inspiration to not just visit the writer in question, but often any rendition of the beautiful format that the short story can be. Power has now turned his hand to it himself. Early press has indicated something close to brilliance and this format, that even the longer-form greats couldn’t always master, most definitely seems to be in the safe and crafting hands of Power.
The Unmapped Country by Ann Quin – There is such a satisfying feeling in seeing a writer getting a posthumous resurgence. Tragically in cases like this, the satisfaction is only shared and projected by the reader and readers, because of course, the writer is not here to live it, but for Ann Quin who committed suicide at the age of 37, you can’t help but want this writer see more of a widespread recognition. And Other Stories (always worthwhile seeing what their yearly roster is) are publishing fragments and collections of Quin’s, including the manuscript of a planned fifth novel, of which this book takes its name. Quin, part of an avant-garde alongside the likes of BS Johnson, taking influence from Samuel Beckett and Alain Robbe-Grillet, certainly hasn’t seen as much mainstream success as her other, apparently ‘experimental’ contemporaries. 2018 should see that put right in our unmapped and fragmented times.
Room to Dream: A Life in Art by David Lynch, Kristine McKenna – Until I watched the original Twin Peaks, Lynch to me seemed an overhyped cult led by an irrational group of people that had found something only idiosyncratic more interesting than what it was. How wrong I was. I became instantly enraptured in this world of drama, comedy, horror, abasement, but absolute artfulness. I am now in the fandom despite my contestations with Twin Peaks: The Return but I am still faithful to consuming all of Lynch’s works, even if it means me having sleepless nights. But when Lynch is good, he’s Lynchian, and when Lynch is bad, he’s Lynchian. He has crafted a vision that is definitive and non-replicable and his mastery of the image (definitely not narrative) and the ability to skirt the line between conscious and unconscious, is absolutely enviable. It is the dream, the power of the coded image, that he is so adept with, and should Room to Dream shed any remote light on this artist’s mind, we’ll be in for a genuine, perhaps undeserved, treat. If not, it will, I’m sure, be incredibly interesting all the same.
Hotel Silence by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir – Apparently one in ten people will publish a book in Iceland: despite it being a small population, that still means there’s a potential wealth of writers to be translated. Pushkin Press’ catalogue though is always a bazaar of enticing looking names and titles, and on the back of posthumous resurgence of Halldor Laxness, and emergence of Sjon (who edited this year’s The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat and other stories from the North; an anthology of Nordic and Icelandic fiction from Pushkin), there is clearly a fertile bed of quality fiction to be awaited. Hotel Silence was the winner of the Icelandic Literary Prize. It focuses on Jonas Ebeneser who finds that his daughter is not his biological child, and so he tries to remove any trace of himself from the world. Taking himself to a country recently emerging from a war, he then pitches up at the Hotel Silence. It has that air of existentialness we’ve recently seen by Nordic writers like Dorthe Nors who was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize with Mirror, Shoulder Signal this year, and which to readers in the UK will capture that enigmaticness we associate with places like Iceland.
Brought to you by Liam Bishop
Tomorrow: our third instalment of 50 Books We’re Looking Forward to… brought to you by Lucille Turner