2015 has afforded the publication of some uncommonly lovely books. In fact, some of the most interesting and inventive novels to be published in recent memory were published in the last twelve months. Here's a selection of ten of the best, to be read deeply and ardently in the longer light of hot summer days and nights.
Everything Maggie Nelson writes is strange and smart and beautiful. She writes poetry that doesn't read like poetry and intellectual investigations on the murder of her aunt, and entire books meditating on the colour 'blue'. The Argonauts is probably the best thing she has produced. It's a bendy-backed genre-defying memoir about Nelson's experience of mothering and of getting married. Although it's much more than that. The story tying the book together is that of Nelson and meeting and falling in love with her partner, Harry Dodge. They meet, marry, and then Nelson begins having IVF treatments while Harry, a trans man, begins the transition process. This book is difficult to categorise, and difficult to even explain. It's a journey into ambiguity and dependence — and a beautiful one at that.
This was the most important book to be published in the last year. It appeared at a crucial moment, with Black Lives Matter, the murders of countless unarmed black men, and the racial tensions simmering across America and across the globe. Addressed as a letter to his teenage son, Between The World And Me takes a step back and situates the difficulties of the present within the calamities of the patterns of the past. It's a blend of memoir, history, journalism and political theory that has, at its heart, a very complicated message which never once tries to simplify the complexities of the black body in the tradition of America.
Kurniawan comes at Indonesia's bleak and bloody history from the edges. Creating the kinds of fantastical worlds that owe a debt to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and William Faulkner, Kurniawan takes you through Dutch colonialism, the Japanese occupation of World War Two and the bloody Suharto coup in the 1960s, the resonances of which Indonesia is still grappling with. Beauty is a Wound deals with all of this from the perspective of Dewi Ayu, a prostitute who rises from the grave after being dead 21 years and returns home to Beauty, her astonishingly ugly daughter.
If you have not read the Neapolitan novels, you're missing out. There are four books in the series, with it being completed with the publication of the Story of the Lost Child in September of this year. You should read all four in order, but I urge you not to look at that as a chore — these books are incredible, and you will be grateful to have read them. Starting in 1950s Italy, they trace the lives of two women, friends since childhood. They touch on politics, Italian nationalism, female friendship, and the destructiveness of desire and jealousy — the chaos which underlies all things. It is rare to encounter literature that is both compulsively readable and highly intelligent, but the Neapolitan books resonate. They stick to you. Please read them.
Set in a just-around-the-corner dystopia, the California of Gold Fame Citrus is what's been left behind after the drought has wrecked its terrible damage. After most of the state has been evacuated, a few people still remain, dodging the law and frolicking in the abandoned playgrounds of the wealthy. Ray and Luz, the book's central characters, end up saddled with a child amidst all of this, a child they maybe kidnapped or maybe rescued. They set out into the desert, encountering religious fanatics, apocalyptic prophets, the terrible things that survive when everything good has dissolved. Watkins writing is knife-sharp and beautiful, and with recent reports that California’s Central Valley is literally sinking due to lack of groundwater, this novel feels horrifyingly prophetic.
If your great-grandfather had written Moby Dick and you had also decided to become a writer, you would probably need to reckon with that legacy as well. In Genoa, Metcalf uses a dazzling collage schematic to write, and creates a clubfooted, non-practicing doctor to serve as his doppelganger. In doing so, Genoa reckons with the legacy of Herman Melville, Christopher Columbus, and the very idea of America — all from the confines of one man's attic. And while technically Genoa was not published in 2015, but it was nearly entirely unavailable before this year until it was re-issued by Coffee House Press, so I feel justified in listing it.
Short and lovely, this novel is told from three perspectives: two boys who've just lost their mother, their grief-stricken father trying to deal with his loss by focusing on his study of the poet Ted Hughes, and a crow, who flies out of Hughes' poetry and into their lives to compel everybody to get on with things.The book at times reads like poetry, a complex blend of images and ideas, and is almost like a children’s story in its invitation to inhabit a world.
This book is two years of Heidi Julavits' life. A diary, yes, but a diary in an old-fashioned sense. If your idea of a diary is like mine — your 14-year-old self, circling back around in a narcissistic loop devoid of any wit, humour or personality — this isn’t it. First of all, Julavits does away with chronology. The events of the years are all spliced up, connecting more by theme and tone than time. Second of all, this is a diary more involved with the world than the agonising peregrinations of a person's mind. The Folded Clock does the best version of 'writing about yourself'; the book uses Julavits, her life and what she sees to open you up to the world and draw your attention to small details — the meditative, and the unexamined.
On the surface, this is a novel about a man in Mexico City who auctions off his old teeth, claiming that they originated from other, more famous, mouths. Then he uses the profits to buy a set of teeth supposedly owned by Marilyn Monroe and has them implanted in his own mouth. Hijinks ensue. But beneath the surface, the story is also spliced up with photographs, philosophical quotations, a chronology and an explanation of how the book came to be. Luiselli originally began writing the work for employees of Jumex, a Mexican juice company. The novel was written for the factory's workers, who read and discussed the story with Luiselli, who in turn incorporated their discussions into her work. So you get the idea. This book is playful and inventive and interesting without ever getting pretentious or insufferable.
A struggling writer named Joshua Cohen is employed by Tetration, the largest tech company in the world, to ghostwrite the autobiography of its founder, a vastly wealthy man known as Principal. Tetration is a mash-up of Google and Apple, heading down an increasingly ominous path that pre-figures Snowden and the dangers of so much information concentrated in the hands of a few all-seeing, all-powerful companies. The novel is fragmented and inventive and aggressive, and invites the very structures of the Internet into the making of the work. But it remains a novel, wedded to the idea of the inherent worth of books as objects. In fact, the opening line is: "If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off." Buy the hard copy.