Forget Amis, McEwan and the Booker winner — these are the best novels of 2014.
by Tim Martin
The year’s really interesting fiction took little for granted, questioned established structure and kept the reader perpetually off balance.
– Jenny Offill’s very funny, very sad Dept of Speculation (Granta) charted the breakdown of a marriage in fragments and epithets – “My plan was never to get married. I was going to be an art monster instead” – that cluster and occasionally cohere; if it’s a novel, it is one whose atomic bonds have been mysteriously, intriguingly loosened.
– Lars Iyer’s fascinating Wittgenstein Jr (Melville House) offered up a doomy, hilarious, thoughtful Cambridge comedy with a tone somewhere between Philosophical Investigations and Porterhouse Blue, as a bunch of dreadful modern undergrads struggle to make sense of a tragic, saintlike tutor who is not Wittgenstein, or not exactly.
– And Will Self continued his unapologetically modernist project with Shark, a prequel to last year’s Umbrella that whipped its babble of 20th-century voices into a monstrous white squall of a book, weaving in and out of the troubled minds of its characters (war veterans, drunks, unscrupulous psychiatrists) with terrible commanding élan. One page of this stuff looks terrifying; two and you’re hooked.
Other adventures in form proved similarly interesting.
– Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake (Unbound) was not just the first crowdfunded work to enter the Booker longlist, but also an experiment in language on the order of Riddley Walker and A Clockwork Orange. Set in 1066 and written in a warped pseudo-Saxon English (“Loc it is well cnawan there is those wolde be tellan lies and those with only them selfs in mynd”), it was the first historical novel for ages where the action really seemed to be taking place somewhere else.
– The ferociously prolific American novelist Dave Eggers completed a three-year satirical trilogy with Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? (Hamish Hamilton), a novel-in-dialogue in which a lunatic kidnaps his way up the American chain of national command until he finds someone to give him a straight answer.
– From France, Emmanuel Carrère contributed Limonov (Allen Lane), which built a compelling novelistic narrative around the true biography and tall tales of a Russian prankster, author and politician.
– Meanwhile, Howard Jacobson’s nasty satirical dystopia J managed the frightening, quixotic feat of writing a book about a second Holocaust without mentioning the J-word at all.
– Ali Smith’s irrepressibly clever prose is one of the more reliable delights in current British fiction, and How To Be Both (my pick for the Booker, alas) wound sneakily around big questions of gender, politics and art while managing to read like a cold drink on a hot day. It had a cunning gimmick too: half the print run was flipped so that the segment about a Renaissance artist preceded the one about a contemporary teenager, or vice versa. You’d have to read it to know why this was significant, but the technique carried an echo of an older typographical curiosity that saw print this year.
– Originally conceived in 1966, Tristano (Verso), by the Italian writer Nanni Balestrini, could only appear as its author intended in the era of print-on-demand, where its sentences were shuffled so that each book represented one of 109,027,350,432,000 unique variants. It’s an absurd experiment, of course, but, like a Burroughs cut-up, mine managed none the less to be drifting, impressionistic and oddly compelling. Yours might be different.
In fact, experimental novels seemed to be everywhere, some more successful than others.
– I hugely got on with Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World (Sceptre), a cryptic, polyphonic novel about art and feminism in which a female sculptor publishes her work under a series of male aliases, but I had more furious arguments about it than any novel this year, which, I suspect, is what Hustvedt was going for in the first place.
– Karl Ove Knausgaard’s gigantic confessional project My Struggle hit something of a bump with Volume 3, Boyhood Island (Harvill), which receded from the écorché honesty of the previous two volumes towards a rather safer tale of the author’s Scandinavian childhood.
– Timur Vermes’s Look Who’s Back (MacLehose) was a transgressive success in the author’s native country, but this cartoonish comedy, in which Hitler is reincarnated in Merkel’s Germany and becomes a YouTube sensation, looked rather pallid in a place that’s been mocking the chap since the early Thirties.
– Rachel Cusk’s frosty prose is an acquired taste, but the insidious weirdness of her short novel Outline (Faber) isn’t easily dismissed. As a snarl of reported speech encircled its almost wholly silent protagonist, I took to imagining her as a giant eyeball on legs, though in fact she’s supposed to be a writer teaching a workshop in Greece.
– In the concise and moving End of Days (Portobello), meanwhile, the German writer Jenny Erpenbeck made swift work of the one-life-multiple-outcomes conceit touched on by Kate Atkins, David Mitchell (and, this year, by Claire North’s reincarnation fantasia The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August) – and was, I think, the best of the bunch.
There were more traditional pleasures on offer.
– Richard Powers’s Orfeo (Atlantic) mixed forbidding current themes – bio-hacking, the American politics of fear – with the passion for classical music that has been latent in his work since The Time of Our Singing, and was the best thing he’s done in years.
– Peter Carey’s Amnesia (Faber) yoked Assange-era computer hacking with an Australian political conspiracy from the Seventies, and looks tamer in summary than it proved in practice as its dubious, drunken narrator went further and further off-message with his story.
– Zia Haider Rahman’s compendious, occasionally hectoring debut In the Light of What We Know (Picador) was the year’s most interesting first novel, gobbling up ideas and talking points – the financial crisis, the developed and developing worlds, war, terrorism, philosophy, maths – with the avidity of a combine harvester.
– I also loved the painstaking first half of Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guests (Virago), a gay novel set in Modernism’s great year of 1922, and was just looking forward to an expansion of its deft insights into class and gender when the whole thing collapsed into a not-very-surprising thriller.
– The late French writer Robert Merle, whose Fortune de France series of 16th-century swashbucklers has sold millions of copies in his homeland, was translated into English for the first time in The Brethren (Pushkin, £12.99).
– And though I’ve been a fan for years of the small masterpieces of unease that Robert Aickman called his “strange stories”, I was knocked flat by the offbeat humour and lightness of touch in his first novel The Late Breakfasters, republished by Faber. If David Lynch had done Downton, this might be the result.
Original article by Tim Martin in The Telegraph