I seem to have read a lot of books over the last few months [this was written in August 2004]. Some I’ve had to read, many have not been as good as I might like, but several have stuck in my mind as being among the best I’ve read in an awful long time. There are six in particular that I would recommend to anyone. In the order in which I have encountered them:
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004) – No book has blown my imagination like this since Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. The Mitchell is very different in everything except its daring and its stunningly original deployment of the devices of fiction. It actually consists of six stories, each nested within the others, which take us from a sailing ship in the Pacific in the middle years of the 19th century up to a remote and post-apocalyptic future. Although the stories seem to have no relationship to each other, each contains references to its predecessor and hints of its successors, and taken together there is a clear moral arc (at first I wrote ‘story arc’, but that is too specific for the hints and resonances that Mitchell employs so subtly) that binds them into a satisfactory whole. He uses the techniques of fiction to stunning effect. There is the journal of a naïve young American lawyer returning to California from Australia who is being slowly poisoned. There are the letters of a young composer just after the First World War who finagles himself into the position of amanuensis to an old and famous composer. There is the first Luisa Rey mystery, a tale of murder and corporate chicanery in the California of Nixon’s America. There is a farce about an old publisher of dubious integrity who finds himself trapped in a prison-like old people’s home. There is a dystopian tale of a made person in a future China who finds herself a figurehead for a doomed revolt. And there is the story of a small primitive tribe clinging to precarious existence on a post-apocalyptic Pacific island. Each story has a different tone, affect and dynamic, each is dramatically complete in its own right. But each links to the other: the composer finds the lawyer’s journal; Luisa Rey hears the composer’s music; the publisher is contemplating publishing the Luisa Rey mystery; the made person sees an old film of the publisher’s story; and one of the rare survivals from before the fall is a recording of the made person’s confession. But there are other, more delicate links: the made person has a flashback that we recognise as an incident in Luisa Rey’s story. Other events seem to recall incidents in a story that is chronologically later. The interweaving between the tales is complex, sophisticated, and thrilling. I could, and probably will at some point, go on and on about this wonderful novel. You owe it to yourself to read it.
Set This House in Order by Matt Ruff (2003) – This was the winner of the Tiptree Award this year, and deservedly so. Like the Mitchell it appears as a mainstream novel, but works on sensibilities that only really make sense if viewed from a science fiction perspective. The book I was most insistently reminded of was Flowers for Algernon, though I’d be hard put to explain exactly why. It’s the story of a schizophrenic in Seattle who has learned to control their schizophrenia by constructing a large mental house, like a form of memory palace, in which different personality aspects maintain a sort of order in their lives. Although other of these personalities might occasionally emerge, our main narrator is the person most in charge of the body. He is working as a janitor at a small software company when he meets another schizophrenic, a girl with considerably less control of her various selves. Their relationship threatens to send both of them spinning out of their tenuous mental control, but it could also resolve issues that lay behind the disintegration in the first place. The writing in this novel is a pure delight, and the complex issues are handled with exquisite sensitivity. It is one of those rare books that you close with immense regret, because you don’t actually want to leave the company of these people.
The Town That Forgot How to Breathe by Kenneth Harvey (2004) – Another genre novel masquerading as mainstream, and indeed you are a long way into the story before you realise quite how strange things are. But once you begin to notice the incongruities, the fantastic pours in with a wild abandon – Lovecraftian horror, magic realism, science fiction – that should create an utter mess, but actually is controlled and forceful and handled with a genuine understanding of the material he is using. The setting is a remote fishing village in Newfoundland where the fishing industry has been effectively stopped by a government concerned over fish stocks. But nothing has or can replace the fishing, and you have a vivid sense of a community running down, a place that has forgotten itself (literally, as it will turn out). Here a divorced father brings his young daughter for a short holiday, and almost at once the girl meets the ghost of a girl who was recently murdered by her father. We also meet a rather dotty old woman who used to speak to spirits, and a retarded man whose paintings foretell the future, and an increasingly decrepit doctor worried by a strange breathing disease that has started to affect the villagers. Then stranger things happen: a body washed up on the beach in a state of near perfect preservation appears to belong to someone drowned in the 17th century; an albino shark is caught and disgorges a human head; a mermaid is seen along with other strange sea creatures; and the breathing disease spreads. Then the military move in, sealing off the village and bringing their own type of mystery. I expected to be intrigued by this novel, but I ended up being gripped by it.
The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler (2004) – I an coming to the conclusion that Karen Joy Fowler is the cleverest, most knowing writer working today. This novel is certainly one of the most intricately planned and constructed novels you are likely to discover, there isn’t a word out of place, there isn’t an incident, a speech, a description of place that doesn’t carry a weight of reference and implication that you must understand to comprehend everything that is going on here. What is more, it is all told with a sly wit that makes you smile before you fully comprehend what it is you are smiling about. And anyone intimately familiar with the novels of Jane Austen is going to get ten times more out of this novel even than I did. The story is deceptively simple: six mismatched people meet once a month to discuss the six novels of Jane Austen. The story is told, unusually, in the first person plural: the narrator is a member of this group, but is never identified, and each of the six is subjected to the same forensic glare. Each month one of the six becomes the particular focus of attention as we reach back into their past and their attitudes, and each month the chosen novel lends something of atmosphere or incident to the precise mix. It is a wonderfully clever piece of work that, when you reach the end, feels about as perfect and as complete as it is possible for a novel to be.
Aurora 7 by Thomas Mallon (1991) – This is one of Mallon’s early novels which I picked up secondhand during our trip to the States, and it is one of his best. It is the story of one day in 1962, the day that Scott Carpenter orbited the earth three times as the third American in space. What we are presented with is a panorama of what was going on down on Earth during the course of this epic flight, and particularly during that tense hour or so after re-entry when Carpenter was completely lost to the trackers of NASA. We see a number of historical figures – President Kennedy, a convicted murderer, Walter Cronkite, Carpenter himself – and also a number of fictional characters – a New York cab driver, a successful novelist who has just left her husband, a young priest finding himself tempted by a girl he meets at the library. Above all we follow an 11-year-old boy who has been completely taken over by the wonder of space (I was about the same age at the time and shared that wonder, and Mallon has caught it precisely). Over the last few weeks the boy has become increasingly alienated from his parents, and on this day of days some hidden, inexplicable urge draws him out of school and into New York to watch the flight on the giant screens at Grand Central Station. Like all of Mallon’s novels he captures the specific historical moment in a way that is absolutely spot on.
The Truth About Celia by Kevin Brockmeier (2003) – Some months ago Maureen read a wonderful story in The New Yorker by Brockmeier, she insisted I read it and it was indeed superb [it was ‘A Brief History of the Dead’]. So we contacted Kelly Link to recommend it for The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and almost by return Kelly sent us this book. It is every bit as startling and wonderful as that story. It is actually a book within a book – fully realised, Brockmeier has even included the fake publishing history and bio squib, in which we learn that the supposed author of this book within a book is a former winner of the ‘Peter S. Beagle Award’. He is, in fact, a fantasy writer who stopped writing altogether when his seven-year-old daughter Celia disappeared one day. Nobody has any idea what happened: was she killed, was she kidnapped, did she run away, did she slip through the fabric between the worlds? All our author hero knows is that she has gone, and he blames himself. Now, seven years later, he has put together this collection of short stories which attempt to make sense of her disappearance. So Brockmeier’s fiction contains an uneasy and revealing mixture of somebody else’s reality and fiction. There are what appear to be straightforward accounts of the day in question. There’s out and out fantasy, including one story in which Celia becomes one of the Green Children of medieval legend. There’s one remarkable piece in which Celia plays with a ghost without ever quite knowing he is a ghost while her real playmates become ever more distant. There are glimpses of Celia as an adult in some other life, and curious messages on a toy telephone that may be from another world. And meanwhile, helplessly, the writer’s marriage and his life disintegrate around him. This is an extraordinary piece of work which demonstrates, like the Mitchell, how flexible and powerful modes of fiction can be.
First published at Livejournal, 12 August 2004.