It was a year of acute absence rather than conspicuous presence. The suicide of David Foster Wallace in September created a void that seemed to suck all the good out of the book world. American letters lost one of its most gifted sons: a mercurial, protean prose stylist and inspired journalist, public speaker, philosopher and teacher. Literature seemed grimmer and more monochrome without him.
There were few enough distinguished literary novels of the year. Breath by Tim Winton came closest, yet was criminally overlooked by a Man Booker jury that didn’t even deem it worthy of inclusion on the short list. Other notables from the humanist-realist school, such as Helen Walsh’s Once Upon A Time In England and Willie Vlautin’s Northline, might have been afflicted with scabies, such was the indifference of the middlebrow lit crowd. At home too, Kevin Power’s debut Bad Day In Blackrock was published to a chorus of awkward shufflings.
But there were occasional moments when public and pundits seemed to arrive at the same conclusion. Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book was a small masterpiece (see interview below), and Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, published too late for inclusion here, has been garnering reviews that put it on a par with Beloved.
In many ways it was the year of the short story. Last year’s Granta anthology seemed to have a domino effect: Tobias Wolff and Amy Hempel published colossal summations of their respective careers, while Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth and Gerard Donovan’s Country of the Grand were finely wrought examples of the craft. Ultimately though, after Wallace’s demise and the great autumnal depression it engendered, it somehow seemed fitting that the book of the year contained not a single word…
Special Grand Jury Prize: The Arrival – Shaun Tan (Hodder)
Shaun Tan is a multi award-winning illustrator from Fremantle, Western Australia. The Arrival, his third book (after The Red Tree and The Lost Thing) is essentially a wordless graphic novel that charts the immigrant experience through the eyes of a man who leaves his wife and child to find work in a strange country.
The book sets hyper-realistic depictions of an Ellis Island type naturalization process – the medical checks, the language barrier, the obtaining of the correct paperwork – against a fantastical steampunk cityscape somewhere between Lang’s Metropolis and Gilliam’s Brazil (one of the book’s set-pieces is a panoramic view of a city shadowed by huge monstrous tentacles), where people commute to work on flying vessels.
The narrative is silent and stately – in one panel, Tan tracks the passing of the seasons through the lifespan of a flower – and functions as a haunting study of how the apparatus of the industrial age grinds down, eats up and spews out the lonely immigrant.
The Arrival is a profound and holy book that fills the reader with wonder, and yet there’s a mystery at the heart of it we can never quite penetrate.
Novels of the Year
Breath – Tim Winton (Bloomsbury)
Breath, Winton’s ninth full-length novel worked as a surfing fable, a dissection of teenage friendship, hero worship and sexual inauguration at the hands of an older woman, but its most transcendental sections evoked the mystical art of surfing in tandem with the terrifying majesty of the sea itself.
Lush Life – Richard Price (Bloomsbury)
Lush Life was a complex, cinematic, multi-angled study of the Lower East Side’s remaining ethnic quarters, all dressed up as a leather-jacketed thriller. If Lou Reed had dedicated himself to fiction instead of sound and fury, this might’ve been the result.
Bad Day In Blackrock – Kevin Power (Lilliput)
Kevin Power’s debut delivered an unflinching cross-section of new-moneyed millennial South Dublin, of brutal youth born into privilege, of secondary school boozing and rugby matches and anorexic cutters and blowjobs in the bushes. Power’s prose was steeped in New Journalism techniques that belied his youth.
Northline – Willie Vlautin (Faber & Faber)
Northline was the tale of Allison Johnson, a young woman given to bouts of alcoholic self-loathing, who, upon disovering she’s pregnant, leaves her bonehead boyfriend and flees Las Vegas for Reno. Halfway between a Sam Shepard play and a Willie Nelson song, the language was spare, simple and beautifully hewn, and if there was only a flicker of redemption, it shone all the brighter in the gloom.
Trauma – Patrick McGrath (Bloomsbury)
Trauma, McGrath’s seventh novel, was narrated by Charles Weir, a somewhat dissociative psychiatrist mired in a garbage-strewn 1970s New York, while the themes investigated the perils of suppressed memory, posited the psyche as a haunted house, and much like its predecessor Port Mungo (but at a higher linguistic pitch), suggested that one’s own family might be more terrifying than any supernatural agency.
Non-Fiction Books of the Year
Standard Operating Procedure – A War Story – Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris (Picador)
Standard Operating Procedure, written by Paris Review editor and New Yorker writer Gourevitch, drawing on interviews conducted by The Fog Of War director Morris, was nothing less than a horror story, the tale of how the Bush administration instructed the US military to bypass the Geneva Convention by classing inmates as ‘security detainees’ rather than POWs; of how incompetence caused snags in the chain of command that led to rogue soldiers subjecting Iraqi prisoners to the most barbaric abuses; of how the language of torture can be couched in euphemisms (‘sleep adjustment’ or ‘stress positions’) that that sound as benign as yoga moves.
The Braindead Megaphone – George Saunders (Bloomsbury)
The true son and heir of Kurt Vonnegut, MacArthur ‘Genius’ Award recipient Saunders never lets his sardonicism become cynicism. A drop-dead funny humanist, his essays on the blaring, braying nature of dumbed down American media, a walk across the border, a visit to Dubai and reflections on Slaughterhouse 5 and Huckleberry Finn made this a pure joy.
Homicide – A Year On The Killing Streets – David Simon
First published back in 1991, reissued by Canongate, Homicide covered a 12-month period in which The Wire creator Simon gained unprecedented and unlimited access to the city’s homicide unit. The result was a journalistic classic, not just because of its fly-on-the-wall detail and insider privileges, but also a diamond-hard prose style that placed its author alongside such virtuosos as Pelecanos, Lehane and Richard Price (all of whom were hired to contribute to The Wire’s labyrinthine plotlines).
The Wisdom Of Whores – Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of AIDS – Elizabeth Pisani (Granta)
The experience of writing The Wisdom of Whores took Pisani, epidemiologist, journalist and memoirist, from the shiny citadels of the corporatised anti-AIDS industry to Jakarta backstreets populated by he-males, she-males, transgender sex workers and rent boys. Pisani’s prose put flesh on the bones of the statistics and case studies, resulting in a book that was closer to ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ or Last Exit To Brooklyn than any WHO report.
Corvus – Esther Woolfson (Granta)
Talk about the adoration of the magpie. Esther Woolfson’s Corvus, a melding of natural history and memoir, was a love song for the birds, specifically corvids. The author divined cosmic order in the fluttering of black wings and the flash of yellow beaks, a fascination that began when her daughter brought home an urchin rook 16 years ago.
Anthology Of the Year
The Dog of the Marriage – The Collected Stories – Amy Hempel (Querkus)
Our Story Begins – Tobias Wolff (Bloomsbury)
A tie between the heavyweight champs of American short fiction. The Dog of the Marriage was essentially the harvesting of Amy Hempel’s life’s work, a collection of stories stitched with wry, sidelong glances at covert affairs, blind dates and inexorable evenings spent in cancer wards. Tobias Wolff, on the other hand, once declared that his fidelity to the short story form could be attributed to his belief that it’s more forgiving than the 300-page haul. He was being cute. The reader walked away from Our Story Begins with a vague but persistent sense of aftermath, an unsureness as to whether we’d heard some of these tales in a bar, dreamed them, or had somehow known them all our lives.
Weird Young Adult Book of The Year:
The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman (Bloomsbury)
The ultimate Hallowe’en tale, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book was an acknowledged riff on Kipling, but its tone was in fact closer to Bradbury country, with a dash of Edward Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology thrown in for good measure. Gaiman’s tale of an orphaned boy, Nobody ‘Bod’ Owens, raised by ghosts after the murder of his family, managed to pull off the difficult feat of assembling a ribbon of short stories that worked as individual chapters, but also obeyed the structural laws of the novel. In compressing big ideas – such as the existence of the murderous global killuminati tracking Bod – into a 200-page book, Gaiman managed to condense an epic into a sonnet. Plus, the chapter entitled ‘Danse Macabre’ was one of the most enchanting things we read all year.
Peter Murphy: Apparently the Graveyard Book had an uncommonly long gestation period.
Neil Gaiman: “I came up with the core idea 23 years ago. I had the shape of the story incubating, and I even did a few short stories over the years where I’d go, ‘This is a five-fingered exercise for The Graveyard Book.’ There was a story called ‘October in the Chair’ about a dead boy and a live boy (from Fragile Things) which was very much written to see what happens. In this case I had an idea of the shape of the ending, and then I got to chapter 6 and I had to throw that away.”
Edgar Allan Poe believed that stories must anticipate their end, and are somehow sucked into the black hole of the inevitable.
“Even though I always sort of knew what was going to happen in the last chapter, it wasn’t until I got to the last three pages that I went, ‘This is a book about family.’ The great tragedy of being a parent is that if you do your job properly, they don’t need you anymore. They go. And I didn’t know that until I got there, and suddenly it’s sitting there on the page. The great inevitable.”
It’s rare for a long-nurtured pet project to remain fresh. Look at what happened with Martin Scorsese’s Gangs Of New York.
“And I was scared of that. I think the difference is that if somebody had given Scorsese the money to make Gangs Of New York when he was fresh on it, you might have got a great movie out of it. But in my case it really was a matter of I wasn’t good enough, and I knew it. I had this wonderful idea that I loved, it was a book that I wanted to read, so instead of it being something that I was going to go cold on, it was something that I wasn’t writing because I didn’t want to let it down.
“I joke about it, I say, ‘Somewhere around 2003, 2004, I realised I wasn’t getting any better.’ But that’s actually true. I’m now at the point where I go, ‘I’m definitely a better writer than the guy who wrote American Gods, but I don’t know that I’m a better writer than the guy who wrote Anansi Boys.’ Just in terms of being able to bolt together a sentence and make characters do what I want and conjure atmosphere and go down into the basement, I’m the writer that I’m going to be for the rest of my life. And I’m okay with that. But it also meant I didn’t have any excuses for not writing it.”
The Graveyard Book begins as a humble story, but something happens in the last third of the book that makes it enter the realm of the epic.
“There was stuff that I hoped would happen, and it’s one of the weird things about writing, that you can have an idea of what you’re building, but it’s not until you build it that you see whether it works or not. There were two ways to try and do the book that I wanted to do, and one of the ways would be to go the Harry Potter route and to do eight books and follow him growing up, and the other was to actually go in there and do a story for every year, and make them satisfying as short stories, but somehow hope that if I built this construction right and slotted it together, when you got about two thirds of the way through you would realise that you were reading a novel.”
One of the ideas the book raises is that modern western societies have a dysfunctional relationship with death.
“It’s become a taboo. The same kind of taboo that the Victorians had towards sex, that we can make fun of now. I read Mrs Beeton’s Cookbook, going, ‘This is how Victorians lived,’ and I got to the back and suddenly I’m reading a chapter for husbands whose wives have died in childbirth on how to pick a wet nurse for your child, what the wet nurse should be fed and should drink, and what you’re looking for in the breasts and the firmness of the nipple. And I suddenly thought, ‘Y’know, I know nothing of the Victorians. Everything I think I know is a complete lie.’
“If you told the Victorians – who had their own problems with death, and went overboard into the cult of death – that in a hundred years it would be very easy for somebody to go their whole life without ever seeing a dead person, without ever encountering death, that even in hospitals you’d have two-storey gurneys so they could put dead people on the bottom thing and appear to be travelling with an empty one so as not to disturb people, I think they would’ve thought you were mad, or just unrealistic. How can you remove the hearses from the world? How can you remove the fact that people are going to die around you?”
You’ve written many stories in many mediums, but you seem to feel that this is your magnum opus.
“I took enormous joy in writing a book – whether it’s for kids or adults I don’t know, it’s probably for both and I think they’re probably going to be reading two different ones – where I could go, ‘I think this book’s going to be around longer than I am. I think I’ve written a real one, I think it’s important.’ If you write a real one, I think it will outlive you, as long as it’s readable. You’ve got an Alice In Wonderland, or you’ve got a Jungle Book or a Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, they’ll be around for a very, very long time, and I like the idea that it’s going to be there, doing things to kids’ heads.”
My favourite sequence in the book is the ‘Danse Macabre’ chapter, which taps into a strange Wicker Man weirdness and evokes the uncanny power of music.
“I remember the exact moment that I knew that chapter would exist. I was reading a book on death and the dead, and it was just this weird little thing where it mentioned that the original pronunciation of the word we pronounce macabre was macabray. And it talks about a poet called John Leland and a poem he wrote about the danse macabre and it quotes a line from him, ‘Rich and poor dance the same way.’ And I thought, ‘Rich and poor dance the same way/And they dance the Macabray.’ And they will dance. And they will not remember. And if they do remember they won’t talk about it. And it’s that heartbreaking converstion that Bod has with Death, where he’s saying, ‘Am I gonna get to ride your horse?’ And she says, ‘Everybody gets to ride my horse.’ And he says, ‘You promise?’”