The Best Books of 2015

Most my reading this year was devoted to research for several projects and to dead authors — in particular, just about everything ever written by Henry Green, a good chunk of Penelope Fitzgerald, and many volumes of the great Iris Murdoch, whose volume of letters (forthcoming in January here in the States) I will undoubtedly opine on somewhere. The nice thing about the dead is that you never have to worry about their social media presence, much less being that hip kid on Twitter being the first to skim through a status galley that nobody will give a toss about in six months. But I did squeeze in some time for contemporary titles and what follows is a list of exceedingly worthwhile books that greatly moved me and are very much worth your time:

binarystarSarah Gerard, Binary Star: Among many deceptively slim volumes published this year containing great wisdom about consciousness and interconnectedness, Gerard’s road trip saga was a standout. The couple at the center of this often fierce, sometimes breezy, sometimes heartbreaking novel is a woman who suffers from aneroxia and a man who is an alcoholic. The juxtaposition of rocket imagery and the nameless anorexic woman’s physical erosion from rapid weight loss finds a painful cadence with clipped sentences and a dialectic involving vegan anarchism. One reads this book, wondering if we are living in a world of disorders, or whether judgment itself may be causing us to see disorders. The book’s epigraph to Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life hints further at the nature of this perceptual manipulation and one is left wondering what “irreducible core of creativity” that the main character may find. Perhaps it’s not meant to be glimpsed. This woman is, after all, becoming quite blind herself. Perhaps all we have left, wherever we are, is in the stars.

fateandfuriesLauren Groff, Fate and Furies: I was late to the party, but I’m so glad I took the plunge. This is an extremely well-observed portrait of a marriage built on a mirage. Groff expertly disguises the rapid-fire courtship of Lotto and Mathilde with a fusillade of college friends who live and disappear and reemerge as the couple enters middle age. That Groff has made the troubled husband a middling playwright and submerged this harrowing man in famous Greek classics (including a riff on Antigone) attests to the time-honored theater that humans have been encasing their relationships in for time immemorial. Almost serving as counterpoint to Mark Z. Danielewski’s respectable two volumes of The Familiar, Groff has also included a mysterious commentator within the narrative who offers bracketed asides. As painful as this novel can be to read for anyone who has been through a very long and sour relationship predicated on lies (or who has to watch a friend going through something like this), the sorrow nevertheless beckons the reader to summon more honesty, openness, and communication in real life. And for that reminder alone, Groff has emerged as a writer whose every future volume I will read upon publication.

speakhallLouisa Hall, Speak: Could human beings become addicted to robots? Why not? We walk the streets staring down at our phones, saturating our Instagram accounts with relentless photos, and logging every sordid detail about our lives on social media. Suppose that level of addiction had a conscience attached to it. And suppose it was modeled on the diary of a 17th century woman. Suppose further that an ELIZA-like program was somehow an AI missing link between the diary and the robots and that Alan Turing, just on the throes of being subjected to DES and its accompanying gynecomastia by a frightened homophobic government, was involved. You begin to have some inkling of what Hall’s ever thoughtful novel, which is brave enough to explore how our seduction to technology and its many byproducts may just be dwarfing the more important seduction of real life.

markandvoidPaul Murray, The Mark and the Void: Some critics have accused Murray of tackling too much in this hilarious, insightful, and often poignant book — almost as if the comic novel is not permitted ambition in our increasingly intolerant age. But Murray’s talent has sharpened considerably since Skippy Dies and we are all the richer for it. This penetrating tale involves a writer named Paul who asks a banker named Claude if he can follow him for a novel Paul’s writing about the Everyman. Paul, of course, has another ill-fated plan up his sleeve, one I don’t have it in my heart to give away. I’ll just say that Murray’s many twists and turns lend this book a kind of madcap momentum that, even before we’re aware of it, leads us into very heartfelt questions about what it is to be human at a moment in history in which banks resort to the most sinister plans imaginable (including building a golf course on an island fated to be flooded from climate change, under the theory that the investors can win back their investment from an insurance payout). What makes Murray such a great writer is the way he keeps his cleverness close to his chest. He is more interested in winning over readers, whoever they may be, by appealing to many brows, whether it be a Rothko-like painting that hangs in a rich man’s study or a sloppy low comedy Russian accomplice named Igor. This novel is a gripping portrait on what may be happening to our world as we surrender our invention and curiosity. At one point, an interoffice memo reading “All that glitters is not gold” is distributed throughout the bank. Not a single employee remembers this as a Shakespeare quote — indeed, a quote from one of the Bard’s most infamous plays about usury — but all take this “mantra” quite literally as a strategy to act on. Yet for all this, Murray never ridicules his subjects, which aligns this book with John P. Marquand’s underrated novel, Point of No Return (also about a banker). This novel is so terrific that I’m willing to suggest that Paul Murray may be our best shot at an Evelyn Waugh (albeit a kinder one) for the 21st century.

seedcolleectors2Scarlett Thomas, The Seed Collectors: As I wrote about this novel’s considerable achievements in September:

The Seed Collectors is holding up a very large mirror to the Quantified Self movement, whereby everything we do in this world creates data, collected and hawked and redistributed in ways that are not necessarily compatible with our complex feelings. The above passage, a glorious pisstake on gamification, sees Ollie, a man who Bryony is considering sleeping with, at the mercy of an Oral B Triumph SmartGuide, an alarmingly horrific (and quite real) device that demands its practitioners to brush teeth in highly specific ways, with emoticons rewarding a commonplace activity with Candy Crush-style perdition. Even a monstrous man named Charlie, who is introduced sexually violating a blind date before the thirty page mark (perhaps another reason why American houses lack the spine to publish this book), is someone who clings to a list of attributes that he’d like to see in “my perfect girlfriend.” And if quantification is the deadly condition uniting all these characters, then how do these disparate characters live? As the novel progresses, Thomas introduces a great deal of dialogue in which the speakers are never identified. And this missing data, so to speak, steers the reader towards an emotional intuition well outside any data subset. And as Thomas serves up more twists and revelations, we come to understand that it is still possible in our age of unmitigated surveillance to be attuned to our private thoughts (though for how long?). The novel, which we have believed all along to be thoroughly structured, has perhaps been a lifelike unstructured mess all along. And this unanticipated alignment between fiction and our data-plagued world feels more artful and poignant than such conceptual stunts as writing a short story composed entirely of tweets. It makes The Seed Collectors almost a cousin to Louisa Hall’s recent novel, the quite wonderful Speak, which used a computer algorithm to determine which of its five perspectives would be on deck next. But even if you don’t want to play this game of six-dimensional chess, The Seed Collectors still works as a sprightly narrative on its own terms, at times reading like an Iris Murdoch novel written for our time and beyond.

alittlelifeHanya Yanagahira, A Little Life: Nasty little men like Daniel Mendelsohn, a vicious narcissistic troll with a small penis (or so a source informed me; take it for what it is; this is a blind item I have no wish to corroborate), have no real understanding of trauma or pain or abuse, much less the painstaking empathy that friends and family must expend in helping the victim out of a self-perpetuating abyss. Thus, this critic is ill-equipped (in more ways that one) to speak of the relentless cycle of violence and vitriol that victims of abuse must not only live with, but often eke out to the people who love them. A Little Life is not a “woman’s novel.” It is a first-rate novel, independent of that belittling sobriquet, that dares to explore the uncomfortable interior of the ineffable in ways that misogynist novels like Jonathan Franzen’s Purity lack the honesty or the heart to broach. Its central character, Jude, is brilliant in all the right ways and scarred in all the wrong ones. While the prose does lean on a dismaying magazine shorthand, Yanagahira’s truths hit hard enough to overturn this stylistic cavil. “We didn’t know how to help him because we lacked the imagination needed to diagnose the problems,” a sentiment uttered by one of Jude’s friends, may sound trite to a heartless snob like Mendelsohn, but it is an especially succinct expression of America’s relationship to the afflicted. The book covers many years, often far into the future, and smartly avoids mentioning any current events. And that is because the problem of abuse needs to be isolated and examined at length, especially as we see its terrible culmination in the many mass shootings that have riddled our nation this year. As a victim of abuse, I cried tears of recognition when Jude allowed a man to assault and abuse him. For there was a time in my twenties when I allowed a lover into my life who did something quite similar. It took me years to recognize the threads that led back to an earlier life in which my very parents physically and emotionally abused me. And while I am now doing very well and am now the happiest I have been in years, I am ever on the alert for any small misstep that could send me even a few feet away from the self-destructive pit. Because as tough and as resilient and as seemingly well-adjusted as we survivors are, there’s always a chance. So Yanagahira’s novel almost served as exposure therapy, especially since I was down and out when I read it. For anyone fortunate enough to never experience abuse, I urge you to read A Little Life. Its worldview is far from “little,” unless you’re a small-minded hyperbolic attention whore paid to bray sociopathic sentences on command in one of the literary world’s declining institutions.

But if my plaudits aren’t enough to sell you on A Little Life, I should also point out that the only reason A Little Life is not pictured among the books in the header image is because, months ago, someone who had spent the night at my apartment and heard me rave about it happened to pilfer it.

The Bat Segundo Show: Paul Murray, Part Two

Play

On December 5, 2010, the Irish novelist Paul Murray encountered one of Mr. Segundo’s many agents before a full audience at Word Brooklyn. The two gentlemen proceeded to talk, with smart audience interjection and Mr. Murray reading from the book, for a little under 90 minutes. Just as the tape ran out, the very patient Word Brooklyn staff wisely put an end to this gabfest. The two gentlemen had no idea they had rambled on for so long. From all reports, neither did the crowd.

The first part of this conversation is now available for your listening pleasure as The Bat Segundo Show #370 (also referred to as “Phyllis Presents,” for reasons known only to those possessing the appropriate handbook). It is about 41 minutes long and involves the initial Q&A between Mr. Murray and our most mysterious agent.

The second part of this conversation is now available for your listening pleasure as The Bat Segundo Show #371 (which does not possess any alternate name, we are sorry to report). It is about 38 minutes long and features Mr. Murray reading from his latest novel, Skippy Dies, along with further questions from our agent (and many from the crowd). If you listen carefully to this second part, you may be able to detect a broken haiku.

The producers wish to thank Brian Gittis, Stephanie Anderson, Jenn Northington, Sarah Weinman, and (of course) Paul Murray for their great assistance (much of it at the last minute) in making this special conversation happen. We hope to offer similar “live” conversations in the future.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Recoiling from the pleasures of being applauded by a recorded audience.

Author: Paul Murray

Subjects Discussed: The origins of Bethani, the original length of Skippy Dies, storylines cut from Skippy Dies, the narrative need for an adult ballast, the importance of the school as a microcosm, Infinite Jest, open-ended narratives, tradeoffs, the impossibility of second-guessing an audience, Roland Barthes, cartoon sex, absurd editorial exchanges concerning the physicality of mermaids, balancing gender perspective, getting Lori’s emotions right, Catholic schoolboys, amoral characters and teenage beauty, authentic teen voices, requests for a “director’s cut” of Skippy Dies, trying to find uses for scrapped material, when descriptive “transplants” don’t work in revision, and the importance of listening to editors.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Murray: I didn’t want it to be an Infinite Jest level narrative. I think that might have had its day, in fact. That sort of completely open-ended narrative structure. Because once you read Infinite Jest and you get to the end of 1,000 pages and realize he’s not going to tie it all up. Sorry to anyone who hasn’t read the book. The butler did it. That in itself is not quite a gimmick. But it’s a device. And it’s a device that people will get bored of. So you need to find new ways. Roland Barthes, who I read a lot unapologetically, he talks a lot about, “If you destroy something. If you try and destroy something, it just comes back.” Like you just sort of preserve the dialectic. So what you need to do is subvert it by making fun of it or just twisting things and tweaking things. I guess that’s what I was trying to do with the book. I really like — I watch tons of — far too many movies and TV programs and stuff. So I wasn’t coming at it with some kind of Puritanical urge to — like an Alain Robbe-Grillet sense of “I puke on the novel.” I wanted it to be a story that some of the people would enjoy. So yeah, it does look like a lot of elements. It’s got characters and it’s got jokes. It’s got plot twists and stuff. I would argue that it doesn’t work in a sort of three-part type of way. Because Skippy dies at the beginning. And then it tracks back. The first two parts are tracking back. What happened to him. And then the last part is just dealing with the effects of his death. So it is kind of chronological. Quite weird.

Correspondent: Well, what do you trade off when you are writing for the audience like this? Are there certain areas that you went into further? Because the book is very candid about the teenage lifestyle. And drugs and sex and things like that. Did you go further in this earlier draft? Were there things that were perhaps just too off-putting for the audience that you were seeking? I’m just curious.

Murray: I genuinely would try and avoid — I mean, if you start thinking of your audience, then it’s impossible to second-guess an audience. Because people react in ways that you can never imagine. So you’re on a losing streak with that. And also you’ll just freeze up if you start worrying about what people will think. So I tried to avoid doing that. That said, I did have more extreme things happening in earlier drafts. And I think it was because it was hard to gauge the right level of shockingness. And it wasn’t that I wanted to shock people. It was more that I was worried about censoring myself. I was worried that the editors won’t like this scene. So I’m going to leave it in there! Which is a very stupid way of writing a book. But that’s what I did.

For instance, the Bethani character, who writes a lot of these strange porno songs. There were more of those than there needed to be initially. And there’s a very disturbed character called Carl. His stuff was initially — there’s a bit where Carl is at home looking at porn on the Internet and he seems to be looking at this toon porn, which is characters from Disney — Pocahantas and the Little Mermaid, Snow White and so forth — having sense with various other toons. Smurfs having sex.

Correspondent: Imagination or research into this?

Murray: Uh, no comment. But there was a humorous exchange with the publishers. With Penguin. Because initially they were saying, “I think Disney may have copyright on these. So we’re going to have to write to them and say is it okay?”

Audience and Correspondent: (laughs)

Murray: Okay, I don’t know if they’ll go for that. But it turns out.

Correspondent: Did you get any yeses? Yes, it’s perfectly okay for a Snow White and a dwarf 69. Or something.

Murray: (laughs) You know that site!

Correspondent: No, I…no comment!

Murray: That’s one frisky dwarf.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Murray: No, but it turned out that it was legal. It was okay. The Penguin legal department checked this out. It was fine. You could use those references. But there was another bit. A Penguin editorial assistant, who is a very nice and lovely girl called Anna Kelly, said, “You have Pocahontas giving a lickout to the Little Mermaid.”

Correspondent: (laughs)

Murray: “Physiologically, that’s not actually possible.”

Audience and Correspondent: (laughs)

Correspondent: Your imagination then!

Murray: “Dear Anna: Thank you so much for that.” So if you know anything about the English publishing industry, then you know it’s run by these very sweet, very polite women. And so there’s this humungously embarrassing email conversation back and forth. “Maybe we should have the Little Mermaid giving a lickout to Pocahantas.”

Audience and Correspondent: (laughs)

Murray: “Oh! That seems like the best solution!”

Audience and Correspondent: (laughs)

Correspondent: Oh boy. Anybody have a question to follow that up with?

The Bat Segundo Show #371: Paul Murray, Part Two (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Paul Murray, Part One

Play

On December 5, 2010, the Irish novelist Paul Murray encountered one of Mr. Segundo’s many agents before a full audience at Word Brooklyn. The two gentlemen proceeded to talk, with smart audience interjection and Mr. Murray reading from the book, for a little under 90 minutes. Just as the tape ran out, the very patient Word Brooklyn staff wisely put an end to this gabfest. The two gentlemen had no idea they had rambled on for so long. From all reports, neither did the crowd.

The first part of this conversation is now available for your listening pleasure as The Bat Segundo Show #370 (also referred to as “Phyllis Presents,” for reasons known only to those possessing the appropriate handbook). It is about 41 minutes long and involves the initial Q&A between Mr. Murray and our most mysterious agent.

The second part of this conversation is now available for your listening pleasure as The Bat Segundo Show #371 (which does not possess any alternate name, we are sorry to report). It is about 38 minutes long and features Mr. Murray reading from his latest novel, Skippy Dies, along with further questions from our agent (and many from the crowd). If you listen carefully to this second part, you may be able to detect a broken haiku.

The producers wish to thank Brian Gittis, Stephanie Anderson, Jenn Northington, Sarah Weinman, and (of course) Paul Murray for their great assistance (much of it at the last minute) in making this special conversation happen. We hope to offer similar “live” conversations in the future.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Recoiling from the pleasures of being applauded by a recorded audience.

Author: Paul Murray

Subjects Discussed: The influence of cinema, Gene Tierney, Glengarry Glenn Ross, the “Intelligent Eye” system, constructing a soundtrack for life, characters who flee reality, Anthony Lane and the Beijing Olympics, the camera increasingly pervading existence, Murray’s hero worship of David Lynch, balancing audience demand for traditional logic with shocking character revelation, Twin Peaks, not making sense as a bold aesthetic move, David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Lynch vs. Pynchon, David Shields’s Reality Hunger, excavating the old in the quest for new fiction, Tristram Shandy, the importance of having a big nose, gutting from reality, Russell Hoban’s “feeling unreal is an essential part of reality,” mid-century Irish naturalistic writers, Irish fiction’s failure to interrogate modernity, video games as a teenage refuge, gamebooks of the 1980s, the Walkman as a shift in the way we perceive reality, The Legend of Zelda, Team Fortress 2, Shigeru Miyamoto, computer games and narcissism, Skippy Dies‘s slips into second person, the frustrations with maintaining a dimwit first-person perspective in An Evening of Long Goodbyes, the Celtic Tiger, writers and bank statements, the unexpected rise of phones in Ireland, lattes in Ireland, working in a cafe without comprehending focaccia, Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches, ineffectual use of outdoor jacuzzis in Ireland, property fairs, Robert Graves and the Great War, Gallipoli, World War I Irish involvement erased from the history books, the Church and child abuse, Michael Durbin of The Irish Times, derivatives, and whether the novelist is guilty in ignoring certain narratives while coating reality within a fantasy.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Murray: It needed to be structured in a way that wasn’t linear and that wasn’t naturalistic. Because I just don’t think like that. I wasn’t trying to be experimental. I just thought that, if you are a kid nowadays, your life is not very linear and it’s not very naturalistic. Because you’ll spend most of your time looking at your phone or looking at a screen. Or watching the TV. You’re very rarely actually where you are. Do you know what I mean? I guess maybe that’s part of the human condition. Never to be actually tuned into what’s around you. But it seems like the whole thrust of the 21st century is just to take us further and further and further away from where we are. And further away into strange digital fantasies.

Correspondent: And this probably explains why so much of Skippy is about this meshing between reality and fantasy. That, in your efforts possibly to examine life with these delimiting technological factors, you’re saying that it led inevitably to this blur between reality and fantasy?

Murray: Yeah, I think that’s what you do when you’re a kid. As I say, when I was a kid, there was no Internet. And computer games — I wasn’t quite Pong era.

Correspondent: Asteroids maybe.

Murray: Yeah. But I think the teenage — the way you kind of cope with the stresses of being a teenager is to take refuge in TV shows or films or computer games. Like I was really into those — well, I wasn’t into role playing. But there were these gamebook things.

Correspondent: Oh yeah.

Murray: Where you rolled the dice and fought orcs.

Correspondent: Yeah. Like the Lone Wolf books?

Murray: Yeah! Yeah! Totally!

Correspondent: I totally played those. They were great.

Murray: Don’t tell anyone.

Correspondent: It’s on tape, I’m afraid.

Murray: Ah! Again with the orcs! Oh no! When are the orcs going to get along?

Correspondent: I know.

Murray: That’s what you do. You’re constantly — like when I was growing up, the Walkman arrived, you know? And I’m going to argue that the Walkman is a major shift in the way we perceive reality. Because for the first time, you can carry music around you. And you start narrating your life. Like the self-narration just shifts gear. Shifts higher up. And that kind of process is — as I say, what technology gives us is more and more elaborate ways of doing that. So the kids in the book, because they’re young and they’re afraid and they’re lost, they take refuge. The big example is Skippy. Skippy’s this fourteen year old, quite reclusive boy who is addictively playing this computer game. Kind of a Legend of Zelda-like computer game. And have you ever played?

Correspondent: Zelda? Yeah, yeah. That thing sucked too many hours out of my life.

Murray: Yeah, it’s crazy.

Correspondent: Now it’s Team Fortress 2. If we’re going to be professional.

Murray: Yeah?

Correspondent: Oh yeah. Oh god.

Murray: Okay. We can talk about this later.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Murray: I mean, I’m not a huge computer games player. But my brother had a — whatever the machine was to play Zelda.

Correspondent: NES.

Murray: And it’s the same guy. The same game designer. The guy who invented Donkey Kong back in the ’70s has now done Legend of Zelda. And he creates these incredible worlds that are so powerful and are like art forms in some ways. In the richness of detail and in the beauty of them. But they’re not like art forms in the fact that they don’t challenge your perception. They don’t challenge you as a person at all. They make you like the master of this world that you find yourself in. Which is like a really narcissistic kind of fantasy. And the kids lose themselves in these fantasies of control and power. You know, like the same way if you walk down the street and you’re listening to Tupac, you kind of imagine that you’re Tupac. And even if you’re fourteen and very small, if motherfuckers come at you, look out. So that’s what you’re doing. I guess the really obvious conceit of the book is that that’s what everybody’s doing these days. That as an adult, being an adult or being mature is less and less part of the adult experience. Instead, being old and adult is someone with more spending power who can buy better enhancers or escapes from reality. Part of the reason the world is so — I’m trying to say fucked — is because we feel less and less responsibility for the world around us. Instead we’re just fleeing into whatever Apple has just produced and for a thousand dollars.

The Bat Segundo Show #370: Paul Murray, Part One (Download MP3)

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