Season of Dysphoria: My Reading in 2017
I was haplessly drawn toward the above title, a la Season of Anomy — due to a trio of books: Hanya Yanagihara’s profound and repeatedly unsettling A Little Life, Anakana Schofield’s Martin John and Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s immensely compunctive The Fact of a Body. These books extended my capacity of understanding the complexity of people — the other things it can also mean to be human; to be complex and complicated and conflicted all at once. There is another trio of books that pushed the extent of what I had seen the novel form accommodate: Chris Kraus’s I love Dick, by blurring the lines between multiple genres, Anna Kavan’s Ice by dismantling the idea of what a narrative should be like and Solar Bones —cheating death— by being a book-long sentence, something that takes a lot more discipline than ambition for any writer to embark on, let alone successfully achieve—in a time when writing a few-paragraphs-long sentence is still being fussed over.
This year was mostly devoid of poetry reading, the sadness I encountered in fiction left me bankrupted of the élan I needed to engage serious poetry respectfully—the way I prefer to.
A book so continuously overwhelming in its examination of the effects of victimization and post-traumatic convalescence; societal reintegration, the struggle for a sense of self, healing and relapsing—and friendships. We experience all these through the holocaust that is the life of Jude St. Francis, the novel’s central character.
A centripetal tour-de-force of emotional heft, this novel was very tough to read, the characters are difficult to be in company of. It demanded an emotional fee I was only able to pay because The Fact of a Body had already put me on an emotional financial aid. Still, do not go (gentle) into this book if your happiness must not be tainted, because it definitely will and after it has, there will be no backrub or closure or the type of ending you would rather see. The novel also assaults and totally upends heteronormativity as a default way of (co)existence, and examines uncommon family stereotypes in lucid simple-seeming, descriptive, reader-luring prose that, well… tears you up by the end.
Sandor Márai’s 1942 novel—published in English in 2001—of which John Banville remarked “…conveys a sense of authentic passion, authentic pain” is a masterpiece of elegiac prose not even the finest practitioners writing fiction today —Pascal Mercier or Kazuo Ishiguro— can replicate to the same degree of quality.
I was instantly possessed by a wistful hunger to read it in its native Hungarian—more like in the exact way a recreational drug-using Breaking Bad fan could reasonably desire a small bag of the blue-white crystal meth that is the signature of Walter White/Heisenberg (who is perhaps the greatest fictional chemist)— where it was titled A gyertyák csonkig égnek (Candles burn until the end) since the English copy I read was translated from German which was translated from the original Hungarian. I could not stop wondering if what was lost in translation had become significant after the material had passed through two languages and of course, if the Hungarian language was a better language for the material itself and was not simply fortunate to be the language Márai wrote in.
Márai explores the themes of friendship and loyalty/betrayal through a nonlinear narration with an almost-palimpsestic pacing—the kind acuteness we can imagine of an omniscient philosopher, evoking in the reader an emotional compulsion and producing a work of aesthetic beauty that is among the richest within the last century in prose fiction.
The central character, Martin John struggles with an internal (or mental, to be clinical) compulsion to do things that are outside the realm of propriety, sexually with himself—because of, around or in front of—and (to) strangers. In Public. This book argues that a perpetrator could be, in distinct cases, no less a victim to the act as their victims are to them. So this is no second-rate Lolita. The reader is granted a harrowing passage to the mind of Martin John, and this world could be better for it. The book does not boil you down emotionally, compared to The Fact of a Body or A Little Life, it is both an easy and an easier read. One’s life becomes a struggle perhaps when its ultimate goal becomes avoiding, preventing or refusing to do, redo or keep redoing something—a war against relapsing, something regular people go through as well, but quite certainly in much lesser degree and personal cost, this is why I am drawn into Martin John, why I stand by him—and would with him, were he real.
Once Upon a time, there lived a Canadian writer who went by the name of Anakana Scofield.
The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir — Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
A reexamination of two actual events—an acutely sensitive and decade-long true-crime case that fully awakens a somnambulic history of personal abuse in the author—that took ten years to complete. Marzano-Lesnevich’s writing echoes the works of David Simon, Dennis LeHane, Kazuo Ishiguro and Norman Mailer.
When dealing with very sensitive issues —murder, abuse, prosecutorial injustices and even mental health, a piece of writing could be excused for being charged with indignation; a few slips of outrage, a few hyperbolic, judgemental pronouncements (how do you say something—anything in favour of a rapist?). Extremely sensitive, overwhelmingly emotional, so delicate in its nuanced treatment of irredeemable acts that I had to take weeks between chapters. Marzano-Lesnevich examines the meaning and cost of forgiveness and acceptance, the permanence of trauma, the extent of internal turmoil (or what I would call protective impunity) that is the consequence of an irreversible misdeed and effects of slack parentage on self-esteem and social integration.
A Memoir/Legal Thriller/True-Crime Investigation/Social Commentary at once, The Fact of a Body is the highlight of my reading year, because of its nuanced examination of core, oft-ignored symptoms of mental health issues and the brutal, irremediable consequences they could have, given the right (or wrong) chain of events. I have never been as moved by anything similar I have come across—HBO’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, Netflix’s Making a Murderer or even Ezra Edelman’s OJ: Made in America.
The rest of the title of this book is Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds.
Aribisala proceeds with a humility that is rarely found in writers. Of intellect.
This book is a cultural treatise with bits of social commentary, pieces of memoiristic recollections and, quite impressively, possibly the best prose you will read on Nigerian food in a long time.
That was expected — a paragraph of hype and praise mounted like a compost heap on a book and its writer in whom I am well-pleased.
Yet, this book (and Aribisala) succeeds on almost any level one gauges it against. The rarity of works of its kind makes it an instant classic and a guaranteed all-time influence and reference book, the prose exposes the writer’s enviable bilingual mastery of languages, the writing style ensures the reader is not left feeling stupid compared to the writer—as some renowned intellectual writers ensure, perhaps as taxation for throwing knowledge the reader’s way. She challenges traditional norms respectfully, not cantankerously—as is predictable for a writer who knows they are progressive and right— and pulverizes generations-old, backwards, hypocritical societal impositions and on top of these, provides historical, traditional and cultural contexts for dismantling self-serving and ultimately legacy-desecrating neocolonial trends.
The Yoruba have a saying; Ọgbọ́n inú yàtọ̀ s’ọgbọ́n orí.
Allow me to offer two reimaginings of this axiom in the English language. Discernment is no match for knowledge. Or quite simply, Discernment renders knowledge a superficiality. Aribisala writes primarily with Ọgbọ́n inú —her Ogbon orí being a subservient footnote—and since one cannot give what they do not have—intellectually, she makes your favourite (cross-)cultural critic or social commentary writer(s) look bad at their job, while never standing in the way of your own perception.
I had to gift copies to the most important women in my life.
Geoff Dyer, describing how some excellent writers work themselves over and over to achieve great prose— comparing them to pugilists1—suggests that the great prose a reader finally clamors over with the maniacal glee of a stan is indeed the final version of consecutive drafts that have been beaten and beaten and beaten—and is now “…so worked over that it is slurred to perfection’’. Just in the way a pugilist—say Ali, would take a monumental amount of nonconsecutive beatings, get worn out but also wear the opponent down by enduring those beatings and—through his clever footwork and his classic rope-a-dope—in addition to the long-suffering, finally gets to descend on the opponent with a self-assured staccato of victorious blows.
This collection declares Wells Tower as an undisputable (note: not even undisputed) modern master of the short story—it is rather for Tower what Cathedral was for Carver. He has an innate, effortless ability to describe anything better than all but a few, and in his own self-conscious style. His powers of observation and dry wit are acute to the point where it would be understandable if the reader were to take them for granted, a consequence of which would be a higher bar for what one would consider great prose henceforth. And while his prose is accessible, the consistency of his brilliance can be dizzying. To the reader, some of the stories feel like a sugar rush, some like a mutiny; as if a setup. The titular last story is a further testament to the accomplishment this collection is, not in a saving-the-best-for-last sort of sense, but saving the biggest surprise for last.
An example of what experimental writing can be brought to accomplish; in terms of both ambition and sustained brilliance, there is a duality to the impression this book hurled onto me. The narrative turns and wriggles free of being bound to any single category while the content itself was light years ahead of anything else I have come across. Disturbing, exclamatory, brash as well as well-written and deeply annoying, this is that frustrating book I hated to like. Not hated to like as in I hated it and them came around to like it but in the sense of hating that I found something to like about it. Half-repulsed but still half-spellbound. I hate Chris, so maybe I love Dick too.
I condescend crime thrillers in general because I read David Simon and Don Winslow. If I ride a horse to someone else’s home to woo their mom, no one is allowed to ride a goat to our home to woo mine. That aside.
When an occurrence seemingly entombed in the past first rustles up, and then confronts the present with unrelenting intent—in the manner which decades-old sexual allegations are now resurfacing to confront their then-upcoming-but-now-famous perpetrators—an attempt must be made to enforce Newton’s Third Law must over the alternative; Murphy’s.
The Redbreast is a possible literary crime thriller whose glory lies more in its plotting than its characterization. Even when it succumbs to the trappings of its genre, it successfully succumbs by never being boring and offering up twists at coldly calculated turns. Harry Hole (pronounced hooleh) comes as accessible and dogged as Harry Bosch, Jimmy McNulty or Jack Bauer, even if not as complex as any of them and while his villain may also be a less intriguing version of say, Rollo Tomassi, he is definitely as resourceful and smart but the hero of the novel is Nesbo himself— his scrupulous detailing, his finessed, nonlinear pacing and ultimately, the interesting Norwegian setting that lends a gruff backdrop to the story.
The narrative is unlike anything else (I’ve come across or heard of). It makes Nolan’s Memento seem like—for lack of a better cliché—child’s play. Besides the nonlinearity of time and events, the plot is not driven by any internal logic (perhaps survival is a latent logic in itself) alternate timelines disrupt and overlap each other without as much as a single Deus ex machina. This kind of authorial liberty which sidesteps both expectation and logic can only be named for Kavan, as in Kavanesque—yes, for once, Illogical, bizarre plots are not always Kafkaesque. Dare I say more?
I read some writers of short fiction for the first time this year, three of which are quite remarkable to my mind: Joshua Cohen, Jesse Ball and Claire Vaye Watkins. I restrain myself from saying good things of Joshua Cohen’s prose, since the more I think of it, the more I feel certain only great things must be said about his writing. His prose had a distinctive style and energy the kind of which I last encountered reading the poetry of Abubakar Umar Sidi on Saraba.
Jesse Ball’s “A Wooden Taste is the word for Dam a Wooden Taste is the word for Dam a Wooden Taste is the word for” surpassed anything I was expecting in a story from someone not named Kafka or (Angela) Carter. I often think of (Jesse) Ball and (Carmen Maria) Machado as the heirs of Kafka and Carter. The story was such a sad delight.
I utterly enjoyed devouring Claire Vaye Watkins’ I love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness. It managed to give me the greatest satisfaction without being the best or most relatable story I read during the year. I am fascinated by the characters —in a wèrè dùn-ùn wò, kò şeé bí lọ́mọ́ sort of sense— very pleased to be a voyeur of their lives and inner thoughts but dreadful of being in similar circumstances. I am certain I would find their company repulsive in real life. Is that what they call Schadenfreude? Maybe—no! Almost.
- A Mouth Sweeter Than Salt by Toyin Falola
- The Emerald Light in the Air by Donald Antrim
- The Power by Naomi Alderman
- The Return (Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between) by Hisham Matar
- The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson
- The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al-Aswani
- This conversation between Emmanuel Iduma and Adebiyi Olusolape in Enkare Review
Books I’m looking forward to in 2018
- A Death in the Family — James Agee
- A Manual for Cleaning Women (Stories) — Lucia Berlin
- All Stories Are True (Stories) — John Edgar Wideman
- BattleBorn (Stories) — Claire Vaye Watkins
- Freshwater — Akwaeke Emezi
- Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman — Laurence Sterne
- The History of the Yorubas — (not the British) Samuel Johnson
- See the essay “Pounding Print” from Otherwise Known as the Human Condition by Geoff Dyer1