Book Review

Four Short(ish) Novels from 2020

can't stop reading / can't start doing anything else

Look, I want to read four or five books a week because there’s nothing else going on and I love to read but blogging just gets gets gets so stressful.

Christ.

Let’s catch up with some alleged bangers from twenny freakin twenny (remember that year? From what I remember everyone was talking about Uncut Gems a lot and then not much else happened.)

I read all these at the end of February. Weeks and weeks ago. Didn’t make a note of any dates because that wasn’t my vibe back then lol haha haha oh no

Weather by Jenny Offill

Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes. 

I LOVED this. 

Exactly my kinda thing. 

Narrator who’s stalled in life, bumbling around, reading a lot, dealing with other people being more tragic than them but less self-reflective. 

There’s a whisper of infidelity; a dog; the discussion of end of the world disaster and collapse; the dangers of political apathy; the popular rise of disgusting, right wing ideologies; the gig economy destroying small businesses; the rising rich-poor divide; the impossibility of hope; the tediousness of adulthood; the promise of mortality; the uselessness of intellect; the vacuity of employment; the disconnect between people who aren’t yet old but have solid memories of life before internet ubiquity and those who don’t; the fear the fear the fear, mental illness, addiction, not really liking life but tolerating it, existing, being alive, waiting waiting waiting and then realising you’ve spent so long waiting that everything you were waiting for doesn’t exist any more.

Everything Offill writes about has been exacerbated by COVID-19, so this somehow feels far less dated than something from last year that doesn’t mention viral pandemics might feel.

An absolute knockout. 

As soon as bookshops are back, I’ll be buying Offill’s earlier novels.

Dream read. 

100% recommend.


The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya

This was also excellent. 

It’s a Toronto-set novel about moderately-successful but not superstar musicians. 

It jumps around between a few different perspectives and styles (texts, tweets, magazine interviews, blog posts, first person narrative, third person etc) in a really engaging way, with every central character quickly and impressively created. 

Quite simply, there’s enough characterisation here for another 400 pages, and that Shraya stops after 200ish is impressive restraint. 

Lots of novelists keep writing far beyond the scope of their talents, but The Subtweet is a rare counter example. 

The ending is somewhat abrupt, but it could have come at any point in the book after the titular, pleasingly devastating, subtweet was revealed and the whole would have remained satisfying. Probably.

The repercussions of the eponymous social media post could have continued on and on and on, because as a novel about friendship and creativity and music, it’s about “life”: it’s not about the entirety of life, that’s not what I mean, I mean that it’s believable and real and thus could have continued if Shraya had wanted it to: The Subtweet doesn’t grind to a halt like realist novels often do, it’s the opposite.

What I’m trying to say is that this is very very very good, though a bit too asexual for me to rave about, but I’m very prurient, and thankfully so are most novelists.

The book is also excellent as a progressive example of representation, in that one of the characters mentions she is trans twice during the entire novel. This is proper, realistic, representation and a great contrast to the stream of disgusting transphobia my hair-trigger “report & block” policy on Twitter still fails to keep out of sight. It feels far more powerful than it should to read a novel about a trans woman where her personhood and her transness are not central plot points. As (non-conservative) novels continue to shift away from white, hetero, male, capitalistic perspectives, accurate representations of minority groups is something good fiction will continue to do well, and it’s great to see engaging, witty, articulate fiction about “the internet” that is able to subtly include solid progressive politics. This is a masterclass is the great contemporary novel.

It was also fun to recognise local venues and magazines in a novel, which isn’t something I’ve experienced since I moved here.

I should probably read more contemporary Toronto novels lol.

Here’s a link to some of my contemporary Toronto poetry 

Buy The Subtweet direct from the publisher here


Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Yes many times, too. Yes yes yes. Yes. Absolutely wonderful.

At times deeply unsettling, riotously funny, unexpected, sexy, sad and – a rarity in fiction – scientific, Real Life is deserving of its masses of acclaim, which – in my experience – is a very rare thing indeed (and I say that as someone who was highly commended (once) in the UK’s most prestigious poetry competition (no, you stop mentioning it)).

Real Life spans a single weekend in the life of Wallace, a postgraduate biology or chemistry (biochemistry? Just biology? I don’t know, I didn’t understand, I stopped science classes when I was 16 to focus my schooltime on being coooooool, which is one of the reasons why I’m 32 (fuck, I’m 32) and not looking forward to a glistening future) student in what was maybe meant to be Chicago but maybe was meant to be somewhere else or was maybe deliberately not meant to be a specific place, i.e. Taylor doesn’t mention any neighbourhood or city names, so either it’s meant to be recognisable from its geography (a big lake, a university) or it’s meant to be vague. Thinking about this, it has suddenly become very obvious that it’s meant to be vague. Anyway.

It covers a single weekend in Wallace’s life. He hooks up with a friend, he goes to a dinner party, he is the victim (in private) of extreme racist and homophobic abuse in the lab he works in, he is the victim of extreme but insidious racist abuse (in public) from a friend of a friend and none of his other friends stand up for him; he reminisces about his childhood in Alabama and psychological abuse from his parents and sexual abuse they basically sanctioned from a friend of theirs; someone confides a personal secret to Wallace and he ignores emotional clues to the point where he deeply wounds that person by in-person ghosting them; he then has violent, intense, sex with the friend from the night before and then he cooks midnight fried fish for him, then they swim in the lake and then they watch sunrise from the roof. Then there’s a flashback to their first meeting and it’s beautiful and it’s gorgeous and it’s real.

A truly beautiful novel. Felt and emotive and powerful and terse. Exploration of big, weighty, topics with nuance but without pretence. It’s an intelligent, artful, masterful novel, and a real fucking treat to read.

OK, one more and then I’ll go a little further back in time.


Bestiary by K-Ming Chang

Just not my kinda thing to be honest: too much magic, too much piss (I’m of the poo people), too much strange.

Well-written, layered, complex, full of reference to myths and histories I didn’t know enough about to understand. 

I would happily reread an annotated version, but I found this too confusing to be enjoyable. I’m very plain, very simple, very direct. I’m basic, yah. The reasons I disliked Bestiary are the reasons it is good.

I’m not saying it’s shit, I’m saying it’s not my kinda thing. Other people seem to love it, so umm, maybe you will, too?

Bye bye bye

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