Bookface Blog

Archive by tag: Anthony CumminsReturn
May 09, 2021

Nothing is what it seems in this short story collection, in which family life and the workplace get dizzying new slants

“I’ve had the weirdest day,” someone says near the end of one of the stories that make up Ben Pester’s giddying debut collection. They’re not wrong. Many of these tales read like Charlie Kaufman scripting an episode of The Office. In one called Orientation – a neat joke – an agency worker’s first-day “onboarding process” with a bumptious health and safety officer who says things like “Excellenté!” turns distinctly odd, as talk of lanyards and lunchtime options gives way to a sinister time slip that revives a difficult childhood memory.

Something similar happens in a story about a man who meets his father for a lunch at a restaurant, only to go to the toilet and return to find the restaurant has shut, with his father nowhere to be seen. Another piece turns on a disciplinary meeting in which someone is accused of emailing a colleague with an offensive slur – except she didn’t write it, and no one knows the word’s meaning anyway. Strangest of all is a story titled If Yes, Please Explain Your Answer, narrated by another office worker who finds himself turned into wadding to staunch a colleague’s flesh wound, sustained in circumstances that are weirder still. “Apart from my new physical state, life continues as usual... My children say they do not miss me too badly,” he tells us.

There’s a melancholy seam of emotion about family life here, as well as a keen eye for the absurdities of workplace culture. Pester’s frame of reference only heightens the surreality: when a man-eating black hole opens up in someone’s house, we’re told it stretches out its victims “like it was making pasta or something”. I’d guess he’s a fan of the bleakly comic bizarro-world scenarios of the American writers Ben Marcus and Donald Antrim. Like them, he sometimes takes the risk of dizzying us so much that we lose sight of the stakes involved amid the blizzard of weirdness, but on this evidence he’s got more than enough savvy to stay the right side of zany.

Am I in the Right Place? by Ben Pester is published by UEA Publishing Project (£12.99). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply

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May 08, 2021

The bestselling author on reimagining Hillary Clinton’s life, what novelists have learned from Covid and the mood in her home town, Minneapolis, since the murder of George Floyd

Curtis Sittenfeld, 45, is the author of two short story collections and six novels, including Prep, her 2005 debut about a teenage girl at boarding school, and American Wife, narrated by a White House first lady, based on Laura Bush. Both books were bestsellers longlisted for the Orange prize (now the Women’s prize for fiction). Her latest novel, Rodham, out in paperback next month, imagines how Hillary Clinton’s political career might have looked had she not married Bill. Sittenfeld, who was born in Ohio and studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, spoke to me on Zoom from Minneapolis, where she has lived since 2018.

What led you to write a counterfactual novel about Hillary Clinton?

Early in 2016, Esquire asked if I’d like to write a short story from Hillary’s perspective as she accepted the Democratic presidential nomination. It was an interesting exercise, but I don’t think I’d have gone on to write Rodham had Trump not won the 2016 election. I was devastated. I found myself thinking about schoolchildren who had known Hillary was running for president. In many cases, they literally didn’t know Bill Clinton existed or that she’d been first lady - they knew her as a politician. I thought, what if adults also didn’t see Hillary and Bill as connected? Would the 2016 election have turned out differently?

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May 02, 2021

Cusk’s puzzling reworking of a 1932 memoir by an American bohemian suggests she’s in creative limbo

Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy essentially took the form of a string of monologues heard by a silhouetted but recognisably Cusk-like narrator as she teaches writing, renovates her flat and embarks on a book tour. As well as a way to shrug off the obligations of plot and scene-setting, the structure was a smart response to the hostility that greeted Cusk’s 2012 divorce memoir, Aftermath; if you want me to shut up, she seemed to say, then so be it.

The result was sophisticated and stimulating but also highly mannered, with the polyvocal conceit increasingly at odds with Cusk’s cool monotone. By the third part, Kudos, with its never-ending parade of self-absorbed ignoramuses, the narrative engine felt pretty nakedly rigged for the purposes of marrying her trademark philosophical reflection with her other calling card – the kind of poison-pen portraiture for which she has had a reputation at least since 2009’s The Last Supper, her disputed memoir of a summer among English expats in Tuscany.

So what now? Brexit apparently encouraged Cusk to quit England for Paris, only for coronavirus to stall the move; her new novel suggests she’s in limbo creatively, too. Second Place is the first-person testimony of another Cusk-like writer, M, who invites a celebrated painter, L, to stay in the annex of her marshland home. Craving his attention while her husband installs irrigation for the garden, she’s more than a little touchy when L arrives with Brett, an aggravatingly multi-talented heiress who further rubs M up the wrong way when her style tips are gratefully accepted by M’s 21-year-old daughter, Justine, formerly impervious to her mother’s advice.

So begins an intimate psychodrama in the shape of a social comedy about the hazards of hospitality, as L’s studiedly aloof manner fuels M’s horror of her “small and suburban” middle-aged obsolescence. Cusk’s sans-serif Optima typeface, now as much a part of her brand as high-pressure deliberation on gender and selfhood, adds to an indefinable sense of threat, with the novel’s diction caught between the lecture hall and the analyst’s couch. “So much of power lies in the ability to see how willing other people are to give it to you,” M says; when her annex gets trashed, she’s “shocked, and shock is sometimes necessary, for without it we would drift into entropy”.

As a tale of midlife malaise, Second Place glints with many of Cusk’s typically frosty pleasures

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Apr 25, 2021

An unnamed woman in an unnamed city wavers between solitude and brief encounters in a spare examination of alienation

When Jhumpa Lahiri published her previous novel, 2013’s The Lowland, a wide-angled family saga centred on the Naxalite uprising in 60s Bengal, she was known chiefly as a writer of cross-cultural dislocation. With The Namesake (2003), a novel about a Bengali-American child who rejects his origins, and two story collections, including her Pulitzer-winning debut, 1999’s Interpreter of Maladies, she anticipated a US vogue for fiction that viewed American culture through the eyes of another. Yet Lahiri, born in London and raised in Rhode Island by parents from Kolkata, was sceptical of that brand: asked in an interview about “immigrant novels”, she observed that, in literature, “the tension between alienation and assimilation has always been a basic theme”.

Partly to escape these constraints, she taught herself Italian in her 40s, moving her family to Rome in pursuit of total immersion, an experience recounted in her 2016 memoir, In Other Words, written in Italian and rendered in parallel-text English by Elena Ferrante’s translator, Ann Goldstein. The following year, she published a translation of Domenico Starnone’s novel Ties; in 2018 came her own Italian novel, Dove mi trovo (Where I Am, or Where I Find Myself), which Lahiri has now translated herself under the less ambiguous title, Whereabouts.

Told by an unnamed teacher in an unnamed city in northern Italy, it’s made up of 46 vignettes, rarely more than two or three pages long, many not obviously about very much. The narrator swims and gets her nails done; there’s a lot of eavesdropping and people-watching. She shares a glance with another delegate in a hotel lift en route to a conference. She goes to the beach, where “there’s always some savage element... an element we crave and cower from at the same time”.

The novel’s hypnotically surgical gleam can verge on bleached sterility

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Apr 19, 2021

Four strangers are united by the tensions of late 70s Britain in the latest of Quinn’s gratifying London novels

Set during the dog days of the Callaghan Labour government, Anthony Quinn’s latest period novel extends his richly pleasurable and loosely connected series portraying London down the decades. Since 2011, he has fused romance, mystery and social realism to produce a kind of epic Londoniad, tackling the city’s Victorian slums (The Streets), the first world war (Half of the Human Race), the 30s (Curtain Call), the blitz (Our Friends in Berlin), the 50s and 60s (Freya and Eureka), and now the late 70s, a time of strikes, IRA violence and the imminent election of Margaret Thatcher.

It’s David Peace territory, but Quinn is a steadier, suaver writer, relying on the old-school charms of rounded characters and a clockwork plot. Involving police corruption and showbiz hanky-panky, London, Burning brings together four strangers: Hannah, a go-getting reporter; Vicky, a newly promoted detective; Callum, an English lecturer from County Down; and Freddie, a married theatre director sleeping with a television star angling for the lead role in his new show. At the centre of it all is Thatcher’s shadow home secretary, Anthony Middleton, an ex-spy and former POW vowing to crush the unions and the IRA alike. A fictional version of Airey Neave, he also dies in a car bomb, but Quinn’s aim isn’t to recreate one of the IRA’s most notorious murders so much as use it as a catalyst for events that pull together his central quartet. A kneejerk arrest fuelled by anti-Irish bigotry is only the start, as the killing inspires a network of crooked cops running a drugs racket.

As well as taking a trip down memory lane, Quinn wants to explore how Labour voters were blindsided by Thatcher’s rise

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Apr 11, 2021

Benjamin Myers’s multifaceted short stories grapple with the nature of masculinity, while Steve Hollyman’s brash whodunnit focuses on the fallout from a blokes’ night out

Men come unstuck in Benjamin Myers’s new story collection. Whether in the stone age or the 70s, a fruit picker or an astronaut, they’re caught in traps of their own making. A farmer, dreaming of a foreign holiday, gets himself tangled up in his top-of-the-range potato picker, his foot “crushed and rolled like the last curl of a tube of toothpaste”; a gamekeeper is snared in his own cage; and in The Whip Hand, the heir to a fairground dynasty is crushed by the weight of his own ambition when he erects a hilltop monument to his late father, who died after getting stuck – that motif again – in the family’s most famous ride.

While horror is ever ready to intrude, Male Tears is varied in style. Many stories, such as a father’s three-paragraph reflection on ageing, last barely a page, but there’s also a digressively autofictional piece about having a panic attack at a Brueghel exhibition in Vienna. If many are straightforwardly conversational (such as Suburban Animals, whose narrator remembers a childhood friend with Down’s syndrome, targeted by the school bully), others only hint at what’s going on. There are open endings but also gotchas, as with the story about a labourer who, blessed with “the strength and stamina of 10 men”, fascinates his boss’s young nephew, who pictures what the man’s girlfriend must be like after spotting a dress hung up in his caravan.

Hollyman hangs his characters out to dry while using them for narrative fuel and flavour

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Apr 03, 2021

The critic and author on writing about writers, his 20-year-long fascination with Berlin, and the political manoeuvres of the Putin era

Chris Power, 46, grew up in Farnborough and lives in London. After studying English at Swansea, he worked in advertising as a copywriter and creative director. He has judged the Goldsmiths prize and presented Radio 4’s Open Book. His debut story collection, Mothers, was longlisted for the Rathbones Folio prize. A Lonely Man is his first novel; set in Berlin, it turns on an encounter between an expat novelist and a fugitive English ghostwriter whose latest client, a dissident oligarch, has recently been found dead. The writer Catherine Lacey has called the book a “a page-turner with exacting syntax and emotional heft”.

Where did the idea for a thriller about Russia come from?
I’d long been grimly fascinated by Alexander Litvinenko’s killing in 2006 when I read Heidi Blake’s long BuzzFeed investigation, From Russia with Blood, into these 14 deaths on British soil of Russian nationals and British lawyers and fixers. It’s definitely on the lurid side – it’s like a James Herbert horror novel – but it’s a brilliant piece of reporting. There was Scot Young, this playboy money guy [a property developer], who supposedly jumped from the top floor of his Eaton Square apartment, but his daughters went there the next day and found fingernail marks on the window sill. The verdict of suicide was suspiciously open and shut. Blake’s report is very compelling but nothing’s proven and the layers of intrigue and inconclusiveness in the article got me thinking about an oligarch’s ghostwriter as an innocent in that world – as a bridge into it, I suppose. Robert [the expat novelist] added another layer: the book’s shape came from working out which writer was the main character.

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Mar 13, 2021

The Scottish novelist on the difficulty of writing about rock music, why there’s nothing wrong with monotony, and a lost opportunity with Irvine Welsh and Billy Connolly

Alan Warner, 57, is the author of nine novels including The Sopranos, about a group of Highland choirgirls, which was adapted into the Olivier-winning stage play Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour. Its sequel, The Stars in the Bright Sky, was longlisted for the 2010 Booker prize. His new novel, Kitchenly 434, is set in 70s Sussex and narrated by a rock star’s deluded butler. Warner, who grew up in Oban, spoke to me on Zoom from Edinburgh, where he had recently been self-isolating on arrival from his home in Spain en route to the University of Aberdeen, where he teaches creative writing.

What led you to write an English country house comedy?
I’d been working on a longer novel involving the building of Scotland’s coastal defences in the second world war; it’s giving me a lot of trouble and it was nice to just not deal with Scotland for a bit. I do that thing of having three books on the go at once so that all my eggs aren’t in one basket: I do it out of insecurity – it’s a weakness, I don’t think it’s good – but I feel if things aren’t going well in one book I can move to another. I wanted to write about rock music but it’s hard to write about – few have done it well and so I was looking for a weird tangent to come at it from. In a freakish way, this is my most autobiographical novel: all Crofton does is hang out on his own in the house, listen to old records and read books.

And yet the story becomes excruciatingly tense…
Yeah, I’ve always thought there’s room for boredom and monotony in a book if it heightens the tension. Crofton’s elusiveness as a narrator does get sinister when two teenage schoolgirls turn up at the mansion and disrupt his exceptionally dull life. You can see potential disaster – we all have that narrative in our heads now – but while I needed that jeopardy in the book, I also wanted to defuse all that sexuality stuff. This is a book about a guy who does the right thing.

The critic Frank Kermode said he couldn’t understand your 1997 novel These Demented Lands. Are you less keen on stylistic experiment now?
My novels settle down a bit after The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven; in terms of technique, Their Lips Talk of Mischief could have been written in 1896, which bothers me. Probably there’s an element of me just getting older and crap, but it’s easy to underestimate The Deadman’s Pedal, which is composed of long filmic sequences in a vérité style that I don’t think I’d have been confident about if I hadn’t experimented previously. James Kelman was still an influence there. Way down in the new book there is an anti-novelistic Samuel Beckett thing going on, but it’s fairly welcoming. The trouble is, so many influences are swarming round me all the time: I adore Kelman but I adore PG Wodehouse as well. How the hell do you harmonise Wodehouse and Kelman? That’s what I’m fighting out.

What’s going on with the film of The Sopranos?
It’s ready. It’s called Our Ladies. I think it’s fantastic, but with Covid the industry is in limbo. Michael Caton-Jones took 20 years to make it and it might take 20 years to release! He had lots of opportunities to get it made if he moved the action to Los Angeles but he always said no, we’ll make it in Scotland and it’ll be faithful to the book.

What about Irvine Welsh’s film of The Man Who Walks?
The financial crash scuppered that one. It was all lined up – this was September 2008 – and then suddenly a queue developed outside the Northern Rock building society in Edinburgh and the investors ran for the hills. Billy Connolly had agreed to play the title role. Irvine met him with a first draft script at the Prestonfield hotel in Edinburgh and they walked round a suite in circles trying to prove their different ideas of how The Man Who Walks should walk. I wish I’d been there.

In 2010, the body of the MI6 agent Gareth Williams was found in a bag in his bath. On a table in his flat was a copy of your first novel, Morvern Callar, in which a corpse is dismembered in a bath and put into a bag. What did you think when you saw that?
It was very sad. The poor man died under very mysterious circumstances. It does kind of bring it home that your books are out in the world; I remember a headline in the [Evening] Standard – “grisly thriller clue to spy death”, something like that – and it’s fantastic in terms of mystery to think you’re implicated in such a headline, but the connection was tenuous. Even if the guy read it, what happened seems more sinister than the grisly disposal of a suicide in Morvern Callar.

Which writers do you recommend to your students?
Some of them might be writing science fiction, so I put them on to Michael Moorcock and Roger Zelazny. Some of them might be writing fantasy – there’s a whole post-Harry Potter generation coming through – so I direct them to Mervyn Peake, who they’re always delighted to discover. I still recommend Duncan McLean’s collection of stories Bucket of Tongues, which was such an inspiration to me; Irvine too. Each story has its own style and rhythm; there’s such a variety of experience in it. But it’s out of print – you can’t set it, otherwise the class struggles to find 30 copies and you end up paying £17 a go.

What have you been reading lately?
Besides the proofs of my own bloody book, which is horrible, I’ve been reading David Sheppard’s biography of Brian Eno, On Some Faraway Beach. It’s my third time; I’m bizarrely addicted to rereading this book in the evenings. Eno’s life seems to have a certain tranquillity and order, much as some of his music does, and I find it very comforting.

Kitchenly 434 by Alan Warner is published by White Rabbit (£18.99). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply

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Mar 08, 2021

This frantic spoof of science and venture capitalism lacks the focus of the brilliant Patrick Melrose books

Edward St Aubyn is best known for his immersive, darkly comic sequence of five autobiographical novels about the childhood, youth and middle age of Patrick Melrose, a minor English aristocrat who finds himself hooked on heroin after being repeatedly raped in childhood by his father. His publisher calls his new book his “first major work” since At Last, the fifth Melrose novel, which he’s surely too shrewd not to see as a diss on the two novels he published in the intervening 10 years: Lost for Words, a crass farce about a clueless book prize jury, inspired by At Last’s snubbing for the Booker; and Dunbar, a commissioned reimagining of King Lear that was overshadowed not only by the source material but by the Melrose novels that had presumably made St Aubyn seem like a sound bet to write it in the first place.

St Aubyn’s novels seem to run aground whenever their controlling presence isn’t a single character à la Patrick

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Feb 22, 2021

The abduction of a boy in Mexico City is told from opposing perspectives in this gripping study of motherhood

Translated by Sophie Hughes, this powerfully bleak Mexican debut is a taut two-hander that examines motherhood through the prism of a child’s abduction. It’s narrated by two unnamed women in Mexico City. The first – middle-class, married to a man from Spain – tells us that her three-year-old son, Daniel, hasn’t been seen since he went missing in a playground while she was absorbed in her phone: the man she was having an affair with had just texted to break things off. Now unable to get out of bed, she’s dead-eyed with self-loathing, her agony intensified by having to care for her husband’s Catalan niece, Nagore, of whom they took custody after the girl’s father murdered her mother. This is a novel in which violence is endemic.

Empty Houses starts very much in the vein of contemporary fiction about put-upon women whose circumstances tip them into misanthropy; think of Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, the rise of Ottessa Moshfegh and the post-Gone Girl vogue for marital thrillers. “Breastfeeding is the reflex of mothers who, given that they can’t eat their children, wish to smother them instead,” Daniel’s mother reflects. “We offer the breast not only on instinct but out of an obliterated desire to kill our progeny before it’s too late.”

Navarro puts you in the shoes of a child snatcher frantically building a life based on unsustainable lies

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Feb 14, 2021

The British author weighs the worth of a writer’s life in this intimate blend of memoir and fiction

Narrated in the second person, this short autobiographical novel follows a black British writer living in Berlin. Dumped over dinner by the woman he loves – before his pizza has even arrived – he finds himself zigzagging between zestless dates and crying himself to sleep. He’s abused by racists online and in the street, and his freelance journalism doesn’t always pay the bills. Added pain comes from the fact that he is about to turn 40 – the age at which his father died in a helicopter crash during the civil war in 80s Uganda.

The thought of what his father, a noted surgeon, might have made of his career brings despair

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Feb 07, 2021

Satire and heartache collide in the Priestdaddy author’s funny portrait of a woman’s real and online life

Patricia Lockwood’s 2017 memoir Priestdaddy was, on the face of it, the story of a comically eccentric Catholic upbringing in midwest America. But it also recounted a life shaped just as forcefully by the internet, where Lockwood found an education (after her family stopped her going to university), a husband, and a break: the autobiographical poem Rape Joke, from a 2012 collection issued by a small indie press, went viral only when an online magazine ran it a year later – at which point a poetry editor at Penguin suddenly remembered he had one of Lockwood’s manuscripts sitting on his desk.

In 2019 Lockwood published a third-person diary of what she half-jokingly called her mental “disintegration” as a result of spending too much time on Twitter, or “the portal”, ever more grimly addictive in the wake of Trump’s election. Delivered as a lecture at the British Museum before being printed in the London Review of Books, it took the form of a feed-like stream of quasi-satirical reflections on the oddities of online life, as experienced by a Lockwood-adjacent “she” who finds herself sought after as an authority on internet culture, thanks to her much-circulated social media post: “Can a dog be twins?”

When Lockwood told the audience it was a taster of a book in progress, I didn’t imagine she meant fiction. Seeing it again here as the first part of her debut novel, I wondered how she would wring any kind of story from material that seemed essentially observational in quality. Yet I also found myself laughing too much to care: at one point, the protagonist, inexplicably spending “hypnotized hours of her life... posting OH YES HUNNY in response to old images of Stalin”, puts down her cup of tea and then can’t find it again, struck by the sense that she must have put it inside her phone – the kind of warning sign that makes her ask her husband to lock her phone away in a safe crafted from a hollowed-out dictionary whose spine, tellingly, reads “NEW ENGLISH”.

Sometimes the subject was a war criminal, but other times it was someone who made a heinous substitution in guacamole

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Jan 25, 2021

Little is left to the imagination in a tender work of autofiction about a writing teacher’s experiences as a new dad

Peter Ho Davies’s last novel, The Fortunes, about Chinese migrants to the US, felt most alive when it swapped historical reconstruction for veiled autobiography. Maybe he thought so too: his new book stays close to the source of his most stimulating material, portraying early fatherhood as experienced by an unnamed creative writing teacher in the US – Ho Davies in silhouette, basically.

The crystalline narrative makes the point that children grow up fast

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Jan 16, 2021

The author of acclaimed debut novel A Burning on how being an editor informs her writing, and why her childhood alerted her to literature’s limitations

Megha Majumdar grew up in India before moving to the US at the age of 19 to study at Harvard. Her debut novel, A Burning, follows a young Muslim shop worker who is jailed as a terrorist after she posts a message on Facebook in the wake of a deadly train bombing in Kolkata. Writing in the New Yorker on its American release last summer, James Wood called the novel “brave” and “extraordinary”, comparing Majumdar to William Faulkner. She spoke to me on Zoom from New York, where she edits fiction and nonfiction at Catapult Books.

Were you setting out to open our eyes to life in India at the moment?
I wanted to see if I could write an intellectually serious book that also feels entertaining in some way – fiction’s first task is to move you – but I do hope it’s a book that encourages a reader to think about injustice. It came from a place of being alarmed by what was happening. I grew up in a country where we were taught secular democratic values and that the plurality of our society is something to be proud of. When certain people say, “this community belongs and that one doesn’t”, that’s very frightening. Someone like Jivan, the main character, can have a narrative imposed upon them by the state which they don’t agree with and which they never claimed. Of course, it’s not just taking place in India, it’s around the world, this kind of policing around notions of purity and who belongs. A reader familiar with the political landscape in India will see where certain things connect to the news, while someone elsewhere might not catch the specifics. I hope they’re still moved to think about injustice wherever they are.

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Jan 11, 2021

An unexpected visitor places extra strain on a couple’s rocky relationship in the award-winning American’s debut novel

Bryan Washington’s award-winning debut, Lot, was a high-impact story collection partly told by Nicolás, a young gay black Latino in multiracial Houston. In one story, Nicolás nags his older brother, Javi, to let him sell drugs with him and his dealer friend, Rick. The narrator’s sense of illicit excitement at being among the big boys is heightened by a sexually charged moment as he and Rick count the takings. Then comes an abrupt section break: Rick has been shot dead and we’re at the wake. In front of the casket, Javi snatches Nicolás’s hand: “He made me touch Rick’s face. He told me this was what happened to fags.”

If Lot could resort to shock to get out of a tight spot (the above story takes place in just six pages), Washington’s first novel, Memorial, is a more grownup proposition. Again set in Houston, it follows Benson, a black daycare worker, and Mike, a Japanese-born cook, who have been together for four years. When Mike learns that his long-estranged father is dying in Osaka, he decides to fly out – just as his mother, Mitsuko, turns up out of the blue in Texas.

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Nov 14, 2020

The Scottish author on life as a music journalist, writing about the Troubles and why he happily lost the plot in his new novel

David Keenan, 49, grew up in Airdrie and lives in Glasgow. His 2017 debut, This Is Memorial Device, was shortlisted for the Gordon Burn prize, which he won last year with his second novel, For the Good Times, about the IRA. He has also published a history of the UK’s industrial music scene, England’s Hidden Reverse, and a book about tarot, To Run Wild in It, accompanied by his own deck of cards, created in collaboration with the artist Sophy Hollington. His new novel, Xstabeth, follows the 19-year-old daughter of a Russian singer-songwriter visited by an otherworldly force.

You have said that you wrote Xstabeth in “a state of possession”.
I’m not sitting down and preconceiving books any more. I always knew my first book would be about the excitement of the post-punk years in Airdrie, to go against the perception of small towns being depressing. And I also had an idea in mind in For the Good Times, because of my father and his family, who grew up in the Ardoyne during the Troubles. Xstabeth is deeper waters - it was like receiving a signal. I’m not 100% sure what’s going on in it myself, which is what I totally love. I no longer want a book with a point because once you’ve taken that point on board that book is solved and I don’t want art that can be solved.

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Sep 06, 2020

This Booker-longlisted debut based on the author’s years as a university student-cum-gang member bristles with energy

When the Guardian profiled the Polish political cartoonist Andrzej Krauze in 2001, mention was made in passing of his twin sons, then aged 15, “one a fine violinist, the other a cellist who has decided he wants to be a rap artist”.

The strife hinted at by that slightly judgmental formulation lies deep at the heart of this Booker longlisted autobiographical debut novel, whose narrator, Gabriel – son of Andrzej, and former cellist – hustles us through his mid-00s teens as a university student running with gangs, having left his parents’ north London flat to live on a nearby estate with drug-dealing pals after a bust-up with his mother, who snapped his CDs and burst his basketball.

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Sep 05, 2020

The acclaimed author on his new fantasy for young adults, and why he’s not interested in writing realist fiction - or reading it

Michel Faber, 60, is the author of three story collections and five novels, including Under the Skin and The Book of Strange New Things, a tale of interplanetary travel written during the terminal illness of his late wife, Eva Youren (the subject of his first book of poetry, Undying). Born in the Netherlands, raised in Australia, he moved to Scotland in 1993 and now lives in Kent. His new book, D (A Tale of Two Worlds), is a young adult fantasy about a 13-year-old girl on a quest to find the letter D after it mysteriously isappears from the alphabet.

The author’s note to D says you began it 35 years ago.
In the 1980s, I attempted to write a children’s book called Woman With Long-Tailed Lloriphole. Many years later, I read the only two salvageable bits that had any kind of life to my girlfriend, the author Louisa Young, and her daughter, Isabel, and I felt, there’s something to be done here. When I was approached to write something to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Dickens’s death, I’d just moved to the south of England and it was gearing up for Brexit; I fancied writing a children’s book addressing issues of where we’re supposedly from and how much that matters, so I went back to the only book I’d ever attempted to write for kids.

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Aug 16, 2020

This tale of a black research student and his ‘benign’ white colleagues crackles with the painful comedy of privilege and prejudice

Set over a long summer’s weekend in a university town in the US midwest, Brandon Taylor’s crisply narrated first novel – one of eight debuts up for this year’s Booker prize – dramatises the blind (and not so blind) prejudice endured by its class-crossing black protagonist, Wallace, a gay postgraduate biochemist raised in the deep south.

Part of the action involves the violently sexual turn taken by his hard-to-parse relationship with Miller, a fellow doctoral student in his social circle of white gay men, in whose company he never feels at ease – not least when Wallace finds dinner-party chat revolving around his supposed “deficiencies” and the “prospects for black people”.

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Aug 09, 2020

Li’s novel tracing the roots of a daughter’s tragic death has hard-nosed insights but sometimes lacks momentum

Seven months after Yiyun Li published her 2017 memoir of suicidal depression, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, Li’s 16-year-old son, Vincent, killed himself; Li’s short novel of 2019, Where Reasons End, took the form of a bereaved mother’s dialogue with her teenage son, who has taken his own life.

No one could be surprised that the pressures shaping these extraordinary works can also be felt in Li’s latest novel, Must I Go, even if this time its narrative bears no obvious resemblance to the author’s life. Set in a residential home in California, it follows Lilia, a thrice-widowed octogenarian of Lithuanian ancestry, as she crafts a memoir intended to be read after her death by one of her grandchildren, Katherine, whom Lilia raised after Katherine’s mother, Lucy – Lilia’s daughter – killed herself at the age of 27, some 30 years before the novel’s 2010-ish present.

The prompt for Lilia’s recollections is the death of Lucy’s biological father, Roland, a would-be writer with whom she had a fling while still in her teens. He never knew Lucy existed; we come to understand that Lilia is pasting her memories into the margins of his only publication, a 700-page diary, issued by a vanity press, in which she appears on just a handful of occasions as an unidentified initial (at one point he says he has “no offspring - at least no one legitimate. And if there were bastards carrying my blood, they were not known to me”).

Lilia fills in the blind spots as the novel cuts between Roland’s diary and third-person narration anchored to her point of view. But it’s less straightforward in theme or structure than that might sound; Li’s intricate nesting of Lilia’s memories produces a stop-start rhythm that’s sometimes painfully short on momentum, as Lilia casts a withering eye over fellow characters from five generations – from step-siblings to great-grandchildren – many of them hazy presences whose importance is stressed rather than felt. When Lilia mentions a bullying ex-husband of whom we’ve previously read little, adding, for Katherine’s benefit: “I know, none of you knows that side of him”, it feels as if we’re eavesdropping, but not in a way that’s especially productive in any dramatic sense.

Lilia’s caustic temperament buoys us through the novel’s eddies; she’s quick to point out the shortcomings of others, especially Katherine’s eight-year-old daughter, Iola, written off as bland and dim. “Here’s a lesson,” she’ll begin, ready to riff on how “love is like a savings account” or why “a marriage reaching for happiness is like any average Joe wanting to make a cake as tall as Mount Everest and as colourful as a tropical island” (“and on top of that, to make it edible”). But between these hard-nosed insights and Roland’s self-serving delusions, the novel drifts: as we watch him swoon after one woman then another, dreaming of writing a great novel, Lilia’s criticism – “he just couldn’t tell what was important” – echoes in our mind the longer we spend in her company (at one stage she even urges: “This part is more interesting. Don’t skip!”).

Reading Must I Go sometimes resembles what it must be like to stumble across a cache of personal papers: there’s life here, in spades, but more shape, more compromise, narratively speaking, might have lent more spark. Novels built on memory often fall back sooner or later on suspense, however veiled. That applies here, too, but there are limits to how decently it can be resolved. Lucy’s suicide remains unaccountable, not least to Katherine; Lilia’s desire to tell the story of Lucy’s unknown father for her benefit seems a way to offer up a lost piece in the puzzle. If, ultimately, light isn’t shed, perhaps that says less about the book’s flaws than about the trap of viewing suicide as a mystery to solve – an undertaking that may account for several of the challenges here, for writer as well as reader.

Must I Go by Yiyun Li is published by Hamish Hamilton (£16.99). To order a copy for £14.78 go to Free UK p&p over £15

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Aug 01, 2020

The hellraiser turned Booker prize winner on the infantilising nature of the internet, his favourite reading choices and why second chances are so important

DBC Pierre is the author of seven books, including Release the Bats, a guide to writing fiction, and Vernon God Little, which won the Booker prize in 2003. At the ceremony, Pierre (born Peter Finlay in Australia in 1961) pledged his prize money to friends he had duped during an itinerant past life as a self-confessed conman and addict; his initials stand for Dirty But Clean. He spoke to me from his current home in Cambridgeshire, where he wrote his latest novel, Meanwhile in Dopamine City, a satirical dystopia about a widowed sewage worker struggling to raise two children in an age of digital innovation run riot.

What led you to send up big tech and the internet, or “the grid”, as it’s called in the book?
I’d love to write a book about butterflies or something, but I [got] so incensed about what’s happening. About five years ago it became clear that for many reasons the notion of us all having a voice [online] was going to take a different route than we had expected, because of brain chemistry and mob culture and what suited the profit motive... I’m not in any way a technophobe: this is about the extremely alarming agenda behind [online] technologies. We’re running around saying we suddenly have a voice [but] the internet infantilises you – you’re automatically a teenager when you use any of these [social media] tools. They are geared that way: we’re creatures who love an idea much more than a fact, and so we can ignore a whole lot of facts. As a novelist I’m daunted because it’s impossible... well, it was impossible to write satire 20 years ago, to be fair.

You’re finding your creative resources more stretched than when you wrote Vernon God Little?
Oh yeah, for sure. I made the mistake, for about a year of writing this, of thinking, I’m just gonna look five, 10 years ahead. So I invented some cool stuff; by the end of that year, all of those [made-up] technologies were old news.

Early on in the book, the protagonist finds himself branded an abuser after he smacks his daughter.
Lonnie was brought up in a liberal world of second chances. My life is built from second chances; I wouldn’t be speaking to you but for having been forgiven and helped off the floor and back on my feet. I believe that’s the correct way, [but] that’s being thrown out very quickly. You can be shut down from life on the basis of one mistake.

My original draft actually meant to rewire your brain

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Jul 27, 2020

The novelist’s essays on living through coronavirus are at their best when pondering the day-to-day

In Zadie Smith’s previous book, the experimental story collection Grand Union, the most interesting items also happened to be the least unconventional. That’s rarely the case in her new book, Intimations, a shape-shifting series of essays reflecting on life in a time of Covid-19, in which she left New York for lockdown in London, writing in “those scraps of time the year… has allowed”. Meditations on what the pandemic has done for creativity or political commentary on how the US could look to postwar Britain under Clement Attlee feel less essential than more rhetorically adventurous items; there’s a strangely moving list of personal influences (family, Muhammad Ali, “contingency”) that constitutes a kind of kaleidoscopic selfie and an essay that riffs on coronavirus as a metaphor for racism, comparing – in passing – Dominic Cummings’s eyes to those of Derek Chauvin as he knelt on George Floyd.

The pieces vary in tone. What one calls the moment “just before the global shit hit the fan”, another calls “a few days before the global humbling began”. Smith’s loftier mode (“America has rarely been philosophically inclined to consider existence as a whole”) tends to feel less convincing, not least when, discussing a writer’s need for
control, she muses on her attraction to tulips prior to “this strange and overwhelming season of death”. She’s more engaging in the glimpses of day-to-day life under the new normal: pressing a lift button through her sleeve in the early days of the pandemic or feeling self-conscious talking to her mum on Zoom. One piece begins by describing her ATM dash while packing up to take her family to a friend’s empty cottage upstate en route to London before the flights are grounded. She’s appealingly candid: when a neighbour tells her: “We’ll get through this, all of us, together”, she whispers: “‘Yes, we will’, hardly audible, even to myself” while walking on, the truth hanging in the air that she’s about to skip town.

Smith probes the obligation she feels to point out that she's 'lucky compared to so many others, but not suffering'

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Jul 13, 2020

Williams’s debut novel, a tale of two lexicographers, is a playful delight

I don’t know if any of the newspaper fiction previews that appeared at the end of 2016 tipped Eley Williams’s first collection, Attrib. and Other Stories, published by independent press Influx, as a book to look out for. But 12 months later, it was all over the end-of-year roundups – a deserved sleeper hit that made sparks fly by dint of sheer wordplay, as Williams’s fretful, philosophically inclined narrators zero in on passed-over nuances of language.

The success of Attrib. had readers keenly awaiting this first novel, and it doesn’t disappoint. A virtuoso performance full of charm, it follows two lexicographers 100 years apart – Mallory, who narrates in the present, and Winceworth, shown in 1899. Both work for Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary, a lesser-known rival to more illustrious reference works, and an eccentric labour of love maintained by generations of the Swansby family.

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Jul 06, 2020

The concluding part to an extraordinary pulpy trilogy features rehab workers, cocaine fiends and much violence

Virginie Despentes made her debut with 1992’s Baise-moi (Fuck Me), about a killing spree carried out by two women turning the tables on male violence. Despentes directed the controversial film adaptation, which is probably what she’s still best known for, although she has written several other novels, as well as the nonfiction King Kong Theory, on her experience of rape and brief period as a sex worker.

Her latest book, Vernon Subutex 3, concludes a multi-voiced trilogy that holds up a cracked mirror to Paris between the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the Bataclan massacre. It’s been her biggest success yet, although Despentes is characteristically sceptical. “Once you have a male character,” she told an interviewer, “your novel is seen as a portrait of a generation ... if Vernon Subutex had been a woman, the novel ... would have been ‘The sad case of a female loser who did not get properly married and was not able to give birth.’”

Imagine, if you will, James Ellroy and William Gibson rewriting High Fidelity and you’re somewhere near the tone

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Jun 07, 2020

A Swedish cellist’s encounter with a homeless junkie stirs memories of his own troubled youth in this radical short novel

If modernism exposed the ordinary realist novel as a kind of cover-up job on the essential messiness of human consciousness, its aversion to literary norms – chapter breaks, speech marks, tidy syntax and the like – have been debated ever since: even the chair of the Booker jury that gave the prize to Anna Burns’s Milkman suggested readers might find it easier going as an audiobook.

One suspects that Andrzej Tichý has no truck with that kind of thinking. In Wretchedness, his first book to be translated from Swedish, someone tells an artist: “You’ve got talent, but you know, you should do something simpler, so the man on the street can appreciate it, you get me, something straighter, clearer.” Note the reply: “Stop chatting shit, bro, I am the fucking man on the street.”

A blurry tornado of voices and timelines, this short novel unspools over eight paragraphs of run-on sentences swirling around the memories of a cellist raised on an estate outside Malmö. He’s heading for the train station to catch a concert in Copenhagen with two fellow musicians, discussing the ins and outs of microtonal composition, when he encounters a homeless addict begging for money – a run-in that prompts a dizzying array of criss-crossing memories of his own impoverished youth, marked by violence, crime and drug use.

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