Articles about novels

End as a Man — Calder Willingham

Jim Flynn put this book in his top 5 novels list, so I grabbed it when I found a copy recently. He said it was the greatest novel portraying contemporary American college life. “Contemporary” in this case means circa 1950, and it is actually set in a military college, so it’s presumably a bit different from a civilian college like Harvard or whatever. It does seem a bit bizarre, with the ubiquitous corporal punishment and merciless bullying of first-years by older students who are still just out of their teens. I don’t know whether this weirdness is due to being 60 years ago, being American, being a military school, or being a work of fiction. I suppose it’s all four, but I do get the impression that the general features of the books’s college life are based on fact. Holy cow, what a hell-hole it must have been.

So the characters end up in various unedifying situations, usually of their own making, and we see them as they deal with things, usually badly. It becomes apparent that the novel mostly concerns the misfits and bad hats of the academy, which explains a lot about the dramas that befall them. The book ends with a couple of eloquent and very different speeches, and closes with just deserts all round.

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Dept. of Speculation — Jenny Offill

This small but perfectly-formed book is a simple story of girl meets boy and all the usual things that follow. But it’s told in an unusual way so that I sometimes felt as if I was inside the main character.

The viewpoint changes around a bit, and the tone varies from personal to almost clinical at times. But even so, there is so much insight here, like this heart-rending evocation of the isolation of a new mother whose partner is away during the day:

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36 Arguments for the Existence of God — Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

I love reading philosophy, and I love reading novels. So this philosophical novel is right in my sweet spot. I have read some of Goldstein’s non-fiction, but after reading this fun and thoughtful book I want to search out her other work.

It’s a story about Cass Seltzer, an academic whose life changes when he publishes a book about the psychology of religion. The catalyst is the book’s appendix, which contains the titular 36 arguments along with commentary and rebuttals. That appendix makes him into a superstar — he gains fame, notoriety even, and an academic superstar girlfriend. The novel covers his career from the beginning, through his fame, and more.

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The Anthologist — Nicholson Baker

This is a fascinating book about poetry, disguised as a wry and humorous story about a poet with writers’ block. It’s like two books in one!

The protagonist is a likeable everyman. Well not really an everyman — he’s a poet and academic rather than just a regular Joe. But he’s definitely likeable in the way that Nicholson Baker’s characters often are. (I feel that Baker’s protagonists tend to be versions of himself, even though I don’t at all know what he’s like in real life. I presume he is likeable.)

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This Is Not a Novel — David Markson

I have never read a novel like this before, but that’s obvious since it is actually not a novel. (The clue is in the name.) But it has characters (well, a character), lots of historical figures, and a (very faint) narrative arc. And it’s pretty fun to read.

Initially it seems like a very tersely worded version of one of those books of random factoids. Just a succession of one- or two-sentence paragraphs stating more or less interesting historical facts. Like this:

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Little Deaths — Emma Flint

New York City last century: the scarlet woman, the suspicious tragedy, the tough cop, the tenacious reporter. They’re all here, but they are put together in some unexpected ways. Right at the beginning, the “murder mystery” trope is upended by having the story start as a flashback, so we immediately know how it ends. Or do we? We meet a lot of characters on our way through the story, and despite the foreshadowing, the end of the book is quite satisfying.

The thing I liked most about this book is the writing style. Nicely-turned phrases and insightful sentences had me nodding my head all the way through. Smiling sometimes, even, though any humour in this book is definitely on the dark side. (Not The Dark Side though; it’s not that dark.)

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The Last Day of a Condemned Man — Victor Hugo

Notes purportedly written by a condemned man during the day before his scheduled execution. Hugo wrote this as a protest against the death penalty at a time when the guillotine was in enthusiastic use by the French authorities. It works well by humanising the doomed prisoner, though I feel it cheats a little by never detailing the crime that put him on death row in the first place. Still a powerful read.

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Billy Bird — Emma Neale

This is a wonderful story of a quirky boy and his family as they go through some funny, tragic, interesting times. The premise is that Billy turns into a bird, or believes he does. But there is a lot more happening around that, and it all makes sense in the end.

Neale is a poet — I bought this book (and others) after hearing her read some of her poetry at the Going West Books and Writers Festival last year. So the book is beautifully written and Neale is really able to get into Billy’s head and make him really convincing. There’s a lot of familiar feelings and wisdom for parents of young boys (like me — I mean, I’m a parent, not a young boy, though I was once and still remember a bit about that too). The whole book made me think of Kate de Goldi’s excellent The 10PM Question, another fine story along similar lines.

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The Big Music — Kirsty Gunn

The Big MusicAn old man kidnaps his housekeeper’s granddaughter and takes her for a walk in the hills. He needs to write her into a piece of music he is composing. This is the start of this novel, and as it continues we learn more about the history of his family, which has lived for many generations in a remote house in the Scottish highlands. The house and family have become famous in the world of classical bagpipe music, the “big music” of the title.

I have never seen a book put together like this one before. It’s presented as a documentary, with the story built up from fragments of letters, recordings and papers found during the author’s research into the family and house. Supporting the story are many many footnotes, including frequent cross-references to other parts of the story and to the numerous appendices including plans of the house, maps of the area, family history, proceedings of musical societies, academic papers and more. At first I found the footnotes intrusive and fussy, but eventually I realised that this was all an essential part of the book.

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The Chimes — Anna Smaill

The ChimesWhat would life be like if we communicated with music instead of words? That’s the situation in the dystopian future of The Chimes. People have lost most of their ability to remember in words, so they must rely on objects to prompt their memories, and an intricate musical language to communicate. Simon, a young man, fetches up in London with only a vague idea why he came and what he’s supposed to do there. Things start happening to him, and before long he starts making things happen himself. Eventually he becomes part of a revolutionary struggle.

I loved the first half of the book, as we are shown (not told) the mechanics of this strange new world. The language the characters use ingeniously blends musical terms with normal English. I love the term for musical heresy: “blasphony”. The second half is more plot-driven, so everything gets a bit more concrete. I found out later that his book is considered to be a YA (young adult) novel. I think this just means that there’s only moderate violence, sex and swearing, and a teenaged protagonist. It also means that things are tied up nicely at the end. Luckily it’s not too neat for an old adult like me.

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