At the beginning of 2014, I resolved to devote the year to reading fiction, and only fiction. This was spurred in part by the growing pile of unread books I’d lugged from house to house (and country to country) and in part by being self-conscious about how few books I read.
So, a year later, Mission Accomplished. Reading mainly during my commute, I managed to knock off 17 novels and novellas. There were a mix of classics I was appalled I’d never read, some works of contemporary fiction that got a lot of attention, books by friends and a handful of science fiction, some classic, some less so.
Here’s how they break down:
The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson (2010).
I didn’t know much about “The Finkler Question” when I picked it up, but it had won the Booker Prize and the jacket copy promised an exploration of Jewish identity in modern Britain. Unfortunately, the protagonist was more caricature than person, and so the uneventful narrative, which mainly consisted of his bouncing between two other characters in London, never captured my attention. Many of the ideas raised are interesting and remain pressing – how should liberal Jews reconcile their alarm about Israel? – but as fiction, it was tepid.
Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville (1851)
Reading “Moby-Dick” was a major project. I started it a few years ago before picking it up again and spent months reading it on and off before making a major push to finish that last few hundred pages. It’s a maddening book to read, as Melville interrupts his narrative with long sections on the nature of whales and the history of whales, filled with obscure classical and Biblical references and digs at other writers. The plot fades in and out, like a radio station in the mountains, and when it finally comes in clear and strong, in the last third of the book, it can be thrilling. Melville wrestles with big themes, about man, nature and God, and that’s probably how Moby-Dick earned its reputation, but he’s also a gifted stylist. There’s humor, horror and poetry in this book.
Middlemarch, by George Elliot (1874)
Like “Moby-Dick,” “Middlemarch” was an attempt to tackle a classic, one of those books that appear on lists of the 100 greatest novels and that produced a twinge of guilt because I hadn’t read it. I also wanted to read an English book – living in London, I felt a certain obligation to the natives – and “Middlemarch” is unmistakably English. Set in a rural town around 1830, a period of social and political upheaval, the novel traces the lives of a handful of men and women straining against the confines of their class and culture. The plot gradually builds to a defining event that might seem incidental in another book, but because Elliot has so completely drawn the reader into her narrative, it feels like an earthquake. And while I expected a sophisticated, powerful novel, I was constantly surprised by Elliott’s sharp observations and biting word play. It’s a 19th century novel, but much of it feels fresh and alive.
Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee (1999)
While Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” was probably the most horrifying book I read last year, it is fantasy – and set in a post-apocalyptic future, we are insulated from its terrors by the comforting reality of the present. Not so “Disgrace,” which, while set in South Africa and drawing on the dark history of that nation to spin its plot, is also about the rot and decay that lies within all of us. “Disgrace” tells the story of a Cape Town professor who, through his arrogance and narcissism, tumbles out of his position of privilege and into a state of numb apathy, powerless to protect his daughter from the violence of a country in turmoil. Coetzee writes with a spare elegant voice that makes the brutality all the more vivid. The final, quiet scene in an animal shelter is as grimly nihilistic as all of McCarthy’s evocations of depravity and cannibalism.
The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen (2001)
“The Corrections” sat on a bookshelf for a decade, daring me to read it. I occasionally packed it on trips, only to return with it unopened, cowed by its reputation for brilliance. After biting the bullet, I realize now, my instincts were correct. It is brilliant: a dizzying, exhilarating, penetrating, often hilarious and sometimes creepy satire about America at the turn of the last century. There is sort of a plot, but it’s not really about narrative as much as about characters, an elderly midwestern couple and their three adult-ish children stumbling through their lives. Into this mix Franzen throws in a sharp critique of modern capitalism and culture, told in suburban kitchens, liberal arts colleges, cruise ship dining rooms, biotech investor days and Lithuanian palaces. Yet, despite Franzen’s abundance of shrewd observations, he failed to predict the future. Written on the eve of Sept. 11, the concerns of “The Corrections” can’t help but feel small and dated, compared to the horrors that were to come.
The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick (1962)
Acknowledged as an alternative history masterpiece, I knew little about the “The Man in the High Castle” save it conjured an America after Germany and Japan won World War II. But rather than a conventional narrative focusing on the leadership and power structures of this new reality, as I imagined, the book follows a handful of ordinary and less ordinary characters making their way in Japanese-controlled California. As they bumble their way through a meandering, multi-threaded story, the geopolitical landscape unfolds and the atrocities of the Axis powers are slowly revealed. The writing is rich, intricate and oblique, with long excursions into the workings of the I-ching, and the market for Americana kitsch items among the new Japanese bourgeoise. The plot picks up in the last quarter, and resembles something like a conventional thriller before reaching its puzzling, challenging conclusion. Amazon is making a TV series based on “Man in the High Castle,” but apparently has little of the book’s nuance. It may be closer to what I was expecting.
Dune, by Frank Herbert (1965)
“Dune” was a victim of my unrealistic expectations. Since it routinely tops lists of the greatest works of science fiction, I had high hopes. And while there’s a lot to admire in the book’s ambition, sweep and creativity, the book let me down in a lot of ways. Set in distant future, where feudal lords rule planets, the plot centers over a struggle between two noble houses, one of which is exiled to a desert planet and crushed by their enemy. The son of the deposed lord immerses himself in the native culture, discovers hidden powers, becomes their leader and leads a revolt that topples the evil emperor. If that all sounds a bit pat, I thought so, too. Despite Dune’s vivid settings and glacial pacing, the plot is ultimately thin and predictable and the writing often pompous and clichéd. The rich detail is what kept my attention: Herbert dives deeply into the cults, rituals, politics and ecology of his invented world’s, and it’s often fascinating. Unfortunately, the whole is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.
Here’s the full list of the fiction I completed last year:
1, The Man in the High Castle (Dick)
2, Disgrace (Coetzee)
3, The Finkler Question (Jacobson)
4, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Heinlein)
5, Beautiful Ruins (Walter)
6, Petropolis (Ulinich)
7, The Caves of Steel (Asimov)
9, Winter in the Blood (Welch)
10, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel (Ulinich)
11, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Stevenson)
12, Moby-Dick (Melville)
13, The Road (McCarthy)
14, The Corrections (Franzen)
15, Leviathan Wakes (Corey)
16, Middlemarch (Elliot)
17, Dune (Herbert)