And so, for the first time, I read Melville’s Moby-Dick, and loved it. Then I went on to Joyce’s Ulysses, and loved some of it. Then, in reverse order, to Dubliners, and loved all of it.
Alas, this left little time for contemporary fiction, most of which seems to pale in terms of daring and ambition compared to Melville or Joyce. I will try (and no doubt fail) to catch up next year.
Ian Buruma is a Dutch-born, New York-based writer whose work focuses on Asian, especially Japanese, culture. His most recent book is Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents.
SHILPI SOMAYA GOWDA
In her latest novel, The World We Found, Thrity Umrigar’s talent for deep and evocative writing is on full display. The story is about four women, once the closest of friends, reuniting in the wake of a tragedy. Each woman, as well as the two primary male characters, is drawn in such exquisite detail as to become as real as the living, breathing friend you know best in the world. The strengths, flaws, eccentricities and irrationalities that make up the human condition are portrayed here in layered complexity, all within a page-turning narrative. Umrigar’s characters had me weeping and cheering for them from one page to the next, until the very last page.
Jennifer Egan’s novel in stories, A Visit from the Goon Squad, is an absolute tour de force. Reader opinions are polarized on this book, and I can understand why. Egan takes everything we know about the novel (or short stories, for that matter), and throws it out the window. What she offers us, instead, is a piece of literature that demands attention from the reader; it is perhaps the most interactive work I’ve read. The story does not flow in chronological order, each chapter is written from a different point of view, the themes are not explicit and the narrative arc can be confounding. What we are left with is something that closely resembles life: characters who are authentic to the point of sometimes being unlikeable, linked to one another in tentative and uneven ways. As a writer, I found myself in awe of Egan’s inventive structure and style, but at its core, this remains a story about the big questions: the vagaries of the modern world, the meaning of life and mortality.
Shilpi Somaya Gowda is the author of the novel Secret Daughter.
Is it just me, or is it rare to read a breakup novel from the point of view of a guy (and an ostensibly, behaviourally, not very likeable one at that)? There is nothing especially fantastical or exceptional in the narrative of Patrick Warner’s Double Talk – Violet is rebelling against her well-to-do background, and Brian is a recently arrived, somewhat disillusioned Irish immigrant. They smoke up, marry, grow up, procreate, fall apart. The story is the sad, stormy blundering of a failing marriage, and the very ordinary attempt to recapture, or at least remember, the colours of the early, good love.
The first novel from the muscular, lucid pen of the St. John’s poet was among the small-press surprises on this year's Dublin IMPAC long list, though I came across Warner's fiction after enjoying his poetry. Got to the end, wanted it not to end; how rare that is, when we finish a book disappointed to have the characters wander off with our questions. So much of Double Talk is right on: the place (Dottie's potties? You can trust a town that names its potholes after the mayor), a “budgie-coloured” smoker’s streak, the characters, the description of the “obese giantess” of loneliness, the moving success of formula-feeding a newborn squawler. And especially the well-structured back-and-forthing between youth and adulthood, how we are the same people we start out being, just more so, better and worse. Double Talk is nimbly and subtly and carefully done.
Katia Grubisic is a Montreal writer and translator.
The book that had the most impact on me this year was Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, an obscure 1990 book re-released by its British publisher to coincide with the film Hitchcock, starring Anthony Hopkins as the famous director and Helen Mirren as his strong-willed wife. Though roughly based on Rebello’s book, the movie is so flagrantly error-filled that the widow of Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano has taken legal action against Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Rebello’s lively book, based on interviews with Hitchcock and other members of the production crew, including the stars of Psycho, is a model of crisp research. Movie-making as a practical art is rivetingly chronicled, from the frustrations of financing to the multitude of technical choices in costuming, sets, camera placement, editing and sound. Hitchcock’s artistic vision and brilliant craftsmanship are splendidly demonstrated, as they are not in the cynical and reductive Hopkins film. Rebello deserves all praise for his meticulous documentation of the creative process of one of the most shockingly influential films in Hollywood history.