BY MIKE BEEMAN
Keep up with the rest of this series here.
I distrust the idea of books/movies/albums “of the year” because the fact of something being published/released/produced in a particular calendar year seems pretty irrelevant. Each year-end finds us with lists of books that are supposed to represent the previous year period in some way, but even the most reflexive author has a pretty slim chance of writing and publishing a book within one year. Most of my “books of the year” were probably completed in 2007, at the latest (and in case of translations, were written much earlier).
The idea that any reader can find the “top books” of a year suggests that they have read and evaluated every book that has been published, has always seemed pretty is impossible, too. So, in the end, we are left with a random and subjective list of books one person happened to enjoy, and my addition to the “best of ’09” genre is certainly made in that spirit.
Of my three picks for “books of the year,” one book was translated this year but actually written in 1992. Orhan Pamuk’s novel was first published in Turkey in 2004, made its way here in 2006, and was read by me about a month ago. Drood came out in early 2009, so was most likely completed in 2007 -early 2008 at the very latest. None were actually written in 2009, but these were the books I enjoyed the most this year, and so were my books of ’09 on a completely arbitrary and personal level, just like the books, movies, and albums that meant the most to you in 2009.
Drood, by Dan Simmons
This book was a surprise and pleasure to read. The premise alone hooked me by its absurdity and potential for either great success or screaming disaster: Simmons suggests that Drood, the title character of Dicken’s final unfinished novel, was not actually a character the author created but a supernatural horror equal parts ghoul, vampire, and demon that haunted “the inimitable” in the last years of his life. Narrated by Dicken’s forgotten contemporary, the laudanum-quaffing Wilkie Collins, Simmons takes readers on a surreal tour of London, from the gritty streets and subterranean opium dens to the high-society social circles frequented by Dickens.
One of the pleasures of reading this book is the atmosphere Simmons creates. The novel is so well-researched that the city of London becomes a prominent character as much as Dickens. In true Dickensien fashion, the author populates his novel with a cast as colorful as ever presented by the author he imitates. The tough cops, Opium Dealers, gravely grave diggers, retired detectives, and, of course, orphans that populate Drood are well-drawn and unforgettable.
At nearly 800 pages, Drood is a bit of a door-stopper, but for me it flew by. As far as pure enjoyment in reading goes, it didn’t get much better than this book last year.
The Skating Rink, by Roberto Bolaño
As I wrote in my review, although a fine book in its own right, The Skating Rink‘s publication is an interesting comment on the still-emerging English translations of the most well-received Spanish-language writer so far this century. Despite his death in 2003, Bolaño has been translated regularly by New Directions, and it appears this has no chance of slowing down (books are forthcoming in January, June, and August of 2010 alone). The Skating Rink, although the most recently-translated work, is actually the authors first novel. By publishing his most recent novel, 2666, and his earliest book in the same year, New Directions gives readers a chance to see the early and final Bolaño side-by-side.
Unlike some authors who move towards readability as their style coheres, it seems that Bolaño started out relatively (for him) reader friendly before tacking rapidly towards the more difficult and radical. Readers will recognize many Bolañoism: aternating narrators, a shattered chronology, beautiful-yet-cold women, powerless beurocrats, and, of course, a vagrant poet or two. The Skating Rink, a murder-mystery set in a small town in Spain, is Bolaño playing with all of the themes he will explore in his later books, but in a form that is his most approachable.
This book was published in 2006, but I’m loosening the the definition of “book of the year” to include all books I enjoyed this year. I bought Snow on a whim for one dollar on an every-book-must-go cart outside a bookstore. I recognized Pamuk as a Nobel Prize Winner (2006), which does not always endear an author to me (in general, I think of reading a Nobel Laureate as something that “builds character,” like shoveling snow). But Snow, which was written in 2004 and translated in 2006, wasn’t what I expected.
The novel follows Ka, an banished poet returning to the small town of Kars after years of exile. Ostensibly, Ka is investigating the suicide epidemic afflicting adolescent girls in the town. But as Ka’s half-hearted investigation gets waylaid, his real motive becomes clear: to find and woo a woman he barely knew eight years ago, who has since married one of his closest friends. Ka’s timing is poor. A severe snowstorm sweeps over the town, arriving with the poet, closing all roads connecting the town to the outside world. While the town is cut off a group of nationalists literally stage a coup, launching their violent takeover during the town’s first televised stage performance. Despite the violence aroudn him, Ka finds something close to happiness in the snow clogged town, and begins writing poetry for the first time in years.
Pamuuk uses this highly-charged situation to explore the struggles between the East and the West, belief and athiesm, and the violent clashes between religous extremists and secularists. At the same time, the mystery elements in the novel, the multiple love-triangles and conspiracy boiling just beneath the surface of everyday life, keep the narrative moving quickly. But in addition to an engaging plot reminiscent of the way Graham Greene was able to dramatize the struggles in Catholocism, Pamuk plays with post-modern form as the novel unfolds, complete with inner works that comment on the book they are written in, and the revelation and introduction of the real narrator well into the novel.
Pamuk’s careful balance of time and different time frames in this novel is remarkable. The present narrative, the actual story, is rooted in the past. Because we are reading a kind of “recitation” by a narrator (written after Ka has died, it is revealed), the hints of the future also color our perspectives of the story. It is a balancing act Pamuk handles perfectly to highlight his tragic narrator. Given the author’s elegant prose, the result it a fast-moving, entertaing novel that explores serious issues in a dramatic environment, unfolding one carefully-written page at a time.