Best of 2011 by Jame Bradley
We’re at a weird juncture. Just as the latest round of Wikileaks dumps has drawn a line under the old political and media paradigm, the arrival of ebooks has signalled the end of publishing as we have known it. What happens now is far from clear, but one thing we do know for sure is that the past is gone.
Given the speed and scale of the changes taking place one might expect the book – and the novel in particular – to be in crisis. But nothing could be further from the truth. Just as the democratisation of the means of production and the shattering of the old business models engendered an explosion of creativity in the music industry, books are thriving. Liberated from old notions of high and low culture books and literature are mutating and changing, blurring the boundaries between visual and text-based storytelling, breaking down old genre divisions, privileging the eclectic, the eccentric and the ephemeral.
But in the middle of it all the old grande dame of literature, the novel, is also in the midst of a renaissance. One could argue the desire to anoint Jonathan Franzen as the writer who can redeem the novel for the 21st century is as indicative of weakness as it is of vitality, yet Freedom is only one of a series of very striking novels published over the past year or two, from Roberto Bolano’s immense, uncategorisable 2666 to Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime and Marilynne Robinson’s Home.
Nor, looking ahead to 2011, is there any reason to believe this vitality will begin to ebb. Indeed there’s every reason to suspect it will be, if anything, even more exciting than the last couple of years.
So what’s coming? Well more Bolano, for one, with the paperback release of Monsieur Pain, translated by Australia’s own Chris Andrews. There’s also the posthumous release of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished opus, The Pale King in April, and, if you’d like to stay with the posthumous theme, the last novel by Beryl Bainbridge, The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, set against the backdrop of Robert Kennedy’s assasination in 1968 and José Saramago’s Cain.
Alongside these three there are a slew of new releases by established authors, including The Forgotten Waltz, a new novel by Booker Prize-winner Anne Enright, a writer who is, along with Hilary Mantel, probably one of the smartest and unsentimental writers working today (if The Gathering wasn’t to your taste seek out Taking Pictures, her terrifyingly brilliant short story collection immediately), a new novel by Rohinton Mistry, and new books from Julian Barnes, Orhan Pamuk and Mohsin Hamid. And that’s to say nothing of Haruki Murakami’s long-awaited, much-delayed and reportedly encyclopaedic reworking of Orwell, IQ84 (if you haven’t be sure to check out Murakami’s fascinating essay on the decline of the realist novel in last week’s New York Times).
There are also a series of exciting sounding releases from up and coming stars, perhaps the buzziest of which will be David Vann’s Caribou Island. Despite admiring parts of it I seem to be one of the few who wasn’t blown away by Vann’s debut, Legend of a Suicide, but the pre-publication buzz around Caribou Island is already pretty intense. There’s also the new one from Richard T. Kelly, who produced one of the more striking debuts of 2008 in Crusaders, The Possessions of Doctor Forrest, an Gothic hybrid of Jekyll and Hyde and Faust, and The Book of Memory, the debut novel by Zimbabwean writer Pettina Gappah, whose impressive short story collection, An Elegy for Easterly, was published by Faber earlier this year. And there’s Before I Go To Sleep, the debut from Faber Academy wunderkind S.J. Watson and the much-applauded debut by German writer, Ferdinand von Shirach, Home.
On the crime front there are new novels from Henning Mankell and George Pelecanos, and on the SF and Fantasy front there’s a sequel to Vernor Vinge’s Hugo Award-winning A Fire on the Deep, China Mieville’s follow-up to Kraken, Embassytown, as well as the first in a new series by Alastair Reynolds (presumably part of his terrifying £1 million, ten books in ten years deal with Gollancz), a new collection of stories and a new novel from Margo Lanagan, and new ones from Charles Stross and Greg Egan. I’m personally excited about the release later in the year of the final part in Robert Charles Wilson’s Hypotheticals Trilogy, and Dancing with Bears, the new one from Michael Swanwick, author of the cult classic Stations of the Tide. Jonathan Strahan also suggests it’ll be worth looking out for Jo Walton new one, Among Others, which he describes as “a love letter to the genre” and “a real gem”.
Closer to home there’s Gail Jones' first novel since Sorry, Five Bells, a fictional reimagining of Sydney and the Harbour loosely inspired by Slessor’s classic poem, and Anna Funder’s first novel, All That I Am, set during the early years of the Nazi regime in Germany. There’s also Georgia Blain’s new novel, Close to Home, new novels by Eliot Perlman and Deborah Robertson, Matthew Condon’s follow-up to The Trout Opera, Hiroshima, and a new collection from Steven Amsterdam. There are also debut novels from Meg Mundell, whose Black Glass chillingly unpicks the creepy surveillance culture of our cities and Miles Vertigan, whose Life Kills is described as an all-out assault on the pieties of contemporary society. And, very close to home for me, there’s my partner Mardi McConnochie’s new novel, The Voyagers, a love story set against the backdrop of World War 2.
A lot to look forward to.
James Bradley is the author of three novels and the editor of The Penguin Book of the Ocean. He writes and reviews for a wide range of Australian and international publications and blogs at City of Tongues. In 2011 he will be one of the foundation tutors at Faber Academy Australia.