Sarcastic imps, clueless men and gay boyfriends: My favorite fiction of 2011

EMOTIONAL WEATHER REPORT - Jessica Zafra () - December 11, 2011 - 12:00am

After the year I just had I will refrain from mocking people who complain about not having time to read. I read and write for a living, and I still failed to meet my one-book-a-week quota. Blame technology, which is supposed to make everything faster and more efficient but ends up drowning us in information we don’t need (and I’m not on any social network). 

Of the new fiction releases I was most impressed by The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. It has probably the most clueless narrator I’ve ever encountered: his own life is a mystery to him. His elegant prose and references to history and philosophy cannot hide how dense he is, although it is up to the reader to decide whether his memory is deceiving him, he is lying to us, lying to himself, or all of the above. 

In late middle age Tony Webster is content with his orderly, rather boring life — he’s retired, amicably divorced, with no major worries. One day he receives a letter from a lawyer informing him that Sarah, the mother of his ex-girlfriend Veronica, has died and left him £500 and the diary of his friend Adrian. Why would a woman he met once nearly four decades ago remember him in her will? His relationship with Veronica was not good; after they broke up she dated and married Adrian. Shortly afterwards Adrian killed himself; why did Sarah have Adrian’s diary? What does Tony Webster have to do with any of these? 

That is the question that the narrator — and the reader — tries to answer in this short novel, which has the pace and suspense of a thriller. Tony is forced to reconsider his life and dredge up memories that hadn’t seemed particularly important. Two strange encounters with Veronica only heighten his bewilderment, and a nasty letter he’d written to Adrian and Veronica takes on a new significance. The Sense of an Ending is about the things humans do in order to live with themselves and get some kind of “closure,” no matter how arbitrary. Barnes has produced a sly, subtle work that leaves one with a deep unease: the past isn’t through with us, it’s not even past.

Even when the past is documented and available for study its interpretation is problematic, as the biographer in Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Stranger’s Child is well aware. The biographer’s subject is the poet Cecil Valance, who appears in the first part as a magnetic young man who captivates both his classmate George and George’s sister Daphne. By the second part Cecil has died in World War I and the poem he wrote for Daphne (or was it for George?) has gained him literary immortality. Forty years later bank clerk Paul Bryant meets Daphne and her family, visits Cecil’s tomb and is fascinated by the dead poet. By 1980 Paul is writing a biography of Valance that will deal with the heretofore verboten subject of his sexuality. The Stranger’s Child is a witty, brilliantly-constructed social history of gayness in England since the early 20th century — it’s a long walk out of the closet.

A wise man told me that if you intend to visit a city for the first time, the best guide is a crime novel set in that place. Arthur Conan Doyle and legions of excellent crime novelists lead us through London, Georges Simenon through Paris, Ian Rankin through Edinburgh; now we’re ready for Moscow. Our tour guide is A.D. Miller, whose first novel Snowdrops draws from his experience as The Economist’s Moscow correspondent. 

I’m not crazy about the frame of the novel: a British lawyer in his 30s telling the woman he is going to marry about his time in Moscow. It’s sappy. But Miller brings Moscow to scary, electric life: the snowdrops — corpses hidden in the snow for months and emerging during the thaw, the kleptocracy, the predatory females and the unimaginable cold, so cold that in the winter your cell phone freezes to your palm. Miller’s narrator Nick meets a sexy woman on the train — from that first moment we know that it’s a con, and in the back of his mind he knows it’s probably not true love, but he proceeds to get himself royally duped. Forget it, Nick, it’s Moscow. And we still want to go there, especially since Marat Safin — who won two slams and broke an estimated 1,055 tennis racquets during his playing career — has just been elected to the Russian parliament.

The other day I went to a media lunch and ended up talking about A Game of Thrones with my seatmates for two hours. The HBO series has made legions of new fans for George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, a series of novels inspired by the War of the Roses. The long-delayed fifth novel A Dance With Dragons came out this year; hopefully the show’s popularity will compel the author to pick up the pace. 

GRRM’s prose is deep purple, the sex scenes inadvertently hilarious — “Whenever I read ‘Tyrion mounted’ I imagine him climbing the stairs,” Dinna said — but man, can he create plots. These fantasy novels pack a visceral wallop. While reading the first book I learned that it is best not to get too attached to a character because he/she is likely to die, and in the cruelest, least heroic way possible. Of course I’d like Jon Snow to become King of Westeros, but I have adjusted my expectations: As long as the dwarf lives, I’m not complaining.

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