The Best Reads of 2018

in Ark Review by

Efter solen by Jonas Eika Rasmussen

Five delightfully weird short stories (read a sample in English). Not really the new weird of the Lovecraft fetishists (Miéville, Vandermeer and so on). But weird in that distinctive Lynchian fashion where, for example, an ear, found in some backyard, becomes an eye. An opening. A hole, a threshol(e)d to another world which was always inherently part of this world. It is not an unveiling, a revealing act; what lurks behind the mask of the white picket fence? Nothing. It was all always already there to begin with. The violent sharpness of the fence. Protection and production. In the final scenes of Blue Velvet, the ear then becomes the anus. The ear, the eye, the anus, the holes in the picket fence; nothing is behind the mask, but it is riddled with holes and gaps.

As with Lynch, Eika hones in on desire, finds in desire: threshol(e)ds. The transformative movements; where beings vibrate, sway and flow in seas of desire. Real world systems—IT infrastructures, economic systems, tourist systems—serve as grids on which desire can be momentarily ‘mapped’. Yet, Eika’s characters always fall into holes, find objects, find systems in the system, find becomings, that shatter the grids, remapping themselves anew.

Many critics see Eika as an apostle of the apocalypse. They see a dystopian vision of our time(s). Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth. Of course, we have the fair and the unfair. There is ideology. There are subjects and objects. Subjectification and objectification. But, and much more importantly, there is life, there are holes, transformative objects, flows and desire.

Alexander

 

2666 by Roberto Bolano

When I was a kid I mainly read comics and adventures, in high school a bit of poetry, but mainly because I was a gloomy teenager that liked having words for the destructive tendencies in and around the world and myself. However, to describe why i enjoyed reading 2666 so much, I will paraphrase danish author Dennis Jürgensen, who was one of the authors I enjoyed in my earlier years. After writing the horror movie Sidste Time (I am uncertain if it ever got any English title, but it translates into The Final Hour) he described the experience of watching horror movies as wearing a coat, you could take off once the movie was over. As someone who was never good at taking off this theoretic coating-device, this description has resonated with me ever since. Because a good novel (or any other medium, really) forces you to wear this coat for much longer than you initially intended. It creates a permanent fog that you cannot get out of, shrouds you in its universe and forces upon you the lives, worlds, and phenomena of characters you would otherwise never be a part of.

Unlike much other literature (and general western narrative structure), this story is not defined by character arcs. This is not a story that forces the reader to identify with a seemingly impossible situation for a specific character, who is forced to adapt to it, but rather a depiction of a universe through its characters. And herein lies the strength of 2666. There are still plenty of characters to sympathize and identify with, but what Bolano does so brilliantly is to never rely on tropes or the classic western narrative structure. And this creates a constant unrest, a perpetual sense of tension that is never released. You are never afforded the luxury of catharsis or release, but you are on the contrary, and in quite a brilliant manner, forced to wear the coat of the fictional Mexican city of Santa Teresa for quite an extensive duration. The luxury, though, is how it forces its reader to carry this burden for almost 1000 pages, when the world is both tragic, beautiful, fun, insightful and stupid. The story consists of five different books, which can be read in any order (I do recommend reading them in the way they are ordered in the book), where there is some overlap. But when the protagonist (which is not a suitable description at all) is rather the world in which the characters reside, it allows Bolano to tie these characters lives together in a very interesting and compelling way. One example of this is towards the ending of the first book, where the lives of the four main characters of this story are described in six or seven different narratives and perspectives. Shuffling between so many characters and stories can quickly become confusing, and there are certainly moments of this book which are; and yet the confusion seems intentional. The idea is to create unrest, to make you wear Bolano’s coat, meanwhile the many storylines and themes are tied together which such elegance that you can never quite pinpoint where it stopped being confusing, and began being beautiful.

And for those specific reasons, Roberto Bolano’s (ok, I don’t even know how to add the accent over the ‘n’, help someone) 2666 is my best read of 2018 (and probably ever, so far).

Niklas

 

The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek

I didn’t know that this is what a novel by a Nobel prize-winning writer could be. By which I mean I thought anything that the Nobel committee would elevate would have to disavow perversion (in that way that doth protest too much) and, regardless of how bleak things might get in the narrative, the human spirit would have to prevail even in just some small way. There is not a hint of this kind of cozy conservatism  in The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek. The brilliance of this novel isn’t that it explores some state of unjustified abjection that one wishes to see righted. The brilliance is in that it underscores the parochial nature of such corrective projects through both the illustration of their disastrous inhuman consequences and the not entirely pleasant thrill of their rupture.  

But it is also funny . This tale of an infantilized and perverse piano teacher, staring down the still long but ever encroaching barrel of middle age, reveals not only the horrors of the normative structure of abjection but the absurdist comedy of its “[d]readful Oedipal atmosphere”1. This is not to say it is a farce. But only that its power is complexly entangled in what appears as an overwhelming intensity and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it subtlety. Basically, I can’t do justice to what a revelation this book is here in these few words. I came a little closer with the review I wrote in Summer but still ran out of space. If you’re looking for something that will submerge you in the kind of complex feels akin to some sort of erotic asphyxia (which is to say as thrilling as it is actually terrifying); something that will linger in your mind as you appraise your fellow passengers on public transportation, then read Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher.  

Macon

 

The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink

I loved this book. I loved the unnerving openness of the narrator. I loved the mocking depiction of the masculinist undertones of bird-watching. I loved how Zink seamlessly dips into stereotypes of women’s dependency and incompetence, and then guts them from the inside-out. Domesticity itself is the subject (and enemy) of this novel, which repeatedly portrays the perversion and collision of everything cozy and familial and inside (man-wife-fetus-home-pet) with everything wild and crazy and outside (opiates, affairs, ecoterrorism, wild birds of prey). Much of The Wallcreeper’s humor seems to be a result of these random collisions and the points of unexpected overlap they illuminate–the wild wallcreeper is also the family pet; the sweet, innocent husband is addicted to drugs; a priest plays a key role in the ecoterrorist plot, and so on.

But I especially loved the first third of the novel, which is filled with stunning and claustrophobia-inducing depictions of Bern which got so under my skin that I almost bought an exorbitantly expensive plane ticket to Switzerland. As the marriage starts to fall apart a bit, and especially when the couple moves to the less picturesque Berlin, the plot too starts to fan out and get a little nebulous. But all in all, it’s a great read…with an unexpected ending.

Sheri

 

Women as Lovers by Elfriede Jelinek

One fascinating thing about Elfriede Jelinek’s writing is how she manages to clash the comme il faut narrative of joy and happiness sugarcoating the conventions of our lives, loves and yearnings against the vehement, often grim and painful, subterranean forces beneath this ostensibly sweet layer. In doing so she detonates the hypocrisy of the picture of the world that the world would love us to have; she reveals the suffering that is conveniently and only too willingly neglected. Each page of hers is a struggle to articulate the otherwise unspoken, to return the banished from the paradise back to this place and, in so doing , to reveal that it is actually more akin to hell, which sustains its own distorted image primarily through a socially and traditionally orchestrated denial. It is at the same time a struggle to create a sphere that allows  for a counter narrative to be heard, and to infuse the washed out words and phrases void of meaning with new (though in fact, oh!, so old) vital forces, even if in doing so it makes those words less comfortable and fluffy. To me, out of three novels of hers I know—Lust, The Piano Teacher, Women as Lovers—none manages all this more honestly, urgently and in-your-face than the latter . This is perhaps so because the tale it tells (it’s a tale!) is ostensibly as simple as it gets, and the simpler it gets—as we follow the unfolding of the parallel juxtaposed stories of two young Austrian girls seeking love and fulfillment (or rather a fulfillment through love (or rather a phantom of fulfillment through a phantom of love))—the more poignant and tragic it becomes. In Women as Lovers Jelinek achieves something I love about fiction, namely its ability to capture the small-yet-enormous human tragedies that take place unnoticed right in front of our eyes. Once you read her, you can no longer pretend that you didn’t know: she makes the silent shout heard. Which is why Women as Lovers was the best read of this year.

Frank


Do Desejo by Hilda Hilst

Sometimes there are words that just stay with you, in the same way that there are verses that just stay with you, and then there are foreign words that stay with you even though you’re not sure what they mean, and then there are whole poems that stay with you, and you reread them, you play them on repeat in your head, and you cry, smile, think about them  for hours, days, because you feel so much for so few words, and then you wonder, how can someone capture human emotion in such a precise, raw, pure way?

At least that’s how I felt when I first read Do Desejo by the Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst. This collection of poetry came into my hands thanks to a bilingual Portuguese – Catalan edition published this same year by Prometeu, a new publishing house focused on translations of “marginalised voices” of the 20th century (5 out of their 6 publications are women). Although Hilda Hilst actively wrote poetry, fiction and theatre for almost 50 years, published over 40 titles and is considered one of the most important voices in Brazilian literature of the 20th century, her work doesn’t seem to have received deserved attention outside of Brazil, and thus only a couple of titles have been translated into languages like Spanish or English, which kind of stands in the way if one is not fluent in Portuguese.

Do Desejo seems to perfectly capture the essence of Hilst as a writer: the female body experimenting and getting to know herself, feeling, resisting and embracing all kind of emotions. Along with the female body, mysticism, erotism and insanity are the main themes present in the author’s work, which also have space in this collection. All of these topics are covered by an impeccable and powerful writing that captures the reader in this world of senses and human life, because to read Hilda Hilst is to feel alive, whether it is through pain and cruelty, or through joy and pleasure.

Neus

  1. Deleuze and Guattari — A Thousand Plateaus

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