The Best Reads of 2019

in Ark Review by

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

There are novels that you read and as you read them you think to yourself, “this is a good novel”.  You finish them and put them down and maybe take a little bit of the experience with you or maybe not. Then there are novels by Ben Lerner. Lerner is a writer with not only a remarkable command over language itself but also over the richly complex ideas that the written word can both illuminate and conceal. Reading him does not so much affect you as transform you. Within the space of a paragraph of breathtakingly clear yet poetic prose, Lerner can take you from the minutiae of day-to-day life and weave it into the process by which we construct the narratives we live by, articulate their wider context and situation and express the emotional weight of all of this. His most recent novel, The Topeka School, is yet another example of this type of literary magic at work.

In this pseudo-memoir, the narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station, Adam Gordon, returns, along with his psychologist parents, to provide a polyvocal retelling of the story of Adam’s upbringing around the eponymous Kansas research center. With an unrelenting emotional resonance, the novel explores themes of psychological and social determinism set against the desire to be an agent of your own destiny. Through this, we journey into the stagnating political and libidinal economies of late 20th-century middle America as seen by those affluent enough to have a good vantage point and who will one day have to reckon with the world they helped to create.

Yet despite all this weighty stuff, through wit, sensitivity and a deeply develop craft, Lerner has made another novel you can breeze through without missing the depth such material requires. I have read some excellent books this year, but the extent to which Lerner’s work surpasses excellence always surprises me. 

Macon

2666 by Roberto Bolano

2666 is a kind of a meta-novel consisting of 5 sub novels that refer to one another, traversing times, places and characters—on the most direct and most visceral level, the tension of those often invisible magnetic forces holding the nucleus of the work together makes reading it almost electric.

I recall reading somewhere (I can no longer locate the article so just trust me on this one) that 2666 is a truly excellent book, but, ultimately, it disappoints, because although it coheres, it does not conclude. One man’s trash, another man’s treasure, I guess—as I try to recall what I loved about the book so much, I realise that it may be precisely this refusal to force its multiple stories into a grand-resolution-frame, its undeniable master ability to link and intertwine them notwithstanding. Rejecting the playbook, it rather lets them be, sets them free to go along and through each other.

The freedom of the stories, of the story: this is what makes 2666 2666. The inexplicable, the uncanny, the resondefying: it is all there—but the book’s mysteries, rather than solved, are sheltered within it. Bolano teases a question in 2666: how many times does life actually find a resolve and how many times are we there to actually witness it? Isn’t rather one of life’s chief beauties (and curses!) this subtle way it manages to evade us, laughing at our determination to comprehend it? 2666 is as much a work about the the inexplicable world we live in as it is about our own capacity and struggle to make sense of it.

There is much more to say, much more to ask (Lerner weaves an entire patchwork of an introduction solely out of questions and he is so right)—but I shall leave it here. If you suspect that that life which we call order, may be a storm, read this book.

Frank

No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai

The thought of dying didn’t bother me in the slightest.

Dazai’s disheartened prose will smack its reader in the face with uncompromising existentialism of man suffering from a mental condition that, at the time, remained unknown and unnamed. That, I believe, is the key to the universal quality of his 1948 novel. Written as if from the deepest pit, its disarmingly intimate, first person narrative will endear the reader nevertheless. Set in the decadent, ante-bellum Tokio of emperor Hirohito, it is navigated by its protagonist in a way that brings to mind Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Yōzō, Dazai’s alter-ego, drifts tragically in Tokio’s slums and red light districts, yet even as he drowns in sake and pussy, peace is nowhere to be found. Alienation is his middle name. Every breathing moment seems to be tainted by spasms of self-hatred and dread in this charming little novel, a fine representative of a once-scandalous, confessional Japanese genre called “the I-novel”. 

Time is spent carousing and philandering with lowlife Hiroko, his only drinking buddy that he nevertheless despises – if that doesn’t scream RELATABLE, then what does? One of Yōzō’s many issues is that the mask he concocted to grease the gears of his interacting with others, that of an “eccentric clown”, won’t come off his face. A problem not unknown to literature (see Gombrowicz), here conveniently packed into quickly digestible, delightful 120 pages.

Deep down, Yōzō feels like a monad; should anyone take him at face value, his respect for them will be lost, for that only means he succeeded in deceiving them. If anyone saw beyond his mask the pathetic worm he is, that would be it. The man suffers from an impostor syndrome, afraid it will be revealed he’s been just a phony – a phony human. What I find incomprehensible are the people who can lead such pure, vivid, merry lives even as they lie to one another. Where do they get the confidence?

What, I believe, redeems the novel is a certain noble quality of its hero: tragically aware of his solipsistic affliction, he avoids sliding into misanthropy we know from such anti-heroes as Houellebecq’s.

Tom

A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari

Let me loosen up a bit the concept of “year”, as I started reading this book in 2018, and finished it in 2019. Let me also add that this has been a collective reading since I read it as a part of a reading group. Honestly, I’m pretty sure I’m able to put this title as my best reading of the year thanks to having been able to discuss, learn and hear about the book from other wonderful and intelligent people. 

Now: why do I list a +600-page non-fiction book, written at the beginning of the ’80s by two French men? Well, to put it simply, it has blown my mind. It has shaken and reorganised the way I think and the way I think about thinking. It has helped me to better understand how I think about reality and about the concept of reality as such. It has given me new tools to name, tag, or refuse the naming of concepts. It has helped me to think harder, and it has driven me mad at times. It had made me invest energies and time when I thought I didn’t have any of those to question myself and others, what I do and don’t do, what I read or don’t read. It has reframed and remade my frame of reference regarding, generally speaking, everything. 

Having said all that, it is not an easy reading, and I’ve suffered more than average to go through it (maybe that’s why I also liked it so much? At times, it felt like a doomed relationship waiting to rip me apart and leave me, but maybe I’m just too emotional). Again, I’m very thankful to have read it with a group of people who have helped me navigate such a complex yet fascinating text. So don’t be shy, find some other people who might want to read it and embark on your own adventure called A Thousand Plateaus.

Neus

A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg by Kate Evans

My last name is Rosenblad, which is a goddamn shame, because after reading “Red Rosa – A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg” I desperately want to name my hypothetical future daughter “Rosa”. But you can’t name your kid “Rosa Rosenblad”. It’s just too much. 

In “Red Rosa”, Kate Evans paints a sharp and intelligent, yet gorgeously human portrait of one of the brightest minds of the last century. In this beautifully illustrated biography of Rosa’s far-too-short life, snippets from her letters to friends and loved ones are combined with carefully imagined conversations with colleagues, allies and foes, many of which still borrow elements from Rosa’s letters and writing. After reading “Red Rosa” you are not only familiar with her political legacy as a revolutionary socialist and anti-war activist, but also with her life, and those who were lucky to be in it. 

What I found refreshing with Evans portrait of Rosa is that she occasionally lets Rosa as a woman take center stage. I feel like biographies of women often are either too focused on the fact that they are women, or the complete opposite, where they are situated as anti-feminin. In this biography, Rosa is simultaneously a woman who falls in and out of love and dreams of having a family of her own, as well as a devoted socialist who lives for the international workers movement. It’s refreshing to read that you can be both. Evans also winks at contemporary feminists in how she draws Rosa’s naked body – she has body hair. Revolutionaries obviously don’t have time to shave.

Kajsa

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