Everything Except for Females by Andrea Long Chu
Perhaps it’s slightly unfair to consign all but one book I read in 2020 to the category of ‘worst read’, but 2020 feels like it’s been unfair, and I’m writing from day 11 of a 14-day quarantine, so there. My 2020, and I’m sure the 2020s of many others, is littered with half-finished (okay, more like quarter? Tenth?) reads that, through probably no fault of their own, lost the battle with my millisecond-long attention span.* I’m sorry to, in no particular order, A Year Without a Name by Cyrus Grace Dunham, The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, An Apartment on Uranus by Paul Preciado, The Bricks that Built the Houses by Kae Tempest, Charles Dickens: a Life by Claire Tomalin, The Brontës by Juliet Barker (apparently I thought it was time to get into literary biography? It wasn’t, by the way), along with a bunch of other titles that I seem to have permanently erased from the bin of my brain. I guess it’s true what they say, you can’t undo this action.
So, I only managed to finish one book this year (Females by Andrea Long Chu. It’s really great. And, yes, it’s really short. Maybe I’ll have written a review of it on ‘best reads’, attention span willing). While people on social media seemed to spend lockdown becoming concert flautists and fluent in several languages, I’ve veered (and, who am I kidding, continue to veer) bewilderingly from total apathy to a frenzied cycle of picking up and dropping projects, sometimes within the same hour. I can’t say it’s been fun. Let’s not do this again, thanks.
* Shout out to Sims 4, which not only managed to hold my attention, but allowed me to channel my ‘scribbly energy’™ into creating a vast 5-story lesbian mansion, that I discovered (after having spent approx. 30 hours creating it) was so big and minutely realised as to be completely unplayable. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.
Platform by Michel Houellebecq
Placing Michel Houellebecq (1958) in a list of worst reads might be too easy and unoriginal. Thematically, his books are primitive and banal, ethically his characters – primarily his auto fictitious protagonists – are dubious. I would be very surprised if someone like Søren Willemoes or Martin Krasnik, both part of the blogosphere that is Weekendavisen, would not find this high literature. However, it is not. I have read all but two of his novels, and despite having released eight in Denmark, he has still only written one book. His protagonists are all mastrurbating white middle-aged men, alienated from family, western culture and constant societal expectations of management of self-management; they are all misogynistic, misanthropic and misoxenic.
So why did I even read this book? I asked myself the same question when I began reading this one. It is low-lit disguised as high-lit, and the only reason Houellebecq still gets away with this is because he is a genuinely good writer. I admit, this might be overly melodramatic, as is Platform, but whenever I read one of his works, I wish his writing skills were accompanied with an imagination.
The Interestings by Megg Wolitzer
I think it’s kind of funny that The Interestings is the book that I found least interesting of my 2020 readings. The plot does not stand up: 6 teenagers meet in a summer camp for arts, they hang out drinking alcohol and smoking joints and they dream of becoming actresses, musicians and artists, proclaiming themselves as ‘The Interestings’. They grow up and life happens and it’s not what they have expected to be. Well, I think we’ve heard it before, right?
I would have never picked a book with this set up as a premise, but it was chosen in my reading club so I had to give it a chance. Sometimes you get nice surprises, maybe it’s beautifully written or it has an incredible plot twist or a character that you’ll love forever… but no.
It was a too long book for such a poor story. Almost 500 pages that say nothing. The characters remain unknown during the whole book, I never got to really feel or connect with any of them and what the writer gives us is just a superficial approach, full of stereotypes. We have Jules, for example, that is supposed to be the most funny of the group but she never says anything funny at all; Goodman, who is the bad one (oh, look at the word play here) and we almost lose him in the middle of the book… and so on… If it’s a character-driven novel and your characters are just a small brushstroke, what is the point?
One of the things that I definitely hated most was the fact Robert Takahashi, the American-Japanese character of the book, had to be always mentioned with his surname, while none of the other characters are. Is this to remind us that we are reading a “multicultural” book? Really?
I had the same feeling with the setting and the scenarios where the novel takes place, that we only get a rough sketch of them and I can’t make a picture in my head at all.
So, where do these 500 pages go? Well, much of the novel is redundant and we are told over and over events that happened, going back from past to present. The writer over-emphasises unimportant things or superfluous descriptions, and she leaves behind or untold events that could have made the book a bit more interesting. I want to think that what Megg Wolitzer was trying to write was an alternative, modern, artsy novel, but I have to say that the result was just boring.
Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
I am not entirely sure what my worst read of 2020 was. As I scan over my notebook in search of the titles I read this year, I realise nothing stands out as an obvious candidate. If I had to decide, however (and I do if I am to write this), then let me judge by the gap between the expectations and the actual impression. In such a case, my pick is Annihilation.
A lot of my readings this year revolved around the theme of climate disaster, so I was reasonably curious about a book that was recommended to me as an interesting if an unusual cli-fi novel, a story that finds a singular way to question our relation to nature. Moreover, Annihilation has all the makings of a gripping story: a secret military-research mission, a strange zone into which people disappear, an eerie atmosphere of a mystery that transcends our human understanding, paranormal events… I was therefore pretty surprised to realise that it failed to engage me and I found it strangely unimpressive. I may have missed something essential, which is not impossible, as a lot is said in between the lines whereas another lot is heavily abstract.
It may, however, also be the case that Annihilation becomes a victim of its own premise—more than a book that tells a story, it is one that is designed to illustrate an idea. I have to admit that I am highly allergic to such texts. As such, they subordinate the story, the plot and the entire novelistic quality of the text to something that feels strange throughout, something alien and out of place, forced. They are so focused on this particular role as ‘idea-promoters’ that they lose the novel through their own eagerness to serve this other master (think of Ayn Rand). And this is what I sensed in Annihilation and that’s why it’s mentioned here.