Ark volunteers pick and present their worst reads of 2017.
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
Perhaps it’s a bit unfair to call this my worst read of 2017. This novel has, after all, won the Man Booker Prize. However, having read several Man Booker Prize winners over the years, I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of fatigue at reading this one. It ticked all the Man Booker Prize boxes: Set in former British colony (India), written by a postcolonial writer in the Western diaspora (New York), dealing with issues of identity (postcolonialism, nationalism, class, gender) in a narrative that mirrors the political turmoil of its setting (fractious fighting, old leftovers of colonial borders and hierarchies, rigged elections).
These novels are, of course, much needed, and I have read many that have opened my eyes to the global inequalities of the world. This one, however, simply followed the recipe too easily, making fantastical stories out of people’s historical suffering so that I, in the safety and warmth of my home, could marvel at the exoticism of Kalimpong’s native fauna, and at the inhumanity experienced by the token migrant character in the kitchen basements of New York.
Despite a fine story, halfway interesting characters, and some sometimes poetic language, this book did not bring anything new to the table. However, I must have liked something about it, because I ordered it for the store. There is, perhaps, some feeling of unfinished business that still lingers in me from this book. And I am sure it will be a joyful read for others interested in exploring this area of English-language literature.
The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugrešić
The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugrešić was, sadly, my worst read of 2017. Sadly, because I remember reading her essays in a newspaper back at home that would, every now and then, reprint them in its weekend specials. I liked them a lot: simply beautiful and wise. Therefore, I was reasonably excited when I came across her novel in a little bookstore I found in Dubrovnik this summer—it was to be the first longer work of her’s I would read, eventually, to make up for what I considered to be an unpardonable omission on my to-read list.
The story, shortly: Tanja teaches ex-yugoslavian literature in Amsterdam to a group of students who, like she herself, ended up in the Dutch capital fleeing the Balkan War. We follow the course of their classes, which have little to do with a literature curriculum; instead they become an excuse to reminisce over the place and time they all run away from, but the drama of which they can never really leave behind. Other things happen, too, but that’s basically it.
I was hoping to re-discover the writer I recalled from those earlier essays: beautiful and wise. While I cannot deny the book the latter, the former was largely absent. The language and narrative both in their own ways struck me as artificial—as an execution of an idea that is larger and more important than the text produced to voice it itself. It is a novel with an agenda so clearly defined that it fails to defend itself as a literary work effective beyond this singular raison d’être (noble and necessary that such undertakings may be). This may be a problem of mine rather than of the text itself, but as soon as I sense this subjection of fiction to an overarching idea—this capitulation of a novel—I am done for and no dose of wisdom can convince me back. I want to engage fully, but I can’t. And so, sadly, The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugrešić was my worst read of the year.
You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman
I wouldn’t want to boast too much about my own taste in books, but I must say, this year I excelled on finding good books to read, and because of that, the task of finding the worst book of this year became rather tedious. That being said, the only book that I feel less bad to mention in this category is You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine, by Alexandra Kleeman. Let me say this again; I do not think this is a bad book. On some level, I actually enjoyed reading it. Or maybe enjoy is not the right verb (and that is the way it has ended up here) but rather, it didn’t propose any big challenge, which I guess could also be a reason for it to end up here. I wouldn’t want to say either that the book isn’t challenging at all, since I am sure other people have been able to find a deeper or most interesting layer of meaning behind it.
I personally found that this book, has a certain potential that wasn’t finally met, as it presented some interesting topics about the relation between the self and the body, but that I don’t think they were paid as much attention as they deserved. After that, the book leaves the reader with a boring main character, who was so uninteresting that I couldn’t even spend time actively disliking her, and a storyline so plain and predictable that at some point I felt I had already read it.
Again, You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine is not a bad book. It was just a disappointing book for me, with an initial potential that, apart from not being met, didn’t add anything to my experience as a reader.
Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett
I should say from the outset that Pond is a good book – that does something to develop literature in a direction I simply have no interest in whatsoever Somewhere between a collection of short stories and a deconstructed novel, Pond charts the minutiae of the experience of our unnamed narrator, a woman, perhaps in her 30s, and seemingly a disillusioned academic, as she potters around her remote Irish cottage. In these vignettes, rich descriptions so thick with stimulea it seems time has come to a standstill, we are to find the shards of a universal experience buried in the cascades of particulars. Or, as I found to be the case, a frustrating oscillation between the overwrought and the underwrought that caused each page to drag on far longer than you’d think possible given the generous margins one finds in Fitzcarraldo Editions.
I cannot say that this book fails because it did not. It set out to build a scale model of the cottage as a relational space in contact with the narrator’s inner-most consciousness through attention to the excruciating detailed and mundane, and it did that. Indeed at times, it revealed that certain things aren’t mundane at all. But, as a reader, I look for systems; things that can be moved, repurposed, followed and/or torn apart. Whereas, what Pond does, is present a precise diorama in vacuumed conditions under the glass of a vitrine. Everything therein has achieved a kind of poetry in its accuracy but none of the parts can be moved without damaging everything irreparably. And perhaps like a petulant child, I find it pretty boring if I just have to look at and can’t play with my toys.
The Circle by Dave Eggers
In The Circle we follow the unbelievably insipid and utterly-incapable-of-any-reflection-on-the-current-state-of-things-whatsoever main character Mae Holland’s rise to power and fame in the even more idiotic tech company the ‘Circle’ (aka. Facebook/Google). This company was created and is run by the so-called ‘Three Wise Men’ (intriguing right?). The company is overtly fascistic/cultish, and any employee that does not adhere to whatever whim the company dictates – like actively updating essentially what is a facebook page – that employee is immediately ostracized, fired and so on. The novel satirizes our modern age by applying the following chain of thought: modern day tech companies a) utilize fetishizable cult personalities the effect of which b) establishes a fascistic/cultish following amongst the younger generations that c) ostensibly brings into existence an inexorable ostracism that d) metastasizes said fascism. Mildly interesting but shallowly and unconvincingly dealt with (for interesting work on aspects of this topic see Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies).
But ok, overall, so far so good. In The Circle the optimism of techy things and online social things is happily revolting to read about; however, somewhere along the road Eggers drops the ball. Why? Put shortly, Eggers never manages to properly engage with his subject matter because he satirizes everything. The company is idiotic. The main character is idiotic. Everyone is a blubbering blithering idiot. Thus everything becomes one big joke leaving the reader with nothing properly memorable to hold on to. If an author satirizes on all levels, the necessary counterpoint required for humour to work1 disappears.2 All the reader is left with are pieces of paper shoddily glued together with some letters on them.3
If you are new to Dave Eggers then this should not put you off reading him. Skip this one and instead, grab a copy of A Heartbreaking Work of a Staggering Genius.
Alas, where there is the worst there is also the best.
- For more on the necessity of counterpoint in humour see Henri Bergson, An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic; Søren Kierkegaard Concluding Unscientific Postscript, or Alenka Zupančič The Odd one in: On Comedy; Aristotle Treatise on Comedy – no jk about the latter, they haven’t found it yet; in a way this is serves as a fine example of how a joke can be seen to work: the coinciding of surplus meaning (the book about comedy) with its own lack (the book is lost). ↩
- I realize that I unflinchingly conflate satire, jokes and humour together and that this is a gross reduction of terms. For more in depth accounts on the differences between these see the works referenced in note 1. ↩
- My copy of the book is actually glued wrongly together so the C within the circle is actually inverted: Ɔ. ↩