The Worst Reads of 2019

in Ark Review by

The End of Alice by A. M. Homes

There is a much better novel hiding in The End of Alice than the one A.M. Homes provided. That novel would be about a young woman trying to imagine herself into the desires of a pedophile as a way to escape the boredom of world limited and made dull by the actions of such predators in her youth and the reaction of her culture to them. A world in which desire has become suspicious and possibilities have been foreclosed lest their liberation release some lurking darkness. In that novel, we would chart the contours of perversion and power and of violence and desire and likely be haunted and troubled by what we found both in the work and in ourselves. But that novel is not the novel we have.

Instead, Homes wrote a book at the hight of the so-called satanic panic in which she uses the framing device of a young woman writing to convicted child murder and rapist (all of which is confoundingly told form the convicts point of view) to speculate about the damaged psychology of such an individual. We end up with a portrait of a wannabe Hannibal Lecter chewing the scenery until we reach the reminiscences of maternal child abuse that are supposed to explain everything. The most disappointing thing about The End of Alice is that for a story that is meant to be confronting our sense of decency it just ends up confirming the kind of conservative myths about this most ultimate taboo. This is not to say pity the pedophile but rather that the blinkered approach taken in the novel reproduces the same hypocritical sexual ethics of tabloid newspapers that whip up moral panics around the slightest deviance all the while counting down to the date when young female actors come of legal age.  All this approach can do is render this horrendously violent phenomenon so incomprehensible that it becomes invisible. Especially when practiced by those in power.

While not an explicitly reactionary novel, The EndOf Alice does little to disturb any of the problematic structures entrenched in our societies and psyches that have allowed the cycles of abuse described in the book to continue. And as such, in the end, its role is only to comfort the comfortable.

Macon

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

The bookmark is still there, I have checked this morning, page 74. That’s how far I made it through The Savage Detectives before, despite a habit that seldom for me to break, I had to abandon it.

I could not bring myself to continue with this coming of age story of an aspiring poet, skipping classes in favour of chasing poetry and discovering sex (but also discovering poetry and chasing sex), perhaps in part because I have picked it up about a decade too late, but primarily, I came to understand, because it seemed nothing like my best read of this year, 2666, Bolaño’s other book I picked up in 2019. What I was reading was at best ‘yet another novel’, pale and powerless, conventional and confessional. A book taking little risks, deliberately, perhaps, though my patience run out before I had a chance to find out. But it really is not fair to judge to book by its 74 pages, so forget this prelude if you want.

There is something else, however, I’d like to mention. When I look back scribbling this, I can’t fail to notice, that as I was reading, line after line, I found it impossible to focus on the actual story I was reading because of a too tangible absence of another thing. It was not so much that I was reading The Savage Detectives, but rather that I was not reading 2666. I would not insist on spelling it our here, if not for the fact that this sensation is somehow familiar—I suddenly remembered how reading had felt immediately after Infinite Jest. This pale shade. This slight fear it will remain altered forever. Silly as it may seem, this bi-polar oscillation between the words in front of me and the lack they were so powerfully conveying, confirmed my suspicion about the dangers of coming across something almost too good; that it can lead one, simultaneously, to lands both promised and waste.

Frank

You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian

With great bewilderment turned I the pages of Ms. Roupenian’s first, yet already impatiently expected volume of short fictions, “You Know You Want This”. Lord Almighty knows I wanted it. Up until this year’s YKYWT release one could only read her in snippets here and there. “Cat Person”, touted as the first viral short story, appeared on the New Yorker to become the most widely read short story they ever put out, and the “Good Guy” appeared on that behemoth of content, Medium – appropriately for our viral era. 

I remember the voyeuristic tingle these stories rustled in me when I first read them on my phone, sweately and in a dozen small bits on short breaks from the back-breaking labour of making a living. There was something alluringly itchy in peeping at these damadged innerscapes, driven by mediocrity and insecurity, as they were in Ms. Roupenian’s tales of heterosexual love. Take one part Moravia’s all-knowingness, one part DFW’s navel gazing, mix it with water and you get “The Good Guy” or “The Cat Person”. Whatever I say next, I will hold to the opinion that no short story anthology of the 2010s will do without either of these two. The maritime “Rainbow”, not included in the book, is also worth mentioning.

The hype was so big that Ms. Roupenian, thus far unpublished, was famously offered a million dolla’ contract to come up with a whole book of such wonders. I can only imagine the massivest writer’s block such a pressure can impose, which must be the reason why any of the other 10 stories, hard as they tried, rustled nothing inside of me. All their width, depth and breadth and they still come off as workings of some very serious and sensitive Polyanna. The story of that writer’s block, clock ticking, I’d read – if written by Paul Auster. Regrettably, it’s far from it. 

Nevermind the spoiler, for there is little to be spoiled. The usual schema is simple: when the protagonist’s desire cannot be realised, it becomes cathexed in unfortunate ways. Too often it means the stories sidestep into the grotesque, gore and supernatural – which in Ms. Roupenian’s writing comes off awkwardly as if her keyboard was a dead frog – and she a disgusted pupil who’s got to dissect it. “Surprise! It turns out that with the help of just a little birthday magic, hatred can be captured … Hatred can be magnified, refracted, aimed”, writes Ms. Roupenian, explaining how a group of people who were mean to each other throughout the evening got transmogrified into a big blob of sentient meat. “Instead of many separate people”, plods on the story, incessantly breathing on its reader’s neck, “they become … a dozen-eyed and many-limbed thing”. Don’t get me started on that thing’s stream of consciousness that follows.

Enter the human meatball, and there is little subtlety left. More often than not smoke and lights, deus ex machina easy resolutions leave us with a sour taste. We do hope this bad start won’t discourage Ms. Roupenian in her future endeavours.If you wish to see the book picked to pieces by a pack of vultures click here!

Tom

I, Little Asylum by Emmanuelle Guattari

I found this little book in a second-hand bookstore in perfect condition, and I thought: Ha! What a great find! This sounds so interesting! (And it’s published by Semiotext(e)!) But really, it wasn’t. In a rather mundane and, despite her efforts, not a very poetic way, Guattari’s daughter lays out some of her memories of growing up at the psychiatric clinic La Borde. Her relationship to the place is exceptionally uninteresting, and in ways, totally pointless. As I was reading, I kept wondering why La Borde was supposed to be so crucial in the “story”. She didn’t explore the place as a patient or a family of a patient; not even as Emmanuelle Guattari, person and writer, who might have some specific thoughts on the experiment that the place was in its opening. She simply explains whatever it is that she wants to explain (I’m not sure yet what it is) as the daughter of one of the people in charge.

Marketed as “one of two autobiographical accounts of her time spent at La Borde”, this book is so dull that I only finished it because it was short. It doesn’t have any substance nor literary interest, and it only made me think of her as some kind of a perverse military brat, only in a French psychiatry context. The only positive thing I might have gotten out of it is that at that point, it made me rethink and stop a potential blind interest in all-things-Deleuzian/Guattarian.

I don’t really think I have much else to add. Don’t read this book.

Neus

The Wall by John Lanchester

Dystopian novels are my favourite genre. From Karin Boye’s Kallocain to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World – it thrills me to get under the skin of supposedly utopian societies, where darkness is lurking in the corner of every street, home and mind. I love to feel the doubt grow in certain characters, the realisation that everything is f*cked slowly dawning on them, paired with the clammy feeling that there’s nothing they can do about it. 

But Lanchester’s dystopian (near) future, where the UK has built a wall to protect itself from rising water levels and the “Others”, offers me none of the above. Even though it should be so easy to write a good dystopian work of fiction about the climate crisis and late capitalism. Come on. There’s extreme weather, unreasonable concentration of wealth and violent oppression to write about. Instead, The Wall is nothing short but dull. After reading the entire book, I still don’t remember what the main character is called. 

Maybe the reason I didn’t enjoy The Wall is because it situates the climate crisis in an eerie normalness, which naturally, becomes quite boring to read about. There’s nothing grand about any of it. No villains, no heroes, no cult-like worshipping of how great everything is. Just a lukewarm normality. Instead of complete chaos (which is what I think will probably happen), it seems like the climate crisis has been carefully planned for. There is already a wall, people to man it and monetary and legal incentives to behave as you are told. Everything still… works, in lack of a better word. Everything is fine. The slowness, this carefully calculated transition from one way of life to another just doesn’t correspond to the dramatic vision I have of the climate crisis. And I actually agree with Greta Thunberg: it’s time to fucking panic now. The Wall is more like a sedative than a narrative to spark some desperately needed action.

Kajsa

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