by Derek Neal
It’s the time of year end lists: Best Movies of 2021, Best TV Shows, Best Fiction. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen many movies that came out this past year, haven’t streamed many TV shows, haven’t read many books. I’m not saying I haven’t seen any movies, or watched any shows, or read any books—I have—just not many that were released this year, 2021. But really, outside of reviewers and critics, has anyone? The phenomenon of year end lists seems to me to be much more of a marketing and business endeavor than one based on actual artistic merit. And how can one keep up? There’s simply too much stuff out there, and I’ll never have the time to read and watch everything I’d like. The number of unread books on my shelf is rising, and I keep buying more. I don’t have much to say about this year, 2021, but a more interesting question to ask would be, “What’s the best of your 2021?” Not what was made this year, but what you discovered this year.
For me, I went on a New York mob movie kick—Carlito’s Way, Donnie Brasco, King of New York—that splintered out into other films like Jackie Brown, American Psycho, and L.A. Confidential. I read, mainly, books I picked up at used bookstores and used books sales on front lawns. I’ve found that the best way to alleviate an ever–increasing stack of books is not to make a list or plan but to walk into a store, or sale, and buy a book in a serendipitous fashion—maybe it’s an author you’ve been meaning to read but have never gotten around to, maybe the cover is interesting, or maybe you read the first page and are hooked. This works for me, as I can buy the book and read it right away. The trouble is buying just one book.
I started off this year with David Leeming’s biography of James Baldwin (a Christmas present) and this led to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (plucked from the shelves at my parents’ house). Then I bought Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun for my father and proceeded to read it myself, which led me to go back and read his first novel, A Pale View of Hills. I’ve read Ishiguro’s novels in a haphazard order, and it was interesting to read his first novel after reading almost all the others. The narrators of his books are always unreliable, and as we read, we wonder what’s really going on, what the truth is behind the subjective viewpoint of the narrator. In his two most recent novels, Ishiguro has manipulated the setting of the story to explain the narrator’s inability to faithfully represent reality; The Buried Giant is a fantasy novel and thus can resort to fantastical explanations, while Klara and the Sun is set in the near future and features a humanoid robot with no experience of the world outside the confines of the store in which she’s for sale.
In most of Ishiguro’s other novels, the narrators are unreliable for reasons that most of us are unreliable—we’re human. No explanation required. But in A Pale View of Hills, Ishiguro attempts to explain and reconcile the unfaithful narrator with the events of the plot, which ultimately reveals how a large part of the story is simply taking place inside a character’s head. Ishiguro criticized himself for this in an interview with The Paris Review, seemingly for giving into the desire to attempt to explain something as amorphous as memory, and as far as I know, he’s never again attempted to tie up the loose threads in his more realistic novels.
Later in the year bookstores were still closed, so I went to my downstairs neighbors and took A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara from their living room. I chose A Little Life because I remembered its cover from a few years ago—a young man’s face screwed up into a painful grimace. I also liked the fact that it was a big book (814 pages long), which seemed appropriate considering the situation of the pandemic. The novel follows the story of Jude and the three friends he meets at university as they move to New York City and attempt to succeed in their careers. The novel covers some 20-30 years in the characters’ lives and also includes flashbacks to Jude’s past, where we learn of the extreme abuse he suffered and which serve as an explanation of his present condition, one in which he repeatedly harms himself and attempts suicide multiple times. The book is shocking in its descriptions of suffering, and at times I felt like putting it down, but I didn’t.
Despite its graphic nature, giving it a sheen of realness and authenticity, the book feels cheap in other ways. The characters are all extremely successful in their life pursuits: the artist friend struggles for a bit, then ends up selling his pieces for millions of dollars; the architect friend opens up his own firm which becomes wildly successful; the actor friend becomes a Hollywood star, and Jude becomes a massively successful corporate lawyer. They’re all millionaires, and they fly around the world visiting each other. If anything, the book is like a network TV drama—Grey’s Anatomy comes to mind—or really any of the holy trinity of police, hospital, and fire department shows. Like these shows, the novel certainly packs an emotional punch. After a few chapters, or an hour-long episode in which you’ve seen the full range of the most extreme human emotions and experiences packed into bite sized format, you’re left feeling exhausted, but you also feel cheated. This isn’t really how it’s supposed to work—the thrills are cheap and ultimately, forgettable.
This puts me in mind of another book I read this year, The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, which was shipped to me via what I’m told is called a “care package.” The Blue Flower is perhaps the antithesis of A Little Life; nothing much happens in this book, but it casts a spell over you and there are scenes, particularly a nighttime conversation between a mother and a son in a garden, where you feel as if you’ve touched the depths of what humanity and art have to offer. In contrast to A Little Life, with its graphic violence and excruciating detail, The Blue Flower is all subtlety and ellipses, and all the more powerful for it.
In the summer, when stores opened again, I was killing time in a small town in “Cottage Country,” Ontario, on a day when constant rain made staying by the lake impossible. Among the shelves at the local bookstore, I found The Europeans (1983) by Luigi Barzini, one of those out-of-print books that can only be found used, and containing a worldview and a perspective so different from contemporary ones. Here are a few chapter titles from The Europeans: “The Quarrelsome French,” “The Flexible Italians,” and “The Baffling Americans.” Barzini’s writing is breezy and light, but perceptive and insightful as well. He believes firmly in such a thing as national character and simply takes as a given that when people live in the same part of the world for hundreds of years, they will develop a local culture and identity that will be passed on from generation to generation. In other words, people are historical beings and belong to a specific time and place. Barzini’s goal in attempting to identify the various characters of European states is to imagine how they could fit into a unified Europe, still unrealized at the time of Barzini’s writing.
I then decided to try a few book sales: the first, in a half-abandoned mall in the hinterland of the GTA (Greater Toronto Area), was a letdown. The selection was mostly mass-market paperback romances and thrillers, but I didn’t want to have made the journey through never ending strip malls and high-rise apartment buildings for nothing, and luckily I was able to find an old copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Learning from this experience, the next time I stayed within the city limits of Hamilton and found a yard sale that included books. Nothing really stood out to me, but once again I didn’t want to leave empty handed, and so I finally chose Elia Kazan’s The Arrangement after reading the first page and sensing a psychological thriller featuring an unreliable narrator. However, in hindsight I should have been more dissuaded by the hyperbolic description on the jacket flap: “Elia Kazan has written a major American novel. It is an earth-shaking book. The earth it shakes is the one each of us is standing on.” As opposed to, you know, the earth out in space or something. The Arrangement follows Eddie Anderson, a successful marketing executive who loves his wife but is going through a midlife crisis that can seemingly only be solved by sleeping with a younger employee at the advertising firm, named Gwen. The whole thing is sort of Philip Roth-lite, mildly interesting yet predictable, and sounding like what someone who’s never read Roth but has read about him recently might imagine his books to be like.
My last purchase of the year was from a bookstore in downtown Hamilton, a beautiful shop tucked in between empty storefronts, an overgrown vacant lot, and a vape shop. When I walked into the store it felt like an oasis, and I thought I could spend hours there ensconced in the warmth of its books, paintings, and soft lighting. For weeks I’d been rushing about, trying to balance a return to in-person work with the everyday necessities of living, and it was taking a toll on me. The only reason I was at the bookstore that day was because I’d had to bring my recently purchased used car back to the dealership and persuade the brothers who sold it to me to fix the myriad problems my mechanic had identified shortly after I’d bought it. They said they would, but they made it clear they weren’t in any rush. I was left to wander around the grey streets for a few hours.
Once in the bookstore, it took me a few minutes to adjust to its slower pace. I went around the shop once, but it’d been a few months since I’d actually looked for a book, and the realization hit me that I’d forgotten how to book shop. What authors was I looking for? What kind of story did I want? Usually, my previous book would indicate the next one, but the chain had been broken due to my lack of reading over the previous months. I go around the store again, and this time I come across a name I’ve seen quite a bit but have never read: Doris Lessing. The book is called The Good Terrorist, which immediately intrigues me, so I purchase it and find a café to read in, beginning my 2022.