A Cheat’s Guide To The Books Of The Year
How to talk about the literary highlights of 2018 when you haven’t read them
As Christmas approaches, the cultured but overcommitted reader of MR PORTER may be dreading those dinner-party conversations that look back over the year. You have an opinion on Mr Donald Trump and Brexit, no doubt. But, as we all know, a gentleman always avoids turning the conversation to politics or money. Not everyone will be impressed if you start banging on about Mr Kylian Mbappé’s performance in the World Cup Final, so you’ll need to have a view on the year in literature, thus advertising your sophistication and cultural bona fides while thrilling all those people who’ve been putting in the hours at Wednesday-night book groups.
Even if, ahem, you have not had time to read all the important books that have been published this year, you’ll need to have something to say about the ones everybody has been talking about. Which works of fiction have found themselves at the centre of the national conversation? Which big-ideas books does everyone need to have a view on? Here, as a service to our readers, are five of the biggest books of 2018 in easily digestible form together with some smart remarks to make, plus some snippets of context and background knowledge that will be sure to impress your fellow dinner guests.
by Mr Karl Ove Knausgård
After getting on for a full decade of Mr Karl Ove Knausgård-mania, The End brings to a close the six-volume autofictional My Struggle series, which has drawn rapturous praise from many front-rank writers. The sophisticated bluffer won’t mention Ms Zadie Smith’s endorsement, which is on all of the book jackets, but rather make murmurous allusion to Mr Ben Lerner’s fine essay in the London Review Of Books. Talk about Mr Knausgård’s move from a Proustian digressiveness in the first two books to a more chronological approach in the later ones. Mention that this book brings us up to the controversy surrounding publication of the first book (Mr Knausgård’s uncle took a very dim view), snake-eating-its-tail style. Talk about how Mr Knausgård at last addresses the way he stole the book’s title from Mr Adolf Hitler in his long discussion of Mein Kampf. And talk, too, about how all the boring bits about making cups of coffee and smoking cigarettes are really a very important part of the book’s artistic vision, which is to explode the whole notion of literary fiction. Add that the poignancy of the book’s portrait of Mr Knausgård’s wife’s mental illness is thrown into extra relief by the knowledge that their marriage subsequently broke down and he is now dating a British publisher. You could also mention the Seasons Quartet – short books addressed to his infant daughter, which started with a series of essays on subjects as diverse as Wellington boots, teeth and labia before returning to the autofictional manner of My Struggle. “That sequence turned a corner with Spring, don’t you think?”
Do say: “The very long discussion of that Celan poem is a masterclass in close reading.”
Don’t say: “Twelve hundred pages! It took me longer to read than it took him to live it.”
by Ms Sally Rooney
Judging by its reception in the literary world, Ms Sally Rooney’s second novel is the breakthrough masterpiece of the voice of a generation. Admirers say that 27-year-old Ms Rooney is the first novelist to capture the day-to-day lives and loves of early twentysomethings now. Her editor has called her “the Salinger of the Snapchat generation”. So, what do these vibrant young people do? They fall in love, have sex, talk to each other on social media, break up, worry about things, fall back in love, fall in and out of friendship groups, worry about everything and read Mr Marcel Proust. Normal People is about the long relationship between Marianne and Connell, clever and bookish schooldays sweethearts in rural Sligo who go on to Trinity College Dublin together. At first, Marianne is posh and awkward, while Connell is from the wrong side of the tracks, but more popular at school. At university and afterwards, Marianne comes out of her shell. But the path of true love does not run straight. He acquires a boring girlfriend. She acquires a boyfriend she doesn’t like. Will they ever just get it together? The wise bluffer will make sage reference to Ms Rooney’s wit, her narrative virtuosity (chapters are called things such as “Five Minutes Later”), her subtle empathy for Connell’s well-meaning but tormented masculinity and her tender clear-sightedness in seeing how social, psychological and sexual difficulties mix together for mixed-up youngsters.
Do say: “It’s an outrage that Normal People wasn’t on the Man Booker shortlist. She is the digital-era Jane Austen.”
Don’t say: “If she really is the Salinger of the Snapchat generation, how come she’s never Instagrammed a plate of avocado on toast?”
by Professor Steven Pinker
Building on the argument of his previous book, The Better Angels Of Our Nature, which posits that violence has declined throughout human history, Professor Steven Pinker suggests we’ve never had it so good. But he says that if we don’t recognise how good we’ve got it, and understand why, we might have it bad again. We are, on average, better educated, richer, happier, less violent, healthier and live longer lives than any of our ancestors. Improvement was turbocharged in the 17th century, thanks to the innovations of the Enlightenment: secularism, free speech, the scientific method, liberal capitalism, human universalism and the open and rational exchange of ideas. So, if it’s all tickety-boo, why is he writing this book? Professor Pinker says that “progressophobes” are on the rise. We have short news cycles that tend to focus disproportionately on bad things happening suddenly rather than good things happening slowly or bad things not happening at all. And anxiety about the Enlightenment virtues drives people into the arms of religious fundamentalists, conspiracy theorists and populist politicians, which will mess the whole thing up. We need to double-down on the Enlightenment and see off the progressophobes, and here are lots and lots of graphs that prove it.
Do say: “In talking about the Enlightenment, Professor Pinker offers a simplistic view of a complicated thing, but his basic premise is sound.”
Don’t say: “Did you understand Nassim Taleb’s devastating attacks on Prof Pinker’s use of statistics? Me neither.”
How To Change Your Mind: The New Science Of Psychedelics
by Mr Michael Pollan
US journalist Mr Michael Pollan is already well regarded for his books on food and eating, especially The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In this book, he turns his attention to drugs, specifically the so-called “psychedelics” such as LSD, psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and DMT. He says that before the antics of Mr Timothy Leary and the rise of a counter-culture led to a panic-ban on all research into these drugs, there were scores of reputable studies that suggested tripping could be good for us. Forget micro-dosing; this is about macro-dosing. Brain-melting quantities of psilocybin, it is said, can occasion a “mystical experience” that could work wonders on depression, addiction, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, PTSD and the fear of death in terminally ill patients. Mr Pollan unearths this forgotten history of research, discovers that it’s not just The Grateful Dead, but Silicon Valley and Alcoholics Anonymous that have their roots in LSD, and meets modern-day shamans and a new generation of sober researchers who are starting to reopen inquiries. The effects of these drugs on the brain, he says, open thrilling questions about the nature of selfhood and the origins of consciousness itself. And, naturally, he has a go himself. Conclusion: maybe think twice before smoking dried toad venom.
Do say: “It’s not about the drugs. It’s about what they can tell us about the nature of consciousness. I mean tryptamines and the default-mode network, obviously.”
Don’t say: “Far out, man!”
Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945–1975
by Sir Max Hastings
This is the magnum opus of the great journalist turned military historian Sir Max Hastings, many years in the making, and it traces the disaster of the Vietnam War from its disastrous beginning to its even more disastrous end. Bluffers will want to draw attention to Sir Max’s unrivalled accumulation of detail (did you know that the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign caused $300m worth of damage at a cost of, er, $900m in downed aircraft alone?), his brusquely debunking temperament, his political even-handedness (no, it wasn’t an ill-fated but vital stand against world communism; no, Mr Ho Chi Minh was not a goody, either), his eye for human detail and his clear-eyed acknowledgement that a lot of very clever people managed to do something very stupid indeed. They’ll point out that the war was doomed from the start because, regarding the Vietnamese as “gooks” and taking no interest in their culture or their hostility to the Saigon regime, it was always a war of colonial bossiness fought for the locals’ “own good” in total ignorance of what they may actually have wanted. A bright shining lie, in other words. You could add that Sir Max is reliable in all this, because not only did he report from the Vietnam War as a young man, but he has the advantage over his rivals of being British and thus being able to see the US’s preoccupation with the war in a more detached light.
Do say: “This will be the last word on all that nonsense.”
Don’t say: “Aren’t ‘epic’ and ‘tragedy’ different genres?”