While 2019 is still young and there is a lot of literary terrain to cover before the end of the year, I can confidently say Robert Jackson Bennett’s Vigilance will be talked about in many best of 2019 lists as one of the most honest and timely book of the year. Unflinching in its portrayal of senseless violence and scathing in its critique of the country’s obsession with guns and distrust of the Other, this is a book that resonates.
As Amazon sets upon its tax-sponsored path of evicting every last New Yorker, turn-of-the-millennium Seattle looms as the inexorable cautionary tale, the gold rush prototype of full-throttle technocratic gentrification. To apply a gauzy retrospective lens, the specter of early-2000s Seattle evokes not only a simpler, more innocent age, but one which augured the crises which would kneecap the soaring economy. In a cynical light, the murderer’s row of 21st century doomsdays—dot-com boom, housing bubble, Silicon Valley oligopoly, Facebook’s unfurling the carpet for Trump’s 2016 sweep—were beta-tested in a Seattle incubator.
Daisy Johnson’s Fen emerged seemingly out of nowhere. Here was a collection of tales overflowing with ideas and emotion, but firmly rooted in the ground. They were delightful beasts, written with a panache that showed a masterly style, as raw as it could be delicate, which punched you in the gut while displaying an odd fragility. Fen was a worldly, earthy book, which at the same time left an aftertaste of fairy-tale and folklore. It introduced us to Johnson’s protagonists: strong, lonely women, trapped at the sources of myth, taking us closely, at times uncomfortably closely, into their world. We could almost feel as if we were catching eels ourselves, as if we trod those lonely East Anglian towns in our Saturday night high heels. We had always known of the darkness in these places; but we had known it out of the corner of our eyes, intuitively. Now Johnson showed us that we had been right all along; and we felt as if we had met a friend, someone who understood this often forgotten part of the world.
“I know all this,” claims the narrator of Peter Stenson’s scarring and hard-to-shake second novel, “because humans are all fundamentally the same. We are a desk of control switches in a recording studio. Our only differences are the… levels and mixing.” This bleak notion proves a navigational star for the narrative, one that draws us on even as it makes our skin crawl.
Some novels have a sense of place. Jenny Hval’s Paradise Rot drips with it. This is the story of a young woman named Jo, who’s come to study in a country other than her own. Where she’s from and where she is are never crucial to the plot — there’s a brief mention of Jo as Norwegian, and of certain locations in the south of England, but specifics, at least these specifics, aren’t the point here. Our protagonist is far from home, speaking a language that isn’t her first, and living among people with whom she’s out of sync. This is a novel about dislocation, about being out of step with a place. It’s also a ghost story — perhaps several varieties of ghost story.
Steve Anwyll’s debut novel Welfare—dropped on Christmas Day by Tyrant Books—is a book that—much like its teenage narrator—takes an antagonistic stance against a lot of things. It is anti-purple prose. It is also an anti-coming-of-age novel, following a young character in that awkward adjustment stage between boy and man as he runs away from home to… find himself, maybe learn a couple life lessons? No. To live on welfare and avoid work and get high as much as possible. I said he was a seventeen-year-old boy, where else would this be going?
It’s been several weeks since I first read Maryse Meijer’s Northwood, and I’m still sorting out how best to classify it. For the record, I mean that in the “this is a feature, not a bug” kind of way. This is the sort of book for which the term “hybrid works” was invented: Meijer blends the quotidian with the folkloric, tells much of the story in verse, and utilizes a host of formally inventive page layouts along the way. If the most striking figure of the book’s design — white text on black pages — isn’t indicator enough, I’ll say it clearly: this is not a conventional read.
There are books that get so close to being sublime that plot becomes almost irrelevant. Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Taiga Sydrome has a plot, but it’s exploration of memory, the way it uses language to communicate the ethereal, and the dreamy atmosphere punctuated by scenes of longing, investigation of a mystery, and brutality eventually overpower everything else and push the narrative into a realm where plot isn’t always the most crucial element.