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Issue 104

Looking Back: Books

Looking back over the best art and literature books of 2006

BY Maria Fusco and Jonathan Derbyshire in Frieze | 01 JAN 07

Maria Fusco

There’s definitely something in the air, maybe even in the water. Tom Wolfe may once have called it ‘Radical Chic’, but today’s renewed interest in radicalism seems to have less to do with politics than with production. The New Statesman’s definition of a radical is ‘one who not only knows all the answers but keeps on thinking up new questions’. Bearing this in mind, the most apt mechanism of dissemination for radicalism is (of course!) the book: its eminently portable nature and its ability to contain a staggeringly wide range of information within its packed pages mean that it can be used, abused and generally fiddled about with as a regenerative device. In 2006 there’s been a distinct surge in publishing that takes as its starting-point notions of ‘radicalism’; this both cheers me and makes me wonder what lurks behind its seemingly wholesome surface.

Make Everything New: A Project on Communism is a big battery of a book, brimming with potential, vaguely familiar yet brand new at the same time. An ambitious project, bringing together a crack team of artists and writers with the brief to rehabilitate ‘communism’, this collection could only ever be experimental in nature. I enjoyed the odd range of discoveries and details that the book has to offer. My particular favourite was Aleksandra Mir’s conversation with Jim Fitzpatrick (creator of the hugely iconic blocky red, black and white poster of Che Guevara), which revealed Fitzpatrick’s creative hand in an entirely different light from that of the illustrator of saucy graphic novels, based on the adventures of throbbing mythological Celtic heroes, which I read growing up as a child in Belfast. It’s just this kind of esoteric hook that licenses us, as readers, to get involved and excited at the combination of contributions in the book, a project that might otherwise have resulted in a dry exercise in reinterpretation.

If, as counter-culture expert Jeff Nuttall has written, ‘disaffiliation is a prerequisite of protest’, then How To Write A Book Of is just about as smart a scrubbing the surface of the orthodoxy of artists’ books as you could get. It’s a complex aggregate, both in form and in concept. Proposed as the winning entry to a writing contest set by the fictitious university club, The Alliance for French and American Relations, the book’s real authors, Rachelle Sawatsky and Dan Starling, started by cross-referencing two of Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle) author George Perec’s novels, Things: A Story of the Sixties (1965) and A Man Asleep (1967), to build a list of common words, which they then used as a lexicon to ‘rewrite’ US Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman’s tome, Revolution for the Hell of It (1968). The result is utterly unreadable and all the better for it. I have tried, I have failed, for How To Write A Book Of can only be grazed, never fully digested; its chapters judder and shake with incomplete (not quasi-) polemics, referring to, and indeed expressing the unwieldy largeness of, the project of the radical and the contemporary resonance of very modern yet already antique revolutionary acts.

How many of us find, at one time or another, that words are a poor currency for our thoughts? Is language so transparent that we can see straight through it, or so solid that we need a bolt-cutter to excise specific meaning? xxxxx, compiled and edited by Berlin-based collective xxxxx, traverses such cracks and gaps in comprehension while playing with Thomas Carlyle’s cry of the ‘Strange power of Reality!’ Declaiming itself as a ‘radical new space for artistic exploration’, this compendium presents an intriguing selection of writings about writing, editing and ‘software subjugation’, including work by Yves Degoyon, Olga Goriunova, Stewart Home and socialfiction.org. The result is often obscure, sometimes enlightening, always absorbing. The range of voices (notably, somewhat disappointingly, predominantly male) alone ensures that we, as readers, are kept alert by subtle/brazen shifts in tone and timbre, which together contribute to a persuasive feeling of now. You cannot escape this book, even though often you may not understand it.

I’ve read my way in and out of these books, and I’m not convinced about the contemporary function of radicalism, even if I want believe in its potential. Their ‘use-value’, and that of those that no doubt will follow them, remains, of course, to be seen. I, for one, am looking forward. As Stewart Home might say, ‘Ends (or does it?)’.

Jonathan Derbyshire

The year 2006 was notable for, among other things, novels by two of the éminences grises of postwar American fiction. John Updike’s Terrorist is an ambitious, though ultimately unsatisfying, attempt to imagine the inner life of an Arab-American jihadist, while in Everyman Philip Roth tersely distils his perennial obsessions.

The prose in Terrorist is characteristically well upholstered, though this amplitude gets in the way of Updike’s declared intention to say something from ‘the standpoint of a terrorist’. He rewards Ahmad Mulloy, his adolescent salafist, with a power of noticing as microscopically precise as his own, while at the same time separating him so completely from the ‘American reality’ he lavishly notates as to turn him into an echoing vessel of Islamic disgust. There is no sense here that what George Eliot called the ‘severe effort’ of making ‘ideas incarnate’ has borne fruit.

Everyman, meanwhile, fixes on matters of life and death with an intensity unmatched in Roth’s fiction since 1995’s Sabbath’s Theater. Its unnamed 70-something protagonist is a veteran of surgical interventions so varied and numerous that, for him, personal biography has become identical with medical biography. Roth elaborates an illusionless vision of human finitude whose remarkable power derives from the eschewal of abstractness and an unwavering attention to the fleshy particularities of mortality.

There’s a similar preoccupation with decrepitude and decay in the best short stories in Adam Thorpe’s collection, Is This The Way You Said?, which combine formal virtuosity with great emotional and moral depth. You sense that Thorpe is fascinated by the ability of human beings not so much to sublimate the recognition of their finiteness and smallness as to endure it.

For Andrew O’Hagan it’s not biology that is destiny but belonging. O’Hagan is fascinated by what he calls the ‘unplaceable sadness of belonging’, which is something at once unbearable and implacable. Be Near Me, his third novel, is set in a bleak town on the west coast of Scotland where the narrator, David Anderton, has arrived to serve as the local Catholic priest. This is a quieter, more subtly patterned book than its predecessor, the densely polyphonic Personality (2003), but no less impressive. David had moved to Scotland to escape, but by the end of the novel he comes to see that ‘forgetting the past is a vivid illusion’ and he remains the ‘person he had always been’.

Stefan Vogel, the narrator of James Lasdun’s second novel, Seven Lies, feels his life to be something that has fallen ‘unaccountably’ into his possession. Stefan is an attractively lucid witness to his own self-deceptions and Lasdun the owner of a prose style that’s the match of any in contemporary fiction in English. In his novels and short stories people inhabit their lives as if they were not their own – his first book, The Horned Man (2002), made this sense of psychic displacement the motor for an intellectual Gothic thriller; Seven Lies deploys it in a kind of reverse Bildungsroman, in which Stefan, an exile from the old East Germany now living in the US, describes the long hiatus between a defining family disgrace in the GDR in the mid-1970s and his final, long-dreamt escape to America three years before the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

The demise of the Soviet Union and its satellites poses an obvious problem for Francis Wheen in his wonderful little book Marx’s Das Kapital. What appears in Marx’s work as a kind of prophecy has been not confirmed by history but destroyed by it. Wheen acknowledges Marx’s errors but insists that these are nonetheless ‘eclipsed and transcended’ by Das Kapital’s devastatingly accurate description of the nature of capitalism. Wheen has learnt from the critic Edmund Wilson not to ignore the ‘brain-racking subtleties’ of Marx’s prose but to see in its Dickensian textures an attempt to embody the way in which, under capitalism, ‘all that is solid melts into air’.
As it happens, Wilson and the other New York intellectuals of the 1940s and ’50s are the inspiration for one of the most exciting literary-intellectual ventures of recent years. The editors of the American journal N+1 place themselves self-consciously in the tradition of ‘little magazines’ such as Partisan Review or Dissent, a presumption more than justified by their commitment to ideas and serious cultural and political analysis.

Three things to look forward to in 2007: a new novel, Imposture, by the London-based American writer Benjamin Markovits, and essays by two great writer-critics, Milan Kundera and J.M. Coetzee.

Maria Fusco is a writer and Senior Lecturer in Book Arts and Illustration at the University of East London. She is currently developing The Happy Hypocrite, a new journal about and for writing within visual art, due to be released in 2007. Jonathan Derbyshire is a writer and critic based in London. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Financial Times, New Statesman, Prospect and The Times Literary Supplement.