Best of the year that was

Put down the pandemic novels: Here’s my favourite fiction of 2020

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

It was a topsy-turvy year in fiction, where many people had more time than ever to read, but the signs did not align to make it easy. Publishers delayed releases until they neatly clashed with bookstores closing. Our leading literary prize offered a mixed shortlist.

Nonetheless, trends poked through. Dystopian disaster fiction, of course, overran the shelves, from Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind to Don DeLillo’s The Silence and Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness, with a subset of previously published pandemic novels dusted down for fresh appeal. (They didn’t appeal.) 

Many of our leading novelists of the 1980s and 90s found themselves, aptly, looking back, some with style and aplomb (Adam Mars-Jones’s Box Hill, Jonathan Coe’s Mr Wilder & Me), others with mixed success (Martin Amis’s Inside Story, William Boyd’s Trio).

Celebrities, who had even more time on their hands than the rest of us, produced fistfuls of fiction, some of it rather good; among their number were Graham Norton, Robert Webb, Richard Osman, Ruth Jones — and Dawn French, who has now completed as many novels as F. Scott Fitzgerald. 

But enough of that. And of this. Here is a selection of my favourite fiction of 2020, with an eye to those titles that might appeal to, and occasionally surprise, a broad readership. This list excludes any books already covered in previous editions of this column, the pick of which — to save you thumbing through your binder of back issues — would include Mary Gaitskill’s This is Pleasure, Sigrid Nunez’s What Are You Going Through, Eley Williams’s The Liar’s Dictionary, Matthew Sperling’s Viral and Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi.

Cliche-exhauster of the year
The only problem with Anne Enright is that her fiction and her criticism are both so good — she’s the only reviewer this year who persuaded me that reading Don DeLillo’s new pamphlet might be fruitful — that when reading her in one discipline, you wonder why she doesn’t devote all her time to it. Then you read her in the other.

Actress is about the corrosive effect of fame on both its gilded subjects and those closest to them, through the story of an Irish actress told by her daughter. Crammed with set pieces, juicy descriptions, and pinpoint depictions of the “line between admiration and malice”, it’s a book of micro-brilliance rather than sweeping narrative, with all the right plot points but not necessarily in the right order.

In a year where the awards were dominated by novels about mother and child — Shuggie Bain, Hamnet — this one somehow failed to win a thing, despite being the best of the lot. The other regret about Enright’s double-sided literary life is that she cannot review her own book. She would never call it a tour de force by a writer at the height of her powers, but I have no such qualms.

Time traveller of the year
There’s nothing more simultaneously frightening and reassuring than finding a writer who can really turn out the goods who is closer in age to your children than to you. Bryan Washington, who at 27 is even younger than Sally Rooney (is that allowed?), made a splash in the US with his collection of stories, Lot — top ten of the year according to both the New York Times and Barack Obama, twin peaks of literary triangulation — though it was less prominent here despite winning the Dylan Thomas Prize.

Washington’s collection reminded me of the smash-hit stories of Junot Díaz: he was the future once, and now it’s Washington’s turn. As with Díaz, the setting is the Latino community in America (in Washington’s case in Houston, Texas) and the stories are loosely connected, often narrated by the same young male character — Díaz had Yunior, Washington has Nicolas — so there’s a sense of larger purpose and progress through the collection.

Lot’s quality lies in its paradox: the prose is smooth and fluent, but is pared back so the reader has an active role in completing the background and decoding motivations; the act of reading feels creative as a result. The community it describes contains multitudes: gay and straight, families broken and fixed, races mixed through the city’s “bottle of noise”. Washington’s prose is blended too: compassion and cynicism, wisdom with jokes, and sex writing (“When the boy finally comes, it’s like he’s been shot”) that would make James “He came like a drinking horse” Salter put down his pen, if he wasn’t already dead.

Space traveller of the year
On the face of it, Andreas Eschbach’s The Hair- Carpet Weavers — a 1990s German science fiction novel, now translated into English by Dorel Jensen — sounds infinitely niche, but it was one of the most addictive and enthralling experiences of my reading year. It builds not just a single coherent story but an entire galaxy from the bottom up, by dropping us into snatches of the daily lives of the people there.

It begins in a country, in an empire, where each man spends his entire life weaving a carpet from the hairs of his wife and daughters. The carpet is literally the weaver’s raison d’être because at the end of his life, it will be delivered to a trader to furnish the Emperor’s palace. Eschbach moves us on to eavesdrop on each component in the economy — carpet traders, preachers, military — and then outward, to other planets where we begin to learn how everything fits together.

The whole thing has the air not of a fable but a mythic nineteenth-century Russian novel. It pokes the reader precisely with provocations on loyalty, groupthink, society’s values and even the purpose of life. There is, inevitably, a bit too much explication and “As you know, Bob” dialogue along the way, but this is ambitious literature in a deceptively digestible form. As a bonus, it comes as part of a beautifully designed series from Penguin, who seem to have discovered a secret sauce — unknown to other publishers — that makes science fiction classics not look shit.

The “shut up and take my money” award
If the late John le Carré was the David Attenborough of literature — wonderfully uncontroversial — then here is his epic 4K BBC/HBO mini-series. The Smiley Collection brings together the first eight George Smiley novels in exceptionally smart and witty retro designs by David Pearson and Nick Asbury — fauxsimiles, if you will — inspired by the type design, printing techniques and stilted ad copy of the 1960s when the frog-like spy from Bywater Street made his first appearance. As proof that these editions — available in a box set for your gifting needs — will expand le Carré’s appeal to the foppish aesthete as well as the rugged literary adventurer, they inspired me to begin reading the series in order.

The early ones are, to be sure, “of their time”, where “pansies” and “cissies” abound, along with dialogue like “You know what women are like”. But once through the rudimentary Call for the Dead and the weird sidestep of a detective story in A Murder of Quality, you reach the great efflorescence of talent in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold — its halls of mirrors, its obscure motivations refracting the very experience of reading — and sigh with pleasure: you are in thoroughly, Attenboroughly safe hands here.

My novel of the year
The word “my” is relevant above because Andrew O’Hagan’s Mayflies might very well have come from a future world where we can all have bespoke novels written to push our buttons and make us squeal. In a year where looking inward became easier than looking up and out, and when I was gripped by a quite uncharacteristic nostalgia, it felt personal to read a novel where a man of my generation reflects on growing up in the 1980s, discovering books and music and the million-petalled flower of male friendship: and then faces the unwelcome present.

It’s a book of big characters — predominantly O’Hagan surrogate Jimmy Collins, writer and narrator; and Tully Dawson, the frontman of Jimmy’s childhood — but more than that of atmosphere and milieux: working-class Scotland in the 1970s; a weekend trip to Manchester, the Haçienda-led hive of burgeoning cool, a decade later; London and Italy today as the workplaces and holiday haunts respectively of middle-aged professionals who are never quite sure how they got here.

But if I came for the subject, I stayed for the skill with which it is delivered: light touch, straight to the heart, and funny in a way that O’Hagan’s previous books — with the exception of his deliriously eccentric narrative about and by Marilyn Monroe’s dog — have never been. The only thing that prevents me from describing Mayflies as a perfect mid-life crisis novel is that the crisis at its centre is the end of a life. Tully’s mid-life, it turns out, was that weekend of happiness in Manchester in the 1980s. That’s the way to do it.

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