As a reader, there’s approximately one hundred million billion zillion gajillion books that I love with great loveness and which are my squishy and that I pet and love and call my squishy. Approximately.
As an author, there are times when it’s impossible not to see the man behind the curtain. For all the individual skill involved, there are certain cornerstones of the craft that are apparent to anyone else practising that craft.
Occasionally, however, I read a novel that rocks me back on my heels, makes me blow out my cheeks and shake the book gently, all the while muttering “Man. I wish I’d written that.” Here are five.
Five for Friday: Books I Wish I’d Written
1. The Time Traveller’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
A heart-rending romance novel in which the science fictional elements cannot be removed without the whole edifice collapsing, making it a perfect combination of the two genres. Henry travels through time: he can’t control it, nor predict where and when he will leave or arrive. Clare loves him, and his arrivals and departures control the ebb and flow of her life. How they cope– and don’t– forms the basis of a brilliant examination of emotions, loyalty, love, and the immutable laws of time. It’s a stunning tour de force, and a book that made me cry like a child.
2. As She Climbed Across the Table, Jonathan Lethem
Lethem has gone on to make his reputation with incisive, whimsical portrayals of New York eccentricity such as Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude. But he started out as one of us, gabba gabba– three SF novels, of which this is the most polished, and by far the funniest. Philip Engstrand is spurned, and becomes obsessively jealous, after his lover, Dr Alice Coombs creates a rift of absolute nothingness, and then falls in love with it. It’s poignant, hilarious, desperate and philosophical in turn, and playfully punctures not only the pompousness of so much ‘hard’ SF but of the scientist-as-romantic-figure clichés that abound within the genre. Combined with Lethem’s extraordinary literary chops, it’s a triumphal delight.
3. The Man Who Was Thursday, GK Chesterton
GK Chesterton was the very model of a late Victorian English gentleman: an author whose facility with, and love of wordplay, places him amongst the most articulate and stylish novelists to grace the 19th and 20th Centuries. That said, he was also, largely, a conservative writer. His works ooze the sense of Christian charity that embodied the Victorian era; that staunch, decidedly white Christianity in which everyone had a place in God’s purpose, and the class system existed for perfectly reasonable and not-to-be-meddled-with reasons. God bless Her Majesty, amen. Which is why this is such a delight of a novel: it starts out as a beautifully crafted Chestertonian thriller about a government agent infiltrating a gang of anarchists, before spiralling into a metaphysical chase across the London landscape, culminating in an absurdist, and surreal, confrontation on a philosophical plane in which the entire underpinning of the novel, London society, and the forces of good and evil are revealed as little more than shadow plays in the greater scheme of the Universe. Chesteron’s greatest skill as an author is in playing the game of topsy-turvy with narratives, assumptions, and values– here he turns it upon the world he, himself, valued so highly, and it’s a work of brilliance.
4. Rant, Chuck Palahniuk
Chuck Palahniuk is a hit and miss author. When he’s good– in novels such as Survivor, Lullaby, and Diary— there’s nobody better at cynically espousing the nihilistic grunge viewpoint of a debilitated and powerless American underclass. When he’s bad– as in Pygmy or his unbelievably awful linked collection Haunted— he reeks of excess with all the literary subtlety of children jumping in puddles of blood.
In Rant, he is at his best. Part character biography, part crime novel, part time travel novel, part nihilistic manifesto, it’s structured in such a way that it can be read both backwards and forwards– each way tells the same story in slightly different ways, revealing dual impressions of the narrative occurring in the same space, like reading a 3D comic book without the glasses. There is always three things happening at once, and they all bend in back upon each other like a broken prism. It’s the perfect distillation of Palahniuk’s skills, and he’s never achieved the same balance, before or since.
5. God is a Bullet, Boston Teran
Crime as horror. A small town policeman’s ex-wife is murdered, and his daughter abducted. He sets out to find the perpetrators, and along the way, is dragged through the underbelly of a featureless, middle-of-nowhere landscape. But this novel is so much more than that. It’s unremittingly brutal: stark, spare, cut to the bone and utterly unforgiving on both its characters and the reader. If Dashiell Hammet wrote for Quentin Tarantino, this is what you’d get. It compelling, compulsive reading, and it spares nobody. I wish I had half the fire.