Book sumo: narrowing the field

Sometimes it can feel as if there are too many books out there and not enough time to read a fraction of them. This is especially true when you discover a new writer. Are you going to invest the time in reading more of their books, or will you turn away from them like a food you tried once and didn’t like? This may be a strange thing to say, but it can be as much of a relief to decide not to read a writer, as it is to find a new one to add to your future reading list.

I’d read a fair number of Haruki Murakami’s stories and novels, including Sputnik Sweetheart, A Wild Sheep Chase, Norwegian Wood and Kafka on the Shore, before I decided last year, a couple of chapters into IQ84, that he was my literary broccoli. I can eat it, but it doesn’t do much for me. Never mind that he’s one of the very few megastars of world literature, with fans who rave about him: if I want to read tales of messed-up modern Japan, I’d rather leave the postmodernist jazz and go for the satisfying payoff of a Higashino Keigo thriller.

Of course it’s important not to get too stuck in your reading ways. That’s why we have eyes and ears open for good reviews or recommendations from friends. On this basis we accord a chance to new writers we haven’t read before, then we figure out if we love, like, or loathe them, or – worst of all – if they’re just a bit ‘meh’.

I recently read novels by two contemporary British writers, Jenni Fagan and Jon McGregor. Fagan’s The Panopticon and McGregor’s even the dogs have certain similarities. They are both about characters on the fringes of society: teenagers in care in Fagan’s case, and heroin addicts in McGregor’s. Both writers have a lovely ear for dialogue, and a talent for describing the natural world. However this is where the similarity ends. Fagan writes through the eyes of spunky teenager Anais Hendricks, while McGregor’s story flits between the gazes of multiple down-and-out protagonists, some of whom are dead.

I could admire McGregor’s writing, and his ability to empathise with the type of characters we see in real life but normally ignore. However, there is a difference between admiring writing and liking it, and I have to say I didn’t really like even the dogs.   It felt too much like Trainspotting minus ninety five percent of the humour that gives redemption not just to the subject matter, but to an extent also the characters themselves.

On the other hand, Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon is one I want to keep at the front of my bookshelf to remind me of the kind of writing I admire and enjoy. As well as great style, observation and dialogue, it’s full of spirit, and it has that most essential thing which even the dogs lacks: a central character so real you think they must actually exist.





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