“The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.”
I enjoy lists and list-making so much that there’s no better way for me to brush away the cobwebs and get into 2014 than to look back, briefly, at 2013 and praise my favourite reads of the past year. Confining this list to just a top-5 is a wise choice, I think. Despite enjoying a wide variety of reading experiences in 2013, it seems prudent to me to only highlight the best-of-the-best and not belabour the exercise.
So, here are my top-5 favourite reads of 2013, listed in reverse order of importance. I strayed from the genre path only once in this list, but couldn’t help myself. Feel free to throw any of your favourite books, stories or comics of last year into a comment at the end.
5. Omega the Unknown, Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple
I read a lot of great comics in 2013. Some of the best were: Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, an epic SF and fantasy backdrop for realistically human drama; The One Trick Rip-Off by Paul Pope, a hip urban love story wrapped in cyberpunk; and Prophet by Brandon Graham et al, which re-imagines a boneheaded superhero character from the 1980s as a Moebius/Druillet/Eurotrash-style, galaxy-spanning space opera.
In hindsight, the first comic I finished last January established a theme that unites all of the comics I really loved this past year. Omega the Unknown, by Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple is an almost perfect synthesis of indie-comic sensibilities and superheros. There seems to be a current trend in comics for creators to revisit and build upon their influences in unique ways—reinterpreting science fiction and superhero tropes (or power chords per the genius of Rudy Rucker) though the filter of indie and underground comics aesthetics.
Omega strikes a delicate balance between honouring the intention of a superhero comic in terms of engaging action and colourful characters, while simultaneously deconstructing superheros for the 21st Century. But rather than retread the over-familiar territory of something like Watchmen, Omega‘s deconstructions make us contemplate the outsider status of the comic fan of the past, the relationship between comic reader and superhero character, and the the all-consuming commercial juggernaut that is the superhero today. Lethem and Dalrymple achieve this balance in intriguing ways: an protagonist whose alien bearing is interpreted as autism, a doppelganger/projection of the antagonist who is nominally the superhero but is mute and struggles to understand both his mission and the foreign milieu of New York City, and an antagonist, The Mink, who is a wildly popular “superhero” and media darling who is wracked with paranoia, narcissism and other disorders. Dalrymple is a particularly brilliant choice of artist, he realistically conveys emotions and movement through a slightly sketchy, cartoonish line that reminds the reader of the handmade quality of the work—reinforcing the factory feel of most current superhero product.
Omega even incorporates a brilliant comic-within-the-comic device, using the work of underground iconoclast Gary Panter to represent Omega’s attempts to communicate—essentially abetting Panter’s mission statement to infiltrate the mainstream using underground ideas.
Omega the Unknown is both comfortingly familiar as a superhero comic and yet challenges us to reexamine our assumptions about our relationship to superheros, something badly needed in an age of billion-dollar franchises. And it does all this using idiosyncratic and absorbing characters, situations and art.
4. The Drowned World, J. G. Ballard
The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard re-contextualizes both the distorted mirror-image of Heart of Darkness‘s Marlow and Kurtz, and the ennui of Fitzgerald’s decaying upper-class zombies, by placing these literary archetypes into a future world of utter societal collapse and ongoing environmental change.
The story follows Dr. Robert Kerans, a biologist and part of a generation who grew up post-apocalypse, exploring a flooded and largely abandoned London that has become an archipelago of decaying buildings amid a resurgence of Triassic-era jungle flora/fauna and rising tropical temperatures. Kerans is mesmerized by the devolving landscape and finds himself mentally embracing entropy. He longs to change along with the environment.
In this, his first novel, Ballard’s pet themes and personnel obsessions find expression in a traditional SF framework. As a child, Ballard and his family were ripped from the lap of British ex-pat luxury in a large home in Shanghai and dumped into a prison camp by the Japanese during WWII. Ballard was therefore intimately familiar with the psychology of disaster and as a student of the surrealists, he would explore the same themes over and over: regression, coping mechanisms, identity, sexual fetishism, technological fetishism and the relationship of the media to the spread of psychopathology.
The Drowned World is the near-perfect expression of our unspoken or unconscious ambivalence towards the inexorable march of entropy.
3. Consider the Oyster, M.F.K. Fisher
If you told me years ago that a book of essays devoted entirely to the oyster would be one of my top-five favourite reads in 2013, I would have laughed out loud. I love food, and even reading about food and cooking, but I eat oysters maybe twice a year, maybe. Any one essay in Consider the Oyster made me want to eat oysters again immediately—like I didn’t properly appreciate the last experience I had eating them.
Mary Frances’ prose is so casually elegant it seems effortless. But her razor-sharp mix of erudition and earthy passion speaks to a devotion to craft. Pick up any volume of her work and start with any essay and you’ll enjoy the same impeccably constructed writing again and again. She wants the reader to think and feel in a measure equal to herself.
It’s almost impossible to know someone from their writing, but MFK Fisher’s work has an immediacy and intimacy that deliberately encourages identification with both her intellectual curiosity and sensual retrospection.
2. The Passage, Justin Cronin
This book surprised me more than any other I read in 2013. I have a tendency to resist hype in an admittedly knee-jerk fashion, so the acclaim surrounding Justin Cronin’s The Passage, made me avoid it when it came out. The book only landed on my ‘to-read’ pile because I got a copy for fifty-cents in a library sale. Home sick one day, I hauled it out and promised myself I’d only read the first couple of chapters and then ditch it if I wasn’t sufficiently engaged. The better part of the day was gone before I looked up again.
Not only is The Passage an engrossing and satisfying read as a pure thriller, but it reveals surprising depths and rich prose styling the further you get into its massive length. The Passage is like a high-art makeover of Stephen King’s The Stand—taking similar end-of-the-world themes of contagion, social collapse and the struggle to sustain community, and extending those themes into a grander discussion about what really makes us human and binds us to one another—also vampires.
The plot turns on pivot points that take large leaps into a post-apocalyptic future, where attempts to maintain recognizable social constructs fail again and again. Cronin drags us through these massive story changes by making us identify with a character that seems less human at each leap, but somehow more humane.
Neither purely nihilistic nor unconvincingly optimistic (a la King’s opus) The Passage is a refreshingly new approach to both the apocalyptic and vampire sub-genres—each so well worn by now that a book as interesting as The Passage is wonderfully unlikely.
1. The Atrocity Exhibition, J.G. Ballard
Empire of the Sun is often thought of as the key to understanding Ballard’s work as it deals most directly with the childhood trauma he experienced interned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Shanghai during WWII. But I now think that the real Rosetta-stone text for Ballard is The Atrocity Exhibition.
The Atrocity Exhibition is one of the most challenging books I’ve ever stuck out to the end. It took me three tries to read it, but on the last attempt I went through most of it in a single sitting. It finally unlocked for me when I began to see the short chapters or sections—particularity in the early parts of the book—as analogous to gallery wall labels for an art show entitled “The Atrocity Exhibition” taking place in an asylum and showing works by the inmates. The edition I read contains a number of notes, written by Ballard much later, that almost constitute a fascinating separate book—a gloss on the original rather than explanations per se. One of his recommendations is to flip through the book and read pieces at random, which makes the gallery-like structure more apparent. However what worked for me was to flip through and read random pieces, as suggested, and then go back to the beginning and read it all the way through like a more conventional novel.
Atrocity contains most of the themes, obsessions and fetishes that run through all of Ballard’s work: a protagonist whose identity and name shifts scene-to-scene, doctors with obscure and often perverse motives (echoing Burroughs), car crashes as expressions of transformation and carnality, planes and pilots, clinical descriptions of medical procedures and sex blending into each other, celebrity worship as the ultimate pathology of the twentieth century, the psychology of disaster and decay both urban and biological, and often on a blurred line between the two.
What sets Atrocity apart from Ballard’s other books is that is seems to contain all his pet themes and presents them more directly than anything else he wrote, as it largely ignores conventional plotting and story-telling. The semi-experimental nature of the book allows him to lay out his mental and emotional clutter on the table in front of us—encouraging the reader to participate in an autopsy of Ballard’s subconscious. Atrocity even features lists generated through word-association games Ballard plays with himself as discrete “stories” or labels.
The odd thing is that if you described this book to me before, I’d probably tell you flat out that it wouldn’t be for me. I tend to favour conventional stories and plots. My reading tastes are usually pretty prosaic. But Atrocity works for me because of Ballard’s unusual approach to his experimental writing. Rather than wallow in stream-of-consciousness, the way a writer like Kerouac did, Ballard’s deliberately distant and cold approach to examining his own psyche is weirdly refreshing.
You feel like you’re sitting in a lecture-hall with Ballard himself watching films of doctors dissecting Ballard’s own brain while he says things like “that’s fascinating” at your elbow, chuckling. Reading The Atrocity Exhibition was a unique and unsettling experience that I’m thrilled I finally undertook, but let me be clear: most people I know would hate it.