The best band of the Britpop era was not Blur or Oasis, nor even Pulp, but Suede.
(Shout outs to Ash, Echobelly, Sleeper and Gene too.)
So it’s been interesting reading Brett Anderson’s brief memoir, Coal Black Mornings, of the period up to the point where he became famous and his story devolves into, as he put it, “the usual ‘coke and gold discs’ memoir”.
Comparing it to David Mitchell’s novel Utopia Avenue, which features a fictional band from the Sixties, it’s interesting to see the many overlaps. The early sections of Utopia Avenue are easily the most interesting.
Both are tales of three-bar fires, poky terrace houses, distant parents, and the edgy tedium of suburbia, all opening up into a London which is equated to liberty, albeit a grimy, pot-infused, impoverished kind of freedom.
The conclusion of Mitchell’s novel, bar one not-especially-shocking twist, devolves to the same hotel rooms, drugs and hangers-on narrative one can find in any rock or pop memoir. One suspects Mitchell had nowhere else to go.
One also wonders whence he derived where the novel came from. Anderson’s origins are far from unique (mine shares many of the same attributes, albeit with the added frisson of a low-level civil war going on at the edge of the stage). But I wonder whether Mitchell read Anderson’s book before completing his own?
More memoirists should consider Anderson’s approach rather than speeding through their childhoods to get to the fame bits. Fame is boring and monotonous, and judging by the opinions of the occasional famous person I’ve met, somewhat of a trap and a burden. We are made by our youth and it is there where we may be found.
Thanks to the success of this first volume, Anderson wrote a follow-up about his fame years. It gets pretty good reviews, but as with the latter portion of Mitchell’s novel, I suspect it might disappoint, so I intend to leave his story hanging, perpetually suspended on the brink of success.
Last week, I was asked to produce my own list of Ninety Nine Novels that I might recommend to others. The criteria were that the books must have been published in the past 38 years and be available to read in English. It’s an odd request, but didn’t sound odd to me. Allow me to contextualise.
In the early 1980s, Anthony Burgess was commissioned to write a book of book recommendations. He was well placed to do it, as a prominent international author himself, as well as a prolific reviewer of fiction since the 1960s. Lore tells us that he wrote the book in a mere three weeks. By contrast it has taken me three days just to produce my own list which takes us from where Burgess left off – that resonant year 1984 – to the present.
Burgess’s list covered 45 years, whereas mine covers a little less, of necessity. I can’t predict the future of the next seven years of publishing. Also, where Burgess appended excellent mini-essays on each text, I have spared you the tedium of my pontifications, though I am happy to elaborate briefly on my choices if there are any queries.
Burgess’s book, a compendium of these mini-essays, is therefore a deft and succinct potted history of Anglophone literature’s greatest hits from the war and post-war period of the 20th century, as he saw it. Ninety Nine Novels is a fascinating list in itself, and I don’t intend to comment on or critique it at all.
What were Burgess’s criteria? That they be a) novels, b) published between 1939 and 1983, and c) concerned with what he called ‘human character’. It is, as he wrote in the introduction to Ninety Nine Novels, “the Godlike task of the novelist to create human beings whom we accept as living creatures filled with complexities and armed with free will.” I have ignored his proscription against ‘comic strips’, which he himself in agreement with the critic Leslie Fiedler, felt was already an outdated exclusion in the Eighties.
Finally, he argues that novels should “leave in the reader’s mind a sort of philosophical residue.” Whether he intended that to be as didactic as it sounds is unclear, but it has been the guiding principle in selecting these books. They are therefore novels which I have read, which feature superbly drawn characters, and which have haunted my thoughts afterwards.
Hence, they’re subject to the whims and prejudices of someone of my age, gender, class and race, raised in the place I grew up and educated in the way I was, and circumscribed by which books were available for me to encounter. There’s probably a lot of Irish fiction here. I’m Irish. There’s probably quite a lot of science fiction too. Well, I study it for a living. If there’s an especial density of texts from the late 90s, that’s probably because I was having to read umpteen novels a week as the Books Correspondent for Dublin’s Sunday Independent at the time.
You will likely disagree, and have your own list. And so you should. There are many astonishing books missing from this list, I agree. There are some choices you might find baffling. I can only reiterate how Burgess concluded his introduction to Ninety Nine Novels: “If you disagree violently with some of my choices I shall be pleased. We arrive at values only through dialectic.”
1984 – Neuromancer – William Gibson
The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera
Empire of the Sun – JG Ballard
1985 – Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Oranges are Not the Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson
Perfume – Patrick Suskind
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Attwood
1986 – Watchmen – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
The Old Devils – Kingsley Amis
The Light Fantastic – Terry Pratchett
1987 – Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams
The Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe
Beloved – Toni Morrison
1988 – Foucault’s Pendulum – Umberto Eco
The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie
Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel – Milorad Pavić
1989 – Ripley Bogle – Robert McLiam Wilson
London Fields – Martin Amis
Billy Bathgate – E.L. Doctorow
And the Ass Saw the Angel – Nick Cave
1990 – Amongst Women – John McGahern
Vineland – Thomas Pynchon
Use of Weapons – Iain M. Banks
LA Confidential – James Ellroy
The Buddha of Suburbia – Hanif Kureishi
1991 – American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis
The Famished Road – Ben Okri
Maus – Art Spiegelman
1992 – Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson
Red Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson
Fatherland – Robert Harris
1993 – The Shipping News – Annie Proulx
A Dead Man in Deptford – Anthony Burgess
Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh
1994 – How Late It Was, How Late – James Kelman
Dead Lagoon – Michael Dibdin
1995 – Independence Day – Richard Ford
1996 – Fight Club – Chuck Pahlaniuk
Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace
The Tailor of Panama – John Le Carre
Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
1997 – The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
Mason & Dixon – Thomas Pynchon
Enduring Love – Ian McEwan
Quarantine – Jim Crace
Underworld – Don DeLillo
1998 – My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk
The Catastrophist – Ronan Bennett
1999 – Q – Luther Blissett
Ghostwritten – David Mitchell
Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Lethem
2000 – Atomised – Michel Houellebecq
White Teeth – Zadie Smith
Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi
Perdido Street Station – China Mieville
2001 – The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde
The Constant Gardener – John Le Carre
The Other Wind – Ursula K. Le Guin
2002 – Any Human Heart – William Boyd
Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer
2003 – Millennium People – JG Ballard
Brick Lane – Monica Ali
2004 – River of Gods – Ian McDonald
Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke
2005 – Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson
2006 – The Road – Cormac McCarthy
The Book of Dave – Will Self
2007 – On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon
2008 – Bad Day in Blackrock – Kevin Power
Bog Child – Siobhan Dowd
2009 – 1Q84 – Haruki Murakami
Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel
2010 – Room – Emma Donohue
Suicide – Édouard Levé
2011 – 11/22/63 – Stephen King
My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante
2012 – Capital – John Lanchester
2013 – Journalists – Sergei Aman
City of Bohane – Kevin Barry
2014 – Annihilation – Jeff VanderMeer
The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell
The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu
2015 – Seveneves – Neal Stephenson
2016 – The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead
The Association of Small Bombs – Karan Mahajan
Central Station – Lavie Tidhar
2017 – Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders
2084: The End of the World – Boualem Sansai
2018 – Circe – Madeleine Miller
Milkman – Anna Burns
The Black Prince – Adam Roberts
2019 – This is How You Lose the Time War – Amal El-Mohtar
2020 – The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again – M. John Harrison