How Utopia may grow from Coal Black Suburbia

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”.

Coal Black Mornings (English Edition) eBook : Anderson, Brett:  Kindle Store

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.

Ninety-Nine More Novels

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.

Ninety-nine Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 - A Personal Choice -  Burgess, Anthony - Libri -
A Personal Choice.

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.

It’s certainly open to critique and has inspired much comment over the years. You should read it. Alternatively, you should consult the International Anthony Burgess Foundation’s website, where they are celebrating this book with a series of podcasts. If you’re REALLY stuck for time, Adam Roberts has an excellent summary of the book’s merits (and faults) here.

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

Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell

2021 – Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro