The idiocy of the powerful
Brannavan Gnanalingam on the books he read in 2022
This year I released my seventh novel, Slow Down, You’re Here. The book was a horror novel, although Lawrence & Gibson adopted the marketing tactics of Hitchcock’s Psycho in not revealing anything about the book’s actual subject. But I can say this much: the book is about the fraught nature of pleasure in a world where things are increasingly becoming scarce.
It was fun to research too: I read a lot of horror. The main narrative inspiration was Stephen King’s Misery. The way King uses digression / parallel narratives to ramp up tension was masterly. It allowed the structure to do the opposite of the narrative, where pleasure is displaced. The reader doesn’t get what they want, and instead have to slog through a terrible romance novel, also knowing that the ‘success’ of the terrible romance novel is what is keeping Paul Sheldon alive. I also read two of the most horrifying and rigorous stories about thwarted pleasure—Gabrielle Wittkop’s The Necrophiliac and Taeko Kono’s Toddler Hunting. I read a number of horror / thriller books with a common theme (which will make sense if you read my book): Junji Ito’s graphic novel Uzumaki, Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, Roland Topor’s The Tenant, Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright, and Charity Norman’s The Secrets of Strangers.
I was lucky enough to release my book with my friend and comrade at Lawrence & Gibson, Murdoch Stephens. Murdoch was the founder of Lawrence & Gibson, and I would not be a writer without him. Murdoch is also a very talented writer—intellectual without being pretentious, hilarious without being glib. His books have always featured a kind of romantic or emotional longing, and with Down from Upland, also published this year, he manages to build a poignant and hilarious account of people trying to find themselves and not realising their shortcomings along the way.
One advantage of releasing a book early in the year was that I could spend the rest of the year treating my brain as ‘fallow’ ground—I read for pleasure with no obligation to write.
There have been some fantastic books from Aotearoa this year. My favourite was Colleen Maria Lenihan’s Kōhine. The collection of short stories is just beautiful—all shimmering surfaces and mirrors and reflections, which belie the overwhelming central sadness that underpins the collection. On the back of 2021’s best local book, Whiti Hereaka’s Kurangaituku, Huia is definitely on a roll. I also loved Maria Samuela’s short story collection Beats of the Pa’u, which demonstrated such care and love for her characters. Many make mistakes but they’re just trying to survive and get by—it’s a gorgeous collection.
I thought Coco Solid’s debut novel How to Loiter in a Turf War was brilliant: it was funny and captured the messy drift of being young while the world around changes dramatically. I also thoroughly enjoyed Anthony Lapwood’s Home Theatre (an intelligent and often surprising collection), Sascha Stronach’s The Dawnhounds (masterly world building), and Rijula Das’ Small Deaths (a powerful novel about India’s various fault lines). In non-fiction, my favourites were Noelle McCarthy’s Grand, a beautiful account of a mother/daughter relationship, and Lana Lopesi’s thought-provoking essay collection Bloody Woman.
My favourite poetry was Khadro Mohamed’s luminous We’re All Made of Lightning and Anahera Gildea’s incendiary Sedition from new publishing kids on the block, We Are Babies Press and Taraheke respectively. I also caught up with a couple of brilliant NZ books I’d missed from previous years—Sam Te Kani’s Please, Call Me Jesus and Rupa Maitra’s Prophecies.
Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida was my favourite international novel. It was a brutal and caustic account of the chaos of the Sri Lankan Civil War. I was chuffed that it won the Booker Prize and—in keeping with the idiocy of the powerful depicted in the book—it was hilarious to see the very people mocked by the book celebrate the international triumph. With Anuk Arudpragasam’s shortlisted (and magnificent) A Passage North and Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand (the latter on my summer reading list), perhaps people are finally starting to realise that the region with the most English speakers in the world have books worthy of being published and read more widely.
I also loved Diego Garcia by Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams: it’s an example of how the political novel is a genuinely vital form of writing. It is a manifesto as to how to tell a tale about the ‘other’ through collaboration. It is also a mockery of certain critics who say that literature is in peril, or that self-censorship is ‘killing’ creativity. People will always find a way, provided they’re not lazy.
This year I was fortunate to interview a number of amazing writers, which allowed me to dive deep into their back catalogues: Val McDermid, Michael Robotham, JP Pomare, Shehan Karunatilaka, and Nobel Laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah. In hindsight, I have no idea how I managed to yarn with such an eclectic and dazzling array of writers. Gurnah’s books were a real revelation in terms of writing about the movement of peoples and history. McDermid, Robotham, and Pomare are simply masters of narrative.
Because reading doesn’t have to privilege the new, I’ve loved being able to fill in some gaps. I read a few 19th century novels that were new to me—Dostoevsky’s Demons, Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet, and Jane Austen’s Persuasion. One of my other great passions featured heavily in my reading this year, as I continue my plan of reading the entirety of the Heinemann African Series: I read Bessie Head, Rebeka Njau, Neshani Andreas, and Binwell Sinyangwe. I’m also a big fan of the New Narrative movement and the assorted works published by Semiotext(e). I share a similar ethos of privileging ‘flat’ writing that deliberately tries to avoid drawing attention to itself. I really enjoyed Kevin Killian’s and Fanny Howe’s writing, in particular.
I’m looking forward to making a dent in my TBR pile this summer. I have Geetanjali Shree, Mahasweta Devi, Dambudzo Marechera, Ferdinand Oyono, and Octavia Butler all staring back at me, waiting for the long summer evenings.