Best books of 2019 #2
The story of books in 2019 starts with the story of our lives, which for the first time in history can be read like books, and, like books, they can also now be authored by other minds.
Identifying a mutant form of capitalism that thrives on “behavioural surplus” – the usable records of the things we do online, often mischaracterised as excess data when actually this data is the point – Shoshana Zuboff describes the way surveillance capitalism operates to “amplify inequality, intensify social hierarchy, exacerbate exclusion, usurp rights, and strip personal life of whatever it is that makes it personal for you or for me”.
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is perfect catnip for the paranoid reader, but I didn’t expect to be profoundly moved by Zuboff’s chronicle of this tragic erosion of rights, which has been painted as the inevitable consequence of technological development when it’s no more inevitable than it is produced and controlled by accident.
In 1988, Zuboff wrote In the Age of the Smart Machine, a precognitive classic of computation in the workplace. Here, she builds her record of our present time with a storyteller’s flair, a scholar’s rigour and a poet’s ear, with imagery that’s uncommonly bright for argumentative nonfiction, even bracingly weird: all this is “existential toothpaste”, she writes, “that, once liberated, cannot be squeezed back into the tube”.
Nell Zink, in the aughts, burned into literary existence by publishing novels known for their fleetness, raunch and mirthful approach to social mores that are often considered sacrosanct, especially around gender, sexuality and race. Mislaid, the best of these books, is gleefully offensive to the sensibilities of any reader who might come across it, but while most “provocative” novels are eye-rollingly macho, Zink’s provocations are done in such a spirit of wisdom, wit and even-handed fun that they quickly start to feel like essential truths of human character. Doxology is Zink’s take on contemporary urban social realism – think important, domestic-political novels about social change and family lives – and perhaps only Zink could invest this form with so much spiky brilliance.
Doxology narrates the changes figured on one American family from the 1980s to Trump by way of September 11, and does it all with rock-star style. It’s a Novel with a capital N, with such a full range of tonal effects that they keep undercutting themselves; it’s broad and specific, brittle and warm. It has a funny, unpredictable sort of movement that is restless but never ostentatious.
A literary event launched in summer 2018/19 is Six New Comics by Melbourne publisher Glom Press. Printed on Risograph machines by meticulous publishers Michael Hawkins and Marc Pearson, both wonderful artists in their own right, these six graphic narratives have totally energised discussions of Australian comics throughout the year.
Eloise Grills’ Sexy Female Murderesses is a rich and exacting literary essay, while Aaron Billings’ Mystical Boy Scout is kinetic, angry, bawdy storytelling. Mandy Ord’s Galápagos is an expressive memoir with strangeness in its depths, while Leonie Brialey’s Psychic Hotline is arrestingly smart, as well as being paced differently from anything else in comics. Rachel Ang’s Swimsuit is a precise study of communal spaces, blue lines and swoony interiority, while Bailey Sharp’s My Big Life is a masterpiece of compression with a hectic pace and a crisp voice. The qualities of Glom’s comics are both specific to their medium and determined to exceed it. The candy-coloured Riso inks are brilliant.
Best new talent
Bryan Washington, Lot
A short story collection about queer love, aloneness and community in Houston. Google the story “Waugh” to get a taste of Washington’s genius.
Ronan Farrow, Catch and Kill
Guilty because the Weinstein story feels so invasive, but also because Farrow turns its grimy details into a slick page-turner.
Margaret Atwood, The Testaments
A wholly enjoyable book that got needlessly caught up in the Booker Prize comedy of errors.
Philip Pullman, The Secret Commonwealth
Book two in the new trilogy mixes its metaphors and tests the reader’s patience. But a hundred bucks says it all comes together in book three.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 21, 2019 as "Best books of 2019 #2". Subscribe here.