Books

Cher Tan
Best books of 2020

It has been said so many times that it’s almost considered a banality. 2020 was A Year, one that saw societal inequalities further magnified. No thanks, of course, to the elite who carried on business as usual, and who own many of the tools we use today to make our lives more connected and more convenient. As many people sit refreshing the apps made by start-ups looking to make a killing, the question undoubtedly arises: Is there a way out? Wendy Liu’s memoir, Abolish Silicon Valley (Repeater, 244pp, $25.99), attempts to push these exigencies closer to the fore, tracking her metamorphosis from bushy-tailed-and-bright-eyed coder to disillusioned tech worker. What distinguishes this from the tepid exposés that threaten to oversaturate this genre is its clear-eyed self-reflexivity: with Liu not taking even one moment to indulge in fatuous hand-wringing, her complicity does not stop at her admission. Instead, she presents an earnest insider account that not only eviscerates Silicon Valley’s aggressive hunger for power, but also scrutinises the myriad inconsistencies that capitalism engenders, such as the myth of meritocracy, the insistence on assimilation, and the unfettered fetish for “progress”.

Perhaps it is through absurdism that real-life absurdities are most effectively represented. Smart Ovens for Lonely People (Brio, 320pp, $29.99), Elizabeth Tan’s collection of short stories, uses wry humour and cheeky irreverence to highlight tacit cultural anxieties. As with her equally spectacular debut, Rubik, Tan proves herself to be a dexterous storyteller with an acute eye for the uncanny. Here, ASMR is a competitive sport, and a posse of wraith-like creatures serve as entertainment in a restaurant aquarium. The titular story sees a young woman strike up a tentative familiarity with a cat-shaped smart oven after a suicide attempt. Existential tensions – as wrung through the affective devices and machinations that keep intact the trappings of neoliberal society – are prodded at and pulled apart like modelling clay in Tan’s stories. The result is a non-didactic melange that is at once mischievous and deadly serious.

While the past few years have produced stunning debuts that strive to identify and skewer the contemporary malaise, Raven Leilani’s Luster (Picador, 240pp, $32.99) could very well be the best of the lot. It could even be considered a literary rendition of a post-2010 television show – one such as I May Destroy You or Tuca & Bertie – which exercises a mode of kaleidoscopic storytelling to comment on the moral standards that society deems sacrosanct. Told in the voice of Edie – a jaded publishing assistant turned gig economy worker who finds herself involved with older, married fuckboy Eric, later accidentally inserting herself into his domestic life and becoming the unwitting mentor figure for his adopted Black child Akila – this is a novel of understated drama. Artful metaphors abound: a cul-de-sac is a “lazy tenor”, an amusement park evokes the “rococo trappings of childhood”, someone wakes up “like a grim little computer”. Leilani does not waste a single word, harnessing tableaux that spiral through vertiginous prose and a remarkable interiority to bring out the silent violences people inflict on each other, and the ineluctable, discordant dynamics that spawn from race and class differences. But Edie is not empowered, nor is she suffering – even in her most broken moments there is a sense that Leilani wants to evade the binaristic tendencies that make up many women-of-colour characters. To be human, as the author herself recently said in an interview, is to be unruly, and Luster captures a recalcitrance that gives that wonderful admixture of imagination and reality much more room to collide.

Best new talent

S.L. Lim, Revenge

Lim is excellent at identifying prescribed taboos and grey areas in postmodern society, and rendering them with discomforting precision. A writer to watch.

Guilty pleasure

Rob Halford, Confess

Music and sports autobiographies are often good barometers of the psyches of people pre- and post-fame. Here, the “Breaking the Law” metal god and leather daddy bares all, telling it as it is.

Most overrated

Charlie Kaufman, Antkind

The Synecdoche, New York director pivots to literature, except this time it is just himself sans actors. Maybe stick to making films; we don’t need another Irvine Welsh, now.

Most disappointing

Ottessa Moshfegh, Death in Her Hands

Like Haruki Murakami and Stephen King, Moshfegh is starting to follow a formula. There is only so much self-interested ennui that can propel a story.

Cher Tan

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 19, 2020 as "Best books of 2020 #2".

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Reviewer: Cher Tan