READS OF THE YEAR 2016: Michael McGill
Joan Didion Salvador (Washington Square Press)
My Dad gave me a second-hand copy of this book a few years ago and it sat on my bookshelf getting dusty until earlier this year (the book that is, not my Dad). I absolutely love Joan Didion but I did struggle a bit with this one. A difficult read, I tended to go through Salvador in dribs and drabs on the tram going to work in the morning, or on the bus coming home. Joan Didion has a remarkable flair for making unfamiliar subjects completely riveting (read the section on human behaviour during storms in her Los Angeles Notebook and find yourself asking, ‘Why? Why didn’t Joan teach me Biology?’). But in Salvador, Didion’s narrative is almost overwhelmed by the devastation and carnage around her. The major triumph of this book lies instead in her portrayal of the constant sense of foreboding in early eighties El Salvador; a place where ‘any situation can turn to terror’.
I have lovely memories of being on holiday in February this year, and starting each morning with a cuppa, two Extremely Chocolatey Milk Chocolate Rounds from M&S and ten pages of Purity. Like all great literature I’ve read, I could only manage ten pages of this book at a time (I mean this as a compliment). A rich, complex, multi-layered novel, Purity uses contrasting character viewpoints and flashbacks to astonishing effect, creating a crazily convoluted narrative structure that would have even Emily Brontë reaching for the Alka-Seltzer. My favourite part of the book is the second, ninety-page section entitled ‘The Republic of Bad Taste’ which focuses on the self-destructive Andreas Wolf and his terminally fucked-up attitude towards women. I prefer Franzen’s previous novel Freedom – if only for the vivid piece of characterisation that is Patty Berglund (even as I type, I can see Patty and I can hear her). But Purity remains a stunning read.
In a startling piece of reportage which could now be re-titled Trump: That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore, Jon Ronson documents The Donald’s lethally successful flirtations with alt-right fascism. I found reading The Elephant in the Room an especially odd experience as I began reading it in the lead-up to the US election and finished it just after the shock result (although part of me now feels naive using the word ’shock’ here). For once, Ronson avoids using the phrase ‘There is a silence’ on every second page and instead compiles a chillingly prophetic piece of journalism, leaving the reader with these words: ‘The idea of Donald Trump…having power over us – that is terrifying.’ Perhaps the President-Elect will deny ever having had dealings with the dodgy creatures listed in The Elephant in the Room but Jon Ronson presents us with the facts. A truthful text for post-truthful times.