Whatever by Michel Houllebecq
Houllebecq is apparently a controversial author, and going by this book, the first I’ve read, it’s easy to see why. The central character veers between distant and amoral, humorous and cruel, unconventional and insane. Houllebecq takes us through various staples of modern life, work, and friendship with a cynical and cold gaze. At times this is funny, at other times disturbing. His character is not quite unrealistic enough for the laughter to be a relaxed kind of laughter; instead, his sociopathic tendencies ring uncomfortably close to “normal” mindsets. Houllebecq has a memorable voice, and it was hard not to warm to this novel, despite the darkness at its heart.
Mr Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt
Winston Churchill once famously described depression as a black dog, and in Mr Chartwell, Rebecca Hunt literalises the metaphor. The central character, recently widowed, decides to take on a new lodger, and it turns out to be a large black dog with pushy tendencies who starts to worm his way into her life. Her attempts to rejoin society and life are set against her new housemate and the weight of his presence. Meanwhile, we witness Churchill at the end of his own career, and his own confrontation with the talking dog, Black Pat. This is Hunt’s debut novel and it is a little rough around the edges; some of the dialogue between Esther and her coworkers for instance felt a little forced. But the author has a good understanding of depression and the idea of Black Pat as a literal encapsulation of its effect carries itself strongly through this book. An unusual and engaging book.
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
I went to see the musical of Doctor Zhivago earlier this year, and was curious to compare the book. It’s a really interesting book, epic in scope. While it’s not as lengthy as certain other Russian classics, it nevertheless travels across a large number of years and characters. In some ways it also reminded me of We Had it So Good, which I read earlier this year, in that the novel doesn’t attempt to capture every single part of the journey, or even necessarily the biggest moments. It is more about setting particular scenes, particular moments, amid the chaos of the whole, in their minutia. At times this makes the book a little frustrating; we drift away from the central characters, and along odd side trails. And when we are with the central characters, they do not behave the ways we expect them to. They will start dramatic speeches about how they feel only to drift off into irrelevant details, or become distracted by something else. In a way it feels kind of realistic, although it’s not by any means artifice free. Perhaps inspired by the chaos of the events that the novel is depicting, there is no real structure to events, no A-B-C to the plot, and no clear logic to the characters’ desires and relationships. At times this feels like the novel’s weakness, at other times its strength. Don’t pick it up expecting a tightly focussed love story. But if you are interested in a diffuse, messy depiction of people at a time of flux, full of small observations and believable idiosyncrasies, it’s worth a read.