In 2012, a slew of rock-star writers published disappointing novels, and a bunch of actual rock stars wrote crappy memoirs. There were some bright corners, but let’s begin with the aging rock stars. Time is not on their side.
Neil Young waged heavy bullshit in a memoir that spent all of a paragraph describing hanging out with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and the Manson family in favor of slinging hundreds of pages of PR copy about the new sound system Mr. Young invented. The masochist in me kind of liked this book, the same way I like the most pointless of Mr. Young’s guitar solos. Passages such as this are the prose equivalent:
A funny thing happened at Woodstock. I didn’t want cameras onstage distracting me while we were playing. I hated the showboating atmosphere that surrounded the filming and thought it distracted from our music. The music was between us and the audience, and anything that got in the way was taboo in my opinion…On the Woodstock record, Atlantic Records used a song of mine recorded months later at the Fillmore East in New York called “Sea of Madness.” That was kind of misleading.
Okay, grandpa. Thanks for lunch, but I really gotta get going now.
Pete Townshend turns out to be a better writer than ol’ shakey—he devotes quite of lot time in his book, Who I Am, to his career as an acquisitions editor at Faber & Faber, a job he took a few years after the death of Who drummer Keith Moon. It’s interesting, but not as interesting as, you know, getting into a fistfight onstage with Keith Moon or throwing televisions out of hotel windows, details that get shortchanged.
Of all the music memoirs this year, my favorite is the one by Rod Stewart, the hilariously-named Rod. Mr. Stewart positions himself as a stately, Evelyn Waugh-esque narrator. (The chapters all have headings like “In which our hero throws in his lot with the damaged remnants of the Small Faces and is reluctantly made alert to the perils of trying to run two careers at once. With sundry meditations on graffiti, Ronnie Wood’s hooter, and the wearing of velvet in hot rooms.”)
The worst book of the year—and possibly of the past several—is Say Nice Things About Detroit by Scott Lasser, an insulting and entirely misguided fictional account of my dear, troubled hometown that manages to make one of the most complicated and evocative places in the world about as interesting as a conference call.
The runner-up was Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie’s third-person memoir of the fatwa issued on him by Ayatollah Khomeini. I took less issue with the author—who lived under the titular pseudonym Joseph Anton during those threatening years—casually placing himself in a lineage with Conrad and Chekhov, as well as comparing his novel to Ulysses and Lolita, than I did with his numerous attacks, almost in the same breath, on the “majestic narcissism” of Padma Lakshmi, his fourth wife, whom he might as well just refer to as “dumb slut.” Mr. Rushdie uses the third person as if it protects him from the offhanded misogyny of his assaults, not to mention his own preposterous self-aggrandizing. There is also prose in the book that makes Top Chef look like Joyce:
His biggest problem, he thought in his most bitter moments, was that he wasn’t dead. If he were dead nobody in England would have to fuss about the cost of his security and whether or not he merited such special treatment for so long. He wouldn’t have to fight for the right to get on a plane … He wouldn’t have to talk to any more politicians (big advantage). His exile from India wouldn’t hurt. And the stress level would definitely be lower.
Yes, because the worst thing about having an international hit put on you is that it’s just so stressful.
A superior memoir is A Sense of Direction by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, which includes this description of Berlin: “Cigarettes marked off the time. For the few minutes one lasted, you knew exactly what you were doing: you were smoking that cigarette. When it was done, you would figure out what to do next, or you would just light another.”
Toni Morrison’s uneven novella Home, about an alcoholic veteran of the Korean War trying to rescue his sister from an evil eugenicist, felt both overwritten and unfinished; Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan’s humorless, entirely unsexy novel about Cold War-era British espionage, made Moonraker look smart; and Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her was like a teaser for better things to come.
Of the year’s failures, Zadie Smith’s novel NW was at least a very interesting one. Ms. Smith can make the description of a dumpy office feel dire: “Here offices are boxy cramped Victorian damp. Five people share them, the carpet is threadbare, the hole-punch will never be found.” But the novel is less a narrative than an unwelcoming environment to move around in at random. She bogs down her writing with a disruptive and schizophrenic style.
Speaking of interruptions, Laurent Binet’s HHhH was translated into English this year, and is nominally about Reinhard Heydrich—Hitler’s “Butcher of Prague”—but is much more about the difficulty of trying to write a novel about Reinhard Heydrich, including various William Gass-like digressions from the author himself.
A (slightly) less-tortured historical novel was Hilary Mantel’s very entertaining Bring Up the Bodies, about Thomas Cromwell.
Katherine Boo’s amazing reconstruction of life in an Annawadi slum beat out another of Robert Caro’s minute-to-minute biographies of LBJ for the nonfiction National Book Award. Louise Erdrich deservedly won the NBA for fiction with The Round House, her novel about a violent rape on an Ojibwe reservation, though the award felt like it was retroactively awarding a mostly consistent 25-year career. Let’s not even talk about how there was no Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Metafictional winks—for example, an author naming her protagonist after herself and her supporting cast after her friends—have always seemed dubious to me, so I picked up Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? with apprehension. The book stars Sheila Heti and seemingly includes transcripts of Ms. Heti’s conversations with her real-life friends, though that might be a fictional ruse. Ms. Heti is thoughtful in her exploration of the thin line between fiction and reality, especially in her examination of the ways in which the two bleed together.
Chris Kraus, an antecedent to Ms. Heti, also wrote a small masterpiece this year with a novel about the Los Angeles art world, Summer of Hate.
I can’t think of a better work of nonfiction in 2012 than Mark Binelli’s Detroit City is the Place to Be, an antidote to Scott Lasser’s atrocity. Nothing has come as close to realistically documenting the wackiness of contemporary Detroit. At one point, Mr. Binelli sneaks onto the set of the remake of the communists-are-coming smut movie Red Dawn, which was filmed at the author’s old high school. The city had been plastered with fictional propaganda posters that say things like YOU DESERVE TO BE HERE. Mr. Binelli overhears a crew member talking about how much he loved filming in Detroit: “We were setting off major explosions in the middle of downtown! Seriously, man, there’s nowhere else in the country they’d let you do something like this.”
It was a good year for poetry. Maureen N. McLane (full disclosure: a grad school professor of mine) wrote a brilliant poem-memoir that attempted to answer the question, “Why poetry?” (The answers range from “Poetry is connate with the origin of man” to “I have wasted my life.”) Having Louise Glück’s collected poems in a single volume is a gift. Michael Robbins published the most assured debut I’ve read in a long time. And any year John Ashbery publishes a book is A-okay with me, especially one with the lines, “No one expects life to be a single adventure,/yet conversely, one is surprised when it turns out disappointing.” Also, Frederick Seidel’s Nice Weather included some of the bleakest imagery of the year:
This is what it’s like at the end
of the day.
But soon the day will go away.
Sunlight preoccupies the cross
It and night soon will meet.
Meanwhile, there is Central
Now the park is getting dark.
Oh, and speaking of bleak, Fifty Shades of Grey saved publishing.