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COMPARED with the last few years, the crop of good radical fiction in 2017 was disappointing.
Maybe this is due to an unhappy coincidence across individual publishers’ lists, rather the results of a systemic decline. That said, my top fiction works for the year stand comparison with previous annual choices.
Nicolas Lalaguna’s Seven May Days shows how radical action detached from the wider working-class struggles is bound to fail.
Its protagonists Conor and Liam are idealistic anti-capitalists who run an egalitarian community centre whose activities, if not its existence, has caught the attention of both British and US secret services.
More central than either characters to the action, and more revealing of the clandestine and utterly amoral techniques of the deep state, is Conor’s girlfriend Emma.
Lalaguna is such an adroit and confident writer that he leaves the reader teetering on a dizzy tightrope and balanced between hope and expectation as to how and why Emma will make her next move as the book hurtles to its bloody conclusion.
In Mr Churchill’s Driver, first-time novelist Colin Farrington also deals with a world of illusions and uncertain identities.
Within a taut but flexible structure, the author recounts William Gilbey’s desperate quest to reconcile himself to his long-dead father, hanged as a convicted killer in the early 1960s, and to give some meaning and security to his otherwise troubled and fragmented life.
This combination of politically explosive material and vast wealth attracts the dubious attentions of Gilbey’s criminal masters – his “uncles” — along with the British state, in the guise of the clinically amoral MI5 and an Irish nationalist network.
As one chapter upends and distorts the previous one, the reader, like Gilbey, is constantly disabused of whatever assumptions he or she has made.
Distortion lies too at the very heart of Giuseppe Cafiero’s absurdist account of the life and works of Gustave Flaubert. The Ambiguity of Imagination is a delight, even for those unfamiliar with the French novelist’s literary output.
The author achieves this through the partial recollections of those close to him and, absurdly, his characters, especially the minor ones or those who appear in his unfinished works.
One of these, Harel Bey, blind and seeking revenge for his unfinished and undistinguished treatment by Flaubert, is the reader’s main guide through the literary and real-life havoc wreaked by “Monsieur Gustave.”
Thus Flaubert’s sexual fantasies, drink problems and revelries of death are expressed through the seedy traveller Madame La Chanteuse on the Deauville-to-Paris train and the necrophiliac undertaker Monsieur Leger.
A very effective way of explaining a complex and fraught life.
Alain Mabanckou’s latest novel Black Moses recalls the younger, less bloated style of Salman Rushdie. The protagonist carries in his expanded moniker – “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors” — not just the burden of the expectations of Papa Moupelo, the orphanage priest who so named him.
He also personifies a whole country still struggling to throw off its colonial past, overcome divisive tribal rivalries and deliver true national self-determination and liberation.
His name becomes an increasingly ironic one, as Moses is clearly not a leader, just one of many people struggling to get by.
Moses retreats to tending his garden, but, inevitably, his earlier life experiences catch up with him and he suffers a massive and disturbing mental breakdown, losing both his hold on reality and his memory.
Finally, that prophet of the algorithm Stephen Oram published yet another look as to how technology may determine the ways in which societies and individuals are structured in the years to come.
Eating Robots is a fizzingly inventive collection of nearly three dozen short stories in which the author creates more tension in the reader’s mind in a few paragraphs than most manage in a whole novel, with some of the stories only a few tantalising sentences in length.
If there is one overriding theme linking these explosions of imagination, it is that the ever-closer convergence between humanity and AI will have possible outcomes undreamt of by today’s technologists.
Oram, the least didactic writer around, is too original a writer to construct a series of dystopian visions alone. There's a lot of dark if not ironic humour embedded in these stories.
He unblinkingly presents us with possible scenarios without explicitly suggesting the rightness or wrongness of each and, in the process, asking us to question whether these are desirable or unforgivably corrupt futures.
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