Thus I have compiled a brief and mostly uninformative list of some I liked and learned from. And also a few book covers:
1: WHITE TEETH
Nearly finished. An epic and incredible debut from super star British novelist Zadie Smith, written when she was in her early 20's. Fuck me - how can she possibly be so brave, inventive, intelligent, witty, confident and knowledgeable to have written this? I'm not even going to go in to the plot, because it basically encompasses everything that has happened in and to do with Britain over the past 200 years. Abso-fucking-brilliant.
Career path: super successful novelist and broadcaster. And she deserves it. She's really good. But as a writer, she scares the crap out of me.
2: PIGEON ENGLISH
Recently one of the three first novels to be short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2011, Pigeon English is a startling debut with an original and endearing voice and heart. Told through the eyes of 11 year old Harrison Opoku, a kid who has recently moved from Ghana with his mother to the ninth floor of a block of inner city flats in London, I was pretty much gripped from the start. When a local kid is killed in gang warfare, Harri decides to investigate. But in doing so he begins to endanger himself and his mother despite her best efforts to protect him in their precarious position in a rough new society. Please don't tell me how it ends. I already love it so much. I particularly love that Stephen Kelman has utilised first person narration in order to tell us something about that very narrator - unlike some first novels, COUGH! Remainder by Tom McCarthy. Mother-licking, stupid-rambling, pointless use of narrative voice writers...
Career path: overcoming the fear that the second novel won't be as good. I'm sure it will, mate (although, of course, the responsibility lies with you. So no pressure).
3: BONJOUR TRISTESSE
Francoise Sagan wins the prize for the best first novel written by a teenager. Or just any novel written by a teenager. What the hell was I doing when she was writing this? Probably drunk in a car park somewhere singing a mixture of Sum 41 and Britney Spears songs.... Published when Sagan was like 18 or something, Bonjour Tristesse chats on about an adolescent girl in the south of France whose dad has a lot of sex without consequence and (of course) the inevitable consequences of this. Cutting and insightful with is brevity of prosaic style and sharp observations of human relationships and frailties, this novella might make you want to run down to a beach in high wasted slacks and have it off with some Parisian floozie. It was a controversial hit when it was first published in 1954 and it still retains its truth today. I love this book.
Career path: After dropping out of her studies at the Sorbonne to write this, Sagan went on to write many other novels, plays and short stories, all primarily about disillusioned Bourgeois characters. I wonder where she got her inspiration from?? She died in 2004 a very successful writer.
4: DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON
This is by far my favourite Orwell novel. And I've read a few. Obviously the Big Two. But this I prefer. Perhaps because the other two are pretty much enduringly ubiquitous in our culture still ('THIS IS DAVINA! PLEASE DO NOT SWEAR!'). Basically, George goes mad for poverty and wanders around these two cities hanging out with tramps and the under-paid in search of the true dichotomy of society's strata. He was trying to teach himself to write with this book and this alone should be of interest to any young writers. He was also like, freaking young, early 20's again. Freaking genius literary kids. His famous no nonsense style is evident here and it is probably still as interesting and (almost) as relevant today. Go on, put down 1984 and give it a try.
Career path: basically transformed the way we think about society, the world, the individual verses the collective (Kafka-style!), politics, memory, privacy - AND PHONE HACKING??
5: THE CATCHER IN THE RYE
You know the drill: rich kid is pissed off and runs away from private school to New York and pisses off friends and strangers, usually while drunk, before ending up in some kind of youth rehabilitative home. Shit - SPOILER ALERT! That's the plot, but the beauty is in the insightful use of first person narration to explore the way teenage Holden just doesn't get it, and continues to act like a capricious little shit to everyone he loves, excepting his sister, who he keeps insisting to the reader, that we will like. Many people hate it because they read it when they were teenagers and, I suspect, felt it cut too close to the bone. I however, read it last year, and love it for its honesty.
Career path: Wrote some other novels that were nowhere near as successful. Keep meaning to read them, like everybody else.
Been there, read that. Now if only I could get the T-shirt...
Image courtesy of Doing It For The Thrill.