This isn’t a best of list so much as a list of texts and experiences that are still with me at the end of the year. I've linked to the entries if I've discussed the text in this space; if not, I've provided the easiest way to get to it.
A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James. This novel could also be called A Field Guide to Jamaican Cursing. Pretty much everyone in James’ long and uneven novel wants to kill somebody. The characters voice their threats and gripes in dense Jamaican dialect. I usually find dialect narratives to be tedious to read, but once you figure out the speech patterns and decode the colorful curse words (I liked “fuckery” in particular), the action really comes alive. James is as good as anyone writing now in creating distinct characters through voice. The first two-thirds of the novel, which relates the events surrounding the assassination attempt on Bob Marley in 1976, is better than the last third, when a new set of somewhat lackluster characters is introduced and the novel loses its focus and energy. James’ novel is the most original I’ve read from a major publisher in a long time.
My Struggle: Book 1, Karl Ove Knausgaard. Opinion about Knausgaard’s six-volume project is divided, to say the least. His story is a lot of the same thing, yet the novel works. Knausgaard is a sort of miserablist Proust. He remembers every beer he’s consumed since the age of twelve. There’s a theory–initiated by Sartre, I think–that says art advances by incorporating new kinds of experiences into itself. Knausgaard has us watch his hero wash dishes, walk to the drug store, and prepare instant coffee. It’s all weirdly fascinating, like watching a bedraggled Scandinavian family living in an Ikea store display. Knausgaard is overconfident about his skills as a writer, yet that’s precisely what makes the novel work. He believes in his material so deeply he's willing to stumble over his own awkward sentences to push it forward. My first thought after completing book one was, that was amazing. My second thought: Oh no, there are five more books of this stuff.
Redeployment, Phil Klay. It’ll be interesting to see what Klay does next. Will he move on to other subjects and settings? His mastery over his small but highly fraught world of US Marines in Iraq is so complete it’s hard to imagine him working with any other material.
Boyhood, Richard Linklater. Linklater’s big gamble is paying off in end of the year awards, which it richly deserves even if the attention is spoiling the film’s outsider vibe. I haven’t been astonished by a film to this degree since I was a graduate student in film studies, plowing through the backlog of great world cinema.
Ida, Pawel Pawlikowski. This film sprang out of nowhere during a Netflix session one Saturday night last month. Pawlikowski shoots it in an austere, precisely framed style, like Ingmar Bergman without the melodrama simmering beneath the surface. Agata Trzebuchowska plays the title character in a beatific deadpan. Agata Kulesza plays the aunt determined to disrupt Ida’s peace of mind. They trundle around Communist-era Poland in an incredibly flimsy car digging up secrets from the past. It’s hard to describe the film without making it seem slow and depressing—what could be drearier than the Holocaust and the Iron Curtain together in the same film? Actually, it’s very much the opposite of that.
Middlemarch, George Eliot. I’ll dispense with the excuses about my I’m only now getting around to reading it all the way through. Suffice it to say I was too young to read it before. Virginia Woolf once said Middlemarch was the only novel ever written for adults, and she’s right. Eliot begins where ordinary novels of the period would end: with a betrothal. Dorothea Brooke is young and smart, but this is England in 1832, so her prospects for happiness are narrow. To make matters worse, she seems to court misery by marrying Edward Casaubon, the most tedious man in England. (The marriage was supposedly based on a couple Eliot knew.) The novel follows Dorothea and her fellow villagers as they try to extricate themselves from their own bad choices. It’s a great novel, maybe the greatest English novel of the century. The distance between our time and 1869, when Eliot started composing the novel, can be measured in her starchy tone and occasionally lugubrious sentence structure. She's not humorless, though, and the novel gains power as you get caught up in the power of Eliot’s depiction of sensitive, intelligent people trying to right their lives.
Luftwerk show at Marina City. This was a slow year for architecture in Chicago. Plans for new projects have been announced—some interesting, others worrisome—but I didn't see any built projects worth mentioning. However, one pleasant night in August Iker Gil and MAS Context hosted a show staged by Luftwerk on the roof deck of Marina City. It was a great example of how architecture can frame an experience and change how you see the familiar. Speaking of MAS Context, check out the latest issue, ORDINARY. The highlights are an essay by Deborah Fausch, a project by Michael Hirschbichler, and a look at the Dingbats of Los Angeles by Joshua G. Stein. And Ordinary Architecture, a partnership of Elly Ward and Charles Holland, taught me “shonky,” an actual word.
Derrida: A Biography, Benoit Peeters. Does anyone still read Jacques Derrida? Probably not. Nevertheless, his central idea has become a verb in common parlance. Derrida would be horrified to hear people use the term “deconstruct” to apply to everything from a skyscraper to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He was famous (or notorious) for resisting all summaries and simplifications of his work. Reading his biography I could better understand why. Derrida was an extremely hard worker. His dense, difficult prose was the product of intense and nuanced intellectual labor. When he left his desk Derrida was a generous and, occasionally, insufferable man. By his own admission he was a poor father. He was a serial adulterer. He picked more fights with colleagues than he needed to. Like a lot of philosophers, he didn’t live the most eventful life. If you read Peeters’ biography, be prepared for a lot of conferences. Whatever your opinion of Derrida’s philosophy, he must be recognized as one of the keenest minds of the twentieth century.
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson. The best film Anderson has made so far, it’s replete with off-the-wall period details like the coat check chit handed to a passenger after his cat was flung from the train. (Such Old World manners!) The plot isn’t worth summarizing; it’s really a vehicle for Anderson to link actions in amusing ways. Anderson keeps his customary whimsy at bay under the sobering influences of Stefan Zweig and Ernst Lubitsch. Ralph Fiennes is uncharacteristically sprightly as the busybody concierge, M. Gustave. The lobby boy Zero is exactly the kind of small canvas character Anderson excels in creating. With the exception of Bottle Rocket, the worlds of Anderson’s films are generally sealed off places where everyone speaks in the same punchy ironies. In this film you get the sense that just beyond the hills in Anderson’s imaginary Republic of Zubrowka some really awful things are happening.
David Bowie Is, Museum of Contemporary Arts, Chicago. The last days of this remarkable exhibition are at hand, so go revisit a time when it seemed like rock and roll really would never die.