Magazine article The Spectator

Recent First Novels

Magazine article The Spectator

Recent First Novels

Article excerpt

Recent first novels

In 1991, A.S. Byatt wrote an introduction to a reissue of her first novel, The Shadow of the Sun (1964), in which she recalls that she had:

the eternal first novelist's problem . . . I didn't want to write a 'me-novel' [but] I didn't know anything - about life, at least.

Highly autobiographical first novels are still out of fashion and even budding writers are expected to cast their eye away from themselves. And yet in our culture of instant gratification and celebrity, a writer's reputation can depend almost exclusively on the critical reception of a first novel. The eternal problem today, it seems, is twofold: we expect first novels to be works of non-autobiographical genius well before a writer has had time to mature.

Cultivating one's skills in other genres is a good way to learn how to write a 'non-me' first novel, which is precisely what three formidable American writers have done. Dan Chaon's brilliant 2001 short-story collection, Among the Missing, was easily the best book to cross my path that year. With its focus on the complexities of family life, Chaon's stories showcased the way random acts of violence affect everyday domesticity. His first novel, You Remind Me of Me (John Murray, £10.99, pp. 368, ISBN 0719565405), shines a spotlight on hardworking, slightly marginalised Americans (the type who eat a lot of breakfast cereal), and revisits the intricacies of family structures and the terrain of inexplicable violence to weave an elongated narrative about two estranged half-brothers.

When Jonah is six, the gentle family dog unexpectedly attacks and deforms him. Years later, after his mother has committed suicide, Jonah goes off in search of his half-brother Troy, who was put up for adoption at birth. Troy is an archetypal Chaon character: a decent, working-class Nebraskan on parole for a minor drug offence and struggling to regain custody of his young son, Loomis. Desperate for a sense of his own purpose, Jonah attempts to forge a brotherly relationship with Troy with dire consequences.

Populated with weirdly intense, all-seeing children, make-shift families and alienated bachelors, it's a heartbreakingly beautiful look at the architecture of thwarted desire and the rampant destruction that minor incidents can wreak upon the seemingly most ordinary of lives.

A former playwright and the author of the highly acclaimed collection of short stories, I Am Not Jackson Pollock (2003), John Haskell's experimental novel, American Purgatorio (Canongate, £12. …

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