2011: a year in reading, elation, and heartbreak (part 2 of 3)

December 2012 is almost over, and it’s my last chance to finish this series on 2011 in review. Far too late, I know, but forgive me: I’ve been in the midst of a life intensely lived. Part 1 of this series was one of the most intensely appreciated of my posts from the year, and you’ll want to go back and read it if you missed it the first time around.

In this part:

  1. John Locke, Saving Rachel
  2. Stephen King, The Gunslinger
  3. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
  4. Osamu Dazai, No Longer Human
  5. George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

May: Peaks and valleys

Saving Rachel cover

On the heels of an ebook I had published, I turned to the work of another thriller writer: the self-published John Locke, who in 2011 joined the Kindle Million Club with his range of short novels priced at $0.99. I was keen to gauge their quality.

Let it first be said that I have a huge amount of admiration for Locke. Along with a small coterie of other ebook authors such as J. A. Konrath and Amanda Hocking (the latter ended 2011 something like more than USD 5 million up on the year before), Locke is busting open the doors of the literary establishment, destroying the notion that you need a publisher to be published, read, and even to become the certain kind of modestly rich that writers can become.

Saving Rachel

However–Saving Rachel (2009) is one of the most ridiculous books I’ve ever read. It is at turns fanciful, badly written, confusing, and poorly characterized. However, it’s also (mostly) readable, well-paced, and entertaining. It’s not my kind of book, but Locke has successfully entertained hundreds of thousands of people, and kudos to him for that.

The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower, book 1)

The Gunslinger cover

I then turned to The Gunslinger (Stephen King, 1982), the first book in the Dark Tower series. Unlike many authors at the very top of the sales and earnings charts, who are often good storytellers but poor stylists, Stephen King at his best is a truly excellent writer. The Gunslinger is one of those books that shows people the joy of reading and makes them book-lovers for a lifetime. The description of the slaughter at Tull is delicious in its horror, and the reminiscences on lost Gilead shine unexpectedly, a gem of bright fantasy in the post-apocalyptic desert.

June: Alice


Lolita cover

In late May I met a new friend, Alice, a Chinese girl with one of the deepest appreciations of literature I’ve ever seen. She encouraged me to revisit Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov, 1955) with the rather backhanded compliment of “you remind me of Humbert” (of the literariness, not the nymphet-loving). I’d abandoned the book years earlier in the midst of the section where Humbert and Lolita tour the US. It reads like a litany, and in spite of its brilliant wordplay, I stand by my original verdict that in that central section, Lolita loses pace. But this time I persisted, and though I think the book is overrated, Nabokov’s facility with the language is undeniable. It’s a feast for the lover of words, even if it often looks like the author is showboating. My favorite of the words I learned from him is “pavonine,” which for the unenlightened means “peacock-like.”

No Longer Human

Osamu Dazai, No Longer Human cover

Alice also had a look at the first chapters of an early version of Kiss Me, Genius Boy, then being redrafted for release of the first part of No More Dreams in serial form. She told me the protagonist, Joshua Rivers, reminded her of Yozo from No Longer Human (Osamu Dazai, 1948; trans. Donald Keene, 1958). A telling observation, as one of my biggest influences as a writer is Kenzaburo Ôe, who works in the same genre (the shishôsetsu or “I-novel” as Dazai did before him), and in a similar confessional, semi-autobiographical vein. Finished in June, this was the first of Dazai’s novels I’ve read. My only encounter with him before was the story “Merry Christmas,” which I read years ago while completing my Asian Studies major at university.

Yozo reminded me of Mersault from The Outsider: both are disconnected from life and from their ‘fellow’ humans. Both show an inability to feel or empathize with what they see as normal human emotion (although Yozo is entirely more sensitive). Both struggle with the problem of nihilism: that life means nothing.

You can read my more extensive review of No Longer Human here.

July: The show for nerds

A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones cover

2011’s big TV show for nerds was A Game of Thrones, based on George R. R. Martin’s book of the same name, the first volume of A Song of Ice and Fire. Following my usual practice, I insisted on reading the book first, and was floored. I haven’t been very excited about fantasy since the decline of David Eddings, Raymond Feist, and Robert Jordan during my late teens, but this! Character-driven, light on magic, unflinching and even wise when it comes to matters of sex and love… Martin makes most of his comrades in the world of fantasy look juvenile.

Oh, and the show’s pretty good, too. Just as in the book, Sansa annoys with her prissiness, Eddard with his self-righteousness. You cheer for Tyrion and Arya, and hate Joffrey with the burning passion of a thousand suns. Was there ever a more loathsome creature on television? I worry for actor Jack Gleeson that he may never overcome the stigma of playing the character. When I recognized his younger self in Batman Begins my immediate thought was “Joffrey! Kill him!” Every time I see that face I want to punch it. Poor guy. The strength of the reaction is testament to the power of Martin’s creation.

August: Oh-oh

Now the shit comes down. In my publishing business I’d loaded myself up with books I promised to edit for free in exchange for the electronic publishing rights, which for Australian works are, in my experience to date, essentially worthless. We’ve been lamentably slow in taking up ebooks here: market penetration for the Kindle and iBooks is something like one tenth of what it is in the US, where in 2011 ebooks overtook paperbacks to become the largest-selling book format.

Without these projects making me any money, I couldn’t reduce my daytime working hours to do them. And attempting to work on them after-hours (in addition to redrafting No More Dreams) meant I had essentially no free time. If I wasn’t with friends or with Emily, I worked morning, noon, and night. This is a pattern I’d followed for several years and it is, to an extent, the rhythm of my life–I like to make things and to learn things and that means ‘working’ more than most other people do.

At my day-job it was also a stressful year. We launched a new online property, ArchitectureAU, the team I managed increased in size from three to six, and we got sucked into the 24/7/365 world of internet publishing, which is, unfortunately, always on.

At some time in July, I was ready to crack. I’d sit in my lunchtime cafe with my hands in my hair like I was ready to tear it out, thinking–”I can’t do this anymore.” I fantasized about quitting everything and moving to Thailand for twelve months, and just about the only thing that stopped me was the thought: “what about Emily?” She’s the only girl I’ve known who I seriously contemplated settling down with: not as a far-off dream but as a present, practical possibility.

What seemed like a decision to leave the country or to commit to one woman forever put me under further stress, and at least in my own mind strained a relationship that had serious problems from the beginning.

All this put me in therapy, for the first time in my life. And no bad thing: it’s been a rewarding experience. I’ve discovered new things about myself, uncovered problems that I never recognized, and overall–I feel better. Particular thanks go to my dear friend Rebecca C., with whom I share the experience and some of the scars that go with having been marked as a “gifted kid.”

Please, nobody think of these as recriminations. Perhaps the most enduring lesson of my time with Emily is the value, for me, of openness. I know it’s likely she’ll hate me for writing about her at all: she liked to keep her secrets and the secrets of others closer than anyone I’ve known, and she openly disliked me telling my stories of the past. But stories are my stock in trade and the fabric of my life. The threat of losing ownership of my story so I could keep the secrets and the affection of the woman I loved put a fear in me.

It was for this reason that I told Emily, one Saturday morning, to go. Some time in July she said “I think it’s time we stopped seeing each other” just at the time I was thinking it was finally time to tell her, after almost a year, that I loved her. I did tell her I loved her, in the end, and we worked through a whole raft of misunderstandings that inevitably arose from our both having walls around ourselves and the things we would talk about–hers for her own reasons, mine to protect myself from another round of heartbreak after the horror that was the end of Hat Girl and I.

That last Saturday she asked me to tell her not to go. I told her I wasn’t sure enough about her to tell her to stay. We cried, I said “we can’t do this all afternoon,” and she left my apartment for the last time. And so there is no more reading to each other in Emily’s bed, and no more afternoons in the Edinburgh Gardens, and no more brunches with me reading her copy of something by David Sedaris or Alan Bennett because my iPhone has run out of batteries and I have to resort to paper books.

Part 3 will be out imminently, starting with “September: Back in the game.”

Author: Ben Hourigan

Ben Hourigan is a novelist from Melbourne, Australia. His books Kiss Me, Genius Boy and My Generation’s Lament are Amazon category bestsellers, and are available wherever good books are sold online. Ben also works as an editor, copywriter, and self-publishing consultant at his own firm, Hourigan & Co. For news and book release updates, sign up to his email newsletter.