by Sarah Tolmie
This is an improbable year to talk about pleasures. Though what pleasures there were probably did consist of reading, viewing or listening. Hard to see where else to find them, except in various other sorts of cocooning. Anyway, here are mine for 2020:
Dickens. Chiefly, Dickens as read aloud. I still don’t think I would like most of it if I were reading it on the page. It’s just too histrionic. But in audiobook form — I still listened to a ton of audiobooks this year, as my vision was deteriorating for most of it, until it was rescued by laser surgery a few weeks ago (amen!) — it is terrific. This is how most readers would have encountered it: as it was read aloud to them in groups. Or perhaps read by the tireless Dickens himself, who was, after all, an actor. He performed to audiences of thousands and died on tour.
The late Dickens was really quite weird — I use this word advisedly, as his influence on Mervyn Peake, in particular, has become more and more clear to me — and dark, and the satire is ferocious. Some of it is positively breathtaking; you find yourself thinking, wow, did he really just say that? And they published it? Because they sure as hell wouldn’t now (and not because it is both sexist and racist, which it is, but because it is savagely and directly critical of government, law, class, manners, industry, organized religion and other powerful institutions).
Over this year I listened to Dombey and Son, Our Mutual Friend, Little Dorrit, Bleak House, The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Martin Chuzzlewit. Also to Pickwick Papers, which was less forgettable than I had been expecting, as picaresque novels are not usually my thing. Bleak House is a masterpiece; you can feel Gormenghast all over it. Also Philip Pullman, unsurprisingly. People behave so bizarrely in Our Mutual Friend that you’d think you were reading Dostoyevsky. And Edwin Drood, even unfinished, is suggestive: his villain has all the hallmarks of a serial killer, as they became fashionable in much later thrillers. U.S. citizens may be put off by the portrayal of Americans as gun-toting maniacs incapable of conversation at meals in Martin Chuzzlewit, no doubt, but Dickens portrays the English as equally, though differently, vile in that book. And it struck me that some of the barbs he stuck into hypocritical and complacent abolitionists were very well placed.
M.R. James. Again, this was almost exclusively in audiobook format, mostly as read by the excellent Peter Yearsley for Librivox (his reading of the novella The Five Jars is just lovely) and by readers at Horrorbabble. Certainly a writer who would never have existed without Dickens, though his style is more spare, restrained and learned. You get a comforting sense that he was conversant with everything — but at the same time, that this never entirely helps, as his scholarly protagonists are constantly terrified of everything, living and dead. Unlike Dickens, however, there are no women. Really, almost none at all. This is a huge bloody relief. We are spared whatever his idiotic views on them might have been. The female characters in Dickens are really what lowers the tone. Thank you, M. R. James, for not trying to do something for which you were not competent. Otherwise, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is a well crafted, elegant and creepily weird collection of short fiction. It also reads exceptionally well aloud, as many of the stories were designed for Christmas ghost story readings at King’s College, Cambridge.
In terms of books I actually read with my eyeballs when I was finally able to, there is Helen Marshall’s creepily wonderful novel The Migration. It is a characteristically assured combination of the everyday and the grotesque. I bought the Kindle edition months ago, ready to read it as soon as I could. It was worth the wait. I have a fixation with people turning into birds — it’s a motif I used myself in The Stone Boatmen and that is very present in its WIP sequel — so I was glad to see that Marshall obviously has one, too. Hers, however, has an edge of Promethean body horror that mine does not; it’s fair to say that The Migration is broadly in the lineage of Frankenstein. It’s a brilliant book that reminded me of a number of things, some of which are YA and some of which are not. (The Migration was not marketed as YA, by the way, but it has teen protagonists and concerns coming of age at both a personal and an apocalyptic scale. What gets sold as YA and what does not continues to mystify me.) There were parts of the book that reminded me of Samatar’s The Winged Histories, and parts that reminded me of Brent Haywood’s novelette "Lake of Dreams." The plastic, morphic bodies in their state of becoming made me think of Peadar O Guilin’s The Invasions. And there are winged people in Le Guin’s The Fliers of Gy who express a similar melancholia, poised between profit and loss. The mundane horror of dealing with incurable illness recalled Gemma Files’ Experimental Film. As you can see, the book is evocative. It seems to me that it is participating in several genres — books about plagues, books about zombies, books about family breakups, books about North Americans moving to England, books about sister bonding, books about the ages of the world — while conforming exactly to none of them. I conclude, therefore, that it is weird. Weird fiction. That thing. If so, it is a fine example.
Stay home, keep reading, and look forward to the vaccine, my friends!
Sarah Tolmie has published four books with Aqueduct: Disease (2020), The Little Animals (2019, winner of the Special Citation at the Philip K Dick Awards), Two Travelers (2016) and The Stone Boatmen (shortlisted for the 2015 IAFA Crawford Award). Her novella The Fourth Island came out with Tor.com in fall 2020 and another one, All The Horses of Iceland, is slated for early 2022. She has published three books of poetry with McGill-Queen’s University Press: Check, released in November 2020, The Art of Dying (finalist for the Griffin Prize in 2019) and Trio (finalist for the 2015 Pat Lowther Award from the League of Canadian Poets). Her elegy “Ursula Le Guin in the Underworld” won the 2019 Rhysling Award, Long Poem and the 2019 Aurora Award for Poem/Song. She teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Waterloo.