INDEX’s lockdown literary list — our year of rest and relaxation

Welcome to the new breed of novelists — assassinating the old vision of America.

Words Jonathan Mahon-Heap

The splintering visions of America on display in these reads don’t just speak to the present moment, they break it apart and ask us to hold it in our hands, see if it sparks joy. Iconoclastic writers such as Brandon Taylor, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Garth Greenwell provide novels of reinvention; ‘iconoclast’ comes from the Greek, eikonoklastēs, meaning image destroyer.  Welcome to the new breed of novelists — assassinating the old vision of America.

Cleanness by Garth Greenwell
Aches from an old wound resurface in Garth Greenwell’s touchingly erotic follow-up to What Belongs to You, an exquisitely calibrated tableau of intimacy. Greenwell’s painful extrication of our deepest embarrassments and plausible deniability offers a kind of honesty that counts almost as penance.

What he is doing the penance for, and whether the novel — really a string of stories centred in Sofia, Bulgaria, varying from platonic to sadomasochistic relations with men — achieves it, is to the reader. That his sexuality commanded this urge in him at all, is the other arresting question working at the heart of Greenwell’s work. 

Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Wallace leaves his small Southern town hoping for a fresh start on campus at a Midwestern University, and this is where Real Life, and his real life begins. Rewriting his identity by escaping the spectre of his childhood, Wallace finds a certain violence in the rupture.

Subverting cues of the campus novel and offering a voice already honed, already-so-well-attuned to genre clichés it can shoot them down (Wallace’s white friends are “like a trio of pale, upright deer, you could be forgiven… for thinking them related), Real Life upbraids the life of academic institutions with nuance and joy.

Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh
Before Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation became a byword for 2020 (though its film version, by The Favourite director Yorgos Lanthimos has been waylaid by Covid-19), she was a novelist known for a battery-acid tone and inchoate unease. Her debut Eileen, which she wrote after following the steps of ‘how-to’ novel formula as a joke, was nominated for the Booker Prize. Death in Her Hands is a murder-mystery, with an unreliable narrator, that plays with form.

But being a Moshfegh novel, it is none of these things either. It’s about the kind of murder mysteries we read, who is writing them, and mostly what they say about us, the reader.

Ohio by Stephen Markley
“This town sucks you in. Keeps you doped on its own mythology,” is how one character frames the ties that bind in Stephen Markley’s despairing novel, Ohio. The flotsam of post-9/11 victims regroup in economically depressed Ohio, 2007 — where addiction, funeral parades, recession, violence shade are everyday affairs. Told more with love for its characters than with nihilistic impression, NPR dubbed Markley’s book a “wild, angry and devastating masterpiece of a book.”

real life


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