the best of 2015

If, for whatever reason, you wanted my opinion.

Best Book, Fiction: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

This selection doubles as a “most overlooked” award. I genuinely believe that this novel, the story of an elderly couple in medieval England searching for both their son and their memories, is a masterpiece. Yet its reviews seemed to peak at “noble failure.”

That’s a mistake, but it’s a mistake I understand. His last novel, Never Let You Go (a book I admire very much) was written to be adored; it doesn’t surprise me in the least that it was made into a beautiful-looking movie featuring beautiful-looking actors. The Buried Giant is not that kind of book. Its pleasures are subtle, often deliberately withheld, and excavated only with effort. Some have complained about the prose, which is rendered in a deliberately ornate style. I don’t agree, but I understand.  Besides, halfway through I was afraid the book was a disaster. So many of the elements seemed to be coming to nothing, and I was afraid that I had invested myself in a jumbled mess. But Ishiguro is spinning a very long thread. The story he’s telling isn’t some intricate thriller with an elaborate twist; the plot isn’t a complex setup designed to arrive at some surprising conclusion with well-machined precision. And yet I can’t remember the last time the work a book did early on paid off more effectively. As in the best of these things, by the time you understand the finish, it seems as inevitable as death. Everything within the book is earned, and the central relationship, and its impenetrable sadness, are worth earning.

It’s a bittersweet, somber story, and one that ends in the promise of a holocaust. Though it ostensibly belongs to the fantasy genre, and the story of an epic journey, there’s nothing of the jauntiness or carefree wandering that’s typical of those. The book takes place in a fog, both literal and metaphorical — a fog of memory. The two characters, Axl and Beatrice, look for a son they can’t remember in a country they barely recall. Along the way, they meet one of Arthur’s knights, ancient and rusty, and a younger warrior who offers them friendship and whose existence, in the long run, means death. The book is about histories, both intimate and grand, and its message is disquieting and true, its central concern a brutal genocide that has been rendered to us antiseptic and unremarkable by the passage of time. And so, Ishiguru suggests, will holocausts of more recent vintage, thanks to the inevitable anesthesia of the passage of time.

If there’s any justice, The Buried Giant will be subject to a reappraisal, a critical reevaluation. You can get in on the ground floor. Read it.

Best Book, Nonfiction: H is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald

If you dig around for reviews of Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk, you’ll find writers reaching for all kinds of words that you might not find in typical book criticism. There’s something astonishing about this writing, something alien and old in it. It’s scrappy, it’s strange, it’s discomfiting and unhappy. The prose is excellent but rarely pleasing. The book is fundamentally disinterested in pleasing you, which makes its abundant pleasures more deeply felt.

I’ve always  been terrified of birds, personally.

The book tells the story of how MacDonald, consumed with grief by the death of her father, adopts a goshawk and carefully fails to train it. The basic strangeness of that behavior — feel grief, train bird of prey — is to me a very honest announcement of the book’s basic contract. You’ve got to go in understanding that part of the point is the fundamental incomprehensibility of other people’s grief, and our inability to parse our own. I wouldn’t blame you if that’s just not what you’re looking for. But if you’re willing to spend time with the spare and remote animal that this book is, you’ll find so much lovely writing, about birds, about the rote exercises of a disciplined life, about TH White, about the various entrails of the small mammals that populate the UK, and, I suppose, about whatever’s left of what people used to refer to as “the British constitution.” A lot about MacDonald, too, but the kind of things that make clear the immense distance between reader and writer.

Any generalization about a category as vast as “nonfiction writing” is useless, but I’ll make one anyway. I feel, in both nonfiction book writing and essaying, that we’re in a period of rather grim literalism, a time of pat narratives, simplistic explainers, and drowsy A to B to C reasoning. I’ve been asking for a while for nonfiction that has less interest in explaining. The constant drive for clarity, above and beyond all other virtues, makes me feel, over time, like a compulsive consumer of sewing machine instructions. I don’t particularly need writers to make me feel like old friends that I know well; I would much rather they make me feel, instead, like a different category of stranger. So much of nonfiction today comes packaged as a collection of gee-whiz information; the nonfiction that isn’t rote and explanatory, mostly cheap, vaguely spiritualized uplift.  I left this book feeling so much more confused than when I started, and I would gladly pay for the privilege again.

Best Album: White Men Are Black Men Too, Young Fathers

Hip hop stands as one of the first natively-electronic music forms, and probably the most successful. Sure, electric  guitars are essential to the rock sound, but you can certainly find early all-acoustic rock music, Jerry Lee Lewis banging along on his piano. There’s never been hip hop without drum machines, turntables, and keyboards. That’s part of what gives the genre its unique and enduring charms. But it’s also a vulnerability, at least for me; electronic music is often at risk of being overproduced. Too much hip hop sounds slick to its detriment. There’s so much glittering, shiny smoothness, I feel claustrophobic. I prefer my music lo-fi; that’s why Liquid Swords is such a masterpiece.

The second album from the Scottish group Young Fathers, White Men Are Black Men Too, fits the bill perfectly. It’s 40 minutes of crunchy, buzzy, just-out-of-focus perfection, shaking with energy and ideas. Pop music should be recorded in drafty basements on old and worn equipment. The tracks here pulse and throb with direct pleasures, and so the noisy, lossy, blunted production in which they are embedded is essential. The sound of this record, for lack of a better term, is punk, and after hearing Adele’s beautiful voice and poignant lyrics once again drowning in lush, overproduced instrumentals that steal every ounce of energy from her music, I reach again for this album. It’s human, alive.

Political, too, and in the most interesting and unexpected ways. The title is provocative, and not an idle claim. They’ve discussed it in several interviews, and they mean it just the way you might expect. “There are a lot of differences in the world and there’s nothing wrong with us wanting it to be equal.” “The main thing is acknowledging difference. Acknowledging difference within people, culture, religions, within yourself. It’s getting across to people, and seeing that things aren’t black and white. It’s just everything in between.” These sound like pitch-perfect examples of the kind of “all lives matter” pablum we’ve been trained to revile. Pitchfork, patron publication of critics explaining art to its creators, of course dismissed this as “mostly a venting of frustration.” And yet I find the track it comes from, and the sentiment it reflects, calculated and deliberate, and a real political provocation in an artistic culture that is utterly starved for them. Whatever the many purposes of music, none of them is to ape the political consensus of its time. In 2015, what was once radical has become the product of numbing social expectation. As a deracinated political idea, I find the title kind of dumb; as a matter of music, I find it fresh, invigorating, and a very necessary rejection of the bloodless progressive conformity that is the lukewarm water of our cultural age.

“For it’s me me me and more me, and my selfish ways,” they sing on one track, and I know exactly how they feel.

Best Movie: Mad Max Fury Road

cewqowyvaaam6xc-jpg-largeI know, I know. Not exactly a surprise. And I said more than enough about the movie already. I will admit upfront that I am a sucker for this kind of story — the story of a surrogate family that comes together to care for each other in spite of great danger. I guess it’s the orphan in me. In the simplest terms, no other film moved me nearly as much this year as this one. An incredibly ambitious movie, not only for what it accomplishes but for the movie making system it accomplished it within, it deserves all of its adulation and more. At the heart of this absurd spectacle lies the aching power of what remains unsaid. There’s so much vast feeling in this movie’s quiet, which is necessary because it’s an almost-unbroken  cacophony.

That quiet is exemplified in the movie’s two most essential scenes, which follow one after another and take perhaps 5 minutes of screen time. In the first, Charlize Theron’s Furiosa asks Tom Hardy’s Mad Max to come along with her and her band of warrior women as they chase the horizon; Max declines. It’s wonderfully acted by two uncommonly gorgeous people, and elegant in its understatement. I find it pregnant with romance, but your money may vary. In the following scene, a spontaneous committee meeting breaks out in the heart of an action movie. A group of equals, men and women, discuss a plan and come to a decision.

That scene’s a good example of why this film has been as misinterpreted by its fans as by its critics, which I find is not uncommon for really great movies. You will have read that Furiosa replaces and marginalizes Max, an opinion that has been expressed countless times. It’s about as wrong, both textually and narratively, as I can imagine. Simply in terms of the plot, it’s nonsensical to claim that Max is a passive character in the film; he kills dozens of baddies, including two of the sub-bosses, the People Eater and the Bullet Farmer. He saves the lives of everyone involved, several times; he literally gives Furiosa his blood so that she can survive. But more importantly, to say that Furiosa takes his place is to fundamentally misunderstand the basic themes of the movie. The story is about resistance to a dictatorship, a patriarchal dictatorship. That dictatorship is not replaced by a matriarchal equivalent, which would represent, ultimately, only a cosmetic change. Rather it’s replaced by a community of consenting adults, a democracy. To see Furiosa as the replacement of Max is to play into precisely the implicit politics that the movie explicitly rejects.

Lots of cool cars and explosions and such, too, if that’s your sort of thing.

Best Video Game: Assassin’s Creed Chronicles China

2015-12-05_00001Another unfairly neglected entry, and an unexpected high, for me. The Assassin’s Creed series is one of the most high-profile, highest grossing franchises in modern video games. The games are generally “shot” in a third-person, over-the-shoulder, 3D perspective, and center on parkour-style movements through historical landscapes, balletic violence, and the kind of massive content dumps that are in my opinion killing Triple-A games. Though I’ve enjoyed some of the entries, particularly the pirate one, I always find myself a little disappointed by them. The attention to historical detail is lovely, and there’s a ton to do, but there’s a weightlessness to a lot of what you’re doing that’s off-putting, and as is so often the case in open world games, the narratives seem directionless, with what you do next being just another damn thing to do.

Assassin’s Creed Chronicles, in contrast, is a much lower-key, less-publicized, less-expensive affair. It’s a sub-series of the major titles, keeping the mythology and emphasis on stealth and, well, assassinating, but switching to a sidescrolling gameplay style. (It’s also a lot cheaper than the regular titles, currently available for $10 bucks.) The game thus involves a lot of the usual stealth-and-combat aspects of the originals but in dramatically different ways. The game is definitely heavily influenced by the game Mark of the Ninja. (If you wanted to call it a ripoff, I wouldn’t blame you.) But I find it’s far better realized, doing a wonderful job of establishing the need for patience and repetition that are hallmarks of stealth video games, with none of the control jankiness that Assassin’s Creed titles are frequently accused of.

It also has a really welcome gameplay choice that I wish more stealth titles would adopt. In the world of stealth games, it’s common for developers to advertise many different playstyles — the ability to sneak around completely unnoticed, to talk your way past obstacles, to play as a silent killer, or to just get down and dirty in melee combat. The problem is that this choice is very rarely actually free; usually, developers strongly guide you in the direction of one way or the other by giving you bonuses or better endings if you choose one method of play. Beloved first person stealth game Dishonored, for example, gives you major narrative penalties if you choose to brawl your way through the game. ACC:C handles this in a really effective way. Its points system lets you play in one of three ways — Shadow, for straight stealth, Assassin, for stealth kills, and Brawler, for melee combat. Crucially, you’re scored in one of these three methods for each checkpoint, meaning that you can go through the game sticking to one or picking and choosing as you see fit. It’s a subtle design decision that gives you actual freedom instead of fake freedom.

The game is also one of the most beautiful I’ve ever played, and I’ve been playing computer games since 1986. The game wisely foregoes photo realism for a “living painting” approach. The result is hypnotic, particularly given the 2D nature of the visuals; I often found myself staring into the backgrounds while I played, distant, sketchy mountains surrounded by haze. Blood spurts are perfect little paint drips, trees look like fuzzy pink clouds, and flags flapping in the wind dissolve at their ends into incomplete paint. Just a beautiful game. It’s $10, so check it out.

Best Essay: Our Incorruptible Dead Girls,” by Stassa Edwards

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Goretti had little—she was but one of many children in a poor Italian family —but, like a good Catholic girl, she had her virginity, and to have it stolen or lost would have been a mortal sin. It was perhaps the only valuable thing she possessed

At the Awl, Jezebel’s Stassa Edwards considered the place of dead, virginal young women, in Catholicism, in television and movies, in our culture. I won’t belabor my recommendation when you could spend the time better by going to read it, so go and read it. I’ll just say that it’s incredibly sharp, deeply poignant, incisively observed, and just ruthless in its reserve. Edwards is wise not to conclude her essay with anything as clumsy as a thesis, and because she has no obvious destination to get to, has all the time in the world. It’s a brilliant piece of work. Let 2016 be the year writers let go of getting to the point, and recognize that there are so many more important places to get to.