You might think of July as a time for escapist novels. But judging from the publishers’ lists, it has also become a key month for fat books on very important subjects. Some of these bring the narrative satisfactions of fiction in tow, yet they come bearing that strange secondary classification of “non-fiction.” I’ve always been fascinated by this name, as if “non-fiction” negated the absolute pleasure of fiction. The Germans talk of Sachbücher, thing-books, the French of essais and more recently also of actualités. But in our naming, we English give primacy to the novel. I love fiction, of course, but this month’s books demonstrate the pleasures of those other prose narratives.
In Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power (Allen Lane, £25), two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Coll takes us deep into the workings of the secretive global oil giant, which was in 2011 America’s most profitable corporation. Exxon’s annual takings top those of many nations. As Coll reports, when operating abroad the company functions as a state within a state, complete with its own foreign policy and political wing. Lee “Iron Ass” Raymond, its CEO until 2005, held views on climate change aligned with James Inhofe, the Senator from Oklahoma who asked on the floor of the Senate, “Could it be that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people?” The corporation financed various scientific and lobbying organisations to bring that message home around the world. Drawing on reports from courts to Congress, interviews with a cast of international characters, and investigative journalism of the first rank, Coll gives us a nerve-jangling exposé of untrammelled corporate power, which “bent and shaped American foreign policy, as well as economic, climate, chemical, and environmental regulation.”
If Owen Hatherley were to take his fierce brilliance to a landscape of blighted oil fields, it couldn’t be any bleaker than the built (and half-built and unbuilt) world of this second of his urban trawls through the “new ruins of Great Britain.” Hatherley is a 21st-century mixture of JG Ballard and Nikolaus Pevsner, alert to the social cacophony of “organic delis next to pound shops” and the kind of social unrest radical inequality can cause. Cities for him are political spaces subject to changes in the economy. In A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain (Verso, £20) he guides us from Luton Airport to the Thames Gateway to Teeside and other points of blight, riot and reconstruction; from the detritus and yuppiedromes of Labour and private finance initiatives to the coalition’s Big Society and localism agenda. All this is both grim and bracing. It cries out for an accompanying television series.
It’s a relief to travel back in time with Robert O Bucholz and Joseph P Ward’s London: A Social and Cultural History 1550-1750 (Cambridge University Press, £16.99) which comes with handsome maps and illustrations, and a good deal of erudition lightly conveyed. The authors contend that between their chosen dates some 6000-8000 immigrants a year arrived in London. In the process of becoming Londoners, they made the city into an imperial capital, developing the institutions and habits of mind we find familiar and congenial—equality, democracy and the freedoms of economy, religion, assembly and the press, all of which define cosmopolitanism. This Whiggish view is textured by a wealth of dark detail, but it prevails. The writers admire the city on the river and its inhabitants’ bullish independence from authority.
A wealth of darkly comic anecdotes about everyday life in China over the last 50 years is what the celebrated Beijing novelist and one-time smalltown dentist Yu Hua presents in his riveting memoir, China in Ten Words (Duckworth Overlook, £16.99). Each chapter is dedicated to a word, such as “people,” “leader,” “revolution” and “bamboozle,” and into each section he compresses personal and political history, as well as the momentous social change that has transformed his country. Yu Hua learned to write “the people” and “Chairman Mao” before he could write his own name. His first public writing was one of those “big character posters” exposing crimes against the revolution—a word that radically altered its meaning with Tiananmen Square. As the years roll on, he gives us a sense of the brutal bamboozling and inequality that characterises the great economic miracle that is China today.
Finally, my July fiction: it’s Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident (Sceptre, £16.99), and what a fiction it is. Beauman’s first novel, Boxer, Beetle, was greeted with ecstatic reviews—an “exciting new voice,” “gobsmackingly funny”—and he’s done it again in this tale of Egon Loeser, a Berlin set-designer of the 1930s, who fails in love and art, manages to be wholly oblivious to politics and sets off first to Paris, then LA, to find the beauty he’s infatuated with, one Adele Hitler. Beauman does adolescent male lust and anomie with the verve of a young Amis and this is a great romp of a novel, delightful in its inventiveness.
Lisa Appignanesi’s latest book is “All About Love: Anatomy of An Unruly Emotion” (Virago)