Booker Prize Shortlist: 2017

2017 represents only the third occasion whereby I have read all shortlisted novels for the Booker Prize. And, as with 2016 and 1996, the question remains – from my perspective, did the judges get it right with George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo?

Controversy had (as usual) reigned supreme when the longlist of 13 was whittled down to six. Where was Sebastian Barry and Days Without End? What – no Jon McGregor and Reservoir 13? What happened to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railway and Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones? Instead, according to many critics, what was a powerful long list became something of a diluted shortlist.

The books that did make the cut were
Paul Auster 4, 3, 2 1
Emily Fridlund History of Wolves
Mohsin Hamid Exit West
Fiona Mosley Elmet
George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo
Ali Smith Autumn

Sadly, to my mind, there were only two novels that stood out on the list, both extremely powerful and both deserved winners of the prize in this year – and in many other years. But the other four were generally forgettable.

Her fourth appearance on the Booker shortlist, Ali Smith and her Autumn is, to my mind, the least enjoyable of the six. Expansive and inventive it may be, capturing the zeitgeist of current British world of uncertainty and inwardness, this short novel is beautifully written and deeply profound, yet, too often, deliberately obscure and pretentious. (50%)

Emily Fridlund’s debut novel History of Wolves is also beautifully written with haunting prose and a vivid sense of place, but its meandering narrative failed to ultimately engage. (50%)

I loved his The Reluctant Fundamentalist – but Mohsin Hamid’s ruminations on refugees and Exit West, whilst salient, engrossing, at times quite magical, is also somewhat odd – a flight-of-fancy that actually needed a little more grounding. The teasingly well written first third sadly becomes a pedestrian, off-kilter place (as opposed to time) travel narrative. (58%)

Elmet is a powerful debut novel set in Yorkshire – a dark tale sublimely wrought, a British gothic simultaneously pastoral and fraught with a sense of foreboding. But it trails off into the land of melodrama in its narrative as Fiona Mosley tries a little too hard to tie up all loose ends. (64%)

The final two on the list are streets ahead of the other on the shortlist – and are neck and neck in the running. Paul Auster’s sprawling 4,3,2,1 is a magnificent thousand plus pages of four versions of the early life/lives of Archie Ferguson. It’s an engrossing celebration of liberal ideology and a reflection on a generation that sexually, politically and culturally defined the end of the twentieth century. (80%)

But it’s pipped to the post by George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo , an ethereal symphony in its intimacy of grief and familial love. Structurally experimental, Saunders’ novel is a polyphonic narrative interspersed with short quotes from newspaper articles and biographies of the day as President Abraham Lincoln is struck politically inert on the death of his 12 year-old son. (81%)

A very hard call – but to my mind, the judges of the 2017 Booker Prize got it right as far as the winning novel was concerned. Not convinced about the shortlist itself, though.

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‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders

A brilliant, emotionally exhausting journey of a tale, Lincoln in the Bardo is an ethereal symphony in its intimacy of grief and familial love.

The death of 12 year-old Willie Lincoln from typhoid in the middle of the Civil War sends his father, Abraham Lincoln, into a tailspin. Grief-stricken, it is reported that the president returns to the crypt several times over the ensuing days as the ravages of the war are ignored.

From this kernel of historical truth, Saunders has woven an extraordinary tapestry as the boy finds himself in ‘the bardo’, the Buddhist intermediate state between death and reincarnation, an afterlife populated by ‘spirits’ or ‘ghosts’ who are unaware they have died: but it is also an amalgam of the catholic purgatory, where souls await their judgement and subsequent fate.

Children usually pass through the bardo quickly. But with the frequent visits by Lincoln, Willie becomes the centre of hope, such is the power of the bond between father and son as the inhabitants become convinced the boy will return to the land of the living and help them do the same. His guides are Hans Vollman, a 46 year-old printer killed in a workplace accident, the Reverend Early and young Roger Bevins III, a suicide.

The novel’s synopsis does the final work little credit as we slip between consciousness and dreamlike states, spirits flitting between the tombstones and marble crypts, souls revealing their sad stories that have led them to the bardo. These polyphonic narratives are interspersed with short quotes from newspaper articles and biographies of the day referring to the mental state of the president at the time. Some are sympathetic/supportive, others critical. It’s a cacophony of opinion and gossip as Lincoln comes to terms with his loss and Willie recognises, with the help of his three guides, that he will not be returning with his father to the home on the hill.

With humour and pathos, Saunders, in his first full-length novel, deploys a panoply of historical and fictional voices in a theatrical tour de force, an enthralling invention. It was understandably awarded the 2017 Booker Prize.

‘Go Tell It On the Mountain’ by James Baldwin

An intense, burning eloquence marks James Baldwin’s searing Go Tell It On the Mountain, an emotionally powerful semi-autobiographical novel first published in 1953.

Unrelenting in its rage, Baldwin’s first novel focuses on the role of the Pentecostal church in the lives of African-Americans, and the Harlem-living Grimes family in particular. Based on his own personal experiences of growing up in Harlem with a strict disciplinarian preacher as a stepfather, Baldwin speaks primarily through John, a wise, sensitive 14 year-old struggling with his sexuality, his beliefs and his faith in family.

Yet Go Tell It On the Mountain is as much a commentary on Afro-American history as it is about the repression and moral hypocrisy of the church. The novel provides the back history of John’s parents and paternal aunt – of terrible Deep South poverty, of alcoholism, deprivation, the rigid and unrelenting role and judgement of the Church and religion on the lives of the saved and the sinners, the fallen and the raised.

But while aggressively critical in places of Pentecostalism; ‘If God’s power was so great why were their lives so troubled?’ asked John of the adults around him, Baldwin has a sneaking admiration for the church’s positive source of inspiration for people – even if he’s not wholly convinced. The fact the novel ends with John’s soaring force of redemption and conversion on the night of his birthday, dust rising from the very floorboards he lies convulsing upon is some indication. But even then, not all is what it seems, his preacher father, Gabriel, himself wise to tricks of the fallen through personal experience, is not wholly convinced.

Go Tell It On the Mountain – in spite of being banned on publication in New York State and Virginia – has established itself as something of an American classic. Whilst not an easy read, it is a remarkably sincere, magisterial novel that captures an essential aspect of life in America at the time, its contradictions and seductions, that bittersweet mix of love and hate, its overt racism and prejudice.

‘American Rust’ by Philipp Meyer


Whilst occasionally slipping into seemingly aimless meanderings of thought, Philipp Meyer’s powerful debut novel is a tragic dissolution of the American dream and the waste of young lives as a consequence.

With the heavy industries of the Pennsylvanian steel belt closing down, thousands are left unemployed. Once thriving communities are thrown into economic decline and uncertainty, hulking factories lie empty, towns in the Valley virtually abandoned. With little to look forward to and a desperate need to ‘find fresh air’, 20 year-old Isaac English decides to leave the family home and head west to California. He has $4,000 in his pocket, stolen from his father, and the hope that his best friend, Billy Poe, will join him. But they do not get very far. On the outskirts of town, in a decrepit old factory, events unfold that leave one man dead along with an unreliable witness ready to tell a story for the right amount of cash.

With inevitable comparisons to John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy, Meyer, with his alternating narrators unflinchingly evoking time and place, immerses the reader in the false hopes and small town secrets of restless lives. 

Isaac, his sister Lee, who has escaped to study at Yale, and the complex Billy are the voices of the aspirations of the younger generation. All three are alienated from the world they have chosen. It’s in part their story, alongside Billy’s mother, Grace, living with her son in an isolated trailer on the edge of town and that of the local police chief, Harris – Grace’s part-time lover.

American Rust is a story of loyalty, of loneliness, of love, of uncertainty: of dashed hopes, wasted lives, social decline. It effortlessly merges multiple plotlines and the complexities of the key characters. Harris ponders on the possible isolation of his ensuing retirement whilst concerning himself with alleviating Grace’s concerns about her son. Isaac is troubled by doing the right thing by Billy – and Billy is determined to keep quiet about what happened that fateful night. Lee carries her guilt for having escaped the town at the expense of lost opportunity for her brother, leaving him to care for their father, disabled in a factory accident.

The novel does occasionally become something resembling a soap opera, but American Rust is the perfect companion piece to Michael Collins earlier The Keepers of Truth, a human reality and social insight to Collins’ murder mystery set in a similar industrial landscape.

Published in 2009, American Rust was regarded by many critics as one of the best novels of the year.  

‘To Rise Again at a Decent Hour’ by Joshua Ferris

23278040Fierce, pithy, unforgiving, very funny. Ferris’s voice is unique. So stated the Mail on Sunday writ large on the cover. A whole host of other short, sharp accolades are dotted around. The problem is I somewhat struggled to agree.

Paul C O’Rourke is a successful New York dentist, avid fan of baseball and in particular the Boston Red Sox, fiercely private – and a reluctant non-believer. When he is the victim of online identity theft and jettisoned into social media limelight with comments that put him at odds with what he believes in, Paul becomes anxious to discover just who is responsible.

The phantom Paul preaches an obscure, ancient religion, a man [who] broke with reality. He took an old legend from the Bible and made a myth from it, and now he tells the myth like it’s the truth. And the phantom certainly knows a few too many personal details for the real Paul to feel comfortable. What evolves is an occasionally witty narrative that explores crackpot theology, obsession, the Internet and subsequent loneliness of contemporary life.

But the Mail on Sunday claimed a unique voice for the author. Yet To Rise Again at a Decent Hour smacked of Howard Jacobson’s Booker Prize winning The Finkler Question (but without the laugh-out-loud humour) and in particular the character of Julian Tresslove. Like O’Rourke, Tresslove has a chequered and unsuccessful record with women. Like O’Rourke, Tresslove is an obsessive with Judaism and all things Jewish (but O’Rourke is simply an obsessive – Catholicism was an earlier fixation). And middle-class state-of-the-world mournful angst is so much better when written by Philip Roth!

It’s all a little disappointing with its philosophical and religious existential complexities alongside O’Rourke’s deep-rooted loneliness and social dysfunctionality. The result is a well-written but deeply unsatisfyingly dull narrative.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour was shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize but lost out to Richard Flanagan and The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

‘4 3 2 1’ by Paul Auster

austerEpic in every way – a thousand plus pages, a grand sweep of American post-World War II history, Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 is a celebration of liberal ideology and a reflection on a generation that sexually, politically and culturally defined the end of the twentieth century.

It’s a glorious telling of the life of Archie Ferguson, the only child born to Stanley and Rose Ferguson in New Jersey on 3 March 1947. But it’s not told through one single narrative … the torment of being alive in a single body was that at any given moment you had to be on one road only, even though you could have been on another, travelling toward an altogether different place. Auster thus choses four separate roads and four different lives.

And those four lives are not told simply as separate entities. Instead, they are intertwined geographically and chronologically. The illusion of a single storyline is jettisoned when we become aware of Aunt Mildred having never married. A few pages earlier, in the preceding chapter, we are introduced to her new husband. And so it begins, a miasma of confusion and an introduction to a whole series of friends and family members who bear different relationships to Archie dependent on the narrative of a given chapter.

His parents are the only characters that remain constant and retain their professions – she a photographer, Stanley a businessman. Yet they too have four lives with financial success, career acclaim, divorce, early death, remarriage, near bankruptcy. Throughout, Archie is close to Rose but his relationship(s) with the father(s) varies wildly. The other single most important person to Archie is Amy Schneiderman – cousin/stepsister/lover/ friend/mentor/ confidant. She is, throughout, Ferguson’s soul mate and (mostly) ideal sexual partner, the indispensable other who dwelled inside his skin.

Together and separately, the two travel through the second half of an American twentieth century, each reacting differently according to circumstance. The Kennedy Brothers and Martin Luther King assassinations, Vietnam, the Rosenburg executions, Civil Rights and the Black Panther movement, student uprisings at Columbia University. But we must also deal with the disorienting family scenarios where Amy is Ferguson’s cousin (Rose has married her uncle) or his stepsister (a divorced Rose has married Amy’s widowed father).

Political activist, journalist, sportsman, novelist, translator of French poets: gay, straight, uncertain: living in New York, Rochester (New York State), Paris, Princeton. Take your pick – all are facets of the four Archibald Isaak Fergusons – the passionate lover of French new wave films of Godard and Truffaut, the adoring fan of the slapstick adventures of Laurel and Hardy, an excellent baseball player, a promising basketball student. The militant Amy in one anti-Vietnam narrative balances a disinterested or marginalised Archie whilst Archie 2 (or is it Archie 3?) is equally vocal in a second narrative whilst a third is living in Paris.

No question, 4 3 2 1 is a gargantuan novel (it can be argued it’s actually four books in one). It can also be very confusing in the attempt to recollect the history of the particular Archie of the section/chapter focus. And, like most books of a particular size, it does lose steam towards the end (whilst finding the 1968 Columbia University sit-ins informative, there’s an overzealous text-book feel to the detail – a positioning by Auster himself to his perspective and opinions to the situation). But those are minor caveats.

Auster’s 4 3 2 1 is a success because he chooses to place the four Archies together in a chronological state of relative sameness. Thus, all the early lives are essentially centred round the same/similar Jewish suburbs in Newark/New Jersey. Manhattan is writ large – as is Paris and the French language. Auster has not (thankfully) created four wholly different Archies but essentially four identical but different people with the same name Ferguson. As a result, we see the Fergusons grow up alongside each other and how events around them affect (or not) the pathway they choose to take.

It’s a remarkable yet challenging book with an extraordinary sense of detail determined by its importance to Archie (pages devoted the films of Laurel and Hardy, comparisons of contemporary French poets and Manhattan Beat literature, baseball averages, the speeches of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement). And, whilst Auster does occasionally slip into academic pontificating (do we really need whole paragraphs of the names of Ancient Greek writers and philosophers on the Princeton syllabus?) and political jockeying that leaves no doubt as to where Auster himself stands on events of the 1960s and 70s, 4 3 2 1 is a multitudinous, wholly engrossing narrative.

One of three Americans shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize (Emily Fridlund and George Saunders being the other two), Paul Auster lost out to Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.

‘History of Wolves’ by Emily Fridlund

wolvesWhilst a beautifully written novel, no matter how much I appreciated Emily Fridlund’s prose and her vivid sense of place, History of Wolves failed to emotionally engage me.

It’s an austere novel of northern Minnesota and its long, harsh winters and equally brutal, short summers where fourteen year-old Linda lives with her ex-commune parents on the shores of a network of lakes. Isolated, Linda is something of an outsider. With no friends to speak of, her life revolves around domesticity; the family dogs and long hikes between home, school and the nearby town.

Into her life come Patra and precocious young son, Paul, who move into the luxurious cabin across the lake. But as early as page four, we know the child is doomed. It simply takes most of the novel to find out just how.

With Paul’s controlling and overbearing father Leo mostly absent, Linda’s narration meanders through babysitting duties; encounters with her teacher, Mr Grierson; home life and a teenage crush on Patra. It’s a time-fractured narrative: Linda as a teenager is interspersed with an older, but not necessarily wiser, Linda reflecting on events she is only now able to come to terms with.

History of Wolves is a transformative coming-of-age tale, its central character a narcissistic teenager blind to events around her, subject to bouts of meanness verging on cruelty. But Linda is also something of a victim – regarded as a freak at school with parents who barely acknowledge her. An adult Linda says of herself  I was flat-chested, plain as a bannister…I made people feel judged.

Time with Paul and, in particular, with Patra offers the young girl a sense of being needed for the first time. But the arrival of Leo sees all that unravel. Linda knows something is wrong but cannot see what secrets she is being drawn into, what is yet to unfold. It is the older version that drip-feeds us insight and knowledge, creating a sense of foreboding and uncertainty without giving the whole game away.

But when the whole is revealed, it’s a crashing disappointment, an almost throwaway reveal. That whole lacks any real urgency – a thriller without any sense of thrill. The beauty and strength of History of Wolves is in its original and haunting prose – not its storytelling.

Shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, Emily Fridlund’s debut novel lost out to George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo.

 

‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ by Karen Joy Fowler

besidesReadable it may be, interspersed with the occasional provocative wit, but overall, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves left me cold and unengaged.

Rosemary Cooke (our narrator) has a sister. Or did. Fern disappeared from the family around Rosemary’s fifth birthday. And to add to the childhood trauma of loss, her older brother Lowell walked out of the family home in Indiana seven years later – and hasn’t been seen since (although news of his whereabouts occasionally filters through). Now a college student in Davis, California (the place of Lowell’s last reported sighting), a lonely Rosemary grieves for her lost siblings. Only it transpires that Fern was a chimpanzee (apologies for the spoiler).

Inspired by real-life experiments dating from the 1930s onwards, the family ‘twin‑sisterhood’ was part of an experiment conducted  by her psychologist father for five years before being abruptly terminated. Just why never becomes completely clear until towards the end of Fowler’s novel. It’s Rosemary’s culpability (or at least her belief of it) that forms the core – a motormouth child who now prefers silence as an adult and who remembers only snatches of her earlier formative years. But then a simian upbringing is likely to silence most discussions with peers!

Psychology theories abound in Fowler’s book (transpires her father was a professor of psychology in Indiana) as Rosemary looks to justifications and answers. And she is constantly looking for answers. But those answers are in her past.

What starts out as a traditional family narrative soon becomes anything but. And whilst the dysfunctional family is well written, it soon becomes overanalysed – as does the message regarding animal lab testing. Ultimately, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves becomes a labouredrepetitive story as Rosemary looks to understand just what happened when she was five years old.

Shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize (the first year where American authors qualified for consideration), Karen Joy Fowler lost out to Richard Flanagan and The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

‘The Keepers of Truth’ by Michael Collins

keepers of truth

A real page-turner, author Michael Collins combines a 1980s-set murder mystery along with a social commentary on the demise of small-town America as its life-blood, the manufacturing industries, close.

A fascinating hybrid that is both requiem and dissection, The Keepers of Truth is a grimly prophetic story of universal change and the death of the known and the secure. Rusting fire escapes lead to stairways to oblivion and darkness. There are prehistoric-looking machines dragged out into yards, cannibalised of anything of worth, carcasses of industrialism.

Bill, son of a former industrialist who committed suicide rather than witness the closure of his factories in the town, is an aspiring journalist reduced to writing editorial about charity bake-offs and college sports. What he really wants to headline in the slowly dying newspaper, The Daily Truth, is his philosophies on the (unnamed Midwest) town that was once the keepers of industrialism, but which is now a town of trainee managers. Oh happy are ye that inherit the deep-fat fryer! What we do now is eat. It has become our sole occupation… a sublimated longing for our dead machines.

The report that Old Man Lawton is missing changes all that. Locals (including the local police) immediately blame the son, Ronny. But whilst there’s motive, there’s not enough evidence. Bill, with his ageing colleagues, editor Sam and photographer Ed, in their hunt for the truth, become more and more embroiled in the bizarre investigation of few clues.

It’s a trailer-trash hunt of incest, abuse, alcoholism, suicide, emotional breakdowns and paranoia. But it’s also a time-crawling hunt during the intense July heat and drought, a physical boredom of intense severity that threatens the return of bake-off lead stories and the newspapermen surviving on whisky and tuna melts (Sam’s speciality).

The Keepers of Truth is a deeply relevant and pertinent social commentary and a morbidly dark comedy (think Coen Brothers or Collins’ countryman, Martin McDonagh). It’s the American dream turned sour told in long, cadenced sentences that create a rhythmic reading that add to that sense of slightly breathless reading.

It’s a real tour de force.

Shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize, The Keepers of Truth lost out to Margaret Atwood and The Blind Assassin.

Booker Prize 2016: Shortlist

Madeleine_Thien_interviewed_by_Dietmar_Kanthak_in_Bonn,_January_2015Back in 2014, the Man Booker Prize made the decision to extend eligibility to include American authors (as long as they were writing in English). Such a decision was not unanimously welcomed. But it was to be 2016 before the Booker judges presented the award for the first time to an American: Paul Beatty and his satirical The Sellout.

Having read all six novels shortlisted for the 2016 award, the question remains – was it the right call? Controversy surrounded the list with the exclusion of J.M.Coetzee’s The Schooldays of Jesus and Elizabeth Strout and My Name is Lucy Barton from the 13-novel longlist.

The shortlist:

Paul Beatty: The Sellout
Deborah Levy: Hot Milk
Graeme Macrae Burnet: His Bloody Project
Ottessa Moshfegh: Eileen
David Szalay: All That Man Is
Madeleine Thien: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

 Only Deborah Levy had appeared on a Booker shortlist before (in 2012 for Swimming Home) and was regarded as one of the favourites to win. Speaking personally, of all the six novels on the list, her Hot Milk was the one I liked least. Using mother-daughter relationships to explore the nature of the feminine (along with hypochondria), it is a strangely inert narrative. Like the daughter, Sofia Papastergiadis, the story is as listless as the temperatures of the southern Spanish setting.

Less pretentious is Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. But like Hot Milk, it is populated with unlikeable characters. At times drab and slow moving, it’s something of a psychological character study with little of any import taking place until the final few pages.

Whilst shortlisted for the Booker as a novel, All That Man Is, to my mind, is a collection of nine short but interrelated stories. Some enjoyable, some minor.

Three down and three to go – and next on my list is the eventual winner, Paul Beatty with The Sellout. As I wrote in my personal review: Technically brilliant, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, savage and outrageous, undoubtedly challenging, yet… Its profane satire is unrelenting, the reading exhausting, the narrative one-dimensional.

It’s just the sort of literary gymnastics that appeals to literary judges – but not necessarily to everyday readers to quite the same extent.

Up until reading my final book on the list, I’d assumed that Graeme Macrae Burnet and his compelling His Bloody Project would have comfortably topped the list.

Set in a remote northern Scottish farming community in 1869, it is a multilayered psychological thriller exploring events leading up to the violent and bloody murder of three members of one family by a 17 year-old neighbour. Absorbing, intricate, His Bloody Project comfortably became the bestseller of the six shortlisted novels.

But Burnet’s magnificent achievement was pipped at the post by Madeleine Thien’s superb Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Magisterial, tragic, profound, enchanting – seven decades of contemporary Chinese history from Mao’s cultural revolution through to the student’s uprising and events at Tiananmen Square.

Booker Prize history was made in 2016 by presenting the award to an American writer – but personally I would have presented it to the Chinese-Canadian author.