State of the Nation: Only Follow

March 23, 2012 at 12:53 am Leave a comment

Right, I reckon by now the judges should be getting bored of all those recurrent plot devices (“oh look – incest again”) so it must be time to get the crystal ball out…

There are plenty of heavyweight contenders for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. For starters the jury will have to consider at least nine or ten novels by former winners: John Banville, Pat Barker, Peter Carey, Nadine Gordimer, Howard Jacobson, James Kelman, Penelope Lively, Hilary Mantel, Ian McEwan and possibly Kiran Desai (although there doesn’t seem to be a firm date for the publication of The Loneliness of Sonia and Sunny as yet.) Plus a few authors some people might wrongly assume to have won, such as Martin Amis, Michael Frayn and Zadie Smith, whose tremendous essay on the importance of libraries – ‘Library Life’ – I urge everyone to read. (You can find it in Stop What You’re Doing And Read This or The Library Book.)

I expect the bookies – desperate to avoid a repeat of the pasting they got in 2009 – will make Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel’s follow-up to Wolf Hall, their favourite – but if you really want to worry them, ask what odds they would offer on Vikram Seth winning the Man Booker Prize in 2013 with A Suitable Girl, his sequel to the mountainous A Suitable Boy.

This begs a question. Should prize juries lean towards novels by esteemed authors whose output is rare – because, as Harry Mount put it in the Telegraph last year – referring to Alan Hollinghurst – their “opportunities for making the shortlist are infrequent”?

Which brings me to Lawrence Norfolk. (Would it be trite to refer to him as Britain’s Umberto Eco? Yes? OK, I won’t then.) His first novel in twelve years – John Saturnall’s Feast – would be my tip, if I were forced at gunpoint to try to pick a winner at this foolishly early stage, but maybe that’s me being over-impressed by the “first novel in twelve years” thing. Another to watch for is Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis which I think has Booker shortlist written all over it. Just don’t try to quote me on either of those predictions or I will disavow all knowledge of this post. (“I was hacked I tell you!”)

Besides, Alex Preston (whose second novel The Revelations, with its “echoes of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History“, could also be on the judges’ reading pile) has warned us not to bet against John Lanchester’s Capital winning. “Apparently,” as an unconvinced-sounding Benjamin Judge reminds us at the start of his review, “2012 will be the Year of the State-of-the-Nation novel.” Of course, this is mainly because Martin Amis has written one – the “mysteriously poignant” (?!) Lionel Asbo. Such novels have not fared well in the past though – think A Week in December or The Northern Clemency – and, arguably, the best state of the nation novels tend to be the ones set in the future: like Jonathan Trigell’s Genus last year.

Capital has already featured on BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime – which was such a surprisingly good predictor last year, as has Swimming Home – Deborah Levy’s first novel in fifteen years. (Twelve years? Fifteen years? It’s like the emergence of the literary Magicicada! Timothy Mo’s Pure is his first new novel since the 1990’s as well.) Radio 4 listeners may also have heard Care of Wooden Floors – Will Wiles’s wonderfully dry debut, which I thoroughly recommend. I just hope the judges don’t find it so enjoyable that it doesn’t seem worthy enough. Another debut novel likely to be featuring on every book club reading list soon is The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce – who has already been described, somewhat rashly perhaps, by one reviewer as “the Alan Bennett of her generation.”

So what about some humour? Every year I hope to see something witty or quirky on the Booker longlist, and this year the judges have no right to disappoint. As well as Care of Wooden Floors there are also new books from Nicola Barker (The Yips), Michael Frayn (Skios), Howard Jacobson (Zoo Time) and Will Self (Umbrella).

Self also pops up in Samantha Mills’ debut The Quiddity of Will Self – raising the bizarre, if rather unlikely, possibility of him being longlisted as both author and subject. According to the aformentioned Jonathan Trigell “If you love books so much that you love even the word ‘book’. Then this is a book you’ll love.” It has also been likened to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, as has The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood – turns out, 2012 is actually the Year of the it-reminds-me-of-The-Secret-History novel. Reassuringly though the Will Self worshippers of Mills’ novel claim to “prefer serial readers to serial killers” according to a recent tweet from them (which also claims that “Self’s prose induces higher states of sublime consciousness.”) Yes, nowadays characters are no longer restricted to the pages of the novel, they wander all over the internet as well.

It seems only a matter of time before Booker judges find themselves debating their choices with fictional characters online. I look forward to seeing the resulting spat between @thewillselfclub and @thatdanstevens should Umbrella fail to make the longlist. Characters from one book taking a judge to task for not longlisting another? *gets popcorn*

Although there is (at time of writing) no @thejohnselfclub metafictionally lobbying on behalf of Lionel Asbo, there is the @john_self to champion Keith Ridgway, who describes his latest novel Hawthorn and Child as “an episodic book of detachable fictions.” It sounds as arresting as it looks.

Finally, although I don’t know exactly who I.J. Kay – author of Mountains of the Moon – is, I’m pretty sure she isn’t that J.K. No, that J.K. would choose a more subtle pseudonym, wouldn’t she? Anyway, now we know that details of the new book by that J.K. won’t be revealed until later in the year, it can’t be her, can it? Still, rumours don’t start themselves you know…

You can find all these and many other eligible books on this list at GoodReads – which was made more difficult to compile this year following their schism with Amazon. Funnily enough this has made me a little less sympathetic to the book world’s enmity towards Amazon, because it revealed to me just how much better at providing information they are than some publishers. I tried to find information about one book – by an author whose previous tome was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize – and there was no mention of it on the publishers’ website, despite it being due out within a few weeks according to Amazon. It’s like professionals versus amateurs. The words ‘only’ and ‘connect’ spring to mind.

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Booker 2012: Even Posher Bingo? Man Booker Prize 2012: Longlist contenders

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