October 13, 2015 at 1:24 pm Leave a comment

There’s no point me making any predictions here, because by the time anyone reads this post the result will have been announced. (I’m afraid I lack the wherewithal to keep up with technology and was unable to get online yesterday as the distant library computers I rely on were all down.) Anyway what do I know? As usual I only got round to reading half the shortlist – partly because I spent a lot of time wallowing in Iain Pears’ Arcadia instead. (Very enjoyable, like Narnia for grown-ups, and much better than The Bone Clocks.) I couldn’t fault The Fishermen – it deserves to be as widely read and successful as The Kite Runner, but The Year of the Runaways eluded me until last week, so I cannot offer an opinion as to whether the mystery punter known as ‘Mr Smith‘ will be in the money again this year. I suspect that those two are the sort of books that end up on the shortlist because everyone agrees they are excellent, but without them being the out-and-out favourite of any particular judge. Possible compromise choices if the other four all prove too divisive.

I couldn’t face A Brief History of Seven Killings, partly because of the small print (yes, I have reached that age) but mostly because it has been compared to James Ellroy and Quentin Tarantino. I remember one Christmas my local library (now an empty building) wrapped up some books and handed them out to customers as an extra, mystery loan. Trouble was, half of them were wrapped in blue paper and half in pink. It wasn’t hard to imagine the type of books each colour concealed. I realised then that any book that can be wrapped in blue or pink is of little interest to me. I can’t help wondering if this year the judging process has been a little fractious because, more than any previous year, the shortlist suggests a gender divide.

I suspect that Satin Island, for example, must have had the determined backing of one male-brained judge for it to get this far. It is interesting, but more semi-intellectual noodling than novel in my opinion – a slight, superficial addition to Tom McCarthy’s oeuvre. Although it does sit nicely on the shortlist for The Goldsmith’s Prize – the increasingly impressive rival to the Booker – which prizes originality: novelness, you might say. Their list also includes The Field of the Cloth of Gold – the latest inscrutable treasure from Magnus Mills, Acts of the Assassins by Richard Beard, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter, Lurid & Cute by Adam Thirlwell, and Kevin Barry’s forthcoming Beatlebone.

Anyone wanting experimental fiction, and thinking Satin Island is it, ought to venture back to the very first year of the Booker Prize (1969) and seek out Nicholas Mosley’s Impossible Object which should have won then, and would have walked onto the shortlist any year since. Two of the judges – including the renowned literary critic Frank Kermode – favoured it, but were “silenced.”

“I wanted to write you something impossible,” we are told at the end, “like a staircase climbing a spiral to come out where it started or a cube with a vertical line at the back overlapping a horizontal one in front. These cannot exist in three dimensions but can be drawn in two; by cutting out one dimension a fourth is created. The object is that life is impossible; one cuts out fabrication and creates reality.”

Is reality the impossible object of fiction? He asks. That’s way above my literary pay grade. (Which is zero.) I would like to refer you to a review by John_Self, but there doesn’t seem to be one. We should all pester him to write one.

I was also surprised that A Spool of Blue Thread made it to the shortlist. Indeed, on the day the longlist was announced I was planning to take it back to the library, unfinished, because I didn’t expect it to be on the list. It seemed to be a well-written, good-hearted family saga any well-meaning librarian could happily wrap in pink, rather than literary fiction. I wondered whether I might just as well visit Peyton Place. I think I had been expecting something more like Carol Shields who, sadly, never won the Booker Prize. She should have won in 2002 with Unless, but the judges that year chose a lesser Canadian writer: Yann Martel. Life of Pi, went on to become the biggest selling Booker Prize winner ever, and recently received a Presidential seal of approval from Barack Obama who read it with his daughter, describing it as “a lovely book – an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling.” Nevertheless, the judges got it wrong. Unless, the last novel Shields wrote before succumbing to cancer, is a book every woman needs to read, and every man should be made to read. It also opens with the wisest first paragraph I have ever read:

“It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now. All my life I’ve heard people speak of finding themselves in acute pain, bankrupt in spirit and body, but I’ve never understood what they meant. To lose. To have lost. I believed these visitations of darkness lasted only a few minutes or hours and that these saddened people, in between bouts, were occupied, as we all were, with the useful monotony of happiness. But happiness is not what I thought. Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it’s smashed you have to move into a different sort of life.”

Talking of life…

Not since Owen Meany has a character in American fiction had such an emotional impact on readers as Jude St. Francis in A Little Life – perhaps the strongest favourite for the Booker Prize since Wolf Hall. It has split people like nothing since the death of Princess Diana. Perhaps for similar psychological reasons.

Many readers have been deeply affected by it, but some who felt obliged to read it because it was on the Booker shortlist seem to have read it through gritted teeth. (Colette_Jones on The Mookse and the Gripes forum suggested that A Little Life was likely to win because “if it didn’t annoy them the first and second times, they’re not going to notice problems on a third reading.” Ouch.)

Last year I said that longlists suck, and I am even more convinced this year. If the list of books entered for the prize were published instead of the longlist, no-one in their right mind would try and read all 150-plus novels. We would just read the ones that most appealed to us, rather than trying to plough through a dozen books chosen by a literary committee. No wonder some followers of the prize seem permanently disgruntled by the judges’ selections. In the end the judges are tasked with finding the best book of the year, everything else is gravy. So scrap the longlist and give us the list of submissions instead I say. (Don’t worry, I won’t hold my breath.)

I would be happy to see A Little Life win, but it isn’t the best candidate for the title of greatest American Novel I’ve read this year, or even for the title Great American Gay Novel (as it has been labelled) because back in January I read James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head (1979) – a book most people have never heard of (I certainly hadn’t) which is shameful. One of the all-time great novelists at the peak of his powers, as they say. Around the same time I heard Stephen Fry on the radio show Just A Minute attempting to list some Great American Novels. Disappointingly, he never got beyond dead white men. Which should remind us to give some kudos to the Booker Prize for promoting so much diverse, quality fiction for so many years.


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Grim Shortlist for 2015 Man Booker Prize Marlon James wins 2015 Man Brraper Prize

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