Some thoughts on the 2016 Manhood Booker Prize longlist

September 12, 2016 at 1:57 pm Leave a comment

I used the n-word a lot when I was fifteen. I had to: we were made to study The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for English Literature O-Level. Years later I was much amused to discover English literature students in America were being made to read How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman (the controversial 1994 Booker Prize winning f-fest about a blind drunk Glaswegian). I mention this because I suspect the n-word appears far more often in Paul Beatty’s The Sellout than in Huckleberry Finn. (Surely somewhere there is a proper journalist counting exactly how many times for a shock-horror-headline.)

Beatty is perfectly entitled to use the n-word but, surprisingly, it can be found in several other novels on the longlist. Presumably those authors believe that since they are writing historical fiction, and that is the sort of language their characters would have used, they are entitled too. I am not so sure.

I enjoyed The Sellout. I love satire. I suppose I am more of a cynic than a critic. I’m glad the judges introduced me to this book and I hope they shortlist it, but I don’t think it is quite funny enough or, bizarre as it may sound, angry enough to be truly great. And it would need to be truly great to win the prize, because it would be far and away the most controversial winner ever.

“Fuck plot and fuck story and fuck the way one thing fits to another and fuck cause and effect, because there wasn’t none, and if there was we didn’t see much of it”, says a character in Hystopia by David Means, which is set in the Year of Hate. (That’s an American Year of Hate, rather than Brexit Britain 2016.)

Dripping with testosterone, life is too short for this massive pool of wank. When I reached page one hundred I felt I deserved a medal. Kurt Vonnegut has a lot to answer for. I would have voted for Donald Trump if he promised to make it stop. To think I could have been re-reading Catch-22 with the Guardian’s reading group.

The reviewer in The Guardian described Hystopia as “a novel that uses extreme violence as the hook to keep you reading.” They could have said the same about The North Water by Ian McGuire – a book that is more of an Ice Station Zebra-wannabe than the new Moby Dick. The type of historical adventure that pings the Booker radar every few years – eg The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, English Passengers, Jamrach’s Menagerie etc. – only nastier. The sort of book ‘shitwick’ Brexit voters in Ian McGuire’s hometown of Hull, wallowing in the gory good-old-days where political correctness has no jurisdiction, and you can call a spade a spade, will enjoy.

At one point we are told that: “the most important questions are the ones we can’t hope to answer with words. Words are like toys: they amuse and educate us for a time, but when we come to manhood, we should give them up.”

Oh, manhood. Put it away.

Wyl Menmuir’s The Many is the most hallucinatory novel I’ve read since Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr and could add some creepy colour to the shortlist. The meaning of the title is a puzzle to many. I wonder if it is a coincidence that ‘man’ is most of the title? Because the most astonishing thing about The Many, is how womany it isn’t. Orphan protagonists are a common trope in children’s fiction because it is convenient for authors to get the parents out of the way, regrettably many male authors seem to adopt the same tactic with regard to female characters. At the end of The Many, I found the absence of Timothy’s wife astounding – it begs a whole ‘nother story.

A story of women sidelined or missing altogether in book after book. In 2016. Anyone thinking of applying The Bechdel Test to this longlist needn’t bother. This is a man’s man’s Man Booker Prize. If The Baileys Prize didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent it. And I haven’t even mentioned David Szalay’s All That Man Is yet!

“Sometimes I worry about my attitude to women” one of Szalay’s believably awful male characters says at one point – or was it the author, talking to himself? I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that All That Man Is is a knowing critique of 21st century manhood.

There are female characters in J.M. Coetzee’s The Schooldays of Jesus but – spoiler alert – sometimes men do very bad things to women in his novels.

 

So, having read have about eight and a half of the books on the longlist, have I changed my mind about the rash prediction I made in my last post, where I tipped Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing as the winner? No, but I did underestimate Hot Milk by Deborah Levy.

Deborah Levy is a terrific writer: unsettling; mystifying. According to Ron Charles in  The Washington Post, “the seductive pleasure of Levy’s prose stems from its layered brilliance.” That explains that then.

The title alone deserves a prize. Two common words – how can they not have been put together as a title before? Isn’t there a wrongness about hot milk? Surely milk is usually either cold or warm? I remember reading somewhere about a literature professor who spent a whole lecture unpacking and dissecting the first sentence of Great Expectations. There’s probably a whole lecture to be had about the title Hot Milk.

The bookies are probably right to make it the favourite. This year’s judges seem to have been drawn to wooziness, and it matches The Schooldays of Jesus and The Many for that without drifting too far into the Twilight Zone. I wasn’t convinced by the ending, but I am convinced that Deborah Levy will win the Booker Prize sooner or later.

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Do Not Say You Were Not Told The 2016 Man Booker Prize for Fiction – Shortlist

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