Friday, July 30, 2010

Books and the Booker

Books and the Booker by Pants

I hate calling it the 'Man' Booker Prize. It's an unwelcome reminder that at least two thirds of all literary prizes are won by men. The Booker, to use my preferred nomenclature, does mix it up a bit, with the occasional woman, non-white man and even non-white woman breaking through. I haven't read all the winning books since the prize's inception in 1969 but I've worked my way through nearly all in the last twenty years and most of the shortlist as well.

There are a few missing from my experience. At the moment I'm reading The Line of Beauty. I first started to read it in 2005. I was a few pages in when the London bombings occurred. I was on the tube, going to work at Wembley Town Hall at the time. All I'd remembered was that Nick's first ever blind date is with a black guy who works for The London Borough of Brent. His ghost would have been located somewhere in my building. I found that mildly amusing, but not enough to keep on with the book. I'm having better luck this time.

These days I don't buy books new as they cost the same as a week's worth of wine and groceries. Luckily for me, there is a charity shop in our nearest big town where someone with both a high disposable income and Booker-related tastes deposits her pre-devoured books with unseemly haste. She must have a spurn-after-reading policy. I assume she's female because women comprise the vast majority of readers of literary fiction. Last week I picked up a copy of Wolf Hall for a precious few of our local dollars. Thank you frivolous benefactor.

My other source is throwing out great hints around birthdays and Christmas. By this method I have acquired several Booker winners and one or two shortlisters. I've assembled all the chosen that could be culled from my bookshelves and photographed while the microwave was reheating last night's leftover gnocchi and char-grilled vegetables. It should be noted that when Barney char grills it usually isn't intentional but I don't like to waste food. I am less precious about sparing Barney's feelings.

I'm fairly sure I've got a copy of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin somewhere. Despite my spending the better part of a day sorting my fiction collection into alphabetical order, it was not there among the 'A's. I secured a copy of The Inheritance of Loss by Kirin Desai on one of my regular assaults on the Ilford Oxfam just before I left England for good in 2008. I was on my way to India and thought it would be a good topical read. I was there for over a month and, fortunately, fell in with a group of readers. We kept swapping books and I ended up with a lovely hardcover first edition of On Chesil Beach.

Sadly, that was a week or so after I'd met Ian McEwan in Jaipur so I wasn't able to get him to sign it. On that occasion, the sainted one said some rather spiteful things about Anne Enright's book The Gathering, which had beaten him out for the Booker a few months earlier. I wouldn't have liked to have had to choose between them. I didn't get to read The Gathering until I arrived in Australia and secured a library card. Then I could see why McEwan was so pissed off. They'd essentially written the same book. Both were stunningly crafted examinations of human frailty. When I feel, as I so often do, that I'm completely ill-equipped for life, a book like The Gathering or On Chesil Beach reminds me that I'm failing at least as well as most people.

By chance, I recently came across an article or blog post which I have now no hope of referencing because it was days ago and there has been much wine under the bridge since then. The substance was that the writer had attended a writing workshop given by Anne Enright in which Ms Enright advised on the writing of dialogue. What she said was that one should hold a page of dialogue at a distance and if the lines looked roughly the same length, then you're doing it right. Arise St. Anne.

I've recently read Cormac McCarthy's The Road for the first (and very likely not the last) time. It absolutely obeys the Enright manifesto and is a work of complete perfection. It would, of course, never have been eligible for The Booker Prize which is only open to writers from countries who did not wage war on the British Empire and win. This is going to sound strange but reading that book brimmed me over with hope. McCarthy allows himself a pauper's palette of possibilities yet creates an absolute jewel from almost nothing. Something about that just makes me want to live.

Mostly, I agree with Booker selections. The God of Small Things, A Fraction of the Whole, Vernon God Little, and Booker of Bookers winner Midnight's Children will always have an honoured place among my favourite books. Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole lost out in 2008 to Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger. It seemed a bit unfair. Although I enjoyed The White Tiger I had a lot of trouble getting into step with its rhythm. This week I listened to a recording of it with first-person narrator Balram represented precisely in the clich├ęd sing-songy voice my instincts were working very hard to reject on ethical grounds. I immediately reviewed the text and found the writer's intent was to infer exactly that voice. Multiculturalism is complicated.

Which brings me to the latest Booker longlist. I've only read one of the books on it, The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. I've also only read one of the shock omissions, Solar by Ian McEwan. As difficult as it is to leave aside my McEwan bias, all I can say is I wouldn't have minded being a fly on the wall in the McEwan house when the list was announced, especially if he'd read The Slap.

It is the sort of book that induces only despair for the future of literature. It struggles to overcome an extreme hands-off editing strategy which often leaves you wondering if you're reading several drafts of the same sentence. The laboured explanations of cultural and symbolic references are simply baffling. 'Show don't tell' is superseded by 'show and tell to the point of torture'. If, as has been suggested by the local media, The Slap represents life in modern multicultural Australia, then I'm an inter-generational panel beater on the international gelati exchange. Seriously, the only pertinent slap present is to the face of the intelligent reader.

Solar - I know I've been saying I'd write a review for weeks. I just loved it and can't imagine that I could add much to what's already been said about it. It's a familiar journey in excellence. Ma Pants, (who is 80), and I read it at the same time and we had several highly animated discussions on the finer points. Perhaps this isn't much of an advert. Possibly more a kiss of death. I hope it's not the case that Booker judges are presuming to pander to what they imagine is more accessible to young people - i.e. representing the muck and mess of life with mucky and messy writing.

McEwan's infuriatingly successful non-entity Michael Beard and his complexity of work/life intrigues is far more fascinating to me than Tsiolkas's cardboardery of creeps whose inability to resolve their tediously contrived minor personal 'issue' unfolds over an interminable 483pp. After overhearing St. Ian diss St. Anne I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear that the body of one C. Tsiolkas has been found inexplicably inert in the vicinity of a damaged glass table.

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Those of you who are parents or owners of expensive hyp0-allergenic designer pets will, I am sure, sympathise with my current position. Barney, as you may know, is a billionaire in his own right but I am still responsible for his conduct. You cannot imagine my horror at being accused of owning a pet who knowingly contributed to the intoxication of a man who has been eligible to get legless for the past three years. Yes, I am ashamed to admit that Daniel Radcliffe's 21st birthday party did, in fact, take place at one of Barney's extensive chain of Goblet of Fire Vodka Bars. You cannot imagine what we had to promise the Daily Mail to suppress Barney's involvement. Suffice to say that his cameo in The Deathly Hallows is probably being excised as I write. I did warn him...