Man Booker Prize 2016

The (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel Arrives at Six Finalists, and Deserves a Heartfelt Thank You from Me

 

In the collage above, you can see the six books the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel has determined are the best of all thirteen from the long list. Each one of us has at least one favorite represented in the collection; all of us agree that these are the novels which should ultimately be considered for the prize.

The best part of reading the Man Booker Prize long list for the last five weeks has been reading with these ladies: FrancesNicoleRebecca,  and Teresa. The five of us have read, and tweeted, and sent each other messages since the long list was announced on July 27. In the process, these fellow bibliophiles have broadened my horizons immeasurably.

I have discovered that I am an emotional reader, a reader who focuses on the book more with her heart than her head. And in the last week or so, I have grown to see that I need not bring my agenda to what I read, that I should read with an open mind rather than taking things personally. What an author has written is not necessarily accusatory; there is the possibility (!) that an author is writing to reflect our times. Our culture. Our morality. When I look at a book through a narrow lens made up of only  my beliefs, I am not doing the author, or myself, justice. I have shut out another one of the very reasons I love to read, which is to grow intellectually.

So I thank them, each one, for hearing my point of view nonjudgmentally, for openly discussing their interpretations, for each one contributing to a short list of six with which I wholeheartedly concur.

Now we just have to decide which one of these six should be declared the best, a decision that the official judges will also have to determine, by October 25, 2016.

My Thoughts on the Man Booker Prize Long List for 2016, Not What You Might Expect

man-booker-2016I come to the Man Booker Prize this year much like I come to the Presidential election in November: is this the best there is from which I must choose? While neither candidate of either party satisfies the criteria I am looking for in a leader, neither is there a book in the long list which satisfies the criteria I hold for an outstanding novel. (Only one comes even close.)

What makes an outstanding novel? That’s like describing what makes a truly delicious meal; you can hardly pinpoint the separate elements, but they all combine to make a memorable, unique experience.

For me, a prizeworthy novel has story. It has story which not only wraps me up in its intrigue, it brushes the facets of my own life. It causes me to say, “Oh! I know what that is, or at least I’ve felt that before.”

It has characters that breathe. Characters that feel so real it’s as though they’ve joined me in my living room. We could sit and have a chat together over a cup of tea, and even if we disagree, we have spoken to one other. (If only you were there for the tête-à-tête’s Anna Karenina and I have had.)

It has writing so beautiful I could weep. It has passages that make me pause in my reading to record them in my reading journal; it has quotes that I want to remember long after the novel is finished.

When I consider Man Booker winners in the past, I marvel at their permanence in my life. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of The Day (1989), Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997), Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (2013), Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to The Deep North (2014) and my personal favorite of all time, a book so meaningful to me that I’ve never written about it, A. S. Byatt’s Possession (1990), are all novels I keep on my shelves. I will take them with me if ever I should move.

What would I take with me from this year’s Man Booker short list? My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout is the only one. And as the (Wo)Man Shadow Jury decided to come up with our personal top six for today, and then our top six as a panel tomorrow, I would add the following: The Many by Wyl Menmuir, Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, The North Water by Ian McGuire, His Bloody Project by Graeme Burnet.

Yes, I can count. That’s only five. But, there isn’t another book I would add. As for what I believe will be on the official short list? Most certainly it will include Paul Beatty’s The Sellouthis accusations disguised as humor are well received in today’s political climate.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s verdict from the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Jury, for not everyone agrees with the point of view I have expressed just now. Until then, I leave you with an apt quote from Madeleine Thien’s book, Do Not Say We Have Nothing:

Though, in general, anything universally praised is usually preposterous rubbish.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet (Man Booker long list)

image

We must take things as they really are, and not as we wish them to be. -Rudolph Virchow

Roderick Macrae, from a small hovel in Culduie, Scotland, confessed to his bloody project right from the start of this novel. He willingly took his flaughter from the croft he was tending and applied it to the head of the village constable, Lachlan Mackenzie. (He also did away with Lachlan’s daughter, Flora, and son, Donald.) But, after reading all that Lachlan’s tricky, manipulative, self appointed authority had done to Roderick’s family, I don’t much blame him.

Tensions between Roderick and Lachlan began when Roderick slaughtered a sheep of Lachlan’s, whose leg had become dislocated from being mired in the mud even though Roderick was supposed to be tending the sheep. Roderick’s father was charged 35 shillings for the loss of this sheep, a fee he could ill afford to pay. But Lachlan did not leave his anger when Roderick agreed to work for him in recompense.

He found one way after another to torment Roderick’s family, from impregnating his sister to re-allocating a portion of their land to a neighbor. There was no injustice he seemed incapable of executing on the Macrae family specifically, or the villagers in general. In fact, during the trial, members of the village testified that Lachlan wielded his power in order to advance his own interests.

The novel takes us through each stage of the crime, from every point of view, and in so doing examines the machinations of the law against the poor and uneducated defendant. The whole novel, to me, highlights power that has been put to ill use, from 1869 in which the novel is set, to today. Are our only choices to fight against unjust power with what is considered a crime, or must we simply accept it?

It is masterfully written, certainly beating The Sellout, and A Work Like Any Other in my opinion. (At this point, I am in favor of My Name is Lucy Barton and The Many, first and second, although I have five more books to read before I complete the long list.)

The North Water by Ian McGuire (Man Booker long list)

 

imageWhile Humphrey snoozes, I am doing anything but that as I feverishly turn the pages of The North Water, one of my favorites from the Man Booker long list.

It isn’t the theme so much, although the story of the whaling ship and all its trials is mesmerizing. It’s the characterization, the creation of Henry Drax who is evil incarnate, and Patrick Sumner who is a surgeon with a darkness all his own, that hold my firmest attention.

Hilary Mantel said the novel is, “A tour de force of narrative tension,” and while what she has to say about narrative tension seems counter to what she has produced, with this sentence I would concur.

My summary in two words? Terrifying and compelling.

Fabulous stuff.

Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves (Man Booker long list)

image

The irony in this tragic novel is as strong as the theme of electricity that runs through it. It takes place in Alabama, in the 1920s, vacillating between a farm and Kilby Prison.

Roscoe Martin has rewired electricity to power the struggling farm he and his wife have inherited from her father. He never wanted to be a farmer. He wants to work with electricity instead, and this little bit of power he has siphoned off produces incredible prosperity for their farm.

But when a worker from the electrical company is accidentally killed while inspecting the lines, Roscoe is immediately incarcerated. The brief respite of joy he has rekindled with his wife, Marie, is destroyed. She does not come to visit him in the prison but once, nor does she bring their son, Gerald.

Wilson, the man who worked for Marie’s father, is also imprisoned; he knew about the diversion of electrical power from the main lines of Alabama Power and was complicit by his silence.

How ironic it is that they are held in jail by guards who are less skilled then they are, or by wires containing the very electricity they sought in order to improve the status of the farm.

This is Kilby Prison. We exercise in a dusty yard. Around it, a high wall is strung with wire, and in that wire is electricity, enough electricity to kill George Haskin and anyone, more than they run through Yellow Mama (the electric chair). Listen. Electricity so strong you can hear it.

There are many ways to be imprisoned: by a jail cell, of course, but also by the fallout of choices gone wrong, dreams demolished, or isolation from those we love.

This novel showed how those unimprisoned can be just as guilty of crimes as those who are. How sad it made me for hope deferred, as well as for hope lost altogether.

Hystopia by David Means (Man Booker long list)

image

What we got here is a situation in which the general public is not sure who’s doing the protecting. Some are taking the law into their own hands while others are going mad trying to live up to this so-called Year of Hate thing, and then you have the drugs, of course, and the music.

Just when I think this is the worst time in America ever, I read a book like this and am instantly reminded of life in the late 60s/ early 70s. How well I remember the hippies on the bridge in our town, sitting in a long line with cigarettes in their lips and scorn in their eyes. It frightened me to walk past them in my ankle socks; I was in elementary school, and I barely understood their anger. But, I do remember the families who lost sons and brothers in the Vietnam war. I do remember the flags flying outside of their homes after they received the news that their boys would never come home. Missing in Action. Killed in Action. The uselessness of war. And now we face it all again: the lack of trust in government, the confusion and fear and pain…where does it all go?

Vietnam vet Rake is on a rampage of killing, back in the States, partly because of drugs. Partly because he’s crazy. And then there’s this sentiment from him, “I’m the bad luck brought home. I’m taking the bad luck I had and foisting it on someone else.” How is he to recover from the trauma of being in war?

The government, under Kennedy, has created an enfolding treatment, where the vets can have the trauma of their experiences lifted. (Unless they experience fantastic sex, or being immersed in cold water, then the enfolding reverses itself and carries them back to their original state.) But, that isn’t necessarily a cure either.

…someone who has been through the treatment, who has had the CEP enfolded, is going to feel a desire to unfold. He might think he doesn’t have that desire, and his internal governing system might trick him into feeling assured he is no longer feeling the desire, he’s over the bump, but in truth it’s only natural to want to know the story.

David Means writes a fascinating story, of a time which is quite nostalgic to me as I didn’t have to live through the horrors of it; I was only an observer of those who did. But, more importantly perhaps, this is a story about memory: what it does to us, how we yearn for it and long to run from it at the same time, how what we don’t know is as important, somehow, as what we do.

We not only had too many failed enfolds out there but we also put too much trust in the treatment without understanding that the things we didn’t understand were just as important as those we did. Now we’re  undertaking a review of the entire program, top to bottom.

If it wasn’t so sad, it would make me laugh. Silly government, thinking it can amend for all the wrong it has caused in the people it’s supposed to protect.

The pain of our past is never an easy thing to bear, but it does make us who we are.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (Man Booker long list)

image

This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true. But when I see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk, as though they are free completely from terror, I realize I don’t know how others are. So much of life seems speculation.

I can’t tell you what a lovely morning this has been, sitting with my Lavazza and our lab, Humphrey, slowly absorbing every word on these pages; sometimes stopping to record a sentence in my Midori commonplace book. Like the one at the top of the post, or this one:

Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.

Strout’s writing has the gentleness and insight of true wisdom, so refreshing after feeling bashed over the head by The Sellout.

When Elizabeth Strout speaks of racial inequality, she writes sentences which tear my heart like this one:

How smooth must be the language of the whites, when they can make right look like wrong, and wrong like right.

She does not deny truth, nor, I believe, does she soften it. She simply presents it in an unassuming way, and leaves no part of life undiscussed; from poverty to childhood, illness to parenting, love to marriage, she had me quietly weeping in several places.

I love this book.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty (Man Booker Long List)

image

This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.

That is the very first sentence of the novel, a sentence which immediately sets the tone for the 288 pages which follow. There is nothing subtle to be found in any of them.

The narrator’s father was a social psychologist of some renown, founder and sole practitioner in the field of Liberation Psychology, who changed the family name from Mee to Me.

Bonbon and his father live in Dickens, a ghetto community on the outskirts of Los Angeles, which was established in 1868 as an agrarian community, unlike Irvine which was “a breeding ground for stupid, fat, ugly, white Republicans and the chihuahuas and East Asian refugees who love them…”

As you can see, barely thirty pages in, this book is filled with sarcasm, wit, and accusation. The humor with which he writes does not necessarily make it funny; often it made me, the reader, decidedly uncomfortable. A goal, I suspect, that was tantamount in his mind.

Bonbon describes his father as the Nigger Whisperer, a role which the neighborhood looked to him to fulfill after his father died. This he did, even though his father was only busy as a whisperer on Friday nights.

Every payday he’d be inundated by teeming hordes of the bipolar poor, who having spent it all on one place, and grown tired and undated from the night’s notoriously shitty prime-time television lineup, would I wedge themselves from between the couch-bound obese family members and the boxes of unsold Avon beauty products, turn off the kitchen radio pumping song after song extolling the virtues of Frisau nights living it up at the club, popping bottles, niggers, and cherries in that order, then having canceled the next day’s appointment with their mental health care professional, the chatterbox cosmetologist, who after years of doing heads, still knows only one hairstyle-fried, dyed, and laid to the side-they’d choose that Friday, “day of Venus,” goddess of love, beauty, and unpaid bills to commit suicide, murder, or both. But on my watch people tend to snap on Wednesday. Hump day.

Bonbon is not merely a farmer, or a whisperer. He is fully involved in his community, finding many other places to  ridicule. Here’s an example, as our hero brings a calf to Career Day at Chaff Middle School and plans to discuss castration:

“What’s ‘castration,’ maestro?”

“It’s a way of preventing male animals from fathering any children.”

“Don’t they got cow rubbers?”

“That’s not a bad idea, but cows don’t have hands and, like the Republican Party, any regard for a female’s reproductive rights, so this is a way to control the population.”

I find myself constantly amazed that “a female’s reproductive rights,” or “a woman’s right to healthcare,” are phrases being used to disguise a mother’s choice for her life above any other’s.

Be that as it may, Bonbon decides that what will help the kids to behave and respect each other is to segregate the school. Certainly, he claims, the school had been segregated and re-segregated many times before by reading levels and behavior problems.

“You want to segregate the school by race?”

“Yeah.”

“If you think you can do it, go ahead. But I’m telling you, there’s too many Mexicans.”

He justifies his idea to segregate the school, and then the town, in this way:

I’m a farmer, and farmers are natural segregationists. We separate the wheat from the chaff. I’m not Rudolph Hess, P.W. Botha, Capitol Records, or present-day U.S. of A. Those motherfuckers segregate because they want to hold onto power. I’m a farmer: we segregate in an effort to give every tree, every plant, every poor Mexican, every poor nigger, a chance for equal access to sunlight and water; we make sure every living organism has room to breathe.

In my opinion, The Sellout will go far as a contender for the Man Booker Prize because like The Iraqi Christ which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize a few years ago, it has shock value. It also has the correct political voice for our time.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (Man Booker Long List)

image

…I couldn’t be bothered to deal with fixing things. I preferred to wallow in the problem, dream of better days.

If you look closely at the bottom of the cover you will see the headlights of a Dodge, driving through a wintry December night, and you would never know what it contains. But, you might wonder what is inside now that I’ve presented the situation, and all I’d be willing to disclose is that Eileen is driving this car. Eileen is driving far away from a life of passivity which she has lived for twenty-four years.

Her mother has died. Her sister has gone off, wearing thick black eyeliner, to live with her boyfriend. Her father, once a policeman, is now a drunk living in a broken recliner pulled into the kitchen where he can keep warm by the stove.

I kept chastising Eileen in my mind, wondering why she didn’t clean their house; instead she let the dust accumulate, the dishes lie unwashed, the refrigerator remain mostly bare. She’d buy the bottles of gin her father demanded, eat mayonnaise and bread sandwiches, and wear her mother’s clothes to her job at the prison.

It was a place for adolescents, young men who had stolen or killed, who needed therapy more than incarceration.

The parallels are quite sharp. Eileen lives in a prison of sorts as well, a cold and cruel home which does not, nor did it ever, contain the love and affirmation she needed. Her social graces are stunted, to such a degree that some readers might perceive her as crazy. But, I never saw her that way. I saw her as lonely and sad and stunted because of her circumstances which could only produce severe insecurity.

What courage it takes to overcome the inertia of a downtrodden life. Her beautiful acquaintance, Rebecca, seems to offer friendship and solutions. But it is up to Eileen to bring about a new future, one with more hope, although she is the only one she can ever count on.

Here ends the first book I’ve read from the Man Booker prize long list, a list which promises novels of unique content exquisitely written such as this book is.