The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (Man Booker Prize 2018 long list) “You have to fight people or you end up with nothing.”

“I used to feel sorry for you bitches,” Jones said. “But if you want to be a parent, you don’t end up in prison. Plain and simple. Plain and simple.”

Life used to be just that straightforward to me. “You live the life you choose,” I thought.

To some extent, I still think that. I want to believe that we control our lives: work hard, have a home; take care of your body, don’t get sick. But the older I get, the more I realize that point of view is very simplistic.

Rachel Kushner shows us, in The Mars Room, how hard it is to be brought up with a dysfunctional mother in the poorest parts of San Francisco. How a childhood of zero chances can more often than not turn into an adult life with the same.

Her heroine, Romy Hall, has been a stripper in a club called the Mars Room. She leaves her son, Jackson, with her mother and tries to strike a balance between entertaining the men enough that they will pay her, but not so much that they stalk her. As one, in particular, does. Relentlessly following her even to another state when she tries to relocate to get away from him.

The way that she describes her childhood is sorrowful, heartbreaking stuff; it’s a life of sneaking into movie theaters, getting drunk on weeknights, fighting for a place in the world because no one’s going to make one for you.

Life in prison is not any better.

Romy is there with a minimum of two life sentences, along with other achingly drawn characters such as Conan, a transvestite, and Sammy Fernandez, who has a network of friends from being incarcerated several times before. We can see what a hopeless place of despair the women’s prison, Stanville, is. Even though these few form a family of sorts, there is no home for them. No comforts, no promise for the future, no hope.

The only thing that gives Romy the least bit of comfort is that her son has a chance for a good life. It is not too late for him, at least.

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso (Man Booker Prize 2018 long list)

Calvin Wrobel is a boundary technician for the Air Force in Colorado. His job is to “look for weaknesses in the system, update firewalls, investigate possible security breaches.”

His friend Ted appears on his door on evening, having left Chicago because his girlfriend, Sabrina, is missing. And then a videotape is sent to a news agency depicting her gruesome murder.

How strange it is, to me, to be reading of horrific events in our recent history (from 9-11, to shootings in schools, to the violence we encounter every day on the news) in a comic book form. Yes, I know it’s a graphic novel. I know the subject matter can be serious even when it’s drawn with cartoon characters who have bland expressions. But, the overall effect for me is a little bit like Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature.

What?

Are the judges just showing they can be advant garde? Or, is this work truly worthy of a literature prize? I feel like the boy in The Emporer’s New Clothes, the only one willing to declare the truth. “He’s naked!” becomes “It’s a cartoon!” for me.

And yet, the more I read, the more I could acknowledge the impact of this graphic novel. I do not think it should receive the Man Booker Prize, especially when compared with the astonishing writing of Donal Ryan and Michael Ondaatje. But, there is no denying that Nick Drnaso takes on contemporary America, the way that social media distorts truth, and the very real pain resulting from rampant murder in an extremely powerful way.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje “We order our lives with barely held stories.” (Man Booker Prize 2018 long list)

If you grow up with uncertainty you deal with people only on a daily basis, to be even safer on an hourly basis.  You do not concern yourself with what you must or should remember about them. You are on your own. So it took me a long time to rely on the past, and reconstruct how to interpret it. (p. 169)

Rachel and Nathaniel are left in the care of The Moth, a friend of their parents. They believe their mother and father have gone off to Singapore for a year, but they realize there must be different circumstances when Rachel finds their mother’s trunk in the basement the winter after they left.

The Moth, and his friend The Plimico Darter, make strange caretakers for these siblings. The Moth can disappear for days, yet he reassures them that they are perfectly safe as The Darter has driven by their home to check on them in the night. The Darter has odd girlfriends who come and go, one in particular is seemingly more friendly with Rachel and Nathaniel than she is to him. Why would parents leave their children to these two? Why would the mother leave her trunk behind after packing it so carefully? Where are these parents, exactly?

Michael Ondaatje’s novel, Warlight, examines memory. Abandonment. Family ties. It draws me more deeply in with every page I turn, curious as to the whereabouts of the parents and the survival of the children who are left to grow up on their own.

It is not without resentment that they rear themselves, surrounded by strangers who care to some degree or another about their well-being, but certainly can never replace one’s parents. Or, more particularly, one’s mother. Rachel suffers from terrible epileptic seizures, and who is there to help her? Walter, The Moth. She grows so hateful toward her mother that their relationship becomes irreparable.

But, Nathaniel sits with her when he is 18 and she is 40, playing a game of chess, learning about what it was like for his mother when she was in the Service of the British Army during WWII. They both had to learn how to manage when life was schwer, a German word meaning “hard”, although in entirely different ways.

If a wound is great you cannot turn it into something that is spoken, it can barely be written. (p. 275)

Ondaatje’s novel unfolds as a grown-up Nathaniel searches out his mother’s past, uncovering what she has done, whom she has been with, and why she felt she could leave them. It’s a sad book, reflecting on a mother’s life which did not include much love for her children. And while it is potentially powerful, I’m rather disappointed as I close the last page, feeling that there should have been so much more. At least for Nathaniel and Rachel.

 

From A Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan (Man Booker long list 2018)

Sometimes I think my book review posts ought to consist of nothing more than, “Read this now.” But, how many times do I come across a book which is truly spectacular? Not enough to warrant that kind of statement. So, I write the quotes which have impressed me. I try to give a summary without disclosing too much of the plot. I rarely say how truly special a book is until now.

This book is truly special.

It has been listed for the Man Booker Prize 2018, and if it wins I won’t be a bit surprised. Or, sorry (even though it’s the only book from the long list which I have read so far).

It is a story of three men who have each lost something in their lives. Farouk has had to leave Syria with his wife and daughter, searching for safety for them all. Lampy has had to deal with the loss of Chloe, whom he loves with all his heart even though the feeling is not reciprocated. And, John has to face life without his brother, without the love of his father which he so desperately craves.

These apparently disparate stories are told with such clarity, such sensitivity, such a tenderness, that I savored every word to fully dwell on the story. Each character is so fully realized I feel as if I have met them personally, had them tell me their story in their own words while we sat across from each other. Perhaps best of all, they are intertwined in wholly unexpected ways, bringing them into perfect syncopation with each other.

I loved it. From a Low and Quiet Sea is the best book I’ve read all year.

(Find an excellent review from Booker Talk here.)

The Man Booker 2018 long list is revealed

I am not surprised to see Michael Oondatje’s book, Warlight, but I am surprised by Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, in the Man Booker Prize longlist for 2018.

I have a plethora of books laid out for me as I hope to continue with Paris in July as well as Spanish Lit month (which thankfully extends into August), so I am not sure how many of these I’ll read before the short list is announced on September 20.

The 2018 longlist, or Man Booker ‘Dozen’, of 13 novels, is:

Author (country/territory)          Title (imprint)

Belinda Bauer (UK)                      Snap (Bantam Press)

Anna Burns (UK)                          Milkman (Faber & Faber)

Nick Drnaso (USA)                       Sabrina (Granta Books)

Esi Edugyan (Canada)                 Washington Black (Serpent’s Tail)

Guy Gunaratne (UK)                    In Our Mad And Furious City (Tinder Press)

Daisy Johnson (UK)                     Everything Under (Jonathan Cape)

Rachel Kushner (USA)                The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape)

Sophie Mackintosh (UK)              The Water Cure (Hamish Hamilton)

Michael Ondaatje (Canada)         Warlight (Jonathan Cape)

Richard Powers (USA)                 The Overstory (William Heinemann)

Robin Robertson (UK)                  The Long Take (Picador)

Sally Rooney (Ireland)                  Normal People (Faber & Faber)

Donal Ryan (Ireland)                    From A Low And Quiet Sea (Doubleday Ireland)

Are there any which surprise you? Any you wish would be the winner, which is to be declared on October 16?