Tomcat’s Bookerthon: a conclusion.

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.  Several weeks ago I threw the gauntlet of literary fiction at my own feet, and set myself a challenge; of reading, and of writing.  Attempting to report on the entire 2010 Booker Prize longlist was a noble undertaking, but one which, regrettably, fell beyond my powers of endurance.  However, my failure wasn’t total. I did manage to read all thirteen nominated novels; it’s merely in the writing of reviews that I’ve been unsuccessful.

Circumstance hasn’t allowed me the time I need to sit down and write about all of the books I’ve read, and for that I apologise.  But these blog posts don’t write themselves.  Unbelievably, it takes many hours of blood, sweat, tears and toil to churn out such poor-quality pieces of clunk and cliché.  Soaring to the giddy heights of reviewerly mediocrity doesn’t come easy to me; yet I press on, and I will review all of the out-standing Booker nominees in the coming weeks.  In the meantime, I’d like to use this article to make some final comments on the Booker prize, as well as to commit some sickening and vainglorious acts of self-praise, as I congratulate myself on having read twelve pieces of serious literary fiction, and The Slap, in just eight weeks.  Haven’t I done well?

My Bookerthon journey has transported me literarily (not literally) to: Canada, Australia, Eighteenth-Century Japan, Russia, Greece, India, Holland, France, Ireland, Egypt, Africa, Nineteenth-Century Jamaica, and that favourite staple of the English metropolitan literati: South London.  I’ve never felt more well-travelled, or well-read.  A book-by-book tour of the longlist’s settings would show you half the world; I may even suggest a Booker Prize Cruise to P&O.  Next year, if I find myself richer and more eccentric, I could read every nominated novel while journeying through the country of its setting.  Though now I’ve stated this as my pre-facto modus operandi, the Booker judges will inevitably put-paid to the idea by nominating twelve books set in North Korea, Tibet, Iran and Atlantis.

But does breadth of time and place equate to breadth of style and theme?  The answer, you won’t be surprised to learn, is: no.  The Booker prize enjoys a prestigious reputation as the pantheon of modern English literary writing.  When Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer dominate the bestsellers, we can always rely on the Booker judges to point us in the direction of quality, depth of emotion and profundity of thought.  At least, that’s what they’d like us to believe.  Ostensibly the prize represents the best literary fiction of the past twelve months; but if reading the entire longlist has taught me anything, it’s that the Booker committee’s definition of ‘literary’ is shockingly narrow.

Admittedly, I don’t pander to any stringent classification of ‘literariness’ whatsoever.  I like Simon Schama more for the lyricism of his prose than the content of his history.  Conversely, I find much of Dickens to be border-line unreadable.  ‘Literary’, to me, has always been an elastic and ambivalent critical term, a bit messy and hard to define.  However, the Booker judges are untroubled by such mitigating quandaries, and seem to have pinned down this ever elusive moniker with alarming precision.  If this year’s longlist is representative of the ouvre, then “literary fiction” is much narrower in scope than I ever imagined.

For the judges of the Booker prize seem to consider “literary fiction” to be a very specific brand of uber-realistic, psychologically sober, historically-informed utilitarianism: social fiction; Big Fiction.  Nothing about the longlist is non-linear, speculative, genre-defying or experimental.  What do the Booker nominated novels all have in common?  They all carry with them the cumbersome weight of plausibility.

Maybe I over-egged that a bit, so don’t get me wrong – narrative realism isn’t a bad thing, far from it; but it’s not the only stylistic idiosyncrasy that’s conducive to good writing. The judges don’t so much play it fast and loose with their choices as they do slow and tight.  None of this year’s nominees would be out-of-place as adaptations on the BBC’s autumn line-up.  With the possible exception of C, all are staid and familiar.  Accomplished, but unthreatening.  The 2010 Booker prize longlist felt like a place I’ve visited many times before.

In a previous post, I bemoaned the exclusion of such writers as Alastair Reynolds, Philip Pullman, China Mieville and Ian Banks from nomination; I even began to question the value of my own taste.  But having read the entire longlist for myself, the truth is now clear to me.  These books were excluded not because they’re bad fiction, but because they’re the wrong type of fiction.  The title of “Man Booker Prize for Fiction” is really a daring deceit; a misnomer of nomenclature.  The Booker Prize espouses such a narrow definition of ‘literary fiction’ that it has, in a way, spawned its own genre of writing.  It’s somewhat worrying that the adjective ‘Bookeresque’ could be used to define the narrative style of the entire longlist; so homogenised are the nominees.  China Mieville may compose the most sublime and insightful piece of writing ever produced, but if it’s a work of his transgressive experimentalism, then he’ll never be nominated.

 So maybe it’s time that the Booker Prize FOR FICTION either re-defines its terms, or re-titles its…err…title.  Let’s be frank: the Booker is a genre prize, in much the same capacity as the Arthur C. Clarke or the CWA awards.  My laboured point, condensed, is this: the Booker Prize doesn’t represent the best of English language fiction, but the best of a certain type of English language fiction.  And this, I think, is a shame.  Alastair Reynolds’ books contain all the colours of human emotion; he just has space ships too.  If only the judges would give a nod-of-the-head to a work of crime, or horror, or sci-fi (or any of the portmanteau works of transgressive fiction currently doing the rounds), then I’m sure people’s eyes would be opened to the real breadth of brilliant, brilliant writing that’s out there.  The Booker judges could be responsible for banishing this new myth that literary fiction is a specific kind of realistic, safe writing.  Many of the Booker nominees are brilliant, but they’re all of a type.  I’m taking issue with the spread of the longlist, rather than any of its individual titles  And thus the Booker, despite how it’s marketed, isn’t a prize for all of fiction, but for a comfortable brand of predictable MOR narrative.

It wouldn’t take an implausible paradigm shift for the Booker to incorporate the weirder and more speculative aspects of literary writing; and in doing so it would  truly earn the right to bear the title ‘prize for fiction’.  All fiction.  As things stand, the Booker institution is perpetuating a false notion that weird, unrealistic or experimental writing isn’t literary or valuable.  The Booker Prize is a bully by neglect.

Sorry about that rant, something more melodramatic than British took hold of me.  But I hope that my point stands.  Of course, none of this means that the books which have been shortlisted are inadequate or poor; they’re just not the complete picture of current English literary writing.

Anyway; enough of what could have been, and on to what is.

Of the thirteen novels originally nominated, six were chosen to form this year’s shortlist:

C – Tom McCarthy

The Long Song – Andrea Levy

The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson

In a Strange Room – Damon Galgut

Room – Emma Donoghue

Parrot and Olivier in America – Peter Carey

I’ve already taken issue with the quality of several of these books, and I’m wary of repeating myself, so please peruse my previous posts if you’re at all interested in mythoughts.   Suffice and sufficient to say; I think that C by Tom McCarthy should win this year’s gong.  It’s a masterwork; its themes of transmission and loss are explored with a fearless devotion to intricacy, and a refusal to simplify or condense.  Parts of the novel manage to conduct a wonderfully violent attack upon the precepts of organised language.  In it the lexicon of technology is converged with that of grief in an unusual yet moving way.  It’s never contrived, and through constant yet subtle literary references, C manages to make extraordinary points about the interconnectedness of language, literature, life and loss.  It kicks-ass and you should read it.

 And so I am glad that I decided to embark upon this ill-fated but interesting reading project.  It’s been a learning experience.  Without it, I probably wouldn’t have come across such brilliant books as C, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, or Room.

Yet despite discovering these novels, I won’t ever be undertaking such a reading project again.  Unless it’s for money.  The more I read, the less I enjoyed myself; and as the weeks progressed, this challenge began to feel more like a test of my readerly stamina than a quest to discover new, great literature.  I did enjoy several of the books on the longlist; but many others I disliked, even hated.  I forced myself to spend many long hours ploughing through books that would otherwise never have interested me.  And I regret having to fritter away my time on such literary abortions as The Slap or Helen Dunmore’s The Betrayal.  Yet being the conscientious tyke that I am, I was determined to finish every book, no matter how tedious the reading experience.  See? I suffer for my art.  Or, rather, for certain writers’ lack thereof.

 Another point that stuck me, like a crowbar to the back of the head, was the utter futility of comparing so many books.  Examining such contrasting novels as Howard Jacobson’s Jewish comedy of manners and Emma Donoghue’s thriller of childhood incarceration, then attempting to resolve which one is ‘best’, seems a somewhat facile undertaking.  I’m aware that it’s the only way that one can judge a prize such as the Booker; but I don’t envy the judges their task.

So here’s another of the lessons this experience has taught me: many books are incomparable, and arguing ( for example) that Trespass is a better murder story than The Long Song is a slave narrative just strikes me as…stupid.  In the free country of the Redroom, at least, it’s not how things are done.

 —

Ultimately, the deeper I dug, the more frustrated I became.  Firstly, with the limited scope of the books that were selected for the longlist (the usual spread of historical fiction, family dramas and books by Peter Carey); secondly, and by association, with the amount of my favourite fiction of the year that wasn’t nominated; and thirdly, with the complete banality of comparing so many different books, in order to discern an individual winner.  I know the Booker prize is a force for good; if nothing else, it draws attention to niche writing that would otherwise never find its way into the bestsellers chart.  And I am glad that I didn’t detect any vein of misguided political correctness running through the judges’ choices; as is so often rumoured to be the case.

But mostly, I just couldn’t wait for the process to be over, so I could once again walk in the free gardens of literary choice, where my taste isn’t dictated to me, and where I can read whatever I choose, whenever I choose it.   If the judges ever decide to shake things up by nominating fewer works of historical fiction and family saga in favour more left-field and experimental novels, then give me a call.  But as things stand, my final realisation is this: I couldn’t give a crap about the Booker prize.

Tomcat

Room – Emma Donoghue

Apparently there’s a lot of ‘buzz’ surrounding this book.  This makes me instantly suspicious.  The literary press, like so many January Sale shoppers, have been falling over themselves to claim that they saw it first; Emma Donoghue (Irish born, Cambridge Educated, Canadian living) is even rumoured to have been paid an advance of quarter-of-a-million pounds for it – an almost unheard of amount of money for a writer who has enjoyed only moderate success.  With so much fuss surrounding a brand-new novel by a (relatively) obscure writer, I just had to read it for myself – if only to sate my curiosity.

Here’s the blurb:

Jack is five years old.  He’s spent his entire life locked inside a small room with his mother; he’s never been outside, he doesn’t even know that there is an outside.  Maybe there isn’t.  Jack’s universe is the room he lives in and the few objects inside it.

Intriguing stuff – one glimpse at this short synopsis filled me with a thousand questions, and the philosopher within me got very excited – he only seldom comes out to play.  However, I soon found that the most pressing question – what is going on? – is answered within the first few pages: it turns out that Room isn’t the highly abstract, experimental novel I thought it was going to be.  Jack’s mum has been kidnapped and raped, held in captivity for seven years and given birth to a son in the process. I entered Room expecting Plato’s cave; what I found was Fritzl’s basement.

But once I’d gotten over this initial disappointment, I began to realise that the two aren’t so dissimilar.  Superficially, Room is the story of a woman who’s taken from the street, raped, and has a child she is forced to bring up in captivity.  But even the most meagre scratch through the surface of this narrative will expose a whole array of philosophical themes flowing through the novel, surging like a restless underground river: sensory deprivation, the development of language, notions of ‘society’, isolation, grief and sociopathy are just a few of the ‘big issues’ tackled by Room.  And it tackles them well.  Its subject matter makes Room a disturbing book, but I want you to dispel any pre-conceived notions of what a misery memoir or novel of abuse is like; this is not one of those books.

The entire novel is narrated by five-year-old Jack in the first-person singular present tense.   He has no notion of anything outside of the room in which he was born; there are no windows and he is pushed inside a wardrobe by his mother whenever their captor brings food.  His friends are Dora the Explorer and Lady Gaga – but they ‘are TV’ and don’t talk to him.  At this point it would be tempting to make some crass comparison between the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave and images displayed by modern television; but to draw such an association would be a bit twee.

As Jack’s life experience is so limited, so is his use of language.  Emma Donoghue has, very clearly, put a great deal of research and effort into Jack’s characterisation – and I readily admit that Jack is one of the most original voices in fiction that I’ve ever come across. 

Jack has no concept of multiplicity, or that anything exists beyond his day-to-day experience in the room.  As such he employs no grammatical articles when he speaks; there is not a bed or the bed, simply ‘bed’.  Nothing is an indefinite or definite article – for Jack, the abstract of any given noun is, essentially, its entire identity.  He converts concrete nouns into proper nouns; if you want to be dainty about it.

I sit on Chair, and I look at Kit on Shelf near Bed.  Next to Bed is Rug and Table.

I defy even the most stone-hearted reader not to feel the deepest sympathy for Jack and his plight.  His mother enforces a routine on their lives which includes the daily scream for help – which Jack thinks is just a game.

Jack’s mother reads to him – a lot.  The only novel he knows is Alice in Wonderland and Jack uses his word-perfect knowledge of this book to describe the world around him.  Everything he encounters has a parallel with Alice in Wonderland, and his unique living conditions means that Jack can draw some highly original readings out of his favourite book. 

If you were particularly eccentric, you could claim that Room is nothing more than a bizarre literary criticism of Alice in Wonderland in the the form of a fiction.  Barely a page goes by without Jack drawing some strange, yet beautiful comparison between his tragic existence and Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece.

Jack’s narratorial innocence is off-set by the worldly knowledge of you as reader.  He must stay ‘in wardrobe’ when their captor comes to ‘play with’ his mother – but it’s painfully obvious what’s going on: he is forced into a cupboard while his mother is being raped.  What may be bewildering or playful to Jack is sinister to the reader.  Room is a powerfully emotive experience, and Donoghue’s writing is so accomplished that even when Jack is at his most confused, the reader always knows exactly what is going on.

Note: It’s difficult to discuss this novel without some spoilers, so if you want to come to the book afresh, I recommend you stop reading here.

 

At exactly the half-way point of Room, Jack and his ‘Ma’ break free; it’s a dramatic episode and heavily symbolic of the process of birth.  It is in this second act that Jack begins to experience the world for the first time, and it’s here that Room really astonishes – both as a novel and as a piece of speculative psychology.

Here the prose undergoes a dramatic reversal of tone.  Whereas Jack was comfortable and secure in the room, the vastness of the world ‘outside’ is too much for his undeveloped psychology.  He constantly begs his mother to take him ‘back to Room’ and even refuses to acknowledge the existence of other humans.

The most mundane experiences, like the opening of a door, the sight of a staircase or the sensation of rain cause Jack to suffer hysterical attacks of panic.  I was sceptical of the apparent extremity of this, but some basic research (read: ‘googling’) informed me that such intense disorders of anxiety are common among long-term captives deprived of normal sensory practice.  He also suffers from visuo-spatial deficiencies and has no sense of personal boundaries or the difference between truth and fiction.

In this second-half, Jack’s naivety and inexperience create some highly unusual metaphors that are simultaneously charming and loaded with heart-breaking pathos:

I don’t want to walk in the sea.

“but Jack, it’s just rain and salt.  Ever taste a tear?”

“Yeah”

“Well, that’s the same as the sea.”

I really don’t want to walk in it if it’s made of tears.

Room is almost the opposite of the novel of self-discovery.  Jack isn’t discovering himself, but the rest of the world.

 It’s also a book that’s going to divide people.  Some readers will be put-off by the controversial subject matter; other (more cynical) readers may be irritated by the saccharine sentimentality expressed in the relationship between Jack and his mother.  There’s also an oddly repetitive fixation with childhood erections – the significance of which escapes me.  And the persistent name-dropping of celebrities and consumer brands could also have been avoided, I feel.  So it does have some minor flaws, but nothing that undermines its overall goals as a novel.

 —

It’d be easy to dismiss Room as a nothing more than a hodge-podge mash up of several very contrasting inspirations: The Fritzl case, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland as well as the current popular fixation with the misery of the individual within a society.  But Room is much more than the sum of its parts.  Jack’s narration alone could be read as an exercise in experimental form and linguistic psychology.

 I don’t want to gush, but I’m not embarrassed to praise either: Room is really, really good.  Some people are going to hate it for its fixation on suffering and its overt sentimentality, but I was profoundly moved by Jack’s story and Donoghue’s accomplished writing.   For some, the buzz surrounding this novel may turn out to be nothing more than the hum of flies around shit; for me, the pre-release hype was entirely justified, and as much as I’d like to keep Room as my little secret, I’m sure that the quiet buzz will soon break-out into a deafening crescendo of fawning praise and garrulous sentiment; and, for once, you won’t hear me complaining.