The 2010 Man Booker Prize for Fiction

The more astute among my readers (that’s both of you: hi mum!) may have noticed that the past four novels I’ve written about (One, Two, Three, Four), all have something in common.  No, they weren’t written by Katie Price under the assumed pen-names of Tom McCarthy and Andrea Levy*; nor were they rescued from imminent pulping by an action-hero Judy Finnegan** (Mr and Mrs Madeley, anyone?).  The unifying factor is: they’ve all been longlisted (is that a verb??) for this year’s Man Booker Prize for fiction.

 “What a coincidence!”, I hear you cry; yet be not so amazed, for the action was deliberate.  I’ve set myself the daunting, un-called for and ostensibly pointless task of reading the entire 2010 Booker Prize longlist before the winner is announced on October 12th.  Return here on October the 11th to read my final thoughts on the nominees, as well as my pre-award show gossip and predictions.  Expect it to be an immoderate furore of well-meaning platitudes and civilised propriety.  Unless Peter Carey arrives at the ceremony drunk and naked, tearing pages out  of Helen Dunmore’s The Betrayal and throwing them into the air like so much literary confetti as he declares himself the King of Booker, wearing The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas as a crown.  Don’t look at me that way! It’s possible…Stranger things have happened…

 

The Man Booker Prize, along with the Pulitzer and the Nobel, forms part of the ‘big three’ of literary awards.  It’s a single, annual prize awarded to a full-length novel, in English, written by a citizen of the British Commonwealth (I believe Irish authors are eligible as well).  Despite the patriarchal impression given by its title, both men and women are permitted to enter.  The prefix ‘Man’ is a rider added in 2002 when the Man investment group began to sponsor the prize.

Publishers may enter two novels from their imprint for consideration each year, and books by previous winners are automatically considered.  Judges also reserve the right to ‘call in’ novels which they personally believe are attention-worthy, whether their publishers have entered them into the competition or not.  This year’s most talked-about ‘call in’ is Room by Emma Donoghue, which was requested by the judges before it had even been published; such was the novel’s pre-release hype.

 This year’s booker prize, however, has already become the subject of controversy (that is, if you can call the petty exchanges of bibliophilic dorks ‘controversial’).  The literary press has spent more time discussing what hasn’t been nominated than what has.  And it does strike me as odd that the brilliant Solar by Ian McEwan has been looked-over (surely it couldn’t have been over-looked?) and rejected by the selection committee.  Similarly, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman didn’t make the cut; neither did The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis.  All three are wonderful, accomplished novels; superior, in my opinion, to some of the nominees I’ve thus far encountered.

Perhaps you can infer more from the judges’ omissions than from their inclusions?  These three rejected novels are loaded with risqué, contentious subject matter (global warming, atheism, trans-gender), and it would be easy to accuse the judges of ‘playing it safe’ with their nominations: are they afraid to give the award to a novel that might see them accused of having some kind of agenda? 

Unfortunately for the judges, excluding a book from the longlist is just as much a loaded act of volition as including one.  Maybe they’re deliberately courting controversy by disregarding the more acclaimed books, in a bid to reverse the waning public interest of recent years.  Maybe they’re afraid that nominating Pullman will see them accused of committing to an atheist point of view?  Facile as such concerns may be. 

My greatest fear, however, is that none of these explanations is the correct one; maybe the judges are such terrible arbiters of literary taste that they genuinely  believe Trespass  by Rose Tremain is better than Solar by Ian McEwan.  In which case, they have my pity; subjective as my argument may be.

On the topic of ideal nominations, I would also like to have seen Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds long-listed.  I see no reason why science-fiction should be so disregarded by the Booker judges.  Perhaps giving the nod to a sci-fi novel may challenge the established notion that science-fiction is an esoteric and clichéd genre that lacks depth and literary significance.  Terminal World is insightful, original and very accomplished, and its nomination would only have been a force for good, I feel.

 

Finally, I’d like to make some notes about why I’m doing this.  I’ve always been curious about literary awards.  Don’t get me wrong; I don’t let the judges of such prizes dictate to me my taste in books; but I’m intrigued by the influence such people seem to have over the reading public.  It’s easy to rail against institutions like the Booker prize and accuse such awards of being reductive and popularist.  Yet as I perpetually fail to pin-down and understand my own taste in books, maybe I’ll be helped by gauging the responses of other people: looking outward rather than inwards, for once.

 Last year’s winner Wolf Hall enjoyed a frenzied rise in sales and popular attention once it won, and surely it can only be a good thing that Hilary Mantel’s masterwork finally got the attention it deserves, after spending so many months bothering the lower-regions of the bestsellers list.

I’m also intrigued by all the conspiracy theories that surround the award.  It’s even been suggested by the conservative right of the literary world that, in recent years, the amount of ‘minority’ fiction (gay writing, black writing, Afghan writing etc) nominated and awarded the prize is massively disproportionate to the out-put and quality of the niche that produces it, and that a miss-guided agenda of political correctness is fuelling the engines of the judges.  I’ve not read widely enough to make any comment on this, but it interests me nonetheless.

So, I thought that the only way to make an informed and balanced judgement on the Booker prize would be to do exactly what the judges are doing: read every novel on the longlist and decide for myself which is ‘best’.  I’ve already taken issue with the omission of some of my favourite books of the year, and perhaps my frustration at this will be sated by the process of reading the other nominees.  Also, I like a challenge and it’s nice to have some direction to my reading, for once.

 

It’s also going to be difficult.  Not least because my reading technique is that of subvocalisation; by which I mean that when I read, I imagine the full sound and spacing of words, correct to grammar and rhythm.  I can’t help it; it’s how I’ve always read.  I read in my imagination at the same speed I would read aloud to an audience; hence, for me, books are broadcast in ‘real time’, as it were.

What I’m trying to say is: I’m a slow reader.  Sub-vocal, internalised reading has its advantages: apparently it’s more conducive to analysis and understanding, it’s just damn slow.

But thus far, I’m on target to finish just before the award is announced.  I don’t want to jinx my mission, but I should be successful; pending any major life-changes or disruptive incidents. 

I hope that you enjoy (and have enjoyed) my rolling book-by-book reviews of the nominees. As always, comments and criticism are welcome.  Many thanks for reading.

Tomcat.

*It was, at one point, rumoured that Katie Price’s latest ‘novel’ was being considered for nomination; even though her books are actually written by somebody called Rebecca Farnworth.  Thankfully, this rumour turned out to be un-founded.  I may have to check my sources, but isn’t Jordan winning the Booker prize one of the harbingers of the apocalypse?

**After being named ‘the most powerful people in publishing’ by various sources in recent years, it is constantly rumoured that Richard and Judy are going to become judges of the booker prize.  Apparently, it’s only a matter of time.  God help us.  This, of course, would only fuel the miss-guided notion that quantity of sales is equal to quality of product. Which it isn’t – otherwise more people would be talking about ‘The Wire’ and fewer people would talk about ‘Glee’.
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Terminal World – Alastair Reynolds

The galaxy of ‘literary’ science-fiction is a relatively small one, but its brightest star by far is Alastair Reynolds.  Terminal World offers a highly original narrative, characters that are morally and psychologically complex and, best of all, a story that is told through accomplished and sophisticated writing.  Reynolds’ seemingly effortless prose is abundant with creative, diverse metaphors, witty dialogue and acute situational observations; factors which are so often lacking in science-fiction writing.

Then again, to even call Terminal World a Sci-fi novel is to be brash with genre assumptions.  The book is devoid of spaceships, aliens, other planets; in fact, it’s without any of the defining tropes of science-fiction.   The crux of the novel is the atmosphere-piercing city of Spearpoint – a towering metropolis divided into the ‘zones’ – layers of the city each with their own technological limitations.  Thus the base of Spearpoint (horse town) is almost medieval; the next layer (steamville) is early-industrial in its scope.  The ‘zones’ advance in this way until the city’s very highest ‘Celestial’ levels, in which winged post-humans manipulate nano technology and can cure any ailment.  The technology of the ‘zones’ isn’t enforced by governments or clerics, but by the nature of reality itself in this far-future vision of Earth.

This plot device enables Reynolds to enjoy an unusual amount of freedom in terms of setting and characterisation.  Terminal World is very odd sci-fi; a smorgas-board convergence of steampunk, fantasy, planetary romance… the novel even borrows from pirate, naval and military genres.  Crucially, though, the brilliantly original setting isn’t ancillary to the plot in anyway – it’s unusual, but the setting is the plot; I thought that the concept of the ‘zones’ permeated the narrative in fascinating ways – allowing deep exploration of social, moral, psychological and  cultural themes.

Which leads me to the book’s characters.  The majority of whom I found to be convincing, if unusual.  Alastair Reynolds is often criticized for a lack of complex characterisation; and I agree that several of his early works centre upon…mannequin personalities.  Any such problems have been addressed and overcome here.  I thought Quillon, our protagonist, to be a wonderfully bizarre and captivating personality – faced with multifaceted moral dilemmas throughout, he is constructed sympathetic to the reader (gonna get technical for a second here: the prose is formed in ‘indirect free-discourse’, so although it’s framed in the third person singular, the viewpoints of Quillon and the reader are converged); he is physically feeble yet intellectually firm.

I don’t want to give too much away regarding the actual story – suffice to say I found it very original and, like Spearpoint itself, built upon many layers of differing complexity – fast-paced battles and events play out around complicated politics; plus Reynolds offers a very witty and fresh take on the old fantasy cliché of a ‘chosen one’.  Its themes are numerous and engaging – from the philosophical nature of history to cartography and the politics of leadership – there’s a lot going on; even, I believe, some convincing attempts at allegory.

The final revelations come thick and fast – with the eventual explanation of the true nature of the ‘zones’ offering a mind-blowing denouement to the action.  If you’ve ever read anything by Alastair Reynolds, you’ll know that he’s a true master of ‘endings’ – always shocking, never sweetly resolved or cliché and perpetually, relentlessly creative.

 Clearly I thoroughly enjoyed Terminal World – it’s brilliantly well-written, and, in my humble opinion, a genuine and successful attempt at sci-fi literature.

 

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Finally, I’d just like to comment on this novel’s exceptional cover art.  I normally regard jacket artwork as neither here-nor-there (especially in sci-fi, a genre plagued by clichéd and over-used imagery), but Chris Moore’s painting for Terminal World is a truly striking visual interpretation of Reynolds’ idea.  Spearpoint towers over the other figures and illustrations; in much the same way as the fictional city dominates the narrative landscape of the novel, ‘like God’s own hard-on’ – as the author wryly puts it.

Here’s a link to a better image of the cover:

Terminal World –  Chris Moore

Tomcat