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  • Robert I. X. Jones

Booker Bashing

Updated: Feb 10, 2021

Well, it seems this year that the Booker got it right. The winning book was the one universally predicted by readers, critics and bookies. Presenting the prize, Margaret Busby, who has read a thing or two in her time, said it would come to be seen as a classic. It's author, Douglas Stuart, appeared modest and charming. Potential controversies were smartly sidestepped and we were mercifully spared the pretty disgraceful outbursts of middle-class outrage and incredulity that greeted the last winning novel to deal with the life of underprivileged Glaswegians, back in 1994. Smiles all round.

Before going any further, I should explain the Booker strategy I have adopted over the last few years, ever since the prize was opened up to writers from the USA.

I have reached an age where my reading is chiefly devoted to the classic fiction of the last two centuries, poetry, non-fiction and a smattering of SF, plus a little judicious re-reading. Most of the contemporary novelists I read with enthusiasm when young are now either classics themselves or virtually forgotten. I feel I have quite enough to be getting on with, as I read my restless way towards that great Borgesian library in the sky. For me, the usefulness of the Booker has become the opportunity it affords to devote some annual concentrated attention to the contemporary Anglo-American novel and get some idea of the tastes and trends currently shaping its creation and consumption. It is a handy snapshot of a landscape that for the rest of the year does not greatly attract me. Thus, when the long list is announced, I start reading through the nominated titles that are already in paperback or that are available to me in proof. With the confirmation of the short list, I can usually drop a few books from my reading pile. If what turns out to be the winner is not amongst those I have left, I usually catch up with it when it gets cheaper. That is why I have not read Shuggie Bain yet, although I am looking forward to it.

Of the other five shortlisted items, I read all but Tsitsi Dangarembga's This Mournable Body (I couldn't quite bring myself to embark upon the final part of a trilogy the rest of which is currently out of print) and wish I could say that I was excited by their collective vigour, variety, and confidence. Sadly, however, only one of them - Avni Doshi's Burnt Sugar - struck me as evincing much by way of stylistic polish, and only one other - Brandon Taylor's Real Life - intermittently hinted at genuine originality. If I had to rate them out of five stars it would be as follows -

The New Wilderness - Diane Cook **1/2

Burnt Sugar - Avni Doshi ***1/2

The Shadow King - Maaza Mengiste * 1/2

Real Life - Brandon Taylor ***

Depressingly, the two most ambitious of these books were the least rewarding. I say depressingly, since I am by nature inclined to prize artistic ambitiousness over caution. Too much of the current literary fiction I encounter gives the impression of being turned out by creative writing graduates careful not to venture beyond what they feel they can get away with. The novels by Cook and Mengiste both invite plaudits for attempting something substantial, but fall so far short of their worthy conceptions as to be rather embarrassing.

Better of the two is Cook's The New Wilderness, a sub-Atwood climate change dystopia that starts out with a certain self-conscious toughness but ends up smug and trivial. In recent years the "dystopian" label has been eagerly adopted by writers feeling some obligation to address the all too real existential threats facing humanity, but not wanting to be associated with genre science fiction, of whose techniques and achievements they are for the most part blissfully ignorant. Cook is certainly not the most inept of these, and her book has its moments of power and descriptive flair, but her near-future premise - a controlled experiment in nomadic survivalism - is predictably sketchy and unconvincing. In fact, over the course of the narrative ecological devastation becomes an increasingly fuzzy background to family melodramatics, with even these being compromised by a fatal shift in point of view.

Perhaps I would be more enthusiastic did The New Wilderness not come across to me as a lumbering, myopic retread of Bruce Sterling's Heavy Weather - a climate change novel now over quarter of a century old, but still urgent, witty, bracing, scientifically savvy, politically provocative and soberly inspiring. Sterling, of course, writes "sci-fi", so I rather doubt Cook has read him, let alone thinks he might have anything to teach her. Throughout his career, however, he has proved adept at embedding human (or sometimes "post-human") characters and their dilemmas within larger dramas of global transformation - a trick she largely fails to bring off.

Still, her book is a triumph of readability compared with Maaza Mengiste's The Shadow King - a would be historical epic that makes drab and laborious work of a fresh and potentially thrilling subject. Mussolini's iniquitous invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 may have had other fictional treatments, but I am not aware of them. Nor was I aware of the prominent role played by women in the Ethiopian armed forces. I embarked upon the book with high anticipation, but found it a dispiriting slog.

That this should have been the case is especially disappointing, since The Shadow King carries with it strong shades of two of my favourite movies - Kurosawa's Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior), in which a charismatic general is impersonated by a common thief, and Med Hondo's Sarraounia, which rousingly recounts a West African tribal queen's battle against French colonial aggression. Both these splendid films, though significantly different in tone, have a richness of texture, clarity of narration and natural sense of pacing that elude Mengiste entirely. Her problem is not just a strenuous prose style, but a lack of focus. Too many strands of action and representation jostle against each other without sparking any larger illumination. Some of these - the presentation of the sadistic Italian commander, for instance - come across as clichéd and repetitive, others - such as the supposedly ironic presentation of the Emperor Haile Selassie in languid exile - are simply inert. Various distancing effects, such as the interpolated Homeric choruses and described photos, fall sadly flat. An epilogue clumsily attempts to tie up various desultory threads but cannot disguise a distinct authorial queasiness in the handling of the material. Mengiste wants to celebrate her female fighters whilst implying that warfare is ineluctably masculine. More seriously she seems, for all her research, to stand at some distance from her ancestral Ethiopian culture, which is actually rather thinly presented. In fairness, it should be said that a good few reviewers, including Salman Rushdie, have showered her with extravagant praise, but I honestly cannot add to it here.

I can, however, be somewhat more enthusiastic about the other two books in my bag of runners up.

Brandon Taylor's Real Life affords a striking contrast to The Shadow King, being a chamber drama of tightly restricted scale. Though incorporating economical flash-backs, the action takes place entirely over a weekend in a small handful of functional campus spaces and sticks doggedly to its central character's point of view. One could imagine it working nicely as a film or TV play, though this doesn't mean that Taylor is without flair as a prose writer.

The book depicts the sudden eruption of a long simmering crisis in the outwardly ordered existence of Wallace, a young, gay black man, deep into research for an advanced biochemistry degree at a largely white university in the American Midwest. It's concerns with race, sexuality, privilege and the legacy of American liberalism feel bracingly of their moment. There is a genuine freshness of observation in the delineation of Wallace's interactions with his fellow students and Turner sensitively explores the way in which the scientific outlook that informs his perceptions fails in helping him to master his emotions. Though my long-abandoned PhD. was in the Arts, I certainly recognized the feeling of being trapped in a small hothouse world of arcane procedure, protected from the natural growth of adult emotional responsibility, that many graduate students must experience.

Yet Real Life is ultimately just the sketch of a rewarding contemporary novel rather than the thing itself, its most interesting strands - the rivalry within the lab, the unease Wallace carries within himself over his background and conspicuousness - giving way to scenes of (admittedly, qualified) erotic fulfilment. These last are not without intensity and admirably physical, but I am not sure that it was simply my essentially straight sensibility that prevented me from being caught up in them. They seem to elide, rather than resolve, the complex tensions set up in the opening chapters. Nonetheless, a work of promise.

Avni Doshi's Burnt Sugar is a work of more than promise. This unflinching first person account of a (sometimes literally) toxic mother-daughter relationship set against the seething colour, clamour and squalor of the Indian city of Pune, introduces a writer of real psychological acuity with a fully developed personal style. Shifts of time, tone and memory are handled with ease and convey a strong, persuasive sense of life as it is lived. Antara, the collateral victim of her mother's reckless quest for self-fulfilment, is an effectively bitter narrator and there is a harsh truthfulness and universality to the dilemma she finds herself in, having to care for "a parasite so advanced that it makes a host of its own offspring".

A haunting success in its own terms, the novel is perhaps limited by its very integrity. The intractable nature of a central situation that admits of no evident emotional resolution renders Burnt Sugar, for all its vividness and force, a somewhat static, even undramatic, experience. I suspect, however, that many readers - especially (though not only) estranged daughters - will relate to it strongly.

So, one truly memorable book out of four and a lingering sense that the Booker these days tends to acknowledge emergent, rather than fully-formed writers. (The New Wilderness, Real Life, and Burnt Sugar are all first novels as, of course, is Shuggie Bain.) No one should need convincing that the promotion of new voices and the embrace of cultural diversity are vital to the novel's survival in the 21st Century. God forbid that the prize should go in perpetuity to world-weary depictions of middle class life in Hampstead, no matter how elegantly crafted. I do wonder, however, if the most high-profile prize for literary fiction in the English language doesn't need to think less complacently about the way it represents the current literary scene. This year's judges congratulated themselves upon coming up with the most diverse shortlist ever and, true, it featured four women and two openly gay men, four of them people of colour. Yet, all but one of the six (Dangarembga) were American, at least by adoption, and all but two (Dangarembga and Stuart) had Creative Writing degrees. Some forms of diversity, it seems, are more prized than others.

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