Books James Bradley names his pick for the im­pend­ing Man Booker Prize

This year’s Man Booker Prize will be an­nounced on Wed­nes­day. Nov­el­ist and critic James Bradley ap­plauds the di­ver­sity of the short­list, and tries to pick the win­ner

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - James Bradley’s most re­cent novel, Clade, is pub­lished by Hamish Hamil­ton.

Two years ago, when the or­gan­is­ers of the Man Booker Prize an­nounced that from 2014 the award would be open to Amer­i­cans, many in Bri­tain (and in­deed Aus­tralia) de­cried it as the death knell of di­ver­sity, end­ing what some saw as the Booker’s proud history of sup­port for writ­ers from the Com­mon­wealth na­tions.

Those fears were al­layed some­what when last year’s Booker went to Aus­tralia’s Richard Flana­gan for The Nar­row Road to the Deep

North, but an un­der­cur­rent of con­cern re­mained that the award would sim­ply be­come a rub­ber stamp for Amer­i­can literary block­busters.

On the face of it, this year’s short­list, made up of Mar­lon James’s A Brief History of Seven

Killings, Tom McCarthy’s Satin Is­land, Chigozie Obioma’s The Fish­er­men, Sun­jeev Sa­hota’s The

Year of the Ru­n­aways, Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread and Hanya Yanag­i­hara’s A Lit­tle Life, would seem to put those fears to rest. Skewed heav­ily but not ex­clu­sively to younger writ­ers (at nearly 74, Tyler is 46 years older than Obioma), it also sug­gests some­thing of the in­creas­ing eth­nic di­ver­sity of the literary world and, although still bi­ased to­ward men, at least ges­tures to­ward gen­der equal­ity. It’s also, pleas­ingly, a strong short­list, de­spite a cou­ple of no­table omis­sions (I was sur­prised Mar­i­lynne Robin­son’s Lila didn’t make the cut, and con­tinue to think the fail­ure to short­list Anne En­right’s The Green Road was a mis­take).

Nonethe­less some will ask ques­tions about how di­verse it re­ally is: as has been ob­served, four of the six short­listed au­thors live in the US and both the oth­ers in Bri­tain. And, although this is rarely dis­cussed, the prize’s re­quire­ment that books be pub­lished in Bri­tain to be el­i­gi­ble im­me­di­ately ex­cludes most writ­ers work­ing out­side Bri­tain and the US. Still, there’s lit­tle doubt to my mind that this year’s short­list feels rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the literary world’s grow­ing di­ver­sity in a way few have felt be­fore.

Of the six nov­els the most tech­ni­cally daz­zling is James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings. He is the first Ja­maican writer to be short­listed for the Booker. Set in Ja­maica and New York, the novel cen­tres on a fic­tion­alised retelling of the events lead­ing up to the at­tempted as­sas­si­na­tion of Bob Mar­ley in Kingston in De­cem­ber 1976.

This at­tack — it­self the sub­ject of con­sid­er­able mythol­ogy — is fur­ther mythol­o­gised in James’s ac­count, which re­places the real Mar­ley with another, shad­owier fig­ure known only as “the singer’’. Yet although the ques­tion of what hap­pened on that De­cem­ber day is not ir­rel­e­vant to the novel, nei­ther is it re­ally the point. In­stead, fil­tered through the voices of a sprawl­ing cast of gang mem­bers, politi­cians, jour­nal­ists and CIA op­er­a­tives, James presents a por­trait of a so­ci­ety con­vulsed by vi­o­lence and, more deeply, the process of de­coloni­sa­tion and the Cold War, and the de­gree to which the ef­fects of these pro­cesses con­tinue to re­ver­ber­ate through seem­ingly un­con­nected lives decades later.

James is an as­ton­ish­ing stylist, ex­tract­ing a bru­tal po­etry and sen­su­al­ity from the densely ver­nac­u­lar voices of his sprawl­ing cast and giv­ing shape to the in­tri­ca­cies of their in­ner lives and the com­plex and of­ten fa­tal ways their per- sonal cir­cum­stances in­ter­sect with the world they in­habit. A Brief History of Seven Killings is also struc­turally au­da­cious, leap­ing and vault­ing from char­ac­ter to char­ac­ter as it cir­cles the events at its cen­tre, and then, seem­ingly ef­fort­lessly, curv­ing out­ward as it arcs for­ward in time.

Yet de­spite its vir­tu­os­ity, the real tri­umph of James’s novel isn’t merely tech­ni­cal. In­stead it lies in the way it seeks to move be­yond the sur­face of con­ven­tional history to re­veal the hid­den pat­terns of power and con­nec­tion that lie be­hind it, and to give voice to peo­ple whose voices are too of­ten passed over and for­got­ten.

The Fish­er­men, the de­but novel of Nige­ri­an­born Obioma, shares some of A Brief History of

Seven Killings’ in­ter­est in both vi­o­lence and the ways in which po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity can shadow in­di­vid­ual lives. Nar­rated by the youngest of four broth­ers, the novel be­gins shortly af­ter the boys’ fa­ther is trans­ferred to a new po­si­tion in a city a 15-hour drive away. With­out their fa­ther present the boys be­gin to run wild, spend­ing their days fish­ing in the once pure but now pol­luted and poi­sonous river near their home, an ac­tiv­ity that leads to an en­counter with the vil­lage mad­man, who tells the boys that one of them will mur­der another.

As its ti­tle sug­gests, The Fish­er­men func­tions at least partly as a sort of para­ble, a fact that lends its por­trait both of the con­flict be­tween the broth­ers and the de­cline of the fam­ily a qual­ity of in­evitabil­ity. Yet as its ex­plicit in­vo­ca­tion of Chinua Achebe makes clear, it should also be read within the broader tra­di­tion of African fic­tion, a qual­ity that lends its do­mes­tic dra­mas a wider sig­nif­i­cance.

The re­sult is pow­er­ful if slightly un­even. Although Obioma writes with great vivid­ness about the phys­i­cal and sen­sual de­tail of the world the boys in­habit, he also has a taste for ex­plicit sym­bol­ism, which can be a bit clunky, and, at least partly be­cause of the way the novel de­pends on the ac­cre­tion of de­tail for its ef­fect, a ten­dency to over­write. Like­wise the con­nec­tions Obioma wants to make be­tween the un­rav­el­ling of the boys’ fam­ily and the un­rav­el­ling of Nige­rian so­ci­ety as a whole are some­times a lit­tle forced. Yet de­spite these quib­bles there is no deny­ing the power of the book’s fi­nal pages, or its por­trait of a fam­ily and a na­tion trans­fig­ured by the weight of history. English au­thor Sa­hota was se­lected as one of

Granta’s Best Young Bri­tish Nov­el­ists in 2013 on the ba­sis of his first novel, Ours are the

Streets, and The Year of the Ru­n­aways bears out the prom­ise of that de­but in ev­ery way. Set in Eng­land and In­dia, it of­fers an un­spar­ing and deeply dis­tress­ing glimpse of the lives of the mil­lions of peo­ple who cross borders in search of work or safety, or sim­ply in the hope of a bet­ter life.

At its cen­tre are four char­ac­ters: Ran­deep, Av­tar, Tar­lochan and Narinder. As the novel opens, three of the four — Ran­deep, Av­tar and Tar­lochan — are liv­ing in an over­crowded house in Sheffield. Iso­lated by poverty and their ig­no­rance of the coun­try in which they have ended up, the three of them fight for what­ever work they can find, trav­el­ling long dis­tances to labour on build­ing sites and work­ing cheaply in var­i­ous illegal jobs.

None of the three is in Eng­land en­tirely legally. Ran­deep is there on a mar­riage visa, hav­ing agreed to a sham mar­riage with English­born Narinder. Av­tar — who was forced to sell his kid­ney be­fore he left In­dia — has a stu­dent visa, and Tar­lochan has ar­rived il­le­gally.

Yet their mu­tual vul­ner­a­bil­ity does not breed sol­i­dar­ity or fel­low feel­ing: in­stead they all — and in par­tic­u­lar Tar­lochan, whose sta­tus as an un­touch­able makes him an out­cast even among his fel­low im­mi­grants — fight to sur­vive as best they can.

If the an­tecedents of The Fish­er­men lie in the work of writ­ers such as Achebe, it’s tempt­ing to sug­gest the an­tecedents Sa­hota’s thrilling novel lie in the great so­cial re­al­ist nov­els of the 19th cen­tury, in par­tic­u­lar those of Emile Zola and Ge­orge Giss­ing. For while a good part of the novel is set in In­dia, there is noth­ing ex­otic about its por­trait of the in­se­cu­rity of its char­ac­ters’ lives, and much that would be fa­mil­iar to Zola (and in­deed Friedrich Engels) in the de­pic­tion of the gru­elling phys­i­cal hard­ship of the men’s work on build­ing sites and in kitchens.

But The Year of the Ru­n­aways is leav­ened by a deeply hu­mane aware­ness of the way small mo­ments can trans­form lives, and by the pos­si­bil­i­ties of un­ex­pected con­nec­tion, most ob­vi­ously in the bond forged be­tween Narinder and Tar­lochan.

And it’s this qual­ity, as much as its ca­pa­cious­ness and un­sen­ti­men­tal­ity about the hard­ship and mis­ery of its char­ac­ters’ lives, that makes its por­trait of one of the cen­tral ex­pe­ri­ences of the early 21st cen­tury so com­pelling.

Bri­tish writer McCarthy is the only pre­vi­ous short­lis­tee, for C in 2010. His latest novel, Satin

Is­land, is, like Sa­hota’s, a book about the 21st cen­tury. Yet where The Year of the Ru­n­aways draws on other, older con­cep­tions of the novel,

Satin Is­land seeks de­lib­er­ately and self-con­sciously to em­body the weird tex­tures and dis­junc­tions of our his­tor­i­cal mo­ment.

As the novel opens, the nar­ra­tor, “U”, an an­thro­pol­o­gist em­ployed as a con­sul­tant to a vast multi­na­tional, has just been in­stru­men­tal in help­ing the com­pany land the Koob-Sassen Pro­ject. Ex­actly what Koob-Sassen is re­mains a mys­tery. As U ob­serves at one point, although the pro­ject is so im­por­tant that “there’s prob­a­bly not a sin­gle area of your daily life that it hasn’t, in some way, touched on, pen­e­trated, changed”, he is un­able to di­vulge its na­ture, partly be­cause of the web of com­mer­cial and gov­ern­men­tal stip­u­la­tions sur­round­ing it, and partly be­cause it is, in his view, “a pretty bor­ing sub­ject”.

With Koob-Sassen in hand, U’s em­ployer sug­gests he re­turn to his orig­i­nal “epochal com­mis­sion”, the draft­ing of “the Great Re­port”, a work that will pro­vide “the First and Last Word on our age”, mod­elled on the work of U’s great hero, Claude Levi-Strauss. To this end he watches videos of oil spills, talks to his col­leagues — all of whom seem, like him, to be en­gaged in work that is at once im­mense and mean­ing­less — and surfs the net, seek­ing to un­der­stand the pat­terns of con­nec­tion, mean­ing and un­mean­ing that un­der­lie it.

Read­ers ac­quainted with McCarthy’s two pre­vi­ous nov­els, Re­main­der and C, will no­tice sim­i­lar­i­ties in Satin Is­land’s en­gage­ment with modernism and its frus­tra­tion with the ideas of the self em­bod­ied in more con­ven­tion­ally hu­man­ist fic­tion (there are also echoes of C’s de­scrip­tions of aero­nau­tics in Satin Is­land’s sub­plot about a sky­diver who killed by a sab­o­taged para­chute).

Yet Satin Is­land is nei­ther as oblique as Re­main­der nor as ex­pan­sive as C: in­stead it oc­cu­pies an in­ter­est­ing mid­point be­tween the two, its cur­sory plot al­low­ing McCarthy the free­dom to ex­plore the ques­tions about con­tem­po­rary re­al­ity that in­ter­est him.

The re­sult is oddly en­gag­ing, sus­tained not by plot but by the novel’s med­i­ta­tions on the phe­nom­ena that draw U’s at­ten­tion, med­i­ta­tions that are held to­gether by the sheer in­tel­li­gence of McCarthy’s writ­ing and the many finely ob­served im­ages of our tech­no­log­i­cally me­di­ated and alien­ated lives. The con­trast be­tween Satin Is­land and A

Spool of Blue Thread, by Amer­i­can au­thor Tyler, is so stark that it’s tempt­ing to say it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine how the same judges could short­list them. Where Satin Is­land is ruth­lessly, un­sen­ti­men­tally mod­ern in its af­fect and method, A Spool of Blue Thread is an open, gre­gar­i­ous and per­fectly pitched ex­am­ple of pre­cisely the sort of re­al­ism McCarthy’s novel de­fines it­self in op­po­si­tion to.

Yet to char­ac­terise it in that way is to run the risk of miss­ing what is most im­pres­sive about A

Spool of Blue Thread, a book that of­fers a lu­cid and com­pelling re­minder not just of Tyler’s con­sum­mate skills as a nov­el­ist, but of the plea­sures of the re­al­ist novel more gen­er­ally. At first blush the fam­ily at the novel’s cen­tre, the Whit­shanks, seem happy enough, give or take some of the usual fric­tions and prob­lems, pleased with their suc­cess and com­fort­able in their ideas about who they are.

Yet as the nar­ra­tive pro­gresses it be­comes clear that many of the myths that sus­tain the fam­ily are just that, con­ve­nient fic­tions that dis­guise more com­plex truths, a fact that is un­der­lined in the novel’s sec­ond half, when the ac­tion shifts seven decades back to of­fer an ac­count of the courtship and mar­riage of the Whit­shank pa­tri­arch, Ju­nior, and his wife that is un­com­fort­ably at odds with the ver­sion passed down to their de­scen­dants.

It’s to Tyler’s credit that none of these rev­e­la­tions feels forced or melo­dra­matic — in­deed their or­di­nar­i­ness is part of what makes A Spool

of Blue Thread so en­gag­ing — yet they feed the darker thread that is wo­ven through the sun­dap­pled fore­ground of the ac­tion, and are of a piece with the lively au­tho­rial in­tel­li­gence that an­i­mates the novel as a whole.

And, just as sig­nif­i­cantly, Tyler is as deft and alert and slyly witty in her de­pic­tions of the var­i­ous Whit­shanks as she al­ways is, even if A

Spool of Blue Thread doesn’t bear com­par­i­son with the best of her work.

While the book­ies have Tyler as the out­sider in the field, her com­pa­triot Yanag­i­hara is the warm favourite for A Lit­tle Life. The novel tells the story of four friends — Jude, Willem, JB and Mal­colm — trac­ing out the in­ter­sect­ing lines of their per­sonal and pro­fes­sional lives across four decades. At one level it is a par­tic­u­larly well-crafted fan­tasy of New York life that owes more than a lit­tle to Donna Tartt, and The

Se­cret History in par­tic­u­lar. Yet Yanag­i­hara un­der­cuts this fan­tasy with a sec­ond, much more trou­bling thread con­cern­ing the long history of hor­rific abuse suf­fered by Jude as a boy.

There is, it must be said, much that is im­pres­sive about A Lit­tle Life. As her first novel,

The Peo­ple in the Trees, demon­strated, Yanag­i­hara is an ac­com­plished stylist, and her con­trol of A Lit­tle Life’s sprawl­ing nar­ra­tive and cast barely fal­ters across the book’s more than 700 pages. Sim­i­larly the novel is never less than ab­sorb­ing, and the things it has to say about the in­tractabil­ity of dam­age and the im­pos­si­bil­ity of es­cap­ing one’s past are im­por­tant and salu­tary, es­pe­cially in a so­ci­ety so ad­dicted to nar­ra­tives of re­cov­ery.

Yet, while A Lit­tle Life has been ea­gerly em­braced by read­ers and crit­ics, many of whom have found it a trans­for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ence, I per­son­ally re­main deeply am­biva­lent about the novel as a whole. Not just be­cause I feel un­easy about the long se­quences de­tail­ing Jude’s abuse, pas­sages which seem to me to shade into some­thing close to kitsch, but be­cause the book as a whole of­ten feels un­com­fort­ably ado­les­cent, fix­ated on the spe­cial­ness of its char­ac­ters, their bril­liance, beauty and suf­fer­ing.

Which brings us, in­evitably, to the ques­tion of who will win.

Although these things are al­ways dif­fi­cult to pre­dict, I think it’s safe to say Obioma won’t, and McCarthy prob­a­bly won’t, if only be­cause

Satin Is­land is so un­like the other books on the short­list. I also sus­pect it’s safe to as­sume Tyler is un­likely to win, although there’s an out­side chance the judges may want to ac­knowl­edge the novel be­cause she has said it is her last.

That leaves James, Sa­hota and Yanag­i­hara. If it were up to me I’d al­most cer­tainly pick James — although it’s both ex­tremely male and ex­tremely vi­o­lent, A Brief History of Seven Kill

ings is a re­mark­able book on many lev­els — with The Year of the Ru­n­aways a close sec­ond (part of me also wouldn’t mind see­ing McCarthy win, but that’s another story).

But de­spite my reser­va­tions about it, I think the most likely win­ner is A Lit­tle Life, a book that, with its re­cent longlist­ing for the Na­tional Book Awards, seems to be in the process of sweep­ing all be­fore it, and which will, I sus­pect, be a pop­u­lar choice among read­ers.


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