I have a love-hate relationship with the Man Booker prize.
On the one hand, how can you not absolutely respect the writers whose work meets the unbelievably broad, yet impossibly demanding qualification: to be “the best novel of the year written in English and published in the United Kingdom.” That’s it! What is “best” is up to the committee of book-industry and art-industry honorees, but their pronouncement often echoes the excellent praise already heaped upon the nominees by the most coveted and reputable of English-speaking reviewers. Unfortunately, the best I can tell is that the committee members value nothing so highly as brutally (and often brilliantly) dense text. The plots vary, styles wander, and authors hail (since 2013) from the UK and beyond. Each year, I see the long list, then the short list, then the winner, and think “I want to read that!” But then, more often than not, I find myself so intensely put off by a book that feels dense for the sake of being dense… I’m not sure we have the next Dostoyevsky on the list, but the committee certainly seems to be trying to find him/her. I’m not claiming to be a better judge of fiction than the folks at Man Booker; I’m simply pointing out that my annual optimism is more often tempered by a very slow slog into the worst of over-writing.
A perfect example of my problem: the first 25 or so pages of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, the 2016 winner, were easily 25 of the best pages possibly I’v e ever read: hysterical, biting, bitter, breathless… but then I realized that nearly 300 pages of that winding, self-deprecating, first-person ramble would have killed me! I keep meaning try again, but Leo Bloom has nothing on Beatty’s narrator. Similarly, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel had so much promise… but so few proper nouns! Her first chapter seemed to be trying to do with “he/him” what Joyce did with “yes.”
(And as I write this, yes, I’m seeing the Joycean-critique theme here…)
On the other hand, I adored Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. Exciting from the very first page, it was everything I hope for and more in “the best.” Clever plot and luxurious imagery in that fantastically dense prose. For over 800 pages of twists, turns, and romping excitement, I hung on and was disappointed when the ride ended. Admitting bias, of course, I happen to have spent way too many years of my life studying Victorian England, so that’s a win right there, and I love rollicking mysteries; this one was destined to be a personal hit. But, if that’s the case, I should have loved Wolf Hall. Instead, I left my barely-read copy for the next tenant of my Glasgow apartment.
Next on my list was A History of Seven Killings. It sounds like my kind of book – history, murder, culture-shifts… and then my dog ate it… honestly, she did! That reminds me I need to buy a new copy…
So what about this year? I continue to be optimistic, but I see myself about to fall into the same old trap. I’m most excited to read Fiona Mozley’s Elmet, which isn’t even out yet in the US. The plot doesn’t sound like my kind of thing (the glowing reviews use words I usually associate with slow, dense dramas… which, I guess, make it a strong favorite for the short list and maybe even the Prize!). In Mozley’s case, I’m 150% on-board to support a fellow sister suffering through her PhD. I barely scraped together a dissertation; Mozley wrote a novel hailed as one of the top 13 “best novel[s] of the year”!!! I am simply awestruck by the incredible brilliance this requires. I will honor that suffering, no matter how much I suffer through it in return. And I will admit that Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture is both the only novel I have dog-eared for quotes AND quoted in my actual, much-suffered dissertation. Barry is a magical, lyrical writer. So maybe I should put Days Without End higher on my list…
In the meantime, I’ve run out of excuses to not read Zadie Smith and Colton Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad has been on my shelf for a few some time now, so I’ll be starting with those. Fingers crossed. I’m still excited to read the best novel of the year!