Paris as (Em)Pyre: Submission by Michel Houellebecq

on Wednesday, November 11, 2015
Age may well have transformed Michel Houellebecq into some kind of crumpled homeless hobbit but I'm quite certain that behind the dishevelled facade lies the one true prophet of the paranoid European zeitgeist. Of course, Houellebecq has always courted controversy - he loves to shock in as offensive a way as possible; he is Charlie Hebdo personified. In the past, it has been through absurd premises that served as entrees into extreme (usually sexually explicit) calamities. Somewhere in the middle days of his career, with books like Platform and The Possibility of an Island, he kind of disappeared like a gerbil up his own arse. The classic Houellebecquian (I suppose it must be a word by now) tropes were there but the man himself seemed absent. Sure, they shocked, but they were boring. My faith in this odd little man was restored with The Map and The Territory, one of the few postmodern clusterfucks I've read that actually works. Now he's back and, I think it's fair to say, he's found a new purpose.

Submission is very much Houellebecq's state of the world novel. It doesn't take much digging beyond the headlines to know that France is ground zero for the ideological and religious battle over Europe. Houellebecq takes this one step further and sets his book only a few years in the future, when the Muslim majority achieves legitimate political supremacy - France has its first Muslim president. Rather than some lame, dictatorial cliche, Mohammed Ben-Abbes is a charismatic, popular, smooth talking politician. In many ways he represents hope for a bright future. Able to access unlimited wealth from Arab allies, he lifts France from its economic doldrums and sets it on a path of reconstruction. He even speaks moderately on the issue of Israel/Palestine (yup, it's still a problem twenty years from now). Naturally, there are compromises that have to be made. The Sorbonne is privatised and only men are allowed to teach. Girls can study but they must be fully covered. Polygamy is both legalised and encouraged. There is a new focus on 'the family as the central unit of French society', used to justify the relegation of women to domestic duties. Oh, and Ben-Abbes aspires to some kind of new Roman Empire via the EU, over which France will have control.

Houellebecq frames the novel through an academic prism; its narrator, Francois, is a middle rung literature lecturer at Paris III with a particular penchant for JK Huysmans. Caught up in a whopping midlife crisis, he spends his days stressing about his academic future while making sense of his relationship with his Jewish student, Miryam. When not fucking up his life, Francois pays close attention to the ascent of Ben-Abbes's Muslim Brotherhood amidst the general tumult that has beset French politics. When Ben-Abbe's presidency becomes a fait accompli, Miryam flees to Israel and Francois goes off the deep end, scouring the escort pages of local newspapers in search of meaning through sex. Here, Houellebecq is up to his old tricks; Francois's exploits are cheap and demeaning. Despair ultimately drives him to the same monastery where Huysmans sought refuge - a place that is symbolic of previous battles with Islamic forces - but that too is a bunk. He can barely tolerate a week before he gives up. With his tail between his legs (both literally and figuratively), he slinks back to Paris where he resigns himself to conversion. You know what they say: If you can't beat 'em...

Submission is much more than the hype would have you believe. It's very easy to get caught up in the sensationalism of its premise but Houellebecq proves his genius by not succumbing to the paranoia behind it. Rather, at heart, the book is a brilliant exploration of academic and individual freedom in a rapidly changing world. It is equal parts horrifying and hilarious: Francois might be an exercise in frustration but he ain't nothing compared with his colleagues. You have to feel for his former head of department, a brilliant woman, who has no choice but to accept a generous severance package. Similarly, you can't help but laugh at the weedy stereotypical dorks who have been assigned multiple young, attractive wives by the new administration thereby ensuring their enthusiastic embrace of a new God. To this end I was reminded of another great Michel, Tournier, who explored the way major societal changes can benefit the unlikeable misfits in his remarkable novel, The Erl King (aka The Ogre). Ditto Alberto Moravia in The Conformist. Must be a European thing.

It is hard, in the end, to gauge what Houellebecq wants us to think of France's future. Submission seems a journalistic enterprise undertaken without a particular agenda by a reporter in possession of a telescopic (an inter-dimensional) lens; it is a plausible description of how things might turn out. In so doing, he steers clear of outright judgement and allows hedonism, anomie and religion to square off in some kind of perverse royal rumble where none can really be the victor. Except for those of us who read it. We definitely win.

Mussolini's Pendulum: Numero Zero by Umberto Eco

on Monday, November 2, 2015
Stop the presses! A new Eco? How did I not even know about this? And.. wait for it... a mere 190 pages. Where are the other 500? Someone has given the space/time continuum an unceremonious shove. Could it be that the master of the cerebral literary thriller has gone off on a lesser folly?

Colonna, a washed up journo, is approached to write a memoir about a newspaper that has never actually gone to press. Part of his brief is to assemble a group of similar hacks to 'publish' twelve editions of the paper as an example of what it once was. The main aim, so far as Colonna can tell, is to help the commissioning benefactor get a leg up in the higher echelons of Italian society through what amounts to blackmail. At first, Numero Zero seems a trite commentary on the nature of contemporary journalism. Set at the dawn of the information age, but written with hindsight, it is perfectly posited to take well-aimed pot shots. Alas, what we get instead are cheap gags, lame puns and completely obvious 'revelations'. Evelyn Waugh this is not. Then, about half way through, Eco finds his feet and remembers, thank god, that he is (to borrow from Samuel L. Jackson) Umberto Fucking Eco. The master. One of the lowly hacks Colonna has hired comes to him with a conspiracy to end all conspiracies (at least in Italian terms): Mussolini survived the war and was kept hidden in anticipation of his return to power. Backed by a bunch of pro-Fascist movements across Europe - the Stay Behind gangs - and centred around the Italian incarnation Gladio, the plot was furthered by all kinds of dastardly undertakings. The kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro? That was them. The mysterious death of Pope John Paul I? Yup, them too. The bombing at Piazza Fontana? You get the point. The only thing that stopped the whole thing coming to fruition was the rather inconvenient natural death of Mussolini. They had waited too long to make their move.

Snatching at a grab bag of historical moments, Eco deftly weaves a meta conspiracy that is so much fun it is hard not to buy in. Admittedly, I'm a sucker for 'what if' novels and while Numero Zero is no Fatherland, it still possesses the creative attention to manufactured detail that I adore. It also leans heavily on a book I loved as a kid - In God's Name - David Yallop's riveting investigation into the Vatican bank and its possible role in the murder of the first John Paul. Eco explicitly uses the book's findings as an evidentiary tether, citing Yallop as authority for many of his more ludicrous but wonderful assertions. The whole thing is a blast and Eco rounds it off, in true style, with a murder. The hack journo is silenced and the entire project is shut down. That might have been the end of it, except Eco is determined to make one last point about journalism in the information age. There are, he suggests, no new stories under the sun. Sure, there might be offcuts around the frayed edges but the idea of the exclusive keeper of information has been obliterated. It's a point well made in an enjoyable, if rather slight, work by a true master in his twilight years.

A Senior Gong (for) Marley: Marlon James Takes the Booker. Good Luck Casual Readers!

on Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Having spent the whole morning refreshing my web browser on the Booker Prize home page, it finally paid off with a change of screen to tell me that Marlon James had won this year's prize for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. As expected, I didn't pick it. Not even close. It was the one book in the entire shortlist that I found hardest to wade through, not because it was boring or bad by any stretch of the imagination, but because I didn't ever really connect with it. That said, I knew I was reading something quite brilliant. I just wonder how casual readers who use the Booker as their barometer for what to read over the Christmas break will fare with the Jamaican Patois. Nevertheless, a very impressive win for a very impressive book.

Betting on The Booker Prize 2015: The Bookworm versus The Bookmakers

on Tuesday, October 13, 2015
Ok LitNerds... Once again I'm rolling up my sleeves and preparing to take on the betting giants in a battle to the bank. Of course, I have no intention of actually putting any money on this here endeavour. I'm not stupid enough to fall for that again (PS you still owe me JM Coetzee, Lloyd Jones and Kazuo Ishiguro). But that won't stop me giving my considered opinion on where you should put your hard-earned dinaros*.

Right, so let's look what's on offer**.

Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life.
What the bookmakers say: 6/4 (which, last time I went to school, was 3/2)
What the critics say: "... it’s the great 90s novel a quarter of a century too late; it’s a devastating read that will leave your heart, like the Grinch’s, a few sizes larger." Alex Preston in The Guardian.
What I said: "... as a novel of the legacy of damage and the boundaries of love and friendship this novel is almost without equal."
Will it win? Possibly but I doubt it. It's a great book but it's most likely too big, too heavy and too American to take home the gong. That said, it'd be pretty wonderful if Yanagihara was the first non-Commonwealth writer to bag a Booker. I'd prefer her any day over, say, Jonathan Franzen or some other similar hype factory.

Sunjeev Sahota's The Year of the Runaways
What the bookmakers say: 5/2
What the critics say: "He exposes the gaps and hidden spaces of our contemporary global society and shows how it feels to live in the gaps. You could do a great deal worse than pay attention to this splendid novel." Richard Brown in The Conversation.
What I said: "... a tour de force of naked compassion and honesty let down only by an epilogue that hints at happy endings."
Will it win? Some mystery Booker savant came out this week to say it will and, apparently, he's never wrong. A sudden flurry of betting ensued, cutting Sahota's odds dramatically. Again a fantastic book and, I dare say, the kind of book that would appeal to Team Booker but I think there are stronger contenders in the field.

Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings
What the bookmakers say: 7/2
What the critics say: "Spoof, nightmare, blood bath, poem, “A Brief History of Seven Killings” eventually takes on a mesmerizing power." Zachary Lazar in The New York Times
What I said: "... a magnificent achievement.... And yet, for some strange reason, I just could not connect with it."
Will it win? Unquestionably the sort of book that rolls down a hill collecting accolades but I think it might scare too many middle-of-the-road readers to stand a real chance here. Let's face it, Booker is where Literati and LitLite meet to briefly clink glasses before going their separate ways.

Tom McCarthy's Satin Island
What the bookmakers say: 10/1
What the critics say: "It provokes and beguiles and, at the point of revelation, it withholds. On finishing it you will have the powerful urge to throw it across the room then the powerful urge to pick it up to read again. And that’s what’s so brilliant." Duncan White in The Telegraph
What I said: "Tom McCarthy is shaping up to be this generation's JG Ballard."
Will it win? No but I'd love it to. McCarthy will always be the quirky bridesmaid. Sure, the pop literary set want to claim him as one of their own but they're a little too scared to actually stamp his naturalisation papers. Dare I say, it's probably better that way.

Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread
What the bookmakers say: 10/1
What the critics say: "... in the telescope of Tyler’s narrative, we can see the interplay of accident and willfulness, love and envy that created these complicated people who pretend they have no secrets." Ron Charles in The Washington Post.
What I said: "Twenty books is a pretty impressive innings. Alas, she is not finishing on a high."
Will it win? Dear God I hope not. Yes she's fantastic but it would be akin to awarding the prize to a great author like John Banville for a subpar novel like The Sea... Oh...

Chigozie Obioma's The Fishermen
What the bookmakers say: 10/1
What the critics say: "The Fishermen is a strikingly accomplished debut, hailing Chigozie Obioma as a bold new voice in Nigerian fiction." Lucy Scholes in The Independent
What I said: "... a bold and original debut, drawing beautifully upon an entire body of mythology to tell a very contemporary, universal story."
Will it win? My prediction for a surprise win. It has everything a Booker winner should have and is accessible to high-end LitNerds and casual readers alike. A great book that is highly deserving of any prize that should come its way.

So, in summary, I would love, love, LOVE Tom McCarthy to win it but I don't think he will. As usual, I'm going to go against the odds and pick Obioma. No doubt I'll be wrong but, if I'm right and you win big money, email me and I'll let you know where to send the drink you so desperately want to shout. And, to save you the embarrassing to-and-fro: Mojitos and Pilsner.

* I take no responsibility for your inevitable loss of said dinaros.
** Note all odds are from Ladbrokes and are current as at 5.30pm on Tuesday 13 October in Melbourne, Australia.

Microviews Vol. 56: The Booker Prize Shortlist 2015

Well here it is: you last minute cheater's guide to this year's Man Booker Prize Shortlist. Enjoy!

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Like most upper middle class white kids, I spent the better part of my university days listening to Bob Marley and convincing myself that every little thing was going to be alright. I never gave much thought to the man himself. He was, to borrow a phrase, a cliché gueverra, someone who inhabited my musical universe and a fair few t-shirts, but did not really exist in the real world. In fact, I knew only three things about him: he smoked way more weed than all my friends combined, he shagged more women than I could ever hope to even meet and he died from toe cancer (if that's even a thing). What I didn't know until much later was that he was actively involved in Jamaican politics and, in 1973, was the target of an assassination attempt. It is this tumultuous period - and the attack on Marley - that provides the springboard for Marlon James's challenging novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings. In the tradition of William Faulkner, the story is told from a variety of perspectives, mostly the gangsters and thugs involved in the attack but also a CIA operative, some music reporters and friends and lovers of "the Singer" as he is known in the book. James pulls no punches in relating the violence and corruption of 1970s Jamaica. One thing is clear from the outset: life ain't worth shit. Tarantino would be proud. People are killed frequently and in spectacular fashion. At the centre of the shitstorm is Josey Wales, about as good a bad guy as The Judge in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. And what a nasty motherfucker he is: killing, maiming and torturing without so much as a thought, let alone a care. In a way, the book is just as much Wales's story as it is Marley's. Indeed, Marley makes only infrequent appearances and, more often than not, does not come out of it looking particularly good. If James is to be believed (and the depth and breadth of his research surely suggests that he should) Marley was a pretty nasty character himself. I suppose I'd be a vindictive arsehole too if someone tried to kill me but, even so, it is confronting to see a hero of peace watching on as his enemies are tortured or killed. And it is not just the substance of the novel that makes it a tough read. James goes the Irvine Welsh route, utilising dense Jamaican Patios that, I imagine, might scare some readers away. Six hundred and ninety pages of difficult-to-read lingo is quite the ask no matter how cool the tale being told might be. Greatly ambitious, epic in scope (the novel stretches far beyond Marley's death into the infiltration of Jamaican expats in the New York drug scene of the 80s), A Brief History of Seven Killings is a magnificent achievement. It shines a light on the dark political rumblings of a country in crisis, where outside forces try to impose their will (cough cough CIA cough cough) while the worms of corruption eat it from within. And yet, for some strange reason, I just could not connect with it. Reading the book seemed a chore. I wish I could pinpoint where the schism lay. Perhaps it was the unrelenting intensity - I needed some moments of levity if only to catch my breath. It might have been the hype - I've come to it late and am almost drowning in the adoring fanboy froth that surrounds it. Or maybe it felt a little too drawn out. In that way it reminded me of my difficult relationship with the works of David Foster Wallace. Whatever the reason, I was never truly swept up in it which is a shame really. I can't help but feel I was handed an entire world and turned my back. A Redemption Song this was not.
3.5 Out of 5 Exploding Hash Cookies

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
Four books into his career and Tom McCarthy is shaping up to be this generation's JG Ballard. I don't make the comparison lightly. When it comes to the combination of vision, inventiveness, social criticism and experimental gusto only McCarthy comes close to the late, great master. Or maybe he's just Thomas Pynchon in disguise. Stranger things have happened. Whatever, Satin Island continues McCarthy's fascination with the "essence of now" (my term, not his, pardon the quotation marks), this time putting it front and centre. The narrator, U., is an anthropologist engaged by The Company where he has been tasked with writing a study that will distill modern life to its very essence. It's never quite clear what The Company does (only that it has recently won a major account, the Koob-Sassen Project) nor why it has him embark on this peculiar task. Nevertheless, with all the dogged perseverance of his hero Claude Levi-Strauss, U. begins to compile dossiers from snippets of modern existence, looking for links, themes, arcs and, ultimately, meaning. There are meditations on airports, cargo cults of Vanuatu, a parachuting accident that is most likely a murder, email scams... you name it. U.'s task becomes more obsessive as the novel progresses, its manic escalation sweeping the reader up in a world that is expanding and contracting at the same time. It also gets quite funny; so much so that I suspect McCarthy is having a bit of a laugh at our expense. It doesn't matter. He clearly wants us to laugh along with him. And we do. Until we cry.
4 Out Of 5 Broken Hyperlinks

A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara
Seldom does an author arrive on the scene so fully formed, so thoroughly accomplished, that you're forced to reconsider your views on reincarnation. Such was the case with Hanya Yanigahara and her debut, The People of the Trees. One of my favourites of 2013, it continues to haunt me and I still rate it as one of the most morally challenging novels that I've ever read. That it was her first book beggars belief. Of course from such great heights often come equally great falls - there is the dreaded curse of the sophomore novel - and so it was with considerable trepidation that I picked up the dauntingly massive, A Little Life. Four young men meet in college and become fast friends. Each one is a prodigy of sorts - arty, talented, ambitious and fiercely intelligent - but it is Jude St Francis who is the star around which the others revolve. Jude never speaks about his past. There is a darkness about him that cannot be penetrated, something from his childhood that is so deeply traumatic that it shrouds his very existence in a cloak of unimaginable suffering. Yanagihara allows us to see through the cracks early - Jude cuts himself. Often. He has a constant supply of razors and gauze. The others rally around him as you would a wounded puppy, albeit one prone to lashing out and biting you. Even on the most superficial level Jude needs help. His legs are crippled. He walks with splints when he can walk at all. Otherwise he is wheelchair-bound. On the flip side, Jude is a stellar student. He excels at law school and is a mathematical genius. There is no question that he is bound for some kind of glory. Once school is over Jude, like the others, makes his way to New York City and we watch him take root in a town that is almost made for him - outwardly it sparkles but its underbelly is rotting and mouldy. Yanagihara spends few words on Jude's career. We know that he succeeds, that he is headhunted by a large commercial firm, that he rises up the ranks to become one of its most ruthless and feared attorneys. But it is his personal life that Yanagihara explores in the greatest depth and holy shit is it disturbing. If The People of the Trees examined the way in which a person can misuse his power to destroy the lives of others then A Little Life is almost its companion opposite. It is the story from the perspective of the destroyed. Jude is the single most broken man I've ever encountered in literature. There is almost a perverse spectacle in the litany of sufferings he endures. He is Job minus the faith. Abandoned on the steps of a monastery as a baby, he is raised by the monks who routinely pass him around as their sexual plaything. He finds solace in one particular monk but, unsurprisingly, that monster turns out to be the worst. He kidnaps Jude, takes him from state to state and pimps him out to pedophiles around the country to make ends meet. It is awful to witness as a reader and Yanagihara is not afraid to describe it in fine detail. There are moments of reprieve - Jude's college days, his adoption but a particularly wonderful university lecturer and his wife (probably the only driftwood of pure goodness in the novel), his finding love with his best friend - but he is too damaged to truly appreciate it. He continues to punish himself with cutting, with suicide attempts, with undignified encounters (one particular affair with an abusive older partner had me in tears). Jude is an exercise is self-loathing, a repository for all the world's suffering. In that way Yanagihara achieves what William H. Gass attempted in his most recent novel, Middle C. A Little Life is a harrowing read. The unrelenting bleakness of Jude's plight is breathtaking. And it goes on for almost eight hundred pages. As a reader, you are likely to despair the experience of witnessing it. But as a novel of the legacy of damage and the boundaries of love and friendship this novel is almost without equal. Hanya Yanagihara is the real deal. And she's willing to plumb the depths of humanity to prove it. Now can someone please pass me a stiff drink or twenty?
5 Out of 5 Blunted Blades

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
I'll keep this one short. Anne Tyler is an American national treasure. She has written many amazing novels. She has a knack for breezy dialogue that few others possess and her ability to find meaning in the life of ordinary people - her penchant for perfect empathy - is extraordinary. A Spool of Blue Thread is her last novel. She announced her retirement soon before its publication. Twenty books is a pretty impressive innings. Alas, she is not finishing on a high. A Spool of Blue Thread also happens to be one of her weaker books. I don't know what's with the current fashion of telling tales in reverse chronological order but for some reason Tyler seems to have seen the train and decided to hop aboard. And so we get the story of the Whitshank family across three (well, sort of four) generations, starting with the sad twilight years of Abby and Red. More to the point, we get the story of their house on Boulton Road, one built and, but for the brief stay of a snooty family who commissioned it, lived in by Red's parents, Junior and Linnie May. The book kicks off with the family converging on the house to care for Red as Abby disappears into a demented haze. It's sad, it's touching, it's remarkably unremarkable. As you might expect there's a bunch of unresolved tensions suddenly brought to the fore - mostly surrounding the difficult wastrel Denny and the adopted fave Stem. Fisticuffs seem in the offing. Fisticuffs ensue. And so it goes. The book is divided into four parts, each set in a different era. Any warmth you might have for certain characters is sure to be tested when you meet their earlier (or later) incarnations. I don't think it was Tyler's intention, but I couldn't help but feel that the Whitshanks were a pretty annoying family. Especially Linnie Mae. Seriously, she drove me mad. What saves them from being insufferable, however, is Tyler's unquestionable skill as a novelist. It is a joy to read her, even when you don't like the substance of what she is writing. I'm sad to see Tyler go. I'd hope that she had one more book in her - something to remind us how truly wonderful she is without having to reread The Accidental Tourist or A Patchwork Planet.
2.5 Out of 5 Porch Swings

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
Critics have been quick to slap lazy comparisons on Obioma's quite stunning debut. There's the biblical: Cain and Abel. Yep, it's a story about brothers. It's tragic, cataclysmic even. Next there are the classics: any number of Greek tragedies. Death foretold and played out. Some can't resist the easy African comparison: Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Okay, so it's a Nigerian tale in which Obioma addresses the collision of modernity and traditional African life. Achebe's book even makes an appearance or two. But, c'mon... There are still others. Equally applicable but altogether inadequate. If I were to throw my hat into the ring, I might choose The Virgin Suicides; The Fishermen has the same blend of mystery and inevitability, you know where it's going, your heart aches in advance but you can't turn away. To reduce The Fisherman to what it's (kind of) like, however, is to do it a serious injustice. This is a bold and original debut, drawing beautifully upon an entire body of mythology to tell a very contemporary, universal story. The Fishermen of the title are four young brothers growing up in the rural Nigerian town of Akure in the politically turbulent 1990s. Their father has big dreams for them - they will be doctors, lawyers and such - and won't abide their parochial old world leanings. When they are spotted fishing by the town's tattletale, he is bitterly disappointed but is able to spin their dream of being actual fishermen into something more metaphorical. Poverty drives him out of town to find work, leaving the boys to skip school and resume their childish ways. They are, after all, only boys. One day, while returning home, they are confronted by the village madman who warns them of a dire prophecy: the oldest brother will be killed by one of the others. So begins a horrible downward spiral; paranoia compounds normal sibling tensions until the prophecy comes true. Those left behind have only one dream: revenge. Told by Ben, the youngest of the brothers, The Fisherman maintains a childlike wonder throughout. Like make of the best child narrators in literary history, his voice is knowingly assured but perhaps a small step away from full understanding. We, as readers, are left to fill in the blanks, to wade through the mythological imagery and find the real meaning in what he tells us. Ben forces us to bear witness to the collapse of a family that holds within it the hopes and dreams of a new Africa. I called it when this review was first posted back in June: The Fisherman has to be a clear frontrunner for this year's Booker.
4.5 Out Of 5 Marks of Cain

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota
At times, there is a fine line between migrant and refugee. While our collective sympathy is easily mobilised by images of those who flee their homelands, trudging across borders, sleeping in forests, boarding rickety boats or facing down hostile fascists in the countries where they seek refuge, we often fail to appreciate the desperation and degradation that besets many of those who leave in less sensational circumstances. Sure, they come in with visas but they too are, in essence, refugees, having fled economic adversity, sectarian or caste subjugation or any number of other hardships. They become the underclass, the invisible minions. They are routinely exploited, abused and overlooked. In his powerful second novel, The Year of the Runaways, Sunjeev Sahota picks off the scab of wilful blindness to reveal a heartbreaking side of contemporary British society through the lives of four young Indians just trying to find their feet. The first three are new arrivals. Randeep has come in on a dodgy marriage visa. The "marriage" is a financial arrangement and will be nullified after a year when Randeep can get a visa in his own right. Avtar has a student visa but quickly dumps his study for manual labour wherever it can be found. When he still can't make ends meet, he turns to loan sharks and then to the organ black market. Perhaps the saddest story belongs to Tarlochan, a low-caste Chamaar who has barely escaped India with his life after surviving riots that saw his parents set on fire in front of him. In some ways he does the best of the three, but you get the feeling it's only because he literally has nothing. And even in England he faces the same caste discrimination he thought he'd left behind. Then there's Narinder, a British-born sikh girl who is Randeep's visa wife but who must wrestle familial expectations and her own crisis of belief if she is to find her way. Throughout there's an air of constant dread that she'll fall victim to a so-called honour killing by her violent, possessive brother. Sahota draws each of his characters with great depth of heart, deftly avoiding melodrama or salaciousness despite the quite shocking narrative turns. There is a wisdom to his message that belies his age and experience. He wades though the shit but still lets the odd ray of light slip through. The Year of the Runaways is a testament to human will, to optimism in the face of extreme adversity. To that end it reminded me of George Orwell or Upton Sinclair. It is a tour de force of naked compassion and honesty let down only by an epilogue that hints at happy endings.
4 Out Of 5 Knotted Saris

Nobel Prize 2015: Alexievich's Brave New Literary World

on Thursday, October 8, 2015
As we all scramble to read up on Svetlana Aleksijevitj (or, as we now seem to be spelling it, Alexievich), it's worth considering the wider implications of her win. Her's has not been a name that has come up too often in the past. Personally, I'd never even heard of her three days ago. Still she stood above many of the perennial faves - Murakami (never gonna win), Roth (nope), Adunis (long-time bridesmaid), Dylan (you're totally pranking me, right?) - on the bookmakers' tables.

Maybe it's just me. Maybe my reading is so insular that I've become unaware of an entire literary world beyond my own bookshelf. The one thing I never considered, the one that had me pretty much dismissing Alexievich out of hand (once I knew who she was), is that journalism might be considered "literature" for the purposes of the prize. In the past, it has almost always gone to a novelist or poet. Sure, they might engage in criticism or journalism in their spare time, but it is never the essence of their literary output. I stand to be corrected (and I'm guessing I will be), but the last non-fiction laureate was Winston Churchill. And who the hell actually considers him a REAL Nobel literary laureate anyway? Now with Alexievich's win, the field has been cracked wide open.

The Nobel Committee, in their now typically pithy citation, pointed to "her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time." Fancy. Not that it helps us know anything about what she does. Their bibliographical note is a little more enlightening:

"For many years, she collected materials for her first book U vojny ne ženskoe lico (1985; War’s Unwomanly Face, 1988), which is based on interviews with hundreds of women who participated in the Second World War. This work is the first in Alexievich’s grand cycle of books, “Voices of Utopia”, where life in the Soviet Union is depicted from the perspective of the individual.
By means of her extraordinary method – a carefully composed collage of human voices – Alexievich deepens our comprehension of an entire era. The consequences of the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl 1986 is the topic of Černobyl’skaja molitva (1997; Voices from ChernobylChronicle of the Future, 1999). Cinkovye mal’čiki (1990; Zinky Boys – Soviet voices from a forgotten war, 1992) is a portrayal of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan 1979–89, and her work Vremja second chènd (2013; “Second-hand Time: The Demise of the Red (Wo)man”) is the latest in “Voices of Utopia”. Another early book that also belongs in this lifelong project is Poslednie svideteli (1985; “Last witnesses”)."

Seems there is a lot of interesting material for me to trawl through over the coming weeks if I can tear myself away from the world of fiction. Thankfully, her oeuvre seems right up my alley. Either way, I'm putting 2015 down as a watershed year for the prize. At last it is recognising a form that speaks not from behind a creative veil but, rather, straight from the shit-stained troughs of our fucked up world. And that, dear LitNerds, is a big win.

Nobel Prize 2015: Svetlana Aleksijevitj

The bookie's had it. Go figure. Now I'm going to have to break my Fiction Only rule.

An intriguing win. Off to order some books I go...

From Out of Nowhere: The Nobel Prize in Literature 2015

on Wednesday, October 7, 2015
Svetlana Aleksijevitj. Heard of her? You know, the Belarusian investigative journalist? Still nothing? Didn't think so. Well right now she's sitting comfortably atop most bookies' tables as the clear favourite for this year's Nobel Prize in Literature.

Of course, there is a certain logic to it. Everything about the prize seems counterintuitive. Conspiracy theorists would have a field day if only they gave a crap about literature. Suffice to say the whole thing is shrouded in secrecy and, more often than not, we only become fans of the winner post facto. Seriously, how many of us knew Patrick Modiano before last year? Thankfully, that turned out to be a popular choice because when we all got around to reading him (which for the more obsessed among us was about 4 minutes after he was awarded the prize, slowed only by the need for a knee-jerk blog post about it all) he turned out to be pretty darn excellent. Admittedly, I speak for some sort of English language hegemonic league of arrogance but every now and then I like to pin a badge on myself and say I've read the winner before they were famous (so to speak).

A quick scan of bookies' list finds a few other relative unknowns (at least in the English-speaking world) such as Maryse Condé, Bei Dao and Ko Un alongside perennial favourites Haruki Murakami, Adunis, Philip Roth and, yes (*sigh*) Bob Dylan. I'll never understand how anyone could ever put serious money on that guy and, even if he were to win, I can't imagine that he could pull himself together enough to ascend a podium and string anything resembling a coherent sentence together. Have you seen him play live in the past twenty years? Sad, sad man. But I digress...

Onto what is bound to be my annual wildly inaccurate prediction:

Buoyed by the reception of their last semi-obscure pick, the Literary Round Table of Nobel will venture a little further afield and push their luck just so none of us get too confident in their ability to pick worthy winners. Near misses will be my two faves (László Krasznahorkai and Ismail Kadare) who fall just outside the semi-obscure category - not to mention the inconvenient fact that they would actually deserve it - as well as worthy contenders such as Ngūgī Wa Thiong'o or Joyce Carol Oates. Chances are they'll try to be a touch political but not too tokenistic. So someone who has a connection to geographical displacement or cultural alienation. And it's likely to be a woman. Hopefully of the Alice Munro or Doris Lessing kind and not another Elfriede Jelinek (no, I won't miss the chance to knock that every year. And not even Tomas Tranströmer can stop me. Well... he's dead... but two annual jokes now made!).

Ok so this year's Nobel Prize in Literature will go to a reasonably obscure middle eastern (or thereabouts) woman living in exile. That's my pick. Now you can confidently bet against it.

Unless they shift Belarus across a few countries...

Last Minute Edit: One and a half hours until the announcement and I'm jumping up with two serious picks: Sonallah Ibrahim or Tahar Ben Jelloun. Only because I want to be able to say I told you so. And if it's not, I'll look no more clueless than usual. Win/Win.

Finding Purpose in Purgatory: The Waiting Room by Leah Kaminsky

on Monday, September 28, 2015
Of all the strange cities I've visited around the world, few hold as special a place in my heart as Haifa. Mid-Eastophiles take note. Forget Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Forget Istanbul or Beirut. Amman? Nope. To me, it's all about that little city on a hill in Israel's north.

For those not in the know, Haifa is home to the best falafel in the world (Falafel Orion, made with white bean rather than chick pea and about fifty times more delicious than anything you'll find anywhere else) as well as the nicest bunch of guys to get together to form a punk band, Useless ID. It's also the only place in Israel where the cultural melting pot actually works. Jews, Muslims and Christians live in the kind of harmony we all speak about wistfully when we bandy around the idea of "Peace in the Middle East". That's not to say it isn't a city of tensions and contradictions. It's still Israel, after all. It's still kind of messed up, albeit in a very complex way. It is this very complexity that makes Haifa the perfect place for Leah Kaminsky to explore some very difficult issues of history, politics and the sense of self in her wonderful debut novel, The Waiting Room.

The book opens with Dina picking through the rubble in the aftermath of a suicide bombing. Ok, so straight up we realise we're in for some heavy shit. The prologue is short and sharp and, when the main body of the novel kicks off earlier that same day, we know from the outset that time is quite literally ticking. If there is such a thing as the Melbourne Expat Every-Jew, Dina is it. Born and raised in Australia, she is drawn to the promised land by a combination of ideology and love. She hits the ground running, quickly building her reputation as a GP in a local clinic while doing her best as a wife and mother. Like most Melbourne Jews, she also carries some serious baggage. She comes from Holocaust stock and is haunted, in her case quite literally, by the ghost of her obnoxious, loud-mouthed, judgemental mother. It is an interesting device - the woman acts as greek chorus and presiding magistrate throughout - though it might have you questioning Dina's mental health at times.

The Waiting Room is very much about the the way we live in a state of perpetual suspension. We are all, it seems, waiting for something, anything. Whether it be the return of love, the birth of a child (Dina is pregnant), the results of a test or the tangible manifestation of fear, time marches on undeterred. The question, though, is how we go about it. Sometimes, we can do little but prolong the agony. In one of the most moving sections, Dina cannot bring herself to tell a young mother that her symptoms are not caused by another pregnancy but, rather, the advanced stages of ovarian cancer. Other times, the waiting breaks us. Dina watches in exasperation as one of her more painful patients - an hilarious caricature of the typical pushy Israeli - tries to force her way to the front of the queue and then explodes at an unfortunate young Arab tradesman who is there to do some fixits. The book is full of this sort of thing - pregnant pauses and unexpected denouements. It also posits an interesting take on why we wait: the act can be an end in itself. It can be restorative, reparative. As the old Arab cobbler tells Dina when she comes to pick up some shoes, "Repairs take time". So it is with Dina in the end. The bomb goes off - we always knew it would - but it is what will set her on the way to a more balanced, meaningful life.

That Kaminsky should have such a nuanced understanding of the intricacies of waiting comes as little surprise. The Waiting Room took her over ten years to complete. Thankfully, the book is all the better for it. Let's just hope we don't have to wait too long for her next one.

Booker Prize 2015: The Stricken Field

on Sunday, September 27, 2015
Have you ever wondered which books the various publishers hoped would be in line for Booker glory? I'm not sure when Bookworld went all Hollywood on us, but a quick browse through my local bookstore this afternoon revealed a stricken field of heavy hitters in the New Releases section, names that have shown up on Booker shortlists of yore but were conspicuously absent this year (in retrospect). The only real surprise for me when the long list was announced was Jonathan Franzen's new brick, Purity. No doubt someone at FSG saw a sure-fire home run for America's first Booker. Alas, poor Johnny turned out to be an also ran. Never fear, he was in good company. Books released in the past week or so that I assume were scheduled to coincide with Booker season include:

Salman Rushdie - Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights
Pat Barker - Noonday
Andrew Miller - The Crossing
Rupert Thomson - Katherine Carlyle
William Boyd - Sweet Caress: The Many Lives of Amory Clay
John Banville - The Blue Guitar
Sebastian Faulks - Where My Heart Used to Beat
Maragret Attwood - The Heart Goes Last
Jeanette Winterson - The Gap of Time

Interesting omissions, n'est-ce pas? Now I'm left to wonder who will be wearing what on the red carpet and whether Will Self can play the role of literary Joan Rivers for TMZ... I clearly have too much time on my hands.