The Regurgitated Read: Booker Prize Edition

on Sunday, October 10, 2010
Well, we're only days away from the biggest announcement in the Commonwealth literary world. Who will win this year's prestigious and occasionally relevant Man Booker Prize? As I've said before I'm hopeless at picking these things and pretty much gave up even trying after sinking 200 bucks on Lloyd Jones's Mister Pip a few years back. In lieu of making an ass of myself again, I've decided to give you a quick potted summary of each of the shortlisted novels so that, come the big announcement, you can pretend to know what you're on about. You are probably familiar with John Crace's Digested Read in The Guardian, so here I give you its cheaper step-cousin, The Regurgitated Read. Because we all know it's not about whether or not you've actually read the winner, but whether you are able to make a few pithy, disparaging comments about it in polite company! So here you go, I've taken one (or six) for the team!

ROOM by EMMA DONOGHUE. Supposedly 'triggered' by Austria's horrible Hans Fritzl case (though really more akin to Natascha Kampusch), Room is a brilliantly realised, razor-sharp short story puffed out to novel length for the Oprah crowd. And how they are lapping it up! Five year old Jack has never been outside the garden shed that nasty Old Nick has used as a dungeon since kidnapping the tyke's mum. He knows every item in the singular and the outside world as mere fantasy. Cue a whole host of harrowing moments (when Jack is made to hide in 'cupboard' while the villain rapes his mum), plenty of pathos and oodles of cutesy cheese. It's smart, it's topical and there's a fair chance it's going to win. Poor Austria won't have had it stuck to them so royally since the Anschluss.

PARROT AND OLIVIER IN AMERICA by PETER CAREY. I should declare straight out that I don't particularly like Peter Carey. Yeah, yeah Tall Poppy Syndrome blah blah balh. Get stuffed. My lawnmower calls it like it is. The History of The Kelly Gang was pretty great, but other than that I generally find him cringeworthy (I'm talking to you My Life As A Fake... and Theft... and Bliss... and His Illegal Self... and.... snore!). Anyway, it looks like he's also hopped on the 'inspired by a true story' bandwagon. Again. Actually I suspect Carey drives it. But while Donoghue barely had to slide into her Delorian, Carey has zipped back to the Nineteenth century for some fancy riffing on that great experiment of freedom, America as viewed through the eyes of a thinly veiled Alexis de Tocqueville. The master and servant relationship gets a good once or twice over, as do the fledgling institutions of the New World. But when all is said and done, Olivier is a whining French prat and Parrot reads like an attempt to out-Dickens Dickens, making this rather hefty book kind of slim in terms of substance.

THE LONG SONG by ANDREA LEVY. I have loved Andrea Levy since hearing her read from Small Island a couple of years ago. Talk about bringing a book to life. So I was pretty excited when I got my hands on this gorgeously packaged follow-up. I was raving about it on this very blog before I had even read past the first chapter. Um... Let me try to say this while maintaining my dignity. The Long Song is great if you liked Small Island but could never be stuffed reading Roots by Alex Haley. As a slave narrative it ticks all the boxes - beatings, rapes, backbreaking labour and families torn apart. It also focuses on a little explored - at least in terms of fiction - episode, the Jamaican Slave rebellion that was brutally quashed by colonial forces. But for all that, it reads a little hollow. Levy's gentle touch doesn't quite allow the degradation to reach what I felt would have, in reality, been its realistic endpoint.

THE FINKLER QUESTION by HOWARD JACOBSON. Jacobson is England's answer to gefilte fish. Or Philip Roth. An entity so Jewish that I suspect Manischewitz courses through his veins. After lurking rather brilliantly in the shadows for a while now, he has finally hit his stride with this spectacularly funny snapshot of modern Jewish Diaspora life. Take two self-loathing Jews, intent on doing everything they can to be cosmopolitan goys, and one goy wishing he was a Jew and you have a recipe for hilarious disaster. Not since Portnoy's Complaint has a book so perfectly captured what it means to be 'Jewish' in a particular time and place. And, to Jacobson's credit, he didn't need to have Sam Finkler jacking off with some luke-warm chopped liver to get a laugh. For my money this should win, but we all know what my money's worth!

IN A STRANGE ROOM by DAMON GALGUT. Ok, so let's get this clear. Galgut, who I have loved since The Good Doctor and who I think was criminally overlooked for The Impostor, writes three short travelogue memoirs, publishes them in The Paris Review (or some similar rag) and then cobbles them together as a collection and manages to score a Booker nomination? Some furious back peddling has seen the wanky literati set claim that In A Strange Room explores the border between fact and fiction, memoir and imagination. I call shenanigans on them all. It's an alright book. The story about his friend's suicide is incredibly affecting. But doll it up in whatever hyperbole you want, this is not a novel. I want Galgut to win a Booker, but giving it to him for this would be like giving it to John Banville for The Sea. Oh...

C by TOM McCARTHY. Ladbrokes have just suspended betting on the Booker because some schmuck dropped 15K on this to win. Nice. It seems said canny punter has seen through the 'experimental' bulldust and recognised C for the excellent novel (yes, there I said it, NOVEL - get it through your heads, it's a pretty conventional novel) that it is. For all the fancy shmancy hype that surrounds McCarthy, he is a damn fine writer of extremely engaging books. This vibrant, almost explosive allegory for the proliferation of new media dwarfs all the other books on the list in terms of intellectual vigour and pure imaginative gymnastics. Why McCarthy doesn't receive the same adulation as Dave Eggars is beyond me. They are two sides of the same coin. McCarthy is the side that writes well.

So where does this leave us? I'd love McCarthy or Jacobson to win. Their books are by far the most deserving. Which, of course, means Carey actually will. Because we all know that he deserves a third before McEwan, Rushdie or just about anyone else good gets a second. Or just give it to Donoghue. For Oprah's sake!


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