The Booker Prize 2016: The Blah Booker... (The Longlist)

on Saturday, July 30, 2016
Trust the first whiff of LitPrize Silly Season to lure me out from my cyber-cave. Yep, my hyperventilating over the senselessly subjective jockeying for literary immortality (yeah, who could possibly forget such classics as Paul Scott's Staying On or anything by Verner Von Heidenstam?) ought now be considered one of life's certainties along with death, taxes and the crushing disappointment of adulthood. It has, of course, been a cold winter so my arthritic bones have taken a little longer to click into gear than they have in the past (apparently, hitting 40 does that to you), but here I am!

And here is the 2016 Man Booker Prize Longlist.

Paul Beatty (US) - The Sellout (Oneworld)
J.M. Coetzee (South African-Australian) - The Schooldays of Jesus (Harvill Secker)
A.L. Kennedy (UK) - Serious Sweet (Jonathan Cape)
Deborah Levy (UK) - Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)
Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) - His Bloody Project (Contraband)
Ian McGuire (UK) - The North Water (Scribner UK)
David Means (US) - Hystopia (Faber & Faber)
Wyl Menmuir (UK) - The Many (Salt)
Ottessa Moshfegh (US) - Eileen (Jonathan Cape)
Virginia Reeves (US) - Work Like Any Other (Scribner UK)
Elizabeth Strout (US) - My Name Is Lucy Barton (Viking)
David Szalay (Canada-UK) - All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)
Madeleine Thien (Canada) - Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books)


Many of us had hoped that, once the fear of the American invasion subsided, the competition would be the great apocalyptic battleground of the English Language NovelTM. Or at least the Gladiator Arena. Turns out it's become little more than a kitchen table thumb wrestle. I usually try to talk it up but even the starry-eyed optimist in me can't get overly excited about this year's crop. First up, the absences. I thought Julian Barnes's latest was quite beautiful and worthy of a longlisting, if not something more. Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Chabon must be smarting - I'd put a buck or two on them considering themselves the rightly winners of the first trans-Pacific Booker. Don Delillo probably couldn't care less which, I suppose is a good thing, because that seemed to be his attitude to the second half of his latest novel, Zero K. And then there's Ian McEwan. In steady decline, he might have been hoping that the forthcoming Nutshell would scoop him from the literary doldrums. His omission from Team Booker's love-in does not bode well.

As for the books that did get a nod, I've read only two. Ian McGuire's The North Water was a mostly riveting collision of Conrad, Melville and McCarthy set on a high seas whaler. It's got one of the best McCarthyesque villains of recent times and, for the most part, it rockets along with admirable vigour. Oddly, though, it peters out and leaves the reader - pardon the pun - cold in its lack of resolve. Paul Beatty's book has been the darling of the American literary world for the better part of a year. It's brash, funny and irreverent. Given the recent spilling over of racial tension in that country, it is also very timely. Anyone who imagines a batshit crazy African American guy's attempt to reintroduce segregation into his neighbourhood and then so deftly does so with tongue-firmly in cheek is deserving of attention. There are parts of The Sellout that are jaw-droppingly great. Anything with the unnamed narrator's father had me on the floor laughing. And some of the satirical barbs were inspired genius. But, much like McGuire's book, I was left a little disappointed by the work as a whole. Maybe it was the hype. Or maybe it's just not quite as good as people say.

As for the rest of the field, I'm very keen to see J.M. Coetzee get another nod. The sequel to his uneven but quite interesting The Childhood of Jesus, The Schooldays of Jesus looks to be more Kafkaesque in its execution which can only be a good thing. The first half of Childhood was brilliant in its ability to unsettle and disorient the reader before devolving into ploddy straight narrative. If Schooldays maintains the weird without following its predecessor into the narrative quagmire I suspect we're in for quite a treat. I have high hopes for Deborah Levy, too. She is consistently excellent and has been on the Booker radar before. Ditto A.L. Kennedy who very rarely fails to impress. Of the lesser known names, Ottessa Moshfegh stands out in particular. Though the judges seem to think Eileen is her debut, I was greatly impressed by her actual first novel McGlue with its muscular, rowdy and unflinching energy. I'm also quite the fan of any small press book that bucks the typical literary trends so Graeme MacRae Burnett's crime thriller has piqued my interest. As for the others, hmmmm... I'll give as many of them a go as I can but I somehow think that this ain't going to be remembered as Booker's finest years.

So, back into my cave for now. I'll catch you in a couple of weeks for the announcement of the Miles Franklin Award. It's a great field and, of course, I'm backing AS Patrić, but almost any of the contenders are worthy of the award. At least it's a great year for Australian Literary Prizes. At least we've got that!

The Morning After: Some Thoughts on Elie Wiesel's Lesser-Known Works

on Sunday, July 3, 2016
A stark reminder this morning that we are hurtling towards a post-survivor world: Elie Wiesel has died. Like most Jews of my generation, Wiesel's work was my first true engagement with the Holocaust, especially given that my own grandparents couldn't talk about it. I remember reading Night, arguably his masterpiece (I say arguably only because there are three or so other contenders), and being struck not only by the horrors Weisel depicted, the philosophical depth with which he did so or the beautiful simplicity of his language but also by the fact that he was not much older than me when he experienced them. For a twelve or thirteen year old kid it was a revelation; the moment humanity was unmasked and its ugliest face revealed.

Much will be written about Wiesel in the coming days. Eulogies will abound highlighting his Nobel Prize, his ongoing political and social justice activism, his wisdom and his generosity. I look at the famous picture of him in the Buchenwald concentration camp bunk, a sickly, emaciated teen and wonder whether he could have imagined at that moment the intellectual and moral giant he would become on a world scale. Beyond that, there is little I can add.

I did want to spare a thought, though, for his other books, the ones that weren't Night, Dawn or Day (aka The Night Trilogy). For years I've dipped in and out of his work, feeling the need to hear his voice even when it wasn't at its most eloquent or powerful. Wiesel was by no means a perfect writer. I'm not sure he was even a great writer which is not in any way intended to take away from the fact that he was very much an exemplary human being. It is easy to forget that his Nobel was for Peace not Literature. And so there were a fair few misfires: The Sonderberg Case and The Judges stand out as poorly executed, rather far-fetched attempts to revisit familiar themes while The Hostage suffered as a second rate Death And The Maiden (though kind of inverted). Then there was A Mad Desire To Dance... sigh. Read them only for the sake of completeness. I'll personally come and pin your Wiesel Wizard badge to your chest. If, however, you want to read some quite extraordinary works, grab yourself a copy of his play The Trial of God or the not-too-dissimilarly-themed novel The Gates of the Forest. Also quite brilliant were Wiesel's interpretive works, particularly his takes on classic Hassidic tales (Souls On Fire) and biblical stories (Messengers of God). Should you want something slight but rather lovely, I'd also recommend his short meditation on his heart surgery, Open Heart

I doubt we will know another force of goodness and morality like Elie Wiesel for a very long time. His death is a great loss to humanity, to justice and, yes, to literature. There will be, I'm sure, many ways to remember and honour him. For me, though, the best will always be to read him. He might now have fallen silent but his voice will live on.