The Booker Prize 2016: F&*$ The Favourites

on Wednesday, September 14, 2016
Well shiver me timbers and blow me down (and something about a bottle of rum... I could do with one of those). Ian McGuire's Cormac-McCarthy-On-The-High-Seas whaling epic has been scuttled in the harbour. Yep, the Booker Prize shortlist is out and my early pick - not to mention the bookies' favourite - didn't make the cut. Neither did JM Coetzee with his return-to-form The Childhood of Jesus or AL Kennedy with her much-lauded Serious Sweet.

If you haven't seen it yet, the six books vying for Booker glory this year are:

Paul Beatty (US) - The Sellout (Oneworld)
Deborah Levy (UK) - Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)
Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) - His Bloody Project (Contraband)
Ottessa Moshfegh (US) – Eileen (Jonathan Cape)
David Szalay (Canada-UK) - All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)
Madeleine Thien (Canada) - Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books)

I'm in two minds about it all. Might 2017 be the year that Booker broke free of its establishment chains and embraced the exciting underdogs? Or was my first impression when reading the long list right - it is a year that will fade into obscurity? For that matter where's the subcontinent? Where's Africa? Where the bloody hell is Australia?

Of course, I've only read one of the shortlisted books: The Sellout. Beatty has been basking in critical sunshine since its release, already having picked up a fair swag of rave reviews and a trusty old 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. I was only lukewarm on it - the idea of an African American guy trying to reintroduce segregation in his local neighbourhood is pretty funny, and the bits about his batshit crazy father are laugh-out-loud hilarious. However, the novel outstays its welcome, drawing the joke out that little bit too far to pack a knockout punch. Indeed, it was a Dishonourable Mention in my 2015 Most Overrated Books.

I've just started Graeme Macrae Burnet's novel and so far it's pretty cool. Notably, it continues the recent Booker trend of picking outsiders from genre fiction to sit alongside the more nose-in-the-air, port-swilling literary types. Deborah Levy is a bit of a Booker favourite, with her novel Swimming Home getting much love when it was shortlisted back in 2012. Reviews for Hot Milk have been generally positive (though not the slobbering adulation of the other) and I'm wondering whether Levy might be in line for one of those consolation Bookers a la Ian McEwan who won for Amsterdam when they regretted not having given it to him for his masterpiece, Enduring Love. That's not to say Hot Milk may not be deserving in its own right. I just haven't read it yet. Of the others, Szalay and Thien are unknown quantities and, tempting as it is to make wild and loose predictive pontifications (that's why you come here, right?), I might hold off until I've had the chance to give them a proper go.

That leaves Ottessa Moshfegh, the one contender that really interests me. Team Booker mistakenly bill it as her first novel but she did publish a decent length novella (of the kind for which both McEwan and Barnes won Bookers) called McGlue a couple of years back. The book was gritty, unrelenting and bleak yet still possessed of a strangely humorous undercurrent. If it's any indication of what to expect from Eileen, I suspect we have us a pretty strong dark horse.

It remains to be seen whether this really will be the blah-Booker or something completely refreshing. I'm still smarting that Coetzee and McGuire didn't make it but I suppose I now have reason to read three books I'd hoped to avoid. I can only be pleasantly surprised. I'll report back soon with my usual form guide. Until then... did someone say Nobel?


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