The Man Booker Prize 2016: A Last Minute Form Guide to the Blah Booker

on Monday, October 24, 2016
In what will no doubt be remembered - if it is remembered at all - as the least exciting literary race in recent times, the ragged drayhorses of the Booker Prize field are now lurching their way to the October 25 finish line. Yes, like Steve Bradbury before them, one will whoosh past the more deserving contenders - some who were long listed, some who were overlooked entirely - to snatch a spanking new doorstop to show off to their friends. Even my most rabid bookish mates have wandered off to more interesting pastures - I think the most anyone I know has read of the shortlist is four. Sucker is me, then. I've read them all. And I'm here to ramble my way through a form guide so you don't have to bother. Let me say at the outset, they're all pretty good books. I just don't see any particularly worthy of something so prestigious as the Booker. Well, except maybe one. But, in the year that the Nobel committee proved that prestige counts for jack shit, someone is going to be pretty bloody pleased that they kicked Ian McEwan, J.M. Coetzee, Michael Chabon, Ali Smith, Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Safran Foer, Ann Patchett, Jonathan Lethem and Zadie Smith's arses. So here's my take.

A Literary Safe Space
Booker is notorious for its literary conservatism so, as always, the more traditional type books sit atop the bookmaker's tables as close favourites*. Madeleine Thien is, perhaps surprisingly, outright top of the list at 2/1 with her epic family saga, Do Not Say We Have Nothing. It's a big and quite lovely book, riffing on the continuity of family through generations, particularly in the face of violent oppression and major societal change. Set mostly through the transitional Mao/Deng period of China and culminating in the Tiananmen Square Massage of 1989, it does not shy away from the brutality and degradation suffered by the "average" Chinese citizen. To me its greatest strength lay in its complexity - it was quite the moral challenge to make sense of characters who went from victims to collaborators to saviours. Thien is a fine, old school writer and this is sure to satisfy the casual reader. I suppose that makes it the safe choice for Team Booker. It's also the boring one. Deborah Levy gets her second chance at a Booker with Hot Milk, another charming (if creepy) addition to what has become a greatly admirable body of work. There are a lot of people who think she should have won it for Swimming Home but I think this is probably the better book. A daughter takes her ailing mother to a seaside Spanish village in search of miracle cure from a patently quackish doctor. It is a steaming, steamy novel - unsettling in its depiction of the tensions between the two women but even more so in its exploration of sexuality and desire. To me there was a distinctly Muriel Sparkish undertone. Think The Driver's Seat, if you will (there was even a stalkerish observer who intruded on the narrative to make sinister observations). I was waiting for a last minute suckerpunch and, although it never came, I closed the book with a sense of satisfaction and damp, sweaty palms. The bookies have Levy at 3/1. The track record for consolation Bookers has me rating it a decent chance. My love for the underdog (see below) kind of hopes it doesn't.

Barbarians at the Gate
This is the third year in which American novels have been eligible for Booker glory and this time round we have two rather unexpected contenders hobbling along the track. Paul Beatty's decidedly loopy comedy The Sellout has already picked up a fair few accolades (most notably the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award) and found itself on pretty much everyone's Best of 2015 list. Everyone but me, that is. As I said in my end of year wrap up, it's a good book with a genius premise and some truly brilliant comic moments but I couldn't help but feel that it overstayed its welcome. Beatty deserves laudatory attention just for the size of his cojones - it takes some massive ones to write about an African American guy attempting to bring back segregation in his neighbourhood and taking on a slave. He's also has a knack for outright hilarity. Every scene with the guy's inventor father is a comedic gem. There is, of course, a much darker side to the book. The Sellout has proven to be incredibly prescient and even necessary in the wake of the Ferguson riots and the frighteningly regressive racial tensions (hello, Trump and his basket of deplorables - special shoutout to the rednecks). Whether it has the legs to bag a Booker has yet to be seen but to my mind it is objectively the strongest contender. The punting public seems to think otherwise. Beatty is sitting at 6/1. The second American entry is even more unsettling - probably the bleakest novel ever to grace a Booker Prize shortlist and the only work likely to knock Ann Enright's The Gathering from its long standing throne of Booker bleakness. Ottessa Moshfegh's Eileen is misery porn at its best. Eileen herself is a stunningly realised character - young, working in a boy's prison, single and brimming with self-loathing, she is equal parts tragedy and repulsive failure. Living with her abusive alcoholic father she dreams of physical intimacy (something that appears to have taken the place of "belonging" in her dreams), with the subject of her feelings shifting from person to person until it lands upon a mysterious new girl who comes to work at her prison and seems oddly obsessed with one particular prisoner. Don't look for redemption in this book. It will crush you like a coackroach and smear the muck of your carapace across a shit-stained toilet cubicle. But don't count it out either. The bookies have it as the rank outsider at 8/1. I think it stands a much better chance than punters seem to credit. You could stand to win quite a bit of money by backing it.

The Best Bet Outsider
Leaving Moshfegh aside, there's one other book that strikes me as The Little Engine That Could of Booker 2016. I was quick to dismiss Graeme Macrae Burnett's His Bloody Project as the token genre nomination, not to mention the token Small Press nomination. Then I read it. Wowee. It's a bloody (excuse the pun) excellent read. Indeed, to me it's the most enjoyable, thought provoking and straight-up good book on the shortlist. Of course, I'm one for historical fiction, but even objectively speaking Burnett's chain-of-voices device really works in depicting the injustice of the old Scottish feudal system. Centred around the confession of a young crofter, Roderick Macrae, who killed the oppressive town constable, Lachlan Broad, and two of Broad's children, Burnett also provides us with newspaper clippings from the day, a psychological report and a chronicle of the trial. The genius of the novel lies in its ultimate opacity - it's never entirely clear why Macrae murdered Broad. Sure, the constable was an evil, vindictive arsehole who picked on Macrae and his father, but there is suggestion of a sexual motive as well, not to mention a few other possibilities. We as readers are left to ponder and, I assure you, ponder you shall. As a snapshot of class injustice and the development of Commonwealth law in the 1800s, His Bloody Project is absolutely spot on. As an historical mystery (whydunnit more than whodunnit), it's my favourite since Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost. As a top quality triumph for independent publishing, it is my absolute favourite on the list. As a potential winner, at 4/1, it's a damn good bet.

And You Thought Novellas Were Contentious
Remember when the literary blogosphere went apeshit about Ian McEwan winning for Amsterdam? Then even more apeshit when On Chesil Beach was shortlisted (hopefully McEwan wasn't taking it personally)? Then Julian Barnes took it with a paltry 160 pages for The Sense of an Ending and the gloves were off. How can a novella win the Commonwealth's most prestigious literary prize? Well, step aside amateurs. If you thought length was an issue, then how about form? It would take a spectacularly generous soul to call David Szalay's All That Man Is a novel. It is, to put it bluntly, nine thematically linked short stories. None of them share characters. None of them cross over on plot. It's just a bunch of geographically dislocated losers meditating on their shitty lives and the mistakes they've made. The stories are good. Really good, in fact. But they do not, in any way I can tell, make up a novel. So here's the question. Do we just give it a leave pass and, like Dylan, say fuck the rules? Does Team Booker crown Szalay king of the novelists and then laugh at us from their crystal palace? The bookmakers give it a 6/1 chance of happening. I'm thinking more about snowflakes and hell.

So there you have it. My 2016 Booker Prize Form Guide. The Cliff Notes Version: It's between Beatty and Burnett, with Levy somewhere in the mix. The Bait For Bookworms Caveat: I've never picked it before.

Place your bets, people.

* All odds are from Ladbrokes as of the morning of Sunday 23 October.


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