Microviews Vol. 43: Murder, Mephistopheles and Michael Jackson

on Monday, October 28, 2013
Murder in Mississippi by John Safran
Spare a thought for the unfortunate kebab at the pointy end of a John Safran TV skewering. Life in the wake of having your idiocy/bigotry/ineptitude unveiled like that must be quite the burden. However, for white supremacist nutjob extraordinaire, Richard Barrett, TV exposure was the least of his problems. Soon after Safran's prank - which, incidentally, never actually went to air - Barrett up and got himself murdered. By a black guy. In rather homoerotic circumstances. Not quite the Confederate flag end he'd envisaged, methinks. Murder In Mississippi sees Safran return to the scene of the crime in an attempt to make sense of this very peculiar death. Believe the hype and it's a modern day In Cold Blood, but Safran is no Capote and the killer, Vincent McGee, is certainly no Dick Hickock or Perry Smith. That's a good thing, though. If this was mere homage it wouldn't be half as interesting. Safran is in a position that Capote could only have dreamed of - not only does he get to know the murderer but he also knew the victim. That Safran is an outsider - pasty, Australian, Jewish with a grating lisp that you won't be able to get out of your head as you read - allows him the kind of objectivity that even his most desperate attempts to insert himself into the narrative cannot diminish. As usual, he is an idiosyncratic joy. It's hard not to love his bumbling attempts to ingratiate himself with the various major players (several of whom have still not forgiven him for the original TV prank), the way he plays and is played in equal measure or the moments of childlike wonder and realisation that only he could bring to this kind of enterprise. And while Safran may not reach the most fulfilling of conclusions, the journey makes for a fascinating exploration of masculinity, Southern social fragility and the very strange machinations of the American criminal justice system.
4 Out of 5 Green Dot Cards

A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam
Several chapters into A Beautiful Truth I was reminded of that case a couple of years ago where some woman had her face ripped off by her friend's pet chimpanzee. Then my mind wandered across to Michael Jackson and his tragic chimp, Bubbles. Point being, it's never a good idea to keep a chimp as a pet. One way or another, one of you is going to get run over by a tractor. So too here - a passable mishmash of simian sociology, political commentary and good ol' soppy sentimentality that never quite strikes the right balance - I could feel those monster wheels rolling back and forth throughout. The chapters later in the book when the hand-raised pet is given to a research facility are powerful, but it washes over quickly. I get it. We're all the same. Be nice to animals. And stay away from Michael Jackson.
2.5 Out of 5 Tick Pickers

Youth Without God by Odon Von Horvath
In what might have made a pretty decent Marx Brothers moment, Odon Von Horvath was killed in Paris when a tree under which he was hiding was hit by lightning, causing a large branch to fall directly on his head. To add ironic insult to fatal injury, he was only in France because he had fled Austria after the Anschluss to escape likely persecution (if not murder) by the Nazis. And so it is that his death has eclipsed his work, which is a shame really because Youth Without God is a marvellous little book. A fierce interrogation of minor rebellion against a totalitarian state, it centres around an unassuming schoolteacher suddenly thrown into the thick of it when he reprimands a student for a racist comment. Labeled a traitor and cast aside, things only get worse when he is implicated in a murder. Youth Without God is a sharp and unforgiving little book. There's a slight whiff of redemption towards the end but it is little consolation for the branch Horvath has already dropped on your head.
4 Out of 5 Goose Steps

The Facades by Eric Lundgren
Molly Svenson was Trude's most celebrated mezzo-soprano until one night, after a performance, she just vanished. Now her poor husband Sven is left zipping around the city in a desperate attempt to find her. The police aren't really getting anywhere, friends aren't being particularly helpful, and their dropkick son has fallen under the sway of a ridiculous cult. It's all very disjointed and unsettling, which is exactly the point. This is a book about displacement, full of absurdities and comic flourishes, where nothing is quite as it seems. Trude itself is a masterful creation - a labyrinth conceived by a mad architect who wanted the city to function as some kind of grand puzzle. It's a shame, then, that Lundgren runs out of steam towards the end. The denouement is a letdown and, while you might be sad to leave Trude, you'll have stopped caring about that neurotic whinger Sven.
3.5 Out of 5 Curious Incidents

The Implacable Order Of Things by Jose Luis Peixoto
Twins joined at the finger, giants, wise centenarians, cuckolded shephards and even the devil himself populate a remote European village in this dark fable of love and longing, revenge and philosophical ponderings. Jose Saramago rated it (and, let's not forget, the belicose Nobelian rated my favourite find of the year, Carlos M. Tavares). And that title... what a ripper! Alack, alack, I just couldn't connect. I so wanted to love The Implacable Order Of Things. The devil knows I tried. But there was a certain coldness that made my bits shrivel up any time I tried to get close. I'm sure Peixoto is capable of great things - his imagination is a garden of delights. If only, like the old Tin Man of yore, he had a heart.
3 Out Of 5 Linked Pinkies

Eleanor Catton: Booker's Latest Luminary

on Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Last night I had a weird dream in which I read (in a newspaper of all things) that Jhumpa Lahiri had won the Booker Prize. I wasn't surprised. Nor was I disappointed. Can't say I was particularly excited, though. Fast forward to a few minutes ago when I woke up in time for the announcement and sat glued to Twitter because the Booker website had pretty much crashed. While waiting for the all-knowing blue spot to show up in the feed, I had all my fingers, toes and superfluous digits crossed that it would go to either Jim Crace or Eleanor Catton.

Well, it must have been that third ear, because Eleanor Catton has bagged herself a Booker for The Luminaries and, in doing so, injected some much needed excitement into a prize that is struggling for oxygen in an overcrowded field. It is a bold move, one sure to upset the fuddy duddies (who, I think, were rooting for either Crace or Toibin - both of who wrote very worthy books) and an hilarious middle finger to the whinging minions that keep harping on about the brevity of many Booker contenders (or winners). Oh, and she's the youngest winner ever too!

Before you run to your e-readers, a thought. I understand your concern. At 800 pages, The Luminaries is darn heavy. But, let me assure you, it's worth it. I carried the thing onto a plane last month and read it in a single sitting. It's that good (and fun, and eminently readable). If you go the e-route, you will miss out on the sheer joy of watching the physical progress of reading such a mammoth work, feeling the weight shift from one side to the other as you plough through. Go out and buy the bloody thing. In hardcover if you can. It's the sort of old-fashioned tale that deserves to be experienced on paper. Plus you get the added bonus of its lovely presence on your bookshelf for years to come so that you can remember the time you climbed book Everest with a young, cool and incredibly talented New Zealand sherpa as your guide.

And that, dear Bookworms, almost wraps up literary prize silly season. For once, it's looking like I'll be able to bid it a fond farewell with two great recipients for my two favourite prizes thus far. And if Jhumpa Lahiri, Rachel Kushner or James McBride wins the National Book Award, literary nirvana will be achieved. Better go buy some incense.

Booker Prize 2013: A Wildly Unreliable Last Minute Form Guide

on Tuesday, October 15, 2013
Ok punters, get ready! They're in the home stretch. With less than twenty-four hours to go here's how the Booker race is shaping up.

Harvest by Jim Crace
What the Bookie says: 11/8
What I said: "Crace lays bare the darkest corners of human existence and shows its ultimate futility in the face of progress... a definite contender for Book of the Year." (Microviews 27)
The Final Pitch: Seven months after reading it, Harvest remains one of my favourite books of the year. It is literary fiction in the grand old fashion and yet it possesses a certain allegorical prescience that keeps it feeling thoroughly modern and relevant. In any other year, Crace could rock up to the Booker dinner with a box of popcorn, sit down with his feet on the table and munch away until his name was called. Alas, with such a strong group of contenders, he'd better polish up on his table manners and fake smile because this is anything but a sure bet.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
What the Bookie says: 11/4
What I said: "... a rich, rollicking tale that can be enjoyed by casual readers and Litsnobs alike." (Microviews 40)
The Final Pitch: A fun, exciting and deftly woven brick of a book, The Luminaries is the work of a young writer in perfect command of her craft. But then again, that was already evident in her debut, The Rehearsal (a book that, when I read it, I had hoped would get a Booker nod). I'm glad the literary establishment has caught on. Eleanor Catton is the kind of writer that ought to be championed. As for her chances, it would certainly be a shot of adrenaline into a fairly stagnant enterprise and, given the recent moves to make the Booker less parochial, not an overly unlikely one. Whatever the outcome, Catton can rest easy - she may not win it this time, but she will almost certainly win it.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin
What the Bookie says: 4/1
What I said: "There's no Judas, no Last Supper, not even an Immaculate Conception to be found in Toibin's sober retelling of the Jesus story." (Microviews 27)
The Final Pitch: They copped it when McEwan won for Amsterdam. They copped it even worse when they gave it to Barnes for The Sense Of An Ending. Are they willing to weather the barrage of irate snobs lobbing hardcover copies of War and Peace from their crystal palaces by awarding one of the most prestigious literary prizes to a relative pamphlet? On merit alone, The Testament of Mary is a worthy candidate. It's a masterful act of biblical ventriloquism that, I dare say, may well have been diluted by unnecessary verbal wanderings. Like Harvest, it is one of the best things I've read this year. But it is only a hundred pages.

A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozecki
What the Bookie says: 8/1
What I said: "... a fascinating thought experiment, but had Ozecki just stuck to telling Nao's story, it would have made for a much more satisfying book." (Microviews 41)
The Final Pitch: My affection for Ozecki's book has waned in the month or so since reading it. It's not that I don't like it or wasn't moved by Nao's heartbreaking story, it's just that A Tale For The Time Being has disappeared into the ether of pretty good books I've read. Of all the books on the shortlist, this is the one I think stands the least chance. It just lacks a certain je ne sais pas. That said, it is still in there with a chance and, given my history of predicting these things, will probably win.

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
What the Bookie says: 9/1
What I said: "Lesser works than this have won the Booker Prize. But then again, so have much greater." (Microviews 41)
The Final Pitch: If a single chapter could win the Booker Prize, then Bulawayo would be a dead set certainty. I have been raving about those ten or so pages to anyone unfortunate enough to be standing within hearing distance for the past five weeks. I will continue to do so long after the big dinner has come and gone. Alas, one passage does not a winner make.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
What the Bookie says: 9/1
What I said: "... a beautifully balanced endeavour, tender yet angry and, perhaps of particular note, unadorned by literary tricks or grandstanding." (Microviews 42)
The Final Pitch: I don't know why this is so low on the punters' list. Perhaps it is because The Lowland is the most conventional narrative. Or maybe it's a backlash of sorts against the opening of the prize to American authors which, let's face it, Lahiri really is. Whatever the reason, people are idiots. I actually think she's in with a very good chance. Indeed, if I was a betting man who hadn't already lost more money than he'd care to admit on this prize, I'd actually put a few quid on her. With a Pulitzer in the bag and a National Book Award in the offing, I'd even chuck a dollar or two on the trifecta.

The Bookworm's Bet: Not that I have any form whatsoever in getting these things right, but I'd have to say Jim Crace will most likely win it this year. He very much deserves to. That said, I won't be quite as embarrassed as before if I get it wrong because this is the strongest field of shortlisted novels in recent memory. There's not a single book that can't stand proudly among the list of previous winners (although a couple might stand a bit closer to Vernon God Little than Midnight's Children). I'd love to see it go to Eleanor Catton - her blend of youth, extraordinary talent, fierce intelligence and (if the reports are to be believed) all round decency are exactly what the book world needs right now. And she's made it easy for us by writing a marvellous novel in The Luminaries. Similarly, a win for Colm Toibin would be a nice cat amongst the pigeons for the snobby establishment, not to mention the dogmatic god botherers in the audience. So those are my three picks in order: Crace, Catton and Toibin. Hopefully I don't prove to be the kiss of death again. I really want one of them to win it. I'll round out the bottom half as well: Lahiri, Bulawayo and Ozecki. You know what that means, right? Rush into your local Bookie and put your house on A Tale for The Time Being.

Microviews Vol. 42: Elective Purgatory

on Monday, October 14, 2013
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
These must be pretty exciting times for Jhumpa Lahiri. Not only does she already have a Pulitzer in her pocket, but her latest novel, The Lowland, has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (UK) and long listed for the National Book Award (USA). With such incessant buzz, it is hard to view her work with any semblance of objectivity. Hype only sets the reader up for disappointment, which is why The Lowland is such a great achievement; it delivers. A slow burn of a novel, sparse yet lush (I know, weird...), it is in essence the tale of a failed revolution and the lifetime of minor tragedies it creates. As children growing up in Calcutta, Subhash and Udayan are inseparable. Subhash, younger, more reserved, is in constant awe of his brother's brash, often hilarious ways. When Subhash heads to university in America, Udayan stays behind and, while pursuing studies of his own, falls in with the Naxalite movement. It is a flash in the pan rebellion, one snuffed out quickly and violently, one that costs Udayan his life. Subhash returns to his grieving family and finds Gauri, the wife his brother has left behind, pregnant and shunned by his parents. Seeing no other option but to marry her and bring her back to America, he thereby sets himself for a life of unintended longing and responsibility. Needless to say it all falls apart. Gauri ultimately runs away, leaving behind Bela, Udayan's daughter who only knows Subhash as her father. Despite the explosive acts of rebellion that underpin the narrative, it is Subhash's inner struggle, his desperate attempts to make sense of this profoundly sad destiny that lies at the heart of Lahiri's novel. It is a beautifully balanced endeavour, tender yet angry and, perhaps of particular note, unadorned by literary tricks or grandstanding. There are many more things to be said for Lahiri right now. I'll go light on the platitudes save one: wouldn't it be marvellous if Team Booker preempted the protectionist hysteria by handing the award to a writer who personifies the borderless nature of literature?
4 Out Of 5 Reluctant Fundamentalists

Dolly City by Orly Castel-Bloom
Castel-Bloom takes the neurotic Jewish mother schtick into psycho overdrive in this brilliant parody of the peace process. Doctor Dolly unwittingly becomes a mum when she kills a man and finds his baby in the back seat of his car. Obsessed with ensuring the child does not succumb to some random illness, she subjects him to all sorts of extreme medical procedures. No doubt it is cruel, but it comes from a place of love. And paranoia. The sheer inventiveness of Castel-Bloom's alternate Tel Aviv (Dolly City is TA's creepy negative, all in the poor doctor's head) is extraordinary and, as the metaphor becomes less oblique, it will not be hard for you to work out why this caused such a storm in Israel when it was first released. Zany, vomit-inducing but exhilarating stuff.
4.5 Out Of 5 Mutilated Doves

The Angel Maker by Stefan Brijs
A super duper mega hit in its native Holland, recipient of more prizes than you can poke a stick at, and sporter of a very pretty front cover, The Angel Maker came into my life on a very shiny platter. Alas, to quote the great Robert Plant, not all that glitters is gold. Brijs draws on conventional gothic tropes and characters to explore the ethical boundaries of genetic experimentation: Dr. Hoppe, a modern recasting of old Victor Frankenstein, returns to the Belgian border town of Wolfheim after a twenty year absence with three infant boys in tow. It doesn't take long to realise that they are not merely his sons, but his clones, complete with severely cleft palates. Predictably, the experiment goes horribly wrong (in numerous, but not overly interesting ways) and from it all we are supposed to have learnt an important ethical lesson. I think it's something along the lines of: Don't leave the big scientific breakthroughs in the hands of Dr. Moreau.
2.5 Out of 5 Fat Brandos

Personae by Sergio De La Pava
Hidden somewhere within the verbal maelstrom that is Personae I am told (somewhat reliably) that there lies a good ol' whodunnit. De La Pava, this month's hottest meta-prophet with by far the best author bio in ages, has somehow spun a magic eye poster with words. Unfortunately I must have been standing at the wrong angle cos the bloody thing never came into focus for me. Was it my recent laser eye surgery? Oh wait. It's a boat.
3 Out of 5 Broken Kaleidoscopes

Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin
Abertine Sarrazin is very well worth reading, though I'm not sure whether it's for what she wrote or her amazing personal story. A true French literary rebel, she lived fast, fought hard and died young. Indeed, most of her best work was done while doing time for petty crime and prostitution. Astragal tells what I assume to be the semi-autobiograhical tale of a woman who escapes from jail and, while on the lam, happens upon a motley bunch of French dirtbags with hearts of various metals. At the centre of it lies Julien, the man who first finds her. They become accomplices then lovers before fate intervenes. Don't hold your breath for happily ever afters; this is gritty and exciting but also profoundly sad.
3.5 Out of 5 X-Rays

Nobel 2013: Alice Munro!!!

on Thursday, October 10, 2013
The Swedish Academy has just announced that the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature has gone to Alice Munro. I didn't pick it (big surprise there!) but I'm pretty darn happy. Another recent retiree from the world of letters - she's 82, she deserves a break - Munro is the undisputed queen of the contemporary short story. A great win and a long overdue recognition of an important literary form.

POSTSCRIPT: Turns out the this might just have been a machiavellian masterstroke by the Academy. In her immediate post-award interview, Munro joked that this may change her mind about retirement. Here's hoping! If her most recent collection, last year's Dear Life, is anything to go by she is in career-best form right now. Check out the whole interview with a clearly delighted (and delightful) Ms. Munro here.

Nobel The Unknowable

Only a couple of hours to go before the big Nobel announcement which means I'm way behind on one of my favourite annual traditions: failing to pick which obscure midlister will walk away with the gong. I've just had a little peak at the Ladbrokes top ten to gauge who the punters are backing and, once again, Haruki Murakami is sitting alone at the pointy end. I like the guy, but he'd be a pretty uninspired choice. Unless, of course, they're trying to "pop" up a prize that has long been slipping into a swamp of irrelevance.

Standing slightly below the pedestal, looking up Murakami's dress, are the likes of Peter Nadas, Joyce Carol Oates, and Thomas Pynchon (who stopped being good in 1990 and, let's face it, most probably died in January 2010). There's also a few I suspect Ladbrokes just made up - Svetlana Aleksijevitj, Ko Un and Assia Djebar - but that ought not cut them from contention. Tomas Transtrommer was created from a game of Boggle (his name is worth about 73 points) and he won the thing two years ago.

Given the time restraints, I'll keep my other observations brief:

1) Previous darlings of the betting set seem to have fallen down the list. Adonis is out of the top ten. Ismail Kadare (one of my personal favourites) doesn't even crack the twenty.

2) Some people still think Aussies Les Murray, Gerald Murnane, David Malouf and Tim Winton are in with a chance. I'd love it if they were but, to quote another great Aussie cultural icon, tell 'em they're dreamin'!

3) Bob Dylan is way down the list. Well done punters, it only took you five years of wasted bets to realise that HE IS NOT A WRITER (though, if you must have a troubadour, Leonard Cohen is).

4) Just outside the top ten there's an interesting cluster of deserving folk: Philip Roth, Amos Oz, Milan Kundera, Umberto Eco, Peter Handke and Javier Marias vary from 16/1 to 33/1. Other than William H. Gass or Elias Khoury, I can't think of more worthy recipients.

5) Why has no-one thought to bet on David Grossman?

6) Some people will bet on anything for a laugh. Jonathan Littell? Jonathan Franzen? Anna Funder?

So who will actually win the Nobel?

Not that I have any form whatsoever in calling it, but I have a strange feeling it might actually go to an American. Given his recent retirement, Philip Roth would be a fitting choice. As would Joyce Carol Oates (though she seems to be bit of a splattergun artist - prolific but patchy). I doubt it will go to a poet. Maybe a playwright - it hasn't gone to one of those weirdos since Harold Pinter in 2005. A journalist? That'd be kind of cool. Oooh... maybe a graphic novelist? Let's not forget that these things are often more the product of compromise than anything else so rationalise, hypothesise or fantasise as much as you want, there is no obvious choice.

Put a gun to my head and make me pick one? I'm rooting for Umberto Eco. I have no idea why. I guess if I'm going to get it wrong I might as well do it in complex, cross genre style.