Little Prize Lost: The Man Booker International Prize 2015

on Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Much has changed in LitPrize world since the folk at Man Booker opened its doors to any novel written in the English language. Most notably, the Folio Prize beat Booker to the punch by a couple of years and, in doing so, made the latter look like the new kid on the block (not to mention a bit of an embarrassing follower). Legions of Booker loyalists, myself included, have also cooled a bit on what was once an annual hysterical lather trying to figure out which novel would kneel before the Queen for an honorary knighthood and which others would have their heads lopped off. Perhaps the most peculiar change, though, is to the status of Booker's little cousin - The Man Booker International Prize for Fiction. Handed out every second year, it was originally concocted to recognise the kind of writer who was not eligible for the regular Booker (i.e. the non-colonised) but whose body of work (as opposed to any individual novel) deserved a right royal huzzah. That's not to say the Queen's subjects were not in the running - both Chinua Achebe (Nigeria) and Alice Munro (Canada) have won it - but of the five laureates thus far, three fell outside the traditional Booker jurisdiction.

I've often wondered why or how the prize ever got off the ground. It seemed redundant from the get go. Of the many rationales I've enteratined, only one rings really true. Team Booker made the thing up just so that they could give it to the two perpetual Nobel bridesmaids, Ismail Kadare and Philip Roth. Which kind of means they can close it down. Mission Accomplished. Oh well... Still they persist and now they've just announced the ten writers in the running for the 2015 prize. In case you missed it, they are:

César Aira (Argentina)
Hoda Barakat (Lebanon)
Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe)
Mia Couto (Mozambique)
Amitav Ghosh (India)
Fanny Howe (USA)
Ibrahim al-Koni (Libya)
László Krasznahorkai (Hungary)
Alain Mabanckou (Republic of Congo)
Marlene van Niekerk (South Africa)

No points for guessing where my heart lies on this one. I've been routing for Krasznahorkai for the Nobel for umpteen years (mainly because I've given up on Kadare) so it would be gratifying to see him pick up something in the English-speaking world, even if it is a prize as pointless and ill-conceived as this. I just love the idea of sycophantic Booker types trying to make sense of Krasznahorkai's nightmare vision or even wading through the thick primal sludge of his prose. Oh the joy! Of course we all know my form on picking these things. Might as well hand it to César Aira right now. Alas we'll have to wait until May 19. Watch this space.

Microviews Vol. 53: Digging Up The Giant

on Saturday, March 21, 2015
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Kazuo Ishiguro is not the kind of writer to be constrained by genre. Over-thinkers can probably find common themes across his ouevre but the rest of us have just enjoyed his wide-ranging, free-wheeling imagination for what it is. Be it classic Victorian, Japanese pastoral, detective, sci-fi or Kafka-like surrealism, each new work was a treat for his now legion of fans. When the lit Gods let it be known late last year that Ishiguro had a new novel in the offing, his first since the staggeringly brilliant Never Let Me Go, the buzz was almost deafening. True to form, it was going to be in a genre he had not yet attempted: fantasy. Gulp. But hey, it's Ishiguro. What could possible go wrong? The Buried Giant was unleashed with all the fanfare of a major literary event. Indeed, aside from the forthcoming Harper Lee novel, I doubt any book this year is going to garner quite as much attention. Alas, to borrow from the medieval vernacular, this dragon turned out to be all smoke and very little fire. Forget the comparisons to Tolkien, Martin (one pundit had it as GOT minus the sex and violence - in other words, not GOT) or even Gaiman. The Buried Giant is a pretty unremarkable picaresque; well-written, mildly engaging but, somewhat ironically, lacking in the magic that has made Ishiguro's previous novels so marvellous. Here's the book in a nutshell: An elderly couple go out in search of the son they haven't seen in years. Along the way they meet a warrior (possibly a double agent) and a kid who join them on their quest. They also bump into Sir Gawain (he of the Green Knight fame), now something of a relic, still hoping to slay the dreaded local dragon. Stuff happens. The end. Of course I'm underplaying the plot here. Plenty goes on in classic picaresque fashion. There are fights and double crosses, gallantry and treachery. But it's all a little ho-hum. That's not to say the book is a failure. Ishiguro's Post-Roman England is well-realised. The Saxons and Britons are at war. Ogres and beasts roam freely. An overbearing mist clouds both perception and memory. Allusions to Dante abound. Yet for all its beauty, The Buried Giant seems to clunk along like the badly oiled armour on poor Gawain.
3 Out Of 5 Knights Who Say "Ni"

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
Four books into his career and Tom McCarthy is shaping up to be this generation's JG Ballard. I don't make the comparison lightly. When it comes to the combination of vision, inventiveness, social criticism and experimental gusto only McCarthy comes close to the late, great master. Or maybe he's just Thomas Pynchon in disguise. Stranger things have happened. Whatever, Satin Island continues McCarthy's fascination with the "essence of now" (my term, not his, pardon the quotation marks), this time putting it front and centre. The narrator, U., is an anthropologist engaged by The Company where he has been tasked with writing a study that will distill modern life to its very essence. It's never quite clear what The Company does (only that it has recently won a major account, the Koob-Sassen Project) nor why it has him embark on this peculiar task. Nevertheless, with all the dogged perseverance of his hero Claude Levi-Strauss, U. begins to compile dossiers from snippets of modern existence, looking for links, themes, arcs and, ultimately, meaning. There are meditations on airports, cargo cults of Vanuatu, a parachuting accident that is most likely a murder, email scams... you name it. U.'s task becomes more obsessive as the novel progresses, its manic escalation sweeping the reader up in a world that is expanding and contracting at the same time. It also gets quite funny; so much so that I suspect McCarthy is having a bit of a laugh at our expense. It doesn't matter. He clearly wants us to laugh along with him. And we do. Until we cry.
4 Out Of 5 Broken Hyperlinks

Aquarium by David Vann
Forget the garnish, spices or seasoning. When David Vann decides to feed you your heart on a plate he just rips that fucker out of your chest, chops it a few times with a cleaver and throws it in your face. To my mind Vann is the quintessential modern cartographer of human devastation. That's not to say he hits the mark every time. Dirt seemed shocking for shocking's sake and lacked the emotional depth of Caribou Island or Legend of a Suicide. The staccato prose of Goat Mountain was difficult to navigate (though it was still a brilliant novel). Now comes Aquarium, possibly his most 'conventional' work. Sure, it has moments of horror (well, one prolonged passage) but for the most part it is a warm, quiet tale of a family torn asunder, plagued by the legacy of neglect and abuse, searching desperately for redemption. Caitlyn, the 12-year-old narrator, runs off to the local aquarium each afternoon, hoping to lose herself in the underwater kingdom. She is oblivious to those around her - the staff let her through without paying, the other patrons leave her be. That is until she meets Bob, an old man who seems to share her fascination. The conditioned cynic in me had the guy pegged as a pedophile - his interest was a little too intimate, his pandering to her better understanding slightly creepy. Vann avoids the cheap route, though. Bob is anything but - he is Caitlyn's estranged grandfather, the man who fled the family home when her grandmother was sinking into the depredations of terminal illness, leaving Caitlyn's then teenaged mother Sheri to single handedly carry the burden of care. The combination of abandonment and disease created a monster; Sheri was subjected to the most horrific abuse but was too guilt ridden to even contemplate escaping. When the grandmother died, she left behind a broken girl who would set about punishing everyone she loved. No surprises then that her own marriage collapsed, nor that she denies her daughter anything resembling motherly warmth. Bob's sudden reappearance brings all the simmering tensions to the boil and, predictably, she explodes. It is a cataclysmic collapse with poor Caitlyn alone in the firing line. Vann slips easily back into his comfort zone, visiting horrific torture on the poor girl before seemingly remembering the bigger picture and attempting to salvage a meaningful family drama from the chaos. It makes for a strange fracture; engaging but not altogether convincing.
3.5 Out Of 5 Nurse Sharks

The Illuminations by Andrew O'Hagan
How do we come back from the dark holes into which we are sometimes thrust? It is the sort of question I almost expected Andrew O'Hagan to ask. His last novel, The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe joins Martin Amis's Yellow Dog as the most embarrassing dog-titled novel of the past twenty years. Seriously, that book was a... well... dog. O'Hagan's answer, it seems, is to return to familiar grounds, mining the darker corners of everyday existence. The Illuminations is a novel that draws together war, art, memory and tragedy. It also marks something of a return to form. Anne Quirk's mind is succumbing to Alzheimers. She has moments of clarity but she often drifts off to a life from which she walked away, a life of glamour and artistic celebration. Half way around the world, her grandson patrols the hills and villages of Afghanistan, where he is serving as a member of the Royal Western Fusiliers. Anne's quiet existence is suddenly shaken up by news that a young man from their town has died in an 'incident' and, of course, she fears the worst. Thankfully, it isn't Luke but he was there and returns scarred not only by what he saw but also what he did. Their unit was led into a trap, they had no choice but to defend themselves. But they went overboard and it became a massacre. Again, the question: how do we come back from the dark holes? For Luke the answer lies in the Blackpool Illuminations, where he hopes to excavate his grandmother's memories. He can heal only if she does. It is a sweet idea but one that might well also break her. Sometimes we are not ready to face our truths. O'Hagan juggles the dual threads with typical skill and both Luke and Anne's stories are complex, sad and intriguing. In Blackpool Luke learns the truth - it is a melancholy tale of lost love and forgotten dreams (and, in part, The Beatles) - but is also forced to come to terms with his own experience. The Illuminations is a quiet book, not as deep or beautiful as Our Fathers but still a worthy comeback from a pretty nasty fall.
3.5 Out of 5 Clouded Sunsets

The Sculptor by Scott McCloud
Death has done more deals in the literary world that Stephen King's agent. Here he is again, collecting an artist's soul for a slice of immortality. Yes, The Sculptor is another riff on the age-old Faustian myth. But don't go wandering off to touch up that portrait in your attic just yet. This sizeable graphic novel is pretty good. The forgettably named David Smith dreams of being a famous sculptor. He gets his 15 minutes pretty early on, or at least it seems like he will. He has a patron. Galleries show interest. One thing leads to the next and... C'mon. It's the art world. He is dumped and forgotten. Wandering the streets feeling sorry for himself, he meets his great uncle, Harry. Lovely. Except that Harry has been dead for ages. This particular iteration is just Death in disguise, coming with a once in a lifetime offer - magical sculpting powers and all the adulation that might entail for a guarantee of only 200 more days of life. Well, you know how artists are. The deal is done and Smith takes to it with gusto, creating fantastic, surreal explosions of sculpture with his bare hands (granted, it's a pretty cool superpower). Only problem: the critics think he stinks. His agent sells him out in favour of a younger trust funder who, it just happens, is the agent's boyfriend. Life goes back to shit. But at least it will end soon, right? Enter the angel, or at least a young lady dressed as an angel as part of a performance art piece. David falls in love instantly. Ahhhhh crap. Young love, the need for immortality and only 198 days to live. Time to make it count. The Sculptor is a beautifully realised work of contemplative graphic fiction. Scott McCloud perfectly captures the artistic temperament and the burning need to "make your mark" that often consumes and destroys the artist. It is also a pretty hilarious roasting of the art world and all its stupid pretensions. Like any 500 page book, The Sculptor kind of drags at times and there are moments of sentimental cliche but they don't detract too much from the work as a whole. That said, I'm not sure it adds a whole lot to the deal-with-death schtick but who really cares? It is a joy to read and a beauty to behold (not to mention a good workout to actually pick up).
3.5 Out of 5 August Rodins (see what I did there?)

Waltz Laughingly with Death: A Short Tribute to My Favourite Guilty Pleasure, Terry Pratchett

on Friday, March 13, 2015
Fuck you, Death. I mean, we were all expecting it. His decline was front page news, his fight against early-onset alzheimer's an inspiration. But still...

I remember picking up Small Gods in an airport umpteen years ago. I needed something light, something entertaining. I'd heard good things about this Pratchett fellow and had a bit of a soft spot for fantasy in my younger days. So I thought sure, why not. Oh man, what a flight that was. I laughed the entire way. Other passengers complained. I might have slapped the guy beside me's thigh. Most importantly, I thought. Hard. That book was not some slight throw-away laugh up. It was serious philosophy. Thoughtful anti-teleological critique. Brilliant satire. A work of imaginative genius and razor sharp wit. From that day on, for many years, I would not board a plane without a book by Terry Pratchett. Sure, my taste evolved to wanky high-brow literature but Terry remained a constant. A reminder that something silly, something hilarious, something batshit crazy could hold its own against the Kafkas, Musils, Walsers and Steinbecks.

Then there was that one time I was walking through Barnes and Noble in Union Square, New York and he brushed past me. Whisper quiet, slight, unassuming. Signature black hat, black shirt, black jeans. Him, not me. I was giddy. Like a little kid. I could not have been a more gelatinous mess had Coetzee walked by. Then this:

No doubt more detailed eulogies will be blogged, more erudite analyses of this master's fine work. But I just felt I'd take up my little corner of this ever-expanding universe to say this: In my world, Terry Pratchett was one heck of a turtle.