Microviews Vol. 56: The Booker Prize Shortlist 2015

on Tuesday, October 13, 2015
Well here it is: you last minute cheater's guide to this year's Man Booker Prize Shortlist. Enjoy!

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Like most upper middle class white kids, I spent the better part of my university days listening to Bob Marley and convincing myself that every little thing was going to be alright. I never gave much thought to the man himself. He was, to borrow a phrase, a cliché gueverra, someone who inhabited my musical universe and a fair few t-shirts, but did not really exist in the real world. In fact, I knew only three things about him: he smoked way more weed than all my friends combined, he shagged more women than I could ever hope to even meet and he died from toe cancer (if that's even a thing). What I didn't know until much later was that he was actively involved in Jamaican politics and, in 1973, was the target of an assassination attempt. It is this tumultuous period - and the attack on Marley - that provides the springboard for Marlon James's challenging novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings. In the tradition of William Faulkner, the story is told from a variety of perspectives, mostly the gangsters and thugs involved in the attack but also a CIA operative, some music reporters and friends and lovers of "the Singer" as he is known in the book. James pulls no punches in relating the violence and corruption of 1970s Jamaica. One thing is clear from the outset: life ain't worth shit. Tarantino would be proud. People are killed frequently and in spectacular fashion. At the centre of the shitstorm is Josey Wales, about as good a bad guy as The Judge in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. And what a nasty motherfucker he is: killing, maiming and torturing without so much as a thought, let alone a care. In a way, the book is just as much Wales's story as it is Marley's. Indeed, Marley makes only infrequent appearances and, more often than not, does not come out of it looking particularly good. If James is to be believed (and the depth and breadth of his research surely suggests that he should) Marley was a pretty nasty character himself. I suppose I'd be a vindictive arsehole too if someone tried to kill me but, even so, it is confronting to see a hero of peace watching on as his enemies are tortured or killed. And it is not just the substance of the novel that makes it a tough read. James goes the Irvine Welsh route, utilising dense Jamaican Patios that, I imagine, might scare some readers away. Six hundred and ninety pages of difficult-to-read lingo is quite the ask no matter how cool the tale being told might be. Greatly ambitious, epic in scope (the novel stretches far beyond Marley's death into the infiltration of Jamaican expats in the New York drug scene of the 80s), A Brief History of Seven Killings is a magnificent achievement. It shines a light on the dark political rumblings of a country in crisis, where outside forces try to impose their will (cough cough CIA cough cough) while the worms of corruption eat it from within. And yet, for some strange reason, I just could not connect with it. Reading the book seemed a chore. I wish I could pinpoint where the schism lay. Perhaps it was the unrelenting intensity - I needed some moments of levity if only to catch my breath. It might have been the hype - I've come to it late and am almost drowning in the adoring fanboy froth that surrounds it. Or maybe it felt a little too drawn out. In that way it reminded me of my difficult relationship with the works of David Foster Wallace. Whatever the reason, I was never truly swept up in it which is a shame really. I can't help but feel I was handed an entire world and turned my back. A Redemption Song this was not.
3.5 Out of 5 Exploding Hash Cookies

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

A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara
Seldom does an author arrive on the scene so fully formed, so thoroughly accomplished, that you're forced to reconsider your views on reincarnation. Such was the case with Hanya Yanigahara and her debut, The People of the Trees. One of my favourites of 2013, it continues to haunt me and I still rate it as one of the most morally challenging novels that I've ever read. That it was her first book beggars belief. Of course from such great heights often come equally great falls - there is the dreaded curse of the sophomore novel - and so it was with considerable trepidation that I picked up the dauntingly massive, A Little Life. Four young men meet in college and become fast friends. Each one is a prodigy of sorts - arty, talented, ambitious and fiercely intelligent - but it is Jude St Francis who is the star around which the others revolve. Jude never speaks about his past. There is a darkness about him that cannot be penetrated, something from his childhood that is so deeply traumatic that it shrouds his very existence in a cloak of unimaginable suffering. Yanagihara allows us to see through the cracks early - Jude cuts himself. Often. He has a constant supply of razors and gauze. The others rally around him as you would a wounded puppy, albeit one prone to lashing out and biting you. Even on the most superficial level Jude needs help. His legs are crippled. He walks with splints when he can walk at all. Otherwise he is wheelchair-bound. On the flip side, Jude is a stellar student. He excels at law school and is a mathematical genius. There is no question that he is bound for some kind of glory. Once school is over Jude, like the others, makes his way to New York City and we watch him take root in a town that is almost made for him - outwardly it sparkles but its underbelly is rotting and mouldy. Yanagihara spends few words on Jude's career. We know that he succeeds, that he is headhunted by a large commercial firm, that he rises up the ranks to become one of its most ruthless and feared attorneys. But it is his personal life that Yanagihara explores in the greatest depth and holy shit is it disturbing. If The People of the Trees examined the way in which a person can misuse his power to destroy the lives of others then A Little Life is almost its companion opposite. It is the story from the perspective of the destroyed. Jude is the single most broken man I've ever encountered in literature. There is almost a perverse spectacle in the litany of sufferings he endures. He is Job minus the faith. Abandoned on the steps of a monastery as a baby, he is raised by the monks who routinely pass him around as their sexual plaything. He finds solace in one particular monk but, unsurprisingly, that monster turns out to be the worst. He kidnaps Jude, takes him from state to state and pimps him out to pedophiles around the country to make ends meet. It is awful to witness as a reader and Yanagihara is not afraid to describe it in fine detail. There are moments of reprieve - Jude's college days, his adoption but a particularly wonderful university lecturer and his wife (probably the only driftwood of pure goodness in the novel), his finding love with his best friend - but he is too damaged to truly appreciate it. He continues to punish himself with cutting, with suicide attempts, with undignified encounters (one particular affair with an abusive older partner had me in tears). Jude is an exercise is self-loathing, a repository for all the world's suffering. In that way Yanagihara achieves what William H. Gass attempted in his most recent novel, Middle C. A Little Life is a harrowing read. The unrelenting bleakness of Jude's plight is breathtaking. And it goes on for almost eight hundred pages. As a reader, you are likely to despair the experience of witnessing it. But as a novel of the legacy of damage and the boundaries of love and friendship this novel is almost without equal. Hanya Yanagihara is the real deal. And she's willing to plumb the depths of humanity to prove it. Now can someone please pass me a stiff drink or twenty?
5 Out of 5 Blunted Blades

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
I'll keep this one short. Anne Tyler is an American national treasure. She has written many amazing novels. She has a knack for breezy dialogue that few others possess and her ability to find meaning in the life of ordinary people - her penchant for perfect empathy - is extraordinary. A Spool of Blue Thread is her last novel. She announced her retirement soon before its publication. Twenty books is a pretty impressive innings. Alas, she is not finishing on a high. A Spool of Blue Thread also happens to be one of her weaker books. I don't know what's with the current fashion of telling tales in reverse chronological order but for some reason Tyler seems to have seen the train and decided to hop aboard. And so we get the story of the Whitshank family across three (well, sort of four) generations, starting with the sad twilight years of Abby and Red. More to the point, we get the story of their house on Boulton Road, one built and, but for the brief stay of a snooty family who commissioned it, lived in by Red's parents, Junior and Linnie May. The book kicks off with the family converging on the house to care for Red as Abby disappears into a demented haze. It's sad, it's touching, it's remarkably unremarkable. As you might expect there's a bunch of unresolved tensions suddenly brought to the fore - mostly surrounding the difficult wastrel Denny and the adopted fave Stem. Fisticuffs seem in the offing. Fisticuffs ensue. And so it goes. The book is divided into four parts, each set in a different era. Any warmth you might have for certain characters is sure to be tested when you meet their earlier (or later) incarnations. I don't think it was Tyler's intention, but I couldn't help but feel that the Whitshanks were a pretty annoying family. Especially Linnie Mae. Seriously, she drove me mad. What saves them from being insufferable, however, is Tyler's unquestionable skill as a novelist. It is a joy to read her, even when you don't like the substance of what she is writing. I'm sad to see Tyler go. I'd hope that she had one more book in her - something to remind us how truly wonderful she is without having to reread The Accidental Tourist or A Patchwork Planet.
2.5 Out of 5 Porch Swings

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
Critics have been quick to slap lazy comparisons on Obioma's quite stunning debut. There's the biblical: Cain and Abel. Yep, it's a story about brothers. It's tragic, cataclysmic even. Next there are the classics: any number of Greek tragedies. Death foretold and played out. Some can't resist the easy African comparison: Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Okay, so it's a Nigerian tale in which Obioma addresses the collision of modernity and traditional African life. Achebe's book even makes an appearance or two. But, c'mon... There are still others. Equally applicable but altogether inadequate. If I were to throw my hat into the ring, I might choose The Virgin Suicides; The Fishermen has the same blend of mystery and inevitability, you know where it's going, your heart aches in advance but you can't turn away. To reduce The Fisherman to what it's (kind of) like, however, is to do it a serious injustice. This is a bold and original debut, drawing beautifully upon an entire body of mythology to tell a very contemporary, universal story. The Fishermen of the title are four young brothers growing up in the rural Nigerian town of Akure in the politically turbulent 1990s. Their father has big dreams for them - they will be doctors, lawyers and such - and won't abide their parochial old world leanings. When they are spotted fishing by the town's tattletale, he is bitterly disappointed but is able to spin their dream of being actual fishermen into something more metaphorical. Poverty drives him out of town to find work, leaving the boys to skip school and resume their childish ways. They are, after all, only boys. One day, while returning home, they are confronted by the village madman who warns them of a dire prophecy: the oldest brother will be killed by one of the others. So begins a horrible downward spiral; paranoia compounds normal sibling tensions until the prophecy comes true. Those left behind have only one dream: revenge. Told by Ben, the youngest of the brothers, The Fisherman maintains a childlike wonder throughout. Like make of the best child narrators in literary history, his voice is knowingly assured but perhaps a small step away from full understanding. We, as readers, are left to fill in the blanks, to wade through the mythological imagery and find the real meaning in what he tells us. Ben forces us to bear witness to the collapse of a family that holds within it the hopes and dreams of a new Africa. I called it when this review was first posted back in June: The Fisherman has to be a clear frontrunner for this year's Booker.
4.5 Out Of 5 Marks of Cain

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota
At times, there is a fine line between migrant and refugee. While our collective sympathy is easily mobilised by images of those who flee their homelands, trudging across borders, sleeping in forests, boarding rickety boats or facing down hostile fascists in the countries where they seek refuge, we often fail to appreciate the desperation and degradation that besets many of those who leave in less sensational circumstances. Sure, they come in with visas but they too are, in essence, refugees, having fled economic adversity, sectarian or caste subjugation or any number of other hardships. They become the underclass, the invisible minions. They are routinely exploited, abused and overlooked. In his powerful second novel, The Year of the Runaways, Sunjeev Sahota picks off the scab of wilful blindness to reveal a heartbreaking side of contemporary British society through the lives of four young Indians just trying to find their feet. The first three are new arrivals. Randeep has come in on a dodgy marriage visa. The "marriage" is a financial arrangement and will be nullified after a year when Randeep can get a visa in his own right. Avtar has a student visa but quickly dumps his study for manual labour wherever it can be found. When he still can't make ends meet, he turns to loan sharks and then to the organ black market. Perhaps the saddest story belongs to Tarlochan, a low-caste Chamaar who has barely escaped India with his life after surviving riots that saw his parents set on fire in front of him. In some ways he does the best of the three, but you get the feeling it's only because he literally has nothing. And even in England he faces the same caste discrimination he thought he'd left behind. Then there's Narinder, a British-born sikh girl who is Randeep's visa wife but who must wrestle familial expectations and her own crisis of belief if she is to find her way. Throughout there's an air of constant dread that she'll fall victim to a so-called honour killing by her violent, possessive brother. Sahota draws each of his characters with great depth of heart, deftly avoiding melodrama or salaciousness despite the quite shocking narrative turns. There is a wisdom to his message that belies his age and experience. He wades though the shit but still lets the odd ray of light slip through. The Year of the Runaways is a testament to human will, to optimism in the face of extreme adversity. To that end it reminded me of George Orwell or Upton Sinclair. It is a tour de force of naked compassion and honesty let down only by an epilogue that hints at happy endings.
4 Out Of 5 Knotted Saris


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