>> Tuesday, October 25, 2016
Turns out me saying things have slightly calmed down in my review of Eileen was an example of 'famous last words', because these last few weeks have been complete pandemonium at work. Way too many late evenings, which is not usual for me. Still, needs must, sometimes. I won't say things have calmed down again, just in case I jinx it, but I will say I now have a bit of time to do my round-up post before the Man Booker prize is announced later today. It's too bad I haven't been able to do proper reviews for all the books I've read, but this is better than nothing, I guess.
This year's list really hasn't been my favourite. It was worth doing this, as usual, since I discovered two books I thought were fantastic and really enjoyed. The difference is that in previous years I've found lots of other books beyond my favourites that I felt were worth my time, even if they didn't work for me 100%. This year, unfortunately, with everything other than my top 3, I felt I'd rather have read something else instead .
Let's start with my two standouts, Paul Beatty’s
The Sellout and His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet. And two more different books you could hardly imagine!
The Sellout (my review here) is a powerful and creative satire of US race relations. I'm kind of surprised it worked so well for me, because I tend to be all about characters who feel real, and that definitely wasn't the point here. Beatty is not really concerned with characters (or even story, actually), but with ideas and language. The characters and storyline are all in the service of that, and it works perfectly. I described it in my review as being a bit like the best kind of stand-up, and the more I think about it (and this is a book I've thought about often, since I've finished it), the more I think that's right. I gave it a B+ at the time, but I think I've moved towards an A grade since.
Graeme Macrae Burnet's His Bloody Project is completely different. It's historical fiction, exploring a triple murder which took place in a remote Scottish crofting community in 1869. We know who did it right from the start, a 17-year-old called Roderick Macrae. We also know why he says he did it, as he himself tells us so in a memoir prepared from his jail cell at the behest of his solicitor. But that's only the first half of the book, and the documents we are presented with right after that (court reports, witness statements, a section of a book written by a psychiatrist who interviewed Roddy) make us doubt all we were certain about.
This worked for me on several different levels. At the most superficial level, it was a bit of a psychological thriller, with plenty of plot and all the appearance of true crime. It was also a fantastic portrayal of a time and a place. We see what life is like for poor crofters at that time, and we see the effect that life has on relationships. We also see how Scottish criminal justice functions, and the effect of prejudice on the life of those who are affected by that prejudice.
But what this book really is about is the unknowability of the truth. The author gives us a multiplicity of perspectives, and it turns out they're all unreliable. Different characters and their actions look completely different when they're told by different narrators. There is no one truth, and we readers are left to wonder and doubt. And I don't know how Macrae Burnet does it, but this feels extremely satisfying. I was happy to be left doubting what the real truth was, or even if there was one. This was an A- for me.
David Szalay’s All that Man Is (my review here) was the first book on the longlist that I read, and it got me off to a good start. I liked this collection of short stories well enough (and it's definitely a collection of short stories, no matter how much people try to claim it's a novel). Enough of the stories and themes resonated with me to count it a success, but it's a qualified success only, because it's not really a book that has made an impression and stuck with me. Worth my time, though. I gave it a B.
And then we come to the rest! Of the remaining three books on the shortlist, I finished one and DNF'd the other two. The one I finished was Eileen, by Otessa Moshfegh (my review here). It's a book that more or less succeeds at what it's trying to do, but I found spending time with its utterly repugnant and self-hating protagonist overpowering and horrible. It felt like all we were doing was wallowing in filth, and then when something actually happened, I didn't buy it. I've since heard Moshfegh speak and she's described her protagonist (who's narrating her story 50 years later) as an unreliable narrator, which does throw a somewhat different light on the dénouement, but I'm afraid I really didn't get that when I was reading. It was a D for me.
Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk was a book I can honestly say I only picked up because it made it to the shortlist. I tried to read her Swimming Home a few years ago, and I'm afraid I had pretty much exactly the same experience both times, so much so that I could probably do a bit of copy-paste from that review and I wouldn't be far off. My problem was the characters, who behave in ways that no person ever would and that make no sense. I kept going "Are we really supposed to believe that....?", and as a result didn't care a jot about anything that was going on.
I've been thinking about what the difference is between this book and The Sellout, which also features characters behaving in what can only be described as outrageous ways. I think it's basically that in The Sellout we're not meant to find the behaviour realistic, and at the same time there's a strong core of truth at the centre of those characters which makes me buy them in their context. I understood those people on a visceral level. The characters of Hot Milk just felt like completely fictional, flimsy and inconsistent constructs... a bit like puppets. Nothing about them rang true, so I just made it a DNF at about the halfway point.
I guess I just don't get Levy. It's a shame, because whenever I hear her speak she sounds really interesting, and so does what she says about her books. Eh, well.
Finally, I also tried to read Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien. I was really looking forward to this one. It's the story of a Chinese family, starting just after Tiananmen and then moving back and forth between that and the time of the Cultural Revolution. It's a setting and stories that could have been absolutely fascinating, particularly because it's one I don't tend to see a lot. However, Thien somehow manages to make it feel wooden and tedious right from the start.
I also had a bit of an issue with the writing. In her bits set in the past Thien uses a sort of fairytale-ish tone which is very hard to get right. It does work more or less ok to evoke a mood and an atmosphere, but mostly it feels like an excuse not to bother with character motivation.
I struggled for quite a while with it, but finally gave up about a third in.
So, that's the shortlist. It's a pretty diverse selection, I thought, not just in the kinds of characters and settings, but in how the books feel. I can't really see much of a theme in common, other than a degree of experimentation (in some cases, successful, in others, not so much).
As you will probably guess, I would be happy if either The Sellout or His Bloody Project won. I think I'm edging towards The Sellout. I probably enjoyed His Bloody Project a little bit more, but The Sellout feels like there's more depth to it, more substance. And actually, I think it's got a chance. If I had to guess, I'd say the winner will be between it and Hot Milk (I seem to be really in the minority in taking against it). I tend to be really terrible at predicting the winner though!
I read a further three books from the longlist that didn't make it into the shortlist. I didn't feel any of them should have.
The Many, by Wyl Menmuir is a very short novel, almost a novella. It tells the story of a man who moves into a derelict cottage in a fishing village, a cottage that used to belong to the mysterious Perrin. The man, Timothy, plans to fix up the cottage and live their with his wife. The villagers, and particularly Ethan, one of the fishermen, have other ideas. They're still mourning Perrin, and the stranger is not welcome.
The mystery of just what happened to Perrin is not the only one here. The village itself is a kind of mystery. There seems to be some sort of enforced isolation going on, some sort of quarantine. There are rules about how far the fishermen can go, and the few fish they do catch seem to be mutants. They are to sell every single one of those fish to the mysterious people who await the boats every day.
But that's not what the book is about. No one seems to care about all this strangeness or to think it's very interesting at all. It's just there in the background, and no one questions it. Our attention is on Timothy and Ethan and Perrin and their tangled relationships.
The point of this book seems to be the the mood. It's dreamlike and there's a palpable sense of unease, of something very wrong. But there's no urgency, we just drift around in the strangeness and menace, moving seamlessly between dreams and hallucinations and reality that's no less strange than the dreams and hallucinations. The setting of the mood is actually done very effectively, but it was hard for me to see what the point of it was. It didn't really work as a work of fiction, as a novel. It felt more like a poem. So, it was good at what it was trying to do, I guess, but it was not something that worked for me. It was a D.
Serious Sweet, by AL Kennedy (my review here) was a book I was really looking forward to. And at first, I thought I was getting something I would love.
It's about two damaged people, a senior civil servant who's become disenchanted with both his work and his life and an accountant who lost her life after alcoholism cost her her career and relationships. They have connected through letters and in the course of a single day, they try to connect in person.
This was an extremely frustrating book, because there really was something good in there. Unfortunately, the writing obscured it. There was so, so much stream of consciousness blabbering that I found it very hard to keep going at times. I admit to a bit of a prejudice against stream of consciousness writing (it too often feels self-indulgent), but the problem was not that Kennedy chose to use that narrative technique, but that it didn't work. It was a C for me.
Finally, I read Work Like Any Other, by Virginia Reeves. The book is set in the 1920s in rural Alabama, where Roscoe T Martin is struggling with his new life. Roscoe is a trained electrician, and he is obsessed with it. His wife has just inherited her father's farm, however, and they've moved in to take it over. But Roscoe just can't reconcile himself with being a farmer, and in his resistance to becoming a traditional farmer leads to his decision to electrify the farm by illegally tapping into the nearby high-tension lines. It's a fateful decision that leads him to jail when a man is electrocuted.
We see what Roscoe's life in jail is like, and it's actually quite an interesting portrayal. He's at what's supposed to be a sort of model jail, so he has it 'easy', but it's still a degrading, humiliating life. And we see the contrast between the consequences for Roscoe and the consequences for one of the long-time employees of the farm, Wilson, who helped Roscoe and was therefore found to be jointly responsible. Wilson is black, so no model jails for him. That was quite heartbreaking.
We also see the deterioration of the Roscoe's relationship with his wife and son, which wasn't solid in the first place. That I found a lot less effective. It could have been really interesting in how it explores the effect of both guilt and anger, but I just found it hard to connect with it all. I think the main problem was that I just didn't get Marie, Roscoe's wife, or quite understand her motivations fully.
On the whole, this one was a bit meh for me. I gave it a C.
So anyway, there we go. A bit disappointing this year, particularly because so many of the books sounded like something right up my street, but turned out to be disappointing. Let's hope for a better year in 2017!