Eileen Battersby: Booker shortlist not the canvas it could be

‘Big’ may have seduced Man Booker 2015 judges, while Anne Enright left on longlist

 

Big seems to make an impression, and a first glance at this year’s Man Booker shortlist appears to suggest that length did not deter the judges. It may even have seduced them.

Two of the contenders exceed 700 pages, while another is just shy of 500, thus highlighting the concise wonder of Tom McCarthy’s playful anthropological meditation, Satin Island.

In the surprise absence of Anne Enright’s The Green Road and Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, McCarthy, with his cool, bemused fourth novel, remains a strong challenger for this year’s prize. He has certainly written the most original book.

Also deserving some celebration is the inclusion of Marlon James with A Brief History of Seven Killings, his ambitious, multivoiced, violent exploration of the attempted assassination of reggae king Bob Marley. James, the first Jamaican to be shortlisted for the prize, hails from a tradition of writers who approach language as if it is there to be sung – or at least chanted.

Equally exciting is the very real threat presented by Chigozie Obioma’s charming and politically-directed debut The Fishermen. Should he win, he would be the first Nigerian winner since Ben Okri’s The Famished Road in 1991. Obioma’s novel lacks the rhythmic grace of Okri in what was to prove a career-defining novel, yet The Fishermen will beguile with its mix of mythology and astute observation.

However, considering the promise of the longlist – which included Enright and Robinson – strange choices have been made and better books excluded. Laila Lalami’s Pulitzer finalist, The Moor’s Account, is a remarkable historical novel inspired by the disastrous 1527 Narváez expedition to the New World, which ended with the death of all but four of the original contingent of 300 men. Of those survivors, three were Spanish gentlemen, while the fourth was a Moorish slave named Estebanico. History left him out of the story; or rather one of the Castillians, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, who wrote a famous account of the ordeal-turned-thrilling-adventure, neglected to include Estebanico aside from mentioning his presence, referring to him as an Arab Negro from Azemmour. Literary longlists are fascinating hunting grounds and the best reward for discerning readers among the shortlist omissions is The Moor’s Account.

Over-hyped

There is no surprise in reporting the inclusion of one of the year’s most over-hyped, overwritten and overblown books, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. It is a soap opera writ large and chronicles the horrific damage sexual abuse inflicted on a small boy does to the man he becomes. The novel, which oozes a hothouse prose parodying Donna Tartt’s stylistic excesses, is about the vilest of subjects, the sexual abuse of children. The central character, Jude, is a successful lawyer shrouded in Gatsby-like mystique. The damage he suffered festers within him over the years. It is a very theatrical book, a melodrama which is manipulative and exploitative. It has no subtlety and is far less emotionally sophisticated than Emma Donoghue’s Room (2010).

Interestingly, A Little Life was enthusiastically reviewed in the US, while British reviewers were far more circumspect. It would be a shame were it to emerge as the first American winner of the Man Booker, as it reflects the worst aspects of US writing; sprawling narratives written in Franzen-like, long, breathless sentences.

Ironically, Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees (2013), which was nominated for the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, is a far better novel. It was inspired by an anthropological expedition undertaken by a young doctor in the 1950s. It is a Conradian masterwork and very convincing, whereas A Little Life is contrived and stylised.

Even more perplexing though is the fact that Robinson and Enright are better writers; whatever about the overwrought story of A Little Life, the fundamental weakness is the prose.

It would be short-sighted to underestimate the affection and respect Anne Tyler generates; she has an immense appeal. She shares a territory also dominated by Enright – family. In fairness to everyone, although I am hoping Satin Island will win, my more commonsensical side suggested Enright would actually win this year to become the fourth double winner in the prize’s history. The Green Road is far more compelling than her Man Booker winner, The Gathering (2007). Her absence from the shortlist is an even bigger shock than the Robinson omission.

Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread is not her finest work – that honour continues to be held by Breathing Lessons (1985). In her latest book, a family’s history is bound within the house that generations have shared. Tyler is so supreme that she can ease her tale along seamlessly . It is fascinating to discover that by far the strongest image occurs on the closing page as she returns to a motif which appears deceptively harmless; Halloween decorations.

By the close of the novel, the house is at last empty. Recalling the many years when eager children waited to see the familiar decorations being put up, finally there has come a time when “the filmy-skirted ghosts frolicked and danced on the porch with nobody left to watch”.

Sentence for sentence, Robinson and Tyler reflect the best of US writing. On this short list it will be worth watching as to which school of fiction wins out. The Yanagihara represents excess, while Tyler has a singular discipline and Robinson is, as is obvious, an artist, despite the fact Lila does not match her first novel Housekeeping (1980).

There is something rather perverse about how the US writers have fared on this shortlist. Lila would have been a dramatic presence and an example of the formal splendour which shapes the finest of US writing, the quiet dignity that gets overshadowed by hype. Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account certainly deserved a place on the shortlist. UK audiences invariably appear more drawn to the big, heavy, overcooked US novel. Which is a shame.

Verve and urgency

The omission of Robinson and Enright may leave the way open for Satin Island, of which I have already applauded for being original, splendid, a bit bonkers and indicative of fiction’s limitless powers.

McCarthy was previously shortlisted for C in 2010; he has been referred to as the British Thomas Pynchon. That may seen a bit extreme, yet Satin Island is daring. British fiction is noticeably devoid of a thinker with an artistic sensibility comparable to that of the wonderful László Krasznahorkai. McCarthy is a modified Krasznahorkai. Also evident is the influence of WG Sebald.

Satin Island exudes a calm despair. The central character, U, is an anthropologist. What better messenger to despatch out into a society as deranged as ours? It is a novel shaped by Ballard and DeLillo. It is about everything and nothing and sums up where we are at this moment in time and space; nothing on the shortlist approaches its verve and urgency. It would be a momentous win – a choice as daring as is the book itself. It is a little novel that conveys a great deal.

The third of the shortlist’s very big trio is Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways. It is eerie indeed, in the light of the ongoing migrant tragedy; we live in a world in which there is no space for people to find peace and safety. Sahota is a British-born Indian writer whose cultural references are English. He has said that he did not read a novel until he picked up Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children at the age of 18. His first novel, Ours are the Streets (2011) was about a Pakistani suicide bomber and was based on the London bombings of July 2005. This book, which is a slow-moving study of human morality, follows Indian men who have come to work illegally in Britain. It is powerful; it is not high art but is tremendous on characterisation. A wealthy young prince with a nasty secret finds himself living with a humble, untouchable. India’s caste system prevails even in a different country. Although it creaks, The Year of the Runaways is a dignified, important book.

Satin Island should win because of its superior artistry – it is a cerebral work – but The Fishermen and The Year of the Runways have humanity and when speaking of humanity, no one grasps that better than Anne Tyler. Add into the pot Marlon James with a story as big as a house and a chorus of voices intent on shouting and all at the same time.

It is an interesting shortlist, not quite the canvas it could have been. Politics, murder, illegal immigrants and child abuse – the themes are the stuff of the daily news pages.

McCarthy to win, with the sheer if intermittent magic of Chigozie Obioma to beguile from the sidelines.

Man Booker Prize 2015 shortlist:

- A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (Jamaica) Oneworld.

- Satin Island by Tom McCarthy (UK) Jonathan Cape.

- The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria) One/Pushkin Press.

- The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota (UK) Picador.

- A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (US) Chatto & Windus.

-A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (US) Picador.