Man Booker prize 2016: giant Coetzee towers over longlist

Irish authors lose out as four debuts included on 13-strong list


Once the initial dust settles, that would be the slight cloud created by feet racing off to the nearest bookstore because this year’s Man Booker prize longlist features few of the usual suspects, and some very new names.

Readers will have some fun – perhaps even more fun than may initially be expected as the glaring omissions amount to a relatively few titles, including the surprise, and rare, absence of an Irish writer.

This is a solid, wide-ranging 13-strong selection dominated by the forthcoming novel from 2003 Nobel Literature Laureate, the South African-born J.M.Coetzee, who is now an Australian citizen. The Schooldays  of Jesus (Harvill Secker) may well take up the famously eccentric parable-like tale begun in The Childhood of Jesus, which was published in 2013 to, unusually for Coetzee, mixed reviews.

There is no disputing he is one of the world’s finest living authors – and at a time when English-language fiction is being consistently overshadowed by the brilliance of literature in translation. Coetzee is the first double Booker winner – Life & Times of Michael K in 1983 and Disgrace in 1999 – and any work from him is eagerly awaited. The Schooldays of Jesus will be no exception.

He is a proven master with an increasingly wilful streak, always a writer to excite, while for a reader with a fondness for backing a good horse, here it is. While it is always dangerous to push an as yet unpublished work, but in the case of Coetzee, this could be a book of the year, never mind an expected contender.

Five US writers

Among the five US writers is, as expected, Elizabeth Strout, with My Name is Lucy Barton (Viking). The author of The Burgess Boys, which was nominated for the 2015 International IMPAC (as it was then called) Dublin Literary Award, Strout is a wise, sophisticated observer of human behaviour. My Name is Lucy Barton reflects one of the strong themes on this year’s longlist, mother-daughter relations.

During a five-day hospital stay the narrator is joined by her mother. It seems a tender gesture which it is but it also causes the narrator to reflect on their shared history including the fact that years earlier Lucy ran away from her very domineering parent. Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge; she could win the Man Booker with this one.

Michigan-born David Means, now 54, is a terrific short story writer, as evidenced by Assorted Fire Events and his wonderful The Secret Goldfish collection, which was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize. He comes from Kalamazoo where the river of the same name is among the most polluted in the world.

Means has a theory, that history is delusional and boy does he set out to prove it in this hefty debut, which is very unlike his measured short stories. Hystopia (Faber) is sprawling, inspired, often irritating, yet curiously deeply felt extravaganza which is contrived yet touching in its sincerity.

In a way it is homage to Catch-22 and to Slaughterhouse-5. It also bears the influence of the late David Foster Wallace and of one of Means’s literary heroes, Don DeLillo (whom he finally met at Wallace’s funeral).

Interestingly, DeLillo does not feature on the longlist with Zero K (Picador). He had been tipped, and although I am a fan, I was not convinced by it.

Probably the most obvious US omission is Edmund White’s Our Young Man (Bloomsbury), which is one of those smart, clever, funny, utterly human works which beguile in a way the canny White has perfected.

Means is re-telling history. His novel within a novel is about a story written by a dead Vietnam vet whose fictional vision of America is one in which JF Kennedy was not assassinated. Instead, this deeply ambivalent Kennedy figure travels about as if daring assassins to take him on.

Hystopia may be code for future hysteria – except the panic is now, America faces impeding disaster and Means has in this wayward, ambitious and complex, and hey, why not just admit it, convoluted and worthy shambles of a yarn, expressed his love for his country.

Don’t rule this book out, once you board its creaking ship, you will want to cling on and it is more engaging that DeLillo’s rather more sterile lamentation.

Young American

It does take some swallowing to justify the presence on the list of young American writer Ottessa Moshfegh’s utterly contrived Eileen (Cape), in which an older woman looks back 50 years to the unhappy girl she once was. People either love this book, or hate it, and, well, it all depends on how a reader feels about a narrator who sneers at everyone she sees, has an array of pretty disgusting physical issues, which are described to graphic effect.

Of course the widower father is a hopeless drunk shambling about in his underwear – he used to be a cop – and she works in a correctional facility for boys. It is a kind of noir in which not much happens and the language is loaded with self consciousness.

Why this and not Edmund White? One can only sigh but equally inexplicable is the absence of Irish authors Conor O’Callaghan, with his assured fiction debut Nothing on Earth (Doubleday Ireland), and Mike McCormack for his wonderful Solar Bones (Tramp Press), an unfortunate overlooking of a riveting return to form in which a dead man revisits his life.

Another man with mankind’s problems – or really the problems of five individual men on his mind – is David Szalay. His book, All That Man Is (Cape), is slight, self-regarding and cliched; a very disappointing offering from the Canadian-born British-raised Szalay whose previous works, including The Innocent (2009), are far superior.

There is also some surprise about the omission of former winner Julian Barnes, who won in 2011 with The Sense of an Ending. His current novel, The Noise of Time, based on the life, well, the inner musings of composer Dmitri Shostakovich is very good and deserved inclusion.

Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton) was well predicted. There is some irony in the title; Levy is indeed, very hot. This seductive offering consolidates the mood of her 2011 Man Booker contender Swimming Home, which also served as an effective comeback for a writer who had dropped out of the literary scene by choice as she raised her family.

The mother-daughter theme is vividly handled here and yes, this could end up being the most popular and widely read novel on the longlist; if it makes the short list is almost an irrelevance, as Levy has asserted her voice, again.

Required reading

Scotland’s A.L Kennedy is almost required reading; witty, sharp, almost too intelligent and a bit provocative. Her new book, Serious Sweet (Cape), came out in May and she read to a packed attendance at the International Dublin Literary festival.

Another Scot with humour a plenty is Graeme Macrae Burnet. His Bloody Project is a love song to the Scottish literary tradition, which is published by Contraband, a tiny press in Glasgow.

Another independent publisher who has pushed the giant aside is Salt and Wyl Menmuir is now in the running with his debut, The Many, which is set off the Cornish coast. In it an outsider moves to a small village, struggles to be accepted and a mystery concerning a dead body refuses to be solved.   

Canada’s Madeleine Thien is of Malaysian-Chinese parentage and she lives in Montreal. Her third novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta), is an epic story about China and is a worthy addition to the outstanding and important novels which have been written in recent years by Chinese writers such as Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants, Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain and this year’s International Man Booker Prize contender,Yan Lianke’s The Four Books. This is a serious, very powerful novel written with a sense of obligation and obvious love. Expect it to be on the shortlist.

US writer Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (One World) has already made lots of noise in the US. It is about race and money and anger. It is funny and if you have missed out on lots of commercial cinema you may want to read it. Otherwise, you could feel that you already have.

Another of the five US writers is Virginia Reeves with Work Like Any Other (Scribner). Set in Alabama in the 1920s, a man is compelled to exchange his chosen life as an electrician to take over his wife’s father’s farm when the old man dies. There seems to be a hint of Steinbeck as well as early Annie Proulx.

As a traditional story about human struggle in a now vanished America, this classic novel has been very successful in the US, and will also appeal to admirers of Daniel Woodrell, whose finest books to date include Winter’s Bone and The Maid’s Version

The North Water (Scribner) from Yorkshire writer Ian McGuire tells a compelling tale about whaling in the frozen Arctic. This is a historical novel, exciting and traditional, mention the obvious comparisons to the film, The Revenant, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and immediately it seems that should there be a dark horse on this list, this is it. Forget slick, cool, funny and topical, this is the kind of book that captures the imagination, this is what fiction is about – the power of story.

Man Booker Prize 2016 longlist

Paul Beatty (US), The Sellout (Oneworld)

J.M. Coetzee (South African-Australian), The Schooldays of Jesus (Harvill Secker)

A.L. Kennedy (UK), Serious Sweet (Jonathan Cape)

Deborah Levy (UK), Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)

Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK), His Bloody Project (Contraband)

Ian McGuire (UK), The North Water (Scribner UK)

David Means (US), Hystopia (Faber & Faber)

Wyl Menmuir (UK), The Many (Salt)

Ottessa Moshfegh (US), Eileen (Jonathan Cape)

Virginia Reeves (US), Work Like Any Other (Scribner UK)

Elizabeth Strout (US), My Name Is Lucy Barton (Viking)

David Szalay (Canada-UK), All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)

Madeleine Thien (Canada), Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books)

The short list will be announced on Sept 13th.

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