Man Booker Prize: two-time winner Coetzee left off shortlist

Madeleine Thien now favourite with symphonic masterwork Do Not Say We Have Nothing


Heralding the customary groans, cheers, sighs and gnashing of teeth the 2016 Man Booker shortlist has been announced and with it the six remaining gladiators from the 13 longlisted authors, now enter the ring minus Nobel Laureate’s J.M. Coetzee’s eccentric offering, The Schooldays of Jesus

Three men, three women; among them, as expected, is the obvious winner, Canadian Madeleine Thien with her truly symphonic masterwork, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, an intense and epic exploration of China’s tortured history from the days of the Mao’s cultural Revolution to events at Tiananmen Square and beyond.

It is a generational narrative involving musicians balanced between traditional Chinese music and the Western canon spanning Bach to Shostakovich

Thien’s marvellous blending of beauty and sorrow has also just been longlisted for the Giller Prize in Canada. It is her third novel and consolidates the international reputation she earned with Certainty (2006) and Dogs at the Perimeter (2012).

Much of the story is told through a narrator, who as an adult is a mathematician, yet she still recalls her childhood as a little girl growing up in Canada, raised by her mother and still living beneath the shadow of her concert pianist father’s suicide.

The details are revealed through a collection of notebooks, the contents of which are denied to her as she can’t read Chinese. Yet when an older girl, the daughter of her father’s close friend, the many pieces – anecdotes, myth, truths, cold facts – come together.

An intriguing cohesion is proved by two contrasting recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations made by the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould – one from the beginning of his career, the other from near the end.

Always destined for the shortlist, Thien’s most dangerous threat was Ian McGuire’s outstanding, grimly atmospheric 19th century seafaring yarn of menace and foreboding, The North Water.

Glaring omission

While we cheer the presence of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the most glaring omission from this shortlist is the absence of The North Water. McGuire approached the telling of his novel with a linguistic panache seldom seen in contemporary British fiction and in the irredeemable character of satanic harpooner Henry Dax.

Also dictating the proceedings is a disgraced Irish ship’s doctor, Patrick Sumner. Why this novel did not make the shortlist will join the ranks of the enduring Booker and since 2001 Man Booker mysteries. Alas, such a shame.

But back to business and the inclusion, again as expected, of Deborah Levy’s fraught romp, Hot Milk, an admittedly hammy if entertaining tale of Sofia, a red hot young thing complete with a first-class degree about which we are frequently reminded, who accompanies her ailing mother to a wacky clinic in search of a cure.

Set in a Spanish fishing village which is more of a tourist, it is a bit glib. Sofia is ready for sex with whoever happens to be available including a cartoon German Valkyrie, Lydia.

Levy, who has enjoyed a renaissance since the publication of her 2011 Swimming Home, can do no wrong. Hot Milk has been described as a serious look at mother-daughter relations and the many tensions. Yet the most convincing sequences in this racy and not wholly satisfying work, crammed as it is with Medusa references and a cast of determined jelly fish, is when Sofia goes to meet her long-estranged father in Athens.

He is now living with a woman only a few years older than Sofia and they have a child. It is at this point that a reader may feel a pang of sympathy for Sofia, if only a little pang, more of a ping in fact.

African-America Paul Beatty’s comic novel, The Sellout, is far more of a vicious satire than might appear at first glance. It is funnyish, but as previously noted, if you have watched a great deal of TV and enjoy commercial cinema and are a fan of heavy-handed, obvious humour and believe that African American comedians can only make jokes about race and slavery this is one for you.

Light years less funny than Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor, it is a pity that this romp narrated by a guy named Me should have made the final six at the expense of better books.

Praise for judges

Still, all praise to the judges for including Scot Graeme Macrae Burnet’s dark comic cult thriller-ish tour de force, His Bloody Project, which is about a killer’s confession – or is it? The main thing is that it is a Flann O’Brien like jaunt through Scottish literature and brings to mind fellow Scot Alasdair Gray’s subversive imaginings. His Bloody Project is far superior to The Sellout, which I feel is a bit of a sell-out.

One of the most unexpected inclusions on the longlist was American-born Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, a completely unbelievable, contrived first-person narrative in which an older woman looks back on her life to a particular period when as a young girl living a grim life in yawnsville USA she decides to break free. I reviewed this book and hated it and time has not softened my views. Why Eileen and not Edmund White’s Our Young Man? I can’t explain. Even more painful, why Eileen and not Ian McGuire’s The North Water?

Equally mystifying is the selection of Canadian-born, British raised David Szalay’s dour All That Man Is, a self regarding sequence of stories about how tough it is to be a man.

Considering how tough it is to be a human these days Szalay has written nothing new or original. Macrae Burnet has and he will gather more and more readers into his dastardly clutches with His Bloody Project, the book to buy in bulk and distribute to deserving friends.

Man Booker watchers in July jumped as one at the inclusion of Nobel literature laureate and first pre-Man double Booker winner Coetzee with a novel originally due to be published on September 29th. The public had yet to read it and despite the eccentric nature of The Childhood of Jesus (2013), no one writes off a writer as gifted as the South African who took Australian citizenship in 2006.

As it transpires The Schooldays of Jesus is truly bonkers and did not merit a place on the shortlist.

One of five US writers longlisted this year was Elizabeth Strout, who had won the Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge and whose My Name is Lucy Barton, another novel on the theme of mothers and daughters, would have been expected to edge out Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk – but didn’t.

Scot and provocative wit A.L.Kennedy’s wordy and overblown Serious Sweet has been hailed as her best book for years and may well be, but it is a very small work gleefully inhabiting more than 500 pages, suggesting that a writer would have to be famous – or worse, in that dreadful phrase be “a big name” – to have such an indulgent narrative be allowed to run on at such length. Her longlisting was expected, her failure to make the shortlist is but a mild surprise.

It grieves me to see a fine short story writer, Michigan’s David Means, author of superb collections, among them Assorted Fire Events (2000) and The Secret Goldfish (2004), writing a novel as arch and as chaotic as his dystopian extravaganza, Hystopia. It was longlisted and its failure to make the shortlist is no cause for lament.

As for the likely victor, Madeleine Thien has written a deeply human work of art about art and courage; endurance, loss and memory – it will be a very difficult novel to surpass on a list rich in cheers and groans and empty spaces.

The 2016 winner will be announced on October 25th.

Man Booker Prize 2016 shortlist

Paul Beatty (US), The Sellout (Oneworld

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

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

Ottessa Moshfegh (US), Eileen (Jonathan Cape)

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

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

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)