The shortlist for Britain’s 2019 Man Booker Prize came out a few weeks ago, winner to be announced October 14.
The Man Booker Prize claims to be awarded to “the best novel of the year written in English and published in the UK or Ireland.” I increasingly have doubted that “best” label, as each award season has taken place. Here’s why. In this year’s shortlist, a thematic focus dominates, that of issues concerning gender, race, immigration, sexual violence and the current political atmosphere. Such a common thread can’t be a coincidence. Does this mean the judges focused on novels dealing with today’s important issues? And they’re the best novels because they demonstrate literary excellence in handling these issues? What about this year’s novels that don’t touch upon these issues? Were there truly no excellent, Booker-worthy novels outside the parameter of current-day issues? None?
In The Millions, Mark O’Connell provides a unique perspective on the “best” indicator in his article Why Do We Care About Literary Awards? after having taught a course on Man Booker winners:
A lot of great novelists have won the thing for really excellent novels — Ishiguro, Atwood, Banville, Coetzee (twice) — but spending months reading through so many of the winning books in order to set the reading for the course really impressed upon me how unreliable an indicator of literary importance or comparative quality the prize is per se.
Ok, so maybe “best novel of the year” is a wiggly claim for reasons of bias and politics and purposeful messaging, or whatever else may go on behind the proverbial curtain of judges. I need to settle myself down about that, and be glad no matter what’s going on — literary awards provide value to readers. This is proven over and over again by the media attention awards give to books and authors readers may not otherwise discover. So, I encourage you to take a look and see what you discover in this year’s Man Booker shortlist.
Here we have an artistic phenomenon: the novel-as-one-sentence, a monologue by an Ohio housewife baking pies for local restaurants while her thoughts churn. She is the modern-day distracted thinker faced with the now considered normal onslaught of attention-seeking details, darting from personal tasks and domestic stressors to the inescapable frightening state of the nation. There are no paragraphs. No breaks in the epic long sentence that’s connected by “the fact that,” such as this, from page 483: …the fact that it’s a shock to have a baby, butterfly twisting on a pin, the butterfly stroke, the bee in the barn at Bread Loaf, the fact that I don’t know why it comes back to me, that bee, the fact that all it did was get up off the windowsill, for Pete’s sake, and slowly swerve in the air and then fly out the window… Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport is being described as a torrent of consciousness and an intoxicating coziness. It sits on my desk like a fat puppy whining for attention. Does the story really need 1,020 pages? I’m hesitant to dive in. Of note: Three Percent’s Two Month Review, a podcast that slowly reads through a new book of world literature over eight to nine episodes, will focus on this novel in October. That may be the way to take the dive.
Elif Shafak’s novel spins on the last thoughts of a prostitute, Tequila Leila, who’s been murdered and tossed into a waste bin in Istanbul. Her final minutes and seconds structure the novel with chapters, each kicked off by a remembered sense, such as the taste of soil at seven minutes and the smell of sulphuric acid at eight minutes. 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World spans Leila’s early years with her family in the city of Van, in eastern Turkey, to her days working on Istanbul’s Street of Brothels. Her journey involves five loyal, fellow outcasts who, in the end, take great risk to make sure Leila gets the burial she deserves. Elif Shafak is my Man Booker discovery – I finished the novel this week – and while the prose is unremarkable and preachy, Leila’s circumstances and the setting of Istanbul drew me in for all I didn’t know about today’s culture and politics concerning violence against women in Turkey. Of note: Shafak is known for boldly criticizing the Turkish government and has come under investigation. In a quote found in The Washington Post, Shafak said: “Turkish courts are not taking action, the laws have not been changed. So in a country where they need to take urgent action to deal with sexual violence, instead they’re prosecuting writers.”
Here’s a modern-day re-imagining of Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote and a means to satirize our current times. Quichotte follows a worn-out pharmaceutical salesman from India (Quichotte) in a journey across the United States with his imagined son (Sancho) in hopes of connecting with his true love, a talk-show star named Salma R. The character Quichotte is the creation of character Sam DuChamp, a writer of spy thrillers who’s not doing so well. The book’s description says “…the fully realized lives of DuChamp and Quichotte intertwine in a profoundly human quest for love and a wickedly entertaining portrait of an age in which fact is so often indiscernible from fiction.” The Washington Post describes Rushdie’s book as “an alternately cerebral and goofy novel” and Rushdie’s style as “a fire hose of brainy gags and literary allusions — tremendously clever but frequently tedious.” For all I’ve read about the book, I’m not inclined to reach for it. The Guardian writes: “It’s a novel less to be read than to be scrolled through, a seemingly endless feed of gags, thought spasms and larger-than-life happenings.”
As Rushdie’s novel references Don Quixote, so Chigozie Obioma’s novel is compared to Homer’s Odyssey, following the journey of poultry farmer Chinoso from Nigeria to Cyprus. It begins when he prevents a woman from jumping off a bridge to take her own life, and they fall in love, but Ndali’s wealthy family does not approve of the uneducated Chinoso for her husband. To make himself acceptable, Chinoso sells many of his possessions to attend college in Cyprus. Only when he arrives on the island, Chinoso discovers he’s been scammed; there is no place for him at the school. An Orchestra of Minorities is narrated by Chinoso’s chi, or guardian spirit, that The New York Times reviewer says creates an emotional distance between reader and Chinoso, but The Atlantic calls the story “a wrenching study of the sacrifices made for love,” and The Guardian says, “Obioma’s absorbing tragicomedy painfully probes the perils of victimhood.” Obioma’s previous novel, his debut, The Fishermen, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2015.
Grove Atlantic’s Black Cat imprint will publish Girl, Woman, Other in the United States on December 3, in paperback, the story of 12 interconnected black British women. I’ve not been able to find much about this novel except in the following British publications. The Guardian writes, “Each character has a chapter; within the chapters their lives overlap, but their experiences, backgrounds and choices could not be more different.” And, “When each section ends, we leave with a new perspective.” The review also explains, “There is no overarching story, but to be racialised as black brings with it some level of connectedness.” The Financial Times also offers an informative review, in which it states: “The novel’s central characters have roots in countries ranging from Nigeria to Ethiopia, to the Caribbean, to Scotland, so that the label ‘black’ immediately becomes ridiculously simplistic and reductive.”
I purposely put Atwood’s novel last for all the hype it’s been getting — so much that being nominated for the Man Booker Prize feels like an after-thought. It goes without saying that you need to have read The Handmaid’s Tale before reading this — and watching the HULU TV adaptation alone doesn’t count. So why did Atwood return to this story after 34 years? (The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985.) In a press release announcing the sequel, Atwood explained to her readers: “Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.” The Testaments revisits Gilead 15 years later and takes the viewpoint of three women, most notably Aunt Lydia from the first book. In The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino writes: “The Testaments is the story of her excruciatingly belated turn away from Gilead—of the final days of her plan to bring down the empire, which draws in the other two narrators and relies on their willingness to put their lives on the line.” Tolentino also considers a possible additional reason for creating the sequel: “…to help us see more clearly the kinds of complicity required for constructing a world like the one [Atwood] had already imagined, and the world we fear our own might become.” A NPR review says The Testaments is “a plot-driven page turner,” and a New York Times review says it’s “compelling” and describes the main plot as “a kind of spy thriller.” Of note: Jia Tolentino is the author of the recently released book of essays, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion.