Saturday, 23 November 2013

Booker Prize 2013: the Winner and Some Short-listed Novels

Until she won the Man Booker Prize last month I had not heard of Eleanor Catton. That does not mean anything. There are many things I am ignorant of. That I had not heard of a Canadian born talented author from New Zealand is more a reflection of the limited bounds of the fiction landscape in which I roam than the worldwide popularity (or lack thereof) of Eleanor Catton. It might also be a reflection of the thorny path that lies ahead when one takes the decision of striking it out as an author of literary fiction. When you are a young author embarking on a writing career and tell people that you are going to write literary fiction they are likely to snigger as if they have been told a really good blonde joke. Writing literary fiction might bring you respect, but chances are eight out of ten that you’d need to find a day time job to keep the body and soul together. I once heard Kazuo Ishiguro in a literary event in which he expressed incredulity (not very convincingly) that almost twenty five years after he published his first novel he found himself a prestigious writer festooned with more awards than I have fingers on my hand and also a popular writer. This apparently is very unusual. When Ishiguro did an MA in literature he was taught by Angela Carter, most of whose books were out of print; they didn’t sell. She was therefore obliged to do additional jobs such as writing columns for magazines and correcting essays of people who had the money to pay the fees of a literature course but not the sense to realize that they did not have talent.

Anyway, I would not have heard of Catton if she had not won the Man Booker Prize. I would not have bothered to read her novel, the size of a one storey house, either, if she had not won the award. I make no apology for this. Life is too short to read unknown authors, however talented, who are fortunate enough to be short-listed for prestigious awards but not fortunate enough to win it. This is the other thing about the literary prizes, as far as I am concerned. Once in a while they reward a relatively unknown novelist who, after bagging the prize, gets the much required (and deserving) publicity. When she won the Man Booker Prize Catton set some records. At 27 she is the youngest Booker winner. At 834 pages, The Luminaries is the longest novel to have won the prize; and she is the last winner of the prize before it opens up to the Americans.

After I read that Catton had won the Booker, I had a look at the short-listed novels and their authors. I recognized three names (not including Catton): Jhumpa Lahiri, Jim Crace and Colm Toibin. I had become aware of Jhumpa Lahiri years ago the same way I heard of Eleanor Catton, when Lahiri bagged the Pulitzer for her debut collection of stories. I then read her first full length novel, The Namesake, which was first rate. Jim Crace is a British novelist, who is difficult to categorize. I have read a few of his novels some of which I liked and others I found intolerable. Finally there was Colm Toibin. I have read one of his novels; I think it was entitled Brooklyn, which, I remember, was a decent novel although it progressed at a speed so sedate that in comparison a stoned sloth would be like Usain Bolt.

I read three of the six short-listed novels this month: The Luminaries, which won the award; The Lowland (Jhumpa Lahiri); and Harvest (Jim Crace).  I would have read The Lowland even if it was not short-listed, as Jhumpa Lahiri is a favourite author. I read the The Luminaries solely because it won the prize. I decided to read Harvest because it was the bookies’ favourite. (I have always wondered what makes the bookies zero on one particular book as a likely winner. I can’t imagine the bookies having arrived at their decision based on the literary merit of Jim Crace’s novel. A bookie with literary inclination is a contradiction in terms, a bit like—I don’t know—imaginative porn. The whole point of porn is that it makes no demands on your imagination; it lays everything you can think of (and some more you don’t have the imagination to think of) right in front of you. The bookies made Jim Crace the favourite to win the Booker, I suspect, for no reason other than that he is English, generally considered to be unfairly underrated, and is nearing the end of his writer career. In recent years Hilary Mantel, Howard Jacobson, and Julian Barnes, all of them (certainly the last two) in the twilight of their distinguished careers and cruelly overlooked in the past for the prize, were rewarded for—I don’t know—not giving up and publishing novels year in year out. It was, thus, not unreasonable to suppose that Crace would be similarly rewarded. It was a clever guess; except that it was not all that clever, because Crace didn’t win.)

I don’t really know what to make of Harvest; but I know this much: I didn’t like it. The novel is set in an indeterminate time in the past. If you are the kind of geek who leads a sad life so bereft of worthwhile interests that he actually spends time learning English history, you’d place the time of the novel as mediaeval, starting with the Tudors, when arable land was forcibly closed and converted into pasture for sheep. If you do not possess this useless piece of information, I am afraid, it won’t make any difference; you are still likely to find the novel slightly less riveting than an Argos catalogue.  The novel tells the story of the destruction of an insignificant nameless village through the eyes of one of the village’s inhabitants who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of weeds, flowers and plants, and an obsession with the geography of the imaginary village that—no matter how much you try to be understanding and sympathetic—is not healthy. He talks too much; you get him talking and he will flog a dead horse into a dog burger. The medieval hicks of the village are happy growing barley and, left to them, would have carried on growing it for the rest of their sorry lives when they are faced with the prospect that, they fear, will make their sorry lives sorrier. The new master of the land announces his intention to convert the land into a pasture for sheep; which means that a significant proportion of the 58 villagers would not have jobs. The new master of the village has obviously not taken communication lessons which are mandatory for the non-job managers in public services in the UK; so he makes no attempt to soften the blow by telling the villagers that what he is doing is efficiency savings, trying to get more for less and, even though the villagers can’t appreciate this— just because they are going to lose their livelihood; very selfish of them—it is actually—in the big scheme of things—for everyone’s benefit. The novel describes the responses of the villagers and the eventual destruction of the village, brought about by a couple of outsiders who are unjustly punished by the old master of the village. Jim Carce’s prose is polished, and manages the rare feat of being precise and pedantic at the same time. Harvest is a frustrating novel, however: there are many mysteries, but Crace does not provide any answers. As I read the novel I kept on thinking that surely there will be a twist; perhaps the narrator is unreliable, and I’d learn at the end that the whole thing is perhaps a dream; or, maybe, it is not the outsiders but the narrator himself who has wreaked havoc on the village for some long-forgotten slight. Alas! There are no twists; nothing that will make you shake your head and say, admiringly, “I didn’t see this coming. Isn’t Crace clever?” Crace has announced that Harvest is his last novel; he won’t publish more novels. After reading Harvest you are forced to conclude that it is the right decision.

 Eleanor Catton: I am sure she was a swatter in school and irritated everyone by being Little Miss Perfect

The novel that tries hard—so hard, in fact, that it is heart-wrenching—to be clever is the Booker winner The Luminaries. It is a novel that is very Dickensanian in its scope and ambition. Set in the 19th century New Zealand towards the dying days of its gold rush, the novel has, at its heart, a mystery. The novel pullulates with characters, so many, in fact, that you find yourself going back and forth when a character making its appearance on page 324 leaves you with the uneasy feeling that you have met him before, perhaps in the first hundred pages. Catton employs the technique of looking at and describing the same event from the eyes of different characters. After a while it gets a tad wearisome. Many of the interesting characters that dominate the first section of the novel fizzle out (disappointingly) as the novel progresses. The novel is also a love-story between two of the characters. The trouble is none of the characters is engaging enough, and you don’t really care what happens to them.  The Luminaries is an intricately plotted novel with more twists than a Russian contortionist giving a private performance to Vladimir Putin. The novel goes to and fro in time and Catton has structured the narrative in a manner that makes the plot obfuscating (as if it is not confusing enough already). Reams of pages are devoted to describing external appearances of the characters, the dresses they wear etcetera, but their inner lives remain opaque to the reader. The main cast is rather neatly divided into good eggs and bad eggs; there is little subtlety. That said the mystery of the plot makes it an interesting read for the best part. There are some other clever things Catton has done in the novel (so I read in some reviews). For example, each successive section has exactly half the number of words of the preceding section. (What purpose, if any, this gimmick serves is difficult to fathom; it also means that the last few chapters in the last section of the novel have less words than those in the introduction to those chapters.) At 834 pages the novel is too long and, I dare say, the last 150 pages or so do not really add much to the story as Catton covers the same ground she has covered fifty times in the preceding 700 pages. The Chair of the Man Booker Prize, probably aware that many readers would find the length of the novel daunting, urged them to persevere with the novel. If they did, he promised they would find rewarding. He is probably right. If you are on the lookout for a smashing good read set in the Victorian era, I would unhesitatingly recommend Jane Harris’s Gillespie and I. At more than 600 pages Gillespie and I is not exactly short, either, but it is a deeply satisfying read. Cunningly plotted, full of mysteries, and boasting of gorgeous prose, the novel, unlike The Luminaries, offers oblique psychological insight into the working of the mind of its remarkable protagonist.

              Jhumpa Lahiri: has she considered an alternative career as a catwalk model?

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland is set in two continents: India and America. It tells the story of two brothers and their wife. Yes, you read it correctly; the two brothers have the same wife, though not, I should hasten to clarify, at the same time. One of the brothers dies in the first quarter of the novel and the surviving brother marries his widow who is pregnant with the dead brother’s child, except that the dead brother dies without knowing that he has impregnated his wife; moreover, the dead brother, when he was alive, was not exactly a child-friendly person and did not want a child. The novel traces the lives of the brothers, the wife and the child. The Lowland is a tragedy. In simple, unostentatious prose Lahiri lays bare how a single catastrophic event—the death of one of the brothers—has a devastating effect on the lives of the surviving protagonists of the novel. Lahiri weaves her story with real-life, if little known (at least to me), historical events in India, such as the ultra-left wing Naxalite  movement in Eastern India, inspired by Mao Tse Tung’s Communist revolution in China, that attempted to subvert the parliamentary democracy by terrorism.  The Lowland is a profoundly affecting novel that tells the story of truncated, unfulfilled lives. A satisfying read.