Monday, 13 October 2014

The narrow road to the deep north - Booker shortlist #5

I'm banging out posts this evening because I feel a moral obligation to have as many of my thoughts published as I can before the prize is announced.
No, I won't be getting through the whole list before tomorrow evening but will be trying to read a little more of the Mukherjee so I can make an official pronouncement of my view some time in the middle of the afternoon (glorious solipsism here, yes, I do truly know that no one could care less what my view is or when I express it, but it feels as though it matters to write as if someone did).

So, the Flanagan.
I don't know what to make of this one. I struggled to get going with it, but it did draw me in, and had me turning pages and even carrying it around like I was with the Smith. I cared (somewhat) about the people in it, and I shuddered where I was meant to at all the grim POW bits.

It's not taken my heart, though, and careful thought says this is for two reasons:

1. Somehow it seems calculating. Take a gruesome subject, or a subject that affords gruesomeness, and milk it in as much detail as possible, interspersing it with a "human interest" angle that makes the book seem more ambitious and hence a bigger achievement. This basic plan is there, and has been followed, but you can still see the pencil lines. I've a kind of distaste for books where a true story, or true situation, is milked for artistic return like this - it's the same as my distaste for Holocaust fiction, unless it's done incredibly, remarkably, heart-stoppingly well (I'm thinking of Fugitive Pieces here, which follows the same schema really, but does it with such perfect beauty that it doesn't matter).

2. Having said this, with the structure the author has chosen, the book just needed more editing. If you're going to flip-flop in time and between locations you need to do it really elegantly, and with an eye to the ease of your reader, unless you're deliberately introducing confusion as some kind of literary metaphor. It doesn't seem to me that it was deliberate in this case, more careless, and someone needed to take a pair of scissors to the MS and rearrange some of the early scenes in a different order.
Still on the editing, I recall reading once a simple piece of advice for writers not to give two of your key characters names beginning with the same initial. This sounds so petty, but actually it does matter. Unless you're really properly a well-established Great Writer, you need to remove all the impediments between your reader and comprehension - it's arrogant not to, to expect them to fight through this. No, Dorrigo and Darky aren't that similar, and thinking for a minute about the context is enough to work out who we're reading about now, but I resented having to put that minute in.

I'm perhaps not a writer's ideal reader: I don't treat the work with reverence, and I certainly don't set aside long silent concentrated hours for reading, ensuring I note subtexts, taking notes to aid my comprehension, and so on. Except, if a book earned it, I would. I read War and Peace with the dovegreyreader family tree bookmark slotted into the front of my e-reader, because I needed it, and the book repaid every bit of my investment in it. Even with shortlist #6, the Mukherjee, I groaned when I saw a family tree and a map at the start, but I'm using them, because there's something about the quality of the text that's making me want to.

If I'm in doubt, though, about whether these pages are earning each precious minute I'm spending on them, I want to read without deliberate barriers. I want to play guessing games about interesting stuff, like the characters' motivations, or whodunnit, or which bits of what the narrator says is unreliable - not about which D-person is which.

One more thing - I'll not write a spoiler, but there's a plot twist of sorts in there near the end which was a damp squib and, to my mind, added nothing.

I didn't really intend to devote a long post to sticking the boot into the Flanagan because I actually did quite enjoy it, and thought it had more literary merit than any of the others I've finished so far, apart from the Smith. I suppose it's that those two points above really held ,me up from finding it anywhere near as valuable as I could have done, and that's a big shame given that a good strong critical editor, and a long enough editing process that would allow time for this sort of issue to rise slowly to the surface, could have moved this from being a good book into a very good book, even if it couldn't reach the heights of greatness.

To rise again at a decent hour - Booker shortlist #3

I'm posting not-in-order here, because I loved the Smith so much I had to write about it first.
Only a quickie on this one. Another good reason for leaving it a little while before writing about it was that it had struck me as ephemeral, and I wanted to give it chance to settle to test my instincts on that.
Those instincts turned out, for me, to be right. I can't say I didn't enjoy reading it - I read Ferris's first novel however many years ago when it came out, and this is very much the same tone, so it made me laugh, and is the only one on the shortlist to have done that.
But it's got so little substance that I couldn't possibly think of it as a prizewinner - there's no deeper meaning, no complexity of language, somehow not enough display of skill. I *know* writing funny prose is in itself a skill, but I can't help wanting something more writerly, when you're talking about a proper serious prize like the Booker.
Less than a fortnight after finishing this and all I could tell you about it is:
- the protagonist is a dentist who has a range of existential crises and supports the Red Sox
- there's some kind of weird conspiracy about a suppressed race who have suffered more than the Jewish people
- the dentist's receptionist is called Connie, and he used to date her
 - mobile phones are referred to throughout as "me-machines"

Honestly, I don't recall how it ended, or quite how the dentist was involved in the conspiracy, or the names of any other characters (including the protagonist, actually) - it just wasn't complex enough to leave any barbs in me. I still enjoyed it more than the Jacobson, and would endorse it as a beach read or something for a long train journey, but not a prize winner.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

How to be both - Booker shortlist #4

Skipping around a little here, because I've not written yet about the Ferris (short version - fine, made me laugh, but not prize-worthy) but tonight I need to get my feelings off my chest about the Smith, How to be both.

When books start with weirdly laid out text and half sentences and breathless stream of consciousness and self-conscious defamiliarisation exercises (think person from past seeing person from present using a small black object with a shiny front to render pictures, that kind of thing) I usually slam it closed. With this one, I started it late-ish one night and nearly gave up in disgust: in fact I was close to abandoning the whole Booker project since I couldn't see how I could possibly get through this modern, self-indulgent nonsense, and nor could I see how I could have any respect for a set of judges who'd chosen it for the shortlist.

Fortunately my focus on the task won, because I loved it, goodness, I loved it.

I loved both of the main storytellers (a historic and a modern), I believed in them, I trusted them, I felt their pain.
I loved the historic setting, and the world of art it took me into.
I loved the depictions of friendship and romance.
I loved the utterly convincing voices (particularly of Francescho).
I finished it and turned straight back to the beginning, because I wanted to look back at it with the perspective of the ending.
It's made me want to read about the paintings in question, and listen to the music.
 Most importantly, it's made me wish I'd written it, made me wish I could have half the skill and craftsmanship that Smith's shown here. I wish I'd ever written even one character as true as Francescho or George. I wish I was brave enough to use words in the ways she does, to try out things that are bold and challenging and difficult.

I still hate the front cover, although it's a picture that's mentioned in the book, so you can see why it's there, because it makes a thoroughly non-shallow book look shallow. And I'll stick to my original view that some of the defamiliarisation stuff really is clunky (though nothing like as clunky as in the Jacobson). But these are tiny things in the context of a book that pulled me in, had me reading on the stairs, reading with it propped open with my foot while reading Winnie's New Computer to my boys, reading as I danced the baby to sleep....this is what prize books should do to you, and it did.