Over the past 40 years the Man Booker Prize has established itself as the premier literary award in the English-speaking world. The reasons for its ascendancy are complex, especially in an Australian context, yet there’s little doubt that much of its success lies in the skill with which it has been managed over the past 40 years. Former administrator Martyn Goff’s 35 year tenure was in many ways a masterclass in media management, which saw judges selected with an eye to controversy, rumours of scandal and disagreement carefully leaked and tensions between judges and nominees inflated, all with an eye to turning the award into the annual event it has become.
Current Booker administrator Ion Trewin may lack Goff’s hauteur, but he’s every bit as deft a showman. Last year saw a nailbiting finish between Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America and Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, both favourites after some judicious comments about the vigour of the comic novel, while 2009 formalised the transformation from writer’s writer to international superstar of one of contemporary literature’s most intelligent and gifted writers, Hilary Mantel.
This year’s award has been distinguished by two things. The first was the appointment of former MI5 Director-General Dame Stella Rimington as Chair of the Judging Panel. Rimington, whose novels are reputed to have been written with considerable input from at least two ghostwriters was always going to be a controversial choice, both because of her lack of literary credentials and because she seemed an awkward choice given the avowedly literary tastes of fellow judges such as Telegraph Books Editor Gaby Wood and novelist Susan Hill.
Friction between judges is part of the game of course. But it was Rimington’s comment that the judges wanted people to “buy these books and read them, not buy them and admire them” that provoked the real controversy.
Rimington’s comments could probably be dismissed as yet another piece of the theatre that always accompanies the Booker season, except for the fact that this year’s shortlist, comprised of Julian Barnes’ splendidly controlled and subtle The Sense of an Ending, Carol Birch’s Goldingesque Victorian shipwreck novel, Jamrach’s Menagerie, Patrick DeWitt’s wonderfully weird noir Western The Sisters Brothers, Esi Edugyan’s account of black jazz musicians in Nazi-occupied Europe Half Blood Blues, Stephen Kelman’s vernacular novel of childhood wonders and loss, Pigeon English and A.D. Miller’s Russian thriller, Snowdrops is perhaps most charitably described in the terms chosen by the novelist Paul Bailey, as “the most eccentric of recent years”.
Eccentricity needn’t be a negative, of course. Indeed it’s not difficult to imagine a shortlist distinguished by brave, unconventional choices that celebrated the best of genre writing on the one hand or the most exacting literary standards on the other. Yet this year’s shortlist is neither of those things. Instead it is an incoherent collection of mostly middling novels with few claims to either popular appeal or literary brilliance.
Of the six the one that has attracted the most attention is undoubtedly Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. Barnes’ eleventh full-length work of fiction and the fourth to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, The Sense of an Ending comes hot on the heels of last year’s thematically-linked collection of short stories, Pulse, and 2008’s extended essay about mortality, Nothing to be Frightened of.
Like all of Barnes’ work, The Sense of an Ending is distinguished by its deceptively effortless formal perfection, its apparent simplicity disguising not just a plot of considerable elegance but a delicate and pleasingly subtle interplay with many of Barnes’ earlier novels (interestingly Pulse exhibited many of the same features). It is also, perhaps curiously given Barnes’ lifelong fascination with French culture and French literature in particular, an almost quintessentially English novel, grounded not just in the rhythms of English middle-class life, but a very English fascination with the tenets of empiricist philosophy and logic.
Its title deliberately invites us to read it as a sort of summation, a final chapter in Barnes’ illustrious career. And in one sense it is precisely that, reworking many of the interests and motifs that have sustained his fiction and non-fiction across the past 30-odd years. Yet it is also very obviously the work of a writer in full flower, exhibiting not just total control of the craft of the novel, but an intellectual and emotional rawness that has sometimes been lacking in Barnes’ earlier writing, neither of which suggest either a diminishing of Barnes’ talent or any imminent farewell to fiction.
Although a very different book in many ways, A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops is, like Barnes’ novel, essentially a book about failure, and more particularly a certain kind of male obtuseness. Set in Russia during the mid-2000s, it tells the story of Nicholas, a no longer quite young British banker whose involvement with a Russian woman leads him to compromise himself personally and professionally.
Miller is a former Moscow correspondent for The Economist and it shows in both good ways and bad. On the plus side Snowdrops has the immediacy of the best journalism, capturing not just the decadence and violence of the Russian boom but the moral ambiguity of the ex-pat whose pay cheque depends upon helping facilitate the pillaging of the country’s resources.
Yet at the same time it too often seems to be all surface, a skilfully structured, well-written exercise with none of the heft of real fiction. And, more deeply, it suffers from the not inconsiderable problem that the psychological device upon which it turns, namely Nicholas’ total obliviousness to the machinations that surround him, is fundamentally implausible.
If Snowdrops is a novel exploring one sort of moral wasteland, the third book on the shortlist, Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English explores a rather different one. Set on a housing estate in south London, it tells the story of 11 year-old Harri Opoku, a recent Ghanian immigrant who becomes embroiled in the search for the killer of another boy.
Like Emma Donoghue’s Room (or indeed Roddy Doyle’s Booker-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha) Pigeon English seeks to contrast the innocence of its narrator’s reactions with the complexities of the world they inhabit. And, like Room, it depends in no small measure upon its author’s capacity to capture the rhythms of its young narrator’s voice.
Whether the voice works or not is at least partly a matter of taste: certainly to my mind it seems too writerly to ring true. Yet despite the novel’s unsentimental engagement with the realities of life on the estate, the drugs, the violence, the social breakdown, there is a deeper authenticity missing as well, the absence of which makes the book feel oddly worthy, perhaps closer in tone to a certain sort of Young Adult Fiction than a fully-formed adult novel.
That being the case it would be tempting to see Pigeon English’s inclusion as a function of its undoubted topicality. Yet I suspect its inclusion has less to do with its relevance to recent events and more to do with its stunning final pages, in which an event as devastating as it is unexpected transforms an otherwise unremarkable book into something considerably more interesting and powerful.
Of the three remaining books on the shortlist the one which most resembles what one might regard as a Booker book is undoubtedly Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie. Based on an account of a boy’s encounter with a tiger on a London street in the early nineteenth century and Owen Chase’s extraordinary account of the aftermath of the sinking of the Whaleship Essex and the crew’s descent into cannibalism and murder (which also served as one of the sources for Moby Dick), it might at first blush seem to be a reasonably conventional historical novel, albeit one drawing on surprisingly confronting material.
Yet Birch’s novel is considerably less conventional than it might at first appear. For as the book leaves London behind and heads for the tropics the writing takes on a febrile, unsettling intensity, shot through with intimations of revelation and madness, even as the book circles in towards the act of violence at its heart.
But impressive as these latter sections are, the novel still struggles to mark its subject out as its own. The problem is not a lack of control, instead it is that the source material, and in particular Chase’s account is so powerful its truth cannot help but overshadow even the most effective fictional treatment.
The last two books on the shortlist, Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues and Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers are both by young Canadians, and are both, by virtue of their largely American casts, fairly unusual contenders for an award reserved for Commonwealth writers.
Edugyan’s novel tells the story of a group of black jazz musicians caught up in the aftermath of the fall of Paris in 1940. It’s an interesting and original subject, not least because the differential treatment of the German-born and American members of the group suggests something of the complexity of life under German rule, and Edugyan’s rendering of the voice of the narrator, the bass player Sid, in all his bitterness and regret, is never less than impressive. And while there are a few too many sequences which feel under-dramatised, there is an integrity and intelligence to the whole it’s difficult not to respond to.
Yet to my mind it’s the deWitt novel, The Sisters Brothers, that’s the real find on the shortlist. A very contemporary reinvention of the Western novel, it tells the story of the notorious assassins, the Sisters Brothers as they set out on what will turn out to be their final mission.
Narrated by Eli, the more thoughtful of the pair, the novel is at once deadpan and oddly hallucinogenic, capturing both the randomness and violence of the brothers’ lives, and Eli’s yearning for release, not just from his brother and their life together, but from the failings of his own nature. It’s also utterly contemporary in a way none of the other books on the shortlist are, its dark humour and contained surrealism of a piece not just with the best of contemporary film and television, but with less exalted forms like the graphic novel and the comic.
More deeply though, The Sisters Brothers shows up both the conservatism and the incoherence of this year’s shortlist. Whether it deserves to win seems to me to be an open question: I enjoyed it enormously and admire many things about it. Yet it is difficult to see how a panel of judges that shortlisted it could fail to even longlist China Mieville’s similarly generically playful and protean Embassytown.
It’s a question that becomes even more vexed when one considers some of the more conventional choices that didn’t make the cut. Of course shortlists are always as much about exclusion as inclusion, but even allowing for Rimington’s inane insistence on readability as a guiding principle it is extremely difficult to understand how any intelligent reader could omit Alan Hollinghurst’s sprawling The Stranger’s Child or the conclusion to Edward St Aubyn’s dazzling Melrose cycle, At Last in favour of Snowdrops, or Michael Ondaatje’s wonderfully weightless and subtly sideways fictional memoir The Cat’s Table in favour of Pigeon English.
But in the end the shortlist is what it is, and the question is not what should win, but what will win. If I were a betting man I’d say the safe money was on Barnes, not just because the book itself is so impressive but because it feels like Barnes’ year. But if I had a few dollars to back an outsider I might put them on the deWitt or even the Birch. And while I was there I’d start winding up my righteous indignation in case Pigeon English wins. Because in the end the Booker isn’t really about the winner, it’s about the guessing game and the debate it generates, both of which it manages to deliver in spades, year after year.