Back to the Booker Prize Grind

This year’s novels are as dreary as ever

I generally read for one of two purposes, for entertainment or information. Other subsidiary reasons arise–relaxation, aesthetic pleasure, to enjoy a well-constructed sentence, to fuel professional envy–but those are the main two. Then Booker Prize season arrives, and I torture myself. Last year, I took on the task of reading as much of the Booker longlist as I could. I got through three-quarters of it, and enjoyed less than one quarter of the books I read. The Mirror And The Light, by Hillary Mantel, was reliably fine, but I’d already seen the BBC series. It was kind of a wash, so I don’t count that book.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

The Booker novels are rarely entertaining. If I turn pages, it’s often because I’m bored or because the monologue has just gotten too long and I want to get on with it already. Some of them contain information, but it exists in very subtle form, so you really have to parse it carefully. This is literature, and as such you never find a spy or a submarine. Sometimes a horse shows up, but it usually dies in a ditch along with the people. If a gun appears, it usually goes off, but rarely in a cool way.

So I have begun this year’s journey, starting with two novels that are, you know, good by the standards of the Booker Prize. They contain subtle characterization, insight into family dynamics, sly social commentary, and stylized, carefully-chiseled, difficult prose. But they aren’t much fun to read. They’re indie movies with tinkly piano music on the soundtrack. That’s what the Booker likes; they left me feeling refined and vaguely suicidal.

Booker Prize
Booker Prize novels make nap time so much fun
The Cusk of Greatness

The first Booker novel I read was Second Place, by Rachel Cusk, who is a writer’s writer. That means that she’s a writer who basically only other writers like. Dwight Garner from The New York Times calls her a “modern, adamantine new skyscraper on the literary horizon.” The writer Patricia Lockwood, another writer’s writer, says that Cusk writes about life as “a blasted centre full only of instinct and superhuman hearing and hackles.” I don’t know what that means, but it sounds impressive.

Cusk gained fame for her “Outlines” trilogy, an epic work of “autofiction,” which, despite its title, is not fiction about cars, but roughly translates as “books about writers living up their own ass.” Second Place is a standalone novel, but it is very auto. Our protagonist, who narrates the entire book in a first-person monologue to an unseen person named “Jeffers”, is a middle-aged English-speaking writer type who lives in a marshy rural area of France.  Her partner is a capable longhaired dark man named Tony, who, in Cusk’s hands, serves as a kind of a Wes Andersonized ideal of the noble savage stereotype.

The writer and Tony have a guest house, which they call a “second place,” and they rent it out to writers and artists and other people who need to express themselves in solitude. While ‘Second Place’ never mentions COVID-19, it clearly occurs during some sort of weird global crisis, which gives our protagonist a chance to have all kinds of deep, narcissistic feels. She invites a down-on-his-luck and aging master painter, whose work moves her deeply, to come stay in the second place. He arrives alongside a piece of shifty arm candy named Brett. A parlor-room plot develops largely involving meaningful glances and elliptical conversations among all the players.

Second Place is a short book, only about 175 pages, approximately two-thirds of which are interior monologue. It leaves us with some subtle impressions and a fresh realization that life is short and people who paint are shits. I would put it at about 4 to 1 odds of winning the Booker.

Promising Youngish Writer

The Booker Prize admires South African writer Damon Galgut. His previous two novels made the shortlist, and his current, The Promise, rides the longlist and could easily get the shortening. The Promise takes place over the last 40 years or so of South African history, an epic and tragic ride. That epic and that tragedy receives lots of mentions in the book, but only as a backdrop to the story of a sad, dreary, and declining middle-class farm family.

They get drunk, they have affairs, and most of them die. The “promise” of the title involves a bequeathment of property to a Black family servant, which the family doesn’t get around to for quite a while because of racism. The themes are profound, and Galgut certainly knows how to provide character details. But the book suffers from excessive literariness. He tells every chapter from multiple points of view, sometimes shifting points of view in mid-paragraph. This means that you really need to pay attention or you might miss who commits suicide next or why.

Galgut is a skilled and interesting writer, but I don’t even know why I’m telling you all this, because you aren’t going to read The Promise, or maybe you are. It’s reminiscent of Graham Greene but without the foreign-service intrigue, and maybe a bit of Faulkner but without the weirdness. Since this is a South African novel, it echoes J.M. Coetzee but I thought we’d reached our limits of acerbic detachment about white male identity in modern South Africa. In any case, the Booker loves including an African book or two in the list, like last year’s excellent novel about Zimbabwe by Tsitsi Dangarembga. I liked The Promise better than Second Place, but there’s no way it’s going to win the Booker Prize. Twenty to one odds, minimum.

Up next, a novel by a writer named Francis Spufford, the most British name imaginable, and I’m patiently waiting for my copy of the new Ishiguro to clear the library. In the meantime, I plan to read something entertaining, or informative, or both.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

5 thoughts on “Back to the Booker Prize Grind

  • September 9, 2021 at 8:55 am

    Not to bite the hand that feeds, but please explain what you mean, you thought we were done with Coetzee? He’s a very great writer.

    • September 9, 2021 at 9:37 am

      Allow me to expand on that thought in the piece, editor’s prerogative.

  • September 9, 2021 at 9:55 am

    So glad you take care of this onerous reading task for the rest of us.

  • September 10, 2021 at 2:42 pm

    “A parlor-room plot develops largely involving meaningful glances and elliptical conversations among all the players.” The only Henry James Cliffnotes You’ll Ever Need.

  • October 5, 2021 at 2:22 pm

    The Rachel Cusk review is seriously cracking me up. I wish I were qualified to write autofiction, as in “fiction about cars.” Would be a freaking goldmine.

    Sadly, (like Rachel Cusk?) I can barely drive.


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