They are sad and also depressing
I’m in the process of reading all of the Booker Prize long list nominees. A few weeks ago, I saw an essay by Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series, who in addition to being a kajillionaire is also a judge of the Booker Prizes this year. He said if you want to take the temperature of the literary world, you should read all the books on the Booker long list. Fuck you, Richie Rich! I thought. While I may not be a bestselling author, I do have a lot of free time. I will read the shit out of the Booker Prize long list.
Well, the Council Of Booker Prize Gods announces the short list tomorrow, and I regret to say I’m not going to finish all the Booker Prize books before then. Not only is the list long, but so are the books. What do you people want from me? There are a lot of sports to watch on TV! I’m not a goddamn machine.
However, I have finished four of the Booker Prize long list books. That’s more than one a week since I started. Pretty good! Especially considering how goddamn “literary” the books are and how much, as I’ve already mentioned, sports there is on TV.
Occasionally something genuinely popular wins the prize, like Schindler’s Ark, Life of Pi, The Remains of the Day, or Wolf Hall. Margaret Atwood wins every other book. But a lot of the Booker winners, and nominees, are about as fun as a cheese grater to the back of the thigh. This year appears to be no exception. Quality literature is punishment, and the Booker committee is definitely handing out the spankings. Here’s what I’ve read so far:
Apeirogon by Colum McCann
I did this book first because it was available at my neighborhood library. It is one of the most pretentious books ever written by a human or by any other species. An “Apeirogon” is a geometric shape with an infinitely countable number of sides. So of course that is what McCann has chosen to name his novel about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The Booker Prize committee apparently likes a book told in 1000 short chapters. McCann numbers the first 500 going up, then he has a couple of transcribed interviews with the actual subjects of his book, and then he numbers the next 500 going down. Someone has drunk a bit too much of the Joyce juice.
Ostensibly, Apeirogon is the story of Bassam and Rami, two real-life men on either side of the conflict who tragically lost their young daughters. Israeli soldiers killed Bassam’s and Hamas terrorists killed Rami’s. And they meet as part of an organization that is desperately trying to build peace to the region. What a story! But McCann clogs the plumbing with infinitely pretentious anecdotes about Jorge Luis Borges visiting Jerusalem in 1970, about Pablo Picasso painting the peace dove, some bullshit about Freud and Einstein, and all kinds of other garbage.
Here’s chapter 173: “Geography is everything.”
Oh, is it? How deep. In fact, it is only one of six Trivial Pursuit categories.
McCann has hidden a beautiful human story inside an impenetrable maze of pompous references. Clearly no one dares edit the great man. While it pains me to say this, Bassam and Rami’s story would benefit greatly from the kind of literary treatment Dave Eggers gives subjects like this: A little flourish here and there, but mostly told straight.
Most of the reviews I’ve read of this book hail it as a work of unimpeachable brilliance, but most of the reviews are wrong. The critics say that it is anti-Israeli, or anti-Palestinian, but these are political complaints. Mine are purely aesthetic. I wouldn’t care if McCann had portrayed Jews as horned devils who drink the blood of Palestinian babies if he’d told his story in coherent narrative order. If this wins the Booker Prize, which it will not, I will quit reading forever and focus my full attention to watching sports on TV.
This Mournable Body, by Tsitsi Dangarembga
This is a depressing book, but it’s also quite good. Somewhere in the recent past, the Booker Prize opened up to all English-language books as long as it was published in the U.K., the birthplace of literature. Therefore, we get an interesting novel about what it was like to be an educated woman in Zimbabwe in the late 1990s. The short answer: Not so hot. What we consider “rape culture”, women in Zimbabwe in the late 1990s would have considered summer vacation.
When the book opens, Tambudzai, the heroine of two previous books that I have not read, has quit her job at an advertising agency and is living in a crummy boarding house. Things only get worse from there and eventually she has a nervous breakdown. Then she goes to work at an ecotourism concern and concocts a plan to exploit her native village so Dutch tourists can take photos of bare-breasted African women. Dangarembga has a mordant wit and a gift for subtle characterization. There’s a hint of Dickens in the way she describes class differences, and a whisper of Graham Greene in the way she describes the dehumanizing affects of post-colonial life.
But this book has feminist and even post-feminist concerns that those writers could never have imagined or considered. She wryly notes “no one cares about women’s issues, except for the woman who has issues.” Dangarembga narrates the entire book in the second person, so that’s a bit of a tricky thicket, but she keeps the voice consistent and you eventually just learn to flow into her style. And I found the book’s conclusion satisfying and not entirely hopeless. It has no chance of winning the Prize; it’s too obscure a work. But if you’re looking to broaden your perception of life in post-revolution Zimbabwe, you’re not going to do much better than this novel.
Such A Fun Age, by Kiley Reid
We reviewed this novel a few months ago, and it remains just as juicy and fun now as it was then. I stayed up until 2 AM to finish it one night after the ballgame, so that’s a good sign. Such A Fun Age is basically Get Out, but without the sci-fi and horror elements. Reid has things to say about the intersection of work and race, and about hypocritical white liberals. An aimless young black woman in Philadelphia goes to work as a babysitter for an annoying rich lady and her newscaster husband. Then she hooks up with an annoying white ally dude who is also an absurd plot twist. In the end, her protagonist, who is also annoying, puts the manipulative white people aside and goes to work for the Green Party. So, you know, this is a 2020 book, minus the pandemic.
Such a Fun Age is breezy and well-observed and very American. It is a women’s novel, in that the men and their concerns are pretty peripheral. Maybe there’s a male novel to be written that covers the transactional nature of child care in America, but I can’t imagine any dudes wanting to write that novel, much less read it. This is also a book about black life that’s not about black trauma, or at least not entirely about trauma, and the trauma that it does coverage is fairly light, as trauma goes.
In addition to being a Booker Prize nominee, it’s also a Reese’s Book Club selection, and, I’m certain, soon to be a motion picture. Kiley Reid will be very wealthy for all her life.
Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart
The first 40 pages of this book contain a child-molestation scene, a rape, and lots of alcoholism. So, you know, it’s Scotland in the 1980s, and it’s all Margaret Thatcher’s fault. If you want to snap the Outlander stans out of their kilt-soaked fantasies, this is the antidote. Well-written but horrifyingly sad, I couldn’t recommend Shuggie Bain with a sound mind and heart to anyone I like, and even to most people I don’t. And I don’t like most people. The recent film Wild Rose covers some of the same territory but with a lot more humor, plus tons of great country music.
And now, back to sports.