I’m Still Reading The Booker Prize Novels So You Don’t Have To

The slog continues

Last month, I announced that I was reading all the Booker Prize long list nominee novels. This was the greatest literary sacrifice since Katniss stepped out of the crowd to save Prim.  Some of the books came from the library. Publishers were generous enough to send me some for review. Others, I bought with my own hard-earned money. No matter how they arrived, The Booker Prize novels are a fuckin’ drag, let me tell you. It’s like going to the literary dentist every day.

In the last batch, I preferred This Moveable Body, by Tsitsi Dangarembga, a wry and straightforward account of a smart but traumatized middle-aged woman trying to survive in post-revolutionary Zimbabwe. I was pleased to see that novel actually made the short list, along with Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, a depressing book about alcoholism and child molestation in Margaret Thatcher’s Scotland. I’d like to see them make a Doctor Who episode out of that shit.

Now here’s a summary of the next batch. The World Series starts tonight, so I needed to get some books read. Now it’s time to consume some baseball, entertainment with a plot I can follow.

The New Wilderness, By Diane Cook

This is the latest entry in the Gaslit Post-Apocalyptic Dystopia novel genre. It somewhat resembles Station Eleven, a book about sad itinerant Shakespearean actors who still perform their plays despite global warming or whatever. In The New Wilderness, things are bad in the City. Which city, we don’t know. Is it Chicago? Denver? Phoenix? Dallas? It’s probably New York or Boston, the only cities writers visit willingly. Regardless, a group of 20 worthless city dwellers volunteer for a government program to allow them to wander a wilderness without any real survival skills or equipment. Basically, they sign up for a game show like Naked and Afraid or Alone, but without any prize money at the end.

This seems like a decent premise for a book. But the characters have about half a dimension each, and most of the book involves them walking around the woods doing nothing. Sometimes people die, but it leaves no impression, because you don’t remember who they are. Also, Cook takes the most dramatic part of the story, the first few months after the government drops the suckers off in nature, and summarizes it in one boring page. Instead, she focuses on one girl who goes through puberty during the Wilderness days and eventually becomes a Wild Leader.

The prose is grim, ascetic, and dull throughout, leaving you not caring about much of anything other than What’s On Netflix Right Now. The New Wilderness is a survivalist novel for people with permanent Trump Derangement Syndrome, The Walking Dead without zombies, a nearly-YA retelling of The Road without the baby-eating. It contains a good twist in the back third, but by the time we get there, we don’t care, and it doesn’t matter. Of course, it’s a Booker finalist.

Real Life, by Brandon Taylor 

This is a novel about a Black gay science grad student named Wallace, who lives in Madison, Wisconsin, or at least in a Madison, Wisconsin of the mind. Wallace is sad because his father died, even though he didn’t love his father much. Then he does a sex with a straight colleague who says anti-gay slurs sometimes. This makes Wallace even sadder, so he does more sexes with the colleague. That’s basically the book.

Real Life contains some lovely lyrical writing in the first 50 pages. The rest of it fades off into gossip about some provincial scene in which you really don’t care about much, the dullest of rabbit holes. I enjoyed the first scene where Wallace does research on some tiny worms, but by the third such scene the vermiform research felt a little old. Like grad school, Real Life goes on for a long time but doesn’t really accomplish much. It’s also a Booker finalist.

How Much Of These Hills Is Gold, by C. Pam Zhang 

Here comes a book about two poor Chinese sisters living in Gold Rush-era California. Their parents die and they lug their father’s rotting corpse around in a wagon for 50 pages. Then it is five years later, or at least I think it is, I’m not sure. The book exists simultaneously in five different time frames. And there’s a long section in the middle where the dead father’s ghost tells a story. Also, apparently there are tigers in California. One of the sisters identifies as a boy, very common, I’m sure, among destitute immigrant orphans in the 1860s.

Maybe I’m very stupid, it’s quite possible, but I couldn’t tell what the hell was going on in this book. Sure, it contains some allusions to Chinese myth, and that’s not my birth culture. But I’ve watched and read other Chinese-themed content and have still been able to follow the story and then research the allusions after it’s done. I’m all for avant-garde styling, or maybe I’m not. Regardless, even in the most avant-garde books, it’s still usually possible to tell what character is speaking and in what part of the story, and also who the characters are or where they are. Not in this book, this book is too good for all that.

Surprisingly, How Much Of These Hills Is Gold isn’t a Booker finalist.

The Mirror and The Light, by Hilary Mantel 

I’ll be honest and say that I haven’t finished this book yet, it’s very long and dense. But unlike the other Booker long-list nominees, this book is long and dense for a reason. It’s the third book in a trilogy about the court of Henry VIII, starring his devious fixer, Thomas Cromwell. This is the kind of book that has a cast of characters and a family tree in the front. I know how it ends because I didn’t just fall out of the sky and also I watched the BBC miniseries, which gave away the ending.

The Hilary Mantel Thomas Cromwell trilogy is one of the great accomplishments of modern literature, the gold standard for historical fiction. Her writing is lyrical but straightforward, and the story, while dense and complex as befitting the subject matter, flows without tricks or flashbacks. It’s a good old-fashioned costume drama doorstop, and people will be reading it long after most of these year’s Booker nominees are begging for adoption at the bargain bins at The Strand.

The Mirror and the Light didn’t make the short list for the Booker Prize this year, even though it should have. One of the judges admitted as such. The last two volumes both won the Prize, and he said that even though the Cromwell trilogy will live on in literary history, it was time to give someone else a shot.

Maybe if Thomas Cromwell had been a sad Black gay alcoholic grad student wandering in a post-apocalyptic landscape, Mantel would have won again.


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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.

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