Three more novels in this year’s literary prison sentence
Belated congratulations to South African writer Damon Galgut on winning the 2021 Man Booker Prize for his novel ‘The Promise.’ When I reviewed The Promise on this site, I predicted it had no chance of winning the Booker because it was too good. I’m happy that the committee proved me to be a bad prognosticator and also a person of excellent taste. Anyway, you all should read The Promise if you’re in the mood for a book about a declining farm family barely surviving 40 tumultuous years of South African history.
That said, I continue to move forward with my nightmarish project of reading as many of this year’s Booker long list nominees as possible, because I’m a literary masochist. The latest group of contenders (and now not-winners) proved as dreary and unpleasant as all previous contenders. Does the Booker committee give out extra points for not-fun? It certainly seems that way.
The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris
I approached this novel with some caution, because Nathan Harris is a graduate of the Michener School of creative writing at the University of Texas in Austin, where I live. Though I haven’t been invited to a literary party in at least five years, there’s always a chance that he might still be living here and be at that party the next time it occurs. And what if I’d said something nasty about his book?
Fortunately, The Sweetness of Water isn’t a bad book. I might even say that it’s a good book. It’s not a fun book, because it’s a Booker book. But it’s a strong and dutiful book, a solid first novel to make a mother proud.
Harris sets The Sweetness of Water at the very beginning of Reconstruction, in a Georgia town with the delightfully magical realist name of Old Ox. His main character is a gritty and vaguely Union sympathetic farmer, whose son is presumed dead while wearing Confederate battle gear. The son turns up, a couple of recently freed slaves start working on the farm, and the plot begins to stir.
While I won’t give too much a way, this book is sort of the love child of 12 Years A Slave and Brokeback Mountain. For the most part, it shies away from “people are evil” tropes and contains a gallery of well-rounded characters with clear motivations. There aren’t any annoying flashbacks or italic prose poems. It’s all very straightforward, empathetic, and, let’s face it, a little boring at times. But it’s generally effective and unpretentious.
A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam
The Booker awards its Prize to the best novel published in English. This gives the reader a chance to experience quite the literary diaspora. Last year’s best book, to my mind, came from Zimbabwe, and this year’s from South Africa. A Passage North emerges from Sri Lanka. I don’t think I’d ever read Sri Lankan literature before this, so the author’s descriptions of life in Colombo were a real treat.
However, I must report that A Passage North is an experimental book, which means it contains a lot of interior monologue. And I mean a lot. The ostensible story revolves around an elderly woman’s caregiver going home to her rural war-torn village, where she falls down a well and dies. The grandson, a former aid worker, must travel north to investigate. That all sounds very literary, but it has potential. Unfortunately, the story proceeds to travel deep into the grandson’s subconscious, or possibly up his butt. At one point, he takes a train journey and remembers a different train journey in a different city, during which he remembered still a third train journey. And that sequence also contains the complete retelling of a Hindu myth, and a sex scene with a woman who clearly obsesses our protagonist.
It was all too much for me, honestly, and I never got to the bottom of the mystery of what happened to the caregiver. I would have thrown the book across the room except I read it on my Kindle and didn’t want to damage the Kindle. Now I know a little more about Sri Lanka, but probably less than I would have liked.
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
This is a book that people in my social circle actually talked about when it appeared this year, because it’s about assholes on Twitter, and I know so many assholes on Twitter. Lockwood’s protagonist is famous in “the portal” for spouting unfunny epigrams like “What if dogs were twins”? This makes her very famous and she travels the world giving oblique lectures.
Like the Rachel Cusk book that I reviewed earlier this year, Lockwood essentially wrote this book in code for the literary elite. There’s lots of concern about a “dictator” who has taken over the United States, even though that dictator seemingly only has power over the narrator’s mind. He certainly doesn’t stop from from traveling to five continents to deliver her bon mots. What a terrible dictator!
Reality finally intervenes when the narrator suffers an unspeakable family tragedy. Based off the Acknowledgments, Lockwood bases this on a real family tragedy that sounds quite awful. And, not surprisingly, the book improves after reality intervenes, though given that this is a Booker book, it’s not a lot of fun after it improves, but it is extremely well-written. Then Lockwood lost my sympathy by writing in her Acknowledgements that she is writing the Acknowledgements in “quarantine.” ORLY? Did the “dictator” put you in “quarantine”? How terrible for you!
Like everyone in “the portal” and the writers of most Booker books, Lockwood seems to exist mostly in a prison of self-regard. It’s hard to know where the Twitter ends and the reality begins.