Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Thoughts on the Man Booker Prize 2017

A few hours now before the short list is announced, I thought I would weigh in on the Man Booker Prize. I have at least tasted all of these. I bailed on one, am in process with four, and finished the rest, and I'd say that's the farthest I've come on a long list since I started following the Man Booker Prize. Perhaps *I* deserve an award. Just saying.

Official site: The Man Booker Prize

Photo courtesy of Man Booker Prize Website

The Long List, with my thoughts:

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (US) (Faber & Faber)
My thoughts: This is one I have only read 50 pages of so far. I've never finished anything by Auster, and this one reads very well. I like the concept I think, although at 50 pages in I've only seen one version of the character. On the other hand I often get annoyed when I get deep into a literary author experimenting with something science fiction has done for decades, so my judgment is still out.
What I think the judges will think: Since Americans are so new to the prize, they haven't had many sweeping New York novels in the pool. This is definitely one. But I think they awarded the prize to an American last year. I think they will be more interested in the experiment in this one than in the sweep. But if they're up for experiment, Saunders may be more of a favorite.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Ireland) (Faber & Faber)
My thoughts: Ah, this is the one I bailed on. It never felt authentic to me. The language too elevated, the setting too contrived. I could tell it was not going to work for me!
What I think the judges will think: I think Barry is probably a favorite and they will see this as a unique story.

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
My thoughts: I wouldn't have included this book in the long list. I'm interested in the themes but did not think they were well executed, and that the parts of the novel lack cohesion.
What I think the judges will think: This is a decent debut that deserved attention but is not short list material.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan-UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
My thoughts: Ultimately I was not satisfied with the door concept, feeling like it actually took the risk out of the refugee journey.
What I think the judges will think: Timely, brilliant, short list material.

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Ireland) (Canongate)
My thoughts: I had to push to finish it, and found the experiment far outweighed the content. Before I read it, I expected this to be a favorite.
What I think the judges will think: As one of four experimental titles, I think they are looking for something that feels fresh. I think they will like the symbolism and the craft, and place a finer point on it. I think this one OR the McGregor will make the short list but not both.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (UK) (4th Estate)
My thoughts: A girl disappears and the novel becomes more about the tiny parts of the town over time. It reminded me of Olaf Stapledon (science fiction again) in one of his novels about millions of years of a solar system. I enjoyed the writing but found the pace excruciating.
What I think the judges will think: I think they will select either this or the McCormack for the short list. Both seem to fit together in strange ways, almost like two stories in the same town. I think they will think the non-crime focus of what is presented as a crime novel as "flipping the script" rather than bad copy.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals)
My thoughts: I'm only 50 pages in or so and haven't decided what I think. It reminds me of a combination of Room by Emma Donaghue and These Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller, both novels I enjoyed, about a life on the fringes with a twinge of darkness.
What I think the judges will think: I think if a first-time novel ends up on the short list, this will be some judge's dark horse over the Fridlund.

The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (India) (Hamish Hamilton)
My thoughts: I read 50 pages and really enjoyed them, then set aside the book for books that would have due dates or expiration dates. That's right, I purchased this one outright, because I enjoyed Roy's previous Booker Prize winner so much.
What I think the judges will think: It has to go in the short list. Roy's first novel in 20 years, since the last time she won the prize? With up to date thematic elements that are so 21st century when the last one was so 20th century? I think they'd be embarrassed to exclude it. The prize can be a bit traditional in that sense.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) (Bloomsbury Publishing)
My thoughts: I have met George and love his short stories, and I really enjoyed the audio of this book once I got in the right groove. It is more experimental than it needed to be but the center was very good. I liked seeing him stretch his wings and then not write a traditional novel, but rather one that felt like essay.
What I think the judges will think: I think they will be most interested in the bardo element, although I think they will not have the audio experience to rely on, which surely for me led to a higher rating. It is possible this will make the short list.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (UK-Pakistan) (Bloomsbury Circus)
My thoughts: This was very readable but I did not like the shoehorn of the novel into the myth. Shamsie seemed so focused on this idea that some important plot and character threads get dropped. If you are comparing novels by UK-Pakistani writers from this list, Hamid is more even, but not as enjoyable to read.
What I think the judges will think: The opposite of my qualms about the myth, I think they will be impressed by that element. It was enough to make the long list but possibly the flaws will keep it from the short list.

Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
My thoughts: I loved this novel, definitely my favorite of the list. Ali Smith is a beautiful writer. And as much as people want to call this a post-Brexit novel, those elements are background. This is also an unusual love story/friendship with another thread about a female pop artist. I learned a lot and paused a lot and enjoyed the reading experience.
What I think the judges will think: We fucked up in 2014 and Ali should have won that year. Definitely a shortlist contender.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
My thoughts: I don't think this is Smith's strongest. I keep forgetting it is on this list.
What I think the judges will think: While Ali Smith and Arundhati Roy deserve repeat appearances on the short list, some of the more interesting experiments eclipse this novel.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (US) (Fleet)
My thoughts: I put off reading this for a long time because of the hype machine but I do think it is doing something interesting. I'm just halfway through so I'm just starting to see the point of some of these train stops and liking the possibilities. If I had to choose between magical doors, I might pick this over Hamid.
What I think the judges will think: This book has already won SO many prizes. Probably enough to put it in the short list (possibly bumping Saunders or Hamid) but maybe we can give the actual award to one of the others... being awarded the Man Booker should be the top, right? It would really be something for this one book to gain the National Book Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award (?!?), the Pulitzer, and selected by Oprah! It almost makes it too popular to win. The Man Booker is literary, dammit.

My guess at the short list:

Autumn by Ali Smith
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Elmet by  Fiona Mozley

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