Monday, 29 September 2014

How to choose a winner

A version of this piece has appeared in the Bangladesh Daily Star

In a previous post I commented on the relatively narrow range, in geographic terms, of the Man Booker long list. Reading the shortlist I’m struck by its artistic diversity. If you were a judge, how would you choose a winner from among such different books? Here are some possible strategies.

Go for an epic. Richard Flanagan and Neel Mukherjee both illuminate historic events with intimate human drama. In Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Dorrigo Evans, who has risen from poverty to become a distinguished surgeon, is invaded by memories of a life shaped by war and his experience as a prisoner of the Japanese working on the infamous ‘Death Railway’. Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others concerns a household in 1960s West Bengal caught up in violent social change. The three generations of the Ghosh family are brilliantly brought to life, with their squabbles and rivalries, struggling to coexist in the four-storey family home while endangered by external events beyond their control.  

Look for innovation. If you’re drawn to novels that extend the possibilities of the form, there are a couple to choose from. Howard Jacobson’s J drops us into a future, in which the unspeakable event that has changed everything comes slowly into focus through a collage of narratives. Ali Smith offers two stories that can be read in either order, one set in renaissance Italy, one in present day England. There’s a luminous sense of place and the dialogue sings. Always fresh and playful, in How to be Both Smith brings a light touch to big questions of art and mortality.

Demand the truth. The two American books contrast interestingly here. In Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, the New York dentist-narrator, complaining in a characteristic moment how hard it is to get a table in a Manhattan restaurant, tells us that his girlfriend Connie “once told a reservationist that she was dying of stomach cancer and had chosen that restaurant as her last meal out”. A sentence like that has no purpose except to make me laugh. And if it fails at that, it fails altogether, because I don’t believe it. Karen Joy Fowler’s narrator in We are All Completely Beside Ourselves has her own kind of wisecracking style. “My father,” she tells us, was “a college professor and a pedant to the bone. Every exchange contained a lesson, like the pit in a cherry. To this day, the Socratic method makes me want to bite someone.” That’s funny. But it doesn’t live or die on its ability to amuse.

Choose an author who gets out of the way of the story. Jacobson is never dull, often brilliant and constantly challenging, but too sure of what he thinks and too determined that we should think the same. Flanagan’s grasp is far less certain but his reach is considerable and the best of his storytelling can grab you by the throat.

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