Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Colm Tóibín and Jim Crace on Man Booker prize shortlist

Man Booker 2013

Why this is the best shortlist in a decade

Neither the diverse nationalities of its authors, nor the settings of their novels, can account for the sheer intensity of feeling and intelligence of ideas in this year's lineup
Novel novels … Six books that resist generic categories and divert from formal expectations
Novel novels … six books that resist generic categories and divert from formal expectations
For some, the shortlist for this year´s Man Booker prize will prove a disappointment. It affords few opportunities for sniping about literariness and entertainment, elitism and populism. There have been no stories of infighting, backbiting, horse-trading or the other nefarious activities in which literary judges are said to indulge. They have not settled for safe mediocrity, or the usual suspects. The worst that can be said of this year's judges is that they have been too inclusive, a risible accusation in a supposedly democratic culture.
The Man Booker is, after all, a Commonwealth prize, as well as a British and Irish one, and the shortlist reflects the common wealth of many nations, many imaginations. It registers not only a multicultural world, but its migratory visions: an Irish writer's meditation on an ancient Middle Eastern myth; a Japanese-Canadian writer's linking of kamikaze pilots and 9/11 suicide bombers; the mingling in 19th-century New Zealand of Maori, Scottish, American, Irish and Chinese, drawn by the hope and greed that drives all frontier tales; a Calcutta family wrestling with diasporic American life and ghosts of the old world; a dark tale apparently set in Merrie Olde England, yet concerning deracination and exile; and a girl who leaves a shantytown in Zimbabwe for the false hope of the American Dream in Detroit.
But these novels are more than a catalogue of places and ethnicities, of paint-by-numbers social and political categories. It takes a fairly impoverished view of literature to measure it by the ethnicity of its characters or its author, as if we judged the Mona Lisa on the basis that it's Italian. Of the six shortlisted, Jim Crace´s Harvest is probably the most explicitly about the ways in which place shapes our identity. A parable about enclosure, it is set in an indeterminate agrarian past that resembles 17th-century England but remains carefully undated, uncharted. Walter Thirsk is an outsider who has found a home in a small farming village, but over the course of an allegorical seven days, his pastoral life descends into a dies irae. Dangerous knowledge is acquired when a man named Quill comes to map the area: the fall ensues, and only expulsion can follow. Thirsk's exile is decidedly spiritual, as well as physical, his world darkening and constricting as it sends him spinning out into the unknown.
The most significant literary locations are often interior and psychological, as are characters' journeys. Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being can be described as the story of a writer in western Canada who finds the diary of a Japanese girl whom she fears drowned in the 2011 tsunami; but it is also a metaphysical exploration of the nature of time, quantum mechanics, and the boundaries of fiction. It includes a girl from the past named Nao (Now) writing her own In Search of Lost Time, the returned ghost of a kamikaze pilot, and the near-death of Schrödinger's cat. The fact that its author is Japanese-Canadian should only be part of the story if Ozeki chooses for it to be so: which is precisely what she does, in the most meta- of all the shortlisted fictions.
In fact, all six novels are just as interested in time as in place, many of them more so. Narrative is a time-consumed form; much of the pleasure in these novels comes from their explorations of history, memory, and myth. Eleanor Catton's 19th-century romp through New Zealand gold mines, The Luminaries, spends 400 pages telling the story of one fateful day, before orbiting through a constellation of carefully charted dates, spinning backwards through Antipodean astrological cycles as history unravels. A joyous pastiche of the Victorian sensation novel, it starts with shipwreck, and moves through opium dens, prostitution, illegitimate siblings, theft, blackmail, murder and the tincture of the supernatural. Its form is extraordinary, a complex astrological charting that allows for the luminaries (traditionally, the sun and moon) to be fixed characters around whom 12 other characters orbit, in long chapters that wane to short chapters as the moon disappears. The Luminaries is a book about panning for gold, in relationships, stories and books. Like Harvest, from which it seems so different, the one so austere, the other so voluptuary,The Luminaries, too, is about how we chart our destinies.

NoViolet Bulawayo, Colm Tóibín and Eleanor Catton

Of the six, the books most concerned with our present world are NoViolet Bulawayo's We Need New Names and Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland. By no coincidence, they are also the most rooted in specific political realities: Zimbabwe bursts out from the former and Calcutta defines the latter, even when it's set in Rhode Island. These are also, interestingly, the most traditional in form: a coming-of-age story and a multigenerational epic respectively. The Lowland spans the era from Indian independence to the present, telling the story of two brothers from Calcutta whose lives are shaped by political upheaval; one is murdered young, the other pursues a safe life in Rhode Island until he decides to care for his brother's widow and baby, bringing politics into his home in ways he doesn't foresee. Bulawayo's protagonist is a 10-year-old child navigating Mugabe's Zimbabwe before she is sent to Detroit (which the Zimbabwean children not-so-mistakenly call "Destroyedmichygen"). The Zimbabwean sections are told with great ebullience and linguistic brio, rich with dark comedy, before Darling leaves Paradise, her shantytown, for Detroit, that tense symbol of America's lost Edenic hopes.
Colm Tóibín's remarkable The Testament of Mary foregoes the consolations of paradise for the suffering of Golgotha. Abbreviated, condensed, it is an apocryphal gospel from the perspective of Jesus's mother. Tóibín's Mary is a sceptic who thinks her gentle son has been led astray by hubris and the adulation of the "misfits" with whom he surrounds himself, appalled that he calls himself the son of God. But it is also about memory, the way that language forms our myths, the ways in which our traditions are fortuitous, accidental. "Words matter," Mary tells us, as her son's chroniclers try to coerce her to concur with their versions. This is not a testament of faith, but of passion in the archaic sense. Memory cheats; stories reconstruct and invent, as we try to wrestle with mystery, seeking an impossible truth.
The chair of this year's judging panel, Robert Macfarlane, explained when announcing the shortlist: "We were drawn to novels that sought to extend the possibilities of the form … We wanted novel novels." And that is what they found, six books that resist generic categories and divert from formal expectations. We could seek, Polonius-like, to fit them back into hybrid genres: is Harvest tragical-pastoral, The Testament of Marymythical-historical, We Need New Names comical-pastoral? The criticism that literary prizes elicit often seems determined so to categorise and reduce, even to travesty. Doubtless such fault-finding is symptomatic of our captious society more generally, but it is not very useful. For example, deciding to pin his literary evaluations on individual words plucked from whole novels, Philip Hersher wrote in The Spectator when the longlist was announced that he could date Harvest from a character's wearing of mauve, fixing its action firmly in the 1850s, surely a strange era in which to place a story so redolent of the long 17th century; but it also flouts the timeless spirit of the novel. And is it worth chastising Eleanor Catton for allowing an 1866 character to say "hello" in The Luminaries? In point of fact, "hello" was widely used in North America by the 1840s, and many of Catton's characters travelled via the California gold rush, so who's to say what linguistic nuggets they might have acquired on their travels? As Hamlet retorts to Polonius, "O judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!" It's one thing for a critic to be a pedant, another to be a pedant manque.
Words matter, as Tóibín says, but one does not judge a mosaic by the colour of one pebble. Nor are the nationalities or residences of the authors, or the settings of their novels, sufficient to account for the intensity of feeling and intelligence of ideas represented by the books on this list: the dark requiems of Tóibín and Crace; the comical philosophical acrobatics of Ozeki and Catton; the heartfelt protests of Bulawayo and Lahiri. It is a marvellous list of books, perhaps the best shortlist in a decade, and it does what it is meant to do: advocate for new fiction in general, and these superb books in particular.
• Sarah Churchwell is professor of American literature at the University of East Anglia.

Man Booker prize: Bookies' favourite Jim Crace leads shortlist

Six books, set all over the globe, range from 
Jim Crace
Time for Harvest?... Jim Crace. Photograph: Ted Thai/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Bookies' favourite Jim Crace heads the six-strong Man Booker prize shortlist, announced this morning, with his fable about the enclosure of England's common lands, Harvest.
Also on the list are young New Zealand writer Eleanor Catton's hotly-tipped historical epic about New Zealand's gold rush, The Luminaries, and Colm Toibin's ultra-short novel about Jesus' mother, The Testament of Mary.
The three remaining books are Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland, moving between Calcutta and the US; NoViolet Bulawayo's debut novel We Need New Names, which takes a young girl from a Zimbabwean slum to America; and Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being, about a suicidal Tokyo schoolgirl whose diary is washed up from the sea.
The judging panel, chaired by nature writer Robert Macfarlane, is made up of the broadcaster Martha Kearney, the critic and biographer Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, the classicist and critic Natalie Haynes and the author and critic Stuart Kelly. The £50,000 winner will be announced on 15 October.
The shortlist
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (Chatto & Windus) 
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (Granta)
Harvest by Jim Crace (Picador) 
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (Bloomsbury) 
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Canongate) 
The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín (Viking) 

Man Booker prize nominee Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín and Jim Crace
on Man Booker prize shorlist

The six-strong shortlist for the UK’s best-known literary award, the Man Booker prize for fiction, was announced on Tuesday. In a group notable for its geographic diversity, four women and two men will compete for the £50,000 prize, awarded on October 15 in London.

Eleanor Catton, a New Zealander, is the youngest author on the list. Shortlisted for her 800 page, Victorian-style second novel, The Luminaries, Ms Catton will be 28 when the winner is announced.

The only debut fiction to make the final six comes from US-resident Zimbabwean NoViolet Bulawayo, 31, forWe Need New Names, the tale of a girl’s life in an African shanty town and subsequent exile in America.

The others on the list are The Lowland, by US-based writer Jhumpa Lahiri, which follows two Calcutta-born brothers, and the Canadian writer Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, a novel that links the lives of a lonely Canadian woman and a Japanese teenager.

The early favourites to win, however, are the two men on the list: veteran English writer Jim Crace for his 11th book, Harvest, a bleak story of dispossessed peasants in an unnamed feudal village; and Colm Tóibín for The Testament of Mary, a retelling of Jesus’s life from his mother’s point of view – at 101 pages by some distance the shortest book chosen. Colm Tóibín has been shortlisted twice before (in 1999 and 2004) and Jim Crace once, in 1997.

The five-strong judging panel read 152 novels submitted by publishers, and whittled the contenders down to six from a longlist of 13 books announced in July.

Chairman of the judges, the writer and academic Robert Macfarlane, said this year’s panel was “drawn to those novels that extend the power and possibility of the form”. Each of the six shortlisted titles, he said, was chosen for displaying “style, verve, experimentation”.

The linking theme in this group of books, Mr Macfarlane said, “is connection – ways of connecting, and inevitably also about connection’s dark reverse. These novels are all about the strange ways people are drawn together, and the...ways they are torn apart.”

Winning the Man Booker award guarantees a sales boost: the 2012 prize went to Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies, the second in a projected trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell and the court of King Henry VIII. The first book in the series, Wolf Hall, won the 2009 Man Booker prize, and the two titles have sold a combined 1.5m copies.

There’s no obvious similar blockbuster title on the 2013 shortlist, nor are there any books from very small publishing houses. In 2012, three of the final six came from very small imprints, which saw sales rocket after Man Booker recognition.

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