Consistently the most compelling prize in literature – the award that sets the book world buzzing for three months each year between the announcement of the longlist in July and the winner in October – The Man Booker Prize is, it’s safe to say, all about stories. There are the stories it judges year after year, and the narratives the competition itself throws up. One could summarise the entire 1980s as: Wot? No Martin Amis? Again? Two years ago, after novelists from the United States were permitted to enter, it was: “The Americans are coming. (Remind me again: why are the Americans coming?)”
This year’s central theme is probably (to misquote an old Radiohead song title): “Big Authors – Don’t Have Any.” Fiona Wilson caught the mood, writing in The Times newspaper: “This year’s Man Booker longlist gives you that distinct feeling of opening an exam paper and realising that barely anything you have revised has come up.”
If you are familiar with any of the six shortlisted survivors from an initial 155 then you are A ) A genuine fan; B ) Very well-read; or C) A relation. They are:
Paul Beatty, US, The Sellout, Oneworld
Deborah Levy, UK, Hot Milk, Hamish Hamilton
Ottessa Moshfegh, US, Eileen, Jonathan Cape
Graeme Macrae Burnet, UK, His Bloody Project, Contraband
David Szalay, Canada-UK, All That Man Is, Jonathan Cape
Madeleine Thien, Canada, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Granta Books
This year’s judges (led by historian Professor Amanda Foreman) were especially clinical when it came to dispatching big-name authors with initials: two-time winner J.M. Coetzee’s frankly baffling The Schooldays of Jesus fell at the longlist, as did A.L. Kennedy’s Serious Sweet. My personal favourite (and early bookies’ tip) The North Water, by Ian McGuire, also sank without a trace, a shame as this version of Moby-Dick minced through Trainspotting was profane, fun and deeply intelligent.
The other writers distinguishing themselves from the 13 longlisted authors tended to have intriguing biographies as well as good novels. Wyl Menmuir leaped off the page by virtue of having composed The Many in a campervan, in part so he could write near the sea. Journalists were blown away by the fact Menmuir used the Write Track app to measure his progress against his stated plan of writing 500 words a day, and enlist a virtual community of scribblers to support his efforts.
With the winner of the £50,000 (HK$472,000) prize to be announced on Tuesday night at a glittering ceremony in London, only six writers remain. It is a nicely balanced shortlist divided 50:50 along gender lines, and with two from the United States, 2.5 from Britain and 1.5 from Canada. Art is not, as artists tend to remind us, a competition. You certainly don’t have to win the Man Booker to become a literary star, as the “failures” of David Mitchell, Amitav Ghosh, Angela Carter and indeed Amis attest only too well. Then again, the sharp rise in status and sales afforded the winner suggests that triumph brings unmistakable rewards. Who will be the beneficiary this year?
Paul Beatty US
The Sellout, Oneworld
Odds: 6-1, Ladbrokes
The Sellout is the fourth work by 54-year-old American Paul Beatty. It is also that rarest of books – not just a brilliant novel about race in America, but a brilliant comic novel about race in America. Having endured a childhood dressed up as a science experiment, Beatty’s narrator (whose name we approximate as “Bonbon” Me) becomes a farmer and lands in strangely flavoured hot water. No less an authority than the United States Supreme Court accuses him of reintroducing segregation in his hometown, and reducing one man, Hominy Jenkins, to the state of slave. Beatty’s tart, smart joke is that Bonbon is black.
His comic method leaves few pieties unturned, liberal, conservative or otherwise. There are jokes about police brutality, America’s institutional racism, self-hatred, white hatred, lynching, suicide and even fruit cultivation. It is noticeable that his no-holds-barred approach has earned Beatty more comparisons with stand-up comedians such as Richard Pryor and Chris Rock than his literary peers. The New York Times went as far as calling the opening 100 pages “badass”.
After Ferguson, #blacklivesmatter and Donald Trump, The Sellout feels of its moment and gloriously subversive of it. Rolling Stone noted: “… with The Sellout, [Beatty’s] first novel in seven years, he’s given us the mother lode … a cold-fish love story, battles with the thought police, ‘the Mexican problem’.” After riffing on the idea of “black comedy”, Simon Schama, writing in the Financial Times, argues that: “Beatty plays for very high stakes – but he wins. His brilliant, beautiful and weirdly poignant book knocks the stuffing out of right-thinking solemnities and he delivers droll wisdoms besides which the most elevated rants (if you’ll forgive the expression) pale into ponderous sententiousness.”
“I think everything is comical at some level,” Beatty himself has said, before admitting, “I have a bad habit of saying, ‘Oh, that’s so funny,’ and I mean that it’s funny, but people aren’t necessarily on my page about why or how.”
My initial suspicion is The Sellout is too provocative, too American and simply too wild and funny to win the Man Booker. Howard Jacobson should have won for the similarly discomforting humour fest Kalooki Nights (2006), only to triumph with the nicer, milder The Finkler Question (2010). Whatever the outcome, Beatty deserves to be a global star.
Deborah Levy UK
Hot Milk, Hamish Hamilton
Odds: 3-1, Ladbrokes
Deborah Levy is the only novelist on the 2016 shortlist with Man Booker form. Her Swimming Home, shortlisted in 2012, was published by a small start-up called And Other Stories after the novel was rejected by every major British publishing house for being “too literary”.
Proving the power of the Man Booker, Hot Milk has been published by one of those hopefully repentant major houses (Hamish Hamilton) and is for some critics something of a comeback. The Daily Telegraph trumpeted that it “confirms the resurgence of its singular author”.
Like Swimming Home, Hot Milk is claustrophobic, intense, unmistakably European (a Spanish-Greek fusion) and full of strange sentences: “[My mother] will wake up and shout, ‘Get me water, Sofia,’ and I will get her water and it will always be the wrong sort of water. I am not sure what water means any more but I will get her water as I understand it …”
Set largely in a bleached Andalusia, Hot Milk narrates a mother-daughter relationship. Sofia is a PhD student going nowhere slowly, when her mother, Rose, remortgages her house to fund a trip to Spain. Her destination is the deeply spurious Gomez clinic, where she hopes to find a cure for the illness that has confined her to a wheelchair.
Hot Milk is full of broken things – a vase, a laptop. The narrative, too, is smashed into shards, to such an extent that the reader and the characters can’t always be certain what is happening. Is the figure Sofia’s attracted to on the beach a man or a woman? Who is the voyeur-stalker spying on her with increasing menace?
Reviewers seem to have been curiously haunted by the novel. Erica Wagner writes in The Guardian: “Like a medusa, this novel has a transfixing gaze and a terrible sting that burns long after the final page is turned.” The Telegraph praised Hot Milk for “bizarre images [which] imprint themselves long after the end of this feverish coming-of-age novel”.
Will it have the same impact on the judges? Levy certainly has had some of the shortest odds of the shortlisted six, though this probably owes as much to Swimming Home as the bookmakers’ literary instincts. On the plus side, Levy’s Anglo-European friction might resonate with a post-Brexit judging panel, as will her happy knack for making the smallest incident resound with broader significance. After the grand narratives of Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, it may be time for a more internal, introspective Man Booker. Memorable as Hot Milk is, I am not 100 per cent convinced such an enigmatic work will win, but Levy will be there or thereabouts.
Graeme Macrae Burnet UK
His Bloody Project, Contraband
Odds: 4-1, Ladbrokes
One fun Man Booker parlour game of recent years has been “Spot the high-brow genre novel”. Last year, Anna Smaill’s young-adult crossover The Chimesdidn’t make it past the longlist, just like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Timefailed to in 2003. The same fate awaited Tom Rob Smith’s 2008 historical crime novel, Child 44. A.D. Miller’s thriller Snowdrops made it to the shortlist in 2011, although it was eventually beaten by Julian Barnes’ relatively woeful The Sense of an Ending.
This year’s populist contender is Scottish novelist Graeme Macrae Burnet. Published by the agreeably independent Scottish Contraband, His Bloody Project views the story of an apparent multiple murderer, Roderick Macrae, through a veritable kaleidoscope of “found” documents. Burnet’s second novel proves, according to critic Barry Forshaw, “that the undeniable pleasures of the crime novel can be combined with real literary value and an experimental narrative structure”.
If the title nods to The Blair Witch Project, which also employed “found” footage to create an eerie sense of realism, the hero smacks strongly of his creator. Indeed, the novel starts with Burnet discovering “documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae” while researching his family tree. The case amounts to three murders committed by his ancestor, including that of nasty neighbour and cop Lachlan Mackenzie. But, as some of the text suggests, is there more to the story than meets the eye?
Burnet’s winding narrative has earned comparisons to Franz Kafka, Flann O’Brien and, a little egregiously perhaps, James Joyce. A more appropriate forebear might be James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), at once gothic, unsettling and addictive.
While the bookies seem to be hedging their bets this year, Burnet has had slightly shorter odds than most. Have the bookmakers been seduced by the sheer joy of decoding this narrative twister, or do they sense something is afoot? His Bloody Project ticks a number of attractive boxes: small press, crime fiction, entertainment and historical novel, no small matter given that the chair of the judges, Amanda Foreman, is a historian. I wonder if 2016’s final story will be: “Crime Novel wins Man Booker”. Place your bets.
Ottessa Moshfegh US
Eileen, Jonathan Cape
Odds: 8-1, Ladbrokes
Ottessa Moshfegh might be the best name on 2016’s shortlist, but it is arguably also the least recognisable. With just one previous, well-received novella, McGlue (2014), under her belt along with several short stories, she has until recently been content to write books that were, as The Guardian put it, “literary and experimental”.
With Eileen, Moshfegh decided to mainline some mainstream vitamins into her hitherto left-field system. Like His Bloody Project, Eileen has something in common with the bestseller lists, being described by some critics as a “psychological thriller”. Given that other reviewers have drawn comparisons with Sylvia Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar (1963), “pyschiatrical thriller” might be more accurate. It turns out that any resemblance to the blockbuster is quite intentional. Talking to The Guardian, Moshfegh declared her intention to “write a novel to start a career where I could live off publishing books. That was my prime motivation for writing Eileen. I thought, fine: I’ll play this game. And I still feel like I’m playing it”. It has worked, and then some. The film rights have been bought by Hollywood mogul Scott Rudin and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson has been tapped to adapt it.
Eileen sets out its gothic credentials from the very beginning, when the titular heroine announces, disconcertingly, “This is the story of how I disappeared.”
That story, which begins decades before, in 1960s Massachusetts, involves a prison, a nasty case of stalking, a mysterious woman, an alcoholic father and a gun. Everything else begins and ends with Eileen, whose calm exterior hides an unstable inner life: obsessive fantasies about a colleague, more father issues than Jesus and an attraction towards violence. Indeed, what makes the prose so unnerving is the disjunction between Eileen’s cool tones and the dark matter she narrates.
Could Eileen win over Man Booker judges as easily as Hollywood moguls? Moshfegh certainly has a way with fetid atmosphere, offbeat characters and off-hand shocks, not least the final, final reveal. But as with Levy’s Hot Milk, my instinct says that, despite the curious hold the novel exerts on the imagination, it is too weird to carry off a majority of the panel. Triumphant Man Bookers tend to be the result of hard-won critical compromise rather than the victory of one or two judges’ intense passion. The bookies seem to agree, making Moshfegh the outside bet. Nevertheless, she will have strong adherents and will win a fanatical following. I am a convert. Come on, Eileen.
David Szalay Canada-UK
All That Man Is, Jonathan Cape
Odds: 6-1, Ladbrokes
It is often said that in the film world, the Golden Globes are a predictor of subsequent Oscar glory. What, then, might David Szalay’s recent Gordon Burn Prize win suggest about possible Man Booker glory? William Boyd, one of this year’s judges for the Gordon Burn Prize (which also shortlisted Moshfegh’s Eileen), raved that All That Man Is “subtly changes the way you look at the contemporary world […] it is darkly funny, marvellously observant and written with a confidence and limpidity that make it a really remarkable novel”.
But does All That Man Is qualify, strictly speaking, as a novel? Its nine stories are subtly interlinked – see David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004) and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) – only here the links are so subtle that some critics seem to have missed them.
Novelist Edward Docx states, “This book is not a novel but a collection of short stories.” Christopher Tayler, writing in the Financial Times, argues that “the book resembles a novel mostly in not having the kind of page-by-page density associated with short stories. “But,” Tayler continues thinly, “it’s part of Szalay’s appeal that he’s more interested in getting at the texture of experience than he is in stuffing it into elegant packaging.”
In one sense this nit-picking does a disservice to a fine work of fiction, short, long or in between. Critics have raved about this exploration of masculine crises, set across Europe and addressing topical issues. A muck-raking journalist confronts a Danish minister, on holiday in Spain, with evidence of an affair. An Oxford academic, born in Belgium, goes on a road trip with his Polish girlfriend. A Russian oligarch has curry with his bodyguard.
I normally find such hair-splitting nonsensical on a par with, “Is Bob Dylan a poet?” In the specific context of the Man Booker, however, Szalay’s inclusion does raise potential problems. This competition excludes story collections. If, and I repeat, if, one denies All That Man Is a novel’s status, where does that leave short-fiction greats denied a crack at one of literature’s great prizes? Alice Munro, Lydia Davis and William Trevor, to name but three, have all produced works of short fiction every bit as brilliant and satisfying as any novel.
The quality of Szalay’s writing is impressive, and the bookies clearly are keeping as close an eye on him as the critics did. But if All That Man Is does win, I wonder if anyone might challenge the victory. Or perhaps it is simply high time for a rule change. Let short stories in. That way we could have our Szalay and read him, too.
Madeleine Thien Canada
Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Granta Books
Odds: 2-1, Ladbrokes
Madeleine Thien is probably the most familiar shortlisted writer to Hong Kong readers. She taught creative writing at City University from 2010 to 2015. When the programme was closed last year, Thien was one of 25 well-known authors who signed a petition to the university arguing that it was a deliberate attempt to curtail freedom of speech: specific reference was made to essays supporting the Occupy Central movement. “I hesitate to use the incendiary words of censorship, freedom of speech and intellectual freedom. However, it has become increasingly clear to me, as events have unfolded, that these are precisely the issues,” Thien wrote.
A similar spirit burns through Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which, according to a report by Shirley Zhao in the South China Morning Post, narrates “China’s revolutionary history, including the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown”. Thien draws on many historical events in her scathing portrait of China’s civil war, Cultural Revolution and their combined aftermath: for example, He Luting’s furious defiance when denounced live on state television in 1968. As Isabel Hilton notes in The Guardian, his cri de coeur, “Shame on you for lying”, resounds through the novel. Some of He’s peers at Shanghai’s Conservatory of Music were not so resolute, committing suicide as Mao Zedong’s crackdown intensified. All of this – rebellion, suicide and exile – revolves around our heroine, Li-Ling. Her father killed himself in Hong Kong in 1989. Another relative fled China following the Tiananmen Square crackdown of the same year. Li-Ling herself has moved to Canada.
The novel doubles as her attempt to reconstruct her family’s lost history, devoid of whitewashing. This is no mean feat. As the negatives in that poised title hint, Li-Ling (known significantly as Marie in Canada) has to rewrite decades of erasure, historical manipulation and amnesia to arrive at the truth.
In a five-star review for the Post, Bron Sibree writes that by “examining the turbulent beginnings of a modern Chinese identity, Thien also highlights the cyclical, recurring nature of China’s history and its wanton waste of human life and talent in a way that is heart-rendingly intimate, yet profoundly political”.
Could Thien win? There is no reason why not.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing is ambitious, expansive, brilliantly constructed (various texts offer different versions of the same events), shocking and deeply moving.
If I were a judge, I would vacillate between Thien and Beatty, with Moshfegh as my outsider. But in a year that is simply too close, too unexpected and too unknown to call, I will let loose and imagine the actual judges caught between Thien, Burnet and Szalay. Any of the six really would be a readable, thought-provoking champion. Going all out, I will state that this is the year the Man Booker goes criminal and crowns Graeme Macrae Burnet. Unless, of course, it doesn’t.
All odds correct at the time of going to press.