Booker Prize 2008

Sebastian Barry: The Secret Scripture

I chose Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture as my first read of the Man Booker Prize 2008 longlist simply because I had it already. I had bought it a couple of months earlier, attracted by the beautiful writing of the opening pages. I started reading it a few weeks later, but became distracted somewhere along the way, and put it aside. Who knows how much longer it might have languished on my shelves if it hadn’t been brought to the surface by Portillo and co.?

This then was the third time I had read the opening couple of pages, and the surprise was that what had impressed me first time around, I now found somewhat troubling. It seemed more like ‘beautiful writing’ than beautiful writing.

That place where I was born was a cold town. Even the mountains stood away. They were not sure, no more than me, of that dark spot, those same mountains.

There was a black river that flowed through the town, and if it had no grace for mortal beings, it did for swans, and many swans resorted there, and even rode the river like some kind of plunging animals, in floods.

(I wonder if the Booker Prize judges will feel the same effect, as they’ll be reading it three times if they shortlist the book.) However this seems a bit uncharitable, as it’s undeniable that what Barry has done here is give his narrator a brilliantly distinctive voice: it sometimes comes out like the voice of a novelist rather than an elderly woman – and even, on occasion, like Yoda (“But small and narrow are all human things maybe”) – but that’s something I can live with. There are baroque images some of which don’t work (“a foaming of flames”) and some of which, surprisingly, do (“His face has a veil of dark blue veins in it, like a soldier’s face that has been too near a cannon mouth when it exploded”).  The voice is both fanciful and careful, but the balancing act sometimes loses its footing, and an otherwise sensitive and moving scene –

‘What is your name?’ he said.

‘I don’t know,’ I said, in a sudden panic. I have known him for decades. Why was he asking me this question?

‘You don’t know your own name?’

‘I know it. I forget it.’

‘Why do you sound frightened?’

‘I don’t know.’

– is tipped over the edge into sentimentality by an excess of detail (“I started to cry, not like a child, but like the old, old woman I am, slow, slight tears that no one sees, no one dries”).

The elderly woman is Roseanne McNulty, sister in law of the eponymous Eneas McNulty from Barry’s 1998 debut novel. She has lived in an old lunatic asylum in County Sligo on “the devious roads of Ireland” for, well, for longer than she or anyone else can remember. (“They called the asylum in Sligo the Leitrim Hotel.” “Did they? I never knew that. Why so? Oh, because – yes.” “Half of Leitrim was said to be in it.”) She is in the care of Dr Grene, who wants to find out the circumstances of her arrival at the asylum and to arrange for her transfer – to where? – when the asylum closes down. The narrative alternates between Dr Grene’s diary – an account of “the last days perhaps of this unimportant, lost, essential place” – and Roseanne’s story:

I write out my life on unwanted paper – surplus to requirements. I start with a clean sheet – with my many clean sheets. For dearly I would love now to leave an account, some kind of brittle and honest-minded history of myself, and if God gives me the strength, I will tell this story, and imprison it under the floor-board, and then with joy enough I will go to my own rest under the Roscommon sod.

Barry plays with the reader: we know Roseanne is a resident of a lunatic asylum, so we might treat her account with some scepticism, particularly where it conflicts with what Dr Grene has learned. “And aren’t all our histories tangled and almost foreign to ourselves, I mean, to our imaginations?” There are surprises to be unveiled, and here there is contrast with Andrew Sean Greer’s The Story of a Marriage; Barry’s revelations are natural because they are discovered (or recovered) by the narrators as the story proceeds, and not withheld for authorial effect. However there is one major ‘twist’ which is so garish and blatant that it threatens to destabilize Barry’s carefully assembled structure. It’s not even a twist as such, since all the reader needs to do is think of the most obvious soap opera plot development, and there it is.

Making Roseanne “not only the oldest person in this place, but in Roscommon itself, perhaps even Ireland” enables Barry to cover most of the upheavals of 20th century Irish history refracted through her memory. These include not just the expected conflicts – which are a strong part of the narrative – but social repression, the limits imposed on women, and other factors which lead to Roseanne’s tragedy of waste. Images criss-cross the narratives past and present, particularly institutions where the disadvantaged are kept – the poor, the mad, the orphaned – which remind the reader of the dual meaning of asylum. There are some beautifully judged scenes showing the hierarchy of society in Ireland at the time.

Now the priest went a third time at the cigarette and found he already had quite an ash to deal with and in that silent dumbshow of smokers looked about for an ashtray, an item that did not exist in our house, even for visitors. My father astonished me by putting out his hand to the priest, admittedly a hard hand coarsened by digging, and Fr Gaunt astonished me by immediately flicking the ash into the offered hand, which perhaps flinched tinily for a moment when the heat hit it. My father, left with the ash, looked about almost foolishly, as if there might have been an ashtray put in the room after all, without his knowledge, and then, with horrible solemnity, pocketed it.

And so the reader went a third time at the book and found that it was worth its Booker longlisting after all.

Steve Toltz: A Fraction of the Whole

Steve Toltz’s debut novel A Fraction of the Whole is one of those books which almost defies critical comment – but I’ve never let that stop me before – by flattening everything in its path with (a) its 700-page length, and (b) its relentless charm offensive which you’ll find either irritating or winning. I found it a bit of both, which I suppose makes me the perfect balanced sample.

A Fraction of the Whole

Martin Amis observed (I’m paraphrasing as I can’t find the quote; suggestions below) that there are two kinds of long books: books that need to be long, and short books which go on for a very long time. Moby-Dick needs to be long. Ditto Heller’s Something Happened. Then there are long books by the likes of John Irving, or Tom Wolfe – large-print, loud-mouth entertainers (I say that as someone who has enjoyed both), whose books nonetheless acquire a certain force by sheer massing of detail and character. A Fraction of the Whole is the second kind of book, an unashamedly and unembarrassed big, rollercoaster, rollicking – it says here – read.

“This was either rubbish or it was brilliant,” the narrator says at one point, “and I couldn’t decide which.” We are in Australia. The narrator is Jasper Dean, but the main character is his father Martin. He is a man who has struggled all his life to make a mark on the world, usually by foul means rather than fair. Toltz uses him as a mouthpiece for observations about the spirit of the age:

You can’t know what a hero is, Jasper. You’ve grown up in a time when that word has been debased, stripped of all meaning. We’re fast becoming the first nation whose populace consists solely of heroes who do nothing but celebrate each other. … And now everyone returning from armed conflict is called a hero too. In the old days you had to commit specific acts of valour during war; now you just need to turn up. These days when a war is on, heroism seems to mean ‘attendance’.

Martin associates with hardened criminal Harry West (“I chose a life apart from the common flow, not only because the common flow makes me sick but because I question the logic of the flow, and not only that – I don’t even know if the flow exists!”), who inspires him and his brother Terry to form a “democratic co-operative of crime” and to publish his handbook of crime.

Toltz is capable of fine phrasemaking (an unwelcome smile is “like a window painted shut”) and the book is at its most amusing when Toltz, in the guise of Martin or his much-loved brother Terry or Harry West or one of the dozens of other ‘colourful’ characters, goes off on a little riff on some subject.

Honestly, I’ve never known how people do married life. I mean, when I go from the bedroom to the bathroom, the last thing I want to do is stop to have a chat.

The problem is that the jokes, although funny, too often seem to come directly from the author rather than through the characters. Similarly some sections, such as the extracts from the handbook of crime, look as though they have been lying on Toltz’s desktop for some time and were thrown into the mix because bigger is better, because why the hell not?

It’s futile to criticise a book for lacking what it doesn’t aim for, and doubtless it was Toltz’s intention that A Fraction of the Whole should be the epic, vibrant romp that it is. Nonetheless, certain themes recur so often – parents and children, fame and notoriety, how to live and the rebellion against conformity – that there must be some intention to treat them seriously. The difficulty is that because so much of the book is a vigorous splash, and depends to a large extent on its high internal pace, that anything more nuanced tends to be skimmed over in the reading. Similarly, he cannot have his cake and eat it by trying to have characters that are both cartoons and empathetic people (two of them, after all, are mass murderers). Still, they’re more plausible than the females, most of whom – Astrid, Caroline, Anouk, the ‘Towering Inferno’ – are simple sexual fantasies of lithe bodies and carnal willingness.

The length of the book is its strength and weakness. On the one hand, one can’t help but admire the skill needed to sustain a succession of stories at such length, but then again it’s easy to wonder whether it would have been just as much an achievement at 600 pages, or even a piffling 500. I must admit that, with about 200 pages still to go, a Murdoch-style media mogul was introduced to force a conclusion to the plot even more unlikely than everything that had gone before, I sighed a little. Perhaps Forster was right, when he said that we tend to overpraise long books, simply because we have got through them.

On the back cover, A Fraction of the Whole is compared with A Confederacy of Dunces. I’d go along with that: like Confederacy, it’s – to me – enjoyable, unlikely to withstand rereading, and probably best appreciated by readers younger and less jaded than I. Toltz probably foresees such faint praise: the following reflection by Jasper seems decidedly pointed, and comes right in the middle of the book.

‘Mass entertainment is the death of civilisation,’ those highbrows spat, but I say, if a man giggles at something puerile and his body glows from the joy, does it matter that it was caused not by some profound artwork but by a rerun of Bewitched? Honestly, who cares? That man just had a wonderful inner moment, and what’s more, he got it cheap. Good for him, you ponderous fuck!

Joseph O’Neill: Netherland

Here it comes, this year’s Great American Novel*, a shoo-in for everything from the Pulitzer to a place on Oprah’s couch, garlanded with praise in the UK alone from critics comparing it to Banville, Bellow, Fitzgerald and Updike. Even James Wood in The New Yorker loved it. And here I am, having disliked most of the last handful of books I’ve read, keen for something to love, just waiting to be seduced; frankly a pushover.

Netherland

You’ll have predicted, from the breathlessness above, that I didn’t love it as much as they did; indeed I’m not sure I loved it at all. It was nonetheless worthwhile: I got to wonder how different my experience of reading it was, forearmed by all the orgiastic praise in the press, than it would have been if I’d picked it up at random. Just as we inevitably – consciously or not – give a book more consideration when we know it’s an established classic, I think I must do the same when I’m assured it’s a future classic. Certainly it’s conceivable that, without any knowledge of other opinions, I could have given up on Netherland early on. And that, just to muddy the waters of opinion one last time in this paragraph, would have been my loss.

The cover shows ice skating – a shrewd move, because the recreational sport that the book really revolves around is cricket, and a cover image of that would have limited sales dramatically, irrespective of reviews. Yet it is cricket, or rather the idea of cricket played by immigrants in New York, which is the great idea that gives the book steel down its spine. This works obviously as a metaphor both for the multicultural absorption of melting-pot America and the essence of fair play (“I cannot be the first to wonder if what we see, when we see men in white take to a cricket field, is men imagining an environment of justice”), but also adds a memorable, almost surreal note, and – crucially – brings to mind the sporting elements of other would-be Great American Novels (Rabbit‘s basketball, Underworld‘s baseball, American Pastoral‘s athletics). Netherland also consciously evokes another American classic, with a passage (which I didn’t mark in my copy and now, of course, can’t locate) that parallels Jay Gatsby gazing out at the green light of Daisy’s dock (and there’s mention of a boat on the last page too).

O’Neill’s Gatsby is Chuck Ramkissoon, who at the start of the novel is found dead in a canal. Our Nick Carraway, filling us in as to how he might have got there, is Dutch immigrant (via London) Hans van den Broek. He tells us:

Chuck valued craftiness and indirection. He found the ordinary run of dealings between people boring and insufficiently advantageous to him at the deep level of strategy at which he liked to operate. He believed in owning the impetus of a situation, in keeping the other guy off balance, in proceeding by way of sidesteps. … The truth is that there was nothing, or very little, I could have done to produce a different ending for Chuck Ramkissoon.

Chuck is the founder of the cricket league which Hans joins, and which yokes together the newcomers to New York, as well as the elements of the novel. Otherwise, Hans spends a good deal of time, narratively speaking, away from Chuck, which is to the book’s detriment. His present day concern is the reassembly of his fractured marriage, after his wife left him to return to London with their child. Her move was in part inspired by a sense of fear after the World Trade Center attacks, though unlike other readers, I’m unconvinced that this makes Netherland a “post 9/11” novel: except in the sense that it was published in 2008, which is admittedly post 9/11. A more plausible link might be in a growing sense of fear of difference which could have led Chuck to fall foul of others, though Hans seems clear enough that he was significantly the author of his own misfortune.

The centripetal influence of Chuck as a character is welcome in a book which otherwise seems to dart about too much, and leave traces in too many places to cohere in the way that is achieved by so many of the books it’s been compared to. I also found evidence of effort on too many pages: for every just-so phrase (“ambulances sped eastward on West 23rd Street with a sobbing escort of police motorcycles”) there’s a tortured image (“a murky tank in which cheap fish hesitated in weeds and an artificial starfish made a firmament of the gravel”), a case of arrestable whimsy (“Taspinar explained that he had dressed as an angel for two years now”), or plain clunkiness (“I’d assumed that some unilateral failing of mine had been at the bottom of our downfall; now it seemed that some malfunction of Rachel’s might also have been operative” – yes, he really did say might also have been operative).

There are other fine things worth mentioning, such as the book’s acute sense of the importance of place in personal memory and the prism of sentimentality through which it’s often viewed, as when Hans reflects on New York once he’s back in London (he’d been warned before going to New York that he would always miss it if he left):

[In London], unchanged is the general down-the-hatch, who-are-we-fooling light-heartedness that’s aimed at shrinking the significance of our attainments and our doom, and contributes, I’ve speculated, to the bizarrely premature crystallization of lives here, where men and women past the age of forty, in some cases even the age of thirty, may easily be regarded as over the hill and entitled to an essentially retrospective idea of themselves; whereas in New York selfhood’s hill always seemed to lie ahead and to promise a glimpse of further, higher peaks: that you might have no climbing boots to hand was beside the point.

No doubt the book has many other qualities, spotted by the critics, which passed me by. In short, my difficulty with Netherland was that, while the central character of Chuck lit up every page he appeared on, and the bold central image of cricket in New York is a winner that will hold it widely in memory, the book as a whole just never took off for me; enjoyment is a chemical reaction between reader and book which either happens or doesn’t, and no amount of critical appraisal can gainsay that.

* contractual terms require the use of this phrase in all reviews of Netherland.