books, Reading

The Man Booker Prize 2017

This past July, the Man Booker Prize judges panel announced the longlist, a selection of 13 novels, written in English, which are eligible to win the coveted Man Booker Prize. As Baroness Lola Young, chair of the 2017 judges, said: ‘Only when we’d finally selected our 13 novels did we fully realise the huge energy, imagination and variety in them as a group.  The longlist showcases a diverse spectrum — not only of voices and literary styles but of protagonists too, in their culture, age and gender.  Nevertheless we found there was a spirit common to all these novels: though their subject matter might be turbulent, their power and range were life-affirming – a tonic for our times.’

September 19th’s announcement reduced this inspiring list from 13 to 6.


For more on the shortlist, click here.

In less than 24 hours – October 17, 2017 – this year’s winner will be announced. I have absolutely no luck nor gift at the predictions game, so instead I will simply offer here my votes. Having read 10 of the 13 longlistees (5 of 6 shortlistees), I have my eyes on “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders, followed closely by “Exit West” by Moshin Hamid and “Autumn” by Ali Smith. All three of these works are boundary-busting, form-changing, and jaw-dropping. Click on any of the above to see my reviews.

Below is a complete list of the Longlist, with links to my reviews where available.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (US) – Reviewed here
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Ireland) – Have not read
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) – Have not read
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan-UK) – Reviewed here
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Ireland) – Have not read
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (UK) – Reviewed here
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) – Review forthcoming
The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (India) – Reviewed here
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) – Reviewed here

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (UK-Pakistan) – Reviewed here

Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) – Reviewed here
Swing Time by Zadie Smith (UK) – Reviewed here
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (US) – Reviewed here

Final thoughts: With an eye always to the celebration of women’s voices, I was favorably surprised that this year’s long and short lists featured 50% women writers.

From its inception, only Commonwealth, Irish, and South African (and later Zimbabwean) citizens were eligible to receive the prize; in 2014, however, this eligibility was widened to any English-language novel. Three short years after first being deemed eligible, US writers are well represented among the nominees, though their prominence may come at a cost. Where this and, sadly, most prize lists of this caliber continue to underrepresent and to beg for greater inclusion is in nationality and racial diversity. May next year’s list be ever-more inclusive and representative of the wide array of talented writers writing in English today.

books, Reading

“4321” by Paul Auster

“Until that moment, it had never occurred to him that he might not be an American, or, more precisely, that his way of being an American was any less authentic than the way Dougie and the other boys were American, but that was what his friend seemed to be asserting: that there was a difference between them, an elusive, indefinable quality that had to do with black-hatted English ancestors and the length of time spent on this side of the ocean and the money to live in four-story townhouses on the Upper East Side that made some families more American than others, and in the end the difference was so great that the less American families could barely be considered American at all.”

IMG_0867I am fervently, emphatically anti-spoiler; I refuse to share any details about a book that would reduce its impact and dampen the experience of the next reader. I can’t remember a time when this position put me at a greater challenge to summarize a novel than now.

“4321” begins when Isaac Reznikoff flees his Native Minsk in 1900 and, in a classic Ellis Island transformation, is renamed by an immigration official who misunderstands Reznikoff’s Yiddish response to questioning: ‘Ikh hob fargessen’ (I’ve forgotten) becomes the name Ichabod Ferguson. Thus is born the Ferguson tribe and, eventually, the protagonist of this striking epic and Ichabod’s grandson, Archie Ferguson. From this point forward, the novel traces the path of Archie Ferguson down four alternate realities, each reality interwoven with the others like a complicated braid. Thus, the reader is treated to chapter 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, then 2.1, 2.2, and so on. Because the stories diverge so early in the book, a detailed plot summary risks either tangling or spoiling the story.

Suffice it to say that this is/these are a coming of age story(ies) about a Jewish boy in 1960s suburban New Jersey and New York City with ambitions to be a writer. In all four strains, Archie is a thoughtful, lovable character open to the world and its many possibilities. Some of the most moving passages of the book are when Auster describes the formative, visceral nature of reading and writing for Archie.

“[F]or even if Thoreau wasn’t a writer of novels or short stories, he was a writer of sublime clarity and precision, a creator of such beautifully constructed sentences that Ferguson felt their beauty as one feels a bow to the chin or a fever in the brain. Perfect. Every word seemed to fall perfectly in place, and every sentence seemed to be a small work unto itself, an independent unit of breath and thought, and the thrill of reading such prose was never knowing how far Thoreau would leap from one sentence to the next – sometimes it was only a matter of inches, sometimes of several feet or yards, sometimes of whole country miles – and the destabilizing effect of those irregular distances taught Ferguson how to think about his own efforts in a new way, for what Thoreau did was to combine two opposing and mutually exclusive impulses in every paragraph he wrote, what Ferguson began to call the impulse to control and the impulse to take risks. That was the secret, he felt. All control would lead to an airless, suffocating result. All risk would lead to chaos and incomprehensibility. But put the two together, and then maybe you’d be onto something, then maybe the words singing in your head would start to sing on the page and bombs would go off and buildings would collapse and the world would begin to look like a different world.”

The foundation of the story, the bending of time in such an unusual way, was a fascinating hook for me. I always appreciate well-thought-through experimentation with form and chronology, and this experimentation was the noteworthy asset of the book. However, the sheer length of the book – a hefty 865 pages divided into 7 (or 28) chapters – makes this format a bit labyrinthian for the reader. I found I needed to keep an index card divided into four parts so that I could track the main points of each of the four parallel stories, otherwise the 100 page gap between one phase of a particular life and the next, along with some characters and places appearing across multiple lives, had me scratching my head and doing a lot of flipping pages. I do not shy away from a lengthy book, but a book has to command that kind of devotion and commitment. Unfortunately, “4321” just felt too long. Auster was so swept up in his concept that he may have missed numerous opportunities to pare back and simplify. While his language is often concise and never over-wrought, this massive tome is over-written in that too much was written.

The book’s greatest sin, however, and the one which still makes me fume a week after having finished the book, is its ending. After such a plodding, intricate layout and 850 pages of toilsome reading, the book’s last 15 pages are a terrible, trite cop-out. Having brought you along through decades of four parallel stories, Auster bafflingly decides to end the novel by essentially explaining its concept and writing it into the story. With an “Archie will write a story in four parts; thus endeth the book” wave of his writerly wand, Auster abruptly stops writing and flees the scene. I felt misused, duped, and wondered momentarily if the purpose of the book’s sheer mass wasn’t to prevent disgruntled readers from being able to hurl it across the room.

All in all, “4321” gets an A+ for concept, an A- for composition, a B- for editing, and an F for conclusion. Do I recommend others read this book? I honestly don’t know. Perhaps Auster followed too literally the quoted advice of Edgar Allan Poe: Be bold – read much – write much – publish little – keep aloof from the little wits – and fear nothing. But perhaps not.