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The Booker Shortlist

What makes a book prize-worthy? How well it is written, the risks it takes, its heft, verisimilitude, proportion? How can we all possibly concur on one book? Every Booker prize race features frontrunners—and disgruntled readers.

2014 sees three British writers (one of them Indian of origin, one Scottish), an Australian (the sole Commonwealth representative) and two Americans in the first year the race has been opened up to the great continent; geographically, the literary world is well represented. This year, many are stymied by the judges’ choices, however, wondering how Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, that stupendous if imperfect masterpiece of storytelling, was left off; how David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, tipped to succeed off the longlist, didn’t make the final cut for sheer ambition. It’s difficult to keep everyone happy.

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction has, in the past, been awarded to controversial flash wins like Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger or less accessible tomes like Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (last year’s winner); in 1983 judge Fay Weldon prevaricated while breaking a tie between Coetzee (Life and Times of Michael K) and Rushdie (Shame), changing her mind and choosing the former as the latter was about to be declared; In A Free State, arguably one of Naipaul’s oddest books snagged him the mega prize in 1971, not heftier subsequent novels. Countless literary bitchfights have been set off by what is, in the end, a subjective decision—but the Booker has also been awarded to Hollinghurst, Byatt, Gordimer, and other unanimous greats.

Ultimately, a prize confers value and attributes merit, but it is also a means of getting people to read the shortlist, if not the long one. Here are the final six vying for the 46-year-old, £50,000 prize, which will be announced at a ceremony at London’s Guildhall on 14 October—with an opening to sample from each. (This is an extended web summary of our brief roundup—in print, ‘Moveable Feast’, 20 October—of the shortlist.)

Consider this moral conundrum for a moment,
George’s mother says to George who’s sitting in the front passenger seat.
Not says. Said.
George’s mother is dead

The central conundrum is ultimately that of art: “Do things just go away? … Do things that happened not exist, or stop existing, just because we can't see them happening in front of us?" Thus, the conceit of Ali Smith’s How to Be Both (Hamish Hamilton, 384 pages): the contemporary tragedy of a teenage girl who loses her cool, internet vigilante mother early against the ancient tragedy of a 15th century Italian painter whose work compels a 21st century mother and daughter. It might jar, but once it settles, the portrait sort of works. Young Francesco del Cossa is both man and woman, in the present and in the past, recognised genius and unrewarded migrant.

Strangely, his life mirrors—and overlaps with—that of George (slash Georgia), an uncertain young woman who slips the past into the present, constantly punning and a little in love with new best friend Helena. In their mirroring, male and female qualities are nicely blurred, in a subtle commentary on gender boundaries. “Damage has already been done”, George tells her father, when he finds her watching a pornographic film featuring a girl who it seems might have been drugged during its filming (an awkward, slightly forced aspect of the ubiquitous ‘art interventions’ that fill the novel); she adds that she watches it daily to remember the girl. What she went through is as troubling as her father’s brushoff; a comment that the girl must have been paid well. Poisonous injustice is as pervasive now as it was then, Smith is telling us. If, as George’s mother says, “We’re all migrants of our own existence”, it might be difficult to find a time without the presence of the same obstacles, the same recurring conflicts.

Like Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi before it, the tale can annoy with its thwarted narratives and forced chiaroscuro, using the similar format of an overlapping double narrative. If only the teenager’s voice was less tricksy, less cute and arch, the first half might work as well as the second, surprisingly, manages to; the passages on 15th century Renaissance life are thrilling in their immediacy, gorgeous in their vitality. Every time a fresco is examined by Smith, it comes to life again, in all the decisions on colour, representation, form.

The Scottish writer, author of ten works of fiction including The Accidental, shortlisted in 2005, is a favourite to win. She shows us how to be both man and woman; adventurer and traditionalist; fond of the past and keen to relive it in the present.

The mouth is a weird place. Not quite inside and not quite out, not skin and not organ, but something in between: dark, wet, admitting access to an interior most people would rather contemplate—where cancer starts, where the heart is broken, where the soul might just fail to turn up.

The judges couldn’t have picked a more unlikely contender. The very American Joshua Ferris is the prophet of tragicomic American whinging, but his books are rarely Booker level big. In his third novel, To Rise Again At A Decent Hour (Viking, 352 pages), he takes on the titans of religion and identity as a depressive Park Avenue dentist looking for something to replace a God-shaped hole in his life, in the land of options.

Paul O Rourke is enamoured of the Boston Red Sox and large religious families and longs to belong, repeatedly ‘cunt gripped’ by a woman to whom he surrenders his sense of self, dying to make her classic Catholic dad or devout Jewish uncle his own. This despite the fact that the atheist sees a church as ‘a dead end, the dark bus station of the soul’. One day, someone poses as him on the Internet, stealing his identity and leading him to the (dis)believers who will have him: the Ulm, an ancient faction of atheists even more marginalised and put upon than the Jews, forced by repeated genocide into silence. His alleged forbears were last documented as purveyors of saline in Upper Sulesia, the founders of ‘Seir’, the Ulms’ Zion-style homeland tell Paul; part of a steady stream of propaganda that also targets a millionaire who is a fellow Ulm. Can Paul survive without our most religious vice; his ‘me machine’ (smart phone)? He does manage to disconnect his wifi but doesn’t make it past a day. ‘The blessings of doubt have not excused us from the burdens of faith’, his doppelganger tells him, and he could be speaking about internet addiction as much as religious faith. Serious parody indeed.

While the puns are thick and heavy and swung at the expense of middle class America, the sorrow at its core is real. ‘Without monstrous distortions, I was slowly learning, without lies and hypocrisy, one cannot have the idealized American life I so longed for,’ says Paul, who grew up revering the chintzy charm of Pottery Barn and the swag on offer at TGIF, when his family could afford to eat there. His father blew his head out in the bathtub one day, and he has been unable to sleep properly since then, waking up in the early hours, unmoored. And Connie, his employee, girlfriend and apparent single chance at achieving true meaning, seems to slip further away from his grasp at each new revelation of his rancour – so much so that it may be too late when he finally finds a kind of redemption.

Ferris is obnoxiously exacting as he excavates American complacency, as sourly lucid as his dentist protagonist as he looks in the mouth of America and finds the cancers he always knew he would find: ‘We are consuming ourselves alive as our physical grotesqueries grow in direct proportion to our federal deficits and discount gun shops. Throughout the land there is nothing to do but eat and drink and shoot, and if you’re restricted by city ordinance to eating and drinking, you might as well turn on the game.’

It might make you laugh (and cry, a little), but ultimately, the book is not much more than the sum of some of its parts, in Ferris speak, with a non-ending that deflates a storyline that begins to slump towards the end. At the same time, here’s a writer who can render a bobby pin beautiful; ‘How inimitable the bobby pin is! The coppery crimp on the one prong and the other prong straight, the two dollops of hard amber at the endpoints.’ Long live ironic America.

Mornings weren’t good for either of them. ‘Here we go again,’ Ailinn Solomns said to herself.

The futuristic world of Howard Jacobson’s J (Jonathan Cape, 336 pages) is a post-post-lapsarian society, wherein Ailinn Solomons and her new boyfriend, Kevern Cohen, have met, they think, in an orchestrated manner, after WHAT HAPPENED IF IT HAPPENED. The bit in all caps is the mysterious catastrophe—or ‘pissastrophe, as Kevern’s father called it – which society in Port Reuben doesn’t seem to have recovered from, erupting in violence regularly. There is a sci-fi charm to the utility phone which changes from yellow to vermillion when it rings, the strange habit Kevern has had of covering his mouth every time he utters the letter ‘j’; something his father taught him. The routine Kevern goes through to ensure no one has broken into his house—rumpling a Chinese runner so he can tell if someone has been on it, peeping through his keyhole and expecting devastation each time —also helps sustain a suspense about this odd and restless country.

Is this a kind of Utopia? It is a blank slate of sorts: ‘No one had entered the country from anywhere else for a long time. Every person’s country of origin—regardless of whether they were a Margolis or a Gutkind—was this one. Wasn’t that what made now so much better than then?’ A cab driver, when he is asked where he is from originally, asks how any of them should go back.

Jacobson, with 20 books to his credit (12 of them novels), is at his best in comic scenes, which don’t quite come off in this sombre account; it seems to be trying to address a more formidable realm of play than it can manage. As a result, even the funny bits are thwarted; the scene where Ailinn tells Kevern he is so considerate when he is making his ‘tourist visa’ visit to her lady parts falls flat, as does the opening scene when he goes on about her large feet. J purports to be as cool as John Berger’s Z, that other book with the single letter title, but doesn’t quite succeed. The Finkler Question, his Booker win, was far more well-rounded, but perhaps this one, particularly, is a question of taste. His loyal fans are rooting, of course.

Why at the beginning of things is there always light? Dorrigo Evans’ earliest memories were of sun flooding a church hall in which he sat with his mother and grandmother. A wooden church hall. Blinding light and him toddling back and forth, in and out of its transcendent welcome, into teh warms of women. Women who loved him. Like entering the sea and returning to the beach. Over and ver.

The quietest contender in this race is Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Chatto & Windus, 480 pages), about an Australian surgeon, Dorrigo Evans, struggling to survive a Japanese POW camp on the infamous Burma Death Railway, in 1943. ‘Inexplicably to him, he had in recent years become a war hero, a famous and celebrated surgeon, the public image of a time and a tragedy’, we hear when at 77, Dorrigo looks back beyond the accolades. It is not just the extremes of starvation, cholera and violence that he remembers; it is also an illicit love affair with his uncle’s young wife, Amy. He cannot match his passion for her in his feelings for his fiancée Ella, and this is the source of many mishandled, slightly torrid romantic passages, wherein a woman is always stroking Dorrigo’s thigh, withered or lean.

It is the details of the battle that triumph, however, as Dorrigo adventures through the jungle, in intense, often lyrical prose, facing off colonel after colonel. The bio tells us Flanagan’s father, one of the 60,000 Allied prisoners of war, died the day his son finished the book; a survivor of the Burma Death Railway, his legacy is bound within its pages. Flanagan has written five novels and hailed as one of Australia’s leading novelists, but this is the first many of us are hearing of him—what a way to come out. The relative unknown has drawn big praise from critics.

A third of the way through the half-mile walk from the landlord’s house to his hut, Nitai Das’ feet begin to sway. Or maybe it is the head-spin again. He sits down on the lifeless field he has to cross before he can reach his hut. There isn’t a thread of shade anywhere.

A big divider of opinion this year has been Neel Mukherjee, whose Family Matters (Random House, 528 pages) is a venerable Calcutta novel in the full sense of the tradition. The Ghosh family is detailed as its fortunes wax and (mostly) wane through the 20th century, the narrative moving from the patriarch Prafullanath, whose business in the paper industry is fighting for expansion, to his four sons, unmarried daughter and many grandchildren.

Long-winding and dull at times, like an afternoon in Calcutta, the novel shines in typically decadent Bengali characters like eldest son Adinath, ‘sitting on a tired cushion— battered and leaking dirty greyish cotton—on his favourite planter’s long-sleever in the seldom-used drawing room on the ground floor’, Wills Filter in hand as he ‘nervously contemplates the edgy story that the slim sheaf of papers left at a careless angle on the cane-and-glass coffee table is trying to tell him’. The family’s mills in Memari and Bali which form its ‘financial muscle’, the Naxalite movement, the bombing orchestrated by the Japanese: all of this, together with the requisite Durga Pujas and Sonagacchi mentions forms a background score to the joint family’s tragedy. For, as damaging as the ravages of history is a lack of understanding within the family, an absence of empathy. Therein lies the narrative pull of the book, though its individual characters are far more effective in engaging the reader.

This may not be the stuff of landmark fiction, but, in Dickensian tradition, it tells a story that people want to hear. Our reviewer (‘Family Matters’, 23 May, 2014) warned of the perils of checklist fiction, saying the British Indian’s third novel is one for outsiders. This may well be proven in the final verdict.

Those who know me now will be surprised to learn that I was a great talker as a child.

Karen Joy Fowler is the big suprise this year, in her uncannily profound We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves (Profile Books, 336 pages). The narrator Rosemary’s lovely, tart voice and the novel’s great big heart set it apart, making this unlikely story, full of funny, Lorrie Moore-worthy quips, as real as your neighbour’s.

Rosemary is introduced to us as she unwittingly makes a friend at college, a volatile young woman Harlow who is in the process of destroying the cafeteria while tiffing with her boyfriend; Rosemary follows suit and breaks a glass, follows her to the police station. Why? Slowly, the mystery is revealed: her psychologist father, who sees the United States Congress ‘as a two-hundred-year-long primate study’, raised her alongside a chimp, Fern, who was once her sister, and then another animal again, when the experiment no longer worked. Her brother Lowell, inspired to rescue Fern and revenge other animals who are mistreated through human research, has also left her. ‘I wanted you to have an extraordinary life’, Rosemary’s mother tells her. Startling parental motivation, but now we know why Rosemary, once excessively verbose, keeps her thoughts in her head (one out of three of the things she means to say is enough, her parents told her).

‘Do we all tend toward a single besetting sin?’ she wonders; the idea that we are judged most where we fail, no matter how we triumph, one of the lessons Rosemary takes to heart, is certainly the repeating sin of her pedantic father, who cannot tell her the truth about where he sent Fern till she has already been damaged. Based on real incidents, Fowler’s story shows us a young woman who behaves unconsciously like a chimp, reaching out to touch people’s hair in space-conscious America; also, it tells of what might have befallen poor Fern, released back into her own kind, where females are often raped by more than a 100 males, still speaking the language of humans. It offers opportunity for empathy of many kinds; that of sibling connections and the vast drama of family, but ultimately an inter-species kind, even for those unable to empathise with animals. The odd enmity of siblings and family crackle in this unlikely and heartbreaking novel, Fowler’s seventh, which spins out marvellously despite a slight preachiness. An unusual choice, but a worthy one for an adventurous jury.