For some reason, the Man Booker is still my favorite literary prize, and every year I await the release of their longlist selection with anticipation and glee. Some years they get it right, some years not quite, and they always overlook something spectacular. But fear not! I am here to shine the light on the darkness in my own special irreverent way. It’s my blog, and I can say what I want, so here you go.
Here are the books the committee thought were the bee’s knees in 2016:
4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (US) (Faber & Faber)
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Ireland) (Faber & Faber)
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan-UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Ireland) (Canongate)
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (UK) (4th Estate)
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals)
The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (India) (Hamish Hamilton)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) (Bloomsbury Publishing)
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (UK-Pakistan) (Bloomsbury Circus)
Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
Swing Time by Zadie Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (US) (Fleet)
I am chagrined that I’ve only read three of these, but Autumn, Swing Time, and The Underground Railroad (despite the nauseating over-hype) are also on my radar to read.. Some of these books I’ve never heard of, but plan to investigate.
Of the three I’ve read, only two really belong on this list: Lincoln in the Bardo and History of Wolves. Not so much, Exit West. Why not, you ask? I think literary critics and prize committees focus too heavily on books of the non-British/American immigrant experience. Not to discount such literature, as many novels with topics in this area are eye-opening and important, but I think they’re often heavily weighted and are given a few too many bonus points. The topic is politically relevant, but in literature it’s also trendy, which I find off-putting. The market is saturated. Exit West is not without merit, but I’m not sure it belongs with these others on the list.
Exit West just doesn’t cut the Booker mustard. It’s fine. The writing is good, the premise is intriguing. Two lovers from an unnamed country at the outbreak of civil war flee their nation for idyllic lands and also maneuver through the ups and downs of their relationship as a couple. The description of the development of the civil war is genius, how it creeps so slowly that the city’s inhabitants almost don’t recognize its gravity until it’s too late to leave.
But . . .
At a sparsely-formatted 231 pages, the book is so short as to inhibit character development. Even worse, there’s a glaring deus ex machina that is just outrageous. Every part of the book is viciously realistic, then all of a sudden there’s a left turn into sci-fi that only cheapens the brutal reality of the original story. How did this get an editor’s ok?
If you haven’t read the book, I’ll clue you in. It’s not a spoiler — I think it’s even mentioned on the jacket copy. The characters can just leave an undesirable place through special doors that transport them across the world. Seriously. Contemporary, politically-aware plot that jumps the shark.
Had there been other elements of magical realism in the novel, I wouldn’t have protested so much. But the doors are it. There is no explanation of this sudden supernatural location-hopping. I’m flummoxed. Going along, fascinated and terrified with the escalating war, concerned for the characters, and then wham! They just go through a magical door and instantly escape to Greece. Now the story is no longer real, no longer actually possible, and nothing matters to me anymore.
Definitely check out Lincoln in the Bardo and History of Wolves, as both novels have a lot brain food to offer.
I would be remiss if I didn’t complain vehemently that the committee completely shit the bed by not recognizing the brilliance of A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I have no idea what they were thinking. Maybe they were suffocated with the influx of immigrant-experience literature. Maybe they fell through a magic door to Antarctica before they were done reading it. I don’t know. I see through you, prize committee. Look beyond the expected choices.