This Year’s Booker (with an excursus on obscurity)

Written on August 13, 2008 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Rolf Strom-Olsen

As habitués of the annual Booker Prize will presumably already know, this year’s so-called long list was released late last month. This year’s long list again demonstrates the importance of
English-language fiction coming from the Indian subcontinent, including
Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (more of the same Indo-continental post-colonial rap about life in a – yawn, excuse me – post-colonial, New India ) and Mohammed Hanif’s sort-of fictional A Case of Exploding Mangoes.
By the way, Hanif needs to win some kind of prize for worst book title
in 2008 and he also needs a new editor who will not let him publish a
book under a title anything like Case of the Exploding Mangoes.

Since the Booker jury panel is unabashed about awarding the prize to the same familiar faces, the odds on favourite this year has got to be Salman Rushdie for his novel The Enchantress of Florence. In my view, however,  Rushdie has two serious competitors – and this is not to judge necessarily on the literary merits of the books, but rather based on my sense of the politics of aesthetics espoused by the Booker (chaired this year by former  Conservative MP Michael Portillo).

The first is Bengali overachiever Amitav Ghosh’s work of historical fiction Sea of Poppies, which, as that title subtly suggests, is set during the Opium Wars. As the Guardian reviewer put it, this is a "clever parable for British colonialism"; one thing that a Booker jury adores is a clever parable of British colonialism. It will shortlist for sure.

I also think a dark horse in this race is Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. This odd novel has received most attention for incongruously featuring cricket, that quintessential game of the Commonwealth, in New York. Throw in a Dutch narrator and post 9-11 themes and the book is a strange goulash of ideas that has left critics somewhat divided. Reading through various reviews, I get the sense that this is a book many critics feel they ought to like – only don’t much. Although it must be said the book has received many strong reviews filled with unequivocal praise, such as Dwight Garner’s NYT lovefest.

Joseph O’Neill’s “Netherland” is … too urbane, too
small-boned, too savvy to carry much Dreiserian sweep and swagger. But
here’s what “Netherland” surely is: the wittiest, angriest, most
exacting and most desolate work of fiction we’ve yet had about life in
New York and London after the World Trade Center fell.

Small boned? urbane? savvy? is this a description of a book or a droll blonde he met at a cocktail party? At least we can be thankful we’re spared all that Dreiserian sweep and swagger. *Whew* I hate that in a book. Or a cocktail blonde.  Or whatever it is we’re talking about. 

Anyway, don’t let Dwight’s over-the-top word rapture deter you. This is a serious Booker contender and will almost certainly shortlist. Some reviewers have observed O’Neill’s work is a clever parable of British post-colonialism; if there is one thing that a Booker jury adores….

Prediction: I strongly suspect the deliberations will come down to Rushdie and O’Neill, with O’Neill as a first-timer having the edge.

* * *

Is it me, or does making the Booker long list only defer obscurity? I
was looking back at the long list from 2004, and I hate to admit that many of these titles and many of the authors are unknown to me.   

  • Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam
  • Clear: A Transparent Novel by Nicola Barker
  • The Island Walkers by John Bemrose
  • Havoc, in its Third Year by Ronan Bennett
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  • Always the Sun by Neil Cross
  • The Honeymoon by Justin Haythe
  • The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard
  • The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (SHORTLISTED)
  • Sixty Lights by Gail Jones
  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (SHORTLISTED)
  • The Unnumbered by Sam North
  • Snowleg by Nicholas Shakespeare
  • Cherry by Matt Thorne
  • The Master by Colm Tóibín (SHORTLISTED)
  • I’ll go to Bed at Noon by Gerard Woodward (SHORTLISTED)

Does anyone know which of these are (… is) actually worth reading?  If so, please let me know.


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