Saturday, September 08, 2007

Booker & Mercury

Yeah, I know it sounds like a team of fictional detectives, dour serious Jim Booker and flighty, intuitive Liz Mercury, but given that the shortlist of one and the winner of the other were both announced this week, I thought I might try and put a bit of perspective on things. I used to devour news about the Booker - and the BBC used to show the ceremony every year, possibly the only time it ever gave ANY time over to books. Was it last year or the year before it gave up on the show - and just shoved it into Newsnight or something? I actually complained to them and got back one of their "we know better than you" responses. I pointed out they could put it on BBC4 if they cared that little about it. Fact is, the Booker show was a really nice format - small extracts of the novels, a panel discussion, a chat to the Bookies, and then to the ceremony itself, all over in half an hour. Since "Life of Pi" won it in 2002 there seems to have been a little uncertainty about what it's about now. That book, DBC Pierre and a few others on the shortlist, were clearly enjoyable one-offs, rather than debut novels by potentially great writers. The last couple of years - with Banville and Hollinghurst - a new seriousness has returned, and seems as misjudged as those "one offs". I guess the comments about "On Chesil Beach" reflect this. McEwan may well be our most consistent novelist, but that every work should be automatically a Booker nominee seems to miss the point somewhat. I'm pleased that Nicola Barker is on the shortlist, I've not read "Darkmans" yet, but think her previous short novel "Five Miles from Outer Hope" is an unacknowledged little masterpiece (and quite a bit longer than "On Chesil Beach" for that matter). The longlist was quite historical and there are times when you think the Booker is becoming our "best history novel" prize. Part of the question over McEwan is whether his best books are past, present and future. My favourite novel of his is "The Innocent", a cold war thriller, closely followed by the contemporary "Enduring Love". The most disappointing I've read was Booker winner "Amsterdam" and his sci-fi novel "Child in Time." I think "Atonement" is a great popular work, but is a bit of a shaggy dog story at heart and "Saturday" is an interesting but minor work. I'd be surprised if any of this year's list is as good as David Peace's "The Damned United" or Will Self's "Book of Dave" or Magnus Mill's "Three to See the King", which are among the best eligible novels I've read in the last few years. In other words, where I once found a good number of writers and novels from the Booker list, I think its an uncomfortably mix these days between agreable lit-lite ("Life of Pi", "Fingersmith") and something worthy, but somewhat old-fashioned, ("The Line of Beauty", "Never Let Me go"). Old fashioned is perhaps not something the Mercury can be accused of - Klaxons winning over more traditional bands. Though, much as I like their album - its full of hits, very of its moment - it reminds me of bands like Lo Fidelity All Stars, Carter USM, even Mansun, rather than being quite as futuristic as the band claim. But then when I've been listening to "Kala" the new album by M.I.A., as well as the shortlisted "Maths & English" by Dizzee Rascal (inevitably, far better than his debut, which won), pretty much everything else sounds old fashioned. I'm presuming "Kaya" will be eligible for next year's prize, which, in any sane world it will win.

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