Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Unconnected Things

Sean O'Brien's "The Afterlife" came out to respectable reviews. It is set in an ill-defined summer of 1976, with four friends in the salad days after university and, it seems, before real life sets in. 3 of the 4 are poets. The narrator, Martin, will become an academic; Alex the driving force of the group will become rich; and Jane, the beautiful but fragile girlfriend of Alex will become Sylvia Plath - a dead poet with a magical "afterlife". It's a great conceit, and the reason I wanted to read the novel. O'Brien is a prize winning poet, but this is his first novel. Reviews of it made a big thing about it not falling for the poet's curse of being overwritten or over poetic; instead it's a remarkably straightforward affair. It's a great story, and O'Brien is very good on both the dynamic between the characters - the jealousy, sexual and literary - and on the poetry world (easy satires of small magazines, literary prizes and publishers.) The problem is, and it is insurmountable, that he simply cannot write decent prose. This is one of the worst written "literary" novels I've ever read. His dialogue doesn't distinguish between the characters, he's unable to give any sort of believable sense of time and place, his descriptions are bland and cliched. Giving himself a potentially brilliant, and certainly original, scenario, he throws it all away. To be fair, my copy was a (very sloppy) proof, but I'd read about the novel with interest as it sounded like an interesting story, which it is. All in all, a missed opportunity.

But then again, what do I know? David Mitchell's "Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" is perhaps stylistically the best English novel I've read in a decade or more, but that wasn't enough for the Booker shortlist. Andrew Motion leads this year's judging panel, another poet-novelist, and I wonder whether poets sometimes have a tin ear when it comes to prose? Mitchell's novel is a remarkable work, that probably doesn't need Booker approval, but, still, it does make me wonder.

"C" by Tom McCarthy makes the shortlist, and he was in conversation with my old friend Lee Rourke earlier this week. Lee is reading at Blackwells in Manchester this Saturday afternoon. It will be great to see him again, and hear him read from "The Canal", his first novel. (No links I'm afraid, Blackwells doesn't seem capable of actual "information" on its website, but I'm assured he's reading late afternoon.)

Lee's novel should have been a shoe-in for the Guardian's "Not the Booker" but the nature of the vote (choose your favourite on the blog) has led to a slightly homogenous shortlist that even the organiser has wondered if it suffers from too many social media block votes. Whether it survives the recount, we'll have to see. My choice, (mainly because I want to read it), the Guardian first book shortlisted novel by Steven Amstermdam, doesn't make either list. We'll watch this crowd-sourcing experiment with interest.

The XX has won the Mercury Prize, the worthy Interpol tribute band being a rare shot of genuine indie cool in a shortlist of painful mediocrity. Having had to listen to Paul Weller etc. endlessly, the judges clearly went for the XX's beautiful minimalism.

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