Thursday, September 29, 2011

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

This contains a few plot spoilers, as its a book that you can only talk about that way, but I've tried not to give too much of the detail away, so be warned.

In his highly acclaimed 2010 novel "Freedom", Jonathan Franzen gives us the Berglunds, a middle class American family whose life is tracked over a thirty year period. There are no subplots that don't involve the family, no major characters that aren't somehow in their working or emotional orbit. Despite its 600 pages, there's a tight claustrophobia to this small cast; an intimacy, rather than a vastness to the novel's ambitions. Yet, the novel is ambitious. Why else should we spend so long with Patty and Walter Berglund, unless they are emblematic of their age or so fascinating a pair of creations that we can only revel in their lives?

Rarely, I think, has America seemed such a different country than Britain. For the world that the Berglund's inhabit through their rise, their fall, (their rise again?), is only echoed here in the same way that the foreclosures of subprime mortgage market were. For this is the American middle class, where Walter Berglund can give up his corporate job with 3M and still earn $170,000 a year with a thinktank/charity; where his 21 year old son, useless, hardly educated, but cockier than his father ever was, can be pursuing arms deals worth $700,000 in South America. From this side of the ocean American life seems stranger, further away than ever before.

Franzen begins with censure. Despite much talk of him rescuing the realist novel, here he is the most manipulative of omniscient narrators. "There had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds" he says, on behalf of their St. Paul neighbours on page one. And we're off. With an obvious tell, rather than a show. What does he mean? Over the next 600 pages we kind of find out, but kind of don't. The Berglunds are as typical a family as you might imagine. Patty, a stay-at-home mother, being a lead gentrifier of their city suburb; Walter, a good family man and corporate drone; their regulation 2 kids, a boy, a girl, as invisible as such kids ever are, at least till the boy moves in with his childhood sweetheart and her down-at-heel mother. In the breakneck 30 pages at the start of the novel we're given a whizz through what the neighbourhood, acting as Franzen's Greek chorus, think of the Berglund's and its ripe with neighbourly sarcasm. We don't realise it here, but we are halfway through the story, a very odd place to start.

The second section takes us back; via the narration of a memoir that Patty has written for therapy (we never quite find out why or when she has therapy, but then again, she has reason enough). Patty was a star athlete, going to a specialist athletics college, partly to get away from her arty, Democratic secular Jewish family. Partly, it seems, in one of Franzen's frequent manipulations, to meet Walter, essentially the good son of a rich, but ragged family. In the late 70s, early 80s (Franzen is rarely specific about the cultural times, though he's very specific about the politics and economics of each era), he's given us not an everywoman, but a somewhat unique one. She's taller than her classmates, until she goes to Basketball college, where she's amongst other giants, but one of the few non-lesbians in her team. If team sports is one of the American obsessions, it clearly doesn't run as far as the women's teams. It seems Patty has developed her own outsider status - but also found her own crowd. An early rape by a typical jock, puts her off men, and throws her into a dysfunctional friendship relationship with the gothic, depressive, pathological rich girl, Eliza. It is through Eliza she meets Walter and his musican room mate Richard Katz.

It is the relationship between Walter, Richard and Patty which is the heart, the strength and the centre of the novel. Walter and Richard could not be less alike, yet, like often happens, the randomness of their room sharing creates a lifelong bond, and a lifelong resentment. Both love and need the other for what the other isn't. Walter always feels second best to Richard, whose easy way with life and women he admires and resents in equal parts. Richard goes back to Walter time and again, for a stability and an intellectual consistency that his own life lacks. In "Freedom", it is their love, their rivalry, their hate, which is Franzen's strongest suit. Like Amis's "The Information," Barnes' "Talking it Over" or Pinter's "Betrayal", male friendship-rivalry is explored across the decades; and as ever, there's a woman at the centre. Patty is sexually attracted to Richard, but is pursued (and likes being pursued) by Walter. His diffidence constantly opens up the chance that she might choose Richard, but in the end, Richard's own waywardness drives the sensible Patty into his arms. This unscratched itch comes back to them later in lives, when an unhappy Patty, and a down-on-his-luck Richard become lovers at long last, at the "Nameless Lake" that becomes the title of his breakthrough album. We go back and forth through time; Richard Katz an occasional rather than constant presence in their lives - perhaps more important to Walter than Patty at the end of the day. Yet marriages are mysterious things, and Walter and Patty's remains so. Its as if, over 600 pages and 30 years, Franzen hopes we will have enough evidence to understand them, and understand why they love each other.

But things aren't quite that straightforward. We have to take Walter and Patty as read. For Franzen is nothing if not the omniscient narrator, and he has his favourites. Rather than being, as I initially thought, a modern everywoman, or exemplar (her basketball playing an equivalent to Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom's football proficiency), Patty - who can gain the attention of two such different men - is prodded and poked by Franzen's narration throughout. The most interesting creations in the novel are the women; Patty; Eliza; her son's girlfriend Connie; yet Franzen or his narrator hates them all. Patty is raped, and her father doesn't quite say its her fault, but he comes close. She falls for Walter not as an athlete, but after she breaks her leg, and he dotes on her. As a wife and mother we see not the good years, but see her being despised almost as a stay-at-home mother and homemaker. She dotes on her son Joey and he runs away from the claustrophobia of her love; whilst her daughter is the one uninteresting woman in the tableau, a walk on role, who Franzen assigns particular tasks to, but remains uninterested in throughout. We've been told so often about Patty's failings that when Richard - to all intents and purposes a bona fide rock star - becomes her lover, its almost hard to know why. For their is no awakening of character, she is portrayed always as a victim. A fascinating character, but Franzen's patent dislike of her verges on the misogynistic.

As the novel bobs and weaves through the years, we are given potted histories of other family members - an attempt at the Victorian tableau novel - which seem a little distracting (particularly when he throws in details of Patty's family during the last hundred or so pages of the book), but also, and this seems to be Franzen's key, a long plot jump into the year 2004, post 9/11, and into the heart of the madness that was Bush and Cheney's NeoCon America. To all intents and purposes Franzen's characters are mostly Clinton (Bartlett!) era liberals; and here they are in 2004, having discussions about the terrorist threat, and making money out of arm's deals. In a plot swerve that lack's credibility, Joey, the Berglund's 21 year old son moves to New York and becomes a go-fer for an arms subcontractor; whilst Walter joins a not-for-profit that is saving hectares of land from development in return for mining contracts (whilst inevitably falling for his beautiful Asian assistant.) We are given pages and pages of exposition; characters talking with environmental pamphlets as scripts, as these parallel escapades, though occasionally funny and grotesque, grind us through the early years of the 21st century. Joey, like Walter, remains an uninspiring character. Whilst the women in the novel have a certain zest, however much they are despised, the men seem really in need of our dislike, both for how they treat their women, and their opinions and career choices.

Don't get me wrong, "Freedom" is a vastly enjoyable read. Its an intellectual's page turner, a worthy beach book, and kept me running back to its many pleasures whilst on two weeks away round Europe, but it seems to be striving to be more than that - a "state of the nation" novel. There's a glowing review from Philip Hensher on my copy, and I can understand why, as his "The Northern Clemency" is the closest British equivalent of recent years. That book similarly tried to give us a vast political story through a single family, and, like "Freedom", gives us an enjoyable overview of that family, without really articulating the sweep of the age. I felt that Hensher's love of Proust meant that he over-emphasised every detail in the hope that something Proustian would result; and with Franzen, whether its Updike or Bellow or even Roth who he wants to emulate in their vast sweeps over the age, the novel comes across more like a less wacky version of John Irving's "Hotel New Hampshire." Despite the long gestation since "The Corrections", some of the novel seems to have been written in an over-fast flurry, to capture the zeitgeist of the day, yet this is hardly Franzen's strength. Walter's obsession with "over population" is quirky to the point of stupidity, (its not primarily a comic novel, and yet this is surely a comic conceit?), and the unexpected sudden death at a key point late in the novel is cynical writing of the worst type, killing of a character at an appropriate point in the soap opera.

And perhaps, at the end of the day, that is the point. This is a soap opera. Its claustrophic cast give us much pleasure along the way, and there's enough variety of style, tone and location to keep us going. Any outrage with Jennifer Egan's "A Visit from the Goon Squad" beating it to the Pulitzer should be tempered by the knowledge that in every way Egan's novel - which in many ways treads the same ground, the same class of people, the same timescales, even dips into the music industry - is the superior one. Perhaps these two books offer a genuine example of Zadie Smith's surmises about the contemporary novel (where she suggested that Tom McCarthy's "Remainder" and Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland" were opposite in approaches.) Like every other American novel of the last few years, set near or by New York, the twin towers is given ample leg room, yet despite its contemporary concerns Franzen seems remarkably old fashioned in many ways. Like Micheal Chabon's "The Wonder Boys" he touches on the lost Jewishness of his characters, but more as another "set piece" among many, and he has none of that writers' deliciously comic touch.

In "Freedom" I got the sense that whatever his original plan was, it somehow got diluted or altered, by the trajectories of both his writing, and the times. The worst pages by far are the expositional ones, about multinational corporations, environmental policies and land-grabbing. In trying to expose the cynical manipulations of Bush-era capitalism he is neither comic nor serious enough to really add something new; whilst the Berglunds, though endless intrigueing, are neither typical or atypical. The omniscient narrator is often censorious, yet the characters themselves are inconsistent. In such a long narrative arc, it should be possible to perceive change, but it tends to happen with a jolt. Richard Katz is a non-drinking rocker (straight edge? no, of course not, or at least Franzen never tells us that), then he drinks. Joey Berglund eschews masturbation, then turns into one of the Inbetweeners in the frequency with which he pops one out. There's plenty of sex, or at least sexual imagery, in the novel, yet in showing us two generations of teenage life (Patty and Walter in the early 80s, Joey in the mid 2000s), we just see an opportunity for different jokes to play out. Joey, more conservative than both his parents (but like them, marrying young, and to a childhood sweetheart - Connie, who is in calm devotion to Joey, everything his manic mother's love wasn't) is described in detail when he has phone sex with Connie. Holden Caulfield this is not.

And I could go on. Richard Katz's arrival in any scene livens things up a bit, if only because of the unresolved tensions with Walter and Patty. He goes from unpopular punk rocker to cult singer (yet makes a living putting up wooden decks for middle class New Yorkers.) If you are interested, you'll get family trees of both Patty and Walter's families. There's even a nice little sidetrack with Joey to South America where he finds out he really loves his wife whilst trying to get off with his best friend's beautiful sister.

If you've a book group, and a spare month (it is long), give it a read - you'll enjoy. But long and hard as I looked, there was little here that comes close to the "Great American novel."

Dirty in Didsbury

Athletes are not adverse to a bit of rumpy-pumpy if the condom consumption of the Olympics is anything to go by. However, it was writers who brought the tone down at the Northern Tennis Club in West Didsbury last night at the launch of the #flashtag Quickies anthology, subtitled "short stories for adults." The flashtag writers formed their tag team last year and as well as crashing other readings and hosting popup literary salons they have organised a couple of their own events.

So, for Didsbury Arts Festival, they, along with both the invited and the submitted writers, decided to put together an event and an anthology with a theme, basically, ahem, talking dirty in 400 words. The rest of this review will no doubt plunge into double entendre, as I, along with a dozen or so others rose to the challenge.

With tables laid out cabaret style, a glitzy backdrop, the promise of impermanent tattoos with the word "Smut", and compere Fat Roland, holding the said anthology in a pair of oilily applied marigolds, I doubt West Didsbury has seen such a debauched evening since the last Lacrosse club social. Ranging from the funny to the elegant, the sexy to the stalker, the stories delved deep in the darkest sexual fantasy recesses of the south Manchester (and further afield) literary communities. Doyen of the short-short, David Gaffney, also in the anthology, regaled us with a couple of star-turn sweary shorts, and in a well-oiled programme that would put even the best arranged swingers club to shame, we came on in groups, and explored our own little fantasies. The only orgy though, was of words.

Buy the Anthology (in the flesh, or virtual, depending on your prediliction)... details are here.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Talking Dirty

In what is probably a first for Didsbury tomorrow night sees the launch of "Quickies", an anthology of adult shorts, ranging from the naughty to the funny, the erotic to the perverted; all, as Kenny Everett would have said, in the best possible taste. I'm pleased to be amongst writers such as Chris Killen, Emma Jane Unsworth, David Gaffney and Clare Massey, as well as the Flashtag organisers who've done all the hard work and put together both this anthology and the evening. Copies can be purchased on the night.

I'll be demurely reading my piece, alongside a host of others - so come along to the Northern Tennis Club in Didsbury from 8 o'clock.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Literary Lumps

I've been away in Brussels, Ghent and Amsterdam, so apart from the company of Jonathan Frantzen's "Freedom", haven't been doing much that is literary. Well, it's all to the good, as there's going to be lots coming up with the Didsbury Arts Festival and Manchester Literature Festival hot on the heels. The former starts today, and lots on around the village for the opening day, though its a typical alabaster sky at the moment.

I'm one of many readers next Wednesday 28th September at Northern Tennis Club for the launch of the erotic "Quickies" anthology of flash fiction, and an evening, no doubt, of double entendres. All welcome. Just remember the safety word.

From 10th October the new literature festival is full of treats and the festival blog has writers picking out their own festival highlights.

Before then, and I'd almost forgotten, a change of night and venue for The Other Room, and their next event is at the Anthony Burgess Foundation this coming Monday.

And tomorrow you should head over to Chorlton where the Bad Language/Shoestring Press collaboration (aptly entitled the Bad Shoes Festival) takes over Elektric and Dulcimer bars.

If the weather is keeping you inside, the Bad Language next issue submission deadline is 30th September, theme:Bad Language, so go F- yourselves.

Is that enough?

Monday, September 12, 2011

A visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Does the novel exist as a cultural imperative in the 21st century? I would have said "no" - that it is purely a commodity and/or an artefact.

Imagine: reading "Ulysses", "1984", "Catcher in the Rye", "American Psycho" for the first time - with or without context.

It is late to the party to be giving the same kind of imperative to a novel which has already won the Pullitzer, but having read Jennifer Egan's "A visit from the goon squad", I could just scratch my chin and say "another novel" or could actually say that this is something more than special.

Anyone who is aware of American literature over the last 25 years should be aware that the Roth/Updike/Bellow/DeLillo great American Novel is not only a chimera but increasingly futile. American Pastoral, Rabbit Redux, Augie Marsh, White Noise happened at hapzard points in their careers - there is no peak, no trough, just an "is", they could, they did; and they are all men.

We can analyse that all we like but its an irrelevancy, because every generation creates its own macabre, its own serendipity, its own orthodoxy.

What is so amazing about Egan's "A visit from the Goon Squad" is that it cuts through all that, whilst being highly aware of where it's coming from. There seem, to be at least, two clear antecedents, Brett Easton Ellis's imperiously brilliant "The Informers" and David Mitchell's wonderful debut "Ghostwritten." Whether or not Egan has read these books, she takes from the first its fragmented stories, and from the second its sense of connection.

Fragments and connection weave through "A Visit from the Goon Squad." Its ostensibly a story about music industry types in the 80s, but weaves back and forward (again like David Mitchell) from the 60s to the 2020s(the future!) Whereas Micheal Cunnigham's excellent "Specimen Days" signals this, Egan's brilliant novel refuses to signal. This is a road trip without signs, and that is far harder than it should be. Yet, remarkably, she takes us with her, even as characters and perspecitves change. It would be so awful to call this a portmanteau novel, even though it is, because the weave is so fantastically achieved. Rather, I would say that Egan has "balance", because this, more than pretty much any contemporary novel I could mention, is a beautifully balanced novel. Conceits have a tendency to topple over; Egan's only topple to somersault again.

Does any of that make any sense? Here's the proper review: a group of 80s wannabes/casualties work out their life/come good/fuck up.

I can't write a proper review of this. The brilliant Sarah Churchwell has done that already - read that.

OK - you've done that. "We're the survivors" the central character Sasha says. I don't think I've read another contemporary novel that has been so aware of our frailty, our fragility.

"A Visit from the Goon Squad" is the novel that we should all be reading, all be writing, and it puts into the shade every other British or American novel over the last few years. It goes beyond the casualness of Eggars, whilst willing to embrace the whole McSweeney's footnote culture (but it does it better: it has a whole chapter that is a POWERPOINT PRESENTATION.)

I finished this novel and wanted to start it again - but I had to go and make a bonfire of this year's Booker prize shortlist first. It's that good. It transforms. It makes. It reduces.

Better than that it "questions." Whereas you can read most American novels and go "Who are these people?" after the usual consummate ironicness, something kicks in with "A visit from the Goon Squad" that stripped this reader of his cynicism. I've never met the people here, but I care about them alot more than the characters in A.M. Home's brilliant "This book can change your life." The not-caring was part of the action there.

The novel isn't perfect, (after all, which novel is?), there are a couple of emotional loose ends that don't quite add up. These are mine, maybe not yours, I want to read this novel again - immediately - from the start - and that's unhead of. There's a great Tom Petty song, Even the Losers, or there's the film "Dazed and Confused", or there's friends of mine who are not here any more....

And there's chapter 10, the second person (my favourite person, if it comes down to ranking them) "Out of Body" where a character lives and dies in Sasha's peripherary for purely a chapter, but may well be the best piece of American (or anywhere) fiction written in the first 11 years of this compromised century.

This is not a review, this is a homage.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike

"The Witches of Eastwick" may well be Updike's most well-known novel, as he remains a cult writer to many. (The brilliant Rabbit novels, which are his best and most famous work, don't seem to have had the wider cultural prominence of, say, "Portnoy's Complain" or "Gravity's Rainbow.") The reason for this, of course, is the 80s film that was made with Jack Nicholson as Darryl Van Horne and Susan Sarandon, Cher and Michelle Pfeiffer as the witches. I must have read it not long after it came out (it was published in 1984)and enjoyed it immensely. Reading it again 20 years later, the enjoyment remained, but if anything, it's improved with age.

The 80s film has done it a number of disservices, not least by associating it with that time, when the book is firmly place in a particular time, the early 70s. The Vietnam war remains a crucial backdrop to the novel. The story, simple enough, is of a stranger, Darryl van Horne, coming to town, buying the "old Lennox mansion", and drawing in three divorcees in the town, Alexandra, Sukie and Jane. What draws Horne is their abilities, known to each of them, used sparingly, and for frivolous means. For these three women are witches, meet regularly in a suburban "coven" to share gin and reminisces about men. Female friends of a similar age call their own meeting a "coven", and Updike's novel offers a potent mix of female empowerment on the one hand, and a paeon to the mysticism of women on the other.

The 3 witches are already aware of their powers when van Horne comes to town; having not only deposited their respective husbands, but also using them for various domestic reasons. But this is a much darker witchcraft than Samantha in Bewitched, or even the Desperate Housewives-style of the recent for TV "Eastwick." In many ways, I think the novel is set firmly in the same world that his earlier sex comedy "Couples" takes place. It is a small town America that is no longer tied so much to its twin pillars of church and family. This is the messy America of the early 70s, with Vietnam firmly in the background, and the shock of economic downturn (and ruin) on every doorstep. Into this reality of the American dream Updike plants one of its most shameful episodes, the Salem witches, but in, what I think is a highly original conceit, witchcraft here is real, and part of being a woman. Their powers are acknowledged, even accepted by their community - as if in the madness of the times, a little witchcraft is the least of the problems.

What makes "The Witches of Eastwick" retain its power is both the richness of Updike's writing, for which this subject matter is perfect, and the originality of the story. Its frequent adaptions have shown how clean a concept it is - that of the small town contemporary witches and, as importantly, the arrival of van Horne into their lives. For van Horne has materialised, (and will dematerialise, just as quickly), without explanation. Have the witches conjured him up? Or, having detected their power has this "devil" turned up on their doorstep to harness it? Part of the book's brilliance is that Updike never gives us more than a few clues about van Horne's provenance, the strongest being the name. van Horne is in many ways as hapless in the affairs of man as he is magnetic to the women. His only power over the world is what he gets people to do for themselves. This is Crowley's "free will." He is a very modern devil as well; collecting pop art (he had no time for the abstract expressionists), installing hot tub, tennis court and stereo system; and he draws the three women into a web that they don't even understand for themselves. He provides each of them with the foil they need for their own talents - whether its admiring their music, their sculpture or their beauty. Yet, it is when the witches are together with him, mutually pleasuring each other in the hot tub, that their "cone of power" seems at its height. This is late 60s/early 70s sexual utopianism given a magic air. Under van Horne's prompting the women begin to take what they want from the town of Eastwick - not content with having affairs, the dreadful wives of their men have to suffer as well. All, you know, will not end well.

It is the friendship between the three women which is one of the book's triumphs. For Updike paints three very different women who share mutual respect, but have different characteristics and want different things. The beauty of Updike's prose to me has always been that he writes with his mouth full, there's abundance on every page, and in every sentence. By the end of his writing life, this abundance could sometimes slip over into parody, the books themselves unable to carry the weight, but in "The Witches of Eastwick", he has a subject that demands this omnivorousness. Written in three distinct acts, the "cost" of witchcraft begins to show in the collateral damage that affects their lives. The ordinary wives who they accidentally widow become a religious-charged coven of their own, the local priest being replaced at the head of his congregation by his previously subjugated wife; and the young son and daughter of the couple who have died as the result of the witches, return to town and become part of van Horne's coven - eventually driving apart van Horne's influence on the witches, when the young woman marries van Horne (and, we later find, the young man becomes his lover.)

In "witches" I think Updike found a grand subject that also offers endless opportunity to satirise small town life. van Horne is a most peculiar kind of devil, actually impotent (in both ways) without the powers of the women. He is drawn to them and to Eastwick like a parasite. When he gives a sermon to the local congregation at the end of the novel he talks about nature's parasites. The implication is that the witches too are this; but in reality he is talking about himself - and by implication, if this world of parasites is God's world, then shit, they might as well have given the other guy (him, the devil) a chance. This playful irreverance has mostly stood the test of time. Programmes like "Desperate Housewives" and "True Blood" seem to echo the ideas of Eastwick in different ways. Of course, Updike's fecund women (their many children are virtually running feral, uncomfortably out of earshot), are a very different kind than you find in Angela Carter's fairy tales, but that's because they are existing in a real world. The ultimate fantasy, of course, is that they are looking for the perfect man, and that they find him in the devil himself, shared between them, and a creature they cannot ever possibly be ruler over. Women are given a forceful sexuality in the novel, with men just dupes controlled by their wandering penis, but the novel ends with them all conjuring up the next male, and leaving Eastwick. Is there a conservative moralism here, that female sexuality uncontrolled by marriage is dangerous? It's one reading I suppose, but Updike is delightfully ambiguous.

I'm not sure whether Updike is studied extensively in Universities these days; if so I wonder if "Witches" is one of those studied? It deserves to be. It seems to offer a nice satirical counterpoint to the sixties and seventies suburbia of "Couples" and the Rabbit books, and remains both a delightful read, and a highly accomplished metaphor. Updike woudld revisit the Witches in his last published novel, "The Widows of Eastwick". Their enchantment is hard to resist.

Found this contemporary review by Margaret Atwood which intrigueingly compares it to the Wizard of Oz.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Long Booker

With yesterday's announcement of the Booker shortlist, along with Dame Stella Rimington's remarks about the judges looking for "readability", we have another strange metaphorphosis in the long history of our premiere literary prize. This is a prize that has been won by such "unreadable" novels as "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha", "The God of Small Things" and "Life of Pi". "Literary fiction", for want of a better word, is inevitably a very large church. It's one of the myths of the Booker that there's a certain kind of "Booker book." There are these books, and they occasionally make the shortlist, but they very rarely come within a sniff of winning.

I think its more interesting to look at Booker lists not in isolation but in a historical context. 12 years into the century can we make some assertions about "twenty first century" fiction or, indeed, the Booker itself? It remains, under Man's sponsorship, our leading literary prize, and though the Orange is still with us (and was developed in response to an all-male Booker shortlist) there's been no real attempt to usurp it (the Guardian's "Not the Booker" notwithstanding.) Its quirks remain. Commonwealth writers allows Booker to select from "everyone writing in English other than the Americans", and as a result likes to slip in some pseudo American books - for instance, on this years short list, two of the books are American novels in all but passport, from the Canadian authors Edugyan and DeWitt.

I'd say, rather than there being a "Booker book", there's several memes that the prize returns to. High class historical fiction has long been a mainstay, and remains both a triumph of the English language literary scene ("Sacred Hunger", "Wolf Hall", "Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet") and an annoying arm of the British nostalgia industry. On every shortlist, they've won less often than you'd imagine (only Mantel and Carey really fit this category this century.) Ever since Rushdie (and perhaps since Naipaul), the Indian subcontinent and its writers have enthralled Booker judges. Adiga and Desai (the younger) have won this century, yet the last 3 years is the longest period without a subcontinent writer since the mid-80s by my quick reckoning. Is this meaningful, or just a blip? Time will tell.

The 3rd meme is the midlist writer - beloved of Booker lists in the 70s and early 80s - we've recently seen Banville, Enright and Jacobsen take the bauble for mid- or late- career novels. I'd guess that in a year without a standout-standalone book its a safe choice. Hollinghurst, Mantel and Atwood could also be placed in that company, but each of their winners has been much acclaimed.

What I've noticed is that those word of mouth phenomenons "Life of Pi" or "The God of Small Things" phenomenon (a step-up in class or debut novel that goes viral) rarely wins the Booker - though those books sometimes get nominated ("Brick Lane" or "White Teeth"). More often those viral books happen outside of the Booker firmament - think "One Day" or "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time" - but hardly need its imprimatur. Only one real "outlier" - DBC Pierre's "Vernon God Little" - won this century, and like John Berger's "G" or Keri Hume's "The Bone People", its one of those oddities that most competitions spew up now and then.

The first decade of the 21st century has not been the best of decades for the Booker. The absurdity of establishment rather than cultural establishment figures such as Dame Stella Rimington chairing the judges isn't likely to push the prize in a more radical direction - whatever the Blogosphere would hope for. More damagingly, I wonder what happens to those third and fourth books from ex-contenders. Magnus Mills was last shortlisted in 1998, Jon McGregor in 2002, Sarah Hall and David Mitchell in 2004, Costa winner A.L. Kennedy has never made a shortlist, Impac winner Nicola Barker has just one listing (albeit as recently as 2007 for "Darkmans"), Will Self follows Martin Amis in the "apparently too clever for the Booker" pile. I would think that these seven writers (and there are others) would feature heavily in any discussion of the British novel of the last 15 years. The Booker remains unassailably our top book prize, but this years list, despite its good points - heavy on debuts, independent novels, and both the historical and the contemporary - confirms that the prize offers a poor guide to what's really happening with the English-language novel, whilst being undoubtedly very Booker.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

My other blog's a Porsche

Maybe not, but having two websites does require a bit of cross-promotion now and then.

I've just updated my author website

- video of me reading "A Colossal Machine" at the Manchester book market
- a new page collating the book reviews that have appeared on this site over the last 3 years or so
- new addition to the Writers section of the site: Simon Armitage

Saturday, September 03, 2011

What's a poem about?

I've been spending the last week organising and rearranging the poems I've written since "Playing for Solitaire for Money" was finalised in Spring 2010; so close to 18 months of writing.

Do we have particular obsessions at particular times? I guess so - though the subject matter reappears. I think that some of the topics of that collection I've wanted to explore more; contemporary paranoia, nostalgic memory, engaging with the world, love, the absence of love. Additionally, there's something I've always been edging towards, a certain "metaphysicality" where situation and emotion are layers rather than explicit. Can you be a metaphysical poet in the contemporary age? If so, its not so much the connecting with the real world with the mystical, as extracting the debris of a spiritual sensibility from the consumerist nature of modern life, and finding some meaning in that life, however hard.

But without analysing my new work too closely (and its not yet available anywhere, anyway), I've noticed a certain pulling away from trusting words on their own, to trusting the poem. Form has become more important, at least in the shape of these lyrics. I've begun to distrust the glittering power of individual words, at least where they don't offer us a genuine sense. When we talk about "meaning" in a poem, I don't think its always about the literal sense, but for me, at the moment, the poem has to have meaning, even if its obscured (or layered). I've a jaundiced view of words for their own sake, or images that are beautiful but static. No great change here, anyhow, as I've never been much of an "imagist", never followed Stevens (or even Ashbery). Conversely I've dumped the more literal poems, however neatly they've stacked up.

What I want, I think, is a poem to stand up by itself, to have meaning without being explicit about that. The metaphysical poets were clear, direct, demotic, yet highly open to interpretation within that framework. Its why they're still read, I think, as approaching something of the contradictions of human consciousness, and utilising words with an awareness of how inadequate they are as tools.