Can I be bothered to read the entire Man Booker Longlist?
Of course I can't, and neither can you.
Am I prepared to read the Kindle samples of the available books and then make a decision on how good they are based on that alone?
Of course I am.
I started with J by Howard Jacobson, which the blurb claims 'is a novel to be talked about in the same breath as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, thought-provoking and life-changing. It is like no other novel that Howard Jacobson has written.'
I chose to ignore that first statement, which is an arrogant and rather ridiculous claim the accuracy of which can surely only be proved once many years have elapsed, but was intrigued by the second. You see, having started three previous novels by Jacobson I have yet to finish one, so the idea that this is very different appealed to me. None of those three books offended or annoyed me, I just found them all quite dull and didn't see the point of reading to the end. I assumed his writing was simply not my cup of tea.
But J is certainly very different: an opaque, vaguely dystopian novel exploring an alternative post-Holocaust future. Full marks to the author for coming up with a concept that will get the brain cells working but I wasn't convinced by the world he was trying to build. This felt like a literary conceit rather than a real world. Distant rather than immersive. Interesting concept but the execution failed to engage me.
The Blazing World by Siri Husvedt purports to be a biography of a little-known American artist called Harriet Burden. Fed up with the gender bias of the art world, Burden went incognito and delivered three acclaimed shows while pretending to be a bloke. Or three different blokes. Slowly, through a series of archive documents and linking biographical narrative, Burdens story unfolds.
This is a hard trick to pull off, the pretend biography thing, but Husvedt definitely manages it in this sample. I completely bought into it and this is one book from the longlist that I am keen to read all the way through.
I was also impressed by Orfeo by Richard Powers. A reclusive American composer comes under the scrutiny of Homeland Security when they discover a weird biological experiment in his back room. Would make for a great new storyline for that Claire Danes show, that's for sure.
Has a comedy ever won the Man Booker Prize? I assume To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is a comedy. It made me chortle a few times so I reckon that counts. Stephen King called it 'the Catch-22 of dentistry' which sums it up quite well. A funny book about a dentist. Almost certainly won't make the shortlist. Sorry, Joshua Ferris.
Hang on, The Finkler Question was supposed to be a comedy, wasn't it?
The Lives of Others (not sure about the wisdom of having a book with the same title as a recent Oscar-winning film but that doesn't seem to have done it any harm so far) opens with a startling and shocking set piece. Really strong stuff. I was hooked.
Unfortunately, Neel Mukherjee decides to follow this up with a painfully dull chapter about the behind-the-scenes power struggles of a family paper business in Calcutta. I was bored. I couldn't even get to the end of the Kindle sample.
I really like the purple on the cover, though, so that's something.
Two of the books on the longlist aren't out yet. So I haven't read the samples. One of them is The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell which is published next week, two days before the shortlist is announced. I assume the publisher didn't feel the need to bring it forward as it is bound to be a big hit regardless of whether or not it makes the shortlist and irrespective of the fact that the cover looks like someone ate the contents of a branch of Athena in 1986 and then vomited it all back up again.
The other is Us by David Nicholls which isn't actually published until two weeks before the final prize is awarded which suggests that a) they probably don't think it will win and b) like the Mitchell, it is going to be huge anyway. It is possibly the one book on the whole list which won't benefit much from being on there. I also noticed that the ebook is scheduled for one month after the print edition which is interesting. A clever publishing strategy to encourage people to buy the £20 hardback?
Ruth, the narrator of History of the Rain by Niall Williams, is confined to her room because of her Condition. People are Concerned. There has been An Event, presumably involving her Father, and she is making her way through His Library. She is going to Read Them All 'because that is where I will find him'. She is also Very Keen on Capitalising Words.
There are occasional flashes of quite beautiful poetry in here, albeit couched in a narrative voice which some will find annoying. I enjoyed the frequent references to books in her father's library and her thoughts on how they connected to her own story. Not a novel I am itching to complete but I warmed to it nonetheless.
More than a few eyebrows were raised when The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth hit the longlist as it is the first crowdfunded book to get anywhere near the Man Booker Prize coming as it does from Unbound, the website where readers entirely fund the books that are published. I thought it was great to see it, and them, get recognition in this way and considered it one in the eye for traditional publishers. And then I read the sample and realised why the book probably didn't find a traditional home. Written entirely in Old English, or a slightly adapted version to be precise, it is a hugely brave creation that would have struggled to find an audience if published in the normal way. Unfortunately, I found it to be almost unreadable. If you were the one person in your English class who enjoyed Chaucer in the original Middle English then you may well like this. I didn't. Neither could I suppress a schoolboy giggle at the line 'lic this colde cum' which I have shamelessly quoted here entirely out of context. For the lolz.
In The Dog, the new novel from Joseph O'Neill, a New York attorney bumps into an old college friend and accepts an invite to work for his family business in Dubai but ends up regretting his decision as he learns more about the family and how they work. While reading this I kept thinking that it would make for a really good thriller if it wasn't written as literary fiction. I do know the two can work hand in hand but this one is definitely about style first, with plot and pacing second. Ideal for the Man Booker judges but perhaps not one for me.
The most 'traditional' book on the list, if you ask me, is Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The life story of an Australian war veteran who survived the Burma Railway, we get flashbacks to his childhood and his war experiences as well as his days as an old man on the speaker circuit, a national hero. If this had been published twenty years ago then it might have been a shoo-in. Feels very 'old Booker'. Perhaps 'classic Booker' would be a better way of putting it.
The least likely book on the list is We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler which feels closer to something like Gone Girl than to any of the other contenders. The blurb promises an amazing twist at page 77 but the sample, perhaps wisely, doesn't take us that far. What it does give us is the story of a young woman who gets into a bit of a scrape at university and hints at some weird goings on in her family (both her brother and sister appear to have vanished). My hunch is that one person on the judging panel loved it and the others agreed to have it on the longlist to shut them up. Not a hope in hell of making the shortlist as it is the most, to use a word Booker commentators hate, 'readable' of the thirteen.
Ali Smith's has been on the shortlist before with her most acclaimed novel, The Accidental. It was a book I enjoyed reading until I realised that it was going absolutely nowhere and was a classic case of style over substance. I almost threw it out of the window, but the window was closed at the time.
How to be both is pretty much all style and, so far, no substance at all. A stream-of-consciousness novel, more of a poem really, with sentences and even words ending mid-stream. I actually didn't mind this as much as The Accidental because it sets its stall out early, it isn't pretending to be a conventional novel. Ali Smith fans will love it but I cannot imagine it will get a wider audience than that. Not that it matters, really. I admire the bravado of it but I need more meat on my stylised bones.
So based on reading the opening 5-10% of the books that are available, and hazarding a guess as to the chances of the unpublished ones, here's what I think should be on the shortlist, and would be if I had anything to do with it:
The Blazing World
The Bone Clocks
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
The Narrow Road to the Deep North
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
And here's what I think will actually be on the shortlist because the sort of stuff I like rarely wins awards such as this:
The Blazing World
The Lives of Others
The Bone Clocks
The Narrow Road to the Deep North
How to be both
We'll find out next week. Please do leave a comment to tell me how completely wrong I am about all of the above. Are there any I should give another chance? Do any of the ones I like so far turn out to be a disappointment? I am all ears.