WITH hindsight, I realise that I was naive when I set out to read all the novels on this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist in a single week. I accepted the assignment for reasons of intellectual vanity. Not even the great writer and critic Gore Vidal had ever pulled off such a wheeze, although he did once famously go through the top 10 American bestsellers and write a characteristically imperious essay about the experience. Now, it would be my turn to become a book group of one, a judging panel unto myself. I would read 17 novels in seven days. Starting the week as diligent as a librarian’s apprentice, I would end it halfblind, sad-faced and walking into walls, like a pit pony down a Chinese coal-mine.
Ten days ago: the longlist for Man Booker Prize, the only UK literary award that really interests the publishing world, the media, the buying public and the betting agents, is announced by Professor John Sutherland, chairman of this year’s judges. I’m ahead of the game before he has even opened his mouth. It so happens that I have already read Ian McEwan’s book Saturday and Ali Smith’s The Accidental, and I’m almost finished Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Sutherland confirms that all these novels have been nominated, so my reading list is immediately shortened. Most auspicious!
It’s not really surprising that the current Booker panel of academics (Sutherland himself ), critics (Lindsay Duguid), authors ( Josephine Hart) and literary editors (David Sexton) would have picked these particularly excellent books from the 130 novels submitted for the prize, but it does trigger early warning signs of my tendency to become a vacillating, credulous greenhorn in the presence of semi-decent prose.
Saturday is precisely, forensically written, the fictional equivalent of a brain scan. So surely, I’m thinking, Ian McEwan should win this thing. That said, The Accidental smashes a modern family holiday into glinting, reflective fragments, so maybe this will be Ali Smith’s year. But then, there’s something brutal and desperate moving beneath the cold, impassive lines of Never Let Me Go. If Kazuo Ishiguro isn’t eventually given the £50,000 prize money at the Man Booker award ceremony on October 10, then perhaps it would be within his rights, although admittedly against his nature, to flip the entire table over and publicly harangue the judges with shocking taunts and slurs. As Julian Barnes once said, however, “the Booker is a form of posh bingo”.
It’s impossible to discount the other nominees of 2005 – including Barnes himself, past masters such as Salman Rushdie and John Banville, younger lights like Zadie Smith and Rachel Cusk, and debut novelists Harry Thompson and Marina Lewycka.
When all the names are revealed, Sutherland goes on to suggest that this selection represents not only the best new fiction from Britain, the Commonwealth, and the Republic of Ireland, but perhaps the “strongest ever” longlist since the prize was founded in 1969. By the time he is finished speaking, I am already down at Waterstone’s in Glasgow city centre, loading hardbacks into plastic bags like a better class of looter.
The staff are helpful but sceptical when I explain the task ahead. Manager Carol Gardner tells me that “a lot of customers really do start buying up the titles on the Booker longlist as soon as it’s announced”, but obviously not in this kind of bulk. She’s not sure it’s possible for a person to read at least two-and-a half serious literary novels each day, and more than two million words over seven nights. I start to doubt it myself when I take the actual weight of these books, hauling them home like logs. Piled into a single solid tower on my bedroom floor, they cast a shadow from the middle of the rug to the cushions in the far corner. It occurs to me that transferring all this material directly and relentlessly into my brain may be somehow painful. I might superheat, or even pulsate. The official Booker judges take their required reading at a slower, steadier pace. “It’s a book a day, day in day out, ” according to dealer in rare books and current panel member Rick Gekoski.
But the job is again made a little easier for me by the fact that advance copies of Salman Rushdie’s new novel Shalimar The Clown and Zadie Smith’s third book On Beauty have been made available only to Gekoski and co. These books may be on the longlist, but they won’t be published until next month, and I won’t be allowed to read them.
At first, this is annoying, because they’re both major contenders. If Smith’s novel is better than her last, The Autograph Man – which was, in my opinion, total bobbins – then she’s surely got a chance. And if Rushdie is back on form after his last effort, Fury – which was, in my opinion, absolute hee-haw – then he will probably win, as he did in 1981 with Midnight’s Children, a novel so clearly brilliant that it was later officially declared the Booker Of Bookers.
To be honest, it soon becomes a relief to have the stack reduced to 12-and-a-half novels. It’s obvious from the moment I finish Ishiguro’s book that this is not a natural or healthy way to read. I am temporarily devastated by Never Let Me Go, and could spend this whole week dwelling on its implications – the characters are clones, bred for their body parts, who grow up and give up just like real human beings do. But I am obliged to start the next novel while I’m still weeping over the last one.
Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black is a wellwritten story about a genuine spirit medium who is literally haunted by her past. It presents modern suburban Britain as a limbo where the living and the dead are equally bored and disoriented, and includes a special appearance by the ghost of Princess Diana, who seems no more or less substantial than when she was still with us. Even so, I am still hearing the voices of Ishiguro’s clone heroine Kathy, which is hardly fair to Mantel. Speaking of fairness, another nagging little voice tells me that Mantel’s male characters are one-dimensional and mean- spirited, although that may be because most of them are actually mean spirits from another dimension.
The Man Booker judges have the luxury of debating such points between themselves, and they’ve been known to attack each other with the preening hostility of swans – in 1991, Nicholas Mosely quit the panel after one too many hissy disputes with Jeremy Treglown. But left all alone with these books, it becomes necessary to argue with myself. While enjoying Marina Lewycka’s debut novel, A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian, for example, I am forced to question whether this is anything more than a mildly amusing and poignant tale of bickering immigrants.
“The author herself is a British woman with Ukrainian parents, ” I tell myself.
“What difference does that make?” I wonder.
“Well, ” I reason, “her voice is authentic, her perspective is valid, she’s got a strong sense of history, and more importantly, of humour.”
“Yeah, ” I admit, “but her book still reads a bit like a sitcom, or a soap opera.”
This technique becomes increasingly useful as it transpires that this longlist really is full of great books. Last year’s Man Booker chairman, former culture secretary Chris Smith, said the overall standard was “surprisingly bad”, and it’s obvious that the winner of the prize isn’t always the best novel, or even a good one. Even the winners will tell you that. “The Booker is murder, ” said VS Naipaul, who took the prize in 1971 for In A Free State. “Absolutely nothing would be lost if it withered away and died.”
For the sake of variety, and to calibrate my critical faculties, I was hoping to hate at least one of these books like I hated DBC Pierre’s 2003 Man Booker winner, Vernon God Little, which struck me as so stupid, ugly and fraudulent that I flung it across the room and stamped on it twice. But Sebastian Barry’s first world war novel A Long Long Way is obviously beautiful, even as the young hero, Willie Dunne, is surrounded by Irish soldiers being shot through the eyes, bayoneted in the guts and throttled by strange yellow gas in the Belgian trenches.
“Why do you like this book?” I ask myself.
“Because it’s written with a kind of epic, sympathetic poetry that doesn’t deny its characters their right to mess themselves in terror.”
“Is that why you’re crying again?”
“I’m not crying.”
Reading Tash Aw’s first book, The Harmony Silk Factory, on the same day – more a good yarn than a great novel – it occurs to me that these two very different stories are both concerned with war, decolonisation and all the historical anxieties of the Commonwealth, like so many previous Booker winners, from John Berger’s G to Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. Some critics, such as former judge Jason Cowley, have suggested the prize would seem more vital if it went to novels that address how we’re living now.
Maybe they’re right – Ian McEwan’s book, and Ali Smith’s, are set on very specific dates in 2003, and their characters are struggling to process current events. But personally, after a few days of absorbing novels on buses, in cars, over the cooker, on the exercise bike in the gym, I couldn’t even tell you what year it is. That’s how I’m living now. I try to read John Banville’s The Sea while walking through the park – I’ve watched people doing this, and I’ve always admired them – but my progress is erratic, if not comical, and it makes me feel travel sick.
Sitting down to read the same book in a cafe, I discover it to be a work of magic, its grief-stricken, memory-addled narrator making observations such as this: “On occasion in the past, in moments of inexplicable transport, in my study perhaps, at my desk, immersed in words, paltry as they may be, for even the secondrater is sometimes inspired, I had felt myself break through the membrane of mere conciousness into another state, one which had no name, where ordinary laws did not operate, where time moved differently if it moved at all, where I was neither alive nor the other thing and yet more vividly present than I could ever be in what we call, because we must, the real world.”
In that sentence, Banville seems to describe exactly the sensation you might seek in a novel, and I’m experiencing it while I’m reading it. But then the spell is broken, because the music in this place – George Michael on an everlasting loop – is starting to get my goat. Since the cafe is empty, I ask the assistant to turn it off.
“Manager says we have to keep it on, ” he says.
“Is the manager here?”
“Nah, but he’s coming back soon.”
AND here I notice the most obvious negative sideeffect of over- exposure to literature. It makes real life seem like a tediously prosaic intrusion on fiction, and everyday speech sound like a honking affront to the language. Over the next few days, the whole world tries to distract me from my challenge: friends, flatmates, that offensive little mooncalf on the train with a videogame that sounds like a portable funfair – try reading, mooncalf! – and my girlfriend’s cat, who uses these hardback books as cover for his creeping attempts to slash my throat.
My girlfriend, herself a book-lover and a supporter of this project, inexplicably keeps talking to me while I’m trying to find fault with the Julian Barnes novel, Arthur And George. I’m worried that I have lost all powers of discernment. The best I can come up with is that Barnes is very English in his written elegance, and possibly a little bloodless, except for the mysterious cattle mutilations at the heart of the story, which lead Arthur Conan Doyle to defend the reputation of falsely accused solicitor George Edalji. But then, I should probably consider the fact that this is also a book about the peculiar qualities of Englishness to which both men aspire, and which act against their best interests. “You know, I think Barnes might actually win the Booker, ” I say, but she has left the room.
If all this reading seems to be putting me at odds with the rest of humanity – which is to say, putting me at odds with the whole point of fiction – then please believe that the cumulative effect of these books is also making me so sensitive and empathetic that I can barely function. I am absorbing narrative shocks and characters’ heartaches all day and into the night. I keep giving myself away. I am smugly ready to dismiss JM Coetzee’s new novel Slow Man as prescriptive and predictable until Elizabeth Costello, the protagonist from Coetzee’s previous book, bursts in after about 80 pages to declare this story boring, at which point I literally cry, “What the . . . ? !” out loud in a relatively quiet coffee house.
Reading This Thing Of Darkness, Harry Thompson’s historical novel about the south-sea travels of Charles Darwin and Robert FitzRoy, I’m vaguely aware it’s overwritten and overblown to the point of pastiche, but I’m also aware that Thompson worked for 10 years on the book and was diagnosed with inoperable cancer shortly after finishing it. Call me sentimental – by now, I’m past caring – but this knowledge somehow makes the reader consider Darwin’s discovery of a cruel, beautiful, Godless world with a little more generosity of spirit.
And then, among the outsiders for the prize, I find my favourite – The People’s Act Of Love by James Meek. It’s the one novel I can remember clearly even after the others have blurred into each other a little, and not just because it contains a graphic sequence of self-castration that has upset me for days. “He shuddered with the sense of the blade, ” writes Meek, “which it was impossible not to feel severing that same thin tie of flesh between his legs.”
It’s a great Russian story told by a Scotsman, full of heart and hot blood, hussars and shamans, brilliant language and weird flourishes, and a fundamental philosophical hatred of all forms of human pettiness. It’s almost too big for the Booker Prize, and it takes me as close as I get this week to what the literary critic Harold Bloom has called the “higher pleasure that remains the reader’s quest”. After reading Meek, Rachel Cusk’s In The Fold feels spare and chilly; I sort of drift through Will Wall’s This Is The Country; and I still haven’t finished Dan Jacobson’s novel All For Love. So far, it seems both sparky and scholarly. As far as I can tell, Jacobson has as good a chance of winning the Booker as anything else I’ve read this week.
“Finish it, ” I tell myself. “You’ll be embarrassed if the one book that got away goes on to win.”
“I can’t, I’m sorry. I feel like my eyes have been pecked out by ravens.”
“Don’t be so dramatic.”
“That’s it, ” I decide. “I’ve been reading too many books.”