- United Kingdom
- Culture Trip Literature
Last week, the longlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize was announced. Known as the “Man Booker Dozen”, these 13 novels were whittled down from 155 submissions, all published in the UK since October of last year. Recent yet controversial eligibility rule changes – allowing all works of fiction originally written in English, not simply from the British Commonwealth and Ireland – have opened the door to American authors for inclusion. And their presence is felt, with almost half of this year’s nominees coming from the US. Headlining the longlist is South African writer J.M. Coetzee, a two-time Booker winner, now vying to become the first to make a hat-trick of the prize when it’s announced in October. The Culture Trip takes a look at the nominated works and why each may take home the prize.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty (USA)
It’s no surprise that the era of Black Lives Matter would engender great works of African-American art and literature. Satire may seem perpendicular to the seriousness of the movement, but Paul Beatty’s The Sellout isn’t out to make light of a dire situation. Instead its humor masks a deeper racial rancor. Consider the opening sentence, “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything”. The narrator has taken as a slave a former Little Rascal named Hominy Jenkins, who makes a living acting out black stereotypes. He has also managed to segregate, at least momentarily, both schools and buses. In penning what may be the first great social satire in a generation, Beatty tips his hat toward comedian Dave Chappelle’s famous sketch of blind and black KKK member Clayton Bigsby. Both are uncomfortably comic.
Why The Sellout could win: Beatty’s novel has been universally acclaimed as a satire that has poignantly grasped contemporary racial tensions. As the only African-American on the list, Beatty winning would serve both as a recognition of his literary gifts, and of his long-serving commitment to black culture. —Michael Barron
The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M Coetzee (South Africa / Australia)
Serious Sweet by A.L. Kennedy (UK)
To the great love letters to the city of London, add A.L. Kennedy’s Serious Sweet. Kennedy, now 50, comes from a more bohemian, clandestine London but Serious Sweet sets the city in contemporary times, a metropolis that has scrubbed its rougher turfs clean with well-trimmed suburbs and Windexed high-rise facades. It’s through her two main characters Meg and Jonathan that Kennedy unwraps her affection for the Big Smoke. Jonathan is a divorced civil servant who leaks government secrets to the press as a side hustle. A literary man, he places an ad in the Times Literary Supplement offering “expressions of affection and respect delivered weekly” to interested single women. Meg, a single animal shelter worker and recovering alcoholic, responds. But the heart moves quickly and over the course of a single day, as Jonathan and Meg flit about their daily errands, they develop plans to meet. Kennedy uses that premise to explore the anger and passion she has for London town. The result? Sleepless in Seattle, respun by James Joyce, and set within a London on the precipice of Brexit.
Why Serious Sweet could win: Though Kennedy has enjoyed a celebrated career, she has never won nor even been shortlisted for the Man Booker. In 2001, Kennedy made headlines when she spat vitriol at the prize, claiming that the winner was judged by “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is”. The rant may have cost her entry for the last fifteen years, but seeing her on the longlist may be a clue that the Booker institution isn’t just ready to forgive her but give her a pedestal to stand on as well. —MB
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (UK)
Four years after her previous novel Swimming Home was shortlisted, playwright and poet Deborah Levy returns to the prize with a vengeance. Inspired by ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, an essay by Algerian-French feminist Hélène Cixous, the book centers on the erratic relationship between a young Englishwoman, Sofia, and her hypochondriac mother Rose. The two have moved to Almería, Spain to visit the clinic of one Dr. Goméz, an eccentric but celebrated orthopaedic consultant, and something of a solution of last resort for her mother’s psychosomatic troubles. Witty, unhinged and intense, Hot Milk uses as disparate subjects as sinister psychology and playful sexuality to force through Cixous’ message: ‘It is up to you to break the old circuits’.
Why Hot Milk could win: With its arresting themes, and its array of delicious side-characters competing for your attention, Levy’s novel is very much a favorite. She came close before, and the judges may feel she’s overdue for a win with this inventive and lively read. — Simon Leser
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK)
The most unconventional candidate for the Booker may be Scottish crime writer Graeme Macrae Burnet, whose psychological thriller His Bloody Project was a surprise inclusion on the longlist. The book is inspired by the real-life 1869 case of Scottish serial killer Roderick Macrae (relation unknown). While Burnet isn’t shy about describing the details of Macrae’s triple murder in a remote Scottish village, he is also fascinated with the public hysteria behind a case which garnered OJ Simpson-levels of coverage. Burnet is a meticulous detective and historian, as well as an astute inquisitor into human rationale. Along with lavish descriptions of poor, rural 19th-century Scotland, he builds up the conditions and reasoning behind both a confessed killer’s intent, and of the dilemma of a lawyer tasked with defending him.
Why His Bloody Project could win: Burnet is easily the underdog on this list. His book hasn’t received much review attention, yet a crime novelist making the list certainly raises a few eyebrows. A win for Burnet is the kind of Cinderella story that generates good publicity, though the Scot can already found a spot in the limelight — the book’s film rights were purchased by the British studio Synchronicity Films shortly after his nomination was announced. —MB
The North Water by Ian McGuire (UK)
Ian McGuire, co-founder of the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing, is nominated for his second book, The North Water, a sordid, action-packed iteration of the whaling novel. Patrick Sumner, a former army surgeon and veteran of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, is employed as a medic on the Volunteer, a Yorkshire ship bound for the Arctic. Also onboard is one Henry Drax, a harpooner, and quite recognizable as the novel’s resident evil guy (the first scene opens with the words ‘Behold the man’, and sees him beat and rape a boy right after he’s killed another). There is little mystery here, as both the whaling voyage’s hidden purpose and Drax’s unpleasant tastes are revealed early. What we get instead is a story driven by filth, dark humor (of the short snicker kind) and adventure.
Why The North Water could win: If the works of Paula Hawkins and Dan Brown are the literary equivalents of blockbuster cinema, then McGuire’s is all Tarantino. The North Water packs a fast-paced, dirty realism, smart and stylized enough to make for an immensely entertaining reading experience. With the support of heavyweights Hilary Mantel and Martin Amis on the book jacket, this novel is is well placed to win the much-coveted award. —SL
Hystopia by David Means (USA)
Hystopia is the debut novel from veteran short story writer David Means, based loosely around his family’s traumatic experience with the Vietnam War. A novel within a novel, Means’ highly-anticipated work tells the story of a discovered manuscript by Eugene Allen, a recently deceased Vietnam veteran. Allen’s novel, also called Hystopia, is on the surface a sprawling speculative work beaded with the same paranoia once sweated out by Philip K Dick and J.G. Ballard. John F. Kennedy, who in this alternate history has survived Lee Harvey Oswald’s attempted assassination, has become the second US president to serve more than two terms. This hasn’t prevented the Vietnam War from escalating to the same catastrophic levels that its real-world event, only here returning soldiers are issued a drug that represses traumatic memories. The narcotic has a disastrous side effect on one soldier who returns to his native Michigan and begins to reenact nightmarish combat ops on some of its residents. But the apex comes not with what happens in Allen’s Hystopia, but in Means’s.
Why Hystopia could win: For twenty-five years, and through four collections (including the much lauded Assorted Fire Events published in 2000), David Means has penned the kind of short stories that exemplify a grace and gravity often thought only possible in a novel. History is riddled with accomplished writers not meant for the novel, but Means’s successful and lauded cross-over could win over the judges. There is, after all, no guarantee that Means will write another. —MB
The Many by Wyl Menmuir (UK)
Probably the most surprising inclusion in this year’s longlist, The Many is the debut novel of literacy consultant and part-time editor Wyl Menmuir, who apparently wrote most of it parked on the Cornish coast in a VW campervan. The story is set in an isolated coastal village, in whose polluted waters locals catch strange fish, and where the horizon is barred by immense, deserted ships. A cheery setting in which Timothy, our man straight from the city, decides to settle, with the purchase of a decrepit house overlooking the coast. The property was previously occupied by a fellow named Perran who died ten years back – not long enough, it seems, for the villagers to stop grieving. None of them take too kindly to Timothy — save for one old fisherman called Ethan — and the situation turns perilous as his enquiries get more pronounced: “Who was Perran?”
Why The Many could win: Eerie, mysterious, and increasingly menacing, this is a tale unlike any other in the running. If its allegorical traits make for an obvious denouement, make no mistake: this is a book you won’t want to put down. We think the judges had the same idea. — SL
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (USA)
If Beatty’s world imagines a black American trying to turn his neighborhood into a White Supremacist’s fantasy, Moshfegh’s Eileen inverses the notion with a woman trapped within the existential suffocation of White America. The eponymous protagonist Eileen Dunlop is a cheerless creature living in a mid-1960s, conservative, small Massachusetts town. It is for the most part populated by a homogenous spread of the white lower class, a caricature of what the wrong side of the tracks may have seemed to a Leave It To Beaver America, in which Eileen makes an ideal resident. Insouciant to life, and zealous for death and decay, Eileen is a world-class weirdo who keeps a dead mouse in the glove compartment of her car who maintains a laxative addiction. Her day job as a secretary at a boys’ correctional facility does little to break the rain clouds that constantly hover about her. Nor does she find much comfort with the alcoholic ex-cop father with whom she lives. You’d forgive Eileen for wanting to leave, as she eventually does. That’s no spoiler — the book is narrated by a much older Eileen reflecting upon the husk of her former, macabre self. Her eventual exile is provoked by Rebecca, a new director at the correctional facility, a gorgeous Harvard-educated psychologist who quickly becomes Eileen’s first friend. Rebecca may sound like a savior, but this is an Ottessa Moshfegh story: there are no saints, only catalysts.
Why Eileen could win: The Man Booker has a history of awarding debut novels. Moshfegh, who was once told by an editor that Eileen “failed to live up to expectations“, is a conspicious nomination as a new voice. The cult following Moshfegh has amassed in only four short years, with steady championing by the Paris Review, gives her particular favor from a younger, millennial audience. —MB
Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves (USA)
Montana-born and Austin-based, Virginia Reeves is a newcomer to the prize — and to novel writing in general. Her debut is set in 1920s Alabama, centering on the travails of a talented electrician named Roscoe T. Martin, made to leave the city and work on his wife’s childhood farm. Unable to adapt to rural life, he rigs up a way to steal electricity from the nearby high-tension lines and use it at his place (and increase its income, or some such thing). The scheme lasts for a cheery two years, until an inept official from the electricity company gets electrocuted, right as he discovers the system. Roscoe is sentenced to jail for manslaughter, and the rest of Work Like Any Other follows the man as he attempts to get through prison, disowned by his family and battered by guilt.
Why Work Like Any Other could win: If ‘pastoral’ is often too lightly used when describing works of literature, it’s certainly at its most appropriate here. The pace may be slow, the narrative steady and at times sprinkled with a little cliché, but there is no denying this is a country work full of country power (what that means exactly you’ll have to ask someone else). Joining as it does the long list of Southern prison novels, Work Like Any Other is an outsider for the Man Booker, even if a jury desperate for a little change could easily reward it. It is historical fiction, after all. —SL
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (USA)
My Name is Lucy Barton is, thematically speaking, classic Strout: a dogged investigation into the psyche of societal, familial and communal relationships. Her penchant for discomfiting subjects has paid off with awards and screen adaptations of works such as Amy and Isabelle (1998) and Olive Kitteredge (2008). Where the latter cross-stitched a series of vignettes involving the protoganist’s interactions with the residents of a Northern Maine town, Lucy Barton tightly cords itself around one family. Lucy Barton is a writer who has been hospitalized for complications following a recent surgery. Her nine weeks of internment allows Lucy to reflect upon her life, her anger toward her abusive father and pusillanimous mother, the deterioration of marriage, and how these unfortunate conditions shepherded Lucy into a career as a writer. But it’s reconciliation, not reflection, that tempers the narrative, and this requires a prosody of exceptional sensitivity and grace for it to not dampen the novel into something saccharine. To quote writer Claire Messud who reviewed the book for the New York Times: “There is not a scintilla of sentimentality in this exquisite novel. Instead, in its careful words and vibrating silences, My Name Is Lucy Barton offers us a rare wealth of emotion, from darkest suffering to — “I was so happy. Oh, I was happy” — simple joy.”
Why My Name Is Lucy Barton could win: This is Strout’s fifth novel, and it has been enthusiastically received by the big media wigs. Strout, with an Oprah Winfrey-produced film adaptation, an Emmy award-winning TV show, and a Pulitzer under her belt, is an establishment favorite, which could help boost her chances of at least making it to the short list, if not all the way. —MB
All That Man Is by David Szalay (UK)
The sole short story collection to be nominated comes from a longtime novelist. All That Man Is illuminates the doomed loop of the male condition with wry observation. David Szalay has been hyped as the heir apparent to Martin Amis — what with his characteristic use of the lone wolf observer biting with acerbic wit. His prose carries a sensibility for cool cadences, not unlike the kind of poetry you’d hear accompanied by smoky jazz. Here’s an passage from his story “Lascia Amor e Segui Marte”: “Lost focus. In the office. Orifice. Office. Office. Is what I live for. And that’s the truth. He has left the Starbucks and is now in the lobby — modern marble — waiting for the lift.” All that Man Is unapologetically gives the mic over to contemporary troubadours — suicidal billionaires, romantic bodyguards, introspective tabloid reporters, and naive vagabonds. But this isn’t a perfect-bound bro fest. Rather, these stories grasp at the limitations of a certain kind of male idealism, drilled into young boys who grow to admire suits and uniforms only to discover the flimsiness of their constructions. Or, as the original title once put: In the Days of My Youth I Was Told What It Means to Be a Man.
Why All That Man Is could win: Szalay is on the cusp of widespread recognition and acclaim, but it could take the Booker to really tip him in. Szalay’s win would also be a symbolic victory for that generation of writers that seemed to usher in the new millennium by their will and words alone. To put it bluntly, this is the sort of coup that could change the guard of the British literary establishment. —MB
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (Canada)
Few countries have rough and tumbled into the 21st century quite like China, and only a scant offering of English-language novels have successfully encapsulated its tumultuous metamorphosis into modernity. That being said, Canadian writer Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a remarkable achievement. At its heart are three musicians — Sparrow, Kai, and Zhuli — who attend music school during the rise of Mao Zedong. Their lives criss-cross and hurtle forward through the Cultural Revolution, paying witness to the punishments of deviants and imbibing Western influence from Glenn Gould and Walter Benjamin. These experiences climb to a peak at Tiananmen Square offering one of the most dramatic accounts of that historic moment in contemporary fiction. Thien herself is the daughter of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants and grew up in Vancouver. She has three novels, and one collection of stories under her belt (Simple Recipes, 2001) which was lauded by fellow Canadian Alice Munro.
Why Do Not Say We Have Nothing could win: Thien’s novel is that rare English-language yarn with concerns exterior to the West. Within Thien’s own oeuvre, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a major step forward in grandeur and scope compared to her previous works, not to mention the fact that it took five years to write. A Booker triumph for Thien might make for uncomfortable reading for the Chinese Communist Party, but this fact might spur on rather than stymie the judges. —MB