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
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 increasingly 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 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
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
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