“Thirteen books? Piece of cake”
Those are the words that started my Man Booker odyssey. Twitter was still a novelty in 2009, and one day in July that year, I saw in my feed that the longlist announcement was imminent. I thought a longlist would be a utterly bamboozling collection of the finest literature. I was nonplussed by the length of the list. I was also completely unfamiliar with any of the writers on the list. I did what anyone might do in that situation. I decided to read the lot. Six years on, I’ve finally defeated the monster that is the entire list of winners. Six years on, I realise that reading that original 13 – to say nothing of going on to read the 48 winners – is not ‘what anyone might do’.
Six years ago, Labour were still in government. Six years ago, the release of the original iPad was still nine months away. If those things seem incredible, they are nothing to me compared with the journey I’ve been on as a reader. So, before I turned the last page of the last book (The Famished Road), I knew I’d have to do something to make sense of my endeavour, with those books, over that time.
Trouble is, my thoughts and feelings about the books have changed over time. Some of the books I’d read before 2009 without being aware of the prize and its history. Some of the books I can barely remember. Some of the books didn’t seem all that when I read them, but became something much richer and more exciting after finishing other books: the reading, in short, doesn’t stop. So this is an arbitrary time to be making a judgment on so many of those books. Moreover, the more I read, the less I rely on my solitary interpretation. I know my opinion is more robust after talking about a book. I know my feeling can deepen the further away from the reading experience I get. There are also some books that I don’t want to turn the last page of, that I’m not going to be able to ‘assess’ at any remove because the experience of reading is beyond my means to express. So all that? Pinch of salt for what comes next.
I made a schematic, taking inspiration from a map of the underground. I’ve grouped the books according to what I thought the most prevalent theme was. These themes are the lines on the map, and they intersect with books that have more than a single prevalent theme. I then arranged the books so that those I deemed to be ‘better’ featured at the centre (zone 1): the further out, the less impressive. The map features winners and shortlisted books (shortlistees are grey).
These books exist in their own right and – like many subjective articles – are impossible to compare. But when considered as a batch, some interesting things emerge. Take The Bone People, my hands-down favourite winner, and The Famished Road, the book I was closest to abandoning. The Bone People features a trio – man, woman and child – who have trouble relating to one another in spite of considerable affection. The Famished Road is also about a man, woman and child who love one another but nonetheless find it difficult to get along. Both stories have liberal amounts of violence and intoxication. In both stories the child, a boy, comes from another place and has trouble adapting to the rules imposed on him. Both stories entertain the possibility of there being a spirit world that breaks in on what we think of as reality. Yet the two books elicited reactions in me that were poles apart – and the similarities were not apparent at the time of reading.
Two books with much more obvious links are C. (shortlisted in 2010) and G. (scooping the prize in 1972). I read C. as part of a library event on the eve of the Man Booker announcement in 2010. One of six panellists, my job was to read a shortlisted book and represent it to the audience. I found C. utterly perplexing. The story ranged from the eponymous C’s childhood to his antics during WWII as a pilot and beyond to his explorations in Egypt. Each section was distinct in phase of life and also in aesthetic – from the moss green vignettes of C’s first home, to a grimy, coal-covered London, to the gilded opulence of an Egypt soaked in sun and treasures. I didn’t do the book justice on the night, bemoaning the apparent lack of a driving narrative – especially the lack of follow through on the mysterious death of C’s sister in the opening section – and failing to say that it clearly revealed Tom McCarthy’s visual sensibilities. Some time later, I read G. and the extent of McCarthy’s artistic endeavour was even more apparent. When I studied Fine Art I learned that the definition of ‘contemporary art’ was that which is contextually aware – it often critiques art of the past. C. is a remarkable book in relation to G. It follows the structure established by John Berger (whose own artistic sensibilities are widely known), whose character G. is similarly uncommitted, drifting from one love affair to another, on the periphery of significant moments in aerial history. These books, as companion pieces, are mind-bendingly extraordinary; greater, perhaps, than the sum of the two parts.
It goes without saying that this diagram is a snapshot of my feeling about this collection of prize-winners at this moment in time. I’ve tried to be true to my feelings at the time of entering these books into my book journal, which takes into account how well I enjoyed the reading experience. It’s also a record of some significant moments in my reading life: Midnight’s Children, the first book I remember asking a lot of me, the first book in which I’m actively asked whether I want to trust the fallible narrator; Saville, a book ‘from my neck of the woods’ that I really wanted to like, containing dialect that simply sounded bogus to my ear; Bring Up The Bodies, my first hotly anticipated sequel, replete with expectation anxiety (it was glorious, I was astounded).
The wheels keep turning and this victory is only temporary. Today, a new shortlist will be announced, consisting of six writers whose work I haven’t yet read. But after six years of developing my own taste, the next six books I read will be my own choice and the result of instinct, whimsy and a good chat with my inestimable bookseller Jonathan.