The OF Blog: Thoughts on the 2011 Man Booker Prize Finalists

Monday, October 17, 2011

Thoughts on the 2011 Man Booker Prize Finalists

Image taken from The Telegraph's article on the finalists
On Tuesday, there will be quite a bit of wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Regardless which of the six finalists pictured to the left is selected to win, there will be complaints about how the finalists are weaker this year than in previous years; how the judges are "out of touch;" how the judges are sacrificing "quality" at the alter of "readability;" how there is a perceived lack of "genre" fiction; how there is too much "genre" fiction among the finalists; etc.  There might be some validity to these complaints (I will admit that the shortlist as a whole did not seem as strong to me as last year's, although none of these, with the possible exception of Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending, comes close to the inexplicable winner last year, Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question), but having finished reading the final one of the six on my to-read list this past weekend, I just thought I would weigh in with some (hopefully) informed thoughts on the books.

It is true that there are more "genre" elements in the shortlist as a whole, but that does not imply in this sense overt or even covert science fiction or fantasy elements.  Rather, the "genre" elements would refer more to mysteries, historical fictions, nautical, and Westerns than anything else.  Two of the strongest novels on this shortlist utilize several of these "genre" elements adroitly in telling their narratives; one other fails at this.  With the exception of Barnes' short novel, none of the shortlisted texts could be considered "literary" in the pejorative sense of the tale revolving around an aging bourgeois and his mid-life quasi-existential crisis.

In regards to quality, Patrick Dewitt's The Sisters Brothers and Carol Birch's Jamrach's Menagerie are a level above the other finalists in regards to how narrative is welded to prose and then melded into characterization.  Dewitt's story is perhaps the most accomplished of the six in that there are no narrative longeurs or dips in prose quality; the characters and the violent situations in which they find themselves are well-drawn and Dewitt presents a well-crafted story whose literary qualities on a sentence level do not belie the wonderful story that unfolds.  Birch's tale, set aboard a ship, contains several powerful passages, perhaps the most beautiful to read of the six, yet there are a few patches, particularly in the beginning and to an extent at the end, that are weaker in comparison to the very strong middle sections.  If it weren't for these occasional dips in narrative power, I would have considered Jamrach's Menagerie to have been the best of the bunch.

Below them in the middling rank are Stephen Kelman's debut novel, Pigeon English, and Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues.  Kelman's novel, heavily reliant upon mimicking the dialect of a young urban Ghanaian-Londoner, is the most ambitious in its prose and presentation, yet the story of two youth "investigating" a crime and coming a bit too close to the scene for comfort feels oddly flat.  It could have been brilliant yet it ends up settling for merely quite good, not quite the feeling I expected to have after having begun reading it.  A similar sense of unevenness afflicted Edugyan's novel of betrayal and music during the months leading up to the German invasion of France in 1940.  The mystery elements do not hold up well compared to the narrator's guilt and remembrance of his long-lost biracial friend, Hieronymous Falk.  Half Blood Blues is solid, but it rarely rises up to the level of excellence that one might expect it to based on the premise.

A.D. Miller's Snowdrops was utterly forgettable, to the point that when talking on Twitter last week about my first impressions of the shortlist that I had forgotten it was on the list.  The Moscow murder mystery element was competent yet the prose was never scintillating nor did the plot engage me.  It was one of those "well, I read it but I was left feeling as though I was reading something that I had read done better by other authors."  Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending was the most frustrating of the six to read.  On one hand, his prose was at times outstanding.  The philosophizing that narrator Tony Webster engages in feels authentic and the sense of a dull feeling of faint hopes lost with time and setbacks did spark some sentiment, yet the plot was utterly asinine and unconvincing.  I have not read any Barnes prior to this, but surely he is better than trying to weld a ham-fisted, hole-filled plot to an insightful look into a character's denseness and inability to perceive what is truly happening around him?  I felt cheated when I finished reading this book.

Compared to last year's shortlist, the 2011 finalists do come up short in my estimation.  Although I could easily see Dewitt or Birch being a part of last year's list, as a whole there is little memorable about this year's group.  It is not because there is too much or too little "genre" in these novels, but rather because the stories often fail to rise to the promise of their premises.  Several of the authors on this shortlist are "young," at least in the sense of there being only a few novels under their collective belts.  There is hope that Kelman and Edugyan at least can produce better, less uneven works as they mature as writers.  But for now, I am left thinking this year's shortlist was merely adequate and that nothing really stunk.  However, I want more from an award that purports to capture the "best" of a given year's output by UK/Commonwealth/Irish writers.  Well, there's always the US-based National Book Awards.  I've already read two of those, Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife and Julie Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic, and if I had to compare each of those to the six finalists for the Man Booker Prize, I would rate both of them higher than all of the others.


Anonymous said...

It seems a strange coincidence that four of the six shortlisted books were read on Radio 4's
"Book at Bedtime" this year.

Jason said...

"I have not read any Barnes prior to this..."

My friend, by all means, you must read _A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters_.

You will find it frustrating. You will find a lot of it brilliant. You will not forget it.

Larry said...

Sounds like The Sense of an Ending, yet done better. Will keep that in mind, as there were parts that I did enjoy, which makes the poorer parts all that more frustrating to me.

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