Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Booker longlist - some early thoughts

'The wizarding world is the society in which wizards and witches live and interact separate from Muggle (non-wizarding) society. The two communities are kept separate through the use of charms, spells, and secrecy. Wizards are forbidden to reveal anything about magic to Muggle society...' (Wikipedia)

I was reminded of J. K. Rowling's two worlds when reading Alan Hollinghurst's new Booker longlisted novel
A Stranger's Child. Only, in Hollinghurst's universe the competing worlds are gay and non-gay.

The gays are the creatives - the poets, the writers, the teachers, the artists, the lovers, the musicians. The non-gays are the plainer, worldly, less interesting domestic, political, academic and business types, usually of inferior sensibility and taste. In the novel the only sex depicted is gay sex. Hetero sex takes place off stage, if any takes place at all. That's left to the reader's imagination.

No-one should have a problem with this necessarily, but as a literary device it's a cliche. And it renders much of the novel simply tedious. There is endless talking between the characters but to little avail. The nature of their close relationships is unexplored. Facts, truth, what actually happened - all remain undisclosed, to the characters themselves and to the reader. This is the 'love that dare not speak its name' after all.

There is much surface glitter, much that is hinted at, much left unsaid. It's a world of secrets and lies, and little enlightenment. But perhaps this is English society, and as an Australian with a plainer tongue, I was profoundly annoyed by it.

I was fully expecting a dramatic ending - a plot development, a detonation, that would bring all the pieces together, that would unify, enrich and give an extra dimension to all the narrative threads that over-populate this story. But none came. It simply fizzled out.

Here is a fairly typical Hollinghurst sentence: 'Dudley turned to her with that unstable mixture of indulgence and polite bewilderment and mocking distaste that she had come to know and dread and furiously resent'. 

Firstly, I find it quite hard to picture what sort of look Dudley could possibly have had on his face that could be so described! Secondly, there's apparently a huge amount of emotion going on between these two characters, a husband and wife, that is simply not evident in the rather domestic situation being described. It's just a familiar tizz. They are getting ready to go down to welcome their dinner guests, and she's a bit stressed.

This is the sort of over-writing that Hollinghurst indulges in, and that I find tiresome. There are four 'ands' in the short sentence above. The style is to build the drama, but that's where all the drama is - in the prose, not in the plot. The standard definition of sentimentality is that it's emotion disproportionate to the facts. Here we're seeing a  heightened dramatic prose style disproportionate to the routine events, situations and facts it purports to describe.

Hollinghurst describes one of his characters' literary style at one point: 'It was one of his better pre-war poems, though with that tendency to sonorous padding that spoiled almost everything he wrote if judged by the sternest standard.' Hollinghurst could be describing himself.

This is the bookies' favourite for this year's Booker prize. I can't see it winning at all. Most people will find it unreadable and quite unremarkable. And quite insubstantial. That is if they get past the first 100 pages, which they won't.

But, as Bob Ellis would say: 'You may disagree'.

Julian Barnes has had plenty of hits and misses, but The Sense of an Ending is simply wonderful.

It won't win the Booker - it's far too short at 150 pages, and has the feel of a novella - but it's a bright, refreshing tonic of a read, with that knowing, cynical, sharp, socially critical edge typical of Barnes at his best.

Speaking of plot: the book suffers profoundly from a major plot fault. The main character is criticised for not twigging to a critical fact, central to the plot. But, absent a visit from the Archangel Gabriel, he can't reasonably be expected to know it. As a result, we get something quite contrived, closer to melodrama than reality.

But you should buy and read this book if only to indulge in the delicious pleasure of reading the letter the main character writes to his ex-girlfriend and her new lover (who happens to have been a good friend). It's savagery at its best! Withering and marvellous.

And then there's the debate in the cafe about 'hand-cut' chips. They are apparently not hand cut at all. They are 'fat', and machine-made! (Oh, to have been there!)

This one could win it. Sebastian Barry's On Canaan's Side is a superb achievement. Unlike the Hollinghurst and Barnes novels it successfully brings all its elements together into an extremely satisfying whole. 

Ironically, these three novels span multi-generational timeframes of youth to old age. We are asked to engage with the main characters and stay with them emotionally during the different phases of their lives. Barry's Lilly Bere, from her earliest days in Dublin, to her final, heartbreaking days in a small village near Chicago, is impossible not to warmly embrace, in fact love. 

Of the thirteen novels on the Booker longlist I've only read three so far, but Barry will certainly make the shortlist and become a favourite to win. No doubt.

It's a joy to read.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Peter. The wizarding world of Harry Potter is not as black and white (or gay and straight) as this book sounds! In J. K. Rowling's universe, muggles can have wizard children (mudbloods) like Hermione, and wizards can have non-magical children (squibs) like Filch. So they are not quite as segregated as we may think!

    PS. Are you sure you weren't reminded of J. K. Rowling's "two worlds" when you saw me walk around Melbourne Uni wearing a Hogwarts uniform? lol!