I mentioned, in my first pair of reviews drawing from this year’s Booker shortlist, the sad omission by the judges of M John Harrison’s superb Empty Space. This was a novel, it seemed to me, with all the poignancy and pregnancy the Booker seeks to reward, replete with the subtle craft and canny artistry it likes to encourage. In the comments to a recent post on the blog of science fiction author Adam Roberts, himself a previous recipient of the shoulda-woulda-coulda SF Booker badge, the estimable Matt Cheney agrees:
By your criteria here, it would be hard to make a case for even, say, Harrison’s Empty Space to make it to the list — and I think it certainly deserved to be there. But it’s complex, difficult, allusive, elusive. Certainly not primitivist, unless “primitivist” is stripped of much meaning.
The comment is part of a discussion about the criteria Cheney mentions, a set of propositions Roberts establishes in an attempt to argue not just for the importance of Young Adult fiction but for its primacy in contemporary literary culture. There’s a lot in Roberts’s post to like – I’m particularly intrigued by his idea that education and school represents a dominant strand of post-modern experience – but his position on YA seems unusually wobbly. This has led Nina Allan, who shares my admiration for Roberts’s criticism, to wonder if he isn’t, gadflyishly, playing Devil’s advocate; Allan also pre-empts most of my quibbles with the original post, but I wonder if encoded within it – and implicit in Allan’s response – is a more compelling ‘great definer’ of our age. But more of that anon.
For the moment, it’s worth sticking with YA, not least because Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being reads a good deal like fiction aimed at teens for a good part of its length. Half of its pagecount is handed over to Nao, a Japanese adolescent whose diary is found by Ruth, an American writer living on a sparsely inhabited island in Desolation Sound. In reading Nao’s journal, Ruth comes to feel impossibly close to the teen’s stories first of dotcom bubble prosperity in Silicon Valley, then poverty back home in Japan when her depressive father loses his job and takes to placing ill-fated bets as a means of maintaining the family income. Nao’s narrative truly revolves, however, around Jiko, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun who is also Nao’s improbably wise grandmother.
Into this tale therefore enters the concept of Oneness: Jiko’s philosophy is filtered through Nao’s naivety (“everything I write will be historically true and empowering to women, and not a lot of foolish geisha crap” [pg. 6]), resulting in a good deal of restatements of the gnomically obvious. “Being a Buddhist,” Nao tells us of Jiko, “she really understands impermanence and that everything changes and nothing lasts forever.” [pg. 27] This Cliff Notes approach to Jiko’s beliefs infuses Nao’s half of the novel, in which we are treated to related wit and wisdom ranging across a number of contemporary hot topics: “Everybody in California has ADD, and they all take meds for it, and they’re constantly changing their prescriptions and tweaking their dosages” [pg. 161]; “September 11 is like a sharp knife slicing through time” [pg. 265]; “all the millions of people in their lonely little rooms, furiously writing and posting to their lonely little pages that nobody has time to read because they’re all so busy writing and posting” [pg. 26].
There’s a reductiveness to a lot of this which characterises the worst kind of YA, the type rolled out by lofty adults to help young people understand what it means to be proper people. (Not for the first time, m’learned friend Martin Lewis nails this problem with concision and vim.) Nao’s passages start off promisingly – the first chapter in particular reads freshly and cheekily, and made me genuinely excited for the novel – but it never really deepens or complicates itself. We might assume, then, that Ozeki simply suffers from the same malady which afflicts many such writers when slumming it by writing from a teen perspective: she simply doesn’t capture the sophistication of the voice. The difficulty is that this is true, too, of Ruth’s passages, albeit in a different way. They very often take the form of dialogues between her and another character – most often another improbably wise interlocutor, her husband Oliver.
“Do I what?”
“She says she’s writing it for you. So do you feel special?”
“That’s ridiculous,” Ruth said.
“Speaking about garbage,” Oliver said, “I’ve been thinking about the Great Garbage Patches recently …”
“The Great Eastern and Great Western Garbage Patches? Enormous masses of garbage and debris floating in the oceans? You must have heard about them … ”
“Yes,” she said. “No. I mean, sort of.” It didn’t matter, since he clearly wanted to tell her about them. [pg. 35]
This format is fitting for the book Ozeki has written – which is essentially a disputation, a didact’s philosophy primer – but it grinds wearyingly on over the space of a 400+ page volume that insists upon presenting as a novel. Of course, the diary-reading and letter-writing at the heart of this story – emails and blogs feature, too, but only as spruced-up accoutrements to what is a fairly traditional epistolary structure – are all a metaphor for the act of creation undertaken in collaboration by a reader and a writer. Ruth and Nao are in a mystical way the same person, forming (in the oneness of the – geddit? – now) their story together. This is gratingly obvious early on, and the digressions and multiplying frame narratives Ozeki employs to complicate this schematic endeavour don’t sufficiently distract from a core predictability. By the 400th page – when, of course, Oliver reveals all (“the superposed quantum system persists, only, when it is observed, it branches” [pg. 397]), it comes as both relief and let-down. Perhaps this is true primarily for readers of novels like M John Harrison’s; perhaps there are those for whom the Ozeki will come as a revelation; but one wonders why a novel in the footsteps of Jostein Gaarder trumps a more complex novel with the same quantum-philosophical base.
Which might return us to Roberts’s thoughts: “No SF? No YA? No Crime? Insular, backward looking shortlist.” Except that Roberts does not consider SF’s science to be as vital as YA’s, well, youth. Indeed, in his trio of defining contemporary characteristics, Roberts places technology on the lowest rung. Above it but below youth, in the role of our age’s Ronnie Barker, he sites globalisation. With self-conscious finesse, then, I direct your attention to NoViolet Bulawayo’s tilt at the Booker, We Need New Names.
Darling is another young girl in unfortunate circumstances: in her case, she and her single mother (who operates, at the edge of Darling’s understanding, as an occasional sex worker) live in a Zimbabwean shanty town known drolly as Paradise. She and her friends spend their days causing trouble and playing Find Bin Laden (all these international children are so interested in the War on Terror, one finds), stealing intermittently into the better parts of town to grab fruit from trees and gaze, wide-eyed, at the privilege they cannot quite imagine, “the big stadium with the glimmering benches we’ll never sit on” [pg. 2]. Globalisation, then, touches their lives in a myriad ways: the well-heeled visitor from London who will “throw food away” as if it’s nothing [pg. 7], the charity workers who arrive at the village without the language, who dole out rations and are mocked by the children; the teachers who have “left to teach over in South Africa and Botswana and Namibia and them, where there’s better money” [pg. 31]; and, finally, the family members who have already escaped to America, to work as cleaners and orderlies in luxury quite alien to Darling’s contemporaries.
Indeed, Bulawayo spends a lot of time in the first half of her novel on the degradations which contrast so vividly with these glimpses of the West: the woman with AIDS who hangs herself, and whose corpse is found, dangling, by the young tearaways; the girl who is pregnant with her grandfather’s child, having been repeatedly raped; the sinister village preacher, the satisfyingly monikered Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro, who accuses women of witchcraft and demonic possession in order to abuse them. “There is just no sense in being afraid when you live so near the graves,” Darling says [pg. 132], and there is certainly an air of resignation to Bulawayo’s work. When Darling flies to America to join a relative there, her life – and the prose style itself – changes utterly. We Need New Names proceeds from Bulawayo’s Caine-winning short story ‘Hitting Budapest‘, which is here the first chapter, but the book takes a huge swerve at its centrepoint, shifting from a demotic, almost innocent style, to a breathless, almost bitter one: “If I were at home I know I would not be standing around because something called snow was preventing me going outside to live life.” [pg. 153]
This doesn’t lead very far, however: Darling watches pornography with her new group in America and grows into awkward adolescence; she dismisses the pain of a friend who is physically assaulted by her boyfriend (“I don’t think she had to be all over, like her face was a humanitarian crisis” [pg. 218]); and she returns to her village to be scolded and rejected by her former friends. All this, as in A Tale for the Time Being, is much as you’d expect, a sort of grand thematic tour. On the other hand, it is also written with more clarity and playfulness than Ozeki’s novel, and though it is in its own way just as insistent, it is much less didactic – because much more sprightly. Still, I find it hard not to agree, insofar as it is possible or reasonable for me to do so, with Helon Habila in the Guardian: “To perform Africa […] is to inundate one’s writing with images and symbols and allusions that evoke, to borrow a phrase from Aristotle, pity and fear, but not in a real tragic sense, more in a CNN, western-media-coverage-of-Africa, poverty-porn sense.” Bulawayo has one of Darling’s childhood friends counter this accusation – “You think watching on BBC means you know what is going on?” [pg. 285] – but in her clear and understandable desire to document the deprivations of a country often invisible to inhabitants of the one to which Darling emigrates, she does somewhat load her novel with precisely the negative resignation one assumes she wishes to eschew.
Bulawayo ends We Need New Names on an ugly image of a dog crushed by traffic on a Zimbabwean road; her final sentence, however, emphasises the “delicious, delicious smell of Lobells bread” which wafts across the scene, as if – aha – to leaven the darkness, to emphasise that all in Africa is not dead dogs in the road. In her second novel, one hopes she succeeds in better achieving that balance. One worries, however, that Philip Hensher is right: that the inclusion from 2014 of American novels in the Booker race will hollow out the prize, render ever more predictable its shortlist; already, in three of these six shortlisted novels (the two reviewed here and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland), America acts as a prism through which more particular struggles are viewed. Hensher, I think, over-eggs his pudding, but concern about a flattening-out is valid: in his own Booker post, after all, Roberts notes that the youth culture he sees as permeating and defining our particular moment was “invented to relieve young people of their pocket money in the 1950s”; in her response to the post, Nina Allan points out that YA is written not for young adults but for “the young adult market“. The characteristic of our age – as Darling, imprisoned in her shanty town and pining for “the TV, the large radio, the beautiful things we don’t know” – is not the youth Nao and Darling share, but the commodification which places intolerable pressures on the lives of all around them, the packaging and repackaging of stuff. Selling to markets is the sine qua non of our technological, globalised, youth-obsessed culture, one in which leisure time expands and is filled not by more time for reflection but by more product – not by what Roberts calls ‘clever clever’ art, but by accessible mass media.
The Booker, one hopes, won’t reward books which play to those pressures.