The 2020 Booker Prize

The Mirror & the Light
Nope …

When 2020’s Booker shortlist was first announced, media coverage largely focused on its ‚Äúdiversity‚ÄĚ. The primary lens through which these six books were viewed was its “giant-killing” character: Mantel and Amis, for example, had been expelled from the inner sanctum of the prize – one which many had already decided was Mantel’s to lose – in favour of debut novelists and “little-known” names. But hidden only barely behind this headline was, in the summer of Black Lives Matter, the shortlist’s Booker-unusual heterogeneity: two African women, the Ethiopian-American Maaza Mengiste and the Zimbabwean Tsitsi Dangarembga, were accompanied by Avni Doshi, an American-Indian based in Dubai, and Brandon Taylor, an African-American gay man. The two white authors were both US-based: Douglas Stuart, an ex-pat Scot, and Diane Cook, a former producer of This American Life. Not one of these books is written by a novelist currently working in the UK. On the one hand, given the heavily American slant of the authors, this was proof that those concerns of some years ago – that the Booker would drift away from its “Commonwealth” roots and begin to reward authors eligible for prizes elsewhere – were not necessarily misplaced (although this isn’t the same as them mattering); on the other, it was hard to remember a Booker shortlist that had offered so varied and exciting an array of voices.

What this coverage missed, however, was how cohesive a shortlist these six novels in fact make. The events of all but one take place within about seventy years of each other; that odd-one-out, Cook’s The New Wilderness, is also the only novel that does not adopt a rigorously realist approach. All of these novels hinge on parent-child relationships; all investigate the impacts of trauma; almost all exhibit a tight grain, focusing on quotidian detail and sometimes exhausting list-making. Ultimately, most of these novels also don’t add up to the sum of their parts, or don’t quite meet their potential. Three are of a quality that might, in this reader’s view, commend them as a winner of the prize. But almost every one of these books is in one way or another a flawed attempt by a talented author to address the violence of our times. Only one book even of the shortlist’s best three, I think, escapes the traps into which the others fall.

I’ll get to which of these novels I think uniquely meets its mark, but let me start with a good example of one which doesn’t, and why: Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, a novel which traces the life of its titular Glaswegian youth from poverty-stricken childhood on a 1980s housing estate to a poverty-stricken tenement in the 1990s. Stuart has been clear that the novel is semi-autobiographical: like Shuggie’s, Stuart’s own mother experienced alcoholism; her addiction destroyed her relationships, her body and her mind. Shuggie’s mother is Agnes, who stumbles from ill-advised affair to ill-advised affair, and who – we are shown – was subject to abuse from her own parents. Stuart renders Thatcher’s Glasgow as an unremittingly grim place, with even those moments of something approaching consolation that are grasped by his characters ultimately feeling empty or disappointing. In this, Shuggie’s milieu mirrors how he feels about life with his mother: “the stretches of sobriety were fleeting and unpredictable and not to be fully enjoyed” (p. 219). Shuggie Bain is not a novel to have fun with.

It is, though, hugely successful in its feat of misery-building: whenever a moment seems to have happened that might herald better times ahead, Stuart swipes it away again. “At first the gaffer, a sinewy pragmatic man, had given the well-practice speeches,” we read about the first employment of Shuggie’s elder brother, which it is hoped will provide the family with an income and teach him a skill. “As the apprentice went on, and Leek kept staring through him, the speeches slowly filled with bitter bile” (p. 147). Amid these unremitting degradations, Agnes keeps going – “everyday with the make-up on and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high” (p. 268) – and this gruelling endurance is encouraged, too, in the reader. Within this context, there are many memorable episodes and lines – at times Shuggie Bain reads more immediately and truly than any other novel on this list. But it does tend to meander, and its wider purpose feels opaque. Economic inequalities of the sort experienced by the Bains remain rife; alcoholism still destroys families; children are still exploited. But Shuggie Bain is – as these quotations may have shown – too sunk in the direct experience of Shuggie necessarily to read outwards beyond it. Still, a novel can reserve the right to aim only to create empathy in the reader for its main character. The issue here is that the protagonist of Shuggie Bain is really Agnes – and yet the novel can’t quite bring itself into sufficient proximity to her. She remains closed off from us throughout, distant and mysterious. The book struggles, then, to bridge several of its gaps. It could have done with some tighter editing: a trimming of its sometimes leaden prose might have helped its purpose peek more proudly out.

Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar, on the other hand, performs some similar tricks but much more supply – and therefore successfully. Its protagonist, Antara, is an Indian woman living in Pune with her American husband; as her mother, the tellingly named Tara, succumbs to dementia and becomes more and more dependent upon her daughter, Antara must reckon with their troubled past and fraught relationship. Like Agnes, Tara is the pivotal character of the novel; but, unlike Stuart, Doshi provides us through flashbacks with just enough access to her life to understand its impacts. Tara was forced into a controlling marriage, and squeezed into an uncomfortable domestic shape by a commanding mother-in-law; she spent the rest of her life – and all of Antara’s itinerant childhood – trying to escape from other people’s control (she “always ran from anything that felt like oppression” (p. 52). This results in an almost deliberately dysfunctional life for the both of them, and Antara is brought up first in an ashram and then at a convent school. Neither of these cultish environments encouraged her to develop a self. As Tara grew older and more bitter, she too took to blocking off Antara’s paths and permitted self-expressions. As Antara in turn grows older, and begins to reckon with the prospect of her own motherhood, we see in economical detail how the consequences of parental abuse can travel through generations.

Perhaps Burnt Sugar works so well because all of its characters, not just the mother figure, are distant and attenuated: at one point, Antara muses that “she cannot remember what I felt for Ma at that time because the feeling lacked a familiar name” (p. 112) – in other words, she is unable to express her emotions, and cannot therefore fully experience them. This is not an usual feeling for Antara: the novel ends with her literally shut out from her own family, waiting to be let back in. Self-discovery is threatening to her: at one point, she ceases to see a therapist “because she asked too many questions” (p. 178). This is a novel, in other words, about the inability to connect – and it succeeds beautifully in creating a hugely compelling narrative which nevertheless exhibits the coolness its characters feel. Antara’s husband – a gently abusive presence himself, more from ignorance than intent, but no less damagingly – “tells everyone there were no jarring charges when [she] moved into his flat, that [her] life merged seamlessly with his” (p. 21). This is a novel about people learning how to live in a way that has weight.

If it sounds as if Burnt Sugar might be the solitary success of this shortlist that I proposed earlier, it isn’t, quite: it is beautifully written and wrought, if by its end a little on the nose; yet it cannot fail but to leave the reader locked out by novel’s end, like its protagonist. It is, though, a very good book – which alas Mengiste’s The Shadow King never quite manages to be. Baggily structured and written in a curiously prolix style, in its better moments it reminds me, and comes with the endorsement, of Aminatta Forna – but without the passion, the fire, that fills that writer’s prose. The story of an orphan, Hirut, who is taken in as a maid by an aristocratic family in 1930s Ethiopia, the novel seeks to provide an alternative narrative of Mussolini’s invasion of Haile Selassie’s kingdom of 1935. Hirut’s master/guardian is one of Selassie’s leading generals, but as the war becomes one of partisan attrition in the peaks and dips of Ethiophia’s Highlands, it is the women who have fled the towns and villages that become more and more central to the story – and critical to the conflict, or at least the survival of the Ethiopian nation as embodied in its people (the Emperor, after all, flees to Bath to listen to classical music on his phonograph). The binaries of war, however, are broken down when Hirut encounters an Italian war photographer, Ettore.

Few of these strands are fully fleshed-out, however: Selassi gets some interludes which feel almost like satire or parody, except they are imbued with what one assumes is meant to be emotional significance; Ettore and Hirut’s relationship – if that’s what it is – is under-developed and swamped by events; the eponymous Shadow King – a sort of guerrilla figurehead almost conjured into existence by the women of the war – doesn’t appear until half-way through the book. There is a lot going on: Hirut’s interactions with her adoptive guardians, theirs with each other; the war, but also the culture that predates and survives it; the Italians get some chapters in an attempt to depict events from their perspective; there’s a frame narrative which shunts the action forwards to 1974, the year before Selassie’s death. If Burnt Sugar is a novel about people who feel little, The Shadow King is one about people who do too much. This is part of the novel’s project – its women achieve more than is imagined for them, and in the face of obstacles worse than they might have feared. But it asks a lot of the novel’s spine, and it bows to accommodate the weight.

Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body – which takes its title from an essay by Teju Cole, in which he shows how Western society’s reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attack of 2015 emphasised the manner in which it under-values suffering in the global south, but also how societies are more capable of damaging themselves than any external enemy – is also a book in which much happens. But its characters – in particular the protaginist Tambudzai, who has previously appeared in Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not – are much more clearly and confidently drawn, and they therefore carry the burden of the eventful plot through which they move. The setting here is Harare of the late-1990s, and the reader finds Tambudzai close to rock-botton within it, living in a hostel and out of work, the economy of post-independence Zimbabwe has not proven to be good for her – or for many of her contemporaries. This is simultaneously a novel of the Western tradition and thoroughly done with it, aware of the damage it does to people like Tambudzai.

This Mournable Body is therefore a novel suffused with righteous anger – but also the frustrated selfishness it can encourage. In an early scene, she refuses to help a woman she knows from the hostel, beset by a crowd because of the way she is dresse, mostly so the crowd will never know of the conditions they share; throughout, she openly expresses emotions often coded as ugly in the novels of the Western bourgeoisie, such as envy and bitterness. She imagines that everyone has it better (“You had not believed there was such a thing on this earth as a European without money” [p. 164]); but then – particularly in the case of Zimbabwe’s white elite – she is not exactly wrong. Indeed, Tambudzai is only in the straits she is in because she could not stand to bend to the unspoken rules of the post-colonial economy: at the PR agency where she worked, her copywriting was routinely claimed by her white colleagues, and she resigned in protest. Harare, however, wears her down. When she reconnects with on her co-workers, she learns that their new firm’s clients “are from Sweden, Denmark, some from Germany. Places like that” (p. 242). Zimbabwe, in other words, still does not work for Zimbabweans. But this time, Tambudzai signs up.

Dangarembga writes some very funny scenes about the tourist company Tambudzai joins – they specialist in “ghetto safaris”, touring rich Westerners around poverty-stricken neighbourhoods and villages, but in an entirely sanitised way that allows the travellers to feel worldly without risk. The novel’s dialogue is often fizzing with dark humour. No one emerges well from such close proximity to the compromises of Mugabe-era Zimbabwe; and yet the novel’s ending is hopeful in its return to Tambudzai’s ancestral home, its recommitment to heritage and community – even in the face of all that assails it. Dangarembga paints a picture of a complicit society – one which, in her words during a recent interview of the LRB Bookshop podcast, allowed guerillas to become their government, and which now faces those consequences. But she also shows how, in the context of a world which still seeks to oppress its people, Zimbabwe can reclaim itself by reimagining itself. “Your education is not only in your head anymore,” we read at the very end of the novel. In this moment, colonial education becomes of utility to the educated, rather than merely the educator. Tambudzai is compromised – but also contains the potential to move beyond the one-way exchange that has placed in such subordination. This is a powerful ending, and the novel is a powerful embodiment of the theme, and I can see it taking the prize for its temerity and tenderness.

This Mournable Body, then, is one of the three best novels on the shortlist. It is a picaresque, an episodic litany, and this may not be to every reader’s tastes (mine included). But it is very smart, and builds a world and a cast of characters which feel not just extremely real – but urgent. Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness, too, aims for urgency – its vision of a relatively near-future, in which the planet is a blasted heath and its environment ruined by human activity, is created expressly to shock the reader, to scare us into action. It reads a little like Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, both in that it is modishly dystopian and a little like a novel treatment for a movie which does not yet exist. In this it is extremely well turned: it is probably the most readable novel on the shortlist, and easily the most tightly, intelligently plotted. All of its characters – even this novel’s central mother-daughter relationship of Bea and Agnes – are, however, more like casting-call sketches than fully realised human beings: the cynical alpha male, the thoughtful professor, the regretful female collaborator. In part, this might be deliberate – the novel centres on a group of people who have opted to leave the poisoned, polluted City to live primitive lives in nature’s last bailiwick, the Wilderness State; primitive lives lead, perhaps, to primordial types, the very notion of character breaking down as bourgeois reality disintegrates. Certainly the opening scene of Bea giving birth to a baby already dead, burying it and then walking away from the grave as if little has happened suggests that the hard-scrabble stuff of mere survival alters her perceptions of what can be coped with. Similarly, the cynical alpha male, Carl, predicts that the thoughtful professor’s style of consensual leadership “won’t last forever” – in other words, mores change as circumstances do. But the novel doesn’t quite make – and certainly does not sell – its putative case that this requires a different approach to characterisation, and besides I’d be troubled by the idea that somehow humans without the trappings of Western civilisation are not-quite-humans. The apocalypse may come and go, but interiority needs closer attention than this.

The novel’s world-building, too, feels less fleshed-out than it might have been. The literary readers that the Booker attracts will perhaps feel this less keenly, but for a reader who even dabbles in the science fictional there will be too many gaps in this future for it quite to convince. Human civilisation has retreated into a huge City, for example, which has taken over almost all land and in which people live in endless high-rises, supported by barren industrial landscapes which harvest resources and play host to servers. How did this happen? We’re not told. Why do only children seem to sicken from the pollution? This is unclear. How has there not been political instability brought about by these clearly intolerable conditions, particularly given the rumours of the Private Lands where the elite live in luxury? We don’t know. Likewise, the mechanics of the Wilderness State – which is surrounded by a road and kept in pristine, edenic purity by a network of Rangers with whom Bea’s group must periodically check in – feel decidedly uncertain, not least in how it – and only it – has been spared the ecological devastation clearly in place elsewhere, or how a region traversible by foot and ringable by road can also contain the range of landscapes the group hike through and over. In other words, both characters and setting serve the specific story Cook has designed them to tell – but in the absence of cromulence in its underpinnings that story can, whatever the virtues of its purpose, feel rather thin.

This question of texture brings us to what I think is not just the best book on this shortlist, but possibly the best I’ve read all year: Brandon Taylor’s Real Life. The story of a gay African-American from the gritty end of the deep South, it is a campus novel with many layers, in which the protagonist is quietly, but viciously, excluded from the campus. Every one of this novel’s interactions is slick with fraught social tension, tiny micro-aggressions and entirely unspoken, always unacknowledged and sometimes (though rarely) unintended injustices. Taylor manages to conjure these moments in which nothing and yet everything is said, and does so magnetically. He limits himself to only a few set-pieces – a lake-side night-time party, a dinner at a friend’s house, a meeting in the laboratory where the novel’s protagonist, Wallace, works away at his thesis – and yet pours so much significance into these moments that they reveal the volume that events truly contain, however placid their surface. A characteristic formulation might be: “She hates him because he works, but he works only so that people might not hate him” (p. 98); in other words it is impossible in the world of Real Life to do right. Wallace himself is beaten out of shape by the ways in which his background of poverty, his race and his sexuality not just lock him out of the society to which he strives to belong, but actively encourage or cue people to attack him; we learn later on that he is the victim of childhood sexual abuse. As in Burnt Sugar, the sins of one generation pay dividends in the next.

Wallace is a repressed character, one who rarely acts on the dark observations some part of him is constantly making (on one of the few occasions he does, disaster ensues). “When I left it behind me,” he confesses late in the novel, “when I got up the money to go to school and get away, I sealed it all behind me, because when you go to another place you don’t have to carry the past with you” (p. 201). But, of course, you do; and, likewise, every present will beset you with further obstacles, different kinds of violence. To learn to deal with one kind is to learn to accept there will be others. Instead, Wallace is for much of the novel caught between knowing he is a victim, understanding the impacts of injustice, but incapable of doing anything about it. Like Burnt Sugar, Real Life deliberately keeps the reader at arm’s-length; unlike that otherwise excellent novel, Taylor’s turns this into a positive, into part of the effect – the message – of the novel. Taylor has written an acutely elegant, if also deeply discomfiting, depiction of the Catch-22 in which so many are trapped:

He could say any of the thing he has wanted to say since he came here, about how they treat him, about how they look at him, about what it feels like when the only people who look like him are the janitors, and they regard him with suspicion. He could say one million things, but he knows that none would matter. (p. 255)

Real Life is beautifully written in its furious restraint. In how it expresses itself, the novel captures something true about the ways in which many people are forced to express themselves. Every part of Taylor’s novelistic project, then – its prose, its structure, its characterisation, its setting – complement and conspire with the others. Some readers have accused its remarkably crisp prose of betraying its roots in an MFA programme, of reading superficially or obnoxiously; all this misses the novel‚Äôs point, and the manner in which it refines the vulgarities of the society to which Wallace so desperately seeks admission. It is the debut novel of a writer already praised for his short fiction, but it is preternaturally mature and alive to what the novel can do. I can’t think of a foot it puts wrong, once on admits its project – from complicating the clich√© of the strong, silent Black man to rejecting the common frameworks of the “queer” novel, even the tropes it brushes past are eschewed and transformed in the course of its pages. If ultimately the 2020 Booker shortlist is rather less diverse in its subject matter as it is in the backgrounds of its authors, or if many of these books unbalance themselves in one or another, Real Life is as deserving a Booker winner as any novel that has ever won the prize. And, yes, it is better than the Mantel.

“How Women Get Things Done”: Margaret Atwood’s “The Testaments”

The Testaments coverThe Testaments¬†is by some way the most traditional novel on this year’s Booker shortlist. It proceeds chronologically, for the most part, and it passes sedately between three more-or-less transparent narrative voices. It has a very clear plot – a lot happens in this novel – and its prose style has crystal clarity but nary a nod to experimental hi-jinx. Perhaps for these reasons, but also I think for others, it is also by a good distance the most readable of this year’s clutch. It is, in the lingo of the capsule review, a cracking read.

Indeed, it may well be the first proper science fiction thriller ever to make it onto the Booker shortlist. Two of its three narrators are young adults, and this gives the book a decidedly YA-ish verve Рagain, The Testaments is written to be read. It has a rehabilitated villain at its heart Рwho, if not entirely redeemed, is depicted in sufficient full, compromised technicolour to win our empathy Рand its events have decidedly high stakes. The Testaments proceeds at the civilisational level.

All this makes it a very odd frontrunner for the gong this evening – but ahead of the pack it is, at least according to the bookmakers. At the same time, I am an unusual reader for it: here is where I confess to you,¬†sotto voce, that I have never read¬†The Handmaid’s Tale¬†(1985), to which this book is a sequel, and have never watched the Hulu TV series of the same name, from the success of which this novel undoubtedly proceeds.¬†I know the basics of the world of Gilead – the triumph of patriarchy, the subjugation of women, the terror of reproductive tyranny –¬†but¬†The Testaments¬†is my first proper entry into this world. This no doubt makes me weird and even wrong; but it does at least mean I’m approaching this novel only on its own terms, as surely the Booker jury also must (if they can).

For my part, then, the other text I couldn’t stop thinking about as I read The Testaments¬†was not The Handmaid’s Tale¬†but¬†Harper Lee’s¬†Go Set A Watchman; that book, too, came a long time after a beloved original, a bona fide modern classic; that novel, too, had an extremely clear – even jejune – style, a bald approach perhaps; and that novel, too, cast new light on old characters (I know enough to realise that the newly rounded villain who powers¬†The Testaments, Aunt Lydia, is a rather less complex figure in the original novel). Of course,¬†Go Set A Watchman¬†is also – undoubtedly – not a great novel.¬†The Testaments¬†feels similar to me in this respect, too.

I’m steering clear of spoilers – unusual for these Booker reviews of mine – because in some ways plot is all this novel has: the fate of Baby Nicole, the plots and stratagems of Aunt Lydia; the relationship between witness 369A¬†and 369B, the novel’s other narrators; the ultimate fate of Gilead (in her Acknowledgements, Atwood says that she wrote the book to answer the most-asled question about¬†The Handmaid’s Tale: “how did Gilead fall?” [p. 417]). Otherwise, there is world-building – beautifully, subtly done, although of course also reliant on the cultural penetration of that image of the Handmaid, meme-like in its ubiquity in the age of Trump. There isn’t a lot of character – other than Lydia, the characters all tend to speak in the same way (even the Canadian ones, whom one might assume are immune from the brainwashing of the Commanders). There isn’t a lot of atmosphere – we are told about a lot of terrible things (mass shootings, public dismemberments, forced executions), but most often in the style of reportage, our reactions doing the work for the economic prose:

“God will prevail,” concluded the speaker.

There was a chorus of baritone Amens. Then the men who’d escorted the blindfolded women raised their guns and shot them. Their aim was good: the women keeled over.

There was a collective groan from all of us who were seated in the bleachers. I heard screams and sobbing. Some of the women leapt to their feet, shouting – I could not make out the words – but were quickly silenced by being hit on the back of their heads with the butts of guns. There were no repeated blows: one sufficed. [p. 118]

The starkness of the prose tells us all we need to know; but it doesn’t conjure with the details. Atwood adopts this rather passive approach throughout (“Fists were raised, clutching clumps of bloodied hair torn out by the roots” [p. 279]), and it is certainly by design: first, it emphasises the powerless of the observers, who are always women; and second, I think, it allows the novel not to strain to tell us the obvious: this is wrong. It is so plainly, self-evidently wrong that why should the novel waste words persuading us of this? The problem, I think, is that the reader becomes an observer themselves in this process, rather than an intimate actor; it keeps us at one remove.

This is a shame, because the novel’s primary argument is for community, and specifically solidarity between women. Time and again, gossip acts as a lever of not just the plot but of the weakening of patriarchal authority: “The Aunts, the Marthas, the Wives: despite the fact that they were frequently envious and resentful, and might even hate one another, news flowed among them as if along invisible spiderweb threads” [p. 232]. When one character protests that, “I can’t destroy Gilead […] I’m just a person,” the retort comes: “Not alone, of course not” [p. 198]. Those who escape Gilead do so through “densely interconnected … networks of marriages” in the “liminal patches of Maine and Vermont” [p. 112]. In other words, fellow-feeling gets us through: “Is your mother the one who gives birth to you or the one who loves you the most?” one character asks of another [p. 89], and the truth is that there are many and multiple mothers in this text. Women nurture each other towards a better future.

There are compromises in all this, too: to fight the future, you have to get angry. One character is taught despite their protestations how to kill someone by gouging out their eyes; another proves her loyalty by murdering someone. Another reflects that women must be “prepared to wheedle, and lie, and go back on their word” to strike a blow against Gilead [p. 234].¬†The Testaments¬†doesn’t think that craftivism will save the world; but it does believe in connecting the cracks in a system which appear in each individual – that woman who doesn’t want to get married, that one who can’t see why she should become pregnant – in order to create a fatal flaw in the broader fa√ßade. Many characters and plotlines come together in the course of the novel to achieve exactly this.

Any novel so tightly plotted can be accused of making complex events seem too easy, and the YA overtones of the piece do occasionally tell. Some of the novel’s best lines – “Wedlock: it had a dull metallic sound, like an iron door clicking shut” [p. 158] – are also among its most aphoristic, its most schematic. One character berates themselves for believing the checks and balances of the US constitution, that document that was so easily pulled apart by the forefathers of Gilead;¬†The Testaments¬†sees itself as a guide for the lost: how to avoid the mistakes of this world … and how to survive those of our own. This is a novel the last lines of which are, “Love is as strong as death” [p. 415].

Each reader’s mileage will vary as to how well they react to this. For my part, I found¬†The Testaments¬†moving and compelling – I read it at a clip, and was entirely captured by its events. On the other hand, I also experienced it as a teensy bit pat, perhaps a little lacking in layers. It’s remarkable that Atwood has set out to stamp her mark on a world she created and which has now become common property – presumably,¬†The Testaments¬†is canonical, and that means the TV series must reckon with it. It would be equally remarkable, I think, if the Booker rewarded such a novel tonight; not a bad thing at all on many levels – at last, a blow struck for genre! – ¬†but it would be a decided departure for the prize.

“Pitiless Circumstances”: Chigozie Obioma’s “An Orchestra of Minorities”

An Orchestra of Minorities coverEach of the novels on this year’s Booker shortlist deals with outsiders: Shafak’s sex workers, Rushdie’s unemployed immigrant; Ellman’s Ohioan housewife is the closest to middle-class comfort the shortlist managers, but the intense anxiety that suffuses those pages robs the character of any of the assured confidence we might ordinarily associate with the insider. In the main, these novels seek to align their reader with their marginalised characters: as I discussed with Abigail Nussbaum in the comments to my review of Girl, Woman, Other, identification may indeed be at least one of these novels primary aim. In An Orchestra of Minorities, however,¬†Chigozie Obioma isn’t quite playing that game:¬†his¬†oppressed character is so damaged by his experiences that the reader risks entirely losing sympathy.

Indeed, this tug of war gives the novel its structure: the narrator is not the protagonist but his chi, a sort of guardian spirit in the Igbo cosmology who pleads on its host’s behalf to its presiding demiurges. The human host, Chinonso, “has committed this great crime in error, unknowingly” the chi insists [p. 4], and in order to save its host from retribution the spirit proposes to impart the story of his life up to the date of the infraction. Like the best advocates, it couches its defence in precedent, in the received wisdom of existing authorities. In this case, the chi calls on a seemingly endless store of Igbo aphorisms. Most chapters begin with one of these, and indeed are peppered with gnomic pronouncements throughout, of which the following is a decent sample: “the old fathers say that a mouse cannot run into an empty mousetrap in broad daylight unless it has been drawn to the trap by something it could not refuse” [p. 130]. The old fathers, it turns out, are verbose.

The chi’s dilatory style, which is a unique and original a voice perhaps because of its excesses, ensures that we do not reach the details of Chinonso’s crime until the novel’s final chapter. Instead, we learn much about his early life as a chicken farmer – difficult, due to the filthy conditions of his work, but also not entirely without promise, since the farm is owned by his family. When he comes across a woman, Ndali, who is about to drown herself in a river, Chinonso persuades her instead to continue to life – her betrothed has married another after only a short time living in Britain, but he encourages her to see that this is not worth her own life. They fall in love; but Ndali’s family are rich – and Chinonso is a chicken father without an education. Ndali’s parents do not approve, and oppose the marriage.

Here the novel places culture front and centre: the Igbo traditions and language of Chinonso, and the Western, Christian, English-speaking culture of Ndali’s family. This postcolonial snobbery persists throughout. It darkens even the final pages of the novel, when the Christianity of Ndali’s milieu is seen to be both hollow and yet strangely suffused with the forgiveness of which Chinonso is incapable: when, in a bid to win the favour of Ndali’s father, he pays a friend up-front to send him to university in Cyprus (using the proceeds of his farm’s sale), he soon finds himself penniless and unregistered on the Greek island that once shipwrecked Odysseus. He proceeds to repeat Odysseus’s period of exile from Penelope (“he will not know that it happened long ago, and had merely been patiently waiting for him to notice” [p. 512]).

The novel does not, then, eschew the culture of the coloniser as Akwaeke Emezi chose to do in her recent¬†Freshwater (a novel that also rendered Igbo cosmology in the contemporary, material world); rather,¬†An Orchestra of Minorities¬†seeks to hold them in tension. This isn’t entirely successful, and asks difficult questions. The Greek killed Penelope’s suitors, but he didn’t plot this retribution while away – and he didn’t punish his wife (though for some reason he did hang her handmaidens). Does Chinonso’s more wrathful, more premeditated, response to his travails say something about the Igbo tradition when contrasted with the relative stoicism and impersonal character of Odysseus’s? Does the manner in which the man who connected Chinonso with the fraudulent university enrolment goes on to embrace Christianity and, on his return, Chinonso himself point to the hypocrisy of the religion of the coloniser … or to the relative rigidity of the native theology? These often implicit questions are usually left unanswered.

Certainly the novel undermines the apparent wisdom of its chi by depicting the cluelessness and increasing malice of Chinonso. When it declares that “the great fathers in their discreet wisdom say that seeds sown in secret always yield the most vibrant fruit” [p. 172], it is practising wilful blindness: the silences in Chinonso’s life ruin him; they bear bitter – rotten – fruit indeed. Even the apparent omniscience of its narration (“his voice is my voice” [p. 4])¬†is explicitly rejected: “I have spoken many times this night about this peculiar lack in man and his chi,” it admits, “that they are unable to know that which they do not see or hear” [p. 510]. Obioma is not entirely patient with the pretensions of his spirits – or perhaps with any. For him, human experience is darker and dingier than all that.

Chinonso, for example, is hard to like – particularly in his objectification of Ndali. Early on, he focuses primarily on her “ponderous breasts” [p. 37], and he never really moves beyond them. When finally reunited with her after many years, he notices first that she is “weightier than the slender woman whose image he carried in his head all these years” [p. 449]. Chinonso’s chi is challenged, at the close of the novel, by Ndali’s: “I warned you to desist long ago but he kept coming after her, chasing her, until he disrupted her life” [p. 509]. Chinonso, for whom “loneliness is the violent dog that barks interminably” [p. 19], and who suffers from a “poverty of anticipation and the emptiness of hope for the future” [p. 223], is a sort of incel: entitled and affronted, someone for whom a woman is less an individual and more a set of imagined virtues, a reflection of their own needs (for these are all that matter). In pleading for him, the chi makes a serious error of identification.

Yes, Chinonso is the victim of racism in Cyprus – in one painful scene he is mistaken for Ronaldinho and forced to sign footballs. In others he is mocked for not being able to speak Turkish, or refused help because of his country of origin. And yes, he is the victim of a cruel trick, a form of human trafficking that profits from the forlorn hopes of the disadvantaged. But when he is rejected by a woman we are told he “quaked in his seat as a possessive form of violence perched on his mind” [p. 484]; it is hard, despite all the depredations to which he falls victim, to feel sympathy for him. When the chi argues that “my host would have done things differently if he had more capabilities” [p. 457], it feels like special pleading – and rings hollow.

Is this the author’s intent? I’m not sure: his debut novel,¬†The Fishermen, spooled out a similarly grisly plot and managed to maintain the reader’s sympathy for those caught up in it; one of the novel’s three epigram’s is another Igbo proverb that maintains “if the prey do not produce their version of the tale, the predators will always be heroes”; and in an Author’s Note he suggests that he hopes the novel can “serve as a sufficient reference book” for anyone interested in “Afro-religions” [p. 513]. So there is a sense that, perhaps,¬†An Orchestra of Minorities¬†isn’t quite aiming for the ambivalence that ultimately it inspires. The novel takes its title from a saying of Chinonso’s father: that the English would translate the Igbo for “little things” – chickens – as minorities. “He was always saying the chickens know that is all they can do: crying and making the sound ukuuukuu!” [p. 98]

If Obioma thinks his novel is a story of the effects that prejudice and marginalisation can have on a man, then he is only half-right: but the man comes to that suffering already half-broken, and this is not his vision of the Igbo culture, which is rendered here in full and deep detail (there are even diagrams). Perhaps the girth of the novel, and the sometimes glutinous quality of its prose, is evidence that it got away from Obioma in this way; or perhaps the ambivalence is baked in but quietly, a less trumpeted part of the project. Either way, if not wholly successful or balanced, the novel is meaty and full of the sort of ingenuity and creative clash that prizes like the Booker often reward. It may, then, have a shot at this year’s gong – and for Obioma it is already his second such opportunity, an achievement in itself. But I wonder if they, too, will be given pause not by the novel per se … but by Chinonso.

“The Numbness of Muted Beings”: Lucy Ellman’s “Ducks, Newburyport”

Ducks, Newburyport cover

In “Raise The Dead”, one of the songs that appears on Santiago, an album released last year by my friend Amit Dattani, he sings, “We can’t worry about those things / That might not become things / But they could still be things / So we should worry”. Every time I’ve seen him deliver these lines live (you can watch for yourself here), he gets a laugh – and rightly so, since Amit’s raconteur spirit is a central part of what makes him such a wonderful performer and songwriter. But it’s also true that the song – it’s called “Raise The Dead”, guys – is an awful lot darker than that. In the circular logic of those lines lies the true, inescapable and corrosive terror of anxiety and obsessive compulsion.

Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport arrives on the 2019 Booker shortlist to anatomise exactly this phenomenon – but does so with considerably less interest in economy. At a thousand pages and for the most part just a single sentence, the novel rolls along for much of its vast bulk without a single full stop appearing in the main narrative. If indeed “narrative” is a word that is meaningful in the context of this text: the narrator, an Ohio housewife who used to teach college-level English literature but who, following the traumatic illness and death of her mother, now bakes pies for a living, spends much of the novel in the kitchen; she spends some of it in a broken-down car when it’s quite cold outside; then she returns home to bake some more pies, because the ones she baked before have spoiled during the wait for the rescue vehicle; around nine-tenths in (really, precise figures cease to be relevant) something quite significant happens, but I wouldn’t want to spoil that for you. Interspersed among all this are very short vignettes – never more than a page or two – that focus on the life of a lioness and her cubs; they are written in beautiful, stately prose that comes as a soothing balm amidst the endless run-on sentence they interpolate.

The lioness is a relief from the housewife because the latter’s internal monologue is an endless, free-associative flood of triggers and terrors:

the fact that Mommy’s illness wrecked my life, the fact that it broke me, the fact that I am broken, the heartbroken, heart operation, heart scar, broke, Yueyaquan, Leo, the fact that that mean doctor gave me antibiotics for bronchitis, but so reluctantly, the fact that he seemed to hate me, and I never knew why … [p. 27]

And so on. These fears sit alongside others occasioned by the state of the world – “everything seems so aggressive now” [p. 367], she reflects – and, indeed, by its apparently imminent and fiery destruction: “if it’s the end of the world, bud, it’s the end of the world” she mentally shrugs [p. 186], and yet worries away at the idea that the Ohio river is too polluted, or that polar bears may soon be extinct, or “the fact that there are men who cut the fins off sharks and toss the sharks back into the sea, where they sink to the bottom and suffocate, the fact that I shouldn’t think about it” [p. 928]. She worries constantly about guns, too, and “the fact that” people are “armed, just to deliver garden compost and turf and chicken feed” [p. 143]; she worries about her children getting shot at the mall, her husband getting shot at the university where he teaches; she worries about being shot in her own kitchen, about her friends being shot; she interviews every parent at whose house her own children play about their gun ownership. She worries that “Republicans prefer respectful, obedient children to independent, curious, rebellious ones” [p. 342]; she worries about “what will happen to the White House vegetable patch now” [p. 396].

The narrator is in other words tortured by knowledge, feels adrift within it and the verities that are used to explain it all away: “the fact that people are always saying this isn’t ‘who we are as a nation’, but, well, it kind of is who are are” [p. 86]. And alongside these external pressures are all the petty trivialities of modern life: whole pages go by describing ingredients and recipes, listing towns that end in “ville”, remembering “the fact that Iwo Jima was trapezoid” [p. 702]. No thought is too trivial not to appear in the monologue – for example, we are treated to “the fact that Henry Higgins could have gotten two different sound tattoos tattooed on himself” [p. 892] (I don’t know either). Recurring themes – Jane Austen, David Attenborough, the Amish, the catchiness of pop songs – pepper all this and provide something approaching a structure or a sort of unity, but the real point of Ducks, Newburyport is onslaught, the impossibility of containment: “who has time … anymore,” the narrator asks, “leisure time, mod cons, the fact that Abby liked to do all those sorts of things but I don’t have time to stitch a nine-patch” [p. 348]; “there will always be monkeys in the zoo” she supposes [p. 672].

What makes all this compelling – and I did find it compelling, affecting, evocative – is that taken together the prose depicts a person – and also possibly a culture – in collapse. Despite “the fact that it begins to seem positively unAmerican to internalize things” [p. 400], our narrator is incapable of switching off: indeed, she realises that “when this monologue in my head finally stops, I’ll be dead” [p. 514]; even if that makes Ducks, Newburyport in some ways a vital celebration of life, it is also and at the same time a rather bleak portrayal of it, in all its exhausting intensity. “I must be at a low point,” the narrator remarks, “to get so riled up like this about something that happened years ago” [p. 393] – but in fact it is her constant condition. She is always low, and she is in part this way because there is no other way to be: people “can’t just be thinking about coffee and ham on rye, the fact that they’re probably worrying about a lousy fianc√© or an ominous lump or if they’ll make the mortgage repayments this month” [p. 187]. The monologue doesn’t stop; the worries always metastasise (and, yes, the narrator has had cancer and is anxious constantly that it will return).

Time is out of joint; humans have built a society and a culture in which they do not feel secure (“the fact that it’s best not to know why Trump does the things he does, the fact that he’s making everyone dizzy and nauseous” [p. 235]). In contrast, the lioness is confident and commanding, becalmed in the knowledge that “all of life is really recoil and leap, recoil and leap” [p. 11]: “you’re linked to the pleasures, pains, and drama […] All living things are” [p. 407]. What separates human and animal, then, isn’t higher reasoning but terror; the irony is that it is the lioness whose habitat is being destroyed, her species that is being hunted, by the humans who are barely conscious of the world through which they crash. Late in the novel, the narrator’s daughter develops “some kind of rapport with that woebegone creature” [p. 998] – and in that line is what approaches in this novel hope.

This recreation of a single individual interacting with an over-riding culture – a technique that requires the reader constantly to inspect the space between what is said and what might be signified, in order to understand both context and plot – isn’t without its quirks. The narrator routinely corrects herself – “tax papers, taxpayers, I mean” [p. 370] – which feels pretty artificial given that the text poses as a pure representation of a monologue without an audience (who clarified oneself to oneself in this way?). Likewise, I can imagine a shorter novel – perhaps not much shorter, but shorter all the same – that achieved the same sense of totality. That is, Ducks, Newburyport – for all its internal rhymes and rhythms – could still have used a bit of editing. The typographic sallies – big numbers to represent the sizes of pots and pans, or reproduced advertisements – add little. But, in the face of the sheer scale of Ellman’s novel, these are tiny quibbles indeed; they are washed away in the flood – and, compared with a similar attempt to write a contemporary modernist novel such as Will Self’s Umbrella, Ducks, Newburyport achieves all this whilst also managing to be eminently readable (if, ultimately, also and necessarily a feat of endurance).

There’s another song that the novel reminds me of, however, and that’s Sheryl Crow’s “The Na-Na Song“: when Ellman routinely pens lines such as “sex slaves, trafficking, porno pics, ISIS, beheadings, 9/11, 9/11, Oprah […] grab ’em by the stars and stripes” [p. 828], it’s impossible not to think it might just be incantatory nonsense. Does the novel capture a moment, or does it over-inflate one? Perhaps only time – and repeated readings – will tell. But, perhaps especially in a book like this, it is remarkable that we can’t dismiss the possibility that here is a work of lasting value; if the Booker judges are feeling brave they might be tempted to recognise that.

“The Battles That Are Your British Birth-right”: Bernardine Evaristo’s “Girl, Woman, Other”

Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish) is one of the best books yet to have been written about the curious experience of being Black while British. It somehow succeeds in being both memoir and history, specific and general. It is evocative while also being rigorous. It’s pungent and composed, all at the same time. “Britishness has not yet fully rejected its roots in ideological whiteness,” she argues, “and the pain that has inflicted on blackness. For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion” [p. 214].

For Hirsch, the question of identity is too important to ignore, to get wrong (she has, of course, much sense to speak on Brexit): it concerns “the relationship between … the individual and the group,” and in this way cuts across every boundary and every question [p. 21]. When it is increasingly fashionable on both left and right to decry “identity politics”, Hirsch makes the vital case for it. It isn’t at all a surprise that she has in recent weeks been at the forefront of the defence of Naga Munchetty.

Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is an attempt to depict in fictional form many of the feints, slights and nuances of identity about which Hirsch has written and campaigned. Less a novel than an inter-linked set of short stories (indeed, the book has been written over a period of many years – which longue dur√©e may have led to the novel’s lack of momentum, of building argument), it features twelve chapters that focus each in turn on a single individual – almost all black, many immigrants but all in dialogue with Britishness – and closes out on a final chapter which brings them all together at the premi√®re of a black-authored play at the National Theatre.

In this way, it’s a curiously Radio 4-friendly version of British blackness: it opens with the writer of that new drama, with whom any regular listener of Woman’s Hour will feel readily comfortable (“she wants people to bring their curiosity to her plays, doesn’t give a damn what they wear, has her own sod-you style … which has evolved from the clich√©d denim dungarees” [p. 3]); if the novel then slowly moves away from this archetype to other, less familiar ones, then somehow the narrative arcs remain familiar: the successful City banker tormented by memories of being raped at thirteen, shut down and shuttered; the frustrated suburban school-teacher in her John Lewis twin-set, her faith in the transformative power of education worn down over the years; the struggling super-market manager full of life and vitality even as the shelf-stacking denies her humanity. You won’t feel alienated by Girl, Woman, Other is my point.

Nor is this – necessarily – a bad thing. Evaristo is aiming for accessibility so that she can attract readers who usually avoid the “black fiction” section. This is a trick pulled off by the TV series Orange Is The New Black, which used Taylor Schilling’s Piper Chapman as a Trojan horse for a set of more diverse, less familiar stories. Also in this book, for example, is the tale of Winsome, the Jamaican grandmother who has a passionate affair with her son-in-law; of the transgender Megan/Morgan, “part-Ethiopian, part African-American, part Malawian and part English” [p. 311]; of Dominique, who travels to America only to be consumed by her partner’s coercive control (“Nzinga created an atmosphere glutinous with tension” [p. 99]). These are interesting – even educational – stories, and ones which might otherwise go under-read.

The real problem is that they are here perhaps under-written. For a novel that shifts perspective so much, the narrative voice shifts rarely. Evaristo adopts a broken-backed sort of prose-poem style, which isn’t entirely consistent by can be occasionally effective:

the next week when she went to the meeting
Elaine was canoodling with another woman
and blanked her completely
she never went again [p. 13]

It is at other times – in fact, perhaps even when effective – a bit sophomoric:

she told them until she was bored of repeating herself
it
never
went
in [p. 238]

The purpose of this novel is primarily to compare and contrast the varied experiences of the women it depicts, with a view to building a more complete picture of what justice might mean. If we are all feminists, what can that mean when “millions of women are waking up to the possibility of taking ownership of our world” [p. 438]? If gender equality is the goal, what is the appropriate response of or to a transgender person who is “cool with it when people don’t use or understand their preferred pronouns” [p. 328], and how rich can intersectionality be when there is only “one [person] Yazz can’t tell to check her privilege” [p. 66]? Evaristo successfully builds a cast of fully alive characters who help us investigate these questions, and she doesn’t shy away from wryly dismissing the excesses of even the most well-meaning seeker of truth. In a tower block loosely modelled on squatter communes like Frestonia:

the Marxists demanded they set up a Central Committee of the Workers’ Republic of Freedomia, which was a bit rich, Amma thought, seeing as most of them had taken “a p[rincipled stand against the running dogs of capitalism as an excuse not to work

the hippies suggested they form a commune and share everything, but they were so chilled and laid back, everybody talked over them

the environmentalists wanted to ban aerosols, plastic bags and deodorant, which turned every against them, even the punks who weren’t known for smelling minty [p. 17]

The problem is that Evaristo’s radical intent is undermined by this sort of soft-centredness, a fear of the follow-through. Even the novel’s style – no full stops, but copious paragraph breaks, no speech marks but plenty of dialogues – gestures towards danger before stepping back from it. Mostly, Evaristo contents herself with putting her message in the mouths of her characters rather than the fabric of the novel itself – “I was born in the nineteen-twenties,” an elderly woman scolds a younger, more radical one, “you’re expecting too much of me” [p. 352] – and so Girl, Woman, Other sort of passes by in its monotone way, neither pushing us nor itself. The novel has a didactic element while at the same time pulling its preaching punches; its characters advocate for progress, but the novel that encloses them seems stuck in neutral.

Perhaps the most moving of the chapters is the one devoted to Bummi, the Nigerian mother of a girl who does so well at school that she makes it an ancient university – where, in line with the Oxbridge tendency to make of its every student a copy of its most stereotyped, she adopts a cut-glass accent and a taste for cuisine other than the Lagosian. A successful small business woman, Bummi is intensely proud – rather than awkwardly ashamed – of the distance she and her family have come. “My point is that you are Nigerian,” she scolds her child, “no matter how high and mighty you think you are […] no matter how English-English you yourself pretend to be” [p. 158]. Her sense of loss is palpable, and the chapter’s willingness fully to embrace the story’s over-riding sentimentality – and in so doing striking a balance that, elsewhere on the Booker shortlist, Shafak fails to achieve – powers that success. Girl, Woman, Other would have benefited from such commitment elsewhere, too.

In Bummi’s insistence on the persistence of her daughter’s Nigerian heritage, we return to Hirsch’s vision of identity as difficult and knotty. Evaristo has herself reviewed Brit(ish), in the TLS: in her words, it “teases out … the contradictions inherent in a racially stratified society,” and both she and Hirsch are to be commended for their efforts in holding up a mirror to this strange old country, at a time when it sorely needs to see itself more clearly. One of the best things about this year’s shortlist is that, in its diversity, it queries and complicates the response of the white, male critic; my reading, then, is far from authoritative. For what it’s worth, however, I couldn’t shake the feeling as I read Girl, Woman, Other that the angle at which it was held to its subject was slightly off; if not quite flattering to the viewer, Evaristo’s novel is never quite as honest as it might have been.

“Discontinuity Ruled”: Salman Rushdie’s “Quichotte”

In his recent This Is Not Propaganda, Peter Pomerantsev asks what may be the killer question of our time: “if the need for facts is predicated on a vision of a concrete future that you’re trying to achieve, then when that future disappears, what is the point of facts?” [p. 166] Pomerantsev’s book is a sort of sequel to his Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, in which he expands that first book’s focus on the former Soviet Union to the worldwide breakdown in consensus reality. “The futureless present arrived first in Russia,” he argues. “We are just catching up” [p. 255]. What he means is simple: the confusion of the modern media space, the lack of cohesion, the impossibility of divining a single narrative or crafting a unity position, is a function of our broken societies, our struggling systems: we’ve lost faith in the futures they once promised us, and so we’ve lost faith in fact.

Salman Rushdie tackles this curious cultural moment in his Booker-shortlisted Quichotte. With his typical intertextuality, Rushdie does so by going backwards, to the birth of his chosen form. He revives Cervantes’ romantic prose narrative, Don Quixote, transplanting its eponymous and absurd idealist to modern America. Quichotte is a sobriquet for a down-at-heel Indian immigrant, who, having lost his job as a salesperson for a pharmaceutical conglomerate, fixes the purpose of his existence on the presenter of an Oprah-ish chat show, the former Bollywood star Salma R. Quichotte is, however, himself a fiction: he is the character in a novel written by a character in Quichotte, Sam DuChamp – himself an Indian immigrant who has for some years made a living by writing workaday spy thrillers, but who in this new novel is being somehow drawn towards a stranger form of fiction.

Already there is a cuteness to all this fragmentation, and this is indeed an often gratingly arch novel. Here’s an interjection from Sam:

An interjection, kind reader, if you’ll allow one: It may be argued that stories should not sprawl in this way, that they should be grounded in one place or the other, put down roots in the other of the one and flower in that singular soil; yet so many of today’s stories are and must be of this plural, sprawling kind, because a kind of nuclear fission has taken place in human lives and relations, families have been divided, millions upon millions of us have travelled to the four corners of the (admittedly spherical, and therefore cornerless) globe, whether by necessity or choice. Such broken families may be our best available lenses through which to view this broken world. [p. 54]

It’s hard to argue with all this, but also difficult not to recall that a previous Booker shortlistee – Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West – very recently made the same argument with greater concision. How much you enjoy Quichotte, then, will depend very much on your patience for its loquacity, the way DuChamp and then Quichotte alternate chapters, the way that Quichotte in turn conjures into being an imaginary son, Sancho, who reflects on what reality might mean if one is fictitious; on how far you’ll allow a real-life spy to enter the life of the writer of spy fiction, or how keen you are to read the stories of Sam’s sister, a famed human rights lawyer in England who has no connection at all to the Trampoline, the estranged sister of Quichotte who is ultimately robbed and assaulted by Sancho, himself an echo of Sam’s estranged hacker son. There comes a point where this game of echoes and parallels begins to obliterate itself, especially when the prose in which it is contained can prove so baggy:

Brother, the Author, had lost touch with his only son several years ago. The young man, tall, skinny, nerdy, bespectacled, had never seemed like a potential runaway, but after he dropped out of college, which he described as “worse than useless”, adding “nobody will ever need me to write an essay in the whole rest of my life”, he began to act strangely, to lock the door of his room and spend all day and all night lost somewhere inside his laptop, listening to music videos, playing online chess, watching pornography, who knew what. [p. 213]

Exhaustion, though, the breaking-down of borders of taste and form, is part of Rushdie’s purpose. Much is made of muddle throughout: for Quichotte, New York City “had always struck him as being chaotic, formless, overcrowded, harsh, and possessed of no dominant narrative hue” [pp. 202-3]; wider still, we read that the “universe has no interest in right and wrong” [p. 103]. As Quichotte and Sancho proceed through their quest towards Salma R – herself revealed to be addicted to the high-grade fentanyl manufactured as an illegal side-project by the uncle who owns Quichotte’s former employer – they go through a series of increasingly surreal vignettes: at one point, they do battle with a village of mastodons, at another Quichotte spends days in conversation with his television. These episodes form the “seven valleys” that Quichotte declares must be passed through to reach his goal; but by the end of the novel he has abandoned all illusion of programmatic progress, and the novel in which he stars veers towards wild science fiction as an Elon Musk stand-in invents a machine capable of punching through the membranes between alternative worlds.

Inevitably, one of these worlds is DuChamp’s own, in which he has become embroiled in an international incident linked to his hacker son. When Quichotte and Salma R finally break through into this universe, however, they do so as tiny versions of themselves, unable to breathe the too-large molecules in the air that DuChamp breathes by default, “unassimilable, helpless, puny, gasping for air, not finding it” [p. 390]. In other words, the fictional is insufficient for survival in the “real” world. Now this, coming at the very end of a discursive and sometimes shapeless novel, is properly interesting: in its final pages, Quichotte suggests that the very activity in which its author and its reader have been engaged for nearly four hundred pages is … pointless. It is “puny” in the face of the size and scope of the world beyond the pages of the fiction. Faced with the sheer proportions of the world of the creator, fiction shrivels and dies.

The world ends for Quichotte; so what? Well, we have come to know him and many other inhabitants of his world enough to find it sufficiently real to care, to see ourselves in it. The levels of creation that overlay each other in the novel admittedly encourage the reader to look upwards: if our world ended, would anyone notice or care? But, more incisively, the novel acknowledges and approves of what we may learn from fiction – while explicitly emphasising its subordinate status to our own reality. It rejects – like Don Quixote before it – the idea that the real and the fictive are equal (there’s no point in tilting at those windmills). Both are important in their own ways, both matter; but it’s crucial to recognise and acknowledge their division:

Cyberwar was the attack on truth by lies. It was the pollution of the real by the unreal, of fact by fiction. It was the erosion and devaluation of the empirical intellect and its replacement by confirmations of previously held prejudices. How was that any different from what he himself was doing, Brother asked himself, how was it different from the fictions he was making and which were now ensnaring him? Except that he was not trying to bring down Western civilisation, excuse me. That was a small difference. And he was tying nobody up in knots except himself. [p. 231]

The reader may find this to be an obvious distinction for so chaotic a novel to be making: “all the boxes got pushed up against all the other boxes and opened up” [p. 195], is how one character explains the sudden mess of the world’s previously compartmentalised stories, and Quichotte represents this process in often noisy polyphony. You have to get through a lot to reach the meat here. And in a curious way, none of it ever seems quite so dense as (for example) Midnight’s Children, almost as if the archness of its prose style can’t quite commit to the project, or as if all of the pop cultural references – Game of Thrones, Anonymous, reality TV are all here – act as placeholders for a proper centre of gravity (“we are being crippled by the culture we have made,” Rushdie writes [p. 362]).
But this is easily Rushdie’s best novel for some time, and it at least attempts to grapple with this world in which “yesterday meant nothing and could not help you build tomorrow” [p. 236]. Underneath all the often lame joshing – the novel begins with the first of many apparently irresistible Dad jokes, a “Quixotic Note on Pronunciation” – Rushdie has seen something true, and makes an argument for the enhancement of apprehension, not the remaking of reality, being the proper purpose of fiction in a factless age.

“Hope Is A Hazardous Chemical”: Elif Shafak’s “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World”

shafak10minsAt the end of August, BBC Radio 4 dramatised in its entirety Proust’s¬†In Search of Lost Time. This was an ambitious project, and not just because of the novel’s length: as Belinda Jack argued in an edition of¬†Open Book¬†that previewed the series, every character in Proust is a figment of the narrator’s memory, his imagination; not one other figure who appears anywhere in the novel is fully, or perhaps remotely, themselves. In a dramatisation, it is almost impossible to capture this intermediary quality – but it is essential to the novel’s approach to the quest that gives it its title.

I mention this by way of introduction to Elif Shafak’s¬†10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World for two reasons: number one, the novel is obviously indebted to Proust’s madeleine, in the way that its protagonist – a woman who has just died and whose consciousness spends the rest of the novel unravelling by way of revisiting key moments in her life – recalls episodes based on the prompting of flavours – the salty taste of the Bosphorous waters in which her body floats, but also, and without any particular immediate cues, the remembrance of cardamom coffee, chocolate bonbons or watermelon; and number two, as this idiosyncratic approach to memory may imply, because Shafak’s novel is, in the absence of Proustian discipline, a great deal less cohesive and coherent than it might otherwise have been.

Shafak’s narrator, Leila, lives at the time of her murder in Istanbul. A semi-retired sex worker, she grew up in the rural east of Turkey, in a conservative family whose strictures she chafed against – but escape from which was itself far from frictionless or without cost. Two thirds of the novel constitute her biography, an obituary by way of reminiscence that floats through Leila’s mind – or soul, or whatever other ineffable aspect of Leila is proposed by Shafak to outlive her physical death – during the posthumous duration of the title. This tour of Leila’s troubled life permits the novel to take up the cause of the marginalised women of Turkey.

“Until the year 1990, Article 438 of the Turkish Penal Code was used to reduce the sentence given to rapists by one-third if they could prove that their victim was a prostitute,” Shafak writes in a note to the reader. “In 1990, in the face of an increasing number of attacks against sex workers … Article 438 was repealed. But there have been few, if any, legal amendments in the country since then towards gender equality” [p. 307].¬†10 Minutes¬†is in this sense an eloquent rejection of the judgemental fundamentalism of patriarchal authority: it creates in Leila a woman who exhibits many of the characteristics ordinarily applied to “fallen” women undeserving of sympathy, and yet in plotting her life story makes clear that these qualities are responses to circumstances created by precisely the dogmatism that seeks to mete out punishment for them.

When Leila is six, her forty-three-year-old uncle asks her to “Hold it”, pushing “her hand down the front of his pyjama shorts” [p. 66]; this abuse goes on for some time, and of course is never reported. Leila is plagued by guilt: “she had done something terrible, and not just once, not twice, but many times” [p. 97]. When she flees to Istanbul, without a penny to her name, she is trafficked; when she meets a good man at the brothel where she eventually finds something like a home, and then marries him, he is quickly killed by the police while taking part in an anti-government protest; she reverts, of course, to the sex work for which she is condemned by those self-same officials. “I don’t know¬†who’s¬†normal in a system so crooked,” a character comments at one point [p. 143], and this might be the motto of the novel as a whole. There is little justice to be found in its pages.

What Shafak offers instead is consolation. In the absence of radical change – much hullaballoo is made in the novel about as incremental a development as “the repeal of the constitutional requirement for a married woman to get her husband’s permission to work outside the home” [p. 29] – Shafak offers us the respite of community, of found family, or what she calls a “water family”: “a good water family could wash away the hurt and pain collected inside like black soot” [p. 199]. During her time in Istanbul, Leila makes five close friends: the transgender Nalan, the gentle Sinan, the Christian Jameelah, the dis/abled Zaynab, the plus-size Humeyra. Each of these five is given a nickname – Nostalgia Nalan is given hers for the intense homesickness she feels, Hollywood Humeyra because of her connection to showbusiness. These don’t quite ring true, but are put into service as markers of Leila’s familiarity with her “five”. In the final third of the novel, when Leila has conclusively passed on, this group of friends become the focus of the narrative, as they seek to pay the proper respects to the body of a woman who is deemed by the authorities only good enough to be buried in the ¬†desolate “Cemetery of the Companionless”.

This isn’t subtle stuff: five close friends seek to reclaim the demonstrable humanity of a person whose body is disrespected as without connection to the world by the pitiless system. This on-the-nose quality is characteristic of the novel as a whole: the good man who rescues his wife from a brothel, and seduces her by painting her portrait; the damaging abuse leading to a broken life; the immigrant’s stories – internal and external – that define Leila and each of her friends: it’s not that these aren’t important perspectives, and Shafak’s messages themselves of value; it’s that each are deployed more or less precisely as you’d expect, almost by rote, and that what emerges is therefore less empathetic and more sentimental. Like the friends’ nicknames, it all feels a bit unearned, a bit bolted-on – much like that final third of the novel, which reads like an over-long coda to the book’s main project, and consequently lacks much pith and moment. This can be a soggy novel.

Indeed,¬†10 Minutes¬†poses a different problem to¬†A la recherche du temps perdu. It isn’t that all of the characters bar the protagonist are unreal, in the sense that they are recreations of a single fictional consciousness; it’s that¬†all¬†of them lack what Proust’s narrator has in spades – a reality, a set of complexities and contradictions which grants them at least the illusion of being more than a vehicle for a writer of fiction.

At one point late in the novel, Nalan considers Leila’s old Zippo lighter, given to her by her late husband:

this antique … was not the simple onject it seemed to be, but a perpetual wanderer. It travelled from one person to another, outliving each of its owners. Before Leila it had belonged to D/Ali, and before D/Ali, to an American soldier who had been unfortunate enough to come to Istanbul away from the Sixth Fleet in 1968. [p. 229]

Which, OK, is fine. But it is also intensely novelistic, queasily artificial for a book so interested in creating real human lives with which to contrast the inhumanity of authoritarianism. In her acknowledgements, Shafak recounts that her grandmother died as she began to write this novel, and that – because she was afraid for her safety in Turkey – the author of¬†10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World¬†and The Bastard of Istanbul¬†and¬†The Forty Rules of Love¬†was unable to attend her Grandma’s funeral. This, of course, is a small inconvenience compared to the depredations she recounts in this novel, and which take place daily in Erdońüan’s Turkey; as Ron Charles has argued, her writing is among the most visible and therefore powerful acts of defiance against the regime that commits those violations as currently exists worldwide. But a novel isn’t merely a manifesto; and for this reason I’d be surprised if this particular volume won the 2019 Booker Prize later this month. But long may the impacts of its sentiments vex the over-mighty.

 

“This Whole City Is A Trap”: Robin Robertson’s “The Long Take”

There’s an episode of the venerable¬†Buffy the Vampire Slayer¬†spin-off,¬†Angel, entitled “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?” (“AYNoHYEB”). It takes place in 1952, when the immortal vampire of the series’ title is living an amoral existence in downtown Los Angeles, passing through but not mixing with a series of avatars from the period: the out-of-work scriptwriter, the meathead actor, the sassy broad. The milieu is paranoid, informed by the Red Scare and McCarthyism; Angel first engages compassionately with these lost souls … and then, despairingly, gives up on them. “Take ’em all,” he sneers in the direction of a demon seeking to feed on the humans’ souls. Such is LA at the twilight of the golden age of Hollywood.

It might be odd that a work of epic poetry brings to mind a seminal forty-three minutes of network television from the earliest 2000s; but, certainly unknowingly, in his Booker-shortlisted The Long Take,¬†Robin Robertson covers much the same ground as “AYNoHYEB” writer Tim Minear: his detached, damaged protagonist, known almost exclusively simply as “Walker”, stalks the cities of post-war America – specifically New York, San Francisco and primarily Los Angeles – and consistently fails to engage with the people around him, even as he pines after a sense of community he at first cannot access and then, ultimately, sees destroyed. Walker is a Canadian veteran of World War II, fleeing the violence of a past which recurs to him, interrupting the free verse in which the majority of this “novel” is written, in italicised prose:

Mackintosh took up a Sten gun, shouting, spraying it like a hose at the Germans. He ran out of ammo, turned back toward us, then we saw how his chest just spat – then petalled open – and with a great convulsion he flopped down dead. (p. 160)

If it feels bathetic to compare the literary tale of a traumatised veteran with a popular TV show about a supernatural detective, then I may be conveying something of my feelings about¬†The Long Take: that it never quite justifies itself, never really leaves behind the stuff people have already said about the subjects it seeks to address. “Manhattan’s the place for reinvention,” we’re told at one point as if this is news (p. 17); we are asked to marvel repeatedly at the “Chinese, Japanese, Negroes, Filipinos, Mexicans, Indians / even Hindus and Sikhs” apparently – guess what? – to be found in American cities (p. 43); and as the years of Walker’s narrative pass by, his beloved post-war cities change, “buildings gone, / replaced by parking lots” (p. 184), as Joni Mitchell very nearly once sang. For an epic poem taking in these years of great change in the US immediately following 1945,¬†The Long Take¬†feels curiously familiar.

In part, this is deliberate. Robertson is seeking to encode in verse the grammar of film noir – the hard drinking journos who work alongside Walker at the¬†LA Press, the quick-bitten dialogue in the bars and on the trams, the sense of despair and of place. Indeed, in its evocation of this grimy atmosphere¬†The Long Take¬†earns some spurs. You have to forgive epic poetry some water-treading – a number of its lines will always exist only to pass from one section to the next. But Robertson scores some big hits nevertheless, and usually it’s when he’s describing cities (Walker, a wandering psychogeographer before the genre was coined, has a thing for the built environment, its “straight lines / and diagonals” [p. 4]). The writing in these sections is often properly lyrical:

The smell of orange blossom on a Sunday morning
in the dead streets of Los Angeles –
the Spanish-style courtyard apartment complexes,
Mediterranean villas with arrow-loops, Mexican ranch houses
with minarets, Swiss chalets with fire-pits and pools,
Medieval-style, Prairie-style, Beaux-Arts-style –
stretching in its long straight lines down to the gray Pacific Ocean. (p. 81)

This is lovely stuff, and to sustain an entire novel across more than two hundred pages of verse is a formal achievement of remarkable proportions – and one that Robertson fully realises. But what’s new about LA-as-architectural-pastiche, or the smell of orange blossom on a Californian breeze? Robertson ticks the boxes of his noir checklist even as the returns from doing so diminish. The hard-boiled pose of his noirish lead doesn’t help, either: not only is Walker a, to be fair understandably, distant figure; despite his radical politics, even his theoretical fraternal feeling for his fellow man is insufficiently expressed to make sense of his horror as the area of Bunker Hill he has called home begins to be demolished. Instead, he just comes across as the worst kind of architecture fan, initial enthusiasm shading into reactionary distaste for the new:

The open cupola of the Seymour Apartments no longer looks out
over the steel frame of the courthouse.
The new concrete of the courthouse
looms over what was once the Seymour, levelled that afternoon. (p. 199)

From early on, Walker is interested in cities and “how they fail” (p. 56), but do they really fail through concrete? Walker is a complex, ambivalent character … but in other ways he’s just a bit dull. His motivating principle comes down to needing to unburden himself: “He had to finish telling Billy what he’d done, back in France,” he resolves late on, thinking of his only constant friend throughout the novel. “It was eating him up. Eating him alive” (p. 216). Reader, if indeed “the only American history is on film” (p. 137), then I’ve seen this one.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that¬†The Long Take¬†has been recognised by the Booker for its undoubted stylistic achievements, and for its regular, but brief, flashes of poetic invention: a woman dances “tipping her toes like a cat / at the end of a rope” (p. 157); cities are “locked geometries of shadows” (p. 5); and everyday diner meals are elevated in metre:

He went down to Clifton’s for some split pea soup;
chili and beans,
corned beef hash if he could. (p. 62)

An epic needs more than some decent lines to keep itself in motion, however: it needs fire, a forward momentum, an almost delirious energy.¬†The Long Take¬†instead has too many longeurs, which perhaps mimic Walker’s sleepless urban perambulations, but which also rob these lines of their roll. Robertson winds up repetitive, circling the blocks of Bunker Hill in ever decreasing circles; and no amount of admiration for the formal discipline, the super-human acts of poetic will it takes to write a book like this, can quite make up for that vague air of the waiting room. For me at least, this novel – if that is what it is – ultimately felt just a little bit like a chore, worthy and even improving … but rarely entertaining. If¬†The Long Take¬†were the kind of movie it seeks to ape, some among its audience might clap and admiringly murmur “bravo”, but few – surely – would be enthusiastic enough to demand, “Encore!”

“It’s Amazing The Feelings That Are In You”: Anna Burns’s “Milkman”

I can’t recall reading quite so magnetic a novel as Anna Burns’s¬†Milkman¬†in some time. In many ways, it resembles Eimear McBride’s¬†A Girl is a Half-formed Thing: its first-person, controlled stream of consciousness lends the novel an air of immediacy and authenticity, and quickly builds its own syntax and grammar as a means of cuing the reader more clearly to its concerns and its protagonists’ character. In others, however, it’s quite different:¬†Milkman¬†is earthier and funnier; where McBride’s narrator, even in her novel’s most brutal moments, had so finely-wrought a voice that it could read other-worldly,¬†Milkman¬†is never anything less than fully embedded in its working-class Belfast¬†mise en scene.

Milkman¬†takes place some time during the 1970s depths of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and in the heart of a Catholic community entirely separated from the Protestant one it neighbours. The manners of elision that this situation encourages bring to mind China¬†Mi√©ville’s¬†The City & the City – so unlikely do the circumlocutions of Burns’s characters seem that they occasionally present as fantastical. So, too, do the commonplaces of their day-to-day: the way bushes are taken to click, or individuals to disappear; the distance of any authority outside of the community, and the weirdness of their intermittent materialisations, which happen quickly and just as rapidly retreat. “All this … seemed normality which meant then, that part of normality here was this constant, unacknowledged struggle to see” (p. 89).

This is one of the most refreshing aspects of¬†Milkman‘s considerable achievement: the way it recreates a world now oddly separated from our own, despite its proximity in terms of simple time. It also feels, in these days of Brexit and border wrangling, important to recall the distressing effects of division and demarcation in the province of Northern Ireland. The impossible pressures that the requirements of clan loyalty and gang solidarity place upon the people of Burns’s Belfast bend and twist them, taking them away from their own desires and goals and towards agendas and disputes not truly their own. They also demand of Burns’s characters destructive moral choices – or rather choices with no viable moral option available: “Do you stand strong? Do you bear witness, even if, in the process, you cause more suffering and prolonged humiliation for your son or your brother or your husband or your father? Or do you go away, back inside, abandoning your son ore your brother or your husband to these people?” (p. 95)

What is most impressive about¬†Milkman, though, is that it correctly situates the political within the personal, as well as vice versa. The novel isn’t the story of hitmen and hardmen engaged in an underground war, but of women and communities living a life above and within that context. No character in¬†Milkman¬†is named – it is safer in this similarly unnamed Belfast to avoid looking too closely at, or choosing to label too decisively, anything or anyone – but its narrator is the middle sister of a family which has already lost two of its sons to the Troubles, and who now finds herself the target of the titular individual. No deliverer of milk, this man – rather, rumour has it, he is a leading figure in the paramilitaries (again, this word is never used) … and he has taken a jealous dislike to the lad whom middle sister insists on continuing to call her maybe-boyfriend. In a conflict that passes from one generation to the next, Milkman is also the inheritor of his soubriquet – an older, “real” milkman (that is, a real “milkman”), was once known to middle sister’s mother. The detail of all these overlaid relationships spools out, often orthogonally, throughout the novel.

As they do, we come to understand how the politics of the community doesn’t just drive its events but also becomes a sort of mask for them: “maybe-boyfriend was to be killed,” middle sister worries, “under the catch-all of the political problems even if, in reality, the milkman was going to kill him out of disguised sexual jealousy over me” (p. 115). In this context – in which women beaten by their husbands are told it is because of some depredation meted out to their man by a soldier from over the water, or in which every murder is understood as having a purpose or justification regardless of its depravity – middle sister comes to feel that “my inner world, it had seemed, had gone away” (p. 178). Likewise, she comes to see Milkman’s stalking of her as of a piece with the unspoken rules of her community: proceeding piecemeal and in metaphor, almost imperceptible but no less, and perhaps more, claustrophobic for all that. The intensity of all this is exhausting for all concerned; each character gives up much in order to survive within a space continually boasting less and less room for manoeuvre.

Perhaps this is why middle sister’s habit of walking the streets reading a book troubles so many of the people around her. In a community governed entirely by rumour – Burns is aware, no doubt, of the anthropological function of gossip in societies which seek self-policing unity – what comes to seem most dangerous is information, education. No one is encouraged to achieve this – boys are spirited away to the fight at an early age, or forced into make-do marriages or closeted homosexual isolation, whilst girls are encouraged to compete for the affections of gangsters and assassins – but middle sister is routinely caught with her nose in a novel.

It’s the way you do it – reading book,¬†whole books, taking notes, checking footnotes, underlining passages as if you’re at some desk or something, in a little private study or something, the curtains closed, your lamp on, a cup of tea besides you, essays being penned – your discourses, your lubrications. It’s disturbing. It’s deviant. It’s optical¬† illusion. Not public spirited. Not self-preservation. Calls attention to itself and why – with enemies at the door, with the community under siege, with us all having to pill together – would anyone want to call attention to themselves here? (p. 200)

This tension between the individual and the group, self-improvement and conformity, is not resolved by the novel’s end – cannot, in a society dominated by a recourse to, an insistence on, a herd identity, be resolved. But nor can the community be saved by a resort to the inward. Instead, increasingly recursive self-justifications are sought in order to protect the integrity of the corporation. Women, again, are the forefront of this, demanding more rights and greater equality, and so the men try to pay lip service to these demands “by coming up with the invention of rape with sub-sections – meaning that in our district there could now be full rape, three-quarter rape, half-rape or one-quarter rape” (p. 311). Such are the rationalisations to which middle sister and her contemporaries are subject. Only in her third brother-in-law, for whom rape is not “equivocations, rhetorical stunts, sly debater tricks or a quarter amount of something” (p. 346), is there a sign of hope – and only in the re-emergence of her mother’s true self from under a smothering blanket of theatrical piety is there a suggestion of escape.

Despite the fact that¬†Milkman¬†dwells on constriction, it is an expansive novel full of wisdom and not a little optimism. It perceives a dark time in recent history and seeks not just to understand but explicate it, and to hint and suggest how the way out of it was found. It does so through that incredible voice – humane and witty, difficult and characterful yet almost instantly accessible. There is little about this novel that doesn’t work beautifully – perhaps only in the weakness and occasional redundancy of its plot and central mysteries does it struggle to make something of its promises – and in its unnamed universality is, alas, of renewed relevance in our increasingly tribal times. Burns has here written something rather special, and the book not just deserves its place on this year’s Booker shortlist; it seems to me a frontrunner for the prize.

“The Prison of the Present Tense”: Rachel Kushner’s “The Mars Room”

I feel like I’m being unfair to¬†The Mars Room. Its presence on this year’s Booker shortlist is refreshing and significant; its voice is memorable and consistent; its heart, reader, is in the right place. There are passages of quite impressive tension, and others of much humour and even – if this is not too hoary a noun (which, of course, it is) – ribaldry. It has something to say of perhaps even greater urgency now than when the novel was being written. You’ll remember it; it sticks.

And yet I can’t quite shake the idea that the novel doesn’t really¬†work, or that it is weirdly derivative for a novel that wants to be taken so seriously.

The Mars Room¬†begins some time around 2003, when Romy Hall, a single mother in her late twenties, is being ferried to Stanville, the prison where she is to start the first of two consecutive life sentences. The exact nature of her offence is kept hazy until very late in the novel, but we quickly intuit that, in one way or another, she killed a man who had begun to stalk her. She had first met him in her capacity as an adult dancer in the Mars Room of the title, a very low-rent establishment in her native San Francisco at which she had worked for some time. “I am still Kurt Kennedy’s victim,” Romy tells us very early on, “even though he’s dead” (p. 19).

“Low-rent” is the adjective to describe much of the milieu in which The Mars Room is set. Its San Francisco is not the sun-kissed city of postcards and romantic movies; it is a hard-scrabble, down-at-heel place which exists beneath, above, to one side of and in between the recommended hotspots, “immersed in beauty and barred from seeing it” (p. 11). Only the tourists call this place “San Fran”, Romy tells us, and only people from further east think of it as a beacon of the good life. For Romy, it is only the home foisted upon her, her tatty default state.

The characters in¬†The Mars Room, then, are acutely aware of their own disenfranchisement. From the conspiracy theories of her inmate contemporaries – “I didn’t meet a single person in the county who wasn’t convinced that AIDS had been invented by the government to wipe out gays and addicts” (p. 15) – to their understanding of the job market – “White girls get all the best jobs … while us black and brown women pull used tampons from the septic tank” (p. 161) – they are not blind to the injustices around them, and which have defined their lives. Injustice is fully integrated with their daily experience, threaded through life like a shabby golden thread. “If I was a dude I’d be like I am right now,” one of the prisoners shrugs. “‘Cept not locked up” (p. 105).

This structural injustice is featured on almost every page of¬†The Mars Room, but is perhaps most clearly and concisely presented in Romy’s experience of the justice system. Bundled into a pen of other defendants, she first watches a man named Johnson endure a hearing, “as the facts of his life were exposed like pants pockets pulled inside out” (p. 61); she then finds herself assigned the same lawyer as Johnson, simply approached on the other side of the pen’s fencing by “an incompetent and overworked old man” (p. 63) going through the motions in a court which habitually dopes up defendants with liquid thorazine (“an invol by corrections offices [to make] their own job easier” [p. 62]). He refuses to let Romy testify, mostly out of a sort of programmatic caution (“No competent lawyer would put you on the stand” [p. 64]), and fails to work to build Romy’s trust sufficiently to persuade her to take a plea bargain. “What I didn’t realize, at the time,” she opines with the benefit hindsight, “was that most people took pleas because they did not want to spend their life in prison” (p. 65).

Romy blames her lawyer, then, for her predicament: as an avatar of a system interested primarily in processing people rather than understanding them, he comes to represent all that is inadequate and off-hand about the US court and penal system. Others, however, blame Romy: “Ms, Hall,” intones Stanville’s Lieutenant Jones, “I know it’s tough, but your situation is due one hundred per cent to choices you made and actions you took” (p. 157).¬†The Mars Room¬†is not ambiguous about the side it takes in this debate: it depicts Romy as never having had a meaningful choice to make from the day she was born, and also demonstrates the ways in which that helplessness is transmitted through the generations.

The novel throws this argument into higher, but not always as successful, relief through the medium of three competing perspectives. Interspersing Romy’s first-person narration, which makes up the vast majority of the novel, are intermittent chapters from male points of view: two written in the third person – one from the perspective of Gordon Hauser, the prison educator, and a man named Doc, a corrupt cop who was having an affair with one of Romy’s fellow inmates –¬†and an even more intermittent, and frankly odd, set of first-person interpolations from the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski – a man who lives, like Hauser, in the woods and admires, like Hauser’s hero Thoreau, the “natural” world. The third-person emphasises that the novel doesn’t belong to these men, and their perspectives – Hauser’s sleazy obsession with “improving” the women in his classes without ever engaging with the truth of their existences (“They seemed afraid of the mountains, which surprised Gordon[:] ‘You got to fight bears up there'” (p. 187)], or the total lack of value Doc places on the lives of the people he in theory seeks to protect (“At the moment when the suspect’s hands go into the pockets, Doc fires at the face” [p. 198]) – serve to underscore the inevitability, if not the wisdom, of Romy’s fatalism. “Everything here is about choices, decisions, as if people are making them when they commit a crime” (p. 285), she observes cynically.

The Kaczynski stuff feels more out of place, and never quite coheres. It seems that Kushner is making a point about toxic masculinity, the Pyrrhic vacuum at the heart of the most destructive assumptions on offer in the novel; but since, rightly, the men in¬†The Mars Room aren’t given space to take over the narrative, none of this is developed sufficiently to justify the weirdness of Kaczynski’s presence. The one exception to this rule is Romy’s stalker, Kurt Kennedy, who, in one of the book’s queasiest about-turns, develops around him an air of pathos in his final appearance: a man now on crutches, with clear mental health issues himself, bludgeoned to death with a crowbar.¬†The Mars Room¬†doesn’t make of Romy a Mary-Sue: she is prone to racism even as she also admits to “sometimes feeling sorry for bigots” (p. 166); for every bit of wisdom she imparts, she betrays, too, her limitations. Her contemporaries are not saints, or even likeable, “just people eager to see others fall under the hammer they suffered under themselves” (p. 78). This is a novel which wishes us to understand that we are all human – and that this means we are all often unlovely.

In achieving this, however, it is less successful than the book that casts a long and deep shadow over Kushner’s, Piper Kerman’s¬†Orange is the New Black (2010). This shadow is made more indelible, in truth, by the Netflix TV series based on Kerman’s memoir, in which the show’s creator, Jenji Kohan, consciously created a stage for minority stories and diverse experience: by using the story of the blonde, white, middle-class Piper Chapman as an entry-point for the audience,¬†OitNB¬†has succeeded like few other mainstream television series in showcasing female stories rarely seen by audiences. The show’s six seasons and flashback structure has enabled it to weave an extremely rich tapestry;¬†The Mars Room, set just like¬†OitNB¬†in a women’s prison and, just like¬†OitNB, in the mid-2000s and, just like¬†OitNB, focused on advocacy and diversity, can occasionally read as redundant, like fan-fiction for a show which shares its difficult mix of politics and humour, whimsy and violence. I’d like to say this isn’t Kushner’s fault, and that the novel should be read outside of this context; but¬†OitNB¬†has been hard to avoid since its debut in 2013, and¬†The Mars Room¬†should have taken more readily its opportunity to offer something different.

Still, a novel’s similarity to another property does not negate the often crystal clarity of its prose style, or the many achievements of its, admittedly sometimes over-formal, voice. Structurally, it doesn’t always fit together as satisfyingly as it might have done; every now and then the reader feels a little too keenly the gravity of the novel’s concerns pulling it into certain shapes or in particular directions; few of the characters beyond Romy are really given room fully to breathe. But nearly 1% of all people in the United States are incarcerated, giving it the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world; 40% of this population is black, compared to just 13% in the general population; and between 1981 and 2001, the rate of female incarceration increased five-fold. This makes¬†The Mars Room¬†of acute contemporary relevance, as does its piercing focus on how women are policed and punished more generally within US society. At a time when the President of the United States is a self-confessed perpetrator of sexual assault, and the US Senate has become so politicised, and mired in such constitutional crisis, that a man of allegedly similar proclivities, and certainly of unexamined partisanship, can be elevated to the Supreme Court,¬†The Mars Room¬†is more urgent still. That it is an accessible, and yet lucidly written, novel makes it unusual amongst literary fiction – and means it deserves and is capable of a very wide readership. If for rather less important reasons it might be somewhat hobbled in the Booker stakes, we might want to place the significance of book prizes within that wider, and more critical, context.