Will the 2013 Man Booker go to the 'novel' novel?

The Man Booker jury chair Robert Macfarlane has said the panel looked for the 'novel' novel. The shortlist has a number of firsts including the first black African woman writer. But which of the nominees is more novel?

hidden October 14, 2013 14:23:43 IST
Will the 2013 Man Booker go to the 'novel' novel?

by Vikram Kapur

In 2004 Robert Macfarlane was on the panel of judges for the Man Booker Prize. That panel sprang a double surprise. Not only did it ignore the overwhelming favourite — David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas — it ended up giving the nod to Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, the first gay novel to win the Booker. Nine years later, as chair of the 2013 panel, Macfarlane seems to have lost none of his appetite for surprise or, for that matter, firsts. The longlist overlooked past winners like J.M.Coetzee, Margaret Atwood and Roddy Doyle in favour of several first-time novelists. And in NoViolet Bulawayo the Booker has the first black African woman to make the shortlist.

So who will win the Booker on October 15? That is anybody’s guess.

Commenting on the judging process, Macfarlane has said that the panel looked for ‘novel novels’. Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, however, can hardly be called that. Has any writer since Jane Austen struck so much literary gold by writing what she knows? Relations within a Bengali family, Calcutta and America, diasporic characters negotiating between two very different worlds…Such Lahiri staples form the heart and soul of The Lowland. The fact that one brother joins the Naxal movement is the part where the plot deviates from what she has done in the past. Yet she chooses to keep him on the periphery while reserving the centerstage for his less interesting diasporic sibling. Furthermore, in terms of style, Lahiri remains an avowed traditionalist. Rather than experimenting with the form, she chooses to tell a well-crafted story, while eschewing flash for simplicity in the language. This almost-patented clinical simplicity works beautifully in a short story, a form of which Lahiri is an acknowledged master. In the sprawling landscape of the novel, where we are all for the unpredictable and the surprising, it can read flat. That was the problem with her first novel The Namesake and remains the problem here. If she wins it will certainly not be a win for the ‘novel novel’.

On the other hand, the term ‘novel novel’ does apply to Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary that focuses on the mourning of Mary after Jesus’s crucifixion. At 104 pages, it is the slimmest novel ever to be shortlisted. Furthermore, even though Toibin is an acknowledged atheist who was born a Roman Catholic, the novel’s stance is neither pro nor anti-faith. Rather, it humanizes the character of Mary by seeking to answer questions such as how it felt to be the mother of Jesus. Jesus emerges as a somewhat supercilious son. He scares Mary with his talk of being the Son of God and rows with her with a vehemence that causes her to remind him that she is his mother. After he is crucified, a death depicted in horrifying detail, he becomes a figure of myth and legend that Mary barely recognizes.

In 2004 Toibin was shortlisted for The Master which also fictionalized the life of a real-life person. Given its subject matter and Toibin’s gift for fictionalizing real-life characters with aplomb, The Testament of Mary is in with a shout in spite of its length. In terms of being a favourite, though, it has been eclipsed by Jim Crace’s Harvest and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.

Will the 2013 Man Booker go to the novel novel

At 67, Crace has announced that Harvest is his last novel. Reuters

A novel set in medieval England, Harvest comes at a time where the English historical novel has become a Booker favourite. Hilary Mantel won twice with it in 2009 and 2012. Unlike Mantel, whose winning novels dramatise one of the most over-told narratives in English history, the Tudor period, Crace focuses on an under-told narrative; the forced enclosure of open fields in the late medieval era that led to subsistence agriculture being replaced by commercial wool production in a way that dispossessed peasants and disrupted village life. Rich in atmosphere and brimming with mystery, Harvest has received a lot of critical acclaim. Furthermore, Jim Crace is a popular figure in British literary circles, where many believe he was robbed in 1997 when his novel Quarantine lost out to Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. (Carmen Callil, the chair of the 1996 Booker panel, went on to dub The God of Small Things ‘an over-sweet, sticky pudding’.) Moreover, he is a sentimental favourite; at sixty-seven, he has announced that Harvest is his last novel. The desire to give him one last hurrah will be intense.

The book tipped to topple the Harvest applecart is another historical novel—Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. Set in the 1866 New Zealand gold rush, The Luminaries has a 400-page opening sequence, with a dozen characters giving their own versions of the events in question, that practically accounts for half of the novel’s 848 pages. Each one of these characters embodies a symbol of the zodiac, which gives the novel an astral architecture. Catton uses an all-knowing omniscient voice, a throwback to Victorian fiction, to reveal the lives of her multiple characters. She also investigates a number of mysteries—a wealthy idealist’s disappearance, a prostitute’s attempt at suicide, a recluse’s death. The Luminaries evokes Victorian writer Wilkie Collins with its fake identities, opium dealers, murder and the smuggling of gold in the lining of dresses. Since the shortlist came out, it has been receiving a lot of attention in the international press for its expansiveness and daring. It remains to be seen whether that will be enough to get it the Booker.

The last two novels on the shortlist are NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. Bulawayo’s tome is remarkable for the way it ticks every box in the way the West sees Africa. There is a child impregnated by her grandfather, there is Aids, there is a dirt-poor ghetto rather ironically called Paradise, there is political violence…There is also the immigration to the West, in this case America, that attempts to give the narrative a cross-cultural feel. Reading it, you get the sense that the writer is attempting to cover bases rather than tell a story. It would be a real surprise if she won.

Japanese-American writer Ruth Ozeki’s novel gives you a similar kind of feeling about ticking boxes, at first, albeit about the West and Japan. There is the Japanese tsunami, Zen and philosophizing about the meaning of life. There is also suicide. Ozeki, though, manages to imbue her characters with the kind of life that Bulawayo’s characters lack. Particularly memorable is an anarchist Buddhist nun who is over a hundred years old and Nao (pronounced ‘now’), an adolescent girl who has been away for so long from Japan that she feels lost to the point of suicidal once she returns. Whether these are enough to give Ozeki the Booker, though, is debatable.

In the end the Booker may come down to something that has nothing to do with the books. Eleanor Catton is twenty-eight and will, conceivably, have many more shots at the prize than the sixty-seven-year-old Jim Crace. That could make the judges plump for Crace. In any case, it should be one of those two. That said, Macfarlane has a penchant for surprise. And he and his panel could pull yet another one out of the hat. All in all, it makes for an interesting evening on October 15.

Vikram Kapur is a writer and associate professor at Shiv Nadar University. His website is www.vikramkapur.com.

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