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When discussing the shortlist for this year’s prize I described how difficult it was to call who might win and I was surprised to see “Milkman” triumph last night. But I think this is a fantastic result for a number of reasons despite my heart’s wish to see “Washington Black” win and my finding Anna Burns’ novel a bit of a slog to read overall.

Many people will now buy “Milkman”, but I think the reality is that not many people will finish reading it. This goes to the centre of a longstanding tension between what you could term readability vs literary quality. Often we’re made to feel that challenging books are something we should force ourselves to read because they are “good” for us. Not many people would describe “Ulysses” or “Moby Dick” as delightful reading, but they’ve had an undeniable cultural influence and, of course, you can still find great pleasure in reading them. Many times challenging yourself to better understand a complex text can yield a lot of joy. My point is that I don’t think readability and literary quality are mutually exclusive. Also, we’re often made to feel if we don’t “get” a book we’re somehow less of a reader. If you’re not enjoying something don’t force yourself to read it. It simply might not be a book for you. Our relationships with individual books is complex. Sometimes it might be a question of timing or the circumstances in which you’re reading it. In this case, despite my reservations while reading “Milkman” I kept reading it not because I felt I had to, but because there were such insightful gems and moments of brilliance I wanted to see how the novel played out. I’m certainly glad I stuck with it because I really connected with the dilemma and justified indignation of its narrator, but if you gave up on it or start reading it now and decide to give up on it that’s a totally valid decision. And maybe you’ll want to try it again some day.

Here’s a special edition of the novel which the prize designed just for the author.

Here’s a special edition of the novel which the prize designed just for the author.

It also feels like “Milkman” being selected as the winner was something of a political choice. As has been often noted, a female author hasn’t won the prize since Eleanor Catton took the trophy in 2013. That Anna Burns is also from Northern Ireland feels significant as well – especially in the midst of Brexit. It’s great that the novel winning this award will bring more of a focus to female voices from this part of the world. If you’re interested in discovering more writers from Northern Ireland I’d highly suggest reading the anthology “The Glass Shore” which includes a wide range of short stories from many talented female writers from the North of Ireland. The fact that Burns’ gender or country of origin might have played a factor in the judges’ decision shouldn’t detract from the individual literary quality of “Milkman”. It’s a singular achievement (as all the novels on the shortlist are) so it just adds another dimension to the joy of this book winning.

I was lucky enough to be invited along to some of the parties last night so I also made a video discussing the shortlist a bit more and filming a vlog of my experiences on the night which you can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5X1vVokxfo&t=200s

Let me know what you think of “Milkman” winning the prize this year? Have you read it or are you tempted to read it now?

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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It’s been such an interesting year for the Booker Prize, not only in its Man Booker 50 celebrations but also in the dynamic and controversial longlist that this year’s judges created. I’ve enjoyed reading so many of the nominated books and discussing the prize with other readers. While I’d have loved to see novels like Jessie Greengrass’ “Sight” or Sophie Mackintosh’s “The Water Cure” in the final running, this is an absolutely fascinating and impressive shortlist. In past years, I’ve been able to make fairly confident predictions about winners such as Marlon James’ “A Brief History of Seven Killings” or George Saunders’ “Lincoln in the Bardo”. But I think it’s really too difficult to call this year! So I’ll try to weigh all the options that I’d consider if I were a judge.

“The Overstory” is so impressive for the way Powers’ language and style of writing changes the way the reader conceives of time by shifting focus to nature and the pace of trees. It’s also filled with such compelling characters and, while I didn’t think all the storylines worked, I was drawn into their complex emotional journey and the urgent message of their struggles. But I can already imagine the enormous outcry if another weighty American novel wins the prize since Yanks have snatched the trophy for two years running. It’s the novel most people are predicting will win, but I think we may be surprised.

There’s also the fact that a female author hasn’t won the prize since Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries” in 2013. While I don’t think gender should be a determining factor in picking a prize that simply seeks to honour “the best novel in the opinion of the judges” you have to hope that men won’t come out on top year after year. Thankfully, since there are four women on this year’s shortlist, the odds are in favour of one of them taking the prize. Certainly, “Milkman” is an equally impressive feat for the vivid way it immerses the reader into a culture of fear and distrust in a country so violently divided by politics and religion. It’s certainly a challenging read, but if it wins I feel like the judges would be declaring “Trust us. Stick with it. It’s worth it!” And they’d be right to make that statement because Anna Burns’ writing is incredibly moving and powerful in certain sections of the book.

“Everything Under” is also a uniquely challenging reading experience for the way Daisy Johnson presents a fragmented portrait of broken families and outside individuals. But her prose are so invigorating, lyrical and give such a unique perspective on identity and language that I found this novel so moving. And, given that Johnson is the youngest ever shortlisted author for this prize, it’d be very encouraging to see a new writer of such talent and who represents such a refreshing perspective win the Booker.

I have to say for me it feels like “The Mars Room” is the weakest novel on the list but (like with Anna Burns’ novel) I felt there were sections of it which shone very powerfully. I really admire the way Rachel Kushner chose to highlight the complex lives of incarcerated individuals, but I felt the novel wasn’t structured in the best way. I think rereading Kushner’s novel (as the Booker judges are meant to read all the novels on the shortlist multiple times) would probably emphasize the problems in this novel’s unnecessary subplots.

I’m guessing the opposite would be true for Robin Robertson’s “The Long Take” which is a book I would really like to reread at one point. It’s so clever how he pairs the narrator’s tortured journey meeting the beleaguered and forgotten people of America with flashbacks to his traumatic experiences in the military and his pre-war life with his family. All this is told with such poetic power that I’m sure revisiting this narrative (especially by reading it aloud) would emphasize what a beautiful piece of storytelling it is.

However, the novel I keep thinking back on and which really captured my heart is Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black”. It’s a book that takes the reader on such an immersive and imaginative journey that I was totally captivated throughout. Some readers may be sceptical about the borderline fantastical elements of the plot. But I think it’s making such a positive message amidst so much suffering that individuals who have little opportunity to realise their full potential can discover ways to traverse the narrowmindedness and oppression of their times. Leaving aside any politics or other considerations, I think it’s the most accomplished novel on the list. I hope it wins.

The winner will be announced on the evening of Tuesday, October 16th. What book do you hope will win the Booker Prize this year?

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Something unsettled me amidst reading Rachel Kushner’s novel “The Mars Room” which focuses primarily on a young mother named Romy Hall who has just been convicted for two life sentences. We’re given a highly detailed and unflinching look into the lives of an array of individuals who have been incarcerated in a California state prison for women. Scenes veer from instances of horrific violence and suffocating devastation to humorous depictions of the women’s characters and interactions. This tragicomic balance is no doubt both true to life and necessary for a novel’s structure, but it felt somewhat voyeuristic in a way that made me uncomfortable.

That there is a whole population of people locked away from public view and the justice system is fraught with problems is something that shouldn’t be ignored. I believe fiction can be a means by which we can better empathize and understand the lives of people who were born into and are trapped in circumstances radically different from our own. And I have no doubt about the sincerity or meticulousness of Kushner’s labour in creating a novel that sympathetically represents people whose voices are too often ignored or suppressed. But I felt there was something awkward about the way she’s rendered these lives with such artistic control by also incorporating different third person narrative strands about a few male characters. While it didn’t stop me from being emotionally engaged at points or admiring many of the insights “The Mars Room” gives, it left me somewhat estranged from what I felt the core of this novel was trying to do.

Kushner has spoken in interviews about her proximity to correctional facilities such as this, friends who are serving long prison sentences and how Romy’s background is similar to girls she knew in her own childhood. There’s a potent logic in how we follow Romy’s journey from first being processed into permanent incarceration where she reflects about large swaths of her coming of age in a side of San Francisco much different from the popular understanding of that city in the 70s and 80s. This is a place of gritty urban decay, poor education and violence that almost inevitably leads Romy into a life of drug addiction and working at a strip club. However, interspersed with her memories and present experiences in prison are accounts of a dirty ex-cop named Doc and a Thoreau-loving man named Gordon who encourages inmates to get their GEDs while occasionally getting too touchy feely. These sections didn’t make much of an impression on me other than making grand statements that Kushner couldn’t give in the confines of Romy’s tale and serving as devices to feed into the plot working towards the novel’s somewhat melodramatic conclusion.

The content and musings within these third person accounts about men are sometimes interesting but jar against the larger narrative about Romy and other female inmates. For instance, at one point Gordon muses how “A man could say every day that he wanted to change his life, was going to change it, and every day the lament became merely a part of the life he was already living, so that the desire for change was in fact a kind of stasis that allowed the unchanged life to continue, because at least the man knew to disapprove of it, which reassured him not all was lost.” The devastating logic of this is really meaningful and speaks to universal ideas about human nature. Nevertheless, it felt too often like Kushner was striving to faithfully balance the lives of men against the female population of the prison. The only instance where it felt really effective was towards the end in how she rendered the misogynistic thought process and self-justification of a male stalker. But overall the balance Kushner tried to strike faithfully depicting all her characters’ stories felt unwieldy to me.

Romy recalls going to a museum and sees Henri Matisse’s painting ‘The Girl with Green Eyes’ which she feels connected to.

Romy recalls going to a museum and sees Henri Matisse’s painting ‘The Girl with Green Eyes’ which she feels connected to.

I gravitated towards Romy’s voice the most and wanted to stay with it. There are many punchy short lines which brutally convey the way a prison environment leads to paranoia and isolation: “You can’t believe anything people say. But what they say is all you have.” Kushner also has a skilled way of emotionally drawing you into this character’s experience and then stating how you are still really different. At one point Romy observes “A lot of history is not known. A lot of worlds have existed that you can’t look up online or in any book, even as you think you have the freedom to find things out that I cannot, since I don’t have access to the internet.” I admire the way she makes a large statement about the hidden aspects of history and then reminds the reader how Romy is excluded from trying to research information in the way we’re now accustomed to because she can’t search for things online. The way in which the reader is drawn into relating to Romy’s human experience but is also made aware of the significant differences in terms of opportunities and freedom is really powerful. I just wish Kushner had stayed true to that rather than striving to create a panoramic view of society like in a Dostoevsky book who she heavily nods towards in this novel.

For a different look at the lives and mentality of people in prison, I’d really recommend reading the anthology “Prison Noir” which is a collection of powerful stories written by people who are in prison or have been incarcerated.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRachel Kushner
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It felt somewhat surprising to me that the fact a graphic novel has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for the first time has proved to be so controversial. I don't believe there's ever been any rules in the prize's guidelines saying a graphic novel can't be submitted and if none have been listed for the prize before I can only assume that publishers haven't submitted many in the past since they are only allowed to submit a very limited number of books. It feels like there's been an elitism and snobbery expressed by some who don't believe graphic novels are as great an art form as pure prose fiction. I get the point if people feel that reading a graphic novel is a totally different experience from reading a novel composed entirely in prose, but I think it's great that the prize is challenging people to read different forms of story telling and it might introduce some to an entirely new genre. I've certainly not read that many graphic novels before, but have really appreciated ones by Art Spiegelman, Alan Moore/Melinda Gebbie, Howard Hardiman and Chris Ware. So I'm glad the prize has introduced me to Nick Drnaso's work because I found “Sabrina” to be quite a powerful and bracingly melancholy read about current American society. 

A woman named Sabrina has gone missing. The novel focuses on the lives of Sabrina's sister Sandra and her boyfriend Teddy as they try to deal with her sudden absence and the aftermath when the shocking truth of what happened to her is revealed. The drawings which accompany the dialogue and text are very understated in how they convey the scenes with little detail or facial expressions in the characters. In the context of the story this has the odd effect of imbuing them with even more emotion because its all submerged and the characters are stuck in a state of inaction/confusion. Many of interior and outdoor spaces portrayed are also very muted or stark as if the environment is just as barren and sombre as the characters who are dealing with their grief. The conversations are clipped and awkward as the well meaning people in Sandra and Teddy's lives try to console them. All this evokes a tone of stripped down emotion as the characters are surrounded by a jaded society that's become accustomed to a bombardment of horrific news and a culture rife with conspiracy theories. Ironically, the only colourful and busy images in the book are reproductions of scenes from children's activity books which suggest a world of motion and light that's in stark contrast to the inertness of reality.

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The story also involves a man named Calvin who takes his old friend Teddy in and tries to help him deal with his sudden loss. Calvin works in computer security for the US military and is trying to formulate a plan to relocate so he can be closer to his ex-wife and daughter. While his actual job doesn't involve any combat he spends his time out of work playing video games with his colleagues that simulate military battles and he keeps guns locked away in his house so that he's “well-protected if anyone tries anything.” This combined with radio broadcasts and disturbing threatening letters sent to Sandra and Calvin suggest how society has become so consumed with paranoia about intangible threats. But the only threats that are actually portrayed in the stories are the ones which come from within when the characters are under so much anxiety that they appear to contemplate harming themselves or others. As part of his job, Calvin must routinely fill out a medical evaluation survey which is designed to gauge his mental health. While his stress levels fluctuate in his answers portrayed on these forms throughout the book he never admits to thoughts of depression or any personal circumstances which might affect his duties. Why would he when he knows it would risk his employment and possible promotion? So it gives the feeling that there are structures in place to try to support people's emotional health, but in reality little attention is given to the intricacies of their wellbeing.

Small details in the drawings poignantly portray the fraught condition of these character's lives. For instance, Calvin and Teddy basically live off from fast food and its highly suggestive how Calvin often brings home bags with a smiling star on them which could stand in for any generic fast food brand but which you know won't provide them with much nourishment. Also, nighttime or nightmare scenes are drawn in such a way that evocatively invoke a sense of space where the characters are wrestling with the unwieldy complexity of their feelings. While the overall tone of the novel is quite dark and sombre there are some lighter moments as well in the form of a slanket which Calvin has become accustomed to wearing or a vending machine at work which breaks down so much it's become an office gag. There are also many moments of simple kindness shown throughout the story which gives a hopeful sense for our ability to be our best selves in situations where we aren't so physically removed from each other. Running alongside the story of Sabrina's disappearance is that of Calvin's cat who vanishes without the characters noticing. This neglect parallels with the way Calvin has become so estranged from his daughter that his ex-wife tells him not to bother attempting contact anymore. It suggests how we can sometimes be careless about the things and people that matter to us most until we suddenly realise we've lost them for good.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNick Drnaso
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It’s been quite a ride following the Man Booker Prize this year from the astounding quality of the novels on the long list to the heated race between the six books on the short list. When I first read “Lincoln in the Bardo” in March I was completely awestruck by this unique and powerful reading experience. So it threw me into such a quandary about whether this should win or Ali Smith’s wonderfully rambunctious and relevant “Autumn.” Of course, last year’s surprise winner “The Sellout” taught me how difficult it is to gauge what the judges might decide. So it felt equally plausible that this year’s winner could have been the accomplished novels “Exit West”, “History of Wolves” or “Elmet.” The oddball for me this year was Paul Auster’s “4321” which I’ve still not finished reading. There’s a lot to admire about it, but it seems overlong and the novel’s concept means that some of it feels quite repetitive. It must have been a really difficult decision picking a winner, but I’m glad Saunders' novel got the award. The chair of judges Lola, Baroness Young commented “The form and style of this utterly original novel, reveals a witty, intelligent, and deeply moving narrative.” 

Special presentation editions made for the shortlisted authors

Special presentation editions made for the shortlisted authors

With Ali Smith at the Guildhall

With Ali Smith at the Guildhall

I spotted Mohsin Hamid chatting with the Duchess of Cornwall

I spotted Mohsin Hamid chatting with the Duchess of Cornwall

Last night I was lucky enough to be invited to the pre-reception drinks before the award announcement at the Guildhall. There was a beautiful display of special editions of all the shortlisted novels. These unique designs really capture the spirit of the books. I decided to root for Ali Smith to win especially after the powerful reading she gave at the Booker shortlist readings on Monday night. It literally brought tears to my eyes hearing her describe the mood of the country in her narrative. There were hundreds of people in the Royal Festival Hall audience and it struck me how accurately she had captured all the complex and contradictory feelings of the country and how everyone in that room recognized and related to her words. Ali has told me before that her spirit animal is a pink armadillo so I had a special t-shirt made with an illustration of this adorable creature surrounded by Autumn leaves. She was wonderfully calm and sincerely talked about how it doesn’t matter who wins since they are all such excellent novels. That certainly chimes with why I love a prize like the Booker because the real pleasure of it is debating the different qualities of several great novels. I also went to some of the publishers’ parties and right up to the announcement I was still discussing the books on the list with people, many of whom had a different favourite. The prize is also an opportunity for me to place a cheeky little bet which I did right after this year’s longlist was announced. I went with my instinct that George Saunders would win and it’s paid off!

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I’m already looking forward to what new gems will come up on next year’s Man Booker International Prize as well as the main prize!

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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It was fortuitous that the book I ended up reading during my short holiday this past weekend was Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout”. Last night it won this year’s Man Booker Prize. I was also lucky enough to be invited to his publisher Oneworld’s Booker party. To see the jubilation for everyone who has worked on this novel watching Beatty being honoured was wonderful and I think it was unexpected for many people, including the publishers because they also published Marlon James’ novel which won the prize last year. It may have broken my winning streak for guessing the Booker winner, but “The Sellout” is an excellent choice for its wit, ingenuity and unfettered voice which creatively raises questions about race relations in America. 

The novel opens with its black narrator only known as Me being taken before the Supreme Court for owning a slave and trying to reinstate segregation in his neighbourhood – a place called Dickens which has been erased from the map. He recounts the story of his unusual life being raised by his tyrannical behavioural scientist father, living alongside a former actor named Hominy who pronounces himself to be his slave, his ill-fated love affair with bus driver Marpessa and his work growing the sweetest fruit/best cannabis on his own LA farm. After his father's death he also continues to help facilitate the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, a black group that meet regularly within a donut shop to debate societal affairs. The story moves through a series of high-concept situations which outrageously play up stereotypes and explode the racial issues we normally tiptoe around in society.  

This feels like a very personal novel by an author who has grown frustrated with the way the politics of race relations has shaped everything about how we conceive of our own identities and how we communicate with each other. At one point the narrator states “in ten years, through countless California cruelties and slights against the blacks, the poor, the people of colour, like Proposition 8 and 187, the disappearance of social welfare, David Cronenberg’s Crash, and Dave Eggers’s do-gooder condescension, I hadn’t spoken a single word.” His opinions about this cultural and social environment come flooding out. This book is an explosive act by someone who wants to offer a wholly different point of view.

Hominy is an actor who is the last surviving member of The Little Rascals or Our Gang and spent his life playing stereotypical roles for black actors like waiters or servants. He's internalized his subservient roles so much that he craves to be a slave who is beaten: “I’m a slave. That’s who I am. It’s the role I was born to play. A slave who just happens to be an actor. But being black ain’t method acting.” One of the challenging things this novel does is question how black identity develops, how much is this identity inherent to the person or is it reflecting notions that society presents. 

It's compelling and horrifying watching episodes of The Little Rascals and wondering how we should read what were meant to be entertaining funny vignettes. They make me so uncomfortable, but as with many dodgy representations of race it makes you wonder if they should be erased, seen in a social/historical context or rewritten. There are references to classic American literature throughout this novel and a man who rewrites these book from a black perspective. From this we also start to question how race is represented in films, television and literature today. In what way is racial identity sometimes used as a prop in story lines – where a bad guy might be lazily designated as such simply by being a Mexican – as frequently occurs in the show Breaking Bad.

I think something Beatty is asking us to do is look more clearly at what is being shown to us. He's questioning how much we've really moved on from outdated representations and how much social progression has really occurred. At one point he writes: “That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book – that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you.” It's really powerful how he presents this story which occurs in a kind of murky present that can question history because it's not strictly speaking a part of it. The real and surreal playfully blend together to create an entirely different picture of our society.

While I found all this really clever and it raised a lot of interesting ideas, I felt one of the downsides of this novel is that it's more concept than story. I could feel the author's anger, frustration and biting sense of humour. But these emotions didn't come organically from within the characters acting out a plot. The story is driven by artfully composed situations which are entertaining and fascinating to read about, but weren't enough to create a dramatic suspense to draw me into the heart of the tale. Instead I simply felt compelled by the range of references and challenging points of view the author put across. I think this is a really interesting choice to win the Booker prize, but I personally don't feel as emotionally attached to it as I did reading Levy's “Hot Milk” or Thien's “Don't Say We Have Nothing”

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesPaul Beatty
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It’s been a busy month for me since the longlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize was announced so I’ve only managed to read five of the novels on the list. However, since I did so badly at predicting the longlist, I hope to redeem myself by making a guess at the six books which will make the shortlist. The novel that has really stood out for me is Madeleline Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” - a majestic sprawling saga about a family’s experiences in Mao’s China and a girl’s quest to understand her lost father’s past. I really hope this makes the list!

I also loved reading both Ian McGuire and Wyl Menmuir’s novels, but I don’t think they’ll make the cut. “The North Water” was such a fantastic adventure story filled with rich descriptions. And “The Many” is an intense, eerie read which eventually turns quite emotional.

I had previously read Deborah Levy’s novel “Hot Milk” and love the oddball perspective it gives on personal drive in life and relationships/sexuality. Elizabeth Strout’s “My Name is Lucy Barton” is a brilliantly pared down description of a life and how a woman has grown to create her own identity far from her upbringing.

I still haven’t read “The Sellout”, “The Schooldays of Jesus” or “Hystopia” but I’ve heard such high praise for all of them that I think they’ll be on the list. I figure that the judges will always want to have a famous, known name on the list so J.M. Coetzee is assured a place. Although I’ve heard some strong criticism of it, I’m also really eager to still read A.L. Kennedy’s “Serious Sweet” as I’ve loved her writing so much in the past.

Here are my six guesses for the shortlist. Click on the titles for my full reviews.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleline Thien
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee
Hystopia by David Means

The official Man Booker Prize 2016 shortlist will be announced next Tuesday, September 13th at 10:30AM followed by a fabulous prize event being held at the Serpentine Pavilion in London which I’ve been invited to. So I’ll be very excited to see which books make the list and which authors/judges are in attendance. The winner will be announced on October 25th so I hope to read all of whatever books make the actual list by that time.

Have you read many/any on the longlist? Who do you hope will make the shortlist?

After the stunning novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings” won last year’s Man Booker Prize, I’m especially excited to see what takes this year's award. Again, we have a compelling longlist of 13 novels. I’m a big supporter of new authors so great to see 4 debut novels included. I suppose you could say the biggest name on the list is J.M. Coetzee who has won the prize twice before. More than anything, this list makes me want to lock myself inside for a week and get reading!

I only managed to correctly guess one book on the longlist and I’ve only read two of them: Deborah Levy’s wildly original novel on family/relationships “Hot Milk” and Elizabeth Strout’s short impactful “My Name is Lucy Barton”. However, I’m really happy about this because many of the books on the list I either have on my shelf or I’ve heard great things about such as Ian McGuire’s “The North Water”, David Szalay’s “All That Man Is”, Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Eileen”, Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing”, David Means’ “Hystopia” and Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout”.

I’m a big fan of A.L. Kennedy and J.M. Coetzee so I’m also excited to read “Serious Sweet” and “The Schooldays of Jesus”. I don’t know anything about Graeme Magrae Burnet’s “His Bloody Project”, Wyl Menmuir’s “The Many” or Virginia Reeves’ “Work Like Any Other”. So I’m glad there are some real surprises there for me to discover.

A shortlist of six books will be announced on September 13th and the winner will be announced on October 25th.

What do you think of the list? Have you read any? What are you looking forward to reading first? I can’t quite decide what to start with.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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On the 27th of July the longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize will be announced! It’s been an exciting year for the prize so far with their new Man Booker International Prize being awarded to the fantastic novel "The Vegetarian" by the South Korean writer Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith. It’s so wonderful the prize has given this platform for exciting translated fiction! Also, with last year’s choice of the brilliant sprawling epic “A Brief History of Seven Killings” by Marlon James, I’m really curious to know who might win the prize this year.

For the main prize it’s an extremely difficult guessing game predicting the longlist as the prize is open to any novel originally written in English and published in the UK between 1st October 2015 and 30th September 2016. Not only does that mean there are an enormous amount of American authors eligible, but also there are many novels still to be published which most people won’t have seen yet. However, as I like speculating and part of the pleasure of prizes is debating what books should be listed, I’m throwing out my guesses for which 12 or 13 books will appear on the longlist next month.

Here are my choices. Click on the titles to see my full thoughts about those I have read. I’ve not yet read the novels by Barker, Haslett, Proulx or Ryan – however, I hear great things about them! I really hope the others I’ve read will be recognized – especially authors like Paraic O’Donnell, Chinelo Okparanta and Garth Greenwell as their novels really deserve more attention. And, of course, I’m always rooting for Joyce Carol Oates! (Since writing this I learned that Lisa McInerney's The Glorious Heresies - which won both the Baileys Prize and the Desmond Elliot Prize this year - isn't actually eligible for this year's Booker prize because it was first published earlier in 2015 so I've replaced it in my list.)

LaRose by Louise Erdrich
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss
The Maker of Swans by Paraic O’Donnell
Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
The Man Without a Shadow by Joyce Carol Oates
What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
The Cauliflower by Nicola Barker
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
Barkskins by Annie Proulx
All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

What do you think? What novels would you like to see on the longlist?

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Some books leave you reeling in astonishment and “A Brief History of Seven Killings” certainly does that. I feel like I've been startled awake and can still hear the multiplicity of voices contained in this novel. Marlon James creates several distinct narrators to tell the story surrounding an assault upon Bob Marley’s house on December 3, 1976 by unknown gunmen who attacked Marley, his wife, manager and band mates which left them seriously injured. This mysterious incident occurred two days before he was due to sing in a concert which was meant to inspire peace between two warring Jamaican political groups. Nevertheless, Marley performed at the concert as scheduled. This novel is told from the point of view of dons (or territorial/gang leaders), CIA agents, a journalist, gang members, a woman trying to escape Jamaica, a hit man and a deceased politician. It spans a decade and a half from 1976 to 1991. It is specifically about the Singer and Jamaican politics, but it’s also a fantastic exploration of identity (national, racial, gender, sexual, spiritual). This is a book that challenges your assumptions about who you think you are and how you see other people.

Although Marley is central to the story we never get his voice. As such, the characters talk about him and (in some cases) directly to him, but we don’t hear his point of view. This is important because, as the novel progresses, it becomes about much more than the incident and extends its meaning into the larger culture. The author could very well be revealing his mission for this novel when a character states at one point: “there’s a version of this story that’s not really about him, but about the people around him, the ones who come and go that might actually provide a bigger picture than me asking him why he smokes ganja.” In this way, Marley is mythologized in a way similar to what Gabriel García Márquez does in “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” where the murdered man central to the story becomes so filled with all the characters’ opinions about him that he ceases to be a physical man and becomes more of a symbol. At the same time, I felt incredibly anxious for and sympathetic towards Marley’s plight as he was caught in an overwhelming web of scheming and ideological battles. He was extremely vulnerable as one man observes: “Once you climb to the peak of the mountain, the whole world can take a shot.”

As well as offering a wide range of perspectives on Marley, the novel also gives a fascinatingly complex understanding of race as viewed from the perspectives of multiple characters. There is the white journalist Alex Pierce who scoffs at white Americans who affect black sensibilities, but who can’t fully integrate into the society. Or the CIA man who observes that “Racism here is sour and sticky, but it goes down so smooth that you’re tempted to be racist with a Jamaican just to see if they would even get it.” Throughout the book there is an awareness of skin colour being a factor in social class depending on lightness or darkness. An enforcer and don, Josey Wales, states that “In Jamaica you have to make sure that you breed properly. Nice little light browning who not too dry up, so that your child will get good milk and have good hair.” These points of view bring to mind for me Chimamanda Adichie’s observation that race isn’t a genetic issue, but a social issue. There are conflicted levels of racism inherent to everyone’s point of view which are demonstrated by the way they interact with and think about others.

For a novel so dominated by a multiplicity of male perspectives, the female narrator Nina Burgess gives a refreshingly different take on women in this novel. She’s someone who I felt a tremendous level of sympathy with both for her yearnings and her need to escape her culture to create a new identity. Burgess exposes the sexism women must face in Jamaican society – how the threat of sexual violence is something which can go unreported and be overlooked by officials even if it is (as they may very well be the perpetrators.) It shows how fear of it can be a kind of torture: “I can’t imagine anything worse than waiting for a rape.” It’s shown how rape is used as another instrument of war and the quest for domination. Importantly, the novel also shows how stereotypes or expectations about the way women might be treated in Jamaica don’t always play out in the ways you’d expect in specific circumstances. Another female character who defies stereotypes is Griselda Blanco, a drug lord who is one of the toughest and most fearsome characters in the entire book.

At the same time, James gives a sympathetic understanding towards his male characters – even when they are ruthless killers. Many feel trapped by circumstance and cornered into taking certain actions based on what opportunities are available to them. Some experience a crisis of consciousness and develop or recess back into old habits of being. The character of Josey Wales meaningfully realizes that “When you come into the real truth about yourself, you realize that the only person equipped to handle it is you.” There aren’t avenues of support to encourage gang members out of the life they live. The horrific fact about the violence that many of the men engage with is that it is self-perpetuating and has no end: “The problem with proving something is that instead of leaving you alone people never stop giving new things to prove, harden things.” So the violence must escalate as the men feel they must maintain and protect their place within their social group.

Jamaica has a notoriously bad reputation for the way it treats its queer community. That rampant homophobia is reflected in this book where one of the most common insults casually doled out is “batty man.” This isn’t surprising and fully justified given that many of the voices are by macho tough men. What is surprising is that two of the voices (that of a complicated gang enforcer named Weeper and a dangerous hit man named John-John K) are men who actively have sex with other men. There is a level of acceptance for their actions by some gang members who acknowledge their different sexuality but overlook this fact because they don’t consider them “that” type of gay man. Equally there is a complex understanding of their own sexualities within each man’s narrative. They challenge stereotypes: “Don’t think the man getting fucked must be the bitch.” Bottoms can also be bad ass.

Watch Marlon James discuss his inspiration for writing this novel

In many ways, these two characters also hide their true natures as a means of surviving in their stridently heterosexual social groups. There is a level of self-consciousness where the men must “perform” a role and this reveals the fallible nature of our social identities. There is talk of male prostitutes being used and then killed to hide the shame of what happened. Only in New York City can Weeper establish a somewhat steady sexual relationship with another man on his own terms. Weeper and John-John K also have a fascinating dialogue about sexuality when they finally meet in a climactic scene which offers very different points of view rather than a singular outcast gay man’s voice. This is such a refreshing and challenging thing for a novel to do. It’s fascinating to consider how the author might also still be facing his own struggle with sexuality given that in the last sentence of the acknowledgements he warns his mother away from reading the fourth part of this novel which contains some very graphic gay sexual content.

It’s astounding to me a novel can encompass so many different voices and do so in a way that is entirely convincing, but also beautifully written. Some of the most lyrical writing is that of the deceased politician Sir Arthur Jennings who oversees the spanning interstices of time between sections. One of the most striking lines which I keep musing upon comes from the journalist looking upon the ghetto thinking “Beauty has infinite range but so does wretchedness…”  However, some of the most forceful, terrifying and hypnotically-written passages that flood your mind like a river are by the young gang members rapt in the heat of drug-fuelled violence. This novel builds voices in layers giving a complex understanding of our culture in a way that only a novel can. Interestingly, it uses multiple narrators to create a polyphonic perspective of a place and time surrounding a specific incident that's very similar to Ryan Gattis’ “All Involved”. I was also struck how one plot-line of the book sees a caregiver get attached to an older man who loses his short-term memories every day which is a story that is superficially similar to Yoko Ogawa's "The Housekeeper and the Professor" which I read earlier this year. Of course, James' novel is very different from these books in content, but I think it's a positive thing when great books remind you of other great books.

It is commendable Marlon James engages with this period of Jamaican history and culture in such a complex and intelligent way. Perhaps he felt the need to answer his own challenge set by his character Tristan Phillips who suggests: “Maybe somebody should put all of this craziness together, because no Jamaican going do it. No Jamaican can do it, brother, either we too close or somebody going stop we.” This is a view of Jamaica that only this author could give, yet its meanings extend so far beyond the boundaries of that country and the individual voices it contains. It is a long read, but it becomes utterly mesmerizing. As an enticement to stick with it, you should know that the significance of this novel’s title and the killings it references isn’t revealed until near the end. “A Brief History of Seven Killings” is a novel I feel like I could go on and on about. I’ve only just touched on some of the fascinating themes and ideas this book brings up. It’s better if I just write you should definitely read it and end here.

As with every year, the release of the Booker longlist introduces me to authors I probably wouldn't have read otherwise. This is Joseph O'Neill's fourth published novel but I haven't read any of his previous work.

The narrator of “The Dog” gives up his life working in a US law firm to reside in Dubai. He’s employed by the wealthy Batros family as an individual they can trust. That trust involves coordinating the management of their wealth, but also making absurd arrangements for celebrities to appear at private events and monitoring the weight loss of a wayward nephew of the family. More than usefully putting his legal prowess to their affairs, the narrator spends most of his time trying to dodge responsibility like a modern version of Melville’s Bartleby. He wants to excuse himself from responsibility wafting away email enquiries with the standard response “NOT MY FORTE” and affixes ink stamps to any document he signs to make it more impersonal and have an officious distance from it. He muses about life in Dubai and reflects back on the disintegration of his relationship with his partner Jenn. Although he seems to be someone who thrives on being an alien in an alien land, he receives a stark reminder that he does not truly belong when he takes a moral stance and things go wrong in the Batros' company.

O’Neill’s unnamed narrator is obsessively ponderous. His frequent microscopic examination of the details of life whether it’s completing Sudoku puzzles or the daily exercise of running up a stairwell is very reminiscent of Nicholson Baker’s writing. Here the minutiae of behaviour is shone in a spotlight so that the absurdity of human foibles and the small tragedies of moment to moment existence is revealed. There are lines of rattling analytical detail which investigate with a fine-toothed comb the multitude of meanings behind things such as advertisements, Emirates’ law or a massage chair. For instance, when he receives treatment with a new foot care gel he reflects: “I’d been lulled into a soporific feeling of all going well in the world, of clever men and women in unseen laboratories toiling and tinkering and steadily solving our most disastrous mysteries, of benign systems gaining in efficiency, of our species progressively attaining a technical dimension of consciousness, of a deep and hitherto undisclosed algorithm of optimal human endeavour coming at last within the grasp of the good-doing intelligences of corporations and universities and governments and NGOs, of mankind’s most resilient intellectual/moral/economic foes being routed forever and the blockheads and bashibazouks and baboons running for the hills once and for all.” He extrapolates all this from simply getting softer, better-smelling feet. The point being that we're continually lulled into believing that each mark of civilization carries behind it the workings of a prosperous, well-ordered and just society. However, the narrator isn't convinced. He's wracked with guilt about the injust distribution of wealth leading him to chase anonymous, unseen cleaners down back corridors in a desperate attempt to tip them. The narrator's stubborn refusal to subsume himself within the order of larger systems becomes his undoing.

Mindful of the belief that the world is becoming a more homogenized place, I think what the author is trying to get at in this novel is the way individuals become increasingly dislocated and lost within it. The Dubai O'Neill writes about carries great symbolic weight as a kind of liminal space: “Dubai’s undeclared mission is to make itself indistinguishable from its airport.” It's a clean, stringently-ordered place, somewhere that people are always passing through. People are neither here nor there. The city contains a number of people who are Bidoon or “a stateless person, i.e., a person who is everywhere illegally present.” The environment of the city itself is always in a state of flux with frequent construction making it so disorientating cab drivers always get lost. Huge construction sites are sometimes left as nothing more than giant holes in the ground although the online presence of the project images show an ideal, complete building. The city's Westin hotel has the tagline “Between Being and Becoming.” Existence here is lived in the between. As such the narrator never feels an established sense of identity. The eponymous dog of the title refers to an animal that is not really welcome anywhere in Dubai and, in a sense, this is the kind of animal the narrator becomes.

The most potent symbol of our supposed connectedness as a global community is the internet. As such the narrator naturally turns to it for answer as he describes here: “I took it upon myself to visit websites dedicated to modern psychological advances and to drop in on discussion sites where, with an efficacy previously unavailable in the history in human endeavour, one might receive the benefit of the wisdom, experience and learning of a self-created global network or community of those most personally and ideally interested in humiliation, and in this way stand on the shoulders of a giant and, it followed, enjoy an unprecedented panorama of the subject. I cannot say that it turned out as I’d hoped.” Although the internet strives to be a utopian plain of encyclopaedic knowledge it is more often a jumble of unverified facts, poor logic, strident opinions and misdirected emotion. He eventually finds his name has been slandered online so that the top searches show a series of insults. Although the narrator purports not to engage in any social media, he comments on the unique way people engage within the medium: “They made common their feelings. They grew. They rooted for and bore sympathetic and useful witness to the others as, one by one, each made her or his way along life’s rocky path, facing en route the loneliness, discouragement and pain that are the inevitable and persistent highwaymen of our ways.” The result of interacting this way is far from ideal as evidenced by the way the narrator investigates the social media activities of a missing man named Ted Wilson. Outpourings of support lead to vicious defamatory campaigns from a stream of unnamed individuals when certain facts about Ted are made public. Here O'Neill shows that one's online existence is often a poor approximation of the way one actually lives.

The style of writing in “The Dog” matches this particular narrator. His particular kind of stream of consciousness results in a page of digressions that eventually collapse into a jumble of closing parenthesis. In other sections he accumulates a list which continuously refers back to earlier statements like a legal document. It’s an endless accumulation of questions and counterpoint arguments that leave him feeling discouraged rather than more self-aware. This style illuminates the systematic way people go about tackling any problems in modern life. The rapid accumulation of detail leads to a train of information which crashes at a point of no solution, a pile-up of information.

This is most often a comedic novel that also contemplates the meaning of dislocation in a modern global society and online communities. Early on the narrator becomes enthusiastic about diving where “Very few human ideas survive in this implacably sovereign element; one finds oneself in a world devoid not only of air but of symbols, which are of course a kind of air.” He's attracted to this underwater environment because everything means what it is here. Things aren't attached with sublimated messages. You can simply float. In an increasingly fast-paced, commercialized world O'Neill's narrator faces a kind of existential crisis. With a sense of melancholy he reflects: “It may be that most lives add up, in the end, to the sum of the mistakes that cannot be corrected.” If you were to form a crib sheet on the narrator of “The Dog” his life would look like a disaster, but the spirit he shows in his narrative reveals an individual desperately trying to sort and reason and make the right choices. It makes for a fascinating and funny read.

Read an interview with the author here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/10/joseph-oneill-something-big-happens-post-9-11-novels

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJoseph O'Neill
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At the Queen Elizabeth Hall in the Southbank Centre this evening the six shortlisted authors for the Man Booker Prize read sections of their novels and answered questions from able presenter Mark Lawson. It was excellent to see Lawson chairing the event as in some past years the reading has been run by less knowledgeable people who didn't actively engage the authors. Jim Crace arrived fashionably late (due to traffic he complained) and just in time to read a section of his novel. Bulawayo spoke beautifully of the sense of seeing American culture from an outsider's perspective and the way in which imagination can't be suppressed no matter where you are writing. Catton explained the incredibly ambitious structure she laid out for her novel based on astrological signs and ever decreasing lengths moving through the sections of the novel. Crace remarked on how it's only in recent times that historical fiction has felt obligated to remain true to fact and how he is enthused by inventing historical information as he sees fit. This seems particularly fair in the way he writes historical fiction which doesn't specifically demarcate itself from any particular date or location. Lahiri spoke of the way she felt growing up in America with an Indian family that she felt a strong connection to both cultures, but at the same time not belonging to either. Ozeki talked about her hesitation of including a character called Ruth who is much like herself in the novel when she began it in 2006, but after significant world events felt it fair to include those events using her own name and personal perspective. Toibin talked about how the politics in Ireland has changed so that he didn't feel any great danger of negative retaliation or censorship because of the re-imagination of religious subject matter he uses in his novella. He remarked though that he's received some very angry messages from feverish religious Americans which he's printed and saved for posterity.

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When Lawson opened the floor up to questions I was able to get the second question in from the audience. I asked Eleanor Catton about a male character who featured in the section she read (I won't say who to avoid spoilers). He's a really fascinating character who I wish we had more of in the book but he only appears very late on. She replied that she felt the reason she made him so interesting was that he'd been talked about quite a lot earlier on in the book so she felt he needed to make a grand impressionable entrance. After several more questions (including an embarrassing one where the audience member got Ruth's name wrong) the event ended and the authors signed copies. Sadly as my copy of The Luminaries is a Kindle version I couldn't get Eleanor to sign it, but I had my copies of Harvest, We Need New Names and A Tale for the Time Being signed. All three authors were very engaging and nice to talk to as they were signing my books. I must say that Lahiri seemed rather bored by the whole proceedings. Maybe she just has a subdued personality or maybe she feels rather passive towards the hoopla of book events given all the awards and attention she's received.

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As to who will win the Booker, I think it's really open although Crace does have the best chance. But I think Catton's book is so strong it might well win and I hope it does. Responding to Lawson's final question about what winning the prize would mean to them most authors agreed with the sentiment that just being shortlisted and alongside such great authors was winning enough. All fair enough. Equally, just having a prize in order to get excited about books and discuss various reactions to them seems to me a justified reason for it all.

The reading was streamed live and can be viewed here (my question is at 1:21:50):

An evening of readings from the books written by the six short-listed authors. Hear the work that could win one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world, in an evening chaired by renowned journalist and author Mark Lawson.
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AuthorEric Karl Anderson