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George Orwell’s books were one of my first great loves. Like many students I was first introduced to his writing through “1984” and “Animal Farm” but soon after I also came to discover his other fiction including “Burmese Days”, “A Clergyman’s Daughter” and “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” as well as his nonfiction journalism in “Down and Out in Paris and London” and “The Road to Wigan Pier” – not to mention his many incisive essays. The Orwell Foundation awards a number of prizes for work which comes closest to Orwell’s ambition “to make political writing into an art” and it’s exciting that this year they’ve launched the inaugural Orwell Prize for Political Fiction. This award specifically aims to reward outstanding novels and collections of short stories that illuminate major social and political themes, present or past, through the art of narrative.

The shortlist has just been announced today and includes a number of familiar novels as well as some books I’m so glad to see celebrated. It’s notable how the novels listed range from books which consider the past, present and future. From Tshuma’s account of a massacre in Zimbabwe to Evans’ survey of modern life in contemporary London to Zumas’ frighteningly relevant projection of an America where abortion has been strictly outlawed these books consider how individuals are trapped in the politics of their time. Still others straddle a long space of history such as Brown’s account of working class life within a Middlesbrough housing estate to evoke a sense of place as much as character.

It’s amazing to see how Anna Burns’ “Milkman” was first published to relative obscurity but has since gone on to win the Man Booker Prize and be shortlisted for both the Rathbones Folio Prize and Women’s Prize. It’s particularly apt Burns’ novel has been nominated for this award since its central message is about a young woman being helplessly trapped by the crushing political strife within her community. Also nominated for the Man Booker Prize last year was graphic novel “Sabrina” which hauntingly depicts an America emotionally hollowed out by the reverberating effects of gun violence. Taking a different track, Evans’ “Ordinary People” features larger political events in the background as two different black couples wrestle with the pressures of modern day life. I was drawn to reading “Red Clocks” because of its allusions to Virginia Woolf’s writing, but found myself gripped by its story and its prescient depiction of an America which regimentally controls the bodies of women.

The remaining two novels “House of Stone” and “Ironopolis” are both books I’ve been aware of for a while and really want to read. So I’m glad this prize has prompted me to make these novels a priority and bump them up my TBR pile. Have you read any of the books on this list? Any favourites? Are there other recent novels that you also feel meaningfully engage with politics? The winner of this award will be announced on June 25th.

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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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