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Past Valve Book Events

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Monday, September 29, 2008

Booker Prize shortlist

Posted by Adam Roberts on 09/29/08 at 11:41 AM

I don’t know how the judges feel, but I’ve now come to the end of my slog through the Booker longlists and shortlists, and I’m pooped.  It’s a gruelling and rather depressing experience to trawl through so many books in a relatively short time: it irons out many of the specificities and the savourable qualities of the individual texts and leaves an impression in the mind that all contemporary fiction is more-or-less the same.  That, in part, is because there is a samey quality to this year’s Booker Shortlist; or to be more specific it possesses a two-tone quality: half rather earnest Britain and Ireland a few decades ago, and half postcolonial eastern, far-eastern and far-south-eastern colour-splashes.  Oh for a single science fiction work.

Here’s the shortlist again:

Aravind Adiga The White Tiger (Atlantic)
Sebastian Barry The Secret Scripture (Faber and Faber)
Amitav Ghosh Sea of Poppies (John Murray)
Linda Grant The Clothes on Their Backs (Virago)
Philip Hensher The Northern Clemency (Fourth Estate)
Steve Toltz A Fraction of the Whole (Hamish Hamilton)

As regards the Adiga title I have nothing to add to my earlier lucubrations; somebody (understandably, I suppose) has the volume out of my local library on loan, what with it being on the shortlist and all, and since I’m too tightfisted actually to buy a copy I’ve not reread nor even looked at it again.  I did glance again at the Grant’s plodding recreation of 1970s London, but do not find my opinion of her novel has improved.  Indeed, opening it at random I lighted on this sentence, which seems to me to epitomize the problem with the book:

I examined the features: a heavy-set man with a pendulous lower lip and a fat neck, a profile like Alfred Hitchcock above an exuberantly knotted tie looked back at me.  [Grant, 61]

This is the narrator meeting her uncle again, and it is a characteristically poorly-written sentence: ‘heavy-set man’ and ‘pendulous lower lip’ are clichés both, I cannot picture how an exuberantly knotted tie would differ from a regularly knotted tie (does she mean thickly knotted? perhaps clumsily knotted?  why not say so?) and the sentence is built around an ungainly jolt by which a face seemingly in profile is, Picasso-like, nevertheless looking straight at the speaker.  The prose throughout, as I remember it, is as clumsy as this; the dialogue wet and heavy and the novel poorly paced.

Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture is much better written; indeed it’s predicated upon a rather improbable level of poetic eloquence as far as one of its two narrator-characters is concerned.  The two narrators are, first, Roseanne McNulty, a 100-year old woman in an Irish insane asylym; and second, Dr Grene, the hospital’s recently widowed senior psychiatrist.  Barry divides the novel, Wilkie-Collins-like (and the novel reads as old-fashioned as that a lot of the time), between their two testimonies: Grene charged with disposing or releasing the patients prior to the hospital’s demolition, McNulty secretly writing down her ‘scriptural’ autobiography.  A variety of beastly things have happened to her, and Barry does convey a pungent sense of growing up on the periphery of the community in old Ireland, and the prose in her half of the narrative is often poetic and extraordinary.  I’ve only known one 100-year, and she hardly spoke at all.  Most centurions, I’d wager, limit themselves to ‘pardon?’ and ‘the nurses are stealing my clothes’, and few if any are capable of eloquence like this:

There was a black river that flowed through the town, and if it had no grace for the mortal beings, it did for swans and many swans resorted there, and even rode the river like some kind of plunging animals, in floods.

But that doesn’t matter; putting the implausibility on one side falls well within the general suspension of disbelief rubric.  And McNulty’s vaguely Tess-like sufferings make moving reading; although Dr Grene’s rather arid narrative is much less compelling (‘tremendously busy attending to all the arrangements at the hospiral, and not much time to write here’).  Worse, the combination of the two gives the novel a rather broken-backed feel, and the ending, particularly where his character is concerned, is something of a letdown.  The bookies have pegged this novel as the favourite, which is a surprise to me, since its beauties, though considerable, are intermittent and I put it down feeling vaguely unsatisfied by it.

Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency is also a pretty uneven performance; and unlike The Secret Scripture it is enormous.  Indeed, more than enormous, it is fucking enormous: the size and weight of a microwave oven.  I couldn’t see why its wearying bulk was needful.  It is in essence a literary family-saga: lots of characters mostly from two families, their lives and interactions in Sheffield from the 1970s through to the 1990s.  It opens with the Glovers, a Sheffield family, holding a party; the Glovers, mère and père, are having marital problems; the older of their two sons, Daniel, is leering at attractive women and the younger son, sensitive slightly creepy Tim, is hiding in his room reading books about snakes.  A hundred or so pages later (not much having happened in the interim) the Sellers move up from London to the house across the way.  When the Sellers arrive Tim falls in love with their daughter; but his mother, startled that he has secretly made a pet of an actual snake, stamps on it in front of everybody and Tim is emotionally scarred.  Of the dozens of characters Henser orchestrates for this novel, Tim is by far the weakest piece of writing.  Improbably he becomes a radical lefty during the miner’s strike.  We know this because Henser tells us, shows him calling his father a fascist, and describes him taking down ‘the poster of the woman tennis player scratching her bum’ from his bedroom wall and putting up instead pictures of Che and Lenin.  Then, despite not being very academic, he goes to university and gets a post at Sheffield Hallam, ending up, in the 90s, stalking Sandra (the Sellers girl) all the way to Australia for an hugely unlikely encounter with her and suicide, and frankly I didn’t believe any of it.

Not all the characters are as poorly handled, and the sheer density of the accumulation of detail and person creates a sense of heft.  But the novel overall is a pretty disappointing read.  The division between north and south England, one of the mainsprings of the narrative, is cartoonishly rendered: the southerners don’t understand what ‘mardy’ and ‘nesh’ mean; the northerners don’t know what ‘bollocks’ means.  Hensher pours metric tonnes of granulated fact into the pudding basin of his novel in a tiresomely unselective manner.  He displays the passage of time by saying things like ‘they were going on a long distance run, orienteering they were calling it now’, or ‘she had opened a keep fit studio, a gym they were calling them now’.  The 1970s, all vol-au-vents and gaudy dresses, read too much like Abigail’s Party, the Thatcher years have been better done by Jonathan Coe (and others), and everything, from the characters names to the scenery, is too obviously freighted with interpretation-nudging significance.  It’s rather Lawrentian: young Jane dislikes her father’s neat borders and promises that when she grows up she will fill her garden with bindweed, ‘a dense bower of struggling vines and trumpeting innocent flowers’ [38] Do you see what he’s doing there?  With the symbols, and everything?  And here is young Tim seeing Sandra for the first time, as she and her family move in over the road.  Do you remember he has a pet snake?  Snake, yeah?

As she pulled her arms upwards … her T-shirt popped loose of her waistband, pulled tight against her chest.  Even yawning she was lovely. … Tim found he was stroking the snake’s back, pointing Geoffry [the snake]’s head towards the lovely girl.  [Henser, 127]

See, I don’t mean ‘Lawrentian’ in a good way.

The two best books on the shortlist, I think, are Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies and Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole, and neither of them are flawless. 

Ghosh’s vivid, colourful and readable novel is set in the 1830s and concerns a whole bunch of people and their stories aboard a ship called the Ibis.  One key figure is Deeti, a young mother in Bihar, northern India, whose husband works in the local British opium factory.  She is widowed, escapes suttee and travels, in company of a low-caste good-hearted if not quick-witted giant of a man called Kalua, down river to hook up with the Ibis.  The Ibis is the scene of much of the book; an ex-slave-ship now crewed by and carrying as passengers a large variety of different peoples: sahibs and lascars, sepoys and merchants, all with their own backstories and with narratively fertile interactions as the Ibis goes on its way.  We don’t find out where she will end up, since this is the first volume of a projected trilogy and it ends on a sort of cliffhanger.  I read my copy of the book on holiday, and the ending did not disappoint me: there’s plenty that is satisfying about this work, and it left me keen to read more.  I’d call it ‘ideal holiday reading’ except that doubtless comes over as rather patronizing. 

One of the things that makes the book more than just another colourful spice-and-shagging oriental adventure story is the writing: often of a high caliber, it deftly manoeuvres a variety of registers and voices, and deliberately mixes together the different vocabularies and idioms of the various characters and their various provenances into a unique verbal goulash.  Tonally this goes some way towards making-up for a certainly looseness of construction and spottiness of execution in other respects.  There’s no glossary, and whilst some terms are explained or are deducible from context—but not all are, which is itself a nicely estranging touch.

While the bhandaris and maistries were seeing to the feeding of the migrants, Steward Pinto and his mess-boys were serving roast lamb, mint sauce and boiled potatoes in the officers’ cuddy.  But in spite of the plenitude of food and drink, there was less conviviality in the cuddy than there was around the chuldan, where, from time to time, the migrants could even be heard singing a few snatches of song.

Májha dhára me hai bera merá
Kripá kará ásrai hai tera
. [Ghosh, 343-4]

Some of these idioms sound dud or even risible notes (If I never again read a novel in which a character says to another ‘’Pander, y’spigot-sucking gobble-prick’ it’ll be too soon), and as creative trawlings of Hobson-Jobson go it’s not in the Deep Space Nine class.  But Sea of Poppies achieves an engaging and attractive texture.  It is a rag-bag of stories and characters, but enjoyably so.  What Ghosh is less skilled at doing is love stories; the pace slows and sometimes stalls as he tries to dramatise two human beings interacting on that level.  But he does adventure terribly well, the local colour and historical background are very deftly and atmospherically handled, and his overall aesthetic position—that diversity is strength—is
Many of his stories are immensely compelling; and I learnt a great deal about 19th-century Indian everyday life, at several degrees of wealth; trade, opium, sex and sailing.

Finally there is Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole, another big novel that sprawls and spreads from Australia to Europe and Thailand and back to Oz as its narrator tells the story of his unconventional life, his crazy father, his criminally crazy brother, and a whole range of colourful coves.  It’s a long story but unlike the Hensher earns its length with a whole bunch of diverting incident and a consistently lively, witty style—the humour I’d concede is hit and miss, although weighted on the hit side.  Some of it is laugh-aloud funny; and much of it is amusing, winning and even thought-provoking—in one of my favourite moments the narrator takes issue with God for turning Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt just for turning her head: surely this act shows a deity who was not only disproportionately vindictive, but also trapped in time rather than free from it?  ‘Why not turn her into a wide screen television?’ he asks, rather brilliantly.  ‘Or a pillar of Velcro?’

Sometimes it tries for funny and fails.  Toltz has a chip on his Australian shoulder about the international neglect of his country, something to which he keeps reverting in not especially amusing style (‘what goes on there is about as topical in world newspapers as “Bee Dies in New Guinea After Stinging Tree By Mistake”); and for every deliberate exaggeration that works (‘He’d frowned so much he’d actually broken his face.  His worry lines had snapped’ 191) there’s one that doesn’t (‘He was snoring so loud I almost stopped to check his nose for an amplifier and lead’, 114).  There’s a similar forgiveable unevenness to the characterization, and to the comical scrapes and plot turns that his folk gets themselves into: the overall tone is charming enough for you to forgive occasional awkwardnesses and misjudgments.

I’ve seen reviews that compare Toltz’s book to John Irving, or even Dickens, but neither comparison is quite right, I think.  A Fraction of the Whole lacks the ponderousness of the former, and can’t quite manage the rococo thickness and solidity of the grotesquerie, or the innate complexity, of the latter.  In fact the author that occurred to me most often as I read it was Roald Dahl; and despite the swearing, and occasional moments of sex and violence it reads like a good young adult fiction: it’s about growing up, about a boy’s relationship with his Dad, and like Sachar’s Holes the plot’s surface hardships are dovetailed with an underlying and rather sweetly childish sense of interconnection and natural justice, one that overlays the sorts of considerations of plausibility that hamstring Realist fiction.  There’s no shame in writing a YA fantasy about growing up in Australia, although the book won’t quite admit that this it what it is about.  Nor is the novel as long as it seems: there are lots of pages here, but this is in part a function of Toltz’s rather annoying habit of over-paragraphing.

It’s one of his stylistic tics, something he does a lot.

An awful lot.

Like this.

A little reminiscent of the Mr Men books, in fact.  And, to be honest, it began to get on my tits.  Toltz does it because he thinks it adds emphasis.

But actually—

Actually it just drags things out.

But not to dwell on the negatives.  The overall impression this novel leaves in the reader’s head is of its enormous charm, and its addictive readability.  Better yet it is often genuinely touching—the ending (not to spoil), and the narrator’s realization of the extent of his love for his Dad, is really very moving.  There’s wisdom here too: Toltz is very good on the tenacity and the dangers of belief: ‘people believe.  People are proud of their beliefs.  Their pride gives them away.  It’s the pride of ownership.’ [367].  The book achieves throughout a kind of eloquent, powerful, good naturedness: no small achievement.  It struck me as being a book about the cluelessness—by and large, the amiable cluelessness—of people in general.  As Toltz says at one point: ‘maybe Bob Dylan was wrong.  Maybe you do have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.’ Wise words.  And because this is the novel that I actively enjoyed reading the most, and because of its vitality, I’d like to see this novel win the booker.  It won’t, I know, but that’s what I’d like.

Tuesday 14th October is when the winner will be announced, you know.


Regarding your comment about the lack of a glossary in Sea of Poppies, I believe Ghosh has provided one online at http://www.seaofpoppies.co.uk/

By on 09/29/08 at 02:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Thank you for that excellent and useful Booker omnibus review. I especially enjoy your fussing over slack prose, annoying tics, tired metaphors, nonsense images, etc.  All reviewers should be so fussy. One mystery, though. You write, “Oh for a single science fiction work.” I would think someone as fussy as you would LOATHE sci-fi. Have you found some way not mind all the crappy writing in sci-fi? 


By on 10/01/08 at 06:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Uh oh.

By on 10/01/08 at 06:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tom: you compel me to doubt my entire career as a writer.

Thanks for the kind words, though.  Thanks, too, James, for the link to Ghosh’s enviably whistles-and-bells author bsite.  And, by way of follow up, I learn that fellow Valvisto Amardeep Singh didn’t like The White Tiger any more than I did.

By Adam Roberts on 10/01/08 at 08:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Was my tone off? I was actually hoping for an answer from Adam. I’ve tried to like sci-fi, but the prose always gets in my way. I can no longer think what I used to think (that sci-fi readers are prose-numb), since here is Adam before us, manifestly sensitive. Was it prying or unreasonable to ask for his secret? I assume it’s not a pill, or 3-D beer goggles.


By on 10/05/08 at 10:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Adam is unlikely to say this, so I will. He is a very accomplished SF writer as well as academic scholar and critic. His fiction is well regarded for its literary qualities. You can check out his Wikipedia entry for more info.

The larger question, though, is whether SF as a genre is trash. The answer you would get on this blog is No, not necessarily. The number of respected writers who have written SF is quite large: John Crowley, Doris Lessing, Ursula K. Guin, Vonnegut, Borges, to name just a few. Clearly the genre itself can sustain works of high quality. Further, there is a feeling among some that SF is becoming the dominant mainstream mode. At any rate, SFnal elements are commonly used by many writers considered mainstream.

It is true, of course, that much SF is not particularly well written, but that’s also the case with most mainstream or genre fiction.

By on 10/06/08 at 02:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Thanks for the clarification. I’m going to search out the work of John Crowley...and Adam Roberts. I was often told to read Dick, Stephenson, Gibson, and those didn’t agree with me. Vonnegut...hmm. I remember thinking his novels were promising but very rough drafts with a few brilliant scenes in a sea of whimsy and indulgence. Admittedly, I decided that in high school, but isn’t that when I was supposed to love him? Anyway, thanks for your post. Not sure why “dominant mainstream mode” status should matter to readers and writers (as opposed to publishers), but I also can’t see why there shouldn’t be good sci-fi.


By on 10/07/08 at 02:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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