The Man Booker Prize was won in October by Anna Burns, with her Northern Ireland-based novel of sexual coercion Milkman. There’s always a lot of media attention on the novels listed for the Man Booker, but I’m often equally or even more intrigued by the lesser-known Goldsmiths prize list. This is a British award launched by Goldsmiths college in London in 2013, which recognizes fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. So, an award for novel novels, with a prize pot of £10,000. Chair of the Judges Professor Adam Mars-Jones described this year’s six-strong shortlist as a “tasting menu of all that is fresh and inventive in contemporary British and Irish fiction”.
The ultimate winner, announced on 14 November, was Robin Robertson’s The Long Take, which I discussed in the last edition of The Blue Nib, as it also featured on the Man Booker list. Robin Robertson is a Scot who works in publishing in London, and has been described as “one of the finest lyric poets of our time”. The Long Take is a noir “narrative poem” set in both verse and prose about a traumatized World War II veteran, and is dark and strange and apocalyptic. Mars-Jones described it as “full of blinding sunlight and lingering shadows, formally resourceful and emotionally unsparing”.
Also on both the Booker and Goldsmiths list was In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne, again discussed in the last edition of the magazine. This novel is set in and around a London estate as it descends into race riots, and seems timely given the difficulties in some parts of London, the most unequal place in the country, where poverty sits alongside huge wealth. The remaining four novels on the list were: Crudo by Olivia Laing, Kudos by Rachel Cusk, Murmur by Will Eaves and The Cemetery in Barnes by Gabriel Josipovici.
Olivia Laing has a written a number of well-received non-fiction books, including The Lonely City, an examination of loneliness and creativity, and The Trip to Echo Springs, on writers and alcohol abuse. Crudo is her first, short, raw novel, essentially a work of autofiction, or fictionalised autobiography. A state of the nation novel, she has revealed in interviews that it was written in a frenzied-sounding seven-week period, during which she made it a rule to write every day and not to read back or edit her prose. Her website describes Crudo as a “A Goodbye to Berlin for the twenty-first century”, as it catalogues the first summer of the protagonist’s marriage in 2017, in the year following the election in favour of Brexit and the rise to power of Donald Trump. The book is written from the perspective of a character called Kathy Acker, although the experimental novelist and punk poet of the same name died in 1997. Laing has explained this by stating that the novel is an effort to “plagiarise” her own life, with the Acker character a sort of cypher. The book is often funny, but also intensely serious, as it captures the feeling of living at a time of political crisis, while life ostensibly continues as normal. So, political developments are interwoven with the pervasive use of social media (the book is a peon to Twitter), everyday sensual pleasures and romantic entanglement. This book demands that we bear witness to political events unfolding around us, and refuse to allow ourselves to become numb to them, and recognises the value of art in challenging the political status quo.
I enjoyed, if that’s the right word, Rachel Cusk’s motherhood memoir/meditation A Life’s Work back in 2004 after the birth of my first child; for that brutally honest account of the loss of selfhood Cusk received both adulation and opprobrium. Since then Cusk has also tried her hand at autofiction, which I admit to being fascinated by; the poster boy for that mode of writing is of course Norwegian author Karl-Ove Knausgaard, who is compelling and tedious in equal measure.
Cusk’s Kudos is the final instalment in a trilogy. In this third book the female narrator is a middle-aged writer who travels to an unnamed city in an unnamed Southern European country to attend a literary event, staying in a hotel in “a grey block surrounded by other, taller blocks of apartments, all of whose windows remained covered day and night by metal shutters”. It is the opposite of plot-driven, but piercingly observant of human frailties and female effacement. I have read the entire trilogy, and I loved Kudos. Cusk’s main character, if she can be called that, becomes a conduit for a succession of monologues by the people she meets on her travels, who share their experiences, largely of personal disconnection and disappointing and unfulfilling relationships. The book takes a fiercely feminist and intellectual perspective, underpinned by a thread of bleak humour and a flowing, dry style that make it an unexpectedly compelling read. And, although I always find it maddening just how many authors write about the literary world, I did enjoy playing a game of “spot the Knausgaard”. For example, here is a description of one of her minor characters, Luís: “This year he has won all five of our major literary prizes for his latest book. It has been a sensation, she said, because the subjects Luís writes about are subjects our other male writers would not deign to touch … Domesticity, Sophia said very earnestly, and the ordinary life of the suburbs, the ordinary men and women and children who live there … I write about what I know, Luís said, shrugging and looking over our heads at something in the distance.”
Murmur, meanwhile, I found intellectually challenging, dealing as it does with the very meaning of consciousness. Its focus is a character based on the gay, socially awkward (possibly autistic) mathematician Alan Turing, who was criminalized for his homosexuality and chemically castrated. He later committed suicide (though some, including his mother, maintained his death was accidental). The book is divided into three parts, the first and last sections being fictionalised journal entries, and with the middle, longer section made up of letters and dream sequences. The first section was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award in 2017.
Finally, the amorphous and labyrinthine A Cemetery in Barnes is a deceptively quiet book that would reward a close rereading. It is very short, and should, I think, ideally be read in a single sitting, to immerse oneself in the musicality, loops and rhythms of the prose. Unfortunately, I did not do this, and read it in short bursts over several nights! The main character looks back on his life, the repetition of his days living in Paris, his marriage to his first wife in Barnes, and his time in Wales, amid descriptions of his love of his favourite classical music, in a work that mirrors an orchestral composition. The book has been described as a “stream of remembrance” and the protagonist notes that “In the one life there are many lives. Alternate lives. Some are lived and others imagined.” It becomes gradually clear that there may be more sinister facts underlying the deceptively smooth unspooling of the past. “That is the absurdity of biographies, he would say, of novels. They never take account of the alternative lives casting their shadow over us as we move slowly, as though in a dream, from birth to maturity to death.”