Review – Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

First up, an apology in advance for some of the content of this review, which may well be unbearable. This novel made me rediscover some of my youthful pretensions, a fact that I realised about 15 pages in, when I found myself thinking ‘This is like Tristram Shandy as written by Thomas Pynchon’.

Well, I stand by it. On the offchance that not everyone wasted quite as much of their misspent youth on esoteric literature as I did: Tristram Shandy was described by my favourite university lecturer as ‘the first postmodern novel’, quite some feat when you consider that it was published in 1759. It is, at bottom, a send-up; in an attempt to catalogue absolutely everything about his life, the narrator starts with his birth and – due to the fact that, to explain his birth, you have to go back to how and why his parents met, at least – ends some 500 pages later and five years earlier. Thomas Pynchon wrote one of my favourite cult novels, The Crying of Lot 49, which is a concise little masterpiece of connectivity and conspiracy theories.

The – I was going to say plot, but maybe ‘premise’ would be a better word. The premise of Satin Island is that everything is connected. The main character (and yes, he’s called U, and yes, that’s heavy-handed) is a corporate anthropologist, and has been tasked by his slightly shadowy boss with cataloguing modern life. ‘An anthropologist, she’d said; that’s…exotic. Not at all, I’d replied; I work for an incorporated business, in a basement.’

You’ll note that this novel is short, running to a little under 200 pages, and you may conclude from that that he doesn’t in fact achieve his goal. Well, wait and see. It’s a gloriously comic chronicle of the attempt, though. It’s also sprinkled with some pithy truisms of modern life, particularly modern corporate life, such as this one: ‘Not that it was secret. Things like that don’t need to be. They creep under the radar by being boring.’

Duncan White in the Telegraph said this about this novel: ‘Reading a McCarthy novel is like being in a McCarthy novel: everything is part of a fizzing network, the scope of which can never be fully apprehended.’ I couldn’t have put it better myself. I think it’s the use of the word ‘fizzing’ that is perfect; that’s exactly how my brain felt when I was reading this, like it had been dipped in Alka-Seltzer. Passages like this one made me think about things and make connections in a way I hadn’t done before, or perhaps a way I had only done subconsciously (in the way that you read something and stop and say to yourself, surprised, ‘That’s so true!’):

‘Forget family, or ethnic and religious groupings: corporations have supplanted all these as the primary structure of the modern tribe. My use of the word tribe here isn’t fanciful; it’s modern that’s the dubious term. The logic underlying the corporation is completely primitive.’

So is this one my Booker winner? Hmm, I don’t think so. Before the shortlist was announced I placed this one seventh on my list, so just outside it, but I actually quite like the fact that it got the nod – it’s part of the overall diversity of the shortlist, and I think it deserves it. I don’t hope it wins, though. There are a few places where I found it tripped over itself for trying to be so clever (the references to Schrodinger’s cat were a bit too laboured, for example, and it wasn’t the only place), and I think wherever McCarthy needed to make choices between including something to make him look clever and something else (plot, character, lyricism), the cleverness won. That will limit his audience; I think he knows that, and I don’t think he cares. But I expect the Booker panel will, and I don’t disagree with them for that.



Random bookish thoughts – 21 September

I was going to catch up on all of my reviews tonight, but instead it’s 9pm and I’m still at the office (lovely), so instead I thought I’d take ten minutes to share a few random thoughts that have occurred to me over the weekend.

Man Booker Prize shortlist

I am pretty pleased with this. There was a story in the Guardian asking whether it was the most diverse shortlist in the history of the prize; I’m not learned enough to opine, but it feels pretty diverse to me. It also includes four of my top six, and five of my top seven. Only A Spool of Blue Thread felt – to me – like it wasn’t quite special enough to earn its place. I would have preferred to have seen one of the other family sagas – Did You Ever Have A Family or The Green Road – but it’s a minor quibble. For the first time in a long time, I’d be happy with any of the others as the winner. (There’s also an argument that A Spool of Blue Thread – which I’ve seen described as ‘Anne Tyler’s twentieth and possibly last book’ – is nominated more as a sort of lifetime achievement award than anything else; in which case, fair enough, really.)

On communing with books through food

On Saturday night, I went to a Jamaican restaurant (Turtle Bay, in Bristol) with a couple of friends. I think it may have been the first time I’ve eaten Jamaican food. (It was delicious – jerk prawns, duck rolls, and an explosively hot goat curry with rice and peas.) Turtle Bay is decorated like its walls are made out of shipping containers, and I was thinking about A Brief History of Seven Killings throughout. Yum. (Both the book and the food.)

Contemporary literature fatigue

Towards the end of my Booker experiment, I found I was trending towards giving lower marks to the novels I was reading. Other than a comprehensive re-reading do-over (which – to be clear – I’m not committed enough to do), I have no way of knowing whether it was the books themselves, or a touch of literary malnutrition after reading 13 contemporary novels in a row. Actually, fourteen, as I took a break in the middle and read ‘Us’ by David Nicholls (which oddly enough was longlisted for last year’s prize, and had been sitting on my Kindle for months). The novels themselves were very different to each other, and for the most part they were great, but I was starting to feel the need for something different – non-fiction, maybe, or a big Victorian novel that I could sink into like a hot bath. Which brought me to…

My current read

I am about 650 pages into Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace What-a-great-middle-name Thackeray. It was exactly what I needed – sprawling, historical, and oddly familiar. Parts of it are slightly hard going; like much of Dickens, it was serialised, and in places the padding is not just visible but predominant. But I am very much enjoying watching (well, reading about) Becky Sharp twisting Victorian society around her little finger.

The Coops Booker Prize – my (very subjective) shortlist

The 2015 Booker shortlist is announced on Tuesday (September 15th), and for the first time ever, the longlist interested me enough for me to try to read it in its entirety and come up with some predictions. Or if not predictions, then at least the books I will be complaining about if/when they do or don’t make it. It was hard; it was a pretty good list. But in the end – for me, anyway – there were a few clear winners, a few clear losers, and some better-than-average books in between. Here they are!

  1. A Little Life ***** Not exactly a departure from general opinion – the bookies’ odds are short on this one, between 2/1 and 4/1 – but I just adored it, and if it doesn’t even feature on the shortlist then I will get red and shouty.
  2. Did You Ever Have a Family **** An unexpected gem, this one has a quiet sort of grace which has stayed with me since I read the first page.
  3. The Fishermen **** Completely different to anything else on the longlist, in a good way
  4. Year of the Runaways **** A novel which made me see the world around me in a different way
  5. A Brief History of Seven Killings – I’m cheating a bit on this one, because I haven’t finished it yet, but I am confidently willing to predict that it will feature on my shortlist. The voice and texture of the narrative are so unusual that, once I realised that, I decided not to rush it – so I put it down until I had finished the others, and can’t wait to pick it up again.
  6. The Green Road **** The first of Anne Enright’s novels I’ve read, and much fuller than some of the other ‘family sagas’ on the list. Review to follow.

And the rest:

  1. Satin Island **** – I wasn’t quite sure what to do about this one, but in the end it landed just outside my top 6. I wouldn’t be surprised if it did get a spot on the shortlist, and that wouldn’t enrage me like it would some (I think this one has split opinion more than any of the others), but to me it doesn’t have the consistency of a winner. Review to follow.
  2. The Chimes *** – A really interesting and creative debut from a talented new voice. Review to follow.
  3. A Spool of Blue Thread *** – Not enough about this one that was special, in my opinion. It was the first one of the list I read, and I found it eminently forgettable compared to some of the others. I still suspect I’m not quite old enough to understand Anne Tyler!
  4. The Moor’s Account *** – The good bits were as good as anything on the shortlist; the bad bits were just a little too long to make it a top read.
  5. Lila *** – Beautiful writing, but a little too sad for me, in the end.
  6. Sleeping on Jupiter ** – It has India, and it has sexual violence; sadly both are done significantly better elsewhere on the longlist.
  7. The Illuminations ** – Makes an attempt at topics which should be necessary and topical, but never really finds a true voice.

Review – Did You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg

I wasn’t sure about reading this one, because of the stupid bloody title. (Seriously, where is the question mark??) Its appearance in the book, when it does, is pretty darn clunky too, by the way.

Fortunately, that’s one of the only (minor) missteps in a book I otherwise loved. This fits an awful lot into its relatively few pages, about how humans interact with each other across a variety of different relationships and situations.

A few things I noticed:

The alternating narration:

I struggle sometimes with alternating points of view. I like to sink into a narrative, and its characters, and frequent changes in narrative voice can make that difficult. Here, though, it’s done well. I found it jarring at first, but I think too much first-person would have been overly sentimental, whereas all third-person might have ended up feeling a bit, well, impersonal. The voices themselves aren’t that different, which may have helped, and the points of view were also just interconnected enough to prevent it from feeling disjointed.

How good Bill Clegg is at capturing small-town politics:

‘The weekenders from the city not only take the best houses, views, food, and, yes, flowers our little town has to offer, but they take the best of us, too. They arrive at the end of each week texting and calling from trains and cars with their demands – driveways to be plowed, wood to stack, lawns to mow, gutters needing cleaning, kids to be babysat, groceries to be bought, houses to be cleaned, pillows needing fluffing. For some, we even put up their Christmas trees after Thanksgiving and take them away after New Year’s. They never dirty their hands with any of the things the rest of us have to, nor shoulder the actual weight of anything. We can’t bear them and yet we are borne by them.’ This from the cynical Edith, who doesn’t make many more appearances, but who is one of the book’s most distinct voices.

The small-town feel is best captured, though, by the Lydia chapters. These really capture both the claustrophobia and the sense of belonging (even when you don’t belong), in passages such as: ‘She kicks at a pile of leaves that have been raked and left uncollected on the sidewalk and considers the thousands of times she’s walked here – as a little kid, a teenager, a mother, and now. She can’t imagine anyone walking these sidewalks as many times as she has. My feet are famous to these sidewalks, she thinks, and the idea almost amuses her, its novelty breaking for a split second the panic that drove her from the coffee shop.’

The humour:

The varying points of view also allow for occasional glimpses of humour, and the levity of the everyday. For example: ’No one tells you about health inspectors or wheelchair access when you’re first thinking of opening a place that serves the perfect lentil soup, fresh-baked bread, and almond-milk cappuccino. And it’s a good thing they don’t, because otherwise there would be no restaurants or cafes or coffee shops anywhere.’

The unrelenting loneliness:

This is everywhere, and lasting, and true. ’She is lost and alone and it does not matter.’ Or, ‘There are no words precise enough to describe how wide and empty the world is when you lose someone that matters to you as much as Penny did to me.’

Anyone who can do abject loneliness and dry humour in 300 pages has something pretty special. Bill Clegg is a literary agent, but nothing about this feels ‘Establishment’ or by rote: even the short pen-portraits feel well-drawn, and like they’re included for a reason. Everyone is connected, and necessary, and vital. This isn’t a long novel – it’s one of the shortest on the longlist, I think – but nothing is missing; it feels whole.


Review – The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

I read this quickly, and digested it slowly. While I read it, though, I jotted down two words – ‘strangeness’ and ‘simplicity’.

Starting with the first: For me, a lot of the power of this story is derived from its differences to what I normally read. Set entirely in a small town in Nigeria, it achieves what I think is a studied simplicity of language and themes, without ever itself becoming simplistic.

The story is mainly domestic; four teenage and almost-teenage brothers take advantage of their father working away from home, and they go fishing, which he would never have let them do. They meet the local madman, Abulu, who makes a prophecy that leads to conflict between the eldest and the others. The conflict feels minor, resolvable, but Abulu’s prophecies have a habit of coming true, and so adolescent energy mingles with fear, and bad things start to happen. It’s a testament to the strength of the plotting that, despite this simplicity, the events feel inevitable as they unfold.

I think I said about ‘Lila’ that it could have been set at almost any time in the hundred years preceding it; this feels the same, so much so that the occasional reminder of its 1990s setting – the references to the Atlanta Olympics, the Nigerian football team, computer games – are jarring. That feels intentional, and maybe not so much a result of chronological distance as of cultural difference. From the superstitions and stories surrounding Abulu, the trickster, to the fable-like telling of the story of the brothers, to the language itself, we are constantly reminded that this story draws on a cultural tradition that doesn’t have its roots in western Europe. For example, this passage on language:

’Aside from this, Mother said all else in English instead of Igbo, the language with which our parents communicated with us; while between us, we spoke Yoruba, the language in Akure. English, although the official language of Nigeria, was a formal language with which strangers and non-relatives addressed you. It had the potency of digging craters between you and your friends or relatives if one of you switched to using it. So, our parents hardly spoke English, except in moments like this, when the words were intended to pull the ground from beneath our feet.’

This pulled the ground from under my feet, alright. A really impressive debut, and – in my opinion – not a bad pick for the shortlist.


Review – The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

Two of the Booker longlist books, including this one, have Salman Rushdie quotes on their covers. It was Salman Rushdie who first made me realise what language could do, and started my love affair with postcolonial literature, so I was expecting big things from this.

And it did a pretty good job, although not at all in the way I expected. You shouldn’t go into it, as I half-did, expecting it to be Midnight’s Children. It’s certainly not magic realism; in fact it’s as much realism and as little magic as you can get, with its focus on the grey, grubby, panic-studded mundanity of immigrant life – overcrowded houses, building sites, and the backs of vans, not to mention the sheer number of misunderstandings. It feels necessary, though, and of its time (and place – well, places) in a way that fiction often doesn’t. The newspapers in the UK are full of immigration at present; if it’s not refugee camps at Calais, or frozen stowaways falling from the sky onto London roofs, then it’s right-wing politicians demonising anyone who talks with a funny accent. There is a lot of superb and even-handed journalism covering all of this, although not as much of it as there needs to be – but, to quote EL Doctorow, ‘The historian [or journalist] will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.’

This novel, I think, goes a long way to telling us ‘what it felt like’. The narrative focuses on three men – boys, really – who travel from India to the UK in search of work, and on a girl who helps one of them to do so, and on what happens to all four of them during the boys’ first year in the UK. In explaining how each of the main characters got to where they are, we’re taken back to India for extended parts of the narrative, and these for me were the best bits – especially Tochi’s story, which had me wincing and (metaphorically) covering my eyes.

In fact Tochi, to me, was the most interesting character throughout. Of the three, he’s the one who has entered the UK illegally, smuggled into the country through a series of airport doors and heavy goods vehicles. (The other two, from India’s middle classes, are on a study visa and a marriage visa and – whilst they certainly don’t have an easy ride (just ask Avtar’s body parts) – their journey doesn’t seem quite as desperate.) The difference between where Tochi’s been and where he’s trying to get to is never clearer, for me, than in his exchange with an airport worker on his way out of India. ‘She asked if her uncle had shown him how to use an escalator – moving stairs. He said he hadn’t and she made a frustrated noise. She looked at the watch face on the underside of her slender wrist. “We don’t have time now. You’ll have to just work it out.”’ Let’s just take a second to imagine how freaked out we’d be, trying to navigate life in the UK, completely on our own, if we’d never even been on an escalator. Randeep and Avtar have their own rookie moments, including crossing gargantuan roads and staring at people in pubs, but it’s the escalator that stayed with me.

Being new to a country is one thing; staying new is something else. As someone from an uncomplicated ethnic background, I also remain fascinated by the relationship that ‘British Indians’ – in this context, those who have already been in the UK for years by the time the narrative starts – have with both India and with Britain. Reactions range from Dr Cheema, who doesn’t feel at home in Britain no ‘matter how many garden parties I threw for my neighbours’, to the middle-aged couples in Sheffield who have carried their ideas of the Indian caste system with them to the UK, to the teenagers – Randeep’s cousins, I think – who are completely uninterested in (and even embarrassed by) anything to do with the subcontinent. Even Narinder, born in the UK and comfortably middle-class, has an incredibly complex relationship with India through her community, family and (especially) religious ties. Through her in particular, Sahota eloquently makes the point that there will never be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to multiculturalism – or at least not one that works. It’s a welcome addition to a debate that will only get louder in the UK over the next few years.