Stories of transition: the 2017 Booker novels

Submitted by Matthew on 7 February, 2018 - 3:02 Author: Matt Kinsella

The 2017 shortlist for the Booker literary prize for novels contained three debut novels: Fiona Mozley’s Elmet, Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, and the eventual Booker winner, Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders.

Elmet, History of Wolves, and Paul Auster’s hefty 4321 are bildungsromane (coming-of-age stories). Auster, Fridlund, and Saunders deal with quintessentially American themes in the various mythologies around 60s counter-culture, the rugged terrain of the Midwest, and the life of Abraham Lincoln respectively. Also on the shortlist were Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which explores migration and disjointedness in a tightly-constructed magical realist story, and Ali Smith’s Autumn, described as the first “post-Brexit novel”.

In Autumn, Elisabeth visits and reads to centenarian family friend Dan Gluck, dying in a nursing home. She recollects the lessons about culture he imparted to her as a girl. Their memories and experiences of time are contrasted. Discussions about 60s pop-art being discovered, then forgotten, then rediscovered, reflect the larger repeats of life-cycles. One of the books Elisabeth reads to Dan is Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, and, referring to the Brexit referendum, Smith riffs on the famous opening lines (“it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”). “All across the country people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won”.

Elisabeth’s mother is shocked that the shooting of MP Jo Cox once “would have been a year’s worth of news”, but was quickly accepted as normal. After the vote, “go home” is painted on the door of a family in the village. Soon “half the village [was] not talking to the other half”. The novel is also filled with black humour: Elisabeth’s interactions with the Post Office have the absurd bureaucratic quality of Dickens’ Circumlocution Office (from Little Dorrit) or Kafka’s courtroom.

Elmet deals with more foundational divides: between landless and landowner, and farmhand and farm-owner. The book is narrated by Daniel, who lives with his sister Cathy and father John (to his children he is only ever “Daddy”). Daddy declares “I won’t work for any man ever again”, and chooses to live off the land. He builds his own house in the middle of some woods. The family grow their own vegetables, keep their own chickens, and live off the fish and game of the land. A conflict arises between Daddy, who nourishes, uses and respects the land, and its aristocratic landowner, who with the right piece of paper “can use it as he will, or not at all, and… can keep others off it”.

The dispute extends to neighbouring villages. The same landlords who own all the houses are also farm-owners, who hyper-exploit the farm labourers. Daddy’s involvement in their lives soon leads to talk of rent strikes and demands for wage increases. The final confrontation is full of suspense and unexpected revelations. The book also examines Daniel’s growing sexuality. The earthy, almost olfactory, descriptions of the Yorkshire countryside may lead to inevitable comparisons with Wuthering Heights, and the choice of Cathy’s name (the same as the heroine in Wuthering Heights) may be a conscious nod, but it is to Ted Hughes that Mozley owes a stylistic debt. Particularly to Hughes’ collection Remains of Elmet, which celebrates and laments the land of “uninhabitable wilderness, a notorious refuge for criminals, a hide-out for refugees”.

In Exit West, Saeed and Nadia are a young couple who find their unnamed city, somewhere in Iraq or Syria, descending into civil war. The couple choose to flee, and manage to escape through a series of magical doors that take them around the world. By focusing not on their journey, but on their sudden dislocation, the book powerfully describes the experience of uprooting one’s life, to a refugee camp, to a safe country, and the cognitive dissonance it entails.

In London, the couple try to create a community amongst other refugees, but also have to contend with nativist mobs armed with iron bars and knives. Meanwhile ominous ‘holding camps’ are being set up in the green belt. The book describes how otherwise unimaginable horror becomes an everyday, normalised experience: mass sexual assault, truck bombs.

Hamid does well to make Saeed and Nadia believable flawed characters. The book also considers how time changes neighbourhoods too: a woman in Palo Alto reflects that “When she went out it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time”.

The end of the book is brave enough not to lionise Saeed’s and Nadia’s relationship or to positively resolve the traumatic things they have experienced.

In Emily Fridlund’s debut History of Wolves, Linda (Madeline to her parents, “freak” to her classmates) is involved in two stories of abuse. The first involves her teacher Mr Grierson, and the rumours about his inappropriate relationship with schoolmate Lily.

Linda’s speculations about her teacher, her pleasure at his attention and his special name for her, “Mattie”, and her attempts to coax information out of him make for a compelling opening. Fridlund then spends the bulk of the book exploring a second story, of Linda’s relationship with Patra and her son Paul. This plotline is meandering in parts. However, the courtroom finale is extraordinarily tense, and offers a damning indictment of so-called “Christian Science”.

The book conveyed well Linda’s sense of being between two worlds (of childhood and adulthood), of being between two families (her own, and Patra’s), and of how her status as an outsider gifts her both keen insights about other people, but also how her inexperience blinds her to Paul’s abuse, foreshadowed throughout the book. The book asks the question of her culpability.

I considered Lincoln in the Bardo to be the weakest of the six. The premise was interesting: President Abraham Lincoln’s grief for his son Willie, struck down by typhoid fever, causes him to visit the body in its crypt several times throughout the night. And so his son’s ghost lingers in the “bardo”, the spiritual world between worlds, between death and rebirth, where his son must find some closure in order to “move on”, or else remain trapped. The book is written in an experimental style, in part delivered like a play, in part written as a combination of quotations, both real and false, in part a blend of different literary styles.

Unlike with, say, James Joyce’s Ulysses, this experimentation was distracting, rather than fascinating. It was painfully self-aware. It read like Saunders had a good idea for a short story that he stretched into a whole novel, until it lost its shape.

When Paul Auster, author of 4321, was 14 he witnessed one of the defining moments of his life: a friend of his was killed in a freak accident at a summer camp when a metal fence they were crawling under was struck by lightning. Had the lightning struck just a few seconds later, had the boys changed place, had the fence been a few feet further away, Auster would have died. He said “I’ve always been haunted by what happened, the utter randomness of it”.

Contingency is the dominant theme of 4321, which starts with young boy Archie Ferguson, and four iterations of his life. Starting with the same parents, the same house, the same childhood, Auster takes those moments of chance and divergence to show us how Archie’s adolescence progresses after differing experiences. In some versions, childhood friend Amy Schneiderman becomes his girlfriend; in others, it is an unrequited love. In some versions, he makes it to college, in another, a brief flirtation with crime has a snowball effect on the rest of his education. In some versions his preciousness earns him loyal friends. In others it makes him a target for bullies.

The different Archie Fergusons react to world events in surprising ways, from Vietnam, the shooting of Kennedy, and the civil rights movement. Each chapter leaps forward in time, not only describing the changes between the four different Fergusons, but referencing things we haven’t encountered, allowing us to imagine for ourselves the different forks in Archie’s past.

Archie’s father owns an electronics store, but Archie’s childhood experiences are dependent on his father’s success, or conversely, whether he is cheated by his brothers. Archie’s creativity and love of reading suggest he would always be a writer, but a journalist, a poet, or a novelist? Archie lives a relatively privileged middle-class existence. I wonder how many opportunities would have been available to Archie if he were black, in rural Alabama in the 50s, or in a rundown deindustrialised city like Detroit in the 90s.) As Karl Marx put it, “people make their own history but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”.

Meta-reference, pastiche and postmodern style are common in Auster’s writing, but 4321 is the most conventional of his works. Gone is the minimalist prose in favour of long, rolling sentences, gone are many of the literary allusions, except for the meticulously crafted reading lists in the book. For its scale, its structure, its love of the craft of writing, its mythologising of the immigrant experience in New York, this would have been my choice to win the Booker.

One outstanding book on the longlist which did not make the shortlist was Zadie Smith’s Swing Time. Its nameless narrator, born to a black autodidact activist mother and a white cockney postie father, struggles with her racial and cultural identity, like the characters in Smith’s first book White Teeth. The narrator soon becomes friends with Tracey, another mixed-heritage girl at her school, who has an absent father, and a tougher life of poverty: frozen ready-meals, and cheap Argos toys. While both girls dream of becoming professional dancers, only Tracey achieves the feat.

The narrative skips between their childhood friendship, and the narrator’s adult life (in which Tracey barely features) as a PA for a thinly-veiled Madonna-type celebrity Aimee. The tension builds as we discover what led to the schism. The novel probes the idea of community and belonging. The narrator doesn’t find the instinctive sense of sisterhood she hoped she’d find in the west African country she travels to for work — there, she is considered to be white. She tries to be more political at university, but is scorned by right-on boyfriend Rakim. She is ridiculed by her mother for her interest in dancing, but also by Tracey for her insufficient skill. And yet it is dancing that comes the closest to providing a sense of connectedness between the narrator and the troubled people in her life.

A subtle discussion of class, race, celebrity, internet culture, and international aid, the book is yet another triumph for Smith.

I would recommend both Exit West and Elmet for your commute, Swing Time for your holiday read, and 4321 the next time you break a leg, or have a long Christmas with the in-laws.