There aren't many instances where I wish the American Revolution had turned out differently, but the yearly award of the Booker Prize for Fiction is one of them. Our former rulers treat an annual literary contest with the pagaentry and hype that the U.S. bestows upon Survivor finales and the joyous day Tom Cruise announces that he has anointed his next bride. Advantage Britain.
The Booker's such a big deal there's a tell-all book coming out about the contest, written by departing administrator Martyn Goff:
There will be a number of stories that have not appeared ever before, including stories about judges. Yes, there will be sexual shenanigans, but that's quite minor compared to other things.
When this becomes a movie, I see Ben Kingsley and Helen Mirren in the roles of the sexually rapacious literary judges, with F. Murray Abraham hiding in the closet taking pictures.
This year's Booker, announced live last night on British TV, went to Irish novelist John Banville for The Sea, a novel of a grieving man returning to a vacation spot where something very bad happened in his youth. (The title The Prince of Tides was already taken.)
Banville put some work into this victory. He shredded a critically acclaimed book, Saturday by former Booker winner Ian McEwan, and may have contributed to the "dismayingly bad book" being left off the list of finalists for 2005.
It happens occasionally that a novelist will lose his sense of artistic proportion, especially when he has done a great deal of research and preparation. I have read all those books, he thinks, I have made all these notes, so how can I possibly go wrong? Or he devises a program, a manifesto, which he believes will carry him free above the demands of mere art -- no deskbound scribbler he, no dabbler in dreams, but a man of action, a match for any scientist or soldier. He sets to work, and immediately matters start to go wrong -- the thing will not flow, the characters are mulishly stubborn, even the names are not right -- but yet he persists, mistaking the frustrations of an unworkable endeavor for the agonies attendant upon the fashioning of a masterpiece. But no immensity of labor will bring to successful birth a novel that was misconceived in the first place.
Something of the kind seems to have happened here. Saturday is a dismayingly bad book. The numerous set pieces -- brain operations, squash game, the encounters with Baxter, etc. -- are hinged together with the subtlety of a child's Erector Set. The characters too, for all the nuzzling and cuddling and punching and manhandling in which they are made to indulge, drift in their separate spheres, together but never touching, like the dim stars of a lost galaxy. The politics of the book is banal, of the sort that is to be heard at any middle-class Saturday-night dinner party, before the talk moves on to property prices and recipes for fish stew. There are good things here, for instance the scene when Perowne visits his senile mother in an old-folks' home, in which the writing is genuinely affecting in its simplicity and empathetic force. Overall, however, Saturday has the feel of a neoliberal polemic gone badly wrong; if Tony Blair -- who makes a fleeting personal appearance in the book, ozozing insincerity -- were to appoint a committee to produce a 'novel for our time,' the result would surely be something like this.
Meow! I do not expect to learn in Goff's book that these two are having sex.