Man Booker prize 2016: the fine line between fiction and literature – The Guardian

On 25 October, the Guildhall should witness one of contemporary English-language fiction’s good nights. The shortlist for the 2016 Man Booker prize is among the best, and most confident, of recent years. Chaired by Amanda Foreman, the jury will be choosing from a distinctive slate of new writers, all of them deserving of the attention bestowed on their work by Booker. On my reading, Foreman should raise the curtain on a significant new generation. Dramatically enhanced publicity for new fiction will always be a raison d’etre for this prize.

Just as important, Foreman and her team have resisted the temptation to look backwards and confer new laurels on the work of established writers such as JM Coetzee. With the exception of Deborah Levy, the 2016 shortlist contains new names, three of whom (Paul Beatty, Graeme Macrae Burnet and Madeleine Thien) come from independent imprints.

Despite the upheavals in the book world, the continuities remain stronger than the disruptions. More readers worldwide are consuming new fiction in English than ever before, and Booker is now in a position to reward it.

Judging fiction is easier said than done. Cyril Connolly, formerly of the Observer, once wrote that “the great difficulty in reviewing new novels is to maintain a double standard – one to judge novels as fiction and the other as literature. Luckily, very few novels pretend to be literature, but when they do it is necessary to slate them by one rule and praise them by another.” In recent memory, several Booker panels have given masterclasses in the fine art of making a sow’s ear out of a silk purse.

Who will win? There are some strong contenders and the outcome is not obvious. Alphabetically, from the publishers of Marlon James, last year’s winner, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (Oneworld) comes first. This brilliant satire on racial politics in the US is at once timely, hilarious and outstanding. The narrator (“the sellout”), who has grown up in Dickens, an LA ghetto whose horrors California wants to wipe off the map, sets out to reassert his African American identity in the most transgressive way imaginable: by reinstating slavery and segregation. Beatty establishes this outrageous comic premise with an audacity worthy of Mark Twain, and takes The Sellout on a wild journey through the sacred places of black American liberation – trashing and burning en route. It’s an exhilarating ride that has left critics breathless with hyperbole. For some American readers, The Sellout will look like a masterpiece of contemporary literature. Does it transcend its context to be a Booker winner?

In the betting stakes, Beatty has been outrun by Deborah Levy whose Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton) could hardly offer a greater contrast. Levy’s coming-of-age psychodrama is addictively liminal. She certainly has an affinity for this landscape. Swimming Home (shortlist, 2012) was an edgy portrait of a family crisis on the French Riviera. In Hot Milk, two displaced women, Sofia and her mother, Rose, arrive in a Spanish coastal town in search of a cure for an illness that’s “like an unsolved crime”. Rose has lost the use of her legs. Sofia (“Zoffie”) has the carefree mobility of youth. Liberated by the seaside, she has affairs with lifeguard Juan and Ingrid, a hippyish drifter, then flits off to visit her estranged father in Athens, declaring her antipathy to the narratives of everyday life (“I am anti major plots”).

Hot Milk shares some of this aversion. After a stuttering start, it gathers momentum as Sofia propels her on-off relationships with the women in her life, especially her mother, to a poignant conclusion. This is a fine novel that, intermittently, looks like literature. Some readers may find its dreamlike elusiveness frustrating, but it contains passages of extraordinary power and is a serious contender.

Marlon James receives last year’s Booker prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings.


Marlon James receives last year’s Booker prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings. Photograph: Neil Hall/AFP/Getty Images

So, in a different way, is His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet (Contraband), which is, hands down, the most readable book on this list, though possibly hampered by its unfair characterisation as a “crime novel”. Actually, in this brilliantly fabricated murder story set among crofters in the Scottish Highlands of the 1860s, Macrae Burnet takes the novel back to its British roots. Just as Defoe purported to “edit” the “surprizing adventures” of Robinson Crusoe in a great existential fiction, so Macrae Burnet uses the crimes and punishment of Roderick Macrae, a dysfunctional 17-year-old, to explore themes of blood, subjection, and revenge, braided with the contemporary taste for provisional realities and unreliable narrators. This is also a novel on which Robert Louis Stevenson might have bestowed an envious blessing.

The next two titles on the shortlist deserve their place, but need not detain us. Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (Jonathan Cape) is a self-conscious exercise in noir that never quite convinces; All That Man Is by David Szalay (Jonathan Cape) tackles the ages of man in nine episodes that do not really cohere as a narrative.

Finally, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (Granta) is a powerful and over-ambitious novel, inspired by the tragedies of ommunist China. With nods to David Copperfield, Thien’s deeply felt story is narrated through the eyes of 10-year-old Li-Ling from the moment in 1991 when she and her widowed mother invite Ai-Ming to join them in Vancouver, where they live as new Canadians. Ai-Ming’s life-changing revelations, based on fact, describe a brilliant musical family crushed by the Cultural Revolution. To be both epic and intimate in fiction is the supreme challenge. Thien nearly brings it off, but the airy pleasures of her prose get dragged down by her backstory.

The Booker prize is the bookies’ dream: an annual shape-shifter that’s impossible to second guess. Literary prizes are all about what happens in the jury room. If this panel is split, there are some respectable fall-back options. This year Booker has given us at least four works of fiction any one of which, in contrasting ways, would satisfy the hunger for a good new novel. Which is literature? That’s for Amanda Foreman and her team to decide.

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