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Second Folio

Folio 2014Last week, The Folio Society released a list of the 80 books in contention for the second annual Folio Prize, to be awarded in March 2015. The Folio Prize was established in response to what its founders saw as an especially parochial Man Booker shortlist back in 2011. That year, Booker judges chair Stella Rimington had described “readability” as one of the key factors in the panel’s decision on long- and shortlisting books for the prize. A minor controversy battled about for a while, largely between those who felt that literary prizes were elitist and Rimington’s attitude was a healthy and democratising one, and those who suggested that it meant dumbing down, and furthermore that it was a strange literary prize which consciously sought to discount more literary texts in favour of mass-market titles. The Folio Prize founders took the latter view, and proposed a prize which wouldn’t be lowest common denominator, would seek to reward excellence rather than mediocrity, and wouldn’t be abashed about any of it. It’s not elitist if it’s meritocratic.

In the event, the 2011 Booker went to Julian Barnes, which satisfied neither camp: all that fuss and then the most “literary” title on a populist shortlist bags it anyway? A low point for the Booker in more ways than one: Barnes, like the other onetime titans of 80s and 90s British letters (McEwan, Amis, Rushdie and Ishiguro), is well past his best; to resignedly keep on rewarding him, well into the 20th century, shows an establishment failing to move with the times, a tastemaker prize bottling it. “Well, we have to give the prize to someone…” (That said, I waded — well, paddled — through five of the six on the shortlist and you can at least say that on a technical level Barnes’s is probably the least worst of them. No power on earth, meantime, could compel me to read Jamrach’s Menagerie.)

Anyway, out of all this, The Folio Prize, whose publicity is at pains to point out that the 80 titles selected do not form a longlist, exactly: they’re books the Academy which administers the prize has nominated. With no rule stating that books have to be from particular territories, nor be novels per se, it’s an excitingly diverse list: there are debuts and books by long-established prize winners; there are vast novels and slim books of short stories; there is at least one novel in verse; there are books from pretty much every continent; there are big-hitters, and a book from the smallest press imaginable, Perfect Edge. There is, given that 2011 was the nadir of the Booker in recent history and subsequent longlists have not prioritised readability over, y’know, quality, substantial crossover with this year’s Booker longlist: nine of the thirteen from the latter, including the ultimate winner, are among the Folio 80 (I’m not surprised that the two mass-market titles, by Karen Joy Fowler and David Nicholls, didn’t make it onto the Folio list, but I’m mildly disappointed Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World isn’t on there).

And what does this have to do with me? When I saw the list, and noted that I’d already read a fifth of the nominated books, I realised that it was just about feasible for me to read the remaining titles in the hundred or so days until the 2015 Folio Prize gets announced. So, I’m going to try it: I might (I probably will) fail, but I’ll have fun along the way. It’ll also, I hope, make me update this blog less infrequently. Among the remainder are books I’ve never heard of (Bald New World), authors I already love, authors I swore I’d never read again (Carey is the Australian equivalent of those 80s Brit Lit big hitters now spending this century bringing out one bad book after another), books I’ve been wanting to read and haven’t got round to, and books I likely wouldn’t have rushed to read but might have got around to eventually. There is something called Em and The Big Hoom. There are five books whose titles begin with the word ‘All’, a bit like when every new band you read about had ‘Wolf’ in the name. And I’m going to read them all. Even The Bone Clocks, dear reader. Even The Bone Clocks.

And write about them! I intend to post weekly updates talking about which titles I’ve got through in the preceding seven days, plus (to catch up) those I’ve read up until this point. To get us started, you can read my reviews of AL Kennedy’s All the Rage (“At her best, there’s no-one to touch her”) and Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows (my favourite book of 2014: “If it is an engine designed to make you cry, it’s an endearingly clunky one”), which were originally written for Civilian.

As it stands, there’s 82 days until the prize is announced (on 23rd March) and I’ve 63 titles still to read — that’s about five books a week. Eminently doable! In the next update, I’ll write about Colin Barrett, Nicola Barker, Philip Hensher, and others.

The eighty nominated titles — with the ones I’ve read struck through — are:

10:04, Ben Lerner
A GOD IN EVERY STONE, Kamila Shamsie
ACADEMY STREET, Mary Costello
AFTER ME COMES THE FLOOD, Sarah Perry
ALL MY PUNY SORROWS, Miriam Toews
ALL OUR NAMES, Dinaw Mengitsu
ALL THE DAYS AND NIGHTS, Niven Goviden
ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, Anthony Doerr
ALL THE RAGE, AL Kennedy
AMNESIA, Peter Carey
ANNIHILATION, Jeff VanderMeer
ARCTIC SUMMER, Damon Galgut
BALD NEW WORLD, Peter Tieryas Liu
BARK, Lorrie Moore
BE SAFE I LOVE YOU, Cara Hoffman
BOY, SNOW, BIRD, Helen Oyeyemi
CAN’T AND WON’T, Lydia Davis
DEAR THIEF, Samantha Harvey
DEPT. OF SPECULATION, Jenny Offill
DISSIDENT GARDENS, Jonathan Lethem
DUST, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
EM AND THE BIG HOOM, Jerry Pinto
ENGLAND AND OTHER STORIES, Graham Swift
EUPHORIA, Lily King
EVERLAND, Rebecca Hunt
EYRIE, Tim Winton
FAMILY LIFE, Akhil Sharma
FOURTH OF JULY CREEK, Smith Henderson
HOW TO BE BOTH, Ali Smith
IN SEARCH OF SILENCE, Emily Mackie
IN THE APPROACHES, Nicola Barker
IN THE LIGHT OF WHAT WE KNOW, Zia Haider Rahman
J, Howard Jacobson
KINDER THAN SOLITUDE, Yiyun Li
LILA, Marilynne Robinson
LIFE DRAWING, Robin Black
LOST FOR WORDS, Edward St Aubyn
LOVE AND TREASURE, Ayelet Waldman
NORA WEBSTER, Colm Tóibín
ON SUCH A FULL SEA, Chang-Rae Lee
ORFEO, Richard Powers
OUTLINE, Rachel Cusk
PERFIDIA, James Ellroy
ROAD ENDS, Mary Lawson
SHARK, Will Self
SOME LUCK, Jane Smiley
STAY UP WITH ME, Tom Barbash
STONE MATTRESS, Margaret Atwood
THE BALLAD OF A SMALL PLAYER, Lawrence Osborne
THE BONE CLOCKS, David Mitchell
THE BOOK OF GOLD LEAVES, Mirza Waheed
THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS, Michel Faber
THE COUNTRY OF ICECREAM STAR, Sandra Newman
THE DOG, Joseph O’Neill
THE EMERALD LIGHT IN THE AIR, Donald Antrim
THE EMPEROR WALTZ, Philip Hensher
THE FEVER, Megan Abbott
THE HEROES’ WELCOME, Louisa Young
THE INCARNATIONS, Susan Barker
THE LIE, Helen Dunmore
THE LIVES OF OTHERS, Neel Mukherjee
THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH, Richard Flanagan
THE NIGHT GUEST, Fiona McFarlane
THE PAYING GUESTS, Sarah Waters
THE TELL-TALE HEART, Jill Dawson
THE TEMPORARY GENTLEMAN, Sebastian Barry
THE WAKE, Paul Kingsnorth
THE ZONE OF INTEREST, Martin Amis
THEIR LIPS TALK OF MISCHIEF, Alan Warner
THUNDERSTRUCK, Elizabeth McCracken
TO RISE AGAIN AT A DECENT HOUR, Joshua Ferris
TRAVELLING SPRINKLER, Nicholson Baker
UPSTAIRS AT THE PARTY, Linda Grant
VIPER WINE, Hermione Eyre
VIRGINIA WOOLF IN MANHATTAN, Maggie Gee
WE ARE NOT OURSELVES, Thomas Matthew
WHAT YOU WANT, Constantine Phipps
WITTGENSTEIN JR, Lars Iyer
YOUNG SKINS, Colin Barrett
YOUR FATHERS, WHERE ARE THEY? AND THE PROPHETS, DO THEY LIVE FOREVER?, Dave Eggers

In the event…

Cowie-Jarvis-Stewart

I’m delighted to be participating in a reading on Saturday 4th October in London with two good friends and fine authors, Douglas Cowie and Timothy J. Jarvis. All three of us were at the University of East Anglia at the same time, Tim and I undertaking an MA in Creative Writing, Doug working on his PhD in the same.

Since those heady days among the UEA ziggurats, Douglas Cowie has published a novel, Owen Noone and The Marauder (Canongate) and a diptych of shorter novels under the title Sing For Life, individually entitled Tin Pan Alley and Away, You Rolling River (Black Hill Press) — books about America, music, friendship and loss. I’m privileged to know a little about his hugely exciting new project, on which he’s been working for a number of years now.

Timothy J. Jarvis has long been interested in the weird, the antic, and those odd little corners of fiction and indeed of geogrraphy. His debut, The Wanderer (Perfect Edge), is a wonderfully weird quote-unquote horror novel that’s so much more: a disquisition on the mythology and hidden places of London, a knowing reworking and retelling — wonderfully, done utterly straight — of horror tropes, and a valuable addition to the canon of dystopian literature.

In writing up this post, it’s occurred to me that the odd one out of this trio, not having a PhD to my name. With three weeks to go, I probably shouldn’t embark upon one right now. I’ll be reading from The Glasgow Coma Scale — or, possibly, from something new (I haven’t decided yet).

The event will kick off at 8pm at The Alleycat on Denmark Street — aka Tin Pan Alley, fittingly. There’ll be readings, a chance to buy books, and DJs until late — so do come along (you “hoped for but doubtless chimeric” reader, you). Entry is free!

The Wants

By chance, I finished two books recently with ‘want’ in the title. As good a reason as any, I thought, to blog…

Wants

He Wants is the follow-up to Alison Moore’s excellent debut novel The Lighthouse which, as you may recall, appeared on the 2012 Booker shortlist — remarkable not just for being a coup for any debut novel, but for its being produced by the tiny publisher Salt (one of two indie publishers on that year’s shortlist). Again a short, tightly focused novel in which a certain melancholy seems to flow from the characters to pervade the text, He Wants has a slightly larger cast, but is very much in the same vein as Moore’s first book. It’s a story of repressed longings, buried memories, veiled but very real threats. We follow Lewis Sullivan, a retired RE teacher, as he potters through identical dull days: his daughter brings him soup he doesn’t want; sometimes he goes to the pub for a shandy and a sausage roll. Meanwhile, his father Lawrence is maundering in a retirement home, and Lewis’s daughter Ruth has a marginally more lively but ultimately similarly stultifying life: generation after generation, members of the Sullivan family seem destined to stumble into ruts they can’t escape from. It’s not like they even want to be in the village; Lewis often encounters neighbours he’d plainly like never to have to see again (Moore withholds the reasons for one mysetrious, violent encounter just long enough). Even the reader may not, due to the similarity of their names, be immune to the way Lewis, a teacher like Lawrence, often gets confused for the older man. Into this network of misspent lives comes Sydney, Lewis’s long-absent childhood friend, who seems at first a kind of spiv, but is soon revealed to be something more than just a chancer: he may be Lewis’s way out.

This is a thematically tight-knit novel: the characters’ desires, their “wants”, are referenced throughout, from wishes for vast life changes to regrets over the most minute of missed opportunities. The chapter titles, too, alert us to these: almost all begin ‘He wants’ or ‘He wanted’, in reference to Lewis, Lawrence, Sydney et al. When change comes for Lewis, it’s in a scene that confirms what the novel has spent a while obliquely hinting at (and I had wondered if I was reading too much into these hints), and although it’s almost as cathartic for the reader as for the character, I slightly felt that we peep behind the curtain, so to speak, at this moment. One of The Lighthouse‘s great pleasures was how the delicious cropping of its ending demonstrated to perfection the old saw about things being unsaid being as important as those said. It’s satisfying to give Lewis the opportunity to articulate what he really wants, and indeed to grasp it, but I felt a little of this slim book’s subtlety slipped away here.

There’s also a whimsical tone which sat uneasily with me. A loan shark character, Barry Bolton, has the name and the demeanour of a comic book villain, and fails to embody much of a threat, while characters’ obsessions over the right mug to drink coffee from, or what sausage roll they would or would not like to eat, push this book in the unwelcome direction of something like Rachel Joyce’s Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, in which the deliberately implausible setup and a whimsical tone detracts from any sense the characters are at any real risk and, therefore, from any sense that they have grown (or deserve our sympathies). Moore’s book is better by an order of magnitude than Joyce’s, but its depiction of village life recalls John Major’s much-derided description of “long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers” — a place which, despite references to mobile phones and the Tottenham, might be stuck in 1954, not 2014(ish). Which may very well be what a lot of England is like, and may be contributing to the characters’ inertia, but is a little unthrilling to read about.

From over the pond — specifically, Brooklyn’s beautiful Book Court, where I bought my copy — comes Jonathan Miles‘s Want Not (Mariner Books). While in Moore’s novel, want colours her every character’s thoughts, Miles’s is thematically dense, exploring all manner of notions of (that unspoken half-phrase the title alludes to) waste. Here is bodily waste, food waste from restaurants, ordinary trash, waste paper (complete with indentity-theft-worthy documents), nuclear waste, wasted opportunity, characters one might accurately summarise as “wasters”, etc, etc. It all gets a bit much. It seems like there are a bunch of American authors (oddly enough, many called Jonathan) who would like to be Jonathan Franzen — or maybe there’s some Ur-writer at whom they’re all aiming, and eventually there’ll be a Big American Novel of Ideas credited solely to Jonathan, an icon without need of a surname.

Want Not is a long, thickly plotted, sometimes infuriating book, in which three sets of lives — that of a linguist whose life is collapsing around him following his divorce, that of a “freegan” couple dumpster-diving for food and living in a squat furnished with other people’s trash, and a debt collection agency’s head honcho — affect one another in (yes) unexpected ways.These are clever interactions, but it takes a while for them to be revealed, and the journey to that point involves a lot of longueurs and digressions. Miles, you feel, has sat for a while brainstorming every connotation the word “waste” brings to mind, then done a lot of research to become an expert on all these things. In the course of 386 pages, the reader learns the symptoms and effects of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, the method for skinning and butchering a dead deer, how to “trick out” a Jeep to pimpmobile standards, how long a language can be expected to “live” unchanged, and many, many, many other things. As in Franzen, what we have in Want Not is something like the old “novel of information” which seeks to contain as much as it can about the world by, well, containing as much as it can. (Don DeLillo’s Underworld is perhaps the great example of the genre; it too deals with garbage and waste, especially the enormous, defunct (real-life) landfill in New York which — in the kind of life-imitating-DeLillo twist in which the 2000s has excelled — reopened after 9/11 to accommodate the waste after the disaster.) Often these are fascinating; I’ve not read a more shocking (in a good way) description of the physical sensation of giving birth, for instance, though obviously I’m not in a position to gainsay his description, either, and I wonder whether it rings true with mothers who read this book? Sometimes, though, a little pruning or tightening wouldn’t have gone amiss. When Matty, the freegans’ loser houseguest, gets trapped in a trash compactor and has to think fast to avoid being crushed to death, the book spends several pages of lyrical prose describing his actions and thought processes; it seemed an oddly stately way to describe frantic activity. Even bit-part characters get lengthy flashbacks, backstories, inner lives; it’s certainly comprehensive. For me it felt — as lots of novels of information can do — a little like it was a book that was exciting in the planning, but which had grown a little ungainly in the telling. That said, it’s a novel about conspicuous consumption and brazen waste, set in present-day New York, and for it to be excessive and capacious and all-encompassing is, in the end, entirely appropriate.

First reviews of The Glasgow Coma Scale

Checking that the mistake on p.171 was deleted properly

Checking that the mistake on p.171 was deleted properly

It’s a week until The Glasgow Coma Scale is published, and I’m delighted I’ve already had a couple of reviews. The Skinny calls it “an intriguing debut, capturing the psyches of two very different people as they look sidelong at the reasons their lives haven’t gone quite as well as they’d hoped” — those two being Angus, the former art teacher fallen on hard times, and Lynne, the ex-pupil who helps him out not quite out of the goodness of her heart.

The Stirling Observer has also published a generous review which turns out not to be available online, intriguingly demonstrating that ‘offline-only’ journalism still exists in 2014. As well as discussing the journey Angus and Lynne go on together — becoming more dependent on one another the more their increasing enmity makes them want to break apart — the review notes that the book “turns its gaze to questions of gentrification, economics… art… [and] the personal tussle involving in deciding whether to declare yourself a resident of Maryhill or North Kelvinside.”

Above: it’s me, last week, having opened the parcel containing finished copies of the book. I asked Mark to document this process, figuring that there’s only one time in my life I’ll ever get to see final copies of my first book for the first time. As I had no involvement in the cover, which was designed by clever Jonathan Gray, I can fairly say how terrific the finished product looks. It’s a book you’ll want to pick up and stroke when you see it in the shops next week. And then you’ll want to take it to the till.