Folio Season #11: Phipps, Hunt, Young, Smiley, Mackie, Lawson

Introduction I’ve set myself the challenge of reading all 80 books nominated for the 2015 Folio Prize. Several I’d already read before the list was announced – which was what gave me the perhaps inaccurate idea that it would be possible, or a good idea, to read all of the remainder. I’m now posting weekly updates on the titles I’ve been zooming through in the past seven days…

Mostly novels by women, this week, happily, and mostly authors I hadn’t read before — one of my chief reasons for reading through this whole list was to discover new favourite writers.

What You Want – Constantine Phipps (Quercus UK)
cover-phipps.jpgOne of the more unusual titles on the Folio list, this is a 350-page novel in verse. Pat’s wife has left him for another man, and on one of the weekends he has custody of their son, Jack, he tries once again, unsuccessfully, to win her back. In his misery, rejected again, he enters into a kind of lucid dream based around the theme park he and Jack visited: a theme park devoted to his own life, his infidelities, and his conscious and unconscious wishes – for money, for beauty, for spiritual satisfaction. In short, all the things that might come under a heading of general desires: what you want. This is a peculiar book, in which historical and real figures appear to give mini lectures on desire and need (Pat’s guide round the theme park of his past is Freud), a kind of mock-heroic narrative which justifies the form – as does Pat’s career as a musician. Interpolated into the conversations Pat holds with various interlocutors are poems that might be characterised as metaphysical, addressed to his wife. These sit slightly uneasily in the midst of the book’s main narrative, which is set in (often ingenious, sometimes wince-inducing) rhyming couplets, which make the text livelier and jauntier than a book about depression and spiritual angst might otherwise be; it’s as if the writer of a book-length poem, or a novel in verse, senses that to be anything other than a fairly easy read might be to ask to much of the reader (an obvious comparison is with Bernardine Evaristo’s excellent The Emperor’s Babe, similarly ‘light’ in form if not in subject matter). I don’t know that the juxtaposition necessarily works, but it’s an intriguing mix of form and content, and makes for one of the more memorable books on the list.

Everland – Rebecca Hunt (Penguin UK)
EverlandEverland is an Antarctic island, uninhabited but for penguins and fur seals. An 1913 expedition to the island ended in death and disaster for a three-man exploratory party, and Rebecca Hunt’s carefully structured second novel tells that team’s story, and that of a centenary expedition that sets off to Everland in 2012, armed with the latest high-tech equipment but prey to the same fears and failures of a century ago. Despite a slight issue with improbable names (I had difficulty remembering whether Brix or Jess was the standoffish team member in 2012, and whether Napps or Dinners is the one fated to die in 1913) this is a confident, subtle and unusual novel. The prose style is often rather chatty, which works fairly well in the modern-day sections, but is a little odd when deployed in the 1913 sections, which again tend to flit between free indirect and an omniscient voice that sounds remarkably contemporary – to have a man’s bruises come up ‘several shades of ugly’, for instance, strikes a slightly off note. (Not that the historical sections ought to be written in some cod Edwardian prose, of course.) It took quite a while for this book to catch light for me, but eventually the parallels, growing ever more marked between the doomed 1913 explorers’ thread and the 2012 team’s, in which life and death are still up for grabs, become compelling.

The Heroes’ Welcome – Louisa Young (Borough Press UK)
Heroes' WelcomeThis is a nicely ironic title for a book about the very different kinds of postwar that old soldiers can have. It’s 1919, and Riley Purefoy returns to England from fighting in the trenches. He has a rebuilt jaw and a new sense of urgency in life, and his hasty marriage to Nadine is greeted with suspicion from both their families. His old CO, Peter, is in a kind of shell shock, neglectful of his wife and son, and lost in painful memories which threaten to overwhelm him. The female characters are making their way in a new world of opportunities and independence – suddenly it’s possible to get a grant to become a doctor, or to run away to Europe, adopt a new identity in its cafés and flirt with strangers (as Peter’s wife Julia does) – while still tied to the old, pre-War world, even though they know full well that it was hardly a utopia worth mourning. This is an interesting slant for the war novel, dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder before the term was really coined. (It’s an interesting complement to Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You, which deals with the aftermath of the Gulf War on a female solider eighty years later.) It’s sometimes a bit too selfconsciously literary – there is a good reason for Peter to compare himself to Odysseus and his experiences to an odyssey, but it feels a bit neat, even if there is a payoff. This is a readable, mostly undemanding book which, though always competent, didn’t quite take off for me; a climactic scene of tragedy, for instance, falls rather flat, and the ways that various characters who’ve spent the book at odds find in the last chapter to reconcile with one another are all a bit clean. A book about the strife of war and the messy psychological effects on those directly and indirectly involved ends up feeling a little antiseptic.
A sidenote: Mention of Julia settling down to read ‘the new Edith Wharton’ struck me as a little glib and knowing here. This week, one of the characters in Jane Smiley’s Some Luck studies literature and lists the canonical titles he enjoys (the prose in eighteenth century literature is too easy for him so he reads Clarissa, Justine and Juliette as well as Pamela for his coursework) and in Mary Lawson’s Road Ends a character keeps ‘a copy of The Grapes of Wrath in the cab of [his] snowplow’ in case there’s a blizzard and no newspapers are available and dislikes Jude the Obscure as ‘depressing’. All this seems to me like a kind of authorial pleading: an insistence that the reader consider the present book in the context of what used to be called canonical English (and American) Literature. It’s never quite as OTT as Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall, whose opening two pages nod to Ulysses, Moby-Dick and half a dozen other titans of world literature, but it does seem a little like begging the question. It shouldn’t be for the book you’re reading to beat you over the head like this: ‘I am a serious novel!’

Some Luck – Jane Smiley (Knopf US)
Some LuckAn ingenious structural device is at the centre of Jane Smiley’s novel, a family saga that begins in 1920 and follows the fortunes of three generations of the Langdons, a farming family. Each chapter progresses the narrative forward a year (we reach 1953 here, with two forthcoming volumes set to cover the century’s remaining 67 years), so the effect is something like receiving one of those end-of-year letters that detail what a person’s been up to for the past twelve months. In these characters’ cases it’s things like surviving drought and the great depression, fighting in World War II, and watching the impact the rise of technology has on the farmland they’ve tended for years. The five Langdon children grow up in the course of the book – mainly it’s about Frank, a self-possessed child who becomes the first Langdon to go to college, move far away from home, and hold a job that isn’t farming-related. The effect is of a family saga made up of Everymen – an Everyfamily – prey to the same strokes of luck as any, seen over long enough a time: births, deaths, ill-advised romances, conflict, more or less good decisions. The problem is that the very familiarity of this material makes the book curiously uninvolving. It isn’t really a novel, nor a series of thirty-odd stories, but a kind of anthology of set-pieces and scenes, seemingly purposefully lacking in the shape of a novel. The interest may come in Smiley’s chronicling of an entire human life, presumably Frank’s, from earliest stirrings of consciousness (rendered by the text, I’m sorry to say, in sub-Joycean baby babble) onwards. Rather like reading the end-of-year letters of a family you’ve never met, there’s only so interested one can be in the very quotidian lives they lead, however.

In Search of Solace – Emily Mackie (Sceptre UK)
In Search of SolaceI’d been wanting to read this for a while, as it was one of the titles longlisted for last year’s Green Carnation Prize (alongside Folio nominee Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others, eventual winner Anneliese Mackintosh’s Any Other Mouth, and, er, my book). How you feel about this book will, I think, largely come down to how you respond to the news that it’s about a search for a character actually called Solace: a little on-the-nose for me. Also aggravating: the twee, pretentious at-arm’s-length narration that grabs the reader’s hand and drags them into each present-tense scene; there’s prolepsis and flashback aplenty in this book, and the sense that Mackie fears her audience – addressed, of course, as ‘dear reader’ – won’t be able to cope without such tooth-grinding mimsiness as ‘We’re not quite [at the end of the story] yet. Not quite yet. Though we are not so far off either. First we must finish up these developing stories, don’t you think? Big Sal, Lucy Westbry, Max and Mr Benson, our loose threads flapping in the breeze.’ (p.265) I’m very happy with books that call attention to their artifice, but there’s a limit, I think (and, really, does a thread ‘flap’? And while I’m nitpicking, in a book which talks a fair bit about art, Lucian Freud’s name really should have been spelled correctly.)
Eventually, I realised that the influence which hangs heavy over this book is Ali Smith’s, but it takes some skill to pull off Smith’s mixture of a deceptively simple, storytelling style and dark subject matter without its becoming sugary. Mackie hasn’t quite got the balance right here, although her central subject, one Jacob Little, is an intriguing creation: for every year of his life, he designs an obsession (guitar-playing, religion) and a character he’ll inhabit who possesses this particular obsession. Mentally unstable, Jacob loses track of himself: having played so many different people, who is he really? Is he looking for Solace (ugh) as a way to connect to the real self he once was, or is this the latest obsession he’s authored for himself?

Road Ends – Mary Lawson (Knopf US)
Road EndsConfession: I vividly remember when I put Mary Lawson’s Crow Lake back on the shelf at Borders, having read the back cover text a couple of times, and decided her work was not for me: it seemed to fit into a category into which I’d also put Trezza Azzopardi and Tessa Hadley, neither of whose debuts I could stand. And so I was bizarrely trepidatious about Road Ends, even though one of the pleasures of this Folio Season thingy has been to ‘discover’ writers I hadn’t read before (especially where they have a backlist I can then work through). We’re in Canada in the mid-to-late 1960s, and the book is formed around a central tragedy, a clifftop suicide. The residents of the little town of Struan are riven by his fate in various ways: for Tom, who found Rob’s body, it has been a paralysing incident; for Tom’s sister Megan, a surrogate mother to her eight brothers, it’s a reason to pack her bags and leave town; so too for their father, watching his family fall apart in their different ways. Inertia, weakness and hypocrisy are the linking elements in this book, which makes Megan’s story, which sends her to 1969 London, the most immediately engaging, all Dickins & Jones and hippie squat-dwelling. She’s the only character with much momentum; the disintegrating family she leaves behind is stuck in its various ways; her father, who resents his wife for her constant pregnancies without, ostensibly, recognising the part he plays in making her pregnant, is a well-drawn character. Showing the build-up to and consequences of Rob’s death, and the reasons for his suicide, lets Lawson explore its distorting effect on a ‘good’ family, but the inertia, and a strange focus on female characters suffering or taking responsibility for the various carefree, misbehaving or ineffectual males in their lives makes this a frustrating book for me. I’m not sure I didn’t make the right call on Crow Lake all those years ago.

68 books down, 12 to go, and 17 days until the prize is announced. Next week, in my penultimate roundup: Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Will Self’s Shark – and more.

The eighty nominated titles — with the ones I’ve read struck through (and links to reviews, where applicable) — 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 – A.L. 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 & 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 Solace – 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 –Matthew Thomas
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

 

One thought on “Folio Season #11: Phipps, Hunt, Young, Smiley, Mackie, Lawson

  1. Pingback: Folio Season #12: Swift, Flanagan, Faber, Harvey, Self | The Salt House

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