Folio Season #7: Dawson, Pinto, Waheed, Mitchell, Baker

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…

Something new this week. I am at large on various sun-drenched islands this week and next – the freelance life! – and, having weighed up, quite literally, the number of books I’d need to howk around with me on my travels, and the attendant risk of doing my back a permanent injury, I bought an e-reader. Long suspicious of these devices, I was instantly vindicated by spending three hours trying to copy an e-book on to the damned thing, which involved downloading three new computer programmes, and the purchase of a book I will, by the looks of it, never be able to read. (Say what you will about the march of paper versus e-ink or whatever it is, but it has never taken me three hours to work out how to open a paperback book and start reading it.) Anyway: two of the books reviewed below I read on my e-reader, in a spirit of not being snobbish about the march of technology – even if the act of purchasing the device made me feel the same self-loathing nausea I imagine I would experience if I cheated on my fiancé.

So, this week I read new books by Jill Dawson, Mirza Waheed, David Mitchell, Nicholson Baker and Jerry Pinto: four familiar names and one new to me…

The Tell-Tale Heart – Jill Dawson (Sceptre UK)
Tell-Tale Heart, TheIt’s many years since I read a Jill Dawson novel – Fred and Edie – and I was looking forward to this new one. Our narrator, Patrick, wakes up after undergoing an experimental form of heart transplant (‘beating heart’ surgery in which the heart is transferring still, er, beating from the donor to the recipient). An academic with a complex and stressful home life, his heart gave out under the various strains it was placed under – and in his chest now beats the smaller heart of a 16 year-old, Drew, killed in a motorbike accident. As Patrick starts to recover, he also starts to wonder about his donor’s life – and to consider the possibility that something more than mere flesh has been transplanted into him… If this sounds like the setup to a Hammer Horror, Dawson has her characters question or even mock the kind of thinking that suggests things like ‘cell memory’ might move from body to body, while also letting her book dabble in a bit of uncanny doubling and some hallucinatory scenes. We see Patrick’s story of his recovery and his attempt to put his life back on track, intercut with the story of how Drew came to lose his life. There is a bit of mirroring – I especially liked the way that Patrick’s timid attempts at a new relationship seemed to focus on a woman who could be the double of the teacher Drew falls for. This is a well-structured, well-written novel with good dialogue, precisely observed characters and an acute handling of – in all senses – matters of the heart.

The Book of Gold Leaves – Mirza Waheed (Penguin Viking UK)
Book of Gold Leaves, TheI read Mirza Waheed’s much-feted debut The Collaborator a few years ago and, unusually, can’t remember anything about the content or the text. I do remember I didn’t love it, and am happy to report that I really liked The Book of Gold Leaves, despite a couple of misgivings. To get one minor one out the way: too many sentences, especially at the outset, look like thickets that an editor should have helped untangle. Here’s one from the foot of the first page: ‘Such was the dread that the government filled in a young Faiz, its building, its dark classrooms, its memorably coarse jute mat, and its oppressive teachers, that on at least three occasions he buried his books in the marshy soil of Dembh, each time claiming he had lost his schoolbag while playing cricket after school.’ Clearly ‘filled in me’ is wrong (‘instilled in me’ or ‘filled me with’, surely), and on a first read the abundance of commas makes it seem that this dread fills also the building and classrooms et al. These overburdened sentences calm down as the book goes along, but every so often there’s a real clunker that interrupts reading as you furrow your brow and think of less inelegant ways things might have been phrased.
We are in Srinagar, Kashmir, near the Pakistan border, where a dreamy young Shia man named Faiz, who makes papier maché art for a living, falls for a strong-minded Sunni girl, Roohi. Aware of the obstacles their respective religious backgrounds might put in their way, the couple meet in secret in the city shrine and their relationship blooms. But Srinagar is destined to be rent by civil war, and the young couple will have to pick sides, whether they want to or not…
We’re in Romeo and Juliet territory here, but transposed to a fascinating and terrifying setting, where military vehicles patrol the streets snatching up insurgents, and a school is converted to a prison camp. It’s a vivid, illuminating backdrop for an engaging story of young lovers. The notion of the vast painting on which Faiz works on and off, and the small detailed painted boxes he sells for money, initially suggest a magical-realist setting, and there’s something fableistic about the way Waheed unfolds his tale, but the dangers the couple and their families face are all too real. Right at the end there’s another moment where magical realism or a kind of overcooked poetic justice juts slightly distractingly into the book, but by then I was fully invested in Faiz and Roohi’s story and almost exclaimed aloud – no spoilers! – when I saw how things were going to go for them.

Em and The Big Hoom – Jerry Pinto (Penguin US)
Em and the Big HoomThe peculiar title of this debut novel (which, for some reason, I had imagined would be about jazz – no idea where that came from) is instantly explained: Em is the nickname two children give their mother, The Big Hoom their father, the reasons for each name lost in time and family history. This is a novel that’s big on family history: it’s the story of Em (really Imelda), who announces shortly after the birth of her second child that a kind of black tap of depression has gone on in her brain. She states that she is mad, that tiny word containing multitudes, and the story of her suffering and treatment is the story of this book. I don’t know what it says about me that I enjoyed this book nearly as much as its fellow depression-centred Folio nominee All My Puny Sorrows, in which a family is brought closer together, rather than riven apart, by one wildly unwell member, but like that book, Pinto’s is funny, sad, tender and rich. The jokes and puns are non-stop, which could get a little wearing in a longer novel, and yet in scarcely 200 pages Em is evoked so richly that she seems to step off the page: by turns outrageous, wily, washed out by her depression, and fully alive throughout. Pinto uses the device of having Em’s story told to and by her son, in dialogue and in diary extracts, and yet despite that intentional distancing, she steps right off the page, a hugely memorable character in an intriguing debut.

The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell (Sceptre UK)
Bone Clocks, TheIt is entirely possible that David Mitchell is not only the nicest man in publishing, but the nicest man alive: genial, self-effacing, cheerful, humble. Which makes it a sad thing to report that while I devoured his new novel The Bone Clocks, I did so in the way you gulp down a poorly prepared meal so that you can move on to something nicer. As is usually the case with his books, you get not just one but several here, essentially a suite of interlinked longish short stories. We begin with teenage runaway Holly, who leaves her family for her boyfriend, then finds him in bed with her best mate, and runs even further from home. She doesn’t quite know where she’s going – but along the way she gets caught up in horrendous events that seem to defy logical interpretation. This is Mitchell’s most overtly fantastical book yet, a story of a secret war between two clutches of immortal beings. One lot, the Atemporals, find themselves resurrected in a new body, typically a child’s, any time the old ‘host’ dies. Their rivals, the Carnivores, have devised a way to stay immortal that involves kidnapping and killing children. All of this means that great swathes of the book are given over to lines like ‘Did you not know that the Chapel is the Cathar and the Cathar is the Chapel? Holokai’s soul is ash. Xi Lo’s soul is nothing’, and talk of ‘subasking’, ‘suasioning’, ‘the Psychosoterica of the Shaded Way’ etc. Admittedly we’re not meant to understand this yet, but it’s a risk to start your 600-page novel with an utterly unconvincing narrator, all ‘Totes amazeballs’ and ‘well jel’, another to involve sci-fi gobbledegook about which swirls not the mystery of matters beyond understanding but the whiff of sub-Rowling YA fantasy. Mitchell’s always worked around the edges of slipstream fiction – in which a seemingly naturalistic story is revealed to have weirder, fantastical elements – but for it to work, I think, the realistic stuff needs to be thoroughly believable and imagined for the weirdness to present a destabilising or unsettling contrast. Mitchell’s attempt, as a 40-something man, to write as a young girl is so weird that duelling sects of immortals isn’t actually any weirder or more jarring.
Also bizarre is his third novella here, which concerns an author improbably named Crispin Hershey, who seems to be a Martin Amis analogue (his books include Desiccated Embryos and Red Monkey and he’s the author a memoir about his artist father, albeit a filmmaker rather than another writer), taking revenge on a critic for savaging his latest novel: your correspondent worries slightly about being mean about Mitchell (James Wood, though, must have more cause for concern), but there’s no nice way to say that this section, delivered mostly in a kind of drunken first person, reveals a tin ear for monologue. Whether it’s the dissolute husk of this Wild Child of British Letters, a bragging, over-privileged student, a military commander in Iraq’s Green Zone, or a teenage girl, all Mitchell’s voices sound the same: they describe things in exactly the same clever writerly ways: opening a can of Coke, Holly says ‘My first gulp’s a booom of freezing fizz’; Hershey tops up his ‘sparkling water, Glug-splush-glig-sploshglugsplshssssss’ [sic] and, on tasting a cup of tea, reports ‘Soily leaf and tannin sun bloom across my tongue.’ Everyone in this book talks like one everyone else, and I don’t think it’s deliberate. Action sequences — fight scenes, combat sequences, a skiing accident — are related in the same breathless and unconvincing tone, no matter who’s relating the incident: their prose is always Mitchell’s, and it’s bad.
Perhaps oddly, the section that works best is one set in 19th century Russia, where the voice – that of an immortal in the body of a 13 year-old servant girl – ditches the slang, the ripped-off Simpsons lines (c’mon, David!) and the tiresome ‘y’know’s of the contemporary teen narrators and their fifty-something author pals, and tells her story directly, simply, and arrestingly. You get the impression that Mitchell doesn’t know what he does well and what he doesn’t; the interlinked novellas told by different narrators represent a kind of throwing everything at the wall. It wouldn’t be so bad if he weren’t hyper aware of these kinds of criticisms, nor did he seek to undercut them by having the text point out the writerliness, or the unlikely metaphor. Whether or not you feel that ‘filling the spaces between atoms with the atonal chords of destruction’ (p.256) is too writerly a way to describe the noise of a vast explosion, or that Mitchell’s descriptions of Second Gulf War combat are too book-smart to convince, surely it does the reader no favours to have the text itself call the first phrase ‘florid’ (p.257) or point out the writerliness of the second (‘the closest this pallid boy ever came to armed combat was group feedback on his creative writing MA’, p.288). And the meta-self-critiquing of having a character declare ‘Modesty is Vanity’s craftier stepbrother’ (p.325) is enough to make your teeth hurt.
Thematically, this is a book about systems of control, and the way that hidden – or not so hidden – forces influence and shape our everyday lives. Should you be in any doubt about this, or that the immortals are a metaphor for real-life ‘hidden interests’, every so often a character will say something like ‘“An invisible war’s going on […] all through history – the class war. Owners versus slaves, nobles versus serfs, the bloated bosses versus workers, the haves versus the have-nots. The working classes are kept in a state of repression by a mixture of force and lies.”’ (p.55) Yes, yes. But what do novels like this – substituting actual monsters for governments or corporate interests – do to alter the status quo? Latterly, when Mitchell goes full-throttle for the fantasy stuff and it’s all ‘Incorporeally, I pour psychovoltage into a neurobolas and kinetic it at our assailants’, it actually gets rather better, because this is at least consistent hokum; likewise the final section’s dystopia, set in 2043, in which part of Ireland has become a ‘Lease Land’ in Chinese control, is convincing and intriguing: a properly imagined world, instead of fantastical gubbins grafted willy-nilly on the familiar. A full-length Mitchell dystopia might actually be worth reading. But as it is, this is an adolescent book, poorly written, and successful neither as a state of the nation/world address nor a fantasy novel. You can only hope that the not very subtle references to Mitchell’s other novels that litter this book – though I do like that all his fiction is set in the same ‘shared universe’ – mean a kind of clearing of the palate in preparation for his next time producing something new, different, better.

Travelling Sprinkler – Nicholson Baker (Blue Rider Press US)
Traveling SprinklerGoodreads, which I generally deplore, is good for some things: it was only through the site that I learned that Travelling Sprinkler is the follow-up to Nicholson Baker’s novel The Anthologist, featuring the same lead character: disaffected poet Paul Chowder, here turning away from writing sad poems and towards writing sad songs, or maybe a book about trying to write sad songs — ‘”in other words […] sad poems that are made happier by being singable”‘ — or maybe something entirely different. Whether the reader of Travelling Sprinkler suffers by not previously having read The Anthologist is moot: I loved this book on its own terms. Digressive, discursive, silly, moving and insightful, it’s the obverse of those other serious-minded discursive fictions on this list, like 10:04 or The Dog, in that it seems entirely playful and light, as well as an educative chronicle of its narrator’s obsessions (as well as his mini essays on Debussy, chord progressions, the history of bassoon music in film scores and classical music, poetry composition, the Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’ and Quaker meetings, I enjoyed Chowder’s 15-song playlist history of dance music), but is really tackling some big and important questions . What have we in the US given to the world?, Chowder muses at one point (p.115). ‘What do we have to be proud of? Warfarin and Risperdal and Effexor and Abilify and Hellfire missiles and supermax prisons and the revenge killing of Osama bin Laden — and the Staple Sisters. Music. I’d give another to single like the Staple Singers… The Staple Singers is what we’ve given to the world.’ The positioning of small good things like writing a silly song against large-scale achievements of dubious morality is what this book discusses; this seems (pace Mitchell) a rewarding, interesting way of looking at what it is to be a more or less powerless individual in a big violent unstable world. It’s also a very sweet, elliptical love story between middle-aged folk, though the ambling way the plot unfolds makes its title — the book is named for another of Paul’s borderline obsessions — a little on-the-nose. Whether or not you find it funny, meantime – I thought it was brilliantly comic – is perhaps a matter of whether you think this sensitive, nervy, thoughtful, slightly hangdog narrator’s responding to the collapse of a barn containing various precious artefacts of his long life with a long pause then the phrase ‘Fuckaroo-banzai’ is funny or not. Me, I breezed through 200 pages of musings and insights about love, life, form and poetry and wish there had been several hundred pages more. The revelation that The Anthologist exists is a bonus.

Shortlist predictions The eight-title shortlist of Folio Prize contenders will be announced on 9th February. Having only read half the nominees so far, my predictions/hopes are necessarily a bit hampered. Nonetheless, of the books I’ve read, I’d be extremely pleased to see the following (and even this list involved a bit of agonising) make it through to the next round. Quotes are from my Folio Season reviews and posts, and from these I discover that I overuse the word ‘enjoyable’.

10:04 – Ben Lerner: ‘smart and intelligent… funny and moving’
All My Puny Sorrows – Miriam Toews: ‘blazingly confident… superlative’
Euphoria – Lily King: ‘hugely enjoyable, enlightening and at times startlingly erotic’
Family Life – Akhil Sharma: ‘super-dense: controlled and enjoyable’
How to be both – Ali Smith: ‘A brilliant, brilliant book’
The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane: ‘a really excellent debut’
The Wake – Paul Kingsnorth: ‘thoroughly enjoyable … a truly impressive feat’
Young Skins – Colin Barrett: ‘some of the finest prose I’ve read this year’

Even this is difficult to winnow down to eight (I feel sorry to have snubbed The Emperor Waltz, for instance, and Traveling Sprinkler for that matter) so I take my hat off to the Academicians who’ll have boiled down all eighth contenders to a mere eight!

Forty books down, forty to go, and 45 days until the winner’s announced. 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 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 –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 #7: Dawson, Pinto, Waheed, Mitchell, Baker

  1. Pingback: Folio Season #7.5: The Shortlist | The Salt House

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