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Folio Season #13: Barker, Powers, Gee, Waters, Newman, Shamsie, Henderson

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. And now, with awarding imminent of the Folio Prize 2015, it’s the final seven nominees…

The Incarnations – Susan Barker (Doubleday UK)
Incarnations, The Someone has been leaving letters in Driver Wang’s taxi, tucked under the mirror for him to find. The unknown writer swears he or she knows Wang – not just as a cab driver in Beijing in 2008, but in all the various incarnations he has lived before: as a eunuch in AD 632, as an imperial concubine in 1542, as a kind of head prefect of a girls’ school in 1966 — always returning to life at some contested, politically charged time. The writer has lived alongside him in all these past lives: sometimes as his child, sometimes as his tormentor, sometimes his victim. And now it’s time for them to meet again. Reincarnation is big at the moment – Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life leads the field, but there are a bunch of books doing the rounds in which life after death is a crucial plot point – but Barker’s excellent novel plays with the possibility that the letters describing Wang’s pasts are fantasies, designed by some enemy to discredit and destroy him; as the book goes on, his family and friendships disintegrate, and he starts to accuse those around him of a campaign against him. Is he cracking up? Is someone really out to get him? Or are they genuinely trying to open his eyes to the notion that he’s lived before, and will again, over and over? The sections dealing with the ‘real’ Wang are necessarily less compact than the short chapters depicting his previous lives, but each one is crammed with incident – even if a central dilemma which sees him ‘relapse’ into a homosexual relationship with another former patient at the institution where he was once treated for depression didn’t quite ring true (and since Wang isn’t gay but develops these feelings during treatment, there’s a slightly problematic alignment of homosexuality, or homosexual urges, with mental illness). The book falls apart a little at the end, which tries to have it all: the truth about the letter-writer is more prosaic than supernatural, but for it to work requires heavy use of coincidence and what might be called ‘convenience plotting’ where characters steadfastly refuse to ask quite obvious questions so that the plot can do its thing unhindered. A tragic act right at the end, too, gets rather muffled amid all the revelations. But for the most part this is a terrific novel mixing its snippets of past revolutions in China with a depiction of Beijing experiencing a new crackdown on free speech the run-up to the Olympic Games (think Ai Wei Wei). The Incarnations suggests that no revolution lasts forever, but neither will any new dawn.

Orfeo – Richard Powers (W.W. Norton US)
Orfeo I always really want to like Richard Powers books – and I never quite do, wholeheartedly, which is odd since they should, theoretically, be right up my street: his interest is in exploring the grey area where the artistic and the technological meet, where creativity and invention are facets of the same process, but subtly different. In Orfeo, we’re with Peter Els, an avant garde composer whose latest work involves attempting to genetically manipulate a biological culture to inscribe a composition within its actual cell structure. Powers goes to great lengths to make this seem like the kind of thing a certain sort of person might casually decide to do, no weirder than dabbling in compositions on a home computer, for instance, and around half of the book tells the story of Els’s life and career in which a constant striving to find new forms and avoid replicating what’s gone before makes this latest effort at innovation seem a natural next step. The other half of the book deals with the fallout from the experiments: in a post-9/11 age of heightened paranoia, Els’s experiments attract the attention of the authorities who link them with an outbreak of viral illness. As news gets out, Els, soon media-christened the “Biotech Bach”, fearing some Guantanamo-esque incarceration, goes on the run. The novel has to do a lot of work to make this seem a convincing response to events, perhaps because it’s an unexpectedly emotional rather than intellectual response for a character who more often seems ruled by the head than the heart, and it never quite convinced me that he’d behave in this way, even if its pitting of one paranoia (an individual’s fear of the government) against another (the authorities’ fear of lone-wolf terror agents within its walls) is nicely done. Powers is always a bit hit-and-miss, I find, the density of the prose and the high-concept ideas not necessarily always yielding something that’s likeable more than admirable, but at certain points, they really come to life. In Orfeo, it’s the last phase – or phrase? – of the novel, as Els starts to see the potential in a musical composition which cannot be played or listened to yet is still music, a transcendent revelation, really wowed me.

Virginia Woolf in Manhattan – Sue Gee (Telegram UK)
Virginia Woolf in Manhattan
Part tribute to Virginia Woolf, part comedy of manners, this is an unusual, entertaining and clever novel – the first of Maggie Gee’s I’ve read. As author and critic Angela Lamb is on her way to New York to conduct research into the Virgina Woolf papers kept at the New York Public Library, her plane is struck by lightning. Landing safely, and making her way to the NYPL, she is astonished to recognise another reader – it’s Virginia Woolf, brought back to life in the twenty-first century. What ensues, as the two women team up, is a kind of bizarre buddy movie: one rather highly-strung novelist meets her literary forebear. There are high-jinks as Virginia sells her own personal first edition of To the Lighthouse to a startled antiquarian bookstore so the two women can stay on in their fancy hotel; and there is comedy from misunderstanding and misinterpretation, as the rather pompous Angela learns that perhaps one should never meet one’s heroes. In a way, it’s the perfect response to Damon Galgut’s portrait of E.M. Forster in Folio-nominated Arctic Summer: by transplanting Woolf-the-person to this new environment, Gee can lightly satirise her responses to such things as laptops and transatlantic aeroplanes without ever mocking her: you laugh with Woolf, but never at her. The novel’s structure, and certain clues along the way, is such that it’s never in doubt that the conclusion will involve that ‘It was all a dream… or was it?’ cliché where some object or artefact from within the fantasy suggests it might have been real after all; I’d take points off for this, and an odd subplot regarding Angela’s very self-assured teenage daughter, who embarks on an implausible adventure of her own, even if that is intended to be a dream or fantasy itself. But the prose is often beautiful – it takes some bravery to set out to respectfully pastiche Woolfian style, and talent to pull it off, which Gee does, I think – and the general tenor of a respectful yet playful celebration of a literary giant that makes of her something new, rather than treating her as some unassailable icon, is refreshing. On balance: great fun.

The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters (Riverhead US)
Paying GuestsIt’s 1922. Unmarried Frances Wray and her widowed mother, living in well-to-do Champion Hill, on the outskirts of London, have decided that to make ends meet, they have to take in lodgers. A couple, Leonard and Lilian Barber, are duly installed. Len is a flirt, and a bit of a spiv, but Lilian is something else: a woman who reignites long-repressed feelings in Frances. Soon, the two women have embarked on secret affair they will do anything to keep secret – a pledge that will have terrible consequences.
I’ve always thought of Sarah Waters as a demon plotter, and this book unfolds at the perfect pace, the stakes getting ever higher as the risks Frances and Lilian take grow greater. It’s the sort of book you sit up till 3am reading – a love story that becomes a crime story, then a police procedural, and finally a thriller. With its unrelenting forward momentum (will Frances and Lilian become lovers? Will they be found out? What will they do when they’re found out? And, as always in this kind of story, ‘how will they get out of this one?’), The Paying Guests is never less than compelling, but along the way, I felt, there are infelicitous and convenient bits of plotting that clunk somewhat as the book travels over them: I simply didn’t buy that repressed, nervous, love-scarred Frances would confess her sexuality to Lilian so readily, and so early on in their emergent friendship; an incident in which Len is mugged but fudges his story of what happened may as well have an enormous note in the margins beside it: PAY ATTENTION! THIS WILL PROVE SIGNIFICANT! Nonetheless, as should be the case with a thriller, the book makes the reader try to predict what will happen next yet wrongfoots them at every turn – then makes the unpredictable twist, with hindsight, be the only way the book could have gone. The crime at the heart of the book, for instance, is inevitable, but only in retrospect; until it happens, you’re kept guessing. As ever in Waters, the prose takes a back seat both to incident and plotting; I didn’t mind too much, until the last section, at which point this book seemed to become simultaneously overlong and rather rushed: as near the start, the pacing seemed a bit off and the characters’ reactions somewhat artificially telescoped in service to the story. Nonetheless, this is a thoroughly engrossing, entirely pleasurable read, with – as always in Waters – an intriguingly subervsive agenda ticking away below the thrillerish surface: here she’s writing about a disarrayed England in the wake of World War One, a country whose ‘best men’, one character opines, are all dead, and where, for better or worse, the old certainties (about money, about society, about gender roles) are all upset.

The Country of Ice Cream Star – Sandra Newman (US)
Country of Ice Cream StarI think this may be the longest ever break I’ve had between reading one book by a particular author – in this case, Sandra Newman’s terrifically-titled debut, The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done, which I read in 1999 – and a second. The Ice Cream Star of the title is Newman’s narrator here, in a tale of a dystopian Massachusetts, riven with diseases (‘the posies’) which kill most of the populace before they turn twenty. When talk of a cure for the disease reaches Ice Cream, she embarks on a dangerous mission through a battle-scarred America filled with warring religious sects, Russian invaders, and violence on all sides. It takes some perseverance to learn even this much: like Paul Kingsnorth’s Folio-nominated The Wake, The Country of Ice Cream Star is written entirely in a language of the author’s invention: syntactically, it’s a kind of patois, peppered with corruptions of familiar words (with ‘bell’ for beautiful and ‘uggety’ for ugly, for instance, are relatively obvious, it took me a long time to twig that ‘bone’ meant good). I tend to rather like books which require and reward interpretive effort on the reader’s part, and it’s an immersive experience to be in Ice Cream’s world; for all that other books have reshaped language in similar ways, this voice is unlike any other I’ve read. It’s a hugely ambitious aim, and the result is utterly consistent and convincing – an impressive achievement. Unfortunately, however, I didn’t find the story especially compelling, packed with incident though it is; as Ice Cream’s mission, a classic straightforward quest narrative, takes her from Massachusetts to New York (where she is installed as a cult’s Virgin Mary leader-figure) and on to Washington, it all rather washed over me, and since the prose’s spiky stiltedness is more intellectually admirable than pleasurable, this was a bit of a misfire for me. You can’t fault Newman’s ambition, nor her success in worldbuilding, but the story involves one twisted religious cult after another, one massacre after another. Blood is shed by the gallon, tears by not much less. It gets wearing, and it means that a significant death about two-thirds in has little impact.
My feeling is that a novel this stylistically brave should perhaps get in and out quickly; the point it’s making is likely diluted, rather than bolstered, by a high page-count. At 600 pages, The Country of Ice Cream Star is bloated (and an endnote which perhaps unwisely notes that the novel’s first draft ran to 900 pages meant that I spent much of the time wishing that rather more than a third had been lopped from that manuscript before it became this final draft), and ultimately, sadly, even though this is a novel which will make almost anything you read after finishing it seem flimsy and under-imagined by contrast, I found it a bit of a drag.

A God in Every Stone – Kamila Shamsie (Atavist US)
A God in Every StoneIt’s unusual for a woman to be an archaeologist in Turkey in 1914, but that’s what Vivian Rose Spencer is when this novel starts, her love of the past mingling with her love for Tahsin Bey, her tutor. It’s even more unusual, when the novel later finds her in Peshawar in 1930, for a young Pakistani boy to go to her for tutoring in the Classics, but that’s what Najeeb does. There are wheels within wheels: Najeeb’s older brother Qayyum, a soldier who fought for the allies in Ypres in 1914, has already met Vivian by chance and reencounters her in Peshawar, where a movement is afoot to throw off British colonial rule. The personal is political in this novel: Vivian has already inadvertently made a terrible betrayal by revealing Tahsin Bey’s divided loyalties, and as A God in Every Stone proceeds, the loyalty to the foundering British Empire of whole territories is at question.
Kamila Shamsie’s novel is about war, archaeology, loyalty, and what symbols are left behind once the great sweep of history has passed over events. Nominally, this is a book about a missing artefact, a circlet worn by a historical explorer, Scylax, working in the 5th century BC; in the end, as the stories of Qayyum Naheem and Vivian overlap – Shamsie is excellent in showing events from different perspectives – the events of the anti-British uprising in 1930 put forward a new, very modern kind of symbol instead: an innocent girl, gunned down in the mob violence, whose body is removed by the authorities amid a cover-up over civilian deaths. Pakistan in 1930 suddenly feels very present in 2015. It’s in this last phase of the book that it really came to life for me; before, it gripped only intermittently, though the writing is excellent and the female characters in particular are vivid and memorable.

Fourth of July Creek – Smith Henderson (HarperCollins UK)
Fourth of July CreekI’m very pleased to be concluding this Folio Season experiment with two books by writers new to me, and especially so that this final book should be a debut novel. Henderson Smith may be a first-time writer, but this novel feels, however, familiar in ways that are sometimes intriguing and sometimes exasperating. It’s a macho, punchy, fistfight-crammed none-more-American novel, set in 1980, and populated by variously damaged people. Our lead character, Pete, is a Department of Family Services officer intervening in domestic disputes in smalltown Montana: he loves his town, he’s frustrated by its people (including his no-good brother) and, being a Good Guy, he gets drawn into dangerous situations where he believes he can help. An encounter with a young runaway brings Pete into contact with the boy’s father, Jeremiah Pearl: a rough-living, war-obsessed apocalyptic who mints his own currency and mutters about a coming war against the antichrist and the whole outside world. Helpfully, almost everyone Pete encounters has also met Pearl and can help fill in his story, upping the ante for an inevitable confrontation between the two. The surprise is that the pair end up colluding, to some degree: their relationship isn’t, at least initially, out-and-out antagonistic. That’s one way in which this novel – whose blending of pseudo-Biblical cant, intense violence, damaged masculinity and American landscape recall, inescapably, Cormac McCarthy – strives for originality. Another is in an odd subplot in which Pete’s daughter Rachel, taken from him when he and his wife break up, has her own adventures, becoming a runaway, a hitchhiker and ultimately, with vexing inevitability, a prostitute. (This is a book that’s big on men but notably weak on female characters, almost all of whom are whores, traitors or killers, and the only one who isn’t – a fellow DFS caseworker – is a character whose name Pete can’t properly remember. Focused on masculinity this novel may be, but I didn’t feel that this kind of chauvinism was a necessary by-product.) Rachel’s story is told in a strange catechism, stuck on the end of chapters, between the girl and a mysterious interlocutor who might be thought to be Pete, Rachel’s idea of Pete, the reader himself, or the book’s editor asking pertinent questions about the runaway’s story.
In this, as in other respects, this is a long novel overstuffed with incident and plot threads: too many runaways spoil the broth. To extend the metaphor unhelpfully: this is a broth overspiked with some Fine Writing. To name a character Pearl is one thing; to riff on this – “He was nacreous, mother-of-pearl, this son of Pearl” – is a bit much. Most of the time, though, the prose relaxes and is content to be good rather than overreaching. The novel comes to an end that is open, ambiguous and bittersweet: no surprise, but justified by what’s gone before. A promising debut that makes me look forward to what Henderson writes when he’s thrown off some of his influences.

So there we are: I’ve read and reviewed all eighty Folio Prize titles. The full list is below, with links to each review. It’s been a fascinating, enlightening process — it’s challenged certain of my assumptions about contemporary fiction and its various directions, and it’s cemented my feelings about certain others. I’ll put up a final Folio Season post next week in response to the prize, which is awarded on 23rd March (fingers still crossed for Miriam Toews), and talking about some of the things I feel I’ve learned from the project.

Now… what do I read next?

The full list of eighty titles (and, you know, I’d like to remove the scoring-out now, but WordPress formatting for some reason makes that very difficult, so hey-ho):

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