the 2012 Man Booker novels (some of them, anyway)


Well, I think that about does it for my Man Booker season. The winner is set to be announced on October 16th, and while I might be able to get one more short list entry read before then, my heart’s not in it. There are a few reasons for this. Perhaps most importantly, my guesses about what would make it through from the long list have been much less lucky than the ones I made last year, which means I’d have to read a lot more to cover the short list, and I’m feeling burned out on this kind of book. Plus a lot of what I’ve read from the short list has been surprisingly sucky.

And the remaining unread short list books just don’t appeal to me very much. I read and liked Wolf Hall, and while a sequel to that book would surely involve plenty of Anne Boleyn badassery, I feel like I got the idea the first go-round with Mantel. I think I’d rather spend that time on the new season of Downton Abbey. Will Self’s prose drives me completely bonkers, so Umbrella is a no-go (experimental work like that is sufficiently hard for me to follow that the effect becomes impressionistic, which is fine in some media but not when you enjoy reading for plot). And that leaves me with Swimming Home, which looks fine, but doesn’t seem all *that* compelling (another book about depression! great).

Besides, it’s October. I usually like to spend this month reading ghost stories. As it stands, I have a number of pending genre obligations: Cloud Atlas for sci-fi book club A, the sequel to The Passage for seasonal spookiness, and the sequel to The Quantum Thief for general mind-bending awesomeness.

But enough excuses. I did make it through a bunch of Man Booker nominated novels, and I enjoyed several of them. I’ve also found that I enjoy writing about books — it’s nice to know that you’ll have that exercise waiting for you as you read. It seems to focus my thinking and makes me more attentive to what’s going on. So, like last year, here are some impressions of the books that I did manage to get to. I’ll list them in the order in which I tackled them, and link each title to the longer review I wrote on Goodreads (something I’ve gotten into the habit of doing).

  • Skios – Very light, very fun. A farce about mistaken identity set in a Davos/TED/Aspen Ides-y kind of context where rich people are seeking new insights and doing various other foolish things. There seems to be a sense that this nomination was to recognize Michael Frayn’s body of work rather than the specific novel, which makes sense. This is one of the few books on the list that I think I’m likely to recommend to others (and have already, with success, in fact). But that’s mostly because it’s light enough that I can be sure I won’t be traumatizing the reader.
  • Narcopolis – A book about addiction set in the dying Bombay opium subculture in the late seventies. Very, very good. My favorite of the short list entries, and the short list entry that I hope wins it all.
  • The Teleportation Accident – Probably my favorite book from the whole long list. A bit of a mess, and hard to describe. But striking, and with a really entertainingly bleak sense of humor. The hero is a shallow, foolish narcissist — but he’s still our hero, he’s not there to antagonize you. I really liked it.
  • The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – A tear-jerker, and what I understand to be a very conventionally Booker Prize-y book, but pretty darn good. I enjoyed it quite a bit.
  • Communion Town – The most bizarre inclusion on the list. A collection of short stories from a young writer, and one that betrays what struck me as a characteristically immature male sense of drama. Which is fine — I write this as a guy who spent most of his free time this weekend building a supervillain halloween costume — but it’s unusual for a Booker entrant. Mostly the stories didn’t work for me, but one or two were pretty good. There’s an individual breakdown at the link, if you’re intrigued and want a suggestion about where to start.
  • Garden of Evening Mists – Can a work be orientalist if it’s written by an Asian? I say yes: in this case, it’s a book written by a Malaysian that clumsily fetishizes various aspects of Japanese culture. I thought it was jumbled, cliched garbage, but judging by the Goodreads reviews I seem to be in the minority. Still, I really thought this was abysmally bad. Other reasonable people have read it and come to much milder conclusions (though the consensus seems to be that it’s at least a bit boring).
  • The Lighthouse – Not bad, but not destined to be a favorite. The protagonist has been permanently damaged by his mother’s abandonment, but his resulting weirdness and childishness seemed a bit unbelievable to me. Not that he shouldn’t be weird and childish! Just not in this way. Nicely written, though.

And I think that’s it! Now for some time-travel, vampires and post-singularity surrealism.

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Tom Lee


By Tom Lee