Booker Prize Americanism

The shortlist for the Man Booker Prize 2016 is announced today – you can find the shortlist along with more information about the books mentioned in this article here.

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Three years ago, our friends chez Booker changed house rules so that novels by North Americans became eligible for the prize. This provoked a backlash from certain contemporary observers, who augured Americans predominating Booker long- and shortlists going forward. Essentially, this hasn’t happened: two Americans making the six-strong shortlists of 2014 and ’15 is vanishing cause for concern. What this article explores is a corollary issue: whether an influx of American authors necessarily means an influx of an ineffable “American-ness”. This issue is explored in the context of the last three Booker prize long-lists, and each list’s crop of American novels. Be advised that “American-ness” remains hazily defined throughout: suffice to say, it is understood to inhere in aesthetic traditions propounded primarily, as both popular wisdom and the demographics of publishing data have it, by North American authors.

If anything, the 2014 crop is marked, not by “American-ness”, but by its European inflections. Siri Hustvedt and Richard Powers steeped their novels in European philosophical thought and music respectively: in the works of Husserl, Diderot, and Kierkegaard; and in the oeuvres of Mozart, Mahler, and Shostakovich. Meanwhile, with We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, her high-concept narrative of simian/human sisterhood, Karen Joy Fowler followed a tradition of “animal fiction” rooted in European writers like Darwin, Jack ‘White Fang’ London, and Pierre ‘Planet of the Apes’ Boulle.

The ’15 and ’16 crops belong to a different order than their forbear, and one more markedly “American”. For one thing, each comprises works of what we might call the “American domestic” tradition, that is, works possessing an admittedly abstract but readily recognisable timbre: quiet and quotidian, attuned to the intergenerational, and often rooted in rusticity. In the ’15 crop, Mid-Western grand dame of the tradition Marilynne Robinson duked it out in the village colours of nineteenth-century Gilead against fellow doyenne Anne Tyler, running her Spool of Blue Thread through the lives of suburban Baltimoreans less ordinary.

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In Robinson and Tyler’s stead, the ’16 crop offers Elizabeth Strout and debut author Virginia Reeves. Having portrayed the mother/son relationship in Olive Kitteridge and brotherhood between The Burgess Boys, Strout predicates My Name is Lucy Barton on a mother-daughter relationship. Throughout this account of her mother’s visiting her in New York, the eponymous Strout surrogate Lucy weaves flashbacks that vacillate between her childhood in Sauk Valley, Illinois, and her adult life in New York: the West Village, Brooklyn Heights. As ever in Strout’s oeuvre, Barton hits the understated, sweetly sorrowful aesthetic spot that, in HBO’s Olive Kitteridge adaptation, so suited connoisseurs’-choice actors like Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins. Reeves’ Work Like Any Other, meanwhile, knits embattled farmer-cum-husband Roscoe into the arrival of electricity in late-1920s Alabama: his attempt to siphon said energy sub rosa lands Roscoe in prison, whereupon “redemptive prison” and “marital breakdown” narratives wend their familiar ways throughout a book pregnant with its own Lifetime movie adaptation.

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Outside its line in domestic Americana, the ’16 crop otherwise advances on the ’15 crop, in two ways; and these ways might be understood to index an increasing “American-ness”. The ’16 crop advances first in terms of its heterogeneity. Without being too reductive, the ’15 crop might be typified as the Year of Women: four of the five authors were female — Robinson, Tyler, Hanya Yanagihara, and Laila Lalaimi — and Bill Clegg, the fifth, offered a kind of dramatic oratorio for a grieving mother. The ’16 crop defies being so readily typified. From its 3:2 ratio of male/female, white/non-white, and even debut/established authors to its range of themes and milieus, the ‘16 crop abounds in being heterogeneous. Precisely that virtue might be understood as an index of “American-ness”: of the essence of the West’s great unconsummated melting pot.

The ’16 crop advances on the ’15 crop second in terms of its “genre-fictional energies”, or the extent to which it embraces more playful modes of storytelling (as measured against, say, a Ken Loachian social-realistic baseline). Certainly, texts in the ’15 crop channel genre-fictional energies: Yanagihara’s fantasia on a Little Life ripped from the ‘Misery Memoir’ aisle; Lalaimi’s faux-historical Moor’s Account of Cabeza de Vaca’s historical Narváez expedition. In comparison, though, texts of ’16 not only channel much more potent genre-fictional energies, but channel them from particularly “American” traditions of genre fiction. The ’16 crop, we might otherwise say, trades heavily in “American genre”.

Insofar as we can identify an “American” tradition of crime fiction, for example — a hard-boiled alternative to the runny Guignol omelette of British Victorian “penny dreadful” writing, seasoned with cynicism and organized-criminal iniquity — Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen might readily be read as homage to it. Its line in secrets and lies, the worst of which the eponymous narrator withholds ‘til narrative’s end, hearkens to classic noir; its correctional-facility-in-Massachusetts setting hearkens to the rural crime fiction of Daniel Woodrell and Donald Ray Pollack; and, between its protagonist and the prison counselor Rebecca St. John, it neatly bifurcates the archetypal femme fatale into the femme Rebecca and the fatale warden’s daughter Eileen. Sadly, other elements hearken to the scuzziest kind of American pulp: I think of Eileen’s penchants for keeping dead mice in the glove box, and a twist ending that struck at least this writer as that of a poor man’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.

As discussed recently on this very site’s Book Hour, David Means’ Hystopia wears its genre-fictional heart on its sleeve: alt-historical ‘70s America, a federal “Psych Corps”, the conceit of “enfolding” post-war traumas, and — eyes down, postmodern bingo players — a novel-within-a-novel. Its idiosyncratic trappings aside, Hystopia might be placed into a more sustained line in American letters: a line that, for the intrinsically interesting sake of specificity, we might consider the aesthetic counterpart to what Robert Hofstadter, writing in 1964, called the Paranoid Style in American Politics. To the “heated exaggeration” and “conspiratorial fantasy” Hofstadter considered essential to his theorized style, we might compare Hystopia’s trappings as listed above. Alongside Means’ conceits, we might place the military-industrial complexes of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and DeLillo’s White Noise, as well as, to offer referents less travelled, the eponymous detainment centers of Thomas M. Disch’s Camp Concentration — in which prisoners are injected with syphilis to unlock their latent genius, hence the titular wordplay — and George Saunders’ short story “Escape from Spiderhead”, which places prisoners in pharmaceutical trials of one “Darkenfloxx”, a drug as discomfiting in practice as in nomenclature. Although not a discrete tradition per se, these texts nevertheless evidence an ineffably “American” line in paranoid literary Technicolor: an aesthetic line, that is to say, not readily matched by a commensurate clutch of texts from another national canon.

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Finally, we come to your correspondent’s own choice pick of the ’16 crop: black author Paul Beatty’s state-of-Obama’s-nation satire The Sellout. Set in Dickens, a standard deprived black-and-Latino community outside Los Angeles, The Sellout recounts how a prodigal millennial African-American surnamed Me sets out, with the perverse logic of satire on his side, to revitalise Dickens by reintroducing segregation: first of its buses, then of its schools and hospitals. That spasm of self-consciousness, dear white reader, only gets more sustained in actually reading Beatty’s novel, a highly African-American confection. Riffs on black Little Rascals, The Point Guard in the Rye, and subliminally racist luxury car commercials abound: as narrated in Me’s first-person fashion, meanwhile, the narrative ever trembles on the verge of becoming a Richard Pryor routine. Unlike other black intellectuals — Kenneth Clark, Du Bois, et al. — Beatty works vanishingly to act as “interpreter” for any white readers, let alone white Commonwealth ones. Indeed, we are talking of less “American-ness” here than an even more particular “African-American—ness”.

With more of a flourish than any other featured text, then, The Sellout underscores the argument made here overall: that the last three years of Booker action can be seen to evidence an increasing “American-ness”, and to exhibit ever more potent traces of “American domestic”, “American genre”, and (as in Beatty’s text) “hyphenated American” traditions. What future crops of texts exhibit in this regard — perhaps some exercises in “Afro-futurism”, should that coming-together of “American genre” into certain Commonwealth writing ever hit popular critical mass — should afford annual spasms of interest for years to come.

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PS: For all the effort expounded above, I would bet on one of two non-American authors, David Szalay and Madeleine Thien, to win this year’s Booker. Book prize punters, if you exist, you’re welcome.

 

About Patrick Massey

Pat Massey is a first year PhD at the University of Manchester, in English and American Studies. His project title: 'New Orleans Exceptionalism in the Cultural Response to Hurricane Katrina'. His supervisors: Drs Natalie Zacek and Douglas Field. His handle: @MassalinesSt.
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