Archive for the ‘2012 Booker Prize’ Category

Communion Town, by Sam Thompson

September 2, 2012

Purchased from the Book Depository

Fair warning: The positive review that you are about to read of Communion Town is very much at odds with most reader response. Sam Thompson’s Booker-longlisted “novel” has been rated by eight readers at Trevor’s Man Booker discussion site: seven of the eight rank it last (a couple have even abandoned it) and the other has it ninth out of 12 — these are committed Booker readers so that is about as complete a rejection as you can get. Given that, my fourth place ranking (I liked the book, but didn’t love it) looks like a ringing endorsement.

Communion Town carries a subtitle (A City in Ten Chapters) and that points to part of the problem. “City” novels are a frequent theme — John Lanchester’s London in Capital, Teju Cole’s New York in Open City and Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall’s Toronto in Ghosted would be just three recent examples reviewed here.

Unlike those three, however, Thompson’s city bears no resemblance at all to one that the reader might know and love. Sometimes it seems to be a version of London or Los Angeles. It has a port and fishing markets, bringing to mind Marseille or Naples. In yet other chapters, it seems Asian, even African. In short, this “city” is a composite, not a representation, so even lovers of “city” novels are going to experience frustration.

And then there are the 10 chapters. One reader observed on Trevor’s site that they read more like badly conceived essays on the urban phenomenon than short fiction, let alone a novel. While there is a certain consistency to geographic and civil society references, there are no common characters — we not only can’t identify the city, we have no notion of who lives there beyond the laundry list that is presented in 10 chapters.

My first step in departing from those negative critical assessments and putting some structure to the book is to cite the history of “the Flâneur”, a forebidding character referenced in a number of the stories but one who never appears directly in any chapter.

According to Wikipedia, Charles Baudelaire is credited with defining the flâneur:

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world — impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.

Walter Benjamin described the flâneur “as the essential figure of the modern urban spectator, an amateur detective and investigator of the city. More than this, his flâneur was a sign of the alienation of the city and of capitalism.”

It took a few stories but it was clear to me that there was a good reason why the Flâneur never appears in the collection: each of the 10 narrators is himself or herself a flâneur, “a modern urban spectator, an amateur detective and investigator of the city.”

Consider the narrator of “Gallathea”, at 44 pages one of the longest of the 10 chapters. In some of them (perhaps more than I recognized) Thompson offers (not very good) parodies/homages to well known authors — a distraction that I suspect many may find annoying. In this one, the narrator is a version of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade or Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and the city seems a lot like mid-twentieth century Los Angeles.

The narrator, an investigator, is having a drink at Meaney’s when the Cherub boys, Don and Dave, call him over and mention the name of a girl:

‘I’m talking about the girl,’ said Don, slowly, watching me. ‘You telling me you don’t know her?’

‘Like I said. Can’t help you.’

Dave licked his plate, his eyes above the white disc rolling from me to his brother and back again. Don sizzled his cigarette down to the filter in one draught. My ribs felt him inhale but were in no position to raise objections.

‘Don’t signify,’ he said. ‘Fing is, we know this certain brass is looking for you. Got a job she wants done. We come here to tell you you ain’t to do it.’

The Cherubs drag the narrator out of Meaney’s and beat him up to underline their point. He meets the “brass” eventually and accepts the job. He gets beat up some more. Like Spade or Marlowe, the “contract” takes him into a complex environment (as a flâneur) that he can’t really come to understand, despite his best efforts.

Most of the stories are like that — characterized by absence, ambiguity and random violence more than anything else. A number feature the reacquaintance of individuals who know each other from some distant past, fell out for whatever reason and have met again by chance, or perhaps not. Whatever — even in those stories, neither character quite understands what is going around them. The prospect of “resolution” in any of these cloudy circumstances was summed up for me in a paragraph in “Good Slaughter”:

As I stood there, I felt future time crowding into the present moment. A kind of serenity came over me as I saw that by doing nothing I was agreeing to a burden of guilt that would not lessen for as long as I lived. It was all quite clear: how in this instant my sole chance to intervene was passing, and how bitterly, later, I would wish to turn time back and do it differently. One more breath and the city would sweep the waiting future away from me. I was making a choice. Stale in the back of my throat, I could taste the self-condemnations to come over years and decades: why did you stand there? Why did you not do something good when you had the chance? I saw what a tiresome riddle it would become, why I had bowed my head in apology, turned and continued to my lodgings.

POTENTIAL SPOILER AHEAD but it explains how the novel came together for me.

Communion Town was an interesting, if frustrating, collection of incomplete flâneur stories until chapter seven arrived: “The Significant City of Lazarus Glass”. Thompson plays with Sherlock Holmes in this one with the narrator, Cassandra Byrd, filling the role of Watson. Peregrine Fetch is the Holmes figure, the city’s most outstanding detective. The case at hand involves the murder on the previous evening of the city’s three other prominent detectives; they, plus Peregrine, have been jointly chasing the demon Lazarus Glass, someone they had all trained with before Glass opted for the other side.

One of those three, Electra Cavendish-Peake, had at one point in the past become entranced with researching a classical notion, the Art of Memory, and she had introduced the idea to both Fetch and Glass:

To convey to him what she had in mind, she read aloud the passage from the Confessions in which Augustine speaks of the ‘spacious palaces of memory where countless images are hoarded, brought in from all the diverse objects perceived by the senses’, and adds: ‘There too are hidden the altered images we create in our minds by enlarging or diminishing or otherwise transforming the things we perceive.’

That was the crux of it, Electra said: altered images. It was true that, with long and gruelling study, a practitioner of the Art could learn to retrieve all the lost junk and treasure hidden away in the attics of the mind, and to arrange everything in order: each image in its place, tidy and accessible. But it was also true that surprising things could happen in memory houses. To embody such ideas in such a fashion was to imbue them with unpredictable life. They might move around when you were not there; they might change and grow in ways you had not expected.

Electra abandoned the idea but Lazarus did not. Not only did he build a memory house, he built a memory city — this one. And in the process discovered that it not only reflected the past, it offered a map to the future.

The city of Communion Town is just such a “memory city”. Each narrator is a “modern urban spectator, an amateur detective and investigator of the city”. Like all remembered incidents, each story is ambiguous and incomplete but as they begin to accumulate, they start to build a semi-coherent picture.

I’ll need to read the novel again, but on the re-read I intend to position each of the narrators as an individual (and perhaps there is only one) embarked on the same pursuit — despite the varied genders and experience, each is involved in building a “memory city” that not only captures the past in all its forms but attempts to build a structure that will foretell the future. What does the crowd look like, how has it behaved and where might it be headed? That’s what makes Communion Town a novel, rather than a collection of ten stories or essays about some confused place — by definition, flâneurs are wandering through confusion, their role is to try to build some notion of sense. The parts need to be compiled into a whole.

Those who know the work of John Berger will find some familiar conundrums here — sorry, my reading of Berger pre-dated my blogging but you can find a number of excellent reviews of his work from Max at Pechorin’s Journal. Berger tends towards much simpler circumstances than an entire city but the idea of capturing the frustration of ambiguity and uncertainty (“impartial natures which the tongue can but clumisly define” to quote Baudelaire again) is a constant presence in his work.

I’d love to say that Thompson did this perfectly but my fourth place ranking in the Booker longlist (even if it is many ranks higher than others who have read the book) is indication enough that he did not totally succeed — perhaps a second reading will move the novel up in my estimation. Communion Town is definitely not a book for everybody, but for readers who are willing to join an author in an ambitious search, flawed as the results might be, it is a valiant and worthwhile effort, one that I was glad to have undertaken. I will let it steep for a while but look forward to a second reading — and a place on the Booker shortlist (juries often are out of step with readers) would provide the perfect excuse.


The Yips, by Nicola Barker

August 24, 2012

Purchased from the Book Depository

If there is a contemporary author who offers a reviewer more challenges than Nicola Barker, I have no idea who he or she is. The two novels of hers that I have read — Darkmans and Behindlings — came before I started blogging but I did think while reading both “how on earth would you descibe this to anyone?” With Booker-longlisted The Yips now read, the time has come for KfC to face the challenge.

Let me quote from the opening pages to provide a set-up:

Stuart Ransom, professional golfer, is drunkenly reeling off an interminable series of stats about the woman’s game in Korea (or the Ladies Game, as he is determined to have it): ‘Don’t scowl at me, beautiful…!’ — directed, with his trademark Yorkshire twinkle, at Jen, who lounges, sullenly, behind the hotel bar. ‘They like to be called ladies. In fact they demand it. I mean …’ Ransom lobs a well-aimed peanut at her — she ducks — and it strikes a lovely, clear note against a Gordon’s Gin bottle. ‘…they are ladies, for Christsakes!’

[A descriptive paragraph follows explaining that this is happening at the Thistle, “a clean but generic” hotel, in Luton just past midnight and that Ransom is the only customer in the bar.]

‘But why did you change your booking from the Leaside?’ Jen petulantly demands (as she fishes the stray peanut from its current hidey-hole between the Wild Turkey and the Kahlua). ‘The Leaside’s pure class.’

[Another descriptive paragraph on how Ransom finds the voluptuous, nineteen-year-old Jen attractive — her curves evoking images in “the keen yet dispassionate eyes of a man who has oft pitted his talents against the merciless dips and mounds of the Old Course at St Andrews”.]

‘I’d give anything to stay at the Leaside,’ Jen persists, gazing dreamily up at the light-fitment (where three stray midges are joyriding, frenetically, around the bulb). ‘The Leaside’s so quaint — perched on its own little hill, right in the heart of town, but just out of all the hubbub…’

Jen’s pierced tongue trips on the word hubbub and she frowns —


So let’s start with the conventional aspects of Barber. Her novels do have a storyline and a straight-forward timeline — all 550 pages of The Yips take place in Luton over a period of a few weeks. But it would be misleading to call that storyline a “plot”; it is much more a common “direction” that affects the characters. While they all experience the same external events, they spin off from them in wildly different responses — the novel is not about what happens, but to whom it happens and how each responds.

And, still reasonably conventional, the novel features a number of central characters. Ransom and Jen will soon be joined by Gene, the bartender, who has successfully survived one, seven or ten attacks of terminal cancer depending on whose version you believe (the question “how can it be terminal if he survived?” does get asked, but not for a long while yet) — ambiguity or exaggeration is present in virtually all aspects of the book. And through another of Gene’s jobs (reading electric meters) we will meet Valentine, an agoraphobic tattoo artist with a peculiar specialty: she supplies clients (mainly Japanese women) who have no pubic hair with an ultra-real tattooed version.

Those four will be joined by a few others as “central” characters and that begins opening the Pandora’s box of the Barker challenge because, while the “central” characters do interact, they each have their own set of acquaintances (Ransom’s, for example, includes an entourage of an ex-manager, a current manager, a faithful supporter and a journalist, among others) whom the author gives full-scale treatment. The eventual cast involves a couple score of people (it is a good thing Barker doesn’t write plays because no theatre company could afford to cast the whole group) — “quirky” is as close as any of them gets to normal, “pleasantly absurd” would be the adjective that fits most, “outrageous” a few.

And then there’s the “dialogue” of the book which the excerpt I have quoted illustrates. I put “dialogue” in quotes because Barker’s characters don’t talk with each other, they talk at each other. They are all talkers but their notion of conversation is more thinking out loud than anything else (as Ransom’s thoughts on woman golfers demanding to be known as “ladies” show) and the only listening they do is to pick up a riff that sends them off on another tangent (see Jen’s musings about the attractions of the Leaside).

Barker seasons all this with some of the most elaborate punctuation imaginable — ellipses, italics, brackets, commas, exclamation marks as again shown in the excerpt and that is only a start — and seemingly trivial details (Gordon’s Gin, Wild Turkey and Kahlua bottles; joyriding midges on the light fitment; the topography of the Old Course), versions of which are included in virtually every conversation or monologue competition or whatever best describes the narrative.

And finally, as is true of most thinking out loud, those details are present only in that particular exchange — it is no spoiler to say that the issue of “lady” golfers never again shows up, for example. Slowly but surely, the reader needs to become accustomed to the reality that every section of the narrative (they tend to come every five pages or so) will involve a wealth of details, some relevant, some totally extraneous.

So how did all this land? For this reader, my response to The Yips was very similar to my response to both Darkmans and Behindlings:

— for the first 150 pages, I was completely enrolled. The author makes all of her central characters (and most of the subsidiary ones) three-dimensional. And the set pieces, with all those details, are cleverly developed and genuinely amusing — Mrs. KfC said from across the room that I seemed to be smirking throughout this opening third of the book.

— Barker does such a good job of character development in the opening third, in fact, that doubts start to set in in the next 150 pages. While the situations tend to become even more absurd, the reader (at least this one) understands the characters so well that their response to increasingly weirder events is quite predictable — not a good sign when the halfway point of the novel has yet to be reached.

— All of which makes the last 250 pages a bit of a letdown. I liked the characters well enough that I cared about the eventual resolution, but I could have used a surprise or two to challenge my understanding of them. Given that it is the response of the people, not the events, that is the backbone of the novel, it demands more depth and nuance and that simply did not happen.

The fact that I have read three Barker novels is indication enough that her idiosyncratic approach has appeal to me. I continue to believe that one day she is going to find a way to carry the energy and insight that I found in the first third of the novel throughout the entire book — alas, as enjoyable as parts of The Yips were, this is not that book.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

August 20, 2012

Purchased from the Book Depository

Harold Fry has lead a quiet and uneventful (some would say dull) life as a brewery sales representative in Kingsbridge, Devon. That life got even quieter six months ago when he retired — Harold and his wife, Maureen, pretty much stopped communicating with each other more than a decade ago, so his current existence is both dreary and lonely.

Life takes a turn one day when the post arrives. Author Rachel Joyce’s prose is consistent enough that it is worth quoting the opening of the novel, both to set the narrative stage and to illustrate the straightforward declative tone that characterizes the entire book:

The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday. It was an ordinary morning in mid-April that smelt of clean washing and grass cuttings. Harold Fry sat at the breakfast table, freshly shaved, in a clean shirt and tie, with a slice of toast that he wasn’t eating. He gazed beyond the kitchen window at the clipped lawn, which was spiked in the middle by Maureen’s telescopic washing line, and trapped on all three sides by the neighbours’ closeboard fencing.

‘Harold!’ called Maureen above the vacuum cleaner. ‘Post!’

He thought he might like to go out, but the only thing to do was mow the lawn and he had done that yesterday. The vacuum tumbled into silence, and his wife appeared, looking cross, with a letter. She sat opposite Harold.

The fateful letter is from Queenie Hennessy, a former colleague of Harold’s at the brewery — Queenie was the first-ever woman to head the accounts departmment and she and Harold used to travel offsite to check the (cheating) books of various landlords. Queenie departed following a flare-up with management twenty years ago and the two have not been in contact since; the letter from her informs Harold that Queenie is now suffering from terminal cancer in a hospice in Berwick on the England-Scotland border, 627 miles northeast of Kingsbridge.

Harold has never told Maureen about his “relationship” with Queenie (frankly, there wasn’t much to tell — they spent time together on business travelling from brewery to pub and then back). So when he writes his very short response, he keeps it hidden from Maureen and simply tells her he is heading down the road to mail it.

He almost puts the letter in the neighborhood post box, but feels ashamed of his inadequate response before he drops it in. So he decides to continue on to the next…and the next after that, because his mental dilemma remains unresolved. Memories, not just of Queenie but of what life used to be like with Maureen, start popping into his head as he passes post box after post box.

All this continues until Harold reaches the outskirts of town and discovers he has missed the midday collection. He heads across the street to a petrol station to buy a snack — the girl with the HAPPY TO HELP badge suggests a microwaved BBQ Cheese Beast with fries. Harold tells her about his “posting” mission and Queenie’s cancer; the girl talks about her aunt who had cancer:

‘You have to believe. That’s what I think. It’s not about medicine and all that stuff. You have to believe a person can get better. There is so much in the human mind we don’t understand. But, you see, if you have faith you can do anything.’

And so the Unlikely Pilgrimage has been inspired. When Harold leaves the petrol station, he turns not towards home but away from Kingsbridge and north toward Berwick, more than 600 miles away where Queenie lies dying. He may be wearing a shirt and tie (and deck shoes) but the faith he will express in journeying on foot to Berwick will keep her alive.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a “walking” book where the hero sets off on foot for a faraway destination that is important to him. It is a not-infrequent literary device — my blogging friend Trevor at the Mookse and the Gripes in his review of this novel has offered a number of examples and I won’t repeat them here, but it is worth checking out.

It is easy to understand why the “walking” book appeals to novelists. The approach allows for the introduction of a wide variety of characters (and Joyce does just that) but, by definition, they show up and disappear into the background quickly, so they only have to be sketched. A small sampling of those in this novel, in addition to the “garage girl”, include some extensively- and expensively-equipped metro-based trekkers, an east-European emigre doctor (now employed as a cleaning lady) and a free-lance journalist, who sells a version of Harold’s story that for a few weeks turns his lonely trek into a cult-based following of misfits. On one level, all “walking” novels are a collection of set pieces.

All that current stuff, though, is just the icing on the cake of the walking experience — the real sustenance lies in the back story. Again by definition, walking is a lonely experience and the walker’s thoughts tend to turn to memory, what was and what might have been. In Harold Fry’s case, that bounces back and forth between the times he spent with Queenie and what led to the breakdown of his marriage with Maureen.

Let me extend that cake metaphor just a bit. With some “walking” novels (say W.G. Sebald), the cake is dense, flavorful and fruity, much like the ones your grandmother used to make months before Christmas and regularly drench with brandy to get them ready for the holiday season. Others are more like the sponge or angel food cakes your mother used to whip up in the afternoon, ready for heaping with whipped cream and fresh strawberries following that evening’s meal.

For me, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was a reading version of that sponge cake. This may be a debut novel for Joyce, but she is a more than competent writer and it went down just fine. The problem was that there was not much substance to it and one chapter tasted pretty much like the last one — and offered the promise (always fulfilled) that the next would be very similar.

I never really engaged with Harold, his past, or his present journey with the result that I found the novel to be a sentimental trek at best, one that I was quite happy to finally finish. It was all just too predictable.

I should note in closing that other readers have responded far more positively — Tony at Tony’s Book World predicts it will be “a new classic” and various Amazon sites have numerous five-star reviews. I am sure that it is a far better book if you do engage in Harold’s trek and I suspect a large number of book clubs will be going through the “sentimental” versus “classic” debate in the upcoming months.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is long-listed for this year’s Booker Prize and, I think, illustrates the wide gap in tastes on this year’s jury that is reflected in that longlist. At one end of the spectrum, we have novels like this one and Michael Frayn’s comic Skios, both as conventional as conventional can be, and at the other the modernist Swimming Home and Will Self’s unconventional Umbrella (as yet not read by KfC). It will be interesting to see how the jury resolves these different tastes when it comes time to declare a shortlist. I confess I’ll be disappointed if The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry shows up there.

Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy

August 16, 2012

Purchased from the Book Depository

Two English couples have taken a lease on a French Riviera villa outside Nice for the summer. Joe and Isabel Jacobs are the dominant pair — he is a poet of some reknown (his readers know him by his initials and only his wife calls him Jozef) and she is a war correspondent. Mitchell and Laura are friends who run a shop in Euston that sells international exotica — its main recent claim to fame is regular vandalism and they fully expect the windows to be smashed when they return. The villa party is completed by fourteen-year-old Nina Jacobs, an aneroxic adolescent who is starting to discover some of the mysteries of adulthood.

The group acquires an additional member as Swimming Home proper opens:

The swimming pool in the grounds of the tourist villa was more like a pond than the languid blue pools in holiday brochures. A pond in the shape of a rectangle, carved from stone by a family of Italian stonecutters living in the Antibes. The body was floating near the deep end, where a line of pine trees kept the water cool in their shade.

‘Is it a bear?’ Joe Jacobs waved his hand vaguely in the direction of the water. He could feel the sun burning into the shirt his Hindu tailer had made for him from a row of raw silk. His back was on fire. Even the roads were melting in the July heatwave.

It is not a bear — that impression was the result of a newspaper article the group had read the previous day about a bear that wandered down the Los Angeles hills into a Hollywood actor’s pool. The floating body is the naked Kitty Finch — she knows the owner of the villa and thought she had a reservation to stay there and had jumped into the pool to cool off. She gets out and finds her sundress, the group converses for a bit and Isabel invites her to stay in the spare bedroom for a few days until a hotel room is available.


Kitty is a botanist, but she is also a poet. And she has tracked Joe to the villa because she wants his impression of her poem, Swimming Home — allegedly about her greatest desire (to see the poppy fields in Pakistan), but really her notion of a private conversation with Joe himself. To complete the picture, Kitty has depression issues and has abandoned her meds.

Joe is used to this:

Joe stopped walking. So that was why she was here.

Young women who followed him about and wanted him to read their poetry, and he was now convinced she was one of them, always started by telling him they’d written a poem about something extraordinary. They walked side by side, flattening a path through long grass. He waited for her to speak, to make her request, to say how influenced by his books she was, to explain how she’d managed to track him down, and then she would ask would he mind, did he have time, would he be so kind as to please, please read her small effort inspired by himself.

The reader already knows how this will turn out. In a short prologue, author Levy has introduced us to Kitty driving across the French landscape with a passenger who says ‘Why don’t you pack a ruck sack and see the poppy fields in Pakistan like you said you wanted to?’ The pair have spent the day in the luxurious Hotel Negresco and are now contemplating the price:

To have been so intimate with Kitty Finch had been a pleasure, a pain, a shock, an experiment, but most of all it had been a mistake. He asked her again to please, please, please drive him safely home to his wife and daughter.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely.’

(Aside: That is not the only spoiler in the novel. The version that I read from publisher And Other Stories also features an enthusiastic introduction from author Tom McCarthy which pretty much gives away the whole “plot”. If you hate spoilers, avoid the introduction — but this is a modernist novel and plot doesn’t really count anyway. Personally, I found McCarthy’s thoughts useful, but forewarned is forearmed.)

The strength of Swimming Home is also its greatest weakness. The characters that Levy gives us all have elements of potential interest, but she deliberately leaves them woefully incomplete, demanding that the reader fill in the gaps. They are all narcissists (self-pre-occupied is perhaps a better, more neutral description) concerned with their own desires — but again the author expects the reader to complete the picture. Symbols abound but the obvious is often left overlooked — for example, we get a few excerpts from Kitty’s poem but never see the whole thing. Levy sketches the outline of the “what” but the “why” and often even “how” are left ambiguous.

“Sketch”, in fact, is the perfect description for this novel. Landscape artists (at least the great Canadian ones) spend their summer in the wilderness making paint-box sized sketches — in the winter months in the studio, they develop some of these images into much broader, more complete canvasses. In no way does that diminish the value of the “sketch” (the Group of Seven ones are selling for upwards of $1 million some decades on), but it is just a starting point when compared to the real thing. If, as a reader, you enjoy the prospect of filling in the blank spaces, Swimming Home is a significant achievement; if, on the other hand, you want the author to take you on the broader journey, you will find it sadly lacking.

I fall in the middle on that spectrum (as, I must admit, I often do with “modernist” fiction). For me, Swimming Home was an extended novella, comfortably read in a single sitting and supplying sufficient return on the time invested. But in the final analysis, I was mainly impressed by the “writerly” aspects of the work: the way that the author deliberately left her characters as incomplete shells and carefully avoided any emotional attachment with the story. While I admired and respected the talent that was involved in doing that, it was an appreciation of the exercise — the novel itself left little impact even the next day.

This year’s Booker jury features a more literary bunch than other recent ones have and I am guessing that that authorly achievement led to Swimming Home being included on the longlist. I suspect that most readers will respond as I did: just because something is difficult to write does not necessarily make it powerful to read.

2012 Man Booker Prize

July 25, 2012

Here’s the longlist for this year’s Booker Prize:

The Yips by Nicola Barker (Fourth Estate)

The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman (Sceptre)

Philida by André Brink (Harvill Secker)

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (Myrmidon Books)

Skios by Michael Frayn (Faber & Faber)

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Doubleday)

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (And Other Stories)

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate)

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (Salt)

Umbrella by Will Self (Bloomsbury)

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (Faber & Faber)

Communion Town by Sam Thompson (Fourth Estate)

I’ve set a personal record this year: I’ve only read one of the 12 (Skios, by Michael Frayn). While I enjoyed it immensely and am a confirmed admirer of Frayn, I do find its inclusion on the longlist a bit strange — farce is not a genre that the Booker usually recognizes and this is definitely farce.

The only other book that I have on hand is Bring Up The Bodies, so I had better get to it soon — I was in the minority in not liking Wolf Hall very much but will do my best to approach it with an open mind.

I’ve read and reviewed the entire longlist in each of the three previous years of this blog’s existence (well, I did cheat a bit last year with one guest review and one title abandoned — you can find previous years’ reviews far down in the sidebar on the right). I’ve checked out the 10 titles that I don’t have and confess that I won’t be attempting the entire longlist this year. I could only find four that interested me (Barker, Levy, Joyce and Thompson) so that will be my “longlist” reading. If enough of the six that I plan to read make the shortlist, I would still intend to give it a go.

Having said that, this year again looks like one where the jury has chosen to make a “statement” by including a lot of lesser known authors and overlooking well-known or well-reviewed ones (McEwan, Smith, Amis, Carey, Warner, just for a start). I don’t object to that approach but have to say at first glance that I don’t think my tastes have a lot in common with their statement.

Incidentally, the Man Booker people abandoned their popular debate forum when they revamped their website last week — a shame because that was where I got interested in online blogging and met many friends, a number of whom show up regularly in comments here. Trevor from the Mookse and the Gripes coincidentally was opening a new forum at the same time — you can find it here . If you check it out, you will find a spirited Booker discussion is already under way — in no way is that meant to discourage anyone from commenting on this post or the books themselves when I get around to reviewing them. We tend to get longer comments here and I don’t want to abandon the Booker completely.

Skios, by Michael Frayn

May 28, 2012

Purchased from the Book Depository

Author Michael Frayn is nothing if not prolific. He has written 11 novels (a quick check says that I have read seven), 15 plays (I’ve seen three in WestEnd productions) and a number of non-fiction works.

Not just that, but in each of these streams Frayn heads in different directions. “Copenhagen” and “Democracy” are literary plays, taut with interior drama. “Noises Off” is a farce. Headlong is a literary novel that deserved its Booker listing; Towards the End of Morning was a laugh throughout. There is no literary box that Frayn can be stuffed into.

And so we come to Skios, his latest novel. For those who know Frayn’s works, forget “Copenhagen” and Headlong — we are in “Noises Off” territory when we come to this novel. (For a review of Headlong, you can check out Trevor’s thoughts here — he gets it dead on.)

The Fred Toppler Foundation is the centre of “culture” on the small Greek island of Skios. Fred himself is long dead but his widow, the former stripper Bahama LeStarr, is now running the Foundation that she created as his legacy (and her contuining sustenance). Each year it hosts a Great European House Party where the rich and powerful from around the world gather to celebrate (and exchange data) and listen to the annual Toppler “lecture”, the highpoint of the week.

The lecture this year is to be delivered by Dr. Norman Wilfred: Innovation and Governance: the Promise of Scientometrics. Wilfred has been chosen by Mrs. Toppler’s PA, Nikki, the first time she has ever had the chance to choose the distinguished lecturer. Nikki is angling to become the next executive director of the Foundation and this is her chance to prove her worth.

Please God it wasn’t going to be too awful this year, prayed Nikki. All lectures, however unqiue and special, were of course awful, but some were more awful than others. There had to be a lecture. Why? Because there always had been one. There had been a Fred Toppler Lecture every year since the foundation had existed. They had lectures on the Crisis in this and the Challenge of that. They had had an Enigma of, a Whither? and a Why?, the Prospects for and two Reconsiderations of.

That gives you one sense of Frayn’s farce but the much bigger one occurs at the Skios airport. Dr. Wilfred is not the only distinguished guest arriving this day; so too is Oliver Fox, bon vivant and seducer, on his way to a week of sex with Georgie, whom he had met for five minutes in a bar somewhere and arranged a liaison. Oliver is a natural seducer and Georgie is eager for adventure since her partner is heading off for a sailing trip without her.

And so we have the establishing scene at the Skios airport as Nikki, with her carefully labelled “DR NORMAN WILFRED” sign awaits the arrival of her distinguished lecturer:

It was an example of the ever-renewed triumph of hope over probability, thought Nikki, trying to keep the skin round her mouth and eyes soft and amused. Whenever you were waiting for someone and you didn’t know exactly what they looked like, everyone seemed to be them. Fathers with small children. Grandfathers in ill-judged shorts. Women, even … Fat women … Fatter women still… Just for a moment, as each passenger emerged from the baggage hall and hesitated, not knowing where to go, Nikki tensed very slightly with the onset of charm. Then they would spot a familiar word — ‘Polkinghorne’, ‘Whispering Surf’ — and they would raise an acknowledging finger and cease to have any possible resemblance to Dr. Norman Wilfred.

As it happens, when Dr. Wilfred’s distinctive black suitcase with its “unique” identifying red tag comes tumbling down the baggage carousel, the distinguished lecturer is preoccupied with the devastating text he is sending to an obscure scholar in Manitoba who is writing a critical evaluation of his work. Oliver Fox, meanwhile, is looking for a black suitcase with red tag that he has stolen from Annuka Vos, the latest woman to find him wanting.

Oliver picks up the wrong suitcase and the farce is under way. His “date” for the week has been delayed and what harm is there in taking on another identity (he is used to this) for the intervening 24 hours. From here on in, Frayn is at his best — confused twin taxi drivers, worthy guests of the Foundation (and some not so worthy), jilted lovers and a host of others will be enrolled to be part of the author’s scheme.

To appreciate farce, you need to return to your childhood when you lined up the dominoes standing end-on-end in a careful, winding pattern — and then tipped the first one over and watched all the others fall in turn. That’s exactly what Frayn does in this highly readable, very amusing novel — if you want a little more detail on the “plot”, I’ll refer you to Will Rycroft’s excellent review at Just William’s Luck — he does an excellent job of outlining the plot without spoiling it.

I read Skios in two quick sittings and enjoyed every minute of the experience. Yes, you have to give the author a lot of licence — Frayn both deserves and rewards it. I don’t expect to see Skios on the Booker longlist when it is announced in a few months but if you are looking for the perfect book to take on a summer holiday, I can’t find a better recommendation.

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