Man Booker Prize shortlist announced

Hilary Mantel and Will Self are the favourites.

The hour is here. At a press conference this morning, the final shortlist of the six novels vying for the 2012 Man Booker Prize was announced. They are:

Tan Twang Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists (Myrmidon Books)

Deborah Levy, Swimming Home (And Other Stories)

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate)

Alison Moore, The Lighthouse (Salt)

Will Self, Umbrella (Bloomsbury)

Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis (Faber & Faber)

This year the judging panel is comprised of the actor, editor and columnist Dan Stevens; the historian and best-selling author Amanda Foreman and two academics: Bharat Tandon and Dinah Birch. It is chaired by Sir Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement.

Mantel is the bookies’ favourite to win with her sequel to Wolf Hall, which took the prize in 2009. Bring up the Bodies, the second in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, is popular with readers and critics alike and seems to be a safe bet to receive the prize. Of course, the fact that she has already received the top honour once before, as well as being longlisted in 2005 for Beyond Black, may work against her. The odds, however, seem to suggest that many are confident she can pull it off again.

The inclusion of Will Self’s Umbrella – which the New Statesman’s reviewer referred to as a “complexly textured, conceptually forbidding thesis about the modern” - may be a nod to correcting the controversy that seemed to follow last year’s prize. When the 2011 selections were made public, the judging panel were criticised for pandering to populism. They admitted to rejecting “experimental” books, instead prioritising the readability of the novels above any other quality throughout the judging process. The chair of the 2011 judging panel, Stella Rimington, was quoted as saying that “we want people to buy and read these books, not buy and admire them.” Will Self, described by this year’s panel as a “radical of contemporary literature” and Umbrella, with its modernist echoes of Joyce and Eliot, may be the perfect way of signalling that the prize is ready to take itself seriously again, and is no longer afraid to include more conceptually challenging books.

Sir Peter said that it was “the pure power of prose that settled most debates. We loved the shock of language shown in so many different ways and were exhilarated by the vigour and vividly defined values in the six books that we chose - and in the visible confidence of the novel's place in forming our words and ideas.” This marks a significant departure from the explanations given last year, when Judge Chris Mullin prompted some raised eyebrows by declaring that he liked to choose books with storylines that ‘zip along’. In fact, a renewed interest in the fresh and innovative appears to mark out the shortlist this year - the list includes two first novels and three small independent publishers.

The winner of the Man Booker Prize will be announced on 16 October 2012, at a dinner at London’s Guildhall. The announcement of the winner will be televised by the BBC.   

Will Self in 2006. Photo: Getty Images.
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David Keenan's new novel is a dizzying recall of adolescence

This Is Memorial Device vividly recalls the teen years of the post-punk generation. I'm just not sure I wanted to remember.

Imagine dropping down the ­metaphysical wormhole to the scene of your adolescent self, with all your mates; with all that immortal music, sex, drugs, madness and tempestuousness. For some of us it’s a place we would rather not revisit. For the post-punk generation, David Keenan’s debut novel sends us plunging into that era anyway – violently, viscerally, surreally – in this “Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986”. Keenan’s real-life west coast Scotland is the home of a fictional dissonant, radical group called Memorial Device, whose underground misadventures are transmitted through a constellation of eyewitness accounts and psychedelic reveries from the damaged, delirious misfits in and around a band that sounded, as the narrator Ross Raymond describes it, “like Airdrie, like a black fucking hole”.

Such were the post-punk provinces across the UK, vividly realised here, populated by John Peel apostles transcending dead-end reality in bedsits wallpapered with pages from the NME and Sounds, romantic young minds consumed by Johnny Thunders and Iggy Pop, Jack Kerouac and H P Lovecraft. These are murky everytowns where, as Ross writes, “music deformed my life rather than just changed it”.

Keenan – an author, journalist, jazz critic, obsessive scholar of psych-folk – has a febrile imagination and his fiction debut is a fantastical meander in intense, magical-realist prose. Much like in youth itself, you’ve no idea what’s happening, or where you’re going, each chapter a crunching gear change of new characters who fizz in, dazzle, disappear and reappear. The chapter headings are filled with unfathomable imagery:

 

22. Ships Rising Up and Passing Through the Water Full of Sunlight and Memory the Tricks That It Plays: Bruce Cook on Autonomic Dreaming with Lucas and Vanity and all the baggage that comes back to haunt you like ghostly ships at the bottom of the ocean in a graveyard beneath the sea breaking free and rising to the surface.

 

This is the breathless style that dominates the book. Full stops are sporadically abandoned for chaotic streams of consciousness (Paul Morley’s sentences are tweets in comparison), like being trapped inside the amphetamine-boggled brain of Spud in the celebrated job-interview scene from Trainspotting (a struggle at times, with none of the daft jokes). With each new voice comes more forensic musical analysis, lurid recollections – of a barbaric scalping, of wanking on acid, of porn, puke, piss – and densely packed rushes of salty information. Ross’s co-author Johnny McLaughlin recalls his sexual exploits as a 17-year-old: he was “a collector . . . a gourmet, a pussy-eater (a body-gorger) (a piss-drinker, a shit-lapper), a woman-lover, a tit-biter, an auto-asphyxiator (an ass-lover, a panty-smotherer), a heel-worshipper (a hose-hugger)”. There’s as much sex here, it turns out, as music.

There are inevitable echoes of those fellow countrymen of Keenan’s, the literary dark lords Irvine Welsh and John Niven, yet little hilarity. But, mercifully, there are also passages of surrealist beauty: through prison bars, a main character is hypnotised by the moon, bathed in its “strange silver glow that made it seem like it was on fire, like ice on fire”, feeling “like a crystal ­being cleansed”. The last chapter is stunning, a soaring, existentialist, cosmic crescendo.

Memorial Device’s lead singer, the charismatic, amnesia-blighted, journal-writing Lucas, has his writing described as “a walking frame or a wheelchair, a crutch, which when you think about it is what most writing is, something to support the figure of the writer, so that he doesn’t fall back in the primordial soup of everyone else, which is no one”. Ultimately, This Is Memorial Device uses post-punk merely as its skeleton frame. It is a meditation on memory and perspective, on the magical forces of language, on the absurdity of existence and the dreadful thoughts bubbling like toxic fluid below the fragile surface of every human brain. Despite its black-humour set pieces (and a comically colossal, micro-detailed appendix, the undertaking of a madman), it’s a serious, disturbing book, free-form literary jazz for agonised over-thinkers, perhaps like the minds of intense young men.

In these creatively risk-averse times, it’s heroically bizarre, if more admirable than lovable. By the end, you’re exhausted, and happy to file it away for ever, along with the young life you no longer wish to live.

Sylvia Patterson is the author of “I’m Not With the Band” (Sphere)

This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan is published by Faber & Faber (298pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times