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Modernist masters and oddball challengers: the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist

A first novel about a fictionalised TS Eliot from a tiny press is up against Will Self and Nicola Barker for the 2017 prize. 

A debut novel published by a tiny independent press has made the shortlist for the £10,000 Goldsmiths Prize. Playing Possum by Kevin Davey – praised by one of the judges, AL Kennedy, for its “mosaic plot and dark humour” – has a fictionalised TS Eliot, wanted for murder, pursued from London to Whitstable, 90 years after he spent a night there in 1922. It is up against books by the modernist heavyweights Nicola Barker and Will Self, as well as fifth novels by Jon McGregor and Gwendoline Riley. Sara Baume, who, aged 33 is the youngest shortlistee in the prize’s history, is nominated for her second novel. None have been previously shortlisted for the prize.

Here’s the list in full:

H(a)ppy by Nicola Barker, published by William Heinemann
A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume, published by William Heinemann
Playing Possum by Kevin Davey, published by Aaaargh Press
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor, published by 4th Estate
First Love by Gwendoline Riley, published by Granta Books
Phone by Will Self, published by Viking

The shortlist was announced by the chair of judges, Naomi Wood, at Goldsmiths University on the evening of 27 September, after the second annual New Statesman/Goldsmiths Prize Lecture. The talk on the art of the novel was given by Ali Smith, who won the prize in 2014 for How to Be Both. (The first lecture was delivered by Howard Jacobson, who spoke in defence of the comic novel.) The judging panel for the 2017 prize included the writers Kevin Barry (who won in 2015) and AL Kennedy, and the author, singer-songwriter and NS columnist Tracey Thorn. 

The prize was co-founded by Goldsmiths and the New Statesman in 2013 to reward “fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. In its four years it has launched new literary stars – Eimear McBride, who won the first prize – and changed the debate around what readers and publishers look for in a novel. Ali Smith has credited the prize with altering the publishing landscape: “The change it’s made is that publishers, who never take risks in anything, are taking risks on works which are much more experimental than they would’ve two years ago,” she told the Bookseller in 2015. “That, to me, is like a miracle.”

Naomi Wood, a novelist and a lecturer at Goldsmiths, said: “Our six shortlisted books offer resistance to the received idea of how a novel should be written. Variously, they break the rules on continuity, time, character arcs, perspective, voice, typographical conventions and structure. As such, there is a wildness to all of our shortlisted novels that provokes in the reader a joyful inquiry about just what a novel might be there to do.” 

In a striking echo of the language of the Goldsmiths Prize, earlier this month Lola, Baroness Young, the chair of the Man Booker judges, talked about the “intrepid” nature of the Booker-shortlisted novels, which she praised for pushing “against the borders of convention”. Unlike the Booker – which in 2014 changed its rules to allow all writers working in English, including Americans, to enter – Goldsmiths retains its focus on British and Irish fiction. Though Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this is the first year that there is no cross-over between the Booker and Goldsmiths shortlists.

The Goldsmiths Prize has a good track record in spotting interesting work from small publishers: Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing was published by the Norwich independent Galley Beggar Press and Mike McCormack’s 2016 winner Solar Bones was published by the Dublin-based publisher Tramp Press. (After winning the prize, both books were picked up by major publishers.) This year Aaaargh! Press will be hoping that their title Playing Possum will get a boost from the shortlisting. The imprint – run by the journalist and academic Paul Anderson and the Chinese-British poet Anna Chen, who describe themselves as “socialists of a countercultural, libertarian bent” – is a “shoestring operation” that produces “an e-book every couple of months and a paperback every year or so with a bit of luck”. 

So far, an English writer has not won the prize: Eimear McBride, Kevin Barry and Mike McCormack are Irish and Ali Smith is Scottish. With only one non-English writer on the shortlist this year (Sara Baume, who is Irish), there is a chance that the prize’s Celtic run may finally be broken. We’ll find out when the winner is announced at Foyles in central London on 15 November. (The winner will then be in conversation at the Cambridge Literary Festival on Sunday November 26.)

Here’s what the judges had to say about the books:

Kevin Barry on H(a)ppy by Nicola Barker:
“Nicola Barker’s H(a)ppy is a work of vaulting ambition. It is deathly serious but played out with the lightest of touches. She takes the vapid discourse of social media blather, with all its ‘likes’ and ‘favourites’, and extrapolates madly to make a language for an utterly believable future world, a world enslaved by the blandness of its technology. Line by line, the novel carefully builds its music and teases out its crazed riffs. It’s very funny but there are pockets of great eeriness, and of savagery even. It’s a novel-as-object, too, with a typography employed as visual code, but its design always has a narrative purpose. Only a writer of uncanny ability could bring this novel to such memorable, pulsing life. It’s very moving.”

Tracey Thorn on A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume:
“In Sara Baume’s A Line Made by Walking, a young artist struggling with depression leaves the city and moves into a rural bungalow, the empty home of her dead grandmother, where, immersed in nature, she takes photographs of the dead creatures she finds in the surrounding fields. These very photos then appear throughout the novel, punctuating the text, in a way that serves to blur the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. Frankie, the narrator, experiences and records the natural world in unstinting detail, turning aside from it repeatedly to make equally detailed notes on the artworks which she has studied and which inspire her. Testing herself. Stuck in a rut but looking for a way out. There is an obsessive quality to all this, in a novel which picks apart strands of loneliness, art, misery and family, trying to work out where we fit in the world, and what sadness means, and what on earth might help.”

AL Kennedy on Playing Possum by Kevin Davey:
Playing Possum is a vastly energetic and confident book, a narrative that races along, packed with references and cross references mingling literature, film, time travel and visual art. 90 years after the first publication of The Waste Land - and perhaps far too late – a modern day protagonist seeks proof of a murder and flight. A fictional investigator pursues a fictionalised – and murderous – TS Eliot from London towards a perhaps fictitious night spent at a hotel in Whitstable in 1922. The aftermath of his deed may have been immortalised in a suitably shocking painting by possible accomplice Otto Dix. Davey’s plot begins to tangle and gambol from the outset. The text – filled with dialogue, asides and allusions – is rich enough to repay rereading. Its time jumps and linguistic experimentation, its mosaic plot and dark humour is a joyful exploration of the novel’s boundaries as a form.”

AL Kennedy on Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor:
“Jon McGregor gives us a novel of quiet but profound resonance. The fulcrum of a young girl’s tragic disappearance is used to turn a small Peak District village through years of change, loss and the sheer passage of time. Lovers age, relationships crumble and begin, children grow, the old turn frail, chances are taken, experiments fail and heartbreak still rages and echoes long after headlines have perished. Time itself and its merciless progress are allowed to track across the book’s generous timescale and the title rings with ever-louder significance. The frail but generous life of the surrounding countryside is accurately and lyrically noted, a balancing source of renewal and tenderness – equally under pressure. This is a book which isn’t afraid of taking on life’s complexity or the communal life of people battling austerity and the wear and tear of simply existing. The passions and dramas of small people – often invisible in our culture – are allowed to shine in dignity.”

Kevin Barry on First Love by Gwendoline Riley:
“The measure of invention in Gwendoline Riley’s First Love is in the measure of its affront to the world. The novel is a forensic dissection of a notably demented relationship, displaying all of its barbs and poison darts, but showing its moments of odd tenderness, too, and its stumbles in the darkness of love. Riley’s sentences have such punch and snap to them, and they are perfectly weighted to their scathing task. She teases out the night-black, tormented comedy of her scenes to hysterical effect – this is an achingly funny book. Also, it is completely unrelenting, and focused, and it gets its hooks in the reader at once. It leaves scars.”

Naomi Wood on Phone by Will Self:
“Narrated via a sweeping 600-page paragraph, Will Self’s Phone is an extraordinary novel. Voiced by four different characters (and their various inner ghouls and outer appendages), Self presents the minds of its main characters marked by trauma, inexplicable memory, and sometimes joy. Very soon, the reader is seduced by each character’s ‘mind-language’ which, forcefully, and without signalling, then breaks into the next. In the novel’s web of minds and memories, the reader is kept close by Self’s artful turn of phrase and linguistic acrobatics. A fascinating next-stage in Self’s modernist trilogy.”


Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.


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Margot Robbie saves the ice-skating biopic I, Tonya from sheer sensationalism

Craig Gillespie directs with all the subtlety of a baton-wielding thug but has made one brilliant decision in Margot Robbie, who is a machine for generating empathy.

Knowledge of the figure skater Tonya Harding remains at a rudimentary level in Britain, where she has never quite become the monster, pariah and punchline that she is in the US. Perhaps the story was too far from our cosy Torvill-and-Dean view of skating, or the nuances of the American class system were too dissimilar to our own. Fear not: every last twist, turn and triple axel of the tale is spelled out in the black comedy I, Tonya, which shows how she was implicated in a plot to prevent a fellow skater from competing in the 1994 Winter Olympics. The injured party was Nancy Kerrigan, whose leg was badly bruised by a blow from a telescopic baton. (The assailant was a thug hired by Harding’s ex-husband and her bodyguard.) After the attack, Harding underwent victimisation on a national scale. 

Craig Gillespie directs with all the subtlety of a baton-wielding thug but has made at least one brilliant decision in casting Margot Robbie, who is practically a machine for generating empathy. She projects a convincing sense of wounded injustice as a woman whose skill as a skater was overlooked repeatedly while judges took issue with her “presentation” – in other words, her trashiness. I, Tonya is caught between railing against that sort of snobbery and drawing most of its own dramatic energy from giggling at her torrid, squalid life.

A “mockumentary” framing device, where the characters give interviews straight-to-camera many years later, only multiplies the opportunities for sneering. Now we can hear their excuses while seeing evidence which contradicts them. “Off the ice she was a happy, well-adjusted child,” says Harding’s mother, LaVona (Allison Janney). Cut to the kid trying to shoot a rabbit between the eyes. Like any number of movie tyrants (the music teacher in Whiplash, the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket), LaVona’s toxic energy is prized and despised by the film. It can’t get enough of her chunky specs, ratty furs, the severely pruned haircut that’s too small for her head and the Long John Silver parrot on her shoulder. She’s a graduate from the Mommie Dearest school of parenting: she thrashes her daughter with a hairbrush and kicks her off a chair. The abuse continues into adulthood and on to the ice. Hear that man in the crowd calling out “You suck!”? He’s a plant paid for by LaVona, who claims her daughter skates better when enraged. Don’t say she never does anything for her.

The interviews allow the film to score points off these woebegone souls. “Show me a family that doesn’t have ups and downs,” snorts LaVona immediately after we’ve seen her throw a knife into her daughter’s arm. More effective are the instances of Harding commenting on the abusive behaviour of her low-wattage husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan), even as she’s in the midst of receiving his punches. “Mom hit me,” she explains, “and she loves me.” Retaliating during an argument by blasting at him with a shotgun, she tells the camera: “This is bullshit. I never did this.” She’s not the first character to cast aspersions on the veracity of a film as it unfolds – 24 Hour Party People and American Splendor included similar moments – but the trick works here as a distancing device in scenes that might otherwise risk being exploitative.

It’s not a charge the rest of the film can dodge easily. The argument that Harding suffered disproportionately for her crimes, and that a frightened, abused woman essentially was abused all over again in the media, is hard to square with the picture’s sensationalist tone; Robbie’s performance provides the sole rebuttal. There are nifty musical choices – Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet” plays during Tonya and Jeff’s first kiss and doesn’t stop once the violence starts. But when LaVona stomps across the rink to the sound of Cliff Richard’s “Devil Woman”, it’s both obvious and unoriginal: Gus Van Sant got there first in To Die For, when “Season of the Witch” by Donovan played over another ice-skating scene involving a monstrous woman. If there’s no room in I, Tonya for The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)”, that must only be because the soundtrack budget had already been blown on Cliff. 

I, Tonya is in cinemas now. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia