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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.

 

Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”