the sense that the booker prize sucks

There are two book reviews I’d like to post, by way of com­par­ing great writ­ing with crap writ­ing.  My orig­i­nal thought was to inter­leave snip­pets from these two books, allow­ing one to make its own case and the oth­er to dig its own grave, more or less unas­sist­ed.  But when it comes down to it I’d rather not besmirch Michael Chabon’s love­ly new Tele­graph Avenue by using it to blud­geon and fla­gel­late the watery, pious and flim­sy British novel­la we will now sub­ject to its due mor­ti­fi­ca­tion— a novel­la that inex­plic­a­bly won the 2011 Book­er Prize.  This is the same prize for which Cloud Atlas, a nov­el of sur­pass­ing genius whose forth­com­ing movie adap­ta­tion I’m antic­i­pat­ing with equal shares of dread and ecsta­sy, was only short­list­ed.  At this point I’m assum­ing that the prize is either as cor­rupt as Wine Spec­ta­tor, or as lazy and chau­vin­is­tic as the Guide Miche­lin.  I’ll recon­sid­er when David Mitchell wins it.

Per­haps a dis­claimer is due.  The opin­ions below are pure­ly my own, it would seem.  No, real­ly.  Crit­ics at The New York­er, The Guardian, The SF Chron­i­cle, The Wash­ing­ton Post, The LA Times, Vogue, The Wall Street Jour­nal, The Boston Globe, The New Repub­lic and many oth­er fine pur­vey­ors of cul­ture, not to men­tion my Face­book friends (hel­lo Sara and Car­los), all seem to love the book I’m about to cas­ti­gate.  Maybe when I’m of a cer­tain age the “great but invis­i­ble skill” with which Julian Barnes has ren­dered his “crys­talline truths that have tak­en a life­time to hard­en” will sud­den­ly become less invis­i­ble?  Or maybe the emper­or has no clothes.

Let’s begin with the title: The Sense of an End­ing (appar­ent­ly “lift­ed from a work of lit­er­ary the­o­ry by the crit­ic Frank Ker­mode”).  Does it get any more half-assed than that?  Actu­al­ly, yes:

I saw it in his face.  It’s not often that’s true, is it?  At least, not for me.  We lis­ten to what peo­ple say, we read what they write— that’s our evi­dence, that’s our cor­rob­o­ra­tion.  But if the face con­tra­dicts the speaker’s words, we inter­ro­gate the face.  A shifty look in the eye, a ris­ing blush, the uncon­trol­lable twitch of a face mus­cle— and then we know.  We recog­nise the hypocrisy or the false claim, and the truth stands evi­dent before us.  (p. 150.)

Now we know!  If only this wis­dom had been writ­ten in the right decade, Carl Sagan could have had it read aloud by Peter Usti­nov and engraved on the gold record we sent into space, the bet­ter to pre­pare the aliens for dis­course with humans.

In case you’re won­der­ing, I picked this pas­sage because it’s about as writer­ly as it gets over the course of TSoaE’s 163 pages.  What, is this not “ele­gant, play­ful and remark­able”* enough for you?

(*Quoth The New York­er and the book’s front cov­er, under an inex­plic­a­ble paint­ing of an egg per­haps ele­gant­ly and play­ful­ly, if unre­mark­ably, in peace­able repose on a table.)

OK, let’s move on to the dia­log course, the bet­ter to observe Julian Barnes’s keen psy­cho­log­i­cal insight in action:

So I sent an email to Veron­i­ca.  I head­ed it “Ques­tion,” and asked her this: “Do you think I was in love with you back then?”  I signed it with my ini­tial and hit Send before I could change my mind.

The last thing I expect­ed was a reply the next morn­ing.  This time she hadn’t delet­ed my sub­ject head­ing.  Her reply read: “If you need to ask the ques­tion, then the answer is no.  V.”

[yr. hum­ble crit.: at this point it’s hard not to imag­ine bring­ing in Beav­is and Butthead as guest crit­ics.  “Try sex­ting her dude!  Heh heh heh.”  “Uh.. huh huh huh.. yeah, sext her.. like, let her know how you real­ly feel.”]

It per­haps says some­thing of my state of mind that I found this response nor­mal, indeed encour­ag­ing.

It per­haps says some­thing else that my reac­tion was to ring up Mar­garet and tell her of the exchange.  There was a silence, then my ex-wife said qui­et­ly, “Tony, you’re on your own now.”  (p. 116.)

So what did it say about his state of mind the first time, and what some­thing else did it say the sec­ond time?  I like how there are four lay­ers here of real­i­ty, right— Tony in the moment, Tony at a nar­ra­tive remove, the infi­nite­ly inscrutable & pis­sy Veron­i­ca, and the infi­nite­ly wise & suf­fer­ing Mar­garet.  Chicks always know best.

Read­ing this trea­cly tale of late mid­dle age clue­less­ness, one does get “the sense” that the Eng­lish pub­lic schools of the 50s and 60s didn’t do much for the devel­op­ment of emo­tion­al intel­li­gence in male youth— at least not for straight boys like Tony and, pre­sum­ably, Julian.  This reminds me how grate­ful I am that, although love and inti­ma­cy lost are such cen­tral themes in TSoaE, there are— praise small mer­cies— no actu­al sex scenes in this book.  Our good for­tune is under­scored by the fol­low­ing close call:

I wasn’t exact­ly a vir­gin, just in case you were won­der­ing.  Between school and uni­ver­si­ty I had a cou­ple of instruc­tive episodes, whose excite­ments were greater than the mark they left.  So what hap­pened sub­se­quent­ly made me feel all the odd­er: the more you liked a girl, and the bet­ter matched you were, the less your chance of sex, it seemed.  Unless, of course— and this is a thought I didn’t artic­u­late until lat­er— some­thing in me was attract­ed to women who said no.  But can such a per­verse instinct exist? (p. 25)

I know, I know.  The book is like ambrosia, but strained through the cheese­cloth of an unre­li­able nar­ra­tor.  It’s post­mod­ern!  The prob­lem is that for us to care about and become invest­ed in an unre­li­able nar­ra­tor, such that we can be all shocked and upset lat­er on when the bub­ble bursts, we need to be drawn in enough to inhab­it his per­spec­tive ear­ly in the book.  This is hard to do in Tony’s case, because he’s so obvi­ous­ly an ass.  One feels frankly insult­ed that Mr. Barnes would find it plau­si­ble for the read­er to find this schmuck and his philo­soph­i­cal mus­ings a good imped­ance match.

Even leav­ing this issue aside, the unre­li­able nar­ra­tor trick requires not only tech­ni­cal skill, but also excep­tion­al sen­si­tiv­i­ty on the part of the (real) author, in order to bring the “reveal” into focus at the right speed, at the right time, and with the right force.  It’s a demand­ing feat of ven­tril­o­quism, beyond even the usu­al rig­ors of free indi­rect style, and to pull it off the author needs to be work­ing at a far sub­tler lev­el than the unre­li­able nar­ra­tor.  Of course when one writes one also becomes emo­tion­al­ly close to and invest­ed in the char­ac­ters— even more so than the read­er; it’s nec­es­sary to do so in order to make the voic­es true.  How­ev­er, it’s equal­ly nec­es­sary to become close to the char­ac­ters who are not doing the nar­rat­ing, to invest the text with their voic­es— maybe oblique­ly at first, then more clear­ly in the endgame.  Oth­er­wise the “real­i­ty” under­gird­ing the sto­ry will be just as lame as the unre­li­able narrator’s real­i­ty.  And we won’t care.

And this is just what hap­pens.  My recur­ring feel­ing, when read­ing TSoaE, was that Julian Barnes and Tony Web­ster were too near­ly the same per­son.  It got pret­ty claus­tro­pho­bic up there in Tony/Julian’s head.  When the Wise Women made their appear­ances, they came off flat and gnom­ic, deployed more in the man­ner of unyield­ing bol­lards along the side­walks of the plot­line than as real voic­es that could per­haps have turned this sto­ry into some­thing more three-dimen­sion­al.  In the absence of oth­er voic­es, the shifts in per­spec­tive afford­ed by the series of big insights and real­iza­tions expe­ri­enced by Tony him­self real­ly failed to pro­vide the nec­es­sary stereo sep­a­ra­tion.

Let’s end with a “Royale with Cheese” moment toward the end of TSoaE— on page 158.  By this late stage, the sto­ry is as senes­cent as Tony him­self; all invest­ments in char­ac­ter growth etc. are made; the chips, as it were, are on the table:

One day, I said to the bar­man, “Do you think you could do me thin chips for a change?”

How do you mean?”

You know, like in France— the thin ones.”

No, we don’t do them.”

But it says on the menu your chips are hand-cut.”


Well, can’t you cut them thin­ner?”

The barman’s nor­mal affa­ble­ness took a pause.  He looked at me as if he wasn’t sure whether I was a pedant or an idiot, or quite pos­si­bly both.

[yr. h.c.’s: “both!  Heh heh heh.”  “Huh huh.. yeah dude.. both.”]

Hand-cut chips means fat chips.”

But if you hand cut chips, couldn’t you cut them thin­ner?”

We don’t cut them.  That’s how they arrive.”

You don’t cut them on the premis­es?”

That’s what I said.”

So what you call ‘hand-cut chips’ are actu­al­ly cut else­where, and quite prob­a­bly by a machine?”

Are you from the coun­cil or some­thing?”

Not in the least.  I’m just puz­zled.  I nev­er real­ized that ‘hand-cut’ meant ‘fat’ rather than ‘nec­es­sar­i­ly cut by hand.’”

Well, you do now.”

I’m sor­ry.  I just didn’t get it.”

I retired to my table and wait­ed for my sup­per.

And there’s the moral of the sto­ry: Tony Doesn’t Get It.  Pret­ty “adroit han­dling”, right, to use hand-cut chips as a metaphor for, you know, oth­er stuff?  Like how you can’t turn an Eng­lish lover into a French one?

What real­ly made me smile over this lit­tle pas­sage was how clear­ly it was drawn from life.  I’m will­ing to bet that it was actu­al­ly Julian Barnes who one day had this exchange with the bar­man at his local pub.  Barnes and Web­ster: just too cozy with each oth­er.  Chips cut from the same pota­to.

OK, now I feel soiled and guilty, like Alex after beat­ing up the old guy in A Clock­work Orange.  It’ time to move on.  I’m going to try not to let my new con­tempt for the Book­er pre­sump­tive­ly col­or my opin­ion of Hilary Man­tel, whose Bring up the Bod­ies was already on my to-read shelf before the recent announce­ment that she’s won the prize for 2012.

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