In November I was lucky (*Kylie Minogue voice* lucky lucky lucky) enough to go the 2016 Booker Prize announcement dinner.
After a difficult journey — the train was cancelled so my Dad had to drive my mother and me into central London from Oxford — we arrived at the drinks reception in the very grand and beautiful London Guild Hall.
It was a particularly special night as my mother remembered going to the first prize dinner back in ‘69 when her father won. That, too, was also a very glamorous event, even though the prize did not yet have the international recognition it has today.
I enjoyed reading the winning book, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, very much. It’s funny, insightful, and written in a fast-paced, fierce, often angry, hypnotically engaging style.
One of the things I liked about it is that whilst it’s about a city/community in the Greater L.A. area, and that city is described in close detail, the writer also pulls back to reference literature, TV, music, and the wider universe, sometimes with beautiful results:
‘In the distance, hurtling away from me like some distant spiral galaxy, the red and blue sirens spun silently but brilliantly, lighting up the mist of the morning marine layer like some inner-city aurora borealis’
By comparing police sirens to spiral galaxies Beatty resets our preconceptions. We’ve seen a police car driving through a rough area in America before, on The Wire or some other film or TV show. It’s shorthand for ‘this is a dangerous place where you might get mugged or attacked’. But why shouldn’t a police siren signify more than that, especially for someone who lives and works in that rough area, and presumably sees police cars going past regularly?
At other times the wider reference is cultural and one that goes over my head:
‘The gull-wing to his classic sports car opened up, and before getting in, Foy paused to put on his aviator sunglasses and, in his best General BlackArthur, announced, “I shall return, motherfucker. Believe that shit!”’
I don’t get who ‘General BlackArthur’ is (something to do with The Battle of Tillieangus?) but it doesn’t matter: the reference is enough to evoke a wider world; to add another layer to what could be a clichéd scene; and to create a humorous disconnect between Foy’s dramatic intentions and the result, which is exposed by the narrator as a mere performance copied from someone else. (Update: I’m grateful to a reader who pointed out to me that this is a reference to General MacArthur, someone I wasn’t familiar with… not that it really mattered).
Indeed, some of the best moments in the novel are when characters expose a truth or make a cutting observation:
‘“You know the only where there’s no racism?” She looked around to make sure her sorority sisters weren’t within earshot and whispered, “Remember those photos of the black president and his family walking across the White House lawn arm-in-arm. Within those fucking frames at that instant, and in only that instant, there’s no fucking racism.”
As I was reading The Sellout, Donald ‘Pussygrabber’ Drumpf won the U.S. Presidential election. Would the book have been different had it been written whilst Drumpf was president, rather than Obama? Probably not, because the subjects Beatty is writing about a) have been shaped by a much longer history than the last 4-8 years, and b) are more complicated than anything that can be altered by simply having a different person at the top.
In his acceptance speech Beatty thanked his editor who encouraged him to always get back to the story when was redrafting his work. I’m sure Beatty could have filled 289 pages just with observations and conversations about fruit trees or smoking weed. That would have been a shame, as the plot — although it takes a while to get going — was interesting and held the conversations and observations together into a consistent whole.
I liked the other titles on the shortlist as well. In particular I enjoyed Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh: a funny and immersive thriller. My mum’s favourite book from the shortlist was Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, a historical novel about China in the late 20th century. It make her cry, which is the mark of a very good book indeed.