I was on the subway the other day, my nose inThe Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Sri Lankan Booker Prize laureate Shehan Karunatilaka, when I got pulled out of my reading reverie by a fellow traveller. A gentle little old man with a soft Irish accent asked what I thought of the book. When I hesitated, he told me that he himself had just finished it and that he liked it in retrospect, but wasn’t sure what to make of it while reading. I realized I had the same feeling; that I wouldn’t be sure about what to make of the story before I’d finished it.
Afterwards, I also felt there was an interesting synecdoche going on. A synecdoche is when a fragment of something gets to represent the whole. Like when you say wheels for car, or boots instead of soldier.
In this case, my experience of reading Karunatilaka’s novel came to represent something bigger, since it was my last leg of an effort to digest every Booker Prize winner of this millennium; a long journey which I also couldn’t hope to comprehend until after I’d arrived at my destination.
I’m not altogether sure why I set my mind to this project, except that it had something to do with a need for overview. I’ve been an avid but erratic reader of English fiction for as long as I can remember. On a book by book basis it’s been wonderful, but I never felt I could connect the dots.
In retrospect, trying to get even the most ephemeral grasp of anything as complex as English language literature, seems like a fools errand. As indeed it was, of course. Luckily I didn’t understand that as I set out however, because looking back at the long list of literary gems that I wouldn’t otherwise have stumbled upon, I feel a richer man.
Trying to make *sense* of the experience however, isn’t trivial. Just take a moment and look at the list:
We’ve got: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey, Life of Pi by Yann Martel, Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre, The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, The Sea by John Banville, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, The Gathering by Anne Enright, The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson,The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, Bring up the bodies by Hillary Mantel, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, The Sellout by Paul Beatty, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, Milkman by Anna Burns, The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart; The Promise by Damon Galgut, and then eventually The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka.
Genres range from historical fiction to political satire to magical realism and beyond. Subject matter range from the Northern Irish Troubles to Jewish identity; Indian organized crime; Buddhist conceptions of the afterlife, and beyond.
Writers come from all over the place: Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Ireland, India, New Zealand, Jamaica, USA, South Africa, and then finally Sri Lanka.
Reading their works had made me feel awe, bewilderment, compassion, delight, ecstasy, faith, grace and sheer utter happiness.
To quote one of my favorite Grateful Dead songs: What a long strange trip it’d been.
Speaking of Grateful Dead by the way, I find that people who have had life-changing experiences on hallucinogenic substances, seem to be challenged in much the same way I am now: it’s all been so beautiful in such a profoundly personal way, that trying to sum up the episode afterwards somehow feels like an affront.
And still I persist in a vain attempt to do just that.
It’s almost like I’m trying to plug a message into a bottle and send it back to my pre Booker-project self, saying: “You’re barking up the wrong tree. There are no dots to be connected, but that’s okay, please go ahead anyway, because it’ll be lovely; like going to a cocktail party where every single guest is a genuine eccentric!”
But is that really it? Did I put in hundreds of hours reading, only to arrive at a non-answer?
I will admit it’s somewhat disappointing. I would have liked to have been able to make more sense of the world than that. At the very least, I would have wanted to understand what makes the Booker prize unique.
Because after all, there’s no such thing as objectivity when it comes to taste. So if nothing else, the last two and a half decades worth of winners will have this in common: they all appealed to the particular preferences of a very specific five-person panel who constituted the Booker prize jury.
And it might be worth noting here, that while being part of that jury is prestigious, it’s no sinecure; each member is expected to read—as in really read—some 150 nominated titles every year, before reaching a consensus.
Unless, that is, they fail to agree, which has happened three times since the inception of the prize. First in 1974, when Nadine Gordimer got to share her prize with Stanley Middleton, then again in 1992 when Michael Ondaatje shared his with Barry Unsworth and then most recently 2019, when the prize was split between Bernardine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood.
I feel that such disturbances in the field must hold a certain explanatory potential. Can it really be that once every two decades, there’s such a surge of high quality titles that the jury have no choice but to abandon its mission (which is to pick one winner), or has it maybe never been a matter of simply selecting the *best* but instead perhaps the *most important* candidate/s?
Gaby Wood, the Chief Executive of the Booker Prize Foundation, actually seems to hint at this in her text A glimpse behind the scenes: The Booker at 50, where she says that picking a winner is “the opposite of absolute” and “the beginning of a conversation“.
Let’s take Wood’s word for it, and assume that the Booker prize really isn’t just about quality; that there’s also some additional, half-acknowledged, selection criteria.
It’s easy to imagine how such a competing priority could mess with the otherwise well-oiled taste machinery of the Booker jury. I for one would feel it easier to rank a book on the basis of pure literary quality, than to make a judgement call about its ‘importance’. It feels reasonable to assume that such a conflict of criteria might explain the occasional failure to pick a single winner.
But where would this line of inquiry lead? I suppose if the Booker prize isn’t dished out exclusively based on quality, but also on some other characteristic that’s meant to ”encourage conversations”, then it leads us to the question: What does the Booker prize jury suggest we converse about?
My answer to that question would be: *power*
The struggle to achieve power, or the challenge of responsibly wielding it once it’s attained, is the certainly the common denominator to the polyphonous storylines of Evaristo’s Girl, Woman Other, as well as to Atwoods The Testaments.
And from this new vantage point, it also seems clear that the same theme unites pretty much all the other winners I’ve been through. They’re connected, in a sense, by verging on the political.
You might object that this is true of all great literature, but I’m not so sure.
Take for instance Shirley Hazzard’s novelThe Great Fire, longlisted 2004, or Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, longlisted 2017. I enjoyed both immensely; more actually, than the winning contributions of those years.
But they’re also books that wouldn’t necessarily make for great conversation, since they’re somehow self-sustained; one finishes them with a feeling that everything is said and done.
Or take Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1, which was shortlisted in 2017. This is a magnificent brick of a book, very well-written and great fun to read, but also markedly apolitical, the way many of the greatest American novels often are.
But then again not always. When Paul Beatty got the Booker in 2016 for his novel The Sellout, it was the first time ever that the prize was awarded to an American writer. And what a writer Beatty is.
In fact, if my sample of winning novels were a distant mountain range, then while each peak would certainly be majestic in its own right, perhaps after all Paul Beaty’s book would loom the highest.
And that’s not because of its literary style—Beatty couldn’t hold a candle to Anne Enright, John Banville or Hilary Mantell if it came down to style alone.
Instead what makes Beatty such a tremendously impactful writer, is how he singlehandedly invents a genre that allows him to tell a story about race and American culture, that I wouldn’t have thought possible to tell. It really is the kind of book that knocks you flat on your ass. I dare say that it’ll provoke readers all over the political spectrum into questioning fundamental beliefs; a conversation starter if ever there was one.
There’s an exquisite irony in thinking of the Booker prize as an organ of social reform, given that it was originally funded by George and Josiah Booker—also known as ‘the sugar daddies’—who built their fortunes as slave owners.
To its merit, the Booker foundation exposes this on its website but they seem to do so somewhat half-heartedly, saying that they “consider Booker’s history to be the Prize’s prehistory.“
One can’t help wondering what would happen if instead of washing its hands, the foundation owned up to its legacy and clearly stated its agenda: Not just this year’s best work of English fiction, but also the most important one.