Saturday, September 1, 2012

Reading Notes: The Lighthouse and The Yips

I've now read 10 of the longlist titles, and plan to start the 11th - Ned Beauman's The Teleportation Accident - tomorrow, if I get enough work done by then. This means that, barring catastrophe, I should have well and truly read the 12 longlist books before the announcement of the shortlist on 11 September. This is an unexpected but very pleasant circumstance.

Book 9 in my reading project turned out to be Nicola Barker's The Yips. Barker is a British novellist who's been Booker-nominated before - in 2007, for the novel Darkmans, which I haven't read but now intend to.

I've seen reviews and interviews where Barker is characterised as an eccentric writer, a disordered writer, or a mistress of Murray-esque sprawl. I don't think any of those evaluations are wrong, but what she also is - based on what she achieves in this book, anyway - is a kind of magician of patter, a genius of conversation and interaction. The plot might be (is, in fact) a bit scattered and amorphous, but the book is more than good enough to carry it, because it's not really based on plot but on characters, dialogue and, well, patter.

I am not, as a general rule, a big fan of books that are primarily character-based. I have an especial distaste for books in the "several or many zany / wacky / loveable rogue characters doing zany / wacky / loveable rogue things" mode. In some ways, therefore, it's surprising that I enjoyed The Yips as much as I did. (Here might be the right time to say that I did enjoy it, enormously; I think it's a wonderful book and it has rocketed to equal-second on my personal list of this year's contenders).

But even though The Yips is completely about the interplay of several characters who might fairly be described as a bit odd at least, this book just works. None of the characters, with the possible exception of Gene (and even there I have my doubts) are especially well rounded, but they are not caricatures or archetypes either; they are stunningly recognisable, over-vivid but not implausible, people. Messy reality at warp speed, perhaps.

The book seems like it might be going to be about Stuart Ransom, self-obsessed washed-up pro golfer (from whence the book gets its name - "the yips" being an affliction of golfers that makes them fail at putting, apparently), but quickly it's obvious that it's no more about him, particularly, than any of the other characters dealing with their own personal yips - from Esther, his heavily pregnant Jamaican manager, through cancer survivor and all-round good guy Gene; his Anglican cleric wife, Sheila, who's going through a crisis of faith; the Puckish troublemaker, Jen, whose core narrative purpose is to stir up everyone she comes into contact with; agoraphobic tattooist, Valentine; and, through her, her tragicomic mother "Frederique" (except not really ... you'd have to read it to understand). Even the more minor characters jump up and strut their stuff - I particularly liked rebel Muslim wife Aamilah, poor, neglected Toby, the scary Vicky, and the preternaturally elderly teenager Israel.

What actually happens in this book (a lot of which is nonsensical and some of which is extremely funny, such as the fight on the outdoor chessboard) matters much less than what the characters say, to each other and in their inner dialogues. It's a novel borne on a river of chatter, and what can I say except - it works.

The Lighthouse is by another one of the debut novellists on this year's list, Alison Moore. It's quite a little book - certainly by comparison with some of the others! - but in this case, short does not equate to slight, but, rather, to tight, sharp prose and a grip on her story that bodes well for this author's future.

One thing this year's Booker reading is certainly doing is driving home to me the essential validity behind the "only X number of basic stories in the world" idea. On reading The Lighthouse, I was struck immediately by its thematic similarity to Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, the first book I read on the longlist. Like Harold, Futh is a man deeply affected by (a) The Desertion of the Mother (obvious trope), (b) The Decline and Abuse of the Father (ditto) and Inability to Sustain Healthy Adult Relationships, Derived from (a) and (b). Futh is possibly even less functional a human being than Harold - after all, Harold does learn things through his rambling journey and some of those things are deployed to good effect in salvaging some relationship with his wife. Futh's journey, undertaken after his separation from his Angela, is less purposive, less reflective and less successful for him, but, ultimately, much more successful as a novel, in my mind.

Moore has a great touch with motifs and symbols - the silver perfume bottle lighthouse, which Futh carries as a reminder of his mother, is used to potent and repeated effect. With such a brief space to tell her story, Moore is very disciplined with her descriptions, plot devices and characters; at times it verges on the spare, but never to the book's detriment.

This isn't at all a happy or upbeat book, and the central character, Futh, is at once pathetic (in the old sense of that word - evoking pathos or pity - rather than the more modern sense of 'useless or worthy of derision') and not greatly sympathetic, in that I didn't feel a strong connection to him or a burning concern with his fate. The other characters are so sharply drawn - Ester, in particular - that they add to this grey clarity of effect, this sense that we should feel warmly to them (but we don't). It's quite a chilly book, in that sense; there's little in the way of colour and vigour in it.

That said, it's a beautifully written, extremely readable book, that shows a great deal of craft and control. I think it's a very good book, in fact; considerably better, for instance, than the longer, more rambling Harold Fry. I would like to go back and read it again when I have had time to let it settle a bit; I think it will repay re-readings, this one.

Overall verdict for shortlist?
Yep, I'll have both of these for the shortlist, and I think the judges will too.

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