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Reviewing this year's Man Booker prize shortlist for a science fiction and fantasy venue perhaps approaches the logic of Monty Python's "News for Parrots" ("No parrots were involved in an accident on the M1 today when a lorry carrying high-octane fuel was in collision with a bollard. That's a bollard and not a parrot"). Sifting through the six titles for SFnal tropes, novums or—even more vaguely—for some evanescent genre "quality" surely applies an artificial set of criteria to a prize that not does not select for genre, but in fact has historically shown an active aversion to the SFnal. Nor, of course, is everything fantastical that comes to our net. I wouldn't want to become that kind of reader who, possessing only a Genre hammer, sees everything as a Genre nail.

But this year's shortlist is different, for it includes a remarkably high quotient of the fantastic. If Gary "Cry" Wolfe is right, and our genres are evaporating, then there's surely some point in looking to see where else they may be condensing. The Man Booker is bellwether enough of broader literary culture to provide a cold, clear window pane upon which such droplets might form. Last year's list was not promising in this regard: not a single title on the shortlist—or, indeed, the longlist—came even close to genre. Last year's winner, Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, though good (and it is really, really good) is also historical fiction of a fairly conventional cast about that most over-mined historical fiction seam, the Tudors.

Nor, of course, is this year all literary fantastika. I have little to say here about Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland; a family saga yarn that divides its attentions between postwar India (the titular flatlands are on the outskirts of Calcutta, where the novel's deuteragonists, brothers Subhash and Udayan Mitra, grow up) and 1960s America. It's readable in a slightly soapy way, although I thought Lahiri didn’t have quite the control over her sprawling narrative that she needed. Certainly there's nothing here that could be considered parroty enough to merit a byline on The News for Genre Parrots. Similarly, NoViolet Bulawayo's We Need New Names lacks specific genre interest. It is a spiky, energetically told story of growing up poor in Mugabe's Zimbabwe, written with a rawness that hangs somewhere between the honest roughness of vitality and a more deplorable stylistic clumsiness. The earlier African sections are the best here: setting the harshness of slum life against the hope and vigor of Bulawayo's young characters; but when the novel relocates to America it loses force.

That said, the fantastic, or at least some of the textual strategies we associate with genre fantastika, are central to the other four shortlisted titles.

The Luminaries UK cover

To start with Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries. At 834 pages (in my Granta edition) this is the longest book on the shortlist by a long margin: a novel nineteenth-century in setting and scale, but also in specific aesthetic ambition. Catton has said in interviews that for a whole year prior to writing the book she read no book published after 1866, so as to immerse herself in the flavor of the age. It shows; though not always wholly spot-on period-wise (some of the dialogue doesn’t ring true) it is broadly very convincing.

Walter Moody arrives on the New Zealand coast from Scotland one stormy day in 1866. He has come to find his father and brother, both of whom emigrated to make their fortunes in the gold-fields. On the way he saw something mysterious and upsetting on the boat (for many hundreds of pages we are not vouchsafed what), and he stumbles ashore into the middle of a meeting of twelve local men. These individuals between them tell a story about the death of one local man, Crosbie Wells; about the disappearance of another, Emery Staines; about the villainous Francis Carver, the young whore Anna Wetherall, and various others. This collective narrative is also a story about gold, and opium, and political ambition. The whole thing is cat’s-cradled between so many various points-of-view such that for the first four hundred pages learning more only complexifies the whole. Eventually, though, the narrative begins to circle about; the mysteries are illuminated, and the book ends with a satisfying knitting together.

The Luminaries embodies a sort of Zeno's-paradox structure: the first of the book's sections is 360 pages long; the second 180 pages, the third 90 and so on down to the twelfth and last which is a single page of dialogue. I liked this, which reminded me of Nabokov's Ada, or Ardor—another novel about a re-imagined colonial land defined by rapturous transgressive love, that steps its sections down in inverse-Fibonacci portions. Nabokov's novel is more densely realized, and more properly alt-historical (set in a version of the USA that was colonized primarily by Russian rather than British and Dutch settlers) than Catton's. It's also written by Nabokov, which makes its prose hard to match. There's nothing wrong with Catton's prose, mind you: she has a good eye for a telling detail, and an unembarrassed way with her 1860s period voice. But there is a prolixity in the novel that is not only profoundly un-Nabokovian, but more damagingly doesn’t reflect actual nineteenth-century fiction either: characters talk round issues, points are repeated, description dilates at length, matters are rehearsed and re-rehearsed. In part this is because Catton is expatiating upon a formal principle of "circles" or "spheres," astrological at root; but part of it is that her story, though intricate, does not contain enough matter for the nearly 900 pages she has actually written. Accordingly it is not enough (for example) to tell us that Anna sees some albatrosses. Instead we get:

Anna saw the birds whose rancorous call had roused her from her slumber; they hung in a cloud about the cliff-face, wheeling, turning, and catching the light. She came forward to the rail. They looked to her very like large gulls, their wings black on the tops and white beneath, their heads perfectly white, their beaks stout and pale. As she watched, one made a low pass in front of the boat, its wingtip skimming the surface of the water.

"Beautiful," she said. "Are they petrels—or gannets, maybe?"

"They're albatrosses!" The boy was beaming. "They're real albatrosses! Just wait til this fellow comes back. He will in a moment; he's been circling the ship for some time. Good lord what a feeling that must be—to fly! Can you imagine it?"

Anna smiled. She watched as the albatross glided away from them, turned, and began climbing on the wind. (p. 626)

There are three more paragraphs of this before Anna and the boy move on to talking of other things. The circles theme is relevant, formally; but it's possible to nail a theme to a novel without bashing it so hard as to leave an ungainly rash of hammerhead-dents in the surrounding material. And in large doses this sort of waffle comes dangerously close to filler.

Other readers may be less distracted by the prolixity. It is, after all, a common strategy of Fat Fantasy writing, and goes some way towards building an immersive world. And the town of Hokitika, in its surrounding New Zealand wilderness, is evocatively rendered. The many characters are all carefully distinguished from one another, and each is pegged with painstakingly differentiated motivations, habits, or psychological description. Still, howsoever expertly and colorfully Catton paints her marionettes, none of them fully come to life. That they remain gorgeously illustrated puppets from first to last may not be a criticism, actually: Catton's overdetermining superstructure will necessarily tend to puppetize her characters, mixing her diminishing structure with an ostentatiously deployed astrological conceit. The opening dramatis personae distributes astrological signs and qualities amongst the cast in a carefully balanced manner. Each of the twelve parts opens with an astrological chart like this—


And the novel repeatedly reverts to the divinatory interaction of celestial and terrestrial forces, not least in its title. Most importantly is the way The Luminaries treats its fantastical features, which remove the novel from the tenor of "realism" that its attention to historical verisimilitude otherwise works to establish. The magic relates, centrally, to love; and by the end of the book we realise that all the murder-mystery, gold-smuggling, and opium shenanigans have been forms of misdirection. The Luminaries is at heart a love story; and that love is rendered in the novel as a forcefully magical connection between two people. Melancholic Anna tries to shoot herself in the breast, but the bullet vanishes, reappearing in the breast of the man she loves, though he was nowhere near. Wounded, the shot man lies in the countryside. Anna stays in the town, but no matter how much she eats she grows thinner and thinner: the sustenance is mysteriously transferring itself to the convalescing body of her man.

The test of all this is readerly-emotional; and that it works (and it does work) reflects on a novel that is, in a coherent way, more Fantasy than History. This is Catton's way of dignifying and thus adding weight to her love story. More, it captures that sense we like to have—because it flatters our sensibilities and grounds our relationships—that boy meeting girl is meant to be; that it is written in the stars. That those stars are crossed, as they are here, only adds piquancy to the lovers' experience. In this, and despite its freightage of specific historical research, the world of The Luminaries is exactly as Fantastical as any magical land laboring under a prophecy, or mage's curse. And all the better for it.

Harvest UK cover

Harvest US cover

Jim Crace's Harvest is set in what appears at first blush to be an historical English rural world. The harvest is brought in by hand; technology is primitive; the villagers are not permitted to cross parish boundaries on pain of vagrancy. At the beginning of the story strangers arrive and build a temporary cot on the edge of the village from forest materials. By doing so, and lighting a fire, they are invoking some common law right to a place in the village. But there's another fire, in the dovecote attached to the master's grand house, and though innocent the three strangers (an old man, a younger man, and a woman) are blamed. All three have their hair cut off and the men are placed in the village stocks for a week. The older man breaks his neck and dies after a day and a night of this punishment. The woman (his daughter) goes missing. The master's horse is killed. Meanwhile, the master's cousin and his men come visiting, to map the town prior to maximizing its profit for their own benefit. All this is told through the narrative voice of one villager, elderly widower Walter Thirsk, himself an immigrant to the village once upon a time and someone still on the margins of things. It's not a long novel (75,000 words or so), and the events it relates take place over no more than a week. The prose is less self-consciously fine-wrought than some of Crace's earlier books, and the realization of the village less oblique and abstract than reviews had led me to believe. Indeed, quite a lot of the book is given over to concrete descriptions of practical activity: this is how you thresh; this is how you prepare an animal skin as vellum; this is how you set up a plough and plough a field.

I was surprised by how insistent reviewers have been that the world of Crace's novel is unhistorical. Adam Mars Jones in the LRB (a review well worth reading, incidentally) calls it "a historical novel that takes place outside history," adding:

The withholding of labels and reference points could hardly go further than it does here. We’re used to place and period being clearly indicated in chapter headings or film captions, and characters wearing name tags like supermarket cashiers, as if it were a job requirement. The village setting seems to be Tudor, but all evidence is circumstantial. (There's no proof positive that this is England, though such local surnames as Saxton, Derby, Higgs and Carr strongly suggest it.) There must be a royal head and name stamped on the coinage, but we have no way of knowing whose it is. No historical event intervenes or is even referred to.

But this isn't right, I think. Much of the day-to-day business of the village (the harvest; looking after the livestock) does have a timeless feel, it's true; but only because pre-Industrial farming remained more or less the same for millennia. The novel's uninterest in the doings of faraway kings and armies is of a part with its portrayal—a true one, I think—of the fundamental inwardness of village life. John Berger is good on this, too: for most humans, the red-letter days of foreign battles, royal births and scientific inventions are matters of perfect indifference. But there's one "historical" event that hangs very markedly over the characters of this book, and to which Crace is explicitly refers: the Enclosures. During the harvest the narrator marks the presence of a surveyor, mapping the land, and knows that it means the landowner is thinking of selling. After the harvest, the lord of the Manor takes advantage of the good humor and mild drunkenness of his celebrating villagers to promise them that the coming move from crops to sheep will enrich them all. But we know it won't; because we know how the Enclosures played out—landowners got richer, peasants were impoverished and often exiled from their ancestral lands. The narrator knows this too: "The organisation of all to our advantage that the master has in mind," he notes, sourly, "involves the closing and engrossment of our fields with walls and hedges, ditches, gates. He means to throw a halter round our lives. He means the clearing of our common land."

That so few reviewers have noted this as a historical marker is an oddity; because, although wars and the doings of kings still crowd history books, the Enclosures were one of the great, and most calamitous, events in our history. They began in Tudor times, but reached a peak during the years 1760-1820. This by itself places Harvest somewhere mid- to late 18th-century.

But in another sense Mars Jones's reaction is perfectly understandable. There are intimations that the world of Harvest is not historical. The narrator (one of the men working the harvest) describes a field of ripened grain as "showing us at last its ochres and its cadmiums, its ambers and its chromes" (p. 6). Cadmium isn't named as a metal until 1822, and isn't used as the bluish-white paint pigment (Crace's referent here, clearly) until the 20th century; chrome in this sense, the OED tells me, dates from 1876. The cousin with legal rights to the land talks of "Profit, Progress and Enterprise" (p. 186), which sounds much more 20th-, or even 21st-century than 18th. Later in the book smoke from a chimney is "a mauvish scarf" (p. 240); but "mauve" is an artificial color not invented and therefore not named (by chemist Sir William Henry Perkin) until 1856. Are these slips by the author? Or is the point, subtly, to destabilize our sense of historical time? ("If I was feeling fitter and less damaged" Walter says at one point, and that part of me that roars "if I were, you idiot!" also wonders if it is Walter or Crace who is ignorant of the proper use of the subjunctive.)

This in turn speaks to the particular textual strategies of Crace's worldbuilding; and it's this that gives the novel a more Fantasy than Historical flavor. Not the occasional anachronisms, although they may make the attentive reader pause; but rather the studied absence of the usual paraphernalia of historical writing. To start with there is no church in this village, although space has been set aside for the building of one—though surely a village as immemorially old as this is presented as being would have had a church, or at least a chapel. But it's more than just the church; there's none of the stuff that, in historical reality, anchored village life to the national whole. There's no law court, no constables; no tavern; no nearby villages. England is hardly big enough for a village to exist three days ride from the next village; and indeed the impression is that this place exists not in England, but in some Englished version of the endless steppes of Russia. This is a village rendered with lots of closely observed, quotidian detail but deliberately stripped of all the deictic markers that actual real-world villages have—not least, a name. It is this that aligns Crace’s imagined placemaking with Fantasy, where the real-world fixtures and fittings are waved away and replaced with ones that relate to the specifica of the Imaginary. There are, after all, no churches or law courts in Hobbiton either.

As Fantasy, Harvest is a strangely thin read; and I finished the novel with odd dissatisfactions gnawing at me. Something doesn't come together properly about this text, I think; or perhaps it would be more precise to say, the glitches, the tonal oddnesses and the off-kilterness of the novel (exactly the things we associate with Crace as a writer) don’t gel with the as-ye-sow-ye-shall-reap moral structure of the novel. The close-minded villagers mistreat the innocent outsiders, and are punished. It is, as a larger structure, too snip-snap.

A Tale for the Time Being UK cover

A Tale for the Time Being US cover

Judging by reviews, a lot of readers have found Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being charming. But charm is not a universal solvent; what charms one reader may nauseate another. My own reaction to the novel was not so extreme as this latter; but I found the charm intermittent and the narrative meandering. Reviews quoted on my copy call it "intricate," "beautifully interwoven," and even "a Chinese box of a novel." But it struck me as fussy without intricacy, as involuted without enough of a larger pattern, and in dire need of a strict editorial pruning.

The conceit, here, is of a diary written—overwritten, actually, on an edition of Proust's A La Recherche—by a young Japanese girl called Naoko Yasutani. This, together with various letters and a watch, have been carefully wrapped in layers of plastic bags and cast, or else washed away, into the Pacific. Later, this parcel is collected off the western Canadian coast by a writer called Ruth, living in a remote former whaling town with her partner Oliver. Ruth reads the diaries and tries to discover the truth behind them, to locate their author. Was the diary washed out to sea by the terrible Japanese tsunami of 2011? Is Naoko still alive? It ought, in our internetted and multiconnected age, be an easy business to find out; and Ozeki has to strain her plot rather in order for Ruth to keep drawing a blank.

The strongest parts of the novel are the diary excerpts themselves, and especially the voice of Nao. She is fifteen years old and a Japanese national, but having spent a long portion of her youth in America (her father worked for a US computer company; after it went bust the family was forced back to Tokyo jobless and poor) she is treated as an outsider by the kids at her school. We read her diary, in which the chirpy, teen tone is well realized; and her energy and ingenuousness and anger are an effective filter through which to encounter her accounts of genuinely horrible school bullying and, later, sexual exploitation. The perkiness of Nao's voice prevents this dark stuff coming off merely as grim; and in Nao's interactions with her 104-year-old great-grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist monk, the novel finds a core of health that sustains it through the sometimes overegged traumas. Nao's dad, Haruki, ashamed at his joblessness, continually contemplates and several times attempts suicide. This is linked to his great granduncle, also called Haruki, who was a kamikaze pilot in the war. We read the letters sent by this Haruki #1 (as the novel calls him), and understand that he was an intelligent, sensitive man, a student of philosophy and reader of Proust, who unlike his great-grandnephew had no desire to kill himself, but has to anyway.

But though Nao is a memorable narrator, there's a lot of chaff in the book too. Foremost here is the half of the book given over to Ruth, her day-to-day life, her writer's block, her fascination with the diary, and her up-down relationship with Oliver. As if trying to compensate for the dreary blah of all this, these chapters are also sprinkled with various Interesting Facts, concerning ocean currents, Japanese crows, quantum mechanics, and the like (similarly Nao’s sections are brambled with myriad footnotes explaining all her Japanese references). Some of these QI data are indeed quite interesting, but overall it clogs rather than illuminates the novel. The Ruth half of the novel has nowhere to go, and goes there slowly without striking very many sparks. More, the middle portion of the novel, where Nao leaves her horrible school and stays for the summer with her great-grandmother is (it pains me to say so) dull. The Zen is clearly and eloquently laid out for us—Ozeki is herself a Zen Buddhist priest—and I don't want to sound like a spiritual luddite. But Zen is by its nature dissolutory of the sorts of dramatic conflicts and tensions upon which narrative depends. And there are aspects of the representation of Japanese culture that made me wince, in my white European male anxiousness. "Muji sang an R. Kelly number called 'I Believe I Can Fly,' but when she sang it it sounded like 'I Bereave I Can Fry' which totally cracked me up" (p. 243)—a joke that would not have been out of place in Peter Sellers's Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu. To say nothing of the stylistic clumsiness of its "it it," in the middle there. (Ozeki's prose is a little wobbly throughout, actually; mostly serviceable but with various lapses and fallings away).

The fantastical aspect of the novel is not immediately apparent. It is only at the end that we realize just how thoroughly science-fictional the novel is. The opening sentences spells out the double-meaning of the novel’s title: "My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? . . . A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us." But time in this novel is not carceral. The novel is as much a piece of chronic argonaut-ing as Wells's subgenre-defining Time Machine (so, incidentally, is Proust's Recherche; but let's not get into that here). By focusing, in appropriately Zen manner, on the now, the time being in the other sense of the phrase, Ozeki's narrative paradoxically opens up past and future. At one point Nao has a conversation with her dead grand-uncle, and we assume that he is a ghost—that is, we read this exchange in the tradition of Japanese fantastika. Earlier Nao had seen a supernatural giant caterpillar-demon climbing up towards a temple, but looking again she had realized it was just a gaggle of elderly pilgrims. Maybe her encounter with her dead ancestor was like this: a hallucination, or even some kind of misunderstanding. But at the end we get an infodumped set of lecturettes (extended into no less than six infodumpy appendices) on Schrödinger's cat, Hugh Everett, and alternative realities; and only here do we understand that Ozeki is trying to fold together Zen philosophy and quantum mechanics to take the "spooky" out of "spooky action at a difference." Ruth and Nao, though they never meet, are connected with one another—this is what reading means. The question of whether Nao is alive or dead is revealed to be a strictly Schrödinger one: she is both alive and dead, in a quantum-state superposition.

How convincing you find this will depend, in part, on your tolerance for the project of Grand Unified Theorizing religion and science. Me, I remain a skeptic, down to my rationalist marrow; and it didn’t seem to me that Ozeki does much with her alt-reality denouement ("is death even possible in a universe of many worlds?" [p. 400]. Uh, I'm going to go with—yes, duh, of course). But you may be more convinced that I was. It seems to me to depend upon us pointedly not paying attention to the man behind the curtain; but I accept that for some a cloud of unknowing can be a spiritual and uplifting thing, and not mere obfuscation.

The Testament of Mary UK cover

The Testament of Mary US cover

Finally we have Colm Tóibín’s stabat mater, The Testament of Mary; a 100-page novella retelling the life and death of Christ from the point of view of his mother. This is a fantasy of a particular kind, an imaginative reworking of religious myth that is interested not in the supernatural superstructure—what in genre Fantasy we might think of as the "rules" of magic—but rather in the individual human costs entailed. Tóibín's Mary is a mother forced to watch her son tortured to death; the grief she feels is extraordinarily well rendered, both as a fresh agony (as she watches the crucifixion itself, in a staggeringly well-written passage) and as a soured long-term grief (as she relates her narrative towards the end of her life). It is the way those two iterations of grief work upon one another, the way bereavement is simultaneously sedimented into the routines of life long after the loss, and yet still painfully fresh in the memory, that is the real theme of the novel. Tóibín achieves wonders of understated eloquence with this mournful topic. But what is particularly interesting here is the way Tóibín does not deny the magic of his imagined world. Mary is wearily dismissive of the attempts by the disciples to establish her own virginity and the divine fatherhood of her son ("then, patiently, he began to explain to me what had happened to me at my son's conception, as the other nodded and encouraged him I barely listened. I had other things to do," [p. 99]). But at the same time, she records several magical events, specifically Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead and the marriage feast at Cana where water is turned into wine, as well as Jesus walking on the water.

Like Crace, Tóibín goes a long way towards decontextualizing his worldbuilding from the usual markers. There's no doubt that this is a retelling of the New Testament story, of course; and some of the specific details are familiar from traditional accounts. But Mary gives almost nobody a name. She refuses even to name her son. Mary Magdalene and Miriam are named, but the various male evangelists are simply "they" (the novel's opening sentence is: "they appear more often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient with me and with the world"). The only place named is Jerusalem; both the political and theological contexts of the events narrated are pared almost entirely away.

The one exception to this is Mark, who appears as a major character: an aggressive figure, in many ways, eager to hasten Christ's martyrdom and advance the cause of the new religion. And this in turn goes some way towards explaining why Tóibín includes the three miracles that he does include. The walking on the water is in several gospels, but the story of Lazarus and the feast at Cana are in John, only; not in Mark. Which is to say, Tóibín's Marian testament is structured as a specific rebuttal to the Gospel of Mark. Where that latter ends abruptly with Christ's crucifixion and the empty tomb, Tóibín's story is all about the aftermath of that grievous event. Where Mark stresses both the Messianic Secret ("And he asked them, But who say ye that I am? Peter answereth and saith unto him, Thou art the Christ. And he charged them that they should tell no man of him"; Mark 8:29-30) and the globally atoning nature of Jesus's death, Mary's perspective is that of somebody for whom Christ is a known person rather than a spiritual mystery; someone who cannot dilute her own individual experience of this event by re-imagining it as a global happening: "'The world?' I asked. 'All of it?' 'Yes,' the man who had been my guide said, 'all of it.' I must have looked perplexed. 'She does not understand,' he said to his companion, and it was true, I did not understand" (p. 99).

In other words, what is interesting about Tóibín's tale is precisely that it does not take the more obvious route of retelling the gospel story in purely materialist terms. There is magic in his imagined world, and that magic has to do with the overcoming of death, with a wedding, with calming the storm. Opposed to this magic is not mundanity, or materialism, because the magic Tóibín writes about is woven closely in with these things. Opposed to this magic is cruelty. Early in the novel, after she has affirmed that "I will not say any thing that is not true," she remembers "about the rabbits." It is a memory of the crucifixion, or of the day of the crucifixion ("that day, the day he wanted to details of, the day he wanted me to go over and over for him"):

In the middle of all the terror and shrieking and the crying out, a man came close to me who had a cage with a huge angry bird trapped in it, the bird all sharp beak and indignant gaze; the wings could not stretch to their full width and this confinement seemed to make the bird frustrated. It should have been flying, hunting, swooping on its prey.

The man also carried a bag, which I gradually learned was almost half full of live rabbits, little bundles of fierce and terrorized energy. And during those hours on that hill, during the hours that went more slowly than any other hours, he plucked the rabbits one by one from the sack and edged them into the barely opened cage. The bird went for some part of their soft underbelly first, opening the rabbit up until its guts spilled out, and then of course its eyes. The bird did not seem to be hungry, although perhaps it suffered from a deep hunger than even the flesh of writhing rabbits could not satisfy. (p. 6)

This vignette (the cage "half full of half-dead, wholly uneaten rabbits exuding strange squealing sounds"; the man looking "at the cage and then at the scene around him, almost smiling with dark delight, the sack not yet empty") symbolically configures the crucifixion as the ghastly and pointless manifestation of empty predation as a universal principle. Mary herself, though shown as being a devout Jew in her youth, carries in her old age a small silver figure of Artemis—a goddess rather than a male god, but also a hunter, like the bird. The pitilessness of the men surrounding her, single-visioning a new world religion, is an iteration of the same sort of male pitilessness that tortured her son to death. It is pitiless because it is impatient to translate the grief into something else, rather than deal with it as grief.

The fantasy of The Testament of Mary in other words is, perhaps, more "magic realist" than genre Fantastical. Yet those two acts of categorization have always seemed to me to muddle more than they elucidate. Back in 2009 David Simpson wondered about the vogue for magical realist novels; and more specifically, wondered why books mostly consumed in western cities are so often set "in the (to us) remote corners of the undeveloped or developing world, the colours, smells and flavours are more intense, life is more meaningful and death less absolute than in the grey industrial or post-industrial landscapes of the north." Pursuing that question he cites Moretti:

Moretti has speculated that this novel [One Hundred Years of Solitude] and others like it speak to the world system from the periphery in ways that would be impossible if they were set in Europe or North America: they hold out the possibility of re-enchantment in our disenchanted world.

That's right, I think; and also explains much of the continuing appeal of both Fantasy and Sense-of-Wonder SF, precisely as modes "marginal" to the literary mainstream. It also happens to be relevant to Tóibín's project in The Testament of Mary. This is a novel about re-enchantment, and the obstacles to it; and a novel that very specifically tells a story set not only on the peripheries of the Roman Empire, but re-peripheralizes (as it were) the role of the speaker. His Mary is not the semi-divine object of worship, but a marginalized human figure whose bereavement is made worse by the pushy male attempts to marginalize her further.

It remains to be seen (of course) whether the prominence of "the Fantastic" in this year's Man Booker shortlist is indicative of a move away from the narrow confines of "realism" towards a literary culture aerated by the steam of Wolfean evaporated genres. My hunch is that Catton will win the prize this year, for a novel that is perhaps the one most saturated with a fantastic aesthetic. This could be the start of something bigger. Or not.

Adam Roberts is a writer and critic of SF. He lives a little way west of London.

Adam Roberts is a writer and critic of SF. He lives a little way west of London.
5 comments on “The 2013 Man Booker Prize Shortlist”

"Last year's list was not promising in this regard: not a single title on the shortlist—or, indeed, the longlist—came even close to genre."
Just to note that Ned Beauman's The Teleportation Accident and Sam Thompson's Communion Town - both on last year's longlist - show clear genre influence and, in Thompson's case at least, clearly acknowledge it. You can also make a genre argument for Alison Moore's 2012-Booker-shortlisted The Lighthouse - Moore has published numerous short fictions in genre venues, and The Lighthouse itself has a definite horror/slipstream vibe. Let's hope that all this truly is the start of something bigger, Booker-wise.
Great write-up, Adam!

I remember hearing Donald Ray Pollock (The Devil All the Time; Knockemstiff) talking two years ago about how many readers saw "genre" elements in his writings, an assessment with which he concurred. Thing was, "genre" there referred to elements of mysteries, Gothic, and horror.
When I've read the Booker Prize shortlists (and some of the longlisted titles) in recent years, I've noticed various "genres" (historical, romantic, Western, as well as those of a slightly more fantastical nature) being included. The amounts depended upon the year/judges, but I cannot recall a strictly "literary" (or rather, bourgeois contemporary realist) novel shortlist; at least 1-2 had elements in common with the various literary genres that were not BCR. Hilary Mantel's two novels certainly are historical fictions that play upon the expectations inherent in that field. The nominated Sisters Brothers definitely depends upon Western tropes for its narrative. But yet it is interesting how in some circles that "genre" has become conflated with "the genres of science fiction and fantasy," as though those were the most genre-ist of the genres.
Just a thought based on a very small part of your nice roundup. I do think the Ozeki is slightly better in the style department, but mostly agree with the others (haven't yet read the Lahiri or Catton).

Good post. It would be interesting to look at the ebb and flow of the fantastic through the Man Booker shortlists over the years - perhaps an impossible task or, at the very least, a painstaking one. In 1981 for example the likes of Rushdie and Lessing were on the shortlist, and Brian Aldiss was a judge. No shortage of *genre* that year.

I'm about about 50 pages from the end of A Tale for the Time Being, where it's all starting to get a little trippy, and unless there's a very big cat to be pulled out of the bag (ahem) I can only agree with the assessment here. Nao is a wonderful creation, and her sections are pretty much the only reason I've made it this far, as the 'Ruth' sections are gratingly didactic and intrusive, and usually just plain dull. I feel like I've bought a dvd of a fantastic film and got it home to find the only available soundtrack is the director's commentary.

It strikes me that the two “no genre at all” writers — Lahiri and Bulawayo — are both writers of color with narratives that start in Africa or India but eventually turn to the immigrant experience in the United States. Does it surprise you that these books incorporate no genre elements? Look on our shelves. How many books by writers with non-Anglo cultural backgrounds are published by the big genre imprints? Dig through the archives of our most influential reviewers. How many of them reject as polemical or political or social commentary those works that are written from outside of the white, mainstream US-UK genre perspective? We’re all about seeing the ways literary writers disdain genre, but not so quick note the ways (and whys and hows) we earn that disdain.


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