Since 2014, when the Man Booker Prize selection process internationalized, thirteen novels written by American authors have been longlisted. Four in 2014; four in 2015; and now five in 2016. Two were shortlisted in both 2014 and 2015, but none won. The last three Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer all surprisingly failed to make a longlist. This year’s group of five is the weakest crop of them all. I predict one, maybe two at most, will barely make the shortlist, and certainly will not be a serious contender for the winner.
The five American novels on the 2016 longlist are Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh; Hystopia by David Means; My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout; The Sellout by Paul Beatty; and Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves. The best of the lot is Eileen, a book exceedingly dark, yet in its most brilliant moments Moshfegh creates agonizing dramatic tension for the reader reminiscent of the best of Daphne du Maurier.
In fact, an America of darkness and gloom seems to pervade all these novels. Beatty’s book, a parody of American institutional racism, though is fraught with rollicking black humor (sorry for the double entendre). I occasionally felt that I was in the middle of a Chris Rock comedy routine. Hystopia depicts an America run amok with crazed Vietnam War veterans, and the government’s attempt to reprogram their unhinged minds.
America’s inhumane prison system in the 1920s and 1930s in the Deep South (Work Like Any Other) and its inhumane juvenile incarceration system in New England of the 1950s (Eileen) are exposed as great historical wrongs. The impact of poverty and the insidious vestiges of puritanical roots on an American family are pervasive in the pages of My Name is Lucy Barton.
At this point, let me just say, that these five longlisted authors are all fine writers. I am just questioning the Booker’s judges on their selections for the best of American fiction this year. Perhaps in the year of the rise (and likely fall) of Trump in the States, the Man Booker judges may be warping their 2016 selection process with an exaggerated political lens, rather than a purely literary one? Just asking.