When the Man Booker Prize longlist of thirteen novels was announced three weeks ago, I rushed out to my local public library to take out the four that were available on its shelves. Three of the four were by American born writers as this is the first year that the competition has been internationalized to include authors who were not from the UK or from the nations of the former British Commonwealth.
Three of the novels were focused on the arts and the creative mind. Siri Hustvedt’s epistolary novel, The Blazing World, relates the tale of a woman artist whose career ambitions were stifled during her marriage to her famous art critic husband. She had observed that lesser male talents than herself were achieving considerable acclaim in the Manhattan art scene. Once widowed, she arranges to mask her work by creating three charade exhibits, fronted my male artists in cahoots with her. These exhibits are successful of course, revealing the true nature of the two-faced, male-dominated, and misogynistic New York phony-baloney art world.
Hustvedt’s protagonist, Harriet “Harry” Burden, is an empathetic woman, who the reader wholeheartedly sides with as the plot is unraveled through revelations in letters and other documents. In general, the narrative flows nice and easy, although, all too often, it is sidetracked with excessive footnotes (I admit my prejudice to the use of footnotes in fiction).
The second novel with a focus of the creative arts, literature in particular, is History of the Rain by Niall Williams. It’s a wonderful book, with beautiful lyrical prose that comes so naturally from so many Irish writers. From her home in County Clare, by the banks of the River Shannon, the book’s narrator, Ruth Swain, tells a fable-like story how her Englishman father, Virgil, through serendipitous circumstances escapes near death in the trenches of France during the First World War, winding up a property owner in rural Ireland.
Literature and the power of the word give strength and purpose to the lives of both Ruth and Virgil. They are the emotional ballasts to deal with life’s immense heartbreaks and sorrows. Transformative and transcending are adjectives that come to mind as I try to summarize the emotional impact of this book on the reader.
Orfeo, by Evanston-born writer Richard Powers, is a novel with a Breaking Bad feel throughout. Our anti-hero, Peter Els, a musical composer and retired adjunct professor at a small college, is obsessed the infinite possibilities of genetics that can be created in a chemistry lab. In post-9/11 America, we are all watched one way or another, and Els’ chemical explorations soon find that they are on the FBI radar. This compels the good professor to go on the lam.
I really liked this book, especially its rapidly paced narrative and its depiction of college town America, specifically Bloomington, Indiana and Champaign, Illinois. I even got into the modern music theory of the book, although Philip Glass and his kindred spirits remain unkind to my listening sensibilities.
This novel really is about good intentions, gone awry, which in a sense is typical of so much of the American experience.
The book that I liked least in this first batch of longlist reads was Karen Joy Fowler’s, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. It depicts more college town America (Bloomington, Indiana again) and another main character on the lam. I just couldn’t get into the head of the narrator, Rosemary Cooke, and her (and other family members as well) particular obsession with her sister, the chimp, Fern. Yes, folks, I did say sister.
There was just too much animal rights activism and too much “well chimps are really quite like humans” sentimentality in this book for my liking. Frankly, how this book made the longlist, and The Goldfinch was excluded remains a puzzlement to me.