In 1957, my aunt and uncle went to New York City on their honeymoon to take in the Big Apple and see some Broadway shows. There was this little-known musical they passed over because they hadn’t heard much about it and it was new and they didn’t want to waste their money. That’s how they missed seeing the original cast of “West Side Story” early in its Broadway run.
I often wonder what it must have felt like to be in the audience on the opening night of a show that was a huge hit. Would I have known, for instance, that “Death of a Salesman” or “Rent” would hold the place in the American theater canon they do now or would I have been bored or underwhelmed?
(Full disclosure: “Rent” is about a bunch of irritating kids who don’t want to grow up — I felt that the first time I saw it and the second time and the third time, so I likely would not have picked up on that one’s success. “Salesman” is, well, “Salesman” and I have no doubt I would have felt its weight immediately.)
I can be that way with books, too. Would I have recognized the beauty of a Pulitzer Prize-winner on first reading? I don’t think so. I read “Tinkers” by Paul Harding long before it won the coveted award in 2010. I chose it, like I choose too many books, because it was short and I thought I could muster the attention span to finish it. Whoops. I found it irritating and wan. It may have been my mood at the time, it may be a beautiful book upon rereading (which I won’t do), but when a 191-page book feels 50 pages too long, there’s something wrong. Finishing it ended up a chore and when, at long last, I did, I said to myself, (I swear) “This is the kind of book that wins awards, but it’s not the kind of book anyone likes reading.”
So this year, when the Man Booker prize people announced their shortlist, I challenged myself to read the six nominees. I’d only heard of one before and that’s because my wife read it long before it even put on the long list for the honor. I was disappointed to find that only three of the six were available in the United States, but that turned out to be a good thing: Six large books in one month? Not going to happen.
I read two and listened to one on CD and here are brief reviews.
“We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” by Karen Joy Fowler is the book my wife read and I listened to. I don’t know how she heard about it, but she’s like that. She’ll find really interesting books before I do. This novel, of the three nominees I read, was the one that held together most for me and it was most satisfying in terms of story arc and structure. The book starts with the narrator telling us she’s starting in the middle of her story, but still, it was pretty linear. She tells the long-term effect — sometimes funny, often tragic — of a social experiment her parents put the family through: She was raised with a chimpanzee as though they were sisters. It’s not as bizarre as it may sound. Fowler has a nice light touch — and the narrator such an engaging spirit — that you almost don’t realize how deep this book gets as it meditates on the meaning of family and the way humans and animals interact.
Speaking of an engaging narrator, the conflicted dentist in Joshua Ferris’ “To Rise Again at a Decent Hour” is someone I would enjoy having a beer or six with. He’s a complete tool, but a benign one. The story begins when someone creates a website using his name and tweets what seem like anti-Semitic riffs that attract attention. Of course he’s not involved in either the website or the tweets, and his efforts to shut them down lead only to more trouble. Before long, he’s being told he’s part of — and the likely savior of — an ancient and nearly extinct race. Ferris puts a lot into the back story of this race that dates back almost to the dawn of man. This attention to detail is commendable, I guess. I started skimming because it was difficult to follow and I just wanted to get back to the dentist’s story, which was essentially one of just growing the hell up.
The winner this year was “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Australian Richard Flanagan. This is a story of a man haunted by his time in a POW camp during World War II, where the men were tortured, starved and forced to build a railway from Thailand to Burma. The description of what happens to these POWs is heartbreaking and disturbing and graphic as hell. Do not read this book while eating! There’s also a love story, one of those epic loves about two people who shouldn’t be involved, but are, and are separated by war and life. You know the story will eventually bring the two lovers together again to show the redemptive power of all-consuming love. But you’d be wrong. The love story peters out, oddly, and irritatingly. Kind of like this review.
One interesting thing, two of the books — “Beside Ourselves” and “Narrow Road” — use quotes from 17th Century haiku master Matsuo Basho to make points. Not sure what that means, but I thought I’d mention it.
Anyway, would I have read these books and said, “This better win the Man Booker Prize this year, dammit.” No. Each had its problems and not one held me all the way, though “Narrow Road” came the closest. I wonder whether that says more about the books, this year’s Man Booker judges or me.