The Jhalak Prize, pt. 1: Speak Gigantular and Augustown

Speak Gigantular, by Irenosen Okojie


The blurb on the back of Speak Gigantular is terrific. It primes you for “worlds where lovelorn aliens abduct innocent coffee shop waitresses, where the London Underground is inhabited by the ghosts of errant Londoners caught between here and the hereafter, where insensitive men cheat on their mistresses”. And this delightfully weird, unpredictable, electric short story collection delivers all of these things. Often, you don’t quite know what’s going on until the very end, as with the story “Walk With Sleep”. Its two protagonists, Haji and October, come together in the tunnels under London, but parallel narrative strands describe their lives above ground; I didn’t understand how these two time periods related to each other until the story’s final pages. Okojie keeps her exposition to an absolute minimum, assuming that the reader will be able to use dialogue and detail to work out the trajectory of a story for herself. Most of the time she’s right, though occasionally I would have liked a little more authorial guidance: “Please Feed Motion”, for instance, a bizarre and beautiful fable about an imprisoned woman and the statues of London, left me baffled at the end, wondering what exactly we were meant to be concluding (and what on earth the title meant.)

But that’s a risk with magical realism, which is the territory of Okojie’s stories here, and the fact that they don’t always succeed only reinforces their ambitiousness. The ones that worked best for me were the ones that merely glanced at the uncanny. “Why is Pepe Canary Yellow?” is a painfully good, mildly surreal story about a man who robs banks dressed as a chicken; the weirdness here is the kind that is actually believable, and when Okojie delves into Pepe the bank robber’s backstory, it remains convincing: we know that this kind of misfortune happens all the time, for no good reason. On the other hand, “Animal Parts” is a highly fantastical story about a Danish woman named Ann whose attempts to conceive a child with the help of a sperm bank result in a son, Henri, who has a tail. The end of that story is uncompromisingly violent—emotionally as well as physically—and it left me pinned and gasping in the same way as a good Angela Carter story does.

My one quibble with this book is in the copy-editing, which is going to sound churlish but is nevertheless important. It’s published by a small press, Jacaranda Books, and I can believe that money for a full-time professional copy-editor is possibly not at the top of their priorities list. But mistakes like “dessert” instead of “desert” (twice) and “mushroom and leak soup” are not the sorts of mistakes that you need a professional to spot. If a casual reader can spot an error at first glance, the editor in charge of this book should have done so too. It does a disservice to Okojie’s vivid, untrammeled imagination to leave clangers like this.

Augustown, by Kei Miller

28447227More magical realism, this time in novel form, from the Jamaican poet Kei Miller, who won the Forward Prize last year. Miller’s publishers, at least, know what they’re doing—no infelicitous typos here—and the prose is of that assured sort that lets you sink into it with confidence from page one, knowing that you can trust it; that you don’t have to be on your guard for an awkward turn of phrase or a poorly executed line of dialogue. It is such a relief to be able to relax into a book like this.

A blurb on the back suggests that we are to see the novel as sly meta-fiction, despite its comfortably conversational tone, and I think that’s accurate. Miller tells a story (or two) within a story; we start out focusing on the little boy Kaia, coming down John Golding Road in tears because of an incident that happened at school that day. But we quickly dive into other stories: his great-aunt Ma Taffy says to him, “Did I ever tell you ’bout the flying preacherman?” and we’re off into the story of Master Bedward, a real-life Jamaican prophet who assured his flock in 1920 that the day of reckoning was nigh. In Ma Taffy’s retelling—and she positions herself as an eyewitness—Bedward really did begin to ascend into the sky that day, but “Babylon”—the system, The Man, in this case represented by the white police force—pulled him back down. There is a lot in Augustown about the history of Rastafari, the ways in which its practitioners have historically been suppressed and unfairly targeted, the weight of oppression that makes what happens to Kaia at school an injury not to be borne. But Miller does it all carefully, almost colloquially; there is very little in the way of overt parallel-drawing. You feel mostly as if you are being told a lot of stories. Only halfway through the book do you start to realise how relevant they all are to one another.

This is true, too, of the personal relationships in the book. Kaia has a particular connection to the principal of his school, who in turn has a particular connection to the maid who cleans her house, but they don’t know this; in the crowd of angry Rastafari marching to the school there is a man, Bongo Moody, who has a particularly strong reason for being angry, but few other people know it. In almost any other novel, the unknown connections between these people would be the focus, but Miller doesn’t look at them too closely. He just holds them before us, along with all the other events of the book, and lets us realise the implications. It takes a strong writer to resist the temptation to over-explain, but this restraint and subtlety are characteristic of Augustown. I’d highly recommend it to people who liked Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, and also to people who didn’t: it’s much less violent and sweary, while also exploring Jamaican history and social issues in magnificently confident prose.

This is the inaugural year of the Jhalak Prize, for the best book written by a BAME author in the UK. Both of these books were longlisted; Speak Gigantular has made the shortlist. I’m reading my way through some of the other longlisted books and will continue to post thoughts on them.

Speak Gigantular was published by Jacaranda Books on 3 January 2017. Augustown was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 14 July 2016.

Marlon James’s Booker win is bloody brilliant news

The best man won, y’all. I don’t think anyone is seriously disputing that. Here’s why:

1. A Brief History of Seven Killings is simply an amazing book: polyphonic, violent, emotive, compassionate, unsentimental. Other books on the shortlist were similar in length and ambition, but not one of them had the explosive energy of A Brief History, nor the ability to be unceasingly gripping for all of its 700-odd pages.

2. It suggests that the Man Booker Prize isn’t locked in to staid, standard literary realism. Let’s be honest, this has been a worry for a while. When I reviewed A Brief History, I wrote that I wanted it to win, but doubted that it would because the prize seemed too historically conservative to value a novel like this. The fact that this year’s panel proved me wrong is also great for another reason:

3. It will renew general interest in literary culture. I’ve already had a conversation (impassioned, evangelical) with two of my coworkers, both of whom were a) very interested in the book, and b) confessed that they ordinarily avoid Booker winners like the plague. If this year’s panel had tried, they couldn’t have done better at announcing that the stereotypical insularity of British literary culture needed a shake-up.

The diversity point seems too much like tokenism to mention, but it does please me hugely that another Commonwealth writer has won, and a writer, moreover, who is not interested in the white, middle-class concerns typical of longlisters like Andrew O’Hagan, Bill Clegg and (dare I say it) Anne Tyler. The world wants more varied stories, and there are more varied stories out there to be told. It’s delightful to see the literary establishment finally acknowledging that.

Also, this whole scenario tickles me for some reason. Maybe it’s because his hairband matches her shawl. 

I reviewed A Brief History of Seven Killings in August; you can read what I thought of it here.

Man Booker Shortlist Feelings

Image from the Guardian

This is totally brilliant–the two Man Booker longlisted books that I’ve managed so far are also on the shortlist! That’s nearly half my work already done (although I doubt that I will actually be able to manage the entire shortlist by the date of the announcement, I’ll give it a try)!

A quick rundown:

A Brief History of Seven Killings (link to review) was one of the best books I’ll read all year. I said I didn’t think it would win, but I’m now having to reconsider–obviously the judges have some sense of taste and discretion. It’s a magisterial exercise in controlling a sprawling plot and maintaining two dozen-odd separate voices; the only thing that I thought might challenge its place on the shortlist would have been a judicial tendency to prefer the contemporary-realism on offer from most of the white/Anglo writers. With most of them out of the way, the most plausible challenger to this book’s ultimate victory is A Little Life.

The Fishermen (link also to review), by Chigozie Obioma, is impressive too, albeit in a totally different sort of way. Control of voice is still the key to its success; having a child narrator who isn’t obnoxious and still gives the reader the information she needs is hard, and Obioma does it. He also integrates themes of classical tragedy and postcolonial trauma in a way that never feels forced or showy. I doubt this will win, though, pitted against the other big beasts on the list.

A Spool of Blue Thread has now made it onto both the Man Booker and Baileys Prize shortlists, which means there has got to be something to it, but I still can’t bring myself to be more than marginally interested in it, given a plot blurb. If it wins, I’ll read it and get some sense of what this is all about; if not, I won’t seek it out. I’ve never read any Anne Tyler before; maybe if I had, I’d be more keen.

A Little Life is the least surprising presence on the shortlist. Pretty sure it was Yanagihara’s contest to lose from the get-go; now it’ll be interesting to see if her book has a different effect in the context of a smaller, more focused list. This is the one I most want to have read by the time of the announcement.

Satin Island‘s inclusion surprises me. As I think I said before, the premise seems entirely slick and heartless, a bit cynical and ironic and po-mo, a sort of dying gesture towards the cult of David Foster Wallace. I’m still not about to back it for the win, but perhaps there’s more to it than its summary would make it seem.

Finally, we have The Year of the Runaways, which I expect will stand or fall as a book based on its ability to make us care about a very current-events sort of premise, and as a contestant based on its ability, again, to measure up to James and Yanagihara’s books. I know next to nothing about it, but it might be the feel-good entry. Or it might be brilliant! Anything is possible.

I’m genuinely shocked to see that Lila isn’t on the list. Marilynne Robinson writes beautiful prose that conveys humane, complex ideas; if there’s a better description of what a good novelist does, let me know, but I rather think she fits that one. If anything was almost guaranteed to be on the shortlist, it was Lila. I wonder whether that’s the very reason the judges left it off. You’d like to think not, but there are all sorts of behind-the-scenes decisions being made…

Anyone have any other feelings about the shortlist? Anyone read some, most or all of the books? Anyone think they can confidently predict a winner?!

A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James

There’s a version of this story that’s not really about him, but about the people around him, the ones who come and go that might actually provide a bigger picture…

In December 1976, Bob Marley’s home in Jamaica was invaded by seven gunmen. Marley, his wife Rita, and his manager Don Taylor were all shot; Rita and Taylor were seriously injured but made full recoveries, while Marley was hit in the chest and the arm. Two days later, with the bullet still in his arm because taking it out would have caused irreparable nerve damage, Marley played the Smile Jamaica concert, an event that was intended to promote peace between the country’s two major political parties. At the end of that month, he left Jamaica for England. He didn’t return until his death five years later.

None of the men who had attempted to assassinate him were ever found by police.

From this stew of national mythology, conspiracy theory and gang violence, Marlon James pulled a novel. In the Acknowledgments, he writes that he only figured out how to structure the book when a friend told him to read As I Lay Dying. The multiple narrators do echo Faulkner’s strategy, as does the way that the narrative circles around events, telling and retelling them from different perspectives. The more I thought about this, the more I saw at least one major similarity between Faulkner’s project and James’s: they’re both trying to demonstrate how a national or regional culture can utterly sway and destroy individual lives, while at the same time, individuals are the very ones who are creating that destructiveness. Faulkner’s canvas is small and basically apolitical, while James’s is epic (a word difficult to avoid using when discussing this book) and deeply political, but their character-drivenness makes them kissing cousins.

It helps to know a little about Jamaican history, and about Cold War politics, when reading this book. From what I already knew, and from a bit of judicious Googling, I gathered the following: there were two major political parties in post-WWII Jamaica, the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP), which was centre-right, and the People’s National Party (PNP), which was socialist. Both the JLP and the PNP used street gangs to help them whip votes in West Kingston—we’re repeatedly told that whoever wins West Kingston wins the whole of Kingston, and whoever wins Kingston wins Jamaica. Marley’s “peace concert” was PNP propaganda, or at least it was seen to be, despite the claims that it was meant to foster bipartisanship. Meanwhile, the CIA, with all of its customary paranoid alacrity, was desperate to prevent a socialist government in Jamaica, considering how close it was to Castro’s Cuba. And this is all before the assassination attempt; after it, we have to contend with the Jamaican organized-crime syndicate in New York and its alliances with the Colombian drug cartels.

This complexity is necessary because everything is intensely interrelated. The Bob Marley figure in the book is referred to simply as The Singer. (Lots of reviews assert that he’s never referred to by name at all; he is actually called “Marley” once, pretty early on.) The Singer is the hook from which A Brief History of Seven Killings hangs, but he himself is curiously elided; he doesn’t speak much if at all. He’s not the point. The header quote that I chose for this review seemed to gesture at that fact: the real story is in the people who surrounded him. Papa-Lo, the (fictional) don of the Copenhagen City ghetto, is replaced in 1979 by the fearsome and ambitious Josey Wales, and it’s Josey, for my money, who is the driving engine of this book. It is he who organizes the violence, it is he who has the most to gain and the most to lose, and it is he who eventually miscalculates and falls. He’s a brilliant character, pretending to be the shiny-toothed black stooge to the white CIA men while in reality playing them at their own games. He is terrifying and ruthless—there’s a scene where he shoots up a crack house that reads like a nightmarish video game walkthrough—yet he adores his common-law wife and his young daughter.

James excels at creating such nuance in his killers. There’s Weeper, who seems poised to take over from Josey until he starts using the supply of crack that he’s meant to be dealing; he’s a conflicted gay man living in a world where to be a “battyboy” is frankly a death sentence all on its own. There’s Bam-Bam, a fifteen-year-old who saw his parents raped and killed in front of his eyes and who was drafted into a ghetto gang before adolescence; he’s one of the gunmen who storms the Singer’s house. His gang handlers have got him hooked on cocaine, and for thirty-six hours before the assassination attempt, he’s been kept in a shed with four or five other men, all of them edging perilously close to a major comedown. When Josey and Weeper come with lines of cocaine and guns for them, they’ll do anything:

And I want to kill kill kill

And fuck fuck fuck

But instead I scream scream scream

There are, too, the characters whom I thought of as “the normal people”, which is a relative term, but refers essentially to those who aren’t gangsters or politicians. Among these is Nina Burgess, who walks unawares into the Marley house immediately after the shootings and is so terrified by her encounter with Josey there that she changes her name and flees the country; Barry Diflorio, the CIA Jamaica station chief, whose marriage is a car crash; and Alex Pierce, a journalist for Rolling Stone who comes to interview the Singer and ends up spending twenty years of his life researching a story which, he eventually realizes, is much bigger than what nearly happened to one man. Nina is wonderfully well drawn, an intelligent, angry young woman whose sense of autonomy suits her better to life in America anyway, but who carries an immense freight of guilt and sorrow for leaving her family behind. Barry Diflorio was one of the few voices that didn’t entirely convince me; he felt too stereotypical, a sweaty, harried wiseguy with frightening responsibilities and a nagging, uncomprehending wife. Alex Pierce’s story, I’ll get to in a minute.

The book is divided into five sections, each one prefaced by a chapter narrated by one Sir Arthur George Jennings. He is listed in the book’s Dramatis Personae as “former politician, deceased.” It didn’t occur to me that he might be entirely fictional until I Googled him, looking for more information; it turns out that James did invent him, a white colonial bureaucrat who was, apparently, pushed to his death from a hotel balcony in the 1950s. Jennings haunts the novel both literally and figuratively; we see him appearing to characters who are about to die (who never understand just who this silent white man is), and his voice is present only once in each section, but it is infallibly there. His symbolic function is the most Faulknerian touch in the book: he’s a figure of the murdered Empire which just doesn’t go away, a past that isn’t dead because it is not even past. The ghost of Jennings warps the trajectory and perspective of the book in the same way that the ghosts of slavery and imperialism have warped the trajectory of Jamaica, and continue to do so. “Dead people”, as Jennings himself says, “never stop talking.”

That sort of ripple effect explains, I think, the book’s title. A Brief History of Seven Killings is the name of the article series that Alex Pierce eventually writes for The New Yorker, taking as its subject the aforementioned shootings in the crack house. As the title of the book, what it suggests is that any attempt to explain, to narrate or to historicize this story of violence is going to need to go a long, long way back to get to the beginning of it all. Critics communally moaned that the word “brief” is a tease in the title of a book that’s nearly 700 pages long; I would contend that the word “brief” is not ironic. It’s quite a Modernist idea, that you can never fully tell a story, that every detail, every backstory, is essential to how the Big Picture turns out. This history of killing spans nearly forty years, and that’s as brief as it could possibly be. It is still not finished.

NB: A Brief History of Seven Killings is on the long list for the Man Booker Prize. I don’t think it will win—I think that decision would probably be too much, too soon for a historically fairly conservative prize—but it ought to make the shortlist. It’s certainly got the right balance between power and control, and it’s utterly engrossing.