Having reviewed 4321, the last of the Man Booker Prize shortlist for 2017, I find it is now time for my feature where I explore whether I think the judges got it right.
Sometimes, I will choose the most experimental book as my favorite, which in this case is a toss-up between Paul Auster’s 4321 and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo. Well, really, of those two, Lincoln in the Bardo, the winning book for 2017, is most experimental, so let’s look at it first. With the conceit of the dead being a sort of combination chorus and driver of the plot, and moreover that the preoccupations of the dead manifest themselves physically, I found myself first amused and then annoyed. Ultimately, I found it a little tiresome, so this is not the book I would have picked.
I found 4321 interesting in concept and the story more or less absorbing, but I also thought it was at least 100 pages too long. Everything about it was verbose, and really, what is that interesting about adolescent boys that you would have to explore in detail their every thought and obsession?
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is certainly timely, with its story of immigrants, but I felt it was too concept driven. It is not so much interested in the experience of immigrating itself than in the isolation after immigration. It also did not do much with its characters.
Ali Smith’s latest entry, Autumn, has Brexit as one of its central themes. It is also much harder to define. I found it interesting and intellectually challenging, but it did not stick with me like some of the other books.
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund, about a teenager who witnesses something she doesn’t understand, did stick with me more. I thought the novel was thought-provoking but also confusing and included a lot of things that didn’t pan out.
In case you didn’t figure it out, this time I’ve been going from my least favorite to my most favorite of the novels (well, not exactly, because I liked 4321 a little better than Exit West), so I end with what would have been my winner, Elmet by Fiona Mozley. It is deeply atmospheric and tells a compelling story. It may be the least experimental of the choices for 2017 (although History of Wolves isn’t really experimental either), but it resonated with me and has a distinctive narrative voice.
8 thoughts on “If I Gave the Award”
Thank you for sharing!
Lincoln in the Bardo was difficult to get into… until I got it. Felt it. by the end, I was sobbing. A masterpiece, really.
Elmet and History of the Wolves were both punches in the gut. Glorious.
I don’t think I will ever get around to 4321–such a commitment. I am more about story than experiment.
I didn’t really have that effect on me, although I thought parts of it were touching. I don’t blame you for not wanting to try 4321. Interesting concept, but I’d rather have read about someone else’s life.
I honestly remember being a little disappointed in The History of Wolves, because I wanted to like it so much, but I thought there were so many things that didn’t tie together or really compel me. However, it was definitely a page-turner! I was rooting for it up to the last page.
Yes, it bothered me that so many things were unresolved.
I think experimental fiction is tough to carry off. People have so much preference for traditional story structure, which is probably engraved in our brains as it mimics life in the natural world. I did like Lincoln in the Bardo, in terms of its atmospheric depiction of the cemetery characters and their world, and the moving scenes of the imagined Lincoln. I felt the story created a sense of the other-worldliness of death and made you think about how hard it would be to consign a child’s soul to it.
I also enjoyed reading Exit West, but I agree with the points you made about it.
I tend to like experimental fiction, but it has to work. I think I would have liked Lincoln more if I wasn’t so irritated by the ghost characters.
I read ‘The New York Trilogy’ last month and absolutely loved it. Through an article I found out that Paul Auster loves to experiment and ‘4321’ he considers as his best. That makes me curious! I’ve read ‘Exit West’ and ‘History of the Wolves’, both are not really my favourite. Also, it’s always hit and miss with book-award winners, and you make me want to read ‘Elmet’ soon. Thanks for sharing!
Yes, I agree about the book awards. I haven’t read anything else by Paul Auster. Maybe I should try the New York Trilogy. I think Elmet was great.