With my review of The Deadman’s Pedal, I have finished reading the shortlisted books for the 2013 James Tait Black Fiction Prize. Therefore, it is time for my feature, where I decide whether the judges got it right. This year the shortlisted choices couldn’t be more different. They range from a very cerebral novel that traces a family history by imitating a classical bagpipe musical form to a less cerebral depiction of a deceptive personality to two novels about young people trying to find their way. Although all of these novels are about personal topics, I have ordered them in this paragraph from the most intellectually removed to the least.
The most cerebral of these novels is The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn. This novel traces relationships between fathers and sons by using a classical form of bagpipe music as its organizing structure. It is a form dependent on repetition and embellishment, so although I found this novel high in concept, it was also a bit fascinating. Still, the repetitions proved a bit much for me.
The next most cerebral of the novels is Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner. This is a novel about a poet who considers himself a fraud and spends his time arranging his face to look intelligent or thinking of profound things to say. The novel is funny at times, but I found myself getting lost in its logical circumlocutions and I strongly disliked the main character (not that that is necessarily bad).
At the beginning of the award-winning The Deadman’s Pedal, I found myself heartily disgusted by teenage boys and the love critics have for coming-of-age novels, those about boys, anyway. Then as the young Scottish protagonist went to work for the railroad, I got more interested until the book became mostly about adolescent sex.
That leaves me with The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan, although I am not entire satisfied with my choice. I was absolutely rivetted by this story of a vivid young girl who has been failed by the system. However, I also believe that in some ways this book is slighter than some of the others. I will say, though, that of these four authors, Fagan is the only one whose other books I have looked for.