Catching Up on Prize Winners: Alderman, Grossman & Whitehead

Sometimes I love a prize winner and cheer the judges’ ruling; other times I shake my head and puzzle over how they could possibly think this was the best the year had to offer. I’m late to the party for these three recent prize-winning novels. I’m also a party pooper, I guess, because I didn’t particularly like or dislike a one of them. (Reviews are in the order in which I read the books. My rating for all three = )

 

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman

(Winner of the Man Booker International Prize)

“Why the long face? Did someone die? It’s only stand-up comedy!” Except that for the comedian himself, Dovaleh Greenstein, this swan song of a show in the Israeli town of Netanya devolves into the story of the most traumatic day of his life. Grossman has made what seems to me an unusual choice of narrator: Avishai Lazar, a widower and Supreme Court justice, and Dov’s acquaintance from adolescence – they were in the same military training camp. Dov has invited him here to bear witness, and by the end we know Avishai will produce a written account of the evening.

Although it could be said that Avishai’s asides about the past, and about the increasingly restive crowd in the club, give us a rest from Dov’s claustrophobic monologue, in doing so they break the spell. This would be more hard-hitting as a play or a short story composed entirely of speech; in one of those formats, Dov’s story might keep you spellbound through a single sitting. Instead, I found that I had to force myself to read even five or 10 pages at a time. There’s no doubt Grossman can weave a clever tale about loss, and there are actually some quite funny jokes in here too, but overall I found this significantly less powerful than the author’s previous work, Falling Out of Time.

 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

(Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and Arthur C. Clarke Award; longlisted for the Man Booker Prize)

Following Cora on her fraught journey from her Georgia plantation through the Carolinas and Tennessee to Indiana is enjoyable enough, with the requisite atrocities like lynchings and rapes thrown in to make sure it’s not just a picaresque cat-and-mouse battle between her and Arnold Ridgeway, the villainous slavecatcher. But I’m surprised that such a case has been made for the uniqueness of this novel based on a simple tweak of the historical record: Whitehead imagines the Underground Railroad as an actual subterranean transport system. This makes less of a difference than you might expect; if anything, it renders the danger Cora faces more abstract. The same might be said for the anachronistic combination of enlightened and harsh societies she passes through: by telescoping out to show the range of threats African-Americans faced between the Civil War and the 1930s, the novel loses immediacy.

Ultimately, I felt little attachment to Cora and had to force myself to keep plodding through her story. My favorite parts were little asides giving other characters’ backstories. There’s no doubt Whitehead can shape a plot and dot in apt metaphors (I particularly liked “Ajarry died in the cotton, the bolls bobbing around her like whitecaps on the brute ocean”). However, I kept thinking, Haven’t I read this story before? (Beloved, Ruby, The Diary of Anne Frank; seen on screen in Twelve Years a Slave, Roots and the like.) This is certainly capably written, but doesn’t stand out for me compared to Homegoing, which was altogether more affecting.

 

The Power by Naomi Alderman

(Winner of the [Bailey’s] Women’s Prize)

I read the first ~120 pages and skimmed the rest. Alderman imagines a parallel world in which young women realize they wield electrostatic power that can maim or kill. In an Arab Spring-type movement, they start to take back power from their oppressive societies. You’ll cheer as women caught up in sex trafficking fight back and take over. The movement is led by Allie, an abused child who starts by getting revenge on her foster father and then takes her message worldwide, becoming known as Mother Eve.

Alderman has cleverly set this up as an anthropological treatise-cum-historical novel authored by “Neil Adam Armon” (an anagram of her own name), complete with documents and drawings of artifacts. “The power to hurt is a kind of wealth,” and in this situation of gender reversal women gradually turn despotic. They are soldiers and dictators; they inflict genital mutilation and rape on men.

I enjoyed the passages mimicking the Bible, but felt a lack of connection with the characters and didn’t get a sense of years passing even though this is spread over about a decade. This is most like Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy – Alderman’s debt to Atwood is explicit, in the dedication as well as the acknowledgments – so if you really like those books, by all means read this one. My usual response to such speculative fiction, though, even if it describes a believable situation, is: what’s the point? As with “Erewhon,” the best story in Helen Simpson’s collection Cockfosters, the points about gender roles are fairly obvious.

 

I’d be interested to hear if you’ve read any of these books – or plan to read them – and believe they were worthy prize winners. If so, set me straight!

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20 thoughts on “Catching Up on Prize Winners: Alderman, Grossman & Whitehead

  1. The thing that really swung me into liking The Power was ceasing to think of it as being a book about gender roles at all. I don’t think Alderman is interested in making points about women as a collective whole; I think what she’s trying to do is explore the nature of power. Is it possible to have a human civilisation where power is shared equitably, and where such power imbalances as crop up or are invented don’t inevitably create a hierarchy maintained by horrendous violence? The book suggests that the answer to that question might be “no”, and that struck me as a stance that very few writers are willing to take, at least publicly. That elevated it, for me, far above the Helen Simpson story you mention (which I do recall finding a bit formulaic when I read it).

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    1. ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely’? One could argue that that’s an obvious point as well, but I’ll let her off 😉 I’m glad you and so many others have taken this book to heart. Do you think it would have won the Baileys Prize if it didn’t seem to investigate gender roles?

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      1. Almost more like “absolute power IS corruption”, I think Alderman would be more likely to say that there is no point of innocence from which to start; if you possess power, by definition, you are guilty of misusing it.

        That’s a very good question. When I read it, I thought that if the Baileys Prize is in part about celebrating books that constitute the best of writing by women, this is certainly a book very concerned with what “writing by women” might mean in a practical sense, and what it might look like in a world with a different accepted history, and so in that sense it is almost the perfect Baileys Prize book. I would still have liked to see it on the Booker Prize list because I think that interrogating those ideas should be a mainstream practice, not just one reserved for a prize explicitly by, for and about women, and I’m impressed by the courage of a book that does that interrogation in a not-entirely-optimistic way. I do think that, practically speaking, its apparent interest in gender roles probably helped its chances with the Baileys Prize panel, though. (I would have preferred Do Not Say We Have Nothing as the winner, because it is the greater technical/stylistic achievement, but I can understand The Power’s win, too.)

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    2. I’m sure you’ve heard that A.S. Byatt doesn’t allow her books to be up for the Women’s Prize, and I can kind of sympathize with her viewpoint: books should all be judged on their merit, and on an equal playing field. I can also see the arguments for leveling said playing field by giving women their own separate prize, but it still makes me a little uneasy. Same for challenges like reading only books by women for a year.

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      1. Re: the Byatt/Women’s Prize thing: my general feeling is that authors are allowed to have whatever opinions they want on this sort of thing, but it intriguingly tends to be the authors who have got other forms of structural advantage (education, social background, race, etc.) that are the most indignant about measures specifically designed to boost women. (Cf. Lionel Shriver.) I love AS Byatt and I believe that she believes she’s doing the right thing, but it still saddens me that inspirational major authors see the Women’s Prize as being less-than or secondary in some way. Same for when Shappi Khorsandi pulled out of the Jhalak Prize nominations—of course she can think, and do, whatever she wants, but the whole point of these prizes is to render themselves obsolete by changing the territory (what gets published) and the conversation (who gets championed), and it always disappoints me when established authors greet that goal with suspicion or disdain.

        The challenge stuff is actually where I tend to agree with you, since much of it seems to be virtue-signalling. Some people, I’m sure, *do* get a lot out of intentionally reading diversely. Still, reviews of books set in other countries or with protagonists of colour too often either praise the book for “teaching them something about a culture they know little about”, or complain about the book’s failure to do just that. That the book might not have been written with the education/salvation/spoonfeeding of white book bloggers specifically in mind often doesn’t seem to have registered.

        (And then that leads me to another rant/train of thought, which is that I don’t think nearly enough readers realise that just reading something isn’t enough. You can’t just pour raw material in the form of a book into your brain and expect it to change you; you have to do some of the work yourself, by thinking hard and repeatedly about it, challenging your own thoughts about it, imagining how someone else might think about it, etc. I participate in so few challenges precisely because I don’t think they, in themselves, are productive; but choosing my reading matter carefully, and then thinking through it, has been responsible for most of my major intellectual shifts as an adult.)

        Gosh, that’s long and somewhat intense—whoops!

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    3. No worries! I’m glad to hear your thoughts. I know my opinion of the Women’s Prize is different to yours and Naomi’s; she’s unlikely to be inviting me onto her shadow panel any time soon 😉 Can you imagine a future in which a women-only prize would not be necessary?

      I often accidentally end up with well over half of my reading stack at any one moment being composed of female authors, but it’s not something I ever do deliberately. At the end of the year I should do some quick stats to see how many male and female authors I read.

      And I totally agree with you about fully engaging with books to let them change you. I’m wrestling with Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts right now, trying to confront my preconceived notions about trans and genderqueer identities.

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      1. I can imagine that future! But it’s a future that I can only imagine existing through the concerted efforts of things like the Bailey’s and Jhalak Prizes, to create a playing field that actually IS level, so that books CAN be judged on their merits (whatever that means, because by definition literary merit is an exclusionary idea, and so the question then becomes: what do we consider meritorious, and more to the point, why that characteristic, in particular, and can we also acknowledge that merit tends to shift its meaning over the course of decades/centuries? So that, for instance, books once considered obscene are now lionised as having been ground-breaking; at the moment I’m struggling with a strong negative reaction to the work of Irenosen Okojie because I see it as incoherent, whereas someone with a background in a different literary tradition might very well see it as a radical refusal to play by white/Western narrative rules. And prizes that spotlight/celebrate those different forms or ideas of merit are, to me, essential in creating a world where the concept of literary merit is more broadly and democractically and *interestingly* defined.)

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  2. I liked Disobedience by Alderman but really did not fancy this at all. The Underground Railroad one sounds like it was risking making a very serious topic silly by introducing a twist like that. Thank you for reading these so we don’t have to is, I think, what I’m trying to say here!

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    1. I only this morning found out on Twitter (and quickly edited above) that The Underground Railroad also won this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award! Rather astonishing for a tiny bit of alternative history to be classed as science fiction. As I said, I don’t think the literalization of the railroad really did much for the story.

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  3. I’m relieved to see your comments about “The Underground Railroad.” It’s been the recipient of many accolades over here, but when I picked it up, it seemed more like a re-run story. Perhaps it’s because I’m more into real-life stories when it comes to slavery – “12 Years a Slave” and W. E. B. Dubois has a lot of interesting stuff. So – interesting to hear your perspective. I thought I was the only one!

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  4. I absolutely inhaled The Underground Railroad – in fact, I had to deliberately put it down so that I could finish it in 2017 and not the last day of 2016 – so I could include it on my 2017 Best Of list later this year. 🙂 I have read comments from others about not feeling an attachment to Cora, so you’re not alone in that. I was thoroughly absorbed by her story, however. Maybe it’s because I haven’t seen the films you referenced and it’s been 20+ years since I’ve read Beloved, so slave narratives are not as fresh in my mind. There was just something about the way Whitehead played with time and place that made the book feel so relevant to me. I did love Homegoing, too, though!

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