Tara K. Menon's Review was filed on October 17, 2020, one month prior to the announcement of the winner of the Booker Prize.
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook (Oneworld Publications, 2020; HarperCollins, 2020)
This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber & Faber, 2020; Graywolf, 2018)
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi (Hamish Hamilton, 2020; Penguin Random House, 2021)
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (Canongate Books, 2020; Norton, 2019)
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Picador, 2020; Grove Atlantic, 2020)
Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Daunt Books, 2020; Riverhead Books, 2020)
The Booker Prize shortlist this year is unprecedented: four of the six novels are debuts, the majority are by women, and half are by Black authors. No straight white men. Nobody is English. (Douglas Stuart, the only British author on the list, was born and raised in Scotland.) By most measures, it is the most diverse shortlist in the history of the prize. Depending on who you are, it is either a welcome surprise or pandering to the scourge of political correctness.
Even for conservative British cultural critics, it’s a little difficult today to come out and say that the shortlist is too Black or too female, so their loudest complaints have been that it’s too American. Since a rule change in 2014, the British literary establishment has been up in arms about the inclusion of Americans. In 2018, a group of British writers tried, unsuccessfully, to change the rules back. There have been portents of the change—two Americans have now won the Prize; Paul Beatty in 2016, George Saunders in 2017—but this year, the doomsday predictions have been fully realized. Only a single author—the Zimbabwean Tsitsi Dangarembga—doesn’t hold an American passport. (Stuart has dual citizenship.) The Times lamented that the Booker Prize was now “more interested in launching new voices or amplifying writers from backgrounds far from its Hampstead reputation.” The Telegraph cut to the chase: “The Booker Prize has abandoned Britain,” a headline decried.
Poor little Britain.
Let me lay my cards on the table: I count myself among those frustrated by the inclusion of Americans. But unlike the aggrieved English cultural elite who feel they need protection from the Americans (let’s not dwell on that irony), I am not despondent about, say, The Mirror and the Light, the sprawling final volume of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, not making the shortlist. (The first two books—Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies—both won the Booker. Before the shortlist was announced, The Mirror and the Light was the heavy favorite of critics and bookies alike. For what it’s worth, Mantel called her exclusion “disappointing on one level” but also “quite freeing.”) My grievance is different: the fact is Americans writers are often backed by the heavyweights of the publishing industry, and now that they have entered the race, many non-British writers of English fiction may never be shortlisted.
As an Indian girl attending international schools in Singapore, I hadn’t heard about the National Book Award and was only vaguely aware of the Pulitzer, but I knew who won the Booker Prize every year. I even knew who was on the shortlist. It made the papers; my parents discussed it at dinner. For a young avid reader, the Booker list was a place of discovery. More importantly, it was an antidote to the hyper-canon I was force-fed at school: Shakespeare, Shelley, Austen, the Brontës, Hardy. I loved all those books; I still do. But the Booker introduced me to worlds and writers I didn’t get in the classroom—Arundhati Roy, Nadine Gordimer, Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondaatje, J. M. Coetzee, Peter Carey, Ben Okri.
The glory of the Booker Prize was never that it was the best of the British but that it introduced the world to brilliant writers from countries formerly colonized by them. (I don’t have much patience for the word “Commonwealth,” the still widely used euphemism to describe nations plundered by the British.) With accepted authority, the Prize committee declared these novelists the best in the world. At its best, the Booker redistributes literary prestige: not only has the metropole lost its territories, it can also no longer fool itself that it has sole claim to cultural preeminence. In 2013, the year before the Americans were let in, the authors on the shortlist came from six different countries: Britain, Canada, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Zimbabwe. I yearn for that kind of Booker shortlist.
Every year, people have bitter disputes about the long and shortlists because they believe something important is at stake. I do too. These lists signal what kind of writing deserves our attention and our praise. For some, the unprecedented diversity of this year’s list indicates that the committee, chaired by Margaret Busby, the first Black female publisher in the UK, believes that new, non-white voices are more worthy than better, seasoned writers. Busby has insisted that this is a false binary. In interviews, she has stood firm: none of the six writers have been shortlisted because they are first-time novelists or because they are women or because they are Black, she insists, but because they wrote the best books published in the past year. Lee Child, the only white male judge this year, echoed this view when he addressed the Mantel snub directly: “As good as [The Mirror and The Light] was, there were six that were better.”
In any case, talk about the composition of the shortlist, which is meta-talk about whom and what prizes are for, distracts from the six shortlisted books themselves. And almost all of them deserve our full attention. In a year when many of us have been stuck at home, the 2020 Booker shortlist invites us to travel across space and time: a lakeside summer weekend in a midwestern university town in Brandon Taylor’s Real Life; rainy 1980s Glasgow in Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain; Zimbabwe at the turn of the millennium in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body; the hillsides of interwar Ethiopia in Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King; a cultish ashram in Pune in Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar; and a dystopian near-future on the North American plains in Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness.
Charges that big, powerful Americans are crowding out more deserving, unappreciated British writers ring particularly false in the case of Brandon Taylor, a young gay Black man born to illiterate parents in rural Alabama. From a political perspective, it feels bizarre to lament the inclusion of a talented debut Black novelist of working-class origins over a universally acclaimed twice-winning member of the literary establishment. But even if we judge the two novels purely on aesthetic grounds—and here I’ll echo Lee Child—Real Life is simply better than The Mirror and the Light.
Real Life is a campus novel. But unlike the classics of the genre—David Lodge’s Changing Places, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe, Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night, John Knowles’s A Separate Peace—which concern themselves with privileged, often middle-aged, white men and (less often) women, Taylor shines his light on a different milieu. His novel follows Wallace, a gay Black graduate student in biochemistry, and his mostly gay, all white friends over the course of single summer weekend at an unnamed Midwestern university town. (Taylor was a doctoral student in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.)
Real Life is less a campus novel than a grad school novel. Armed with insider’s knowledge, Taylor writes with great precision about the tedious but difficult tasks that make up the everyday of scientific lab work: dissecting, measuring, generating data, breeding and handling nematodes. Real Life captures the anxiety (about work, deadlines, money, jobs, department politics) that pervades the lives of most graduate students, but it also offers a careful catalogue of the microaggressions that students like Wallace regularly face within the walls of the academy. At various moments, Wallace endures the condescension and mistrust of his supervisor, the hostility of privileged white labmates who think they can do no wrong, gaslighting by his white friends for whom racism is a figment of Wallace’s imagination, degrading remarks about the “prospects” for Black men at a dinner party, and the indignity of being mistaken for a drug dealer by a group of white boys.
But to read Real Life as a book solely about campus microaggressions, as many adoring critics have, is to misread it. It is, more accurately, a novel of intense contemplation. There are occasional moments of humor, but for the most part this is a serious, somber work—more Dostoevsky than Amis in its psychological portrait of a lonely, tormented soul. Although told primarily in the third person, the world of the novel is filtered through Wallace’s eyes. Carefully and lovingly observed physical description doubles as investigation into Wallace’s state of mind. For the most part, Taylor is in total control of his stylish prose, but several sentences feel overworked. His similes often strain to do too much: at one point, we learn that “Wallace felt like a beaten egg, frothy and messy”; at another, his hunger is “rough, like a cat’s tongue.” The relentless focus on Wallace is both the novel’s greatest strength and its biggest weakness. Real Life is a brilliant character study of an always introspective, often self-absorbed young man, but Wallace’s myopia blurs the novel’s vision. So absolute is Taylor’s depiction of his protagonist’s inwardness that Wallace’s friends, whether they are insensitive or overly sensitive, uniformly risk caricature. Likewise, Wallace’s solipsism transforms the credible callousness of his antagonists into cartoonish villainy. Other characters in this novel struggle to rise to more than types.
The exception is Miller, a white friend who insists that he is “not gay or whatever” but nevertheless initiates a sexual relationship with Wallace. The narrative energy of Real Life comes from the excitement and tension of the first few days of their secret affair. Out of shame, propriety, fear, or inability, many novelists fast forward, if not entirely skip, sex scenes. To his credit, Taylor slows down:
Miller kissed him again, and Wallace involuntarily made small mewling sounds, which only encouraged Miller to kiss him more. Wallace felt as if he were being searched for something, as if each kiss, pressed to a different part of his mouth and jaw and cheek, was meant to yield the sort of answer to a question that wasn’t being asked. Miller’s hands were on his hips and then on his sides, going higher and higher until they arrived at his jaw, where they stopped. The sailing had roughened them, made their texture exciting on Wallace’s skin. His kisses tasted like beer and ice, cold and sharp. He bit Wallace’s lip.
In an article in the Guardian, Garth Greenwell, the reigning master of writing elegantly about the explicit, argues that sex is “a territory of feeling and drama” and that writing about it is “a powerful means not just of revealing character or exploring relationships, but of asking the largest questions about human beings.” Taylor’s prose embodies these lessons. As Wallace and Miller swing unpredictably from remarkable tenderness to shocking violence, we see the pain and pleasure of sex is as much psychological as it is physical. By attending generously to individual moments of sexual intimacy, Taylor shows how quickly lust can give way to fear, desire transform into loathing. For Wallace, and for the reader, the sex is revelatory. Each gesture, each hesitation, each breath exposes some part of his character we may not have discovered any other way. These scenes of sexual intimacy bring to the surface Taylor’s most piercing observation—the idea contained in his style—that Wallace, as wounded and self-absorbed as he is, can only be truly known by the reader.
For all the licking, kicking, kissing, punching, biting, and spitting, the most intimate act between these two men—one white, one Black, both working class—is when they trade stories about their childhoods. When Wallace agrees to Miller’s request to tell him about himself, the short chapter that follows shifts tone and location and style. For nine propulsive pages, Taylor abandons the summer sun of the Midwest and pulls us into the thunderstorms and darkness of rural Alabama. Told in the first person and in a single breathless paragraph, we learn about Wallace’s childhood—the filthy poverty, religious grandparents who spoke in terrifying morality tales, parental neglect, verbal abuse by his mother, and sexual abuse by a family friend.
This breathtaking chapter is the dark heart of the novel. Everything that comes before and after is altered irrevocably by these haunting few pages. They turn what is an otherwise admirable book into an outstanding one. We learn in the novel’s first sentence that Wallace’s father has recently died, but it is only after this flashback that we understand “the curious shape of his grief, which does not bear the typical dimensions of such a loss.” Wallace’s anxieties are not the typical anxieties of a graduate student, or even of a Black graduate student. Microaggressions are mere surface waves in this novel; the trauma of abuse is the powerful undertow. Real Life is about a foundational wound—it shows how poverty and violence can sink their claws into you and refuse to let go, no matter how far from home you venture.