This fall, for the first time in twenty-eight years, I read only one of the books named as finalists for the Booker Prize—the most prestigious fiction prize in the United Kingdom and probably the world—the winner, Stuart Douglas’s debut, Shuggie Bain. Was it the right choice, the best original novel written in English and published in the UK, the most deserving candidate among the six books on the shortlist? I have no idea. And that is a strange feeling, as I’ve read all the shortlisted books and all the winners since 1992. For longer than half of the fifty-two-year history of the Booker, I’ve been reporting and commenting on it, almost always in the pages of the Sewanee Review.
There was no reason to expect such a journey when I wrote to George Core, then editor of the Review, that I wanted to write something about the Booker Prize. At the time, I was living in England, having returned after a stint from 1988-89. In my first year there, I became fascinated by the Booker, by the vast publicity, its controversies small and large, and the live, prime-time presentation—even the evidence that people were betting large sums on the outcome. The 1988 winner was Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, but by far the most publicity went to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, which was on the shortlist but (probably fortunately, for the safety of all concerned) did not win.
The 1992 prize was unusual, as it was awarded in one of three years when the prize was divided between two books: this time, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger. (The English Patient would go on to be named the outstanding prizewinner of the first fifty years despite not even being chosen the outstanding novel in 1992.) Thereafter I wrote about the Booker Prize for the Review almost every year until 2019, though sometimes pressures from the magazine squeezed two years into one essay. George Core retired in 2016, and I continued under Adam Ross’s new editorial team.
Looking back over those twenty-seven years, with their twenty-nine winners (the prize was shared again in 2019) and 161 shortlisted books, I’m impressed anew with the high quality of most of the books that won, and many of those that did not. The judges decided well, much more often than not, in what is not just a thankless but in many ways impossible task (Julian Barnes referred to the Booker as “posh bingo,” but I think retired that phrase after he won it in 2011). I found myself sorting those books into categories, into mini-contests within the big competition, and now that Tara K. Menon has taken over the helm as the Review’s reporter and critic on the Booker, I thought I’d share these, grouped in fives, like the shortlist.
The Worst Booker Prize-Winning Novels (in Descending Order)
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (2008)
Adiga’s novel recounts the rise of Balram Halwai, the title’s white tiger, a self-made Indian success who rises to staggering wealth in Bangalore’s call-center economy. The novel’s failure lies in its storytelling logic. Inexplicably, Balram addresses letters to Wen Jiabao, the premier of China, full of generalizations about India, particularly “the darkness,” which stands for both the moral nightmare of modern India and deprived (and despised, by him) rural India. He is persuaded that everyone is corrupt, and in fact that any successful person has killed at least one person during their ascent to material success—a theory that helps to justify his own ruthlessness and violence.
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle (1993)
Not so much a bad novel as simply not good enough to deserve the prize, Paddy Clarke here adds another volume to Doyle’s mural of Irish urban life. Its characters live on the dole and drink and swear too much. Compared to his earlier Barrytown trilogy of The Van, The Snapper, and The Commitments, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is a softer, more sentimental novel, about a ten-year-old boy learning about friendship, baffled love, and family disruption. A perfect example of the Booker being belatedly awarded for earlier, better work.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2002)
Pi (the nickname is short for Piscine, as he is named after a swimming pool), whose sea voyage to Canada with his family is disrupted by a shipwreck, is stranded in a lifeboat with an injured zebra, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Pi survives, of course, and readers are given some account of his subsequent life in Toronto, along with an alternative theory of his adventures. Martel was accused of plagiarizing from a Brazilian novel—which could hardly be, since it features a shipwrecked Jewish boy and the fellow passenger is a panther. But what mars the novel is not just its implausibility but its tone, which is unbearably twee.
How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman (1994)
Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre (2003)
A tie for worst. Kelman tells the story of Sammy—a pugnacious, foul-mouthed, alcoholic jailbird—who, having gotten himself beaten up, and then gone blind while in a jail cell, tries to make his way home across Glasgow. The ensuing events are subsequently banal: he bums a cigarette, gets drunk, and so on. Kelman, a Scottish nationalist, has announced his aim, to stand up for the right to use the Scottish language via his fictional mouthpiece:
Ye wake in a corner and stay there hoping yer body will disappear, the thoughts smothering ye; these thoughts; but ye want to remember and face up to things, just something keeps ye from doing it, why can ye no do it; the words filling yer head: then the other words, there’s something wrong; there’s something far far wrong; ye’re no a good man, ye’re just no a good man. Edging back into awareness of where ye are: here, slumped in this corner, with these thoughts filling ye . . . He was here, he was leaning against auld rusty palings, with pointed spikes, some missing or broke off.
Scottish opinion on the Kelman victory was split between national pride, shame at his foregrounding of a stereotypical drunken layabout, and amazement that he had put one over on the English.
Meanwhile, author DBC Pierre, whose actual name is Peter Warren Finlay (DBC stands for “Dirty But Clean” apparently) seems, in the novel Vernon Little God, to have succeeded in persuading the judges that it would be daring and cool of them to give the prize to a person very different from the usual litterateur (Pierre is in fact an acknowledged rogue) with his first novel. The judges seem to have read it as a searing indictment of the United States, one likely to keep George W. Bush awake and whimpering at night. Its protagonist is a boy peripherally caught up in a school shooting; its subject is American mass violence and the role the seductiveness of fame appearing on television offers. But Walmart and the Jerry Springer audience are low-hanging satiric fruit. Excitable reviewer Andrew O’Hagan said the book was like a party in which “the Osbournes invited the Simpsons round for a root-beer, and Don DeLillo dropped by to help them write a new song for Eminem.” Booker administrator Martyn Goff’s declaration that “there was a feeling that it could only have been written by an American whereas we all know it wasn’t written by an American,” shows a worrying deafness to American language. Comparisons critics reached for, from Holden Caulfield to Bart Simpson, depreciate rather than elevate Vernon God Little. The novel did however also win the Whitbread First Novel award and the Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman Prize for comic literature, so the Booker judges were not alone in what, to me at least, was a shocking error.
Best Shortlisted Nonwinners
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (1996)
Two tailors, Omprakash and Ishvar Darji, whose lives have been endangered by their outcaste status, make their way, along with a student, Maneck Kohlah, to Bombay, and join the millions of deprived residents of that city in the 1970s. They soon become victims of Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency”—the twenty-one-month period during which she ruled by decree, suspending elections and civil liberties—and Mistry shows life in an unforgiving, brutal, and essentially lawless city. That one of the more appealing characters is a man called Beggarmaster who helps to maim children so they can become more effective mendicants is a sign of the book’s extremity—which includes rampant violence, destruction of homes, and forced sterilization—portrayed by Mistry with compassion, insight, and rich detail.
Headlong by Michael Frayn (1999)
A cunning narrative about art history and competitive scheming, Headlong is one of this veteran novelist and playwright’s best books. It concerns a philosopher, Martin Clay, who comes to believe that his country neighbor has an unsuspected treasure, a lost Brueghel painting, being used to block a fireplace. He plans to outwit the neighbor and acquire the painting but ends up comically outwitting himself. The novel contains much about the Low Countries and Brueghel, as well as Clay’s struggles to defend himself and his increasingly baroque maneuvers and expenditures against his wife. The plot has some of the complexity of Frayn’s stage farces, plus the cerebral depth of his philosophical works.
Hotel World by Ali Smith (2001)
A young woman, on the first night at her job at a city hotel, accepts a dare to wedge herself into the dumbwaiter and falls to her death. She is one of the voices of Hotel World; others are her sister; a shallow and heartless journalist staying in the hotel; one of the desk clerks; and a homeless woman living on the street outside the hotel. While it is a novel about a troubled England at the turn of the millennium, the disparate voices and styles of narration come together in a powerful book that is at once playful, heartbreaking, passionate, and unsparing in its efforts to expose modern neoliberal cruelty.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004)
A compendium of stories, arranged sequentially and then reverse-sequentially, with each narrative breaking off midstream, Mitchell’s novel begins with a nineteenth-century sea voyage, proceeds through the twentieth century into a future featuring cyborgs, and then a post-nuclear return to nature; then the process is reversed and the stories are completed. The chapters, which differ in tone and style, are linked through minor details of geography, personnel, and a motif of predatory humanity. One character, composer Robert Frobisher, explains his Cloud Atlas Sextet in terms that apply to the novel: “Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a ‘sextet for overlapping soloists’: piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each set in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished.” Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is revolutionary.
Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann (2019)
The longest novel in the history of the Booker shortlist at a little over a thousand pages, Ellmann’s tale follows Virginia Woolf’s recommendation: “Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day,” except that it covers more than one day and adds sections that reflect on the thought patterns of a cougar. But the main project is the interior monologue of an Ohio woman as she goes about her day, worrying about her cancer, her children, her mother, and Donald Trump; thinking a lot about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books; about her chickens; and about her baking. The unnamed woman, then, lives an unexciting life that is microscopically examined, and the novel is a heroic undertaking that gives readers a nearly unparalleled opportunity to know a character’s mind.