So far this year I have read two prize-winning ‘novels’ – The Sell Out by Paul Beatty (Man Booker) and The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Pulitzer).
Both have been widely praised for their craft and cleverness. Both left me wondering what happened to good old-fashioned storytelling. These are driven by themes rather than plots, each with an unnamed narrator respectively reflecting upon racism in America and perceptions of the Vietnam war.
The weightiness and worthiness of the topics is beyond doubt but masked by a knowing irony; neither author has any interest in a conventional narrative with a start-middle & end.
Far be it from me to knock the post-modernist slant of these works. As a worshipper of David Foster Wallace, I am fully aware that modern truths cannot always be told in a linear style but at the same time I find myself increasingly missing characters and plots.
I have come to realize just how many classics of English literature I know but have never read; for example Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe. While re-reading Infinite Jest I now intend to plug these gaps. Pre-modernism here I come.
PIGEON ENGLISH by Stephen Kelman (Britain, 2011)
If, like me, you regard pigeons as rats with wings you will find it hard to accept that one of this breed of flying vermin could be an articulate, spiritual guide to a young boy on a London housing estate.
This is the weakest premise of an otherwise well-intentioned debut novel that was shortlisted for the Booker prize and is shortly to be adapted by the BBC.
There is blood at the beginning and blood at the end. It begins with the immediate aftermath of a seemingly motiveless murder : “You could see the blood. It was darker than you thought. It was all on the ground outside Chicken Joe’s. It just felt crazy”.
The victim of this stabbing is known only as “the dead boy”. The story was partly inspired by the real life killing of 10 year-old Damilola Taylor on a Peckham estate in 2000. As well as a link to Taylor’s trust fund, the acknowledgements also list the website for the Families Utd support group. Continue reading