Thursday, September 29, 2011

Last Orders: more Booker-winning literature

Before I lay my cards out, I should put some context on the following.

I previously discussed the 2003 winner of the Booker Prize for [Commonwealth] literature: Vernon God Little, by DBC Pierre, aka Dirty But Clean Pierre, aka Peter Finlay, a self-confessed user of people who was born in Australia, grew up in Mexico, and wrote in London.  His book was a (dirty but clean) wild journey through the experiences of an unlearned yet articulate 15-year-old in smalltown Texas.

This time, I want to mention the 1996 Booker winner: Last Orders, by Graham Swift.  This writer is, by contrast, thoroughly English: born, raised through some years, and writing, in England.

Last Orders is a particularly lyrical book.  And it is offered a strangely moving juxtaposition by Vernon God Little a few short years later.

The most immediate similarity between Last Orders and Vernon God Little, besides their matching awards, is that both works are written as stream of consciousness.  However, they make more a far more meaningful connection: whereas Vernon God Little represents the thoughts and feelings of a teenager: someone on the very cusp of an adult's life experiences; Last Orders gives a glimpse of life for someone at the tail end of their existence: someone - some people - in their seventies who can only look back for the most part.    Although there is a chief protagonist, it is narrated variously by a small set of friends who, whatever they aspire to be, are working class Londoners by birth.  And their backward gaze is a summation.  There is sorrow, certainly, and there are modest achievements.  But it's more about that reflection than a balancing of win versus loss.

That last may be counter-argued by some.  There is a clear tone of regret through the book.

That regret fuels the lyricism underlying this narrative: the dark clouds gathering and the rain; the hopes unfulfilled, the relationships variously strained, broken, and carried on.  The bright spots in their life, that they couldn't know at the time they would carry with them over the years, the decades.  The apparently trivial burdens that they couldn't know would weigh them down over their lifetime.

There's cameraderie and rancour in the same breath.  There's the unspoken warmth of knowing someone for 30, 40, 50 years and finding both treasure and treason in the same mix.  And there's a group of people with a web of relationships that spans so much time and so much experience, for good, for hidden feelings, and for indifference.

The immediate chain of events pertains to the death and memorium of one of the group of comrades, so inevitably the tone is coloured with sadness and regret.  Yet the reflections reveal a lifespan that despite the tribulations carries warmth.  The insights are not laboured; you don't need a finely-trained mind to appreciate that the bad is suffused with the joyous, and the good is temporal and to be appreciated, even if only in retrospect.

(One final note: this was filmed, and featured a pantheon of mature English actors.  I have not seen that film but for those who have: I doubt the works bear direct comparison.  The media are quite different, and so the method of conveying emotion is different.  I hope to see the film, but I don't think it's fair to compare the one with the other.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Vernon God Little: reasons it won the Booker

Poor Theodore Dalrymple!  He clearly feels the weight of the world on his shoulders.  He exhorted all who are concerned with the preservation of civilisation to shrug off the chains of conformity and denounce Vernon God Little.

The preservation of civilisation is at stake??  God help us, that's more the province of backwooders from centuries back who felt the black wilderness pressing in on them, threatening to engulf all who aren't making their final stand.  But with Ted, it's not the dark fang and claw of nature that threatens, it's the hideous beast that is the Booker Prize winner.

More informative was the reviewer who summed up the author thus: "Embrace DBC Pierre's full-bodied, freewheeling technique on the first page or get ready for a thoroughly dislocating ride".

The reviews I've read have been rather polarised; even so, most don't seem to be able to understand why this book was awarded the Booker.

Fortunately, I read the book before reading any reviews, so I wasn't blackmailed by preconceptions.

This narrative being the stream of consciousness of a 15-year-old boy, it is of course utterly replete with the profane and scatalogical thoughts of a very male teenager.

But it's also jam-packed with smells, sounds, flashes of colour and light - especially the smells.  In one sense, it's as if the author was told at a writing course to infuse his work with more of the sensuous, then took it too far.  Yet a simple litany of sense bombardment would come across as rote writing, and this work clearly doesn't - in totality, the words evoke well the atmosphere of the fat, hot, dusty, small Texan town in which it is set.

The moments of tenderness are infrequent but noticeable; they give a keel's balance to what is usually a wild rollercoaster of highs and lows that swing higher and lower all the time.  Even in the prosaic courtroom scene, the reader is battered by peaks and troughs, wave after wave.

I have a couple of quibbles, and they're structural but - paradoxically - minor.  First, the language often tends to soar above that of an ill-educated 15-year-old Texan.  Second, the resolution is somewhat unreal, to the extent that it could arguably be construed as fantasy, and that's a bit jarring.  Yet in another sense, it is entirely in keeping with the "dislocating ride" that spins around the protagonist - and the reader - ever faster.  How could it not be so, right up to the end.

Some call it satire, Ted.  It certainly has that, but I call it funny.  There will be plenty who can't stay aboard.  Those who can are well rewarded by a work that ultimately provides enjoyment and satisfaction, human condition and insight.