Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Booker longlist predictions

Last year, my predictions were dismal. I managed to get just two out of thirteen; a bad return considering the year before I'd got eight of the longlist.

This year is in some ways easier than last - a fair few big hitters are out, while some less familiar names have delivered interesting and prize-worthy novels - but in other ways more difficult. Will the judges feel able to go for two big London novels (NW and Capital), for example? Will the old guard, so conspicuous by their absence until the winner was announced last year, return to claim the prize for their own? Or is there a sneaking up of interesting, yet not exactly new, writers ready to displace them?

Personally, I think it's an incredibly strong year, and one that might lead to an unusual list, but probably won't. For what it's worth, here's my prediction - not necessarily what I would like to see on there, but what I think will make the cut. I hope it's a bit closer than last time - though not perfect, obviously.

1. Ancient Light – John Banville

2. The Yipps – Nicola Barker

3. Toby’s Room – Pat Barker

4. The Big Music – Kirsty Gunn

5. All is Song – Samantha Harvey

6. In the Orchard, The Swallows – Peter Hobbs

7. Capital – John Lanchester

8. Bringing Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

9. John Saturnall's Feast – Lawrence Norfolk

10. Hawthorn & Child – Keith Ridgeway

11. NW – Zadie Smith

12. Merivel – Rose Tremain

13. The Deadman’s Pedal – Alan Warner

Monday, 9 July 2012

Joseph Mitchell's Secrets

Joseph Mitchell’s Joe Gould’s Secret is a book that has gathered dust like none I have ever owned. It stayed reserved for me for over a year in the cupboard behind the till in the bookshop where I worked; then lay stacked and unopened in my first London flat, before graduating to shelves as I afforded them. If anyone had asked me about it, the most I could have said was that Ian McEwan liked it – his quote, a rare thing, was picked out in yellow on the tiny, faded black jacket. About fifteen years elapsed between purchase and my eventual quick, rapturous reading, one bout of intense pleasure sitting on a 747 to join my girlfriend in New York.

Had I opened the book at any point in that decade and a half lull, I would have probably finished it just as quickly. Joe Gould is not like Catch-22, Beloved, or Housekeeping – other books that have had the same waiting fate – it spoke to me immediately, intensely. It is a miniature of exacting concision, on the face of it, simply written, but with a wonderfully crooked kind of logic – perfect, a word one is almost dared into using, for describing the strange world of Joe Gould.

Mitchell spent his working life as a journalist in New York, most famously at the New Yorker. He is often considered the originator of the profile: that essayist impression of a person or place that slips somewhere through the cracks of true journalism. In those cracks and margins, however, Mitchell wrote some of the best pieces the twentieth century produced. Take the opening sentence of the second half of the book:

“Joe Gould was an old and penniless and unemployable little man who came to the city in 1916 and ducked and dodged and held on as hard as he could for thirty-five years.”

This is a sentence of two halves that perfectly – that word again! – encapsulates Gould, but also Joseph Mitchell himself. Those opening words are scolding, condescending. One cannot write ‘Little man’ and not see it typed over the rims of your spectacles and down your nose. This is the man avoided on the street, the underserving poor. Penniless and unemployable: the twin sins of the American. It’s undeniably colloquial, almost barroom conversational. Gould came to the city, not to New York – that would give him too much in the way of ambition – and the only certainty is that he’s been on the streets for a long time. And that’s where Mitchell performs a tightly executed pirouette, just as 1916 is mentioned. The condescension is gulped back, the hauteur replaced word by word into something approaching grudging respect.

Ducked and dodge is a segue – after all, Gould could be a street hustler, a mugger, a vagabond thief, and ducking and dodging could include any kind of nefarious activity – but it’s the simple beauty of: ‘and held on as hard as he could for thirty-five years’ that changes the timbre of the sentence. Quite unexpectedly, the old man is a now cast as an almost hero, a battler against the tide, a survivor of fate and of bad fortune and of the city itself. In this one sentence, Mitchell’s own complicated relationship, with this, the most famous of his New Yorker subjects, is neatly – okay, perfectly – compacted. Are we supposed to look down on Gould, or admire his fortitude? Or are we to do both, all in the space of a single sentence?

Up in the Old Hotel, recently and thankfully reissued by Vintage, contains both Joe Gould pieces, as well as multitudes. It is a teeming confection of the kind of people you wish to meet in a city, but with whom one would never quite have the guts to spend time. On arriving in New York, flushed from the joy of Gould, I bought a copy from the Strand Bookstore and wandered around the city, trying as much as possible to visit the places Mitchell describes, and if not the exact same places, then the ones that seemed to have the same kind of atmosphere. I read ‘The Old House at Home’ in McSorely’s Tavern – the subject of that story – the past and the present colliding in odd junctures. The d├ęcor was clearly the same and the two braying men alongside me could have been from Mitchell’s piece had they not been wearing Abercrombie & Fitch jumpers and showing each other new apps on their iPhones. It remained a steady companion on my walks around the city, and a constant reminder of the place on my return home.

I am not a great reader of non-fiction: I don’t think I trust real life enough to enjoy its supposed facts. Mitchell seems to understand my wariness of this – something I think is not uncommon; I seem to remember Dave Eggers writing in A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius something along the lines of “if it upsets the reader to think that this is non-fiction, just read it as a novel” – and so the pieces for me come together to form a scrappy kind of novel, a dirty patchwork of place and character and story. It seems freer than non-fiction – is the restraints of fact what puts me off? – and in Joe Gould, Mitchell found a subject whose own relationship with the truth is at best strained. As a consequence, the resulting two pieces are as much an investigation into whether we can really know what is happening, or what has happened, as it is into the life of a former Harvard man now eating tomato ketchup in diners just to stave off his hunger.

In the Vintage edition of Up in The Old Hotel, the two Joe Gould stories appear hundreds of pages apart. In his introduction to the book, Mitchell explains that he has simply put the opening part of the story ‘Professor Sea Gull’ back where it belongs in McSorely’s Wonderful Saloon. This is a shame. The two profiles, I think, need to be read back to back, the commentary and interplay between them vital to its air of uncommon strangeness. Non-fiction it may be, but Joe Gould’s Secret is as slippery and as iridescent as any quicksilver novella or story.

For so long, Joe Gould was an unopened secret on my shelves; then a secret I briefly thought my own. Talking about it, though, as is so often the case, other readers and writers mentioned their admiration for Mitchell. Up in the Old Hotel was mentioned with as much reverence as the British can muster; Joe Gould's Secret even more so: its mix of the deadbeat and the uptown, the lithe and the lumbersome, the stench of the streets and the grease of the diner, the smile of deceit and the smile of genuine affection, swooningly irresistible. And with good reason. It is the perfect – one more time, for luck, and in toast – New York story.