Booker longlist reading: Books-in-progress update

by Sunita

I was hoping to have a couple of more Booker books finished, but instead I have two on the go and two to start and finish. So here’s an update in the meantime.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I have been switching between audio and ebook and neither is working for me. I see a lot of rave reviews but I’m more on the 1- and 2-star side of the ledger (there are quite a few  of these ratings as well). It feels less like a novel and more like a collage which started as a play, not because of the lack of plot, but because of the cacophony of voices and the lack of a clear through line. I’m fine with no plot (see my review of Autumn, among others), and I’m fine with multiple voices and an experimental style. I just can’t figure out what the author is trying to do here, and there’s not enough in the text itself to draw me in so that I don’t care that I don’t know. It also doesn’t help that David Sedaris always sounds like David Sedaris to me and the narrations feel overacted and/or self-consciously “historical.”

Three-quarters of the way through, I’m trying to figure out what on earth the use of “Bardo” in the title has to do with anything, since it doesn’t resemble the Buddhist bardo(s) with which I’m familiar. The African-American characters are introduced in discomfiting ways, and I’m still not sure why Lincoln’s pain is foregrounded in the title and blurb when the bulk of the book is about other characters. Maybe it all becomes clear in the last quarter.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. This was a complete surprise to me. I borrowed it from the library on a whim, started reading, and just loved it. It has received a lot of mixed reviews, with the Booker reading group at The Reading Room ranking it at the absolute bottom of their list so far. I can see how the book could fail for readers, especially readers who are unfamiliar with India’s past and present sociopolitical contexts, as well as readers who prefer less political ranting and a more linear plot. But from where I sit, this is the book I’m so glad someone as talented as Roy has chosen to write about contemporary India. The BJP motto of India Shining, emerging superpower, etc. has dominated a lot of western (and Indian) discourse, which buries the enormous costs of the country’s economic gains of the last 25 years. Income and wealth inequality is higher than it’s been in decades (certainly since Independence), and Hindu nationalism is dominant (if you want to see how far white nationalism can go in a country and what it can do, this is your analogy).

Roy tackles these issues head-on through her two storylines, the first of which focuses on Anjum, a Hijra (transwoman) who lives a marginal, liminal existence in Old Delhi. She’s wonderfully realized, as is her community and the setting in which she lives. The second storyline is about S. Tilottama, an architecture graduate who has relationships with three men across a couple of decades and who becomes caught up in the Kashmir conflict. Tilo’s section is related through multiple POVs and takes us deep into the Kashmir insurgency of the 1990s. Roy is unsparing in her indictments of politicians, military men, civil servants, and well-meaning indigenous and foreign rich people who either responsible for creating today’s India or trying to ameliorate some of its worst elements without disturbing the essential framework. It’s hard to read, it’s messy, it’s cacophonous (like the Saunders), but in a way that makes sense to me. It’s also funny and poignant. I’m a little over halfway through, and the book may well lose its power, but right now I’m riveted.

Antigone by Jean Anouilh. Since I remembered so little of the plot and I had read that Shamsie had drawn on the Anouilh version for Home Fire, I decided to listen to an audio play of the latter. Once I got past the flat American accents enacting high drama in ancient Greece, I settled in and tore through this LA Theater Works production (easy to do even for me since it’s less than two hours long). Francis Guinan is particularly good as Creon, and Elizabeth Marvel settles into the part and matches him well in their scenes.

I’m setting aside time to read Solar Bones this weekend, and then it’s Home Fire before the Wednesday shortlist announcement. Wish me luck, because I’ll need it! I may not finish the Saunders and Roy books before that, but I plan on finishing them both over the next week to ten days. And then, probably, The Underground Railroad. One of these three, if not more, are almost certain to make the list.