Booker Longlist Review: The Long Take by Robin Robertson
I don’t read a lot of poetry and the last verse novel I read was Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate, which came out many years ago. But I was intrigued by the reviews and when it made the Booker longlist I moved it up the TBR. Robertson is a highly acclaimed poet, one of two people who has won the Forward Prize for poetry in three different categories.
This is a true verse novel, in my opinion. It is written primarily in poetic form (with short prose sections) but it has the structure and beats of a prose novel. The narrator is Walker, a Canadian veteran of World War II. We meet Walker in New York City in 1948, where he has landed because he feels he cannot go home again and pick up his old life, not given the man he feels he has become. Walker is still suffering psychologically and emotionally from his war experiences, and he is very much a loner. He decides to move west to Los Angeles, where he lives in an SRO and obtains a job on a left-leaning daily newspaper.
Walker is drawn to the skid row community, many of whom are veterans, and he strikes up a friendship with Billy, an African-American veteran and activist. Billy introduces him to members of the community, and Walker gets to know the people in his neighborhood, many of whom are old and in financially precarious circumstances. He spends much of his time walking the streets of LA, from downtown to the ocean. The veteran and senior community he is part of is in stark contrast to the image of Los Angeles as new, presentist, and ever-growing, with construction wiping out what past existed. This perspective is both challenged and reinforced by the film industry: challenged because film noir in particular exposes the corrupt and seedy underside of the construction boom, and reinforced because it can’t help showing Los Angeles in a glamorous light.
Walker spends a couple of years in San Francisco, documenting the conditions of veterans and other homeless and precarious residents there. San Francisco is a very different city, but it shares the Californian trend of reinvention and endless renewal. Robertson brings a new and important perspective to our image of the 1950s as a time of economic growth and positive social change, showing people who paid a price for these changes.
The poem is described as a “noir narrative” and it amply fulfills that promise. The noir aspects come both from the detailed portrayals of the streets and buildings of Los Angeles and California and the many films and filmmakers who are depicted in the text. Walker is constantly surrounded by film locations and meets several directors. If you are familiar with this milieu, then it deepens the atmosphere of the story, but I can imagine that it could be confusing to people who aren’t noir film buffs or knowledgeable about California’s politics and economy in that period.
The story has two arcs: Los Angeles’ transformation at that time (as Joni Mitchell sang, they paved paradise and they put up a parking lot) and Walker’s psychological deterioration. The people he meets are displaced and/or succumb to their physical and other war wounds, and the landscape he walks is transformed. Buildings are razed, hilltops are removed or flattened, all in the name of economic progress. The most ambitious and openly racist coworker at the newspaper ascends through the hierarchy. At the same time, Walker is more and more consumed by memories of his wartime experiences, especially those around D-Day, and his drinking goes from manageable to dangerous. The last section of the book has grisly war flashbacks and neighborhood destruction marching side by side, and it gets overwhelming, but Robertson never loses control.
Robertson is a Scottish poet who is also an important and influential editor at Jonathan Cape in London, so the setting is far from his milieu. But he does an amazing job of bringing 1940s New York and 1950s California to life. I lived in New York City for several years, spent all my adolescence and chunks of my adult life in the San Francisco area, and I’ve visited Los Angeles regularly. I’ll leave it to the Angelenos to weigh in on how well he represents their city, but as a visitor I thought he portrayed it beautifully, and the New York and San Francisco sections were spot on.
It’s also a stunning poem. I’m far from an expert on poetry, but even I could see the control and accomplishment on display. At times the rhythm reminded me of street poets and preachers, and at other times I was stopped dead in my tracks by the beauty of a particular image. It’s very uncompromising in its style, and was regularly reminded of how powerful poetry can be in describing both beauty and ugliness.
Robertson clearly did a huge amount of research on the settings, and there are notes at the end to provide further information and context for many of the characters and allusions. But I recommend reading without reference to those the first time, just to let the flow of his words wash over you.
4.5 stars at Goodreads. I don’t have high hopes that it will make the longlist, but it’s at the top of my ranking.