By Dennis Abrams
It is one of the most beloved and eagerly awaited awards of recent years – The Hatchet Job of the Year, given to the “writer of the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review of the past twelve months,” by The Omnivore.
Writing in The Guardian, Nick Lezard, while admitting a bit of ambivalence about the award itself, allowed that “…you cannot gainsay the fun to be had,” while saying:
“One does hope, though, that it is the stiletto that will be rewarded rather than the bludgeon. There is also the question of whether the very existence of the award encourages critics to be rather meaner than they would otherwise have been. But, really, hurrah for the prize. Martin Amis, himself no stranger to the damning review, whether as perpetrator or victim, has called the book review ‘the lowest and noblest literary form,’ and critics have continually, and for ever, been made to feel like tapeworms. Lord Cooper in Scoop, when searching for an example of the humblest of his employees, lit upon the figure of the book critic. Orwell’s Confessions of a Book Reviewer still makes horribly uncomfortable reading, nearly 70 years after its publication. So you can’t grumble too much if we in Grub Street let our hair down and celebrate those occasions when we can gnaw on the hand of the trade that feeds us.”
That being said, here are this year’s nominees, including excerpts from some of the snarkiest reviews of the year:
Craig Brown on Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet by Frederick Raphael and Joseph Epstein in the Daily Mail
Often, like school bullies, the two men can be spotted urging one another on to greater heights of malice, so that after Raphael says of the novelist Saul Bellow: ‘His stuff combined sincerity with bad faith in a way that almost smelled’, Epstein, who is, in school parlance, the suck-up, replies: ‘You’ve nailed Saul Bellow, in sniffing out the fraudulence behind his literary enterprise . . . Bellow was touchy, unkind, nasty and blackhearted’, and then in his reply Raphael adds that Bellow’s book “Ravelstein” ‘is one of the worst novels I have ever read, if not THE worst, but then I haven’t read Antonia Byatt’s latest, so what do I know?’
When Ann Widdecombe appeared on Strictly Come Dancing in 2010, the judges were not complimentary, describing her variously as “a dancing hippo”, “a Dalek in drag” and “the Ark Royal”. Len Goodman, exasperated that she had somehow crept into the quarter finals, likened her to haemorrhoids: “You keep coming back more painful than ever,” he said, in the dazed moments after she and her partner, Anton du Beke, had completed their Titanic-inspired interpretation of the rumba…
Is Widdecombe’s writing any better than her dancing? No. About the best you can say for her prose is that it is accurate. Her grammar is fine – Ann is a stickler for grammar – and her anecdotes make sense in that they have a beginning, a middle and an end. Her attention to detail is exemplary, if you’re the kind of reader who really does long to know precisely where she stands on the matter of apostolic succession or Michael Howard’s sacking of the former director of HM Prison Service, Derek Lewis. But in every other respect her memoirs bear a strong resemblance to her paso doble: no rhythm, no beauty, no humour and, above all, no feeling…
All of culture is being sucked down the plughole and the philistines can’t hear our screams! Bad books, bad movies, bad art. Novels are no longer about thinking, they’re just vortices of cliche. The race is now on to write the Worst. Book. Ever. And this may be it.
Douglas Coupland is not a terribly careful writer, though in the more compassionate “Generation X,” published back in 1991, he coined some good terms, including “McJobs”. One must assume his stance is still vaguely honourable and that he intends Worst. Person. Ever. to be some sort of critique of mass culture. But if this book is satirical, it hides it well. An ironic hamburger is still (usually) a hamburger.
Through total immersion in the banality it purports to expose, his new novel out-sarcasms itself. Like Chuck Palahniuk’s “Snuff”, it’s determined to gross you out, offering a barrage of sexism, homophobia, shit, vomit, sputum, and all the other stuff of adolescent humour. “Worst. Person. Ever.” can only appeal to people who like to hear women belittled, and everything trashed – and it’s hard to see the necessity for it when we’ve already got plenty of trash and belittled women.
The book falls into two distinct passages. The first quarter is devoted to growing up in Manchester (where he was born in 1959) and his schooling. This is laughably overwrought and overwritten, a litany of retrospective hurt and score-settling that reads like a cross between Madonna and Catherine Cookson. No teacher is too insignificant not to be humiliated from the heights of success, no slight is too small not to be rehashed with a final, killing esprit d’escalier. There are pages of lists of television programmes he watched (with plot analysis and character criticism). He could go on Mastermind with the specialist subject of Coronation Street or the works of Peter Wyngarde. There is the food he ate, the groups that appeared on Top of the Pops (with critical comments) and the poetry he liked (with quotes).
All of this takes quite a lot of time due to the amount of curlicues, falderals and bibelots he insists on dragging along as authorial decoration. Instead of adding colour or depth, they simply result in a cacophony of jangling, misheard and misused words. After 100 pages, he’s still at the school gate kicking dead teachers.
When it comes to people, though, Tartt’s imagination blurs and coarsens. Melodrama and sentimentality abound (Pippa, “like a fairy” in a gauzy green dress, is a particularly fey fabrication). Similar-seeming formulations recur. One character is “like an elegant weasel”, another like “an elegant…polar bear”, a third has an “elegant black-clad body like a python”. Where The Little Friend sought to make its readers’ flesh crawl by dropping actual cobras, cottonmouths and copperheads into its story, this novel seeks to provoke shudders with figurative snakes: a “viper-eyed thug”, a killer with “eyes…like a puff adder’s”, a villain who has “the unsettling stillness of an anaconda”.
Tartt’s fictional world has always been one of opposing extremes: preciousness and sensationalism, the rarefied coterie of students in “The Secret History” and the bloody violence they get mired in, the gracefully declining aristocratic Southern family in “The Little Friend” and the near-feral trailer trash around them. In this novel, creepy lowlifes — hitmen, conmen, fakers — are opposed to beglamoured art-lovers. Fervent pages pay throbbingly emotional tribute to the latter and art’s power to soar above death and corruption. But no amount of straining for high-flown uplift can disguise the fact that The Goldfinch is a turkey.
Fredrick Raphael on A Delicate Truth by John le Carre in the TLS
Le Carré affects, as so often, to be making daring revelations about How Things Really Work. In the clever process, he stretches his thrills with mixed clichés, idiosyncratic phrases (can people “go faint at the knees”?) and witless dialogue whaleboned with “he retorted stiffly” and the like.
Let’s concede that “The Luminaries” is a stunning feat of construction. The Booker judges knew, whatever else its merits, they were giving the prize to a tremendously technically accomplished piece of work. I suspect some exhausted reviewers praised it for the same reason. It doesn’t necessarily make it any good, of course. A ship made of matchsticks in a bottle is a feat of construction but not necessarily a great work of art.
“The Luminaries” sold 2,970 copies after being Booker shortlisted. Since winning, Catton’s publisher, Granta, has printed 100,000 more. How many of those that are bought will be read to the end? One out of 10?
Catton has said: “People whose negative reaction has been most vehement have all been men over about 45,” possibly stereotyping herself. It’s not entirely true: one of the sharpest reviews was by the New Zealand-born novelist Kirsty Gunn, in her early fifties (“The problem is that as we read on, we don’t read in … ”).
That’s me, though. Bang to rights. A man. Over 45. And what being so disgraced reveals to you is that time is short, too short to waste. Or to have it wasted.
A prose that might once have been described as (at best) “mercurial” has crossed a line into being the disconnected notes that a grumpy old man writes up each evening in his hotel. Finally, Theroux claims that he is not an Afro-pessimist, just a pessimist. Yet there is a lost opportunity here, for what could have been a pointed examination of Angola’s misspent oil wealth becomes so subsumed in an almighty fug of peevishness and a lingering rancour over the credit fraud that it becomes very difficult to know what is what.
Bankrupt in more ways than one, then, this is a book I would recommend only as a teaching aid or to someone interested in tracking the final sub-Conradian wreckage of a genre, rusting away like the hulks of tanks that so fascinate the narrator along the roads in Angola. It is imbued not just with the narrator’s old age but the senescence of an entire genre.
This year’s prize, a year’s supply of potted shrimp, courtesy of The Fish Society will be presented at the Coach and Horses in Soho.