For those of you that have put up with my posts over the last few months where I’ve banged on and on and on about finals, I promise this is the last time I’ll mention them. I’ve received my results and I feel like this:
Hooray! So I thought this week I’d look at times when authors may have felt a similar way: two debut prize-winning novels.
Firstly, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Galley Beggar Press, 2013) which won the Goldsmiths Prize last year, and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Desmond Elliot Prize, both this year. If you have any interest in books, you’d have to have been living under a rock not to have heard of this novel. Aside from all the breathless reviews, I’ve seen buses trundling along with huge posters commanding us to “Read it and be changed” (from Eleanor Catton’s review). Written in about 6 months when the author was 27, she struggled to find a publisher due to its inventive style and uncompromising subject matter. She shoved it in a drawer, but 10 years later sent it to a small independent publisher. Galley Beggar Press published the novel, and plaudits galore followed. I hope this signals a less conservative approach by publishers, but I’m sceptical… Still, at least as far as AGIAHFT goes, they got there in the end (Faber and Faber have partnered with Galley Beggar Press to publish it on a much wider scale).
McBride is a huge fan of Joyce, and the novel is written as a stream of consciousness. However, while many people can find Ulysses intimidating, AGIAHFT is only 200 pages long, and much more approachable. It is, however, a tough read, both in style and content. It details the narrator’s relationship with her brother, who is partly disabled from an operation on his brain as a child.
“I sneak. I snuck. I listened at the door. I heard them. I pondered you should send him to a special school. Those marks aren’t fit for a boy that age. Oh such clucking and glucking. Snob and preen herself. I hear my two are off to the convent. Not a ladder in their tights or a pain in their heart. Such brilliance. Unearthly. I snoot them. Aunt and uncle. Chintz for brains I hiss and think. Listening listening.
Life is hard, and although her brother’s scars are visible to all, the narrator has scars of her own. The stream of consciousness gives her experience an immediacy, unmediated by considered use of language, which places the reader right alongside her, and that is not an easy place to be. She decides to use sex to get her classmates to leave her brother alone; she is raped by an uncle; she has a fractured relationship with her mother; and through it all is her tender but ambivalent relationship with her brother.
We were moving off now. From each other. As cannot be. Helped. I didn’t help it from that time on. You know. All that. When you said sit with me on the school bus. I said no. That inside world had caught alight and what I wanted. To be left alone. To look at it. To swing the torch into every corner of what he’d we’d done….Who are you? You and me were never this. This boy and girl that do not speak. But somehow I’ve left you behind and you’re just looking on.”
AGIAHFT is as unique and extraordinary as all the hype would have you believe.
Secondly, Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre (Faber & Faber, 2003) which won the Booker, the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Award for Comic Writing, all in 2003. Let’s get my wholly unoriginal but unavoidable observation out of the way first: this novel really reminded me of The Catcher in the Rye. Vernon Little is a teenager disgusted by the hypocrisy of the society he sees around him “I sense a learning: that much dumber people than you end up in charge”. He is desperately looking for a place to belong, but it’s not the barbeque sauce capital of Texas where he lives. His best friend Jesus has shot dead their classmates and taken his own life. Vernon is left to take the blame, as the society of the small town look for answers without listening to anything Vernon has to say.
His overbearing mother and her friends are all obsessed with diets, “Leona’s an almost pretty blonde with a honeysuckle voice you just know got it’s polish from rubbing on her last husband’s wallet.”; his psychologist is corrupt and abusive “the shrink’s building sits way out of town; a bubble of clinical smells in the dust. A receptionist with spiky teeth and a voicebox made from bees trapped in tracing paper, sits behind a desk”; there’s a manipulative journalist unconcerned with truth, setting himself up as puppet-master. Vernon God Little is scathing in its treatment of contemporary society: its focus on the easily discarded, the scandal-mongering and superficiality of the media, the ineptitude of those in power to exercise it with any integrity. All this is bound up with a great deal of humour and truly inventive use of language. As I hope the quotes so far demonstrate, the images throughout the novel are startling and evocative. Pierre uses the adolescence of his narrator to demonstrate how versatile language can be and how it can be reformed for individual expression. One of my favourite lines was this:
“I get waves of sadness, not for me but for them, all mangled and devastated. I’d give anything for them to be vastated again.”
Funny, sad, original and thought-provoking: the entire novel of Vernon God Little held in a single sentence.
I know I said I wouldn’t mention finals again, but permit me, if you will, just one final milking of it:
Happy weekend everyone!