Roll up, roll up; it’s epoch-defining anthology time! Every ten years the Granta team compiles an anthology of the works of twenty writers it’s dubbed the Best Young British Novelists, and the literary world, or this corner of it, anyway, gets all a-fluster as a consequence. This is their fourth such effort, and the series is now established enough to have gathered a certain amount of critical momentum. So these writers – more of whom later – get the establishment stamp of approval, and we, the public, now know whom we ought to be reading in the years to come. Well, lists are handy, no doubt about it, but let’s pause a minute to unpack this.
British. Okay. A few red tapes to be snipped in one case, but it’s pretty uncontentious, if we accept the whole nation-state rigmarole, which most people are probably happy enough to do. Young? Under forty, to be more precise. So: wrinkly forty-one year olds are out, and hot young thirty-nine year olds are very much in. I’m being snarky here, sure. But say there’s a writer hitting his/her stride right now, age thirty-one, maybe two unpublished novels in, and who obviously didn’t therefore make any kind of waves this time round, but is due to publish a work of near genius the year after next and will be considered the literary Second Coming in 2015: this person won’t be eligible next time round because of the age criteria. So the Young Writer thing: I don’t get it. Why not Early Career Novelists? (Hasn’t got much of a ring to it, I’ll grant you that.) Of course, remove the age and concentrate on the new, and you miss out on repeat appearances (Zadie Smith, Adam Thirlwell). So what do they mean by Best? It’s a very loose remit. Most Acclaimed? Most Innovative? Most Reliable? Most Worthy? Most Representative? Most Saleable? Most In-The-Tradition-Of-The-English-Greats? I can’t imagine the judging committee agreed on that. I can’t imagine the judges had much of a fun time at all, actually, with contentious criteria, the press waiting to pounce, and the requirement to assess a huge amount of eligible but hugely various works according to those nebulous criteria, and all with the weight of Legacy upon them, because if this list gets the same attention as the original one did back in ’83, with its YBA-type nominees (Amis, etc), then they’d want to make damn sure they chose well. Rather them than me. Editor John Freeman acknowledges in his introduction that ‘whiff of zeitgeist prediction’; he adds that the judges didn’t want to be hampered by that, or to get hung up on state of the nation requirements. ‘The writers we were drawn to,’ he says, ‘dazzled with narrative intelligence, but never at the expense of story.’ Having read the book (I am getting to that), I’m not convinced: I’d say that, youth and nationality aside, the writers featured here aren’t, in the main, the most startlingly ‘dazzling’ or innovative stylists; instead, they are (again, in the main) reliable sorts who Get The Story Told, and that without alienating their readers; they draw in a wide audience, captivate with interesting settings and uncomplicated poetics, and they couldn’t, by and large, be tagged with that most terrifying of literary labels: Experimental. All that said, of course, an anthology composed mostly of extracts from unfinished works is handicapped from the first page: there’s no context or resolution to anything. Bit of a minefield, all in.
Still, enough of my nitpicking and sniping: on to the stories and excerpts.
The historical novel, and more specifically the war novel, gets a couple of nods, with Kamila Shamsie’s Vipers and Adam Foulds’ A World Intact, featuring, respectively, Pashtun fighters in Ypres and Brighton, and an English soldier, visiting his mother and unhappy with his posting. Foulds’ work is actually quite representative of my issues with this volume: it’s solid, readable, well-composed in so far as the characters and the setting (geographical and historical) feel real, and yet it’s dull – its accomplishments are accomplishments we’ve all come across time and time again. Classy writing and a serious topic and a decent English chap up front, and I wonder if this really represents the most fresh and exciting literary voices that Britain is producing? Which brings me back, of course, to the question of what constitutes the ‘best’. (What – me, repetitive? Never.) Flinging us outside the UK, there’s Tahmima Anam’s Anwar Gets Everything (Bangladeshi workers getting exploited in Dubai), Nadifa Mohamed’s Somalian war story, Filsan, Evie Wild’s After The Hedland, in which an Australian sheep-shearer is on the run from her apparently brutal past, and Driver, Taiye Selasi’s story of privilege and its misuse in Ghana. Anam’s piece, in particular, has real tension and scope, but you’d expect that, as it’s part of the final volume in a trilogy.
The two sophomores, Thirlwell and Smith, are interesting: Smith for her inclusion, more than for her prose, because, though her piece, Just Right, is engaging, it’s dealing with the same issues that she’s examined many times before – families, belonging, class and race tensions, social embarrassment – and I didn’t feel that it represented her more exciting work, as evidenced by parts of last years’ NW. Thirlwell’s excerpt was a pretty classic crime opening (man wakes up next to a female body with no idea how she died) and he’s taken on what I tend to think of as a very internet-y style: simple, repetitive, declarative sentences (‘I felt very trapped and very sad’), that hover between being poignant and un-inventive. All the same, I’d like to know what happens to that sad guy…
Ben Markovitz’s American college kids in You Don’t Have To Live Like This are fairly generic – clueless geek, lady-killer sporty types, hapless girls – and I was left, finishing his section, without much of a clue where the book might be leading me. Likewise, Joanna Kavenna’s more stylistically interesting, slightly imressionistic number, Tomorrow, left me with little sense of what the book it’s taken from might offer in terms of story. This is partly the problem with excerpting novels, though; a short story says what it needs to say in this many words, but a novel isn’t required to exhaustively represent itself in any given chunk, and a partial reading isn’t necessarily going to succeed in the way the whole book might. There aren’t many short stories here: Naomi Alderman’s Soon And In Our Days and Ross Raisin’s Submersion are the exceptions. While Alderman’s tale about the unexpected appearance on Earth of the Prophet Elijah is funny and sharp, but not startling in any significant way, Raisin’s apocalyptic story about catastrophe, death, love and guilt, is jam-packed with brutal detail, maybe a little too much so, but visceral and memorable for it. Xiaolu Guo’s Interim Zone was, I felt, too short to be properly representative of the book from which it’s taken, and likewise, Helen Oyoyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird felt like it didn’t have enough room to properly explain itself – too many characters, too many relationships, and too much consequent pressure on the reader to keep up. That’s hardly the fault of the writers; it’s the curse, again, of the excerpt. The real low point, for me, though, was Ned Bauman’s Glow, a dull story about drugs and crime in Bangkok, with particularly unconvincing representations of homosexuality, and the same unexciting prose that made Boxer Beetle such a tiresome waste of a good set of ideas. The entire register of the language in Glow doesn’t seem suited to its protagonist. I know literary is a contested, and fairly often empty qualifier, but if this is literary, then I’m not sure where we’d locate middlebrow.
Getting off my high-horse. there were some properly good moments in here. David Szalay’s Europa conveys the dinginess of small-scale prostitution in London and the dislocated boredom of that variety of immigrant life, whilst setting up a very interesting trio of characters: understated, but full of menace, shame and longing, that should be a novel to watch out for. Steven Hall’s The End of Endings has the same sense of freaky and tense mystery that characterised his first novel, The Raw Shark Texts, but this time he’s thrown in a parallel historical narrative, too; in that respect it reminded me a little of a futuristic, potentially SF cousin of Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers, but Hall’s definitely treading out his own path. In terms of structural and narrative ambition – at least in so far as the given excerpts allow me to make that judgement – The End of Endings was the only one that really made me sit up and pay attention. (Half of it is upside down, for God’s sake!) Sarah Hall’s The Reservation has the same evocative, blood-and-guts physicality as her previous short fiction, and the same Cumbrian setting that made The Carhullan Army so vital: ‘Moorland, peat, ferns, water and whatever the water touches. The myrrh of autumn. […] The aroma of Cumbria is immediately recognizable: upland pheromones.’ Of all the writers in this anthology, hers is, to my knowledge, the most consistently varied and compelling, and this skill is evident here. Sunjeev Sahota’s Arrivals is about a group of Indian immigrants – some legal, some not – living in cramped Sheffield quarters and trying to get along; his protagonist is yearning, meanwhile, for his visa-wife, who isn’t at all interested. The tense relationships between these men, forced together into a crowded shared house, made it a really compelling read; and, anyway, it’s good to read a migrant book that’s, for once, set outside London. Finally, Jenni Fagan’s Zephyrs, like Rasin’s story, has a miserable apocalyptic atmosphere; the world Fagan creates is grim, foul-mouthed and beautiful, as her hero flees a flooded city to take refuge in a decrepit and isolated hut. That’s a novel I’d buy, and a writer I’d watch.
Any Cop?: So-so. Very little badness, quite a lot of solid, admirable prose, and a sprinkling of writing that’s inspiring and thought-provoking. They’ll all probably do well, but I’m not sure that they all deserve the world’s literary radars to be turned upon them with quite this level of intensity.