“Lacks the satisfying swagger of noir” – The Long Take by Robin Robertson

Booker judges always like what they perceive to be the new or unusual. Robin Robertson’s The Long Take certainly falls into at least one of those categories, essentially functioning as a long noir poem, interspersed with odd paragraphs here and there of what might be called poetic prose. Although it’s garnered comment for whether it’s as new as all that (we remember reviewing Oliver Langmead’s Dark Star back in 2015 which did something similar, the only exception being that Langmead is a sci-fi writer and Booker judges tend to disdain sci-fi unless it’s written by Margaret Atwood), we get a real sense that Booker sorts feel like they missed a trick when they didn’t shortlist Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (not a poem, we know, but equally audacious) and so are looking here to get ahead of the game by singling a book out that will provoke the kinds of click-bait-y “should this book even be on a Booker list?” type debate.

We’ll politely refuse to play although we will acknowledge that this is a book of poetry, howsoever you cut it, and we know that there are people who don’t do poetry. Within the smaller group of people whose range scales from “occasionally dabbling” (when, say, a collection leaps the hurdle and enters the Birthday Letters / Grief is the Thing with Feathers territory) via “I have my favourites” (and so will read everything, say, Carole Anne Duffy / Simon Armitage / Jackie Kay / Andrew Motion puts out) to “I am a keen fan of poetry who tries to keep up with established poets and newbies” (within which you are likely to find people who were excited by Zaffar Kunial’s recent collection, Us – we imagine), it may be that the presence of The Long Take on the Booker longlist will excite undue interest.

We said this was a noir poem, by which we mean to say it has a hardboiled quality. As poetry goes, it’s within shouting distance, at times, of the likes of Bukowski or Fante (in that – for the most part – you’re not reading and wondering what is going on or what the author’s intent is – at least not on a word by word basis, which can sometimes be the case with poetry that makes you work for clarity). Set between 1946 and 1953, The Long Take is the story of Walker, a war veteran suffering from the effects of what he has seen and lived through, that kicks off in New York and then moves to LA, with a little bit of San Francisco worked in. Walker has left the people he knows behind, a former love, his family, and looks to make a living for himself on the newsdesk of a paper in LA, on the city beat, dealing with crime and poverty and (occasionally) film. He is a keen observer of films, as they are made around him, each finished product imbued with his memory of having seen the production itself, against a backdrop of a geographic locale that is changing (whole streets, nightclubs, diners levelled as the space required for car parks grows). Walker, as his name heavy-handedly suggests, likes to get about the city on foot:

“He walked through the city on Christmas Day,

making an inventory of loss: buildings gone,

replaced by parking lots; the buildings scheduled, cordoned off.”

An inventory of loss could have been an alternative title for the book. This book is a hymn to the passing of time. There’s a story in the most recent AM Homes’ collection Days of Awe about a city planner. This is a long poem earnestly yearning for city planners to just hold their cotton-picking horses a minute. You feel the encroachment of extinction lapping at the lives of these characters.

There are three direct modes: one is the actual life, as it is lived, day by day and week by week and year by year (which takes up the majority of the book); another is memories, delivered in italics, and, as the book progresses, this becomes more focused upon his memories of the war (and certainly by the book’s climax, the memories of war run in direct tandem with the levelling of a world that has become home to him); and there is a third mode, delivered in bold, which we took to be Walker’s notes, and which feel harder than the accompanying text, requiring a certain level of parsing and which recalled to this reader Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities. Here’s an example:

“Original cities were contained, concentrated social collectives. But Los Angeles is the opposite. Immune to everything but the limits of its host, the city expands at pace – to the edges of its territory: the mountains, its neighbours, the ocean’s verge – an infestation, a carcinoma.”

As you’d expect, this is an historical book about America that looks (we think) to make points about America as it is today:

“…Propaganda and lies,

opening divisions, fueling fear, paranoia. Just like the thirties:

a state of emergency, followed by fascism, followed by war.

You’ve just defeated Hitler.

Can’t you see you’ve made another, all of your own?”

Robertson is talking about McCarthyism here but everyone knows Roy Cohn was legal adviser to McCarthy and, oh yes, that’s right, Trump’s mentor so the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree at all.

The two great strengths of the book are the weight of research that Robertson has undertaken (you can’t help get the sense that he has absolutely immersed himself in this world, The Long Take is awash with casual detail that rings of truth) and the deft way in which a veritable parade of imagery flashes by your eye as if viewed from a car driving at speed:

“There were parts of the city that were pure blocks of darkness,

where light would slip in like a blade to nick it, carve it open:

a thin stiletto, then a spill of white; the diagonal gash

of a shadow, shearing; the jagged angle sliding over itself

to close; the flick-knife of a watchman’s torch, the long gasp

of headlights from nowhere, their yawning light…”

What issues there are lie in the resolution. If you were to ask me, could I explain to you everything that happened in a way that I felt entirely satisfied with? No. Is that as much an indictment of me as of the book? Sure. Did the urgent acceleration and pairing of the war-time memories with the pace of change work for me? Not completely. Did I want more, by the climax (in the sense of more drama, more explicit trouble)? I think – yes. And yet were you to ask me if the book was imperfect or flawed, I’d say no. It is what it is – it’s just that (to my mind) the vehicle of poetry (which can be elusive) fits awkwardly at times with the satisfying swagger of noir. This elusiveness is offset, however, by the robust ballast of detail (which called to mind Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish’s sturdy portrait of the city of New York, still one of our favourite novels of recent years).

Any Cop?: The Long Take is interesting and we’re glad we read it but we think it’s a Booker longlist outlier and unlikely to make the final shortlist cut.

 

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