Thursday, August 04, 2011

Reading Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English & a Digression on the Booker Prize

Just so you'll know:  Stephen Kelman is not James Kelman, the Scottish writer who won the Booker Prize in 1994 for How Late It Was, How Late. Stephen Kelman, who grew up in the projects in Luton, England, is longlisted for this year's Booker for his first novel, Pigeon English. I am almost through Pigeon English, the first book I've read on the longlist.  And I WILL blog about it in this very post, after a digression on the Booker.

I love the Booker Prize.  I love the betting, the blogging, and the book burble.  But sometimes the conflict gets out of control.  I glanced at the Booker Debate general discussion page, and was surprised (though why?) to see  bloggers (you'll recognize some of them) and commenters quarreling and jockeying for position. 

The moderator wrote: 

"we are saddened to see the behaviour on this board. We will be contacting people individually today and are meeting today to discuss further action. Please return this to an open debate about the Prize and books in general - some of the personal comments from various members have been unacceptable."

It's annoying, really, to read boards like this, so I gave up on it.  People behaving  badly over the Booker? I have better things to do.  The Man Booker Prize is not exactly brain surgery, nuclear disarmament, or global warming, so why not just have fun?  But even Carmen Callil, a judge of the International Booker Prize, apparently went crazy this spring and resigned from the panel after bashing Philip Roth, the winner.

I am in the home stretch of Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English. Do I think it will win the Booker?  No.  It is a charming, often moving first novel, narrated by an 11-year-old boy.  Some parts are well-written and effective, other parts cloying.  It reads like a Y.A. novel, or a book club novel.

It is the story of Harri Opuku, a boy from Ghana living in the projects of London with his mother and sister, Lydia.  He is trapped in a world of gangs and poverty, but this very innocent boy uses his imagination to protect himself from the violent reality.  He pretends his speedy running is a superpower, enhanced by his off-brand trainers.  There is a touching scene in which he draws stripes on his trainers to make them look like Adidas.  And he and a friend, Dean, use binoculars to spy on gang members and try to solve a crime.

In the first chapter Harri is looking at the blood of a boy murdered in his neighborhood.   He says:

"Me and the dead boy were only half friends.  I didn't see him very much because he was older and went to my school.  He could ride his bike with no hands and you never even wanted to see him fall off.  I said a prayer for him inside my head.  It just said sorry.  That's all I could remember.  I pretended like if I kept looking hard enough I could make the blood move and go back in the shape of a boy."

How can Harri survive?   He knows how to fight and is a fast runner, but a gang bullies him into agreeing to help them attack an old man.  He shies away at the last minute.  A female gang member, while ironing his sister's hair, burns Lydia with the iron to make her shut up about something she knows. Harri thinks some of the gang members know about the murder of the boy.

Some scenes have actually made me cry.  Astonishingly, I cried over a humorous, touching scene where he talks about superheroes and his friend Altaf's gift for drawing them.

"There's about a hundred superheroes in the world.  Altaf knows all of them. He draws their picture and they're even better than his cars.  Altaf can tell you about any superhero.  It's his favorite subject.  Spiderman is a superhero.  That's how he can stick like a spider....

"Every superhero has a favorite power.  Some of them can fly and some of them can run proper fast.  Some of them are bulletproof or have rays.  They all have names that tell you what's their favorite power, like Spiderman..."

If I have an hour to read, I get absorbed and appreciate Kelman's blunt style, which reads like English in translation (a very smart approach) and also translates Harri's puzzlement and escapism from the culture.  But I have found that 10 minutes here and there isn't enough. You really have to sink into the book.

It's a good first novel, but do I think first novels should make the Booker longlist?  No.

N.B. I haven't read a Booker winner since 2007.  Sometimes I start to read the longlist, and by the time we get to the winner in October I no longer care.

 Here are my picks for winners 2007-2010 (none won)

2008 - I picked three from the shortlist.  Loved 2008!  Philip Hensher's The Northern Clemency, Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture, and Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies

2009 - A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book

2010 - Peter Carey's Parrott and Olivier in America

I just found my copy of Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question, the 2010 winner, and can't imagine why I haven't read it.  


Ellen said...

In my daughter's college level class this summer a number of the books were YA (young adult). I thought I'd mention how these books are increasingly the ones read - and they simplify reality. I noticed a favorite movie this week is _Terri_, supposedly a compassionate one about a misfit (he's very heavy). Well we watch him "overcome" his disability and -- of course he does -- learn to conform and thus succeeds.

I'm reading a memoir which will get no prize. Eli Clare: Exile and Pride. : this woman had cerebral palsy, born poor, suffered from incestuous
attacks from her father. The opening section is an eloquent exposure of the
non-tolerance and indifference of the non-disabled world: locks them away, will
provide no resources to live independently. I picked it up because it also
de-constructs the favorite kind of story told about disabled people: how X
overcome his or her disability, and how heroic and uplifting it is. They rely on the perception that disability and achievement contradict one another. Not so.

Brick Lane was a first (and turgid novel). These prizes are coteries selling books. In my blog on the Sharp conference I included one session where this was made so clear.

I would probably cry too.

Frisbee said...

I'm surprised that they're teaching Y.A. books in college. I'm sure there are classics among them, and people do like to read them, I know. But there used to be a clear line between children's books and adult books. The Y.A. category, which was barely recognized in my day (maybe just beginning?), seems to mean children's books with an edge. I'm judging superficially from displays at the bookstore.

I don't know Terri. Eli Clare's memoir sounds good.

I enjoyed Brick Lane, but didn't even remember it as a Booker winner! Prizes do sell books. Why the huge excitement over the Booker? I do enjoy it, too, though.