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BooksOctober 9, 2018

Man Booker Prize Fight Week, round 1: Robin Robertson vs Richard Powers


The 2018 Man Booker prize is announced next week. Philip Matthews reviews two of the shortlisted novels, The Long Take by Robin Robertson and The Overstory by Richard Powers.

I can’t promise that everyone would necessarily enjoy Robin Robertson’s The Long Take, but you will remain haunted by it. You may have heard it described as the book-length Scottish film noir poem that somehow stormed the gates of the Man Booker Prize, making the longlist and then the shortlist and having as good a chance as any of actually winning the thing. And all compromises aside – we’ll get to those later – the Man Booker still matters and it would be great news for the novel and its sometimes tired conventions if a book that probably isn’t really a novel somehow won it.

The Long Take covers a decade of post-war America. A man named Walker has come from Nova Scotia via the war zones of Europe and Robertson slips brief, evocative flashbacks to his impossibly distant childhood home and the unspeakable horrors of France and Germany into his narrative of 1940s and 50s New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Flashbacks? Long takes? The book speaks a film language and both Walker and the author are aficionados of that short-lived but massively influential style that the French critics named for the Americans: film noir.

Robertson has talked in interviews about noir as a style born of a particular moment and a particular collision of cultures: directors escaping from Europe (Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang and, later, Roman Polanski) brought their wartime dread and paranoia with them, aestheticised as shadowy German Expressionism. What happened when you applied that style to pulp thrillers about low lifes, crooks, cops and double-crossing women? Two of the finest examples are Lang’s The Big Heat and Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place. All that darkness, all that corruption, all that moral rot.

The Long Take isn’t a noir story – real pulp is actually more fun than this – but it is about a noir time. Walker reaches New York first. It seems utterly gloomy, unfriendly and alienating, cavernous, always in black and white. The streets are full of people like him, who swapped boredom for fear. “The subways are rivers, underground, flash-flooding every five minutes”, and Central Park is “a clearing in this forest of stone”. Walker gets some work on the docks but New York is too bleak and after a hint about or from the movies, he takes a train for the west.

Is Walker really a name or just a job description? He is a camera, mostly resistant to human interaction. Out in Los Angeles he gets a job as a newspaper reporter. It gives him the best opportunity to see, and a chance for Robertson to bring in people who can spit out chunks of exposition and history about the tragedy of LA, the clearances of downtown for the post-war motorways and the demolition of the Bunker Hill neighbourhood. Walker, sensing he has found his real family at last, convinces his editor to let him do a series on the homeless vets and winos of Skid Row. Like him, they are irreparably war-damaged.

Just like some exiled noir director, Walker has brought his guilt with him from the old world over to the new world. Los Angeles always seemed, on the surface, like the strangest place for noir to flourish: it’s hot, it’s bright, it looks like the good life. Well, of course, it’s where the movies were made but there is also a way, as the great historian of LA, Mike Davis, says in his book City of Quartz, that the city has bred special kinds of local corruption that depended on relationships between politics, money and the police. Post-noirs like Chinatown and Inherent Vice have been less ambiguous about how that all works than the original noirs could be.

Anyway, LA it is. When Walker takes a sojourn in San Francisco, we feel his relief. LA is more like hell built in paradise, with light that looks good filtered through venetian blinds in smoky rooms. Walker has loneliness in common with the noir heroes, as well as a level of disgust. The contrasts are stark here. In the foreground, “all the human debris, poor as dust – all these winos, con-men, crooks and cops, pimps and streetwalkers”, and looming behind them, “the raised hand of the law: the whited sepulchre of City Hall”.

Robertson surely feels that a kind of truth, even authenticity, is important to the world he is creating. Noir fans will not think it is accidental that a driver giving Walker a ride up the coast to San Francisco suggests they skip a joint called Tarantino’s Seafood (“Nah. There’s a real one farther down. Authentic”). Yet there is no avoiding the fact that this book is also second-hand, received mythology. Readers of City of Quartz and viewers of noir and deconstructions of the city like Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself already know how urban geography intersects with money and power. The speeches Walker hears can seem obvious and transparent. Robertson laid it out far too starkly in a recent session at Word Christchurch when he said, “there is a direct narrative line that leads then to Korea, to Vietnam, to Afghanistan, to Iraq and to Trump. You have this man that is circling the wagon and shooting the Indians.”

That is America and its original sin. So why is this poem-as-novel so haunting? It is the figure of Walker, anonymous and war-damaged. It is Robertson’s language (the lights of Los Angeles are laid out “as if the whole sky and all the stars had fallen”). He finds inventive means of describing the innumerable ways in which people can be destroyed in war (“his windpipe torn open, so he’s gargling blood and staring at me , fumbling at his neck like he feels his napkin is slipping … the soldier with his jaw blown half-off, trying to hold it in place”). And as the title of the book implies, Robertson plays tricks with time. Sometimes it seems as though time stops entirely. In other places, events appear to have happened centuries ago. The story slips into the deep time of mythology and feels like a long dream of horror.

That’s right, there’s more to come

Best to admit it: I border on parochial about the Man Booker and I still think it was a mistake to let the Americans in. They have their own awards and the American novel is a different sort of animal to the British/Commonwealth novel. The Long Take is a brief and highly pessimistic version of the immigrant’s journey, or even the American dream, whereas a novel like The Overstory by Richard Powers, which is one of two American gatecrashers in this year’s Man Booker shortlist of six, can’t help communicating an expansiveness, an optimism, even as it purports to tell an apocalyptic tale.

There is an American too-much-ness that spills over in books like this. The opening story brings immigrants to Brooklyn from Norway in the 19th century and then across to the Midwest. It starts with a feast: “The Norwegian and his friends from the Brooklyn Navy Yard eat their bounty roasted over great bonfires in a clearing in the woods.” America will keep on giving. The bounty is the “hard rain” of chestnuts and the chapter becomes a tribute to the chestnut tree, nicely described by Powers as “a fountain of shade”.

Once the Norwegian has been introduced, and we arrive at his descendant, an artist named Nicholas Hoel, Powers has eight other characters to bring on one by one. Forget film noir: this is more like the first instalment in a superhero series in which every origin story must get its fair share of screen time. They are all gifted outsiders, visionaries, nerds and wise children, who have one thing in common. That thing is trees.

A very Stephen King-esque image of Richard Powers

Who speaks for the trees? In the section called “Roots”, which is followed naturally enough by “Trunk”, “Crown” and “Leaves”, some of the gang of nine become eco-terrorists to preserve virgin forests. There is the burnt-out Vietnam vet, there is the maverick academic who has discovered that trees communicate with each other. Trees share their feelings and perhaps they are even better beings than us. They certainly have a much more profound understanding of time against which humans seem insignificant. I suspect that Powers shares that same sense of time, that Olympian detachment. He thinks like an oak. (He explained in a Guardian interview that he had a life-changing experience with a giant redwood in California: “I’ve been blind to these amazing creatures.”)

It is a celebration of trees as living beings, and a strike against their exploitation by humanity. It moves past regular environmentalism towards a kind of radical post-humanism, an expectation of how good things will be once we’ve all gone that helps counter a sadness about the ruined world. That can make reading this book on paper a little like consuming a burger during a lecture on vegetarianism and its exhaustive message-making leaves little space for the reader. There is a certain kind of piousness, even prissiness, to its green tribe of Avatar-ish tree activists. But I did appreciate the local angle. Yes, even New Zealand’s flora finds a way into this long, sometimes impressive, often repetitive but always sincere work of tree love: “She describes an explosion of living forms, a hundred million new stems and twigs from one prodigious trunk. She talks about Tāne Mahuta, Yggdrasil, Jian-Mu, the Tree of Good and Evil, the indestructible Asvattha with roots above and branches below. Then she’s back at the original World Tree.”

The Long Take by Robin Robertson (Picador, $27.99) and The Overstory by Richard Powers (William Heinemann, $37) are available at Unity Books

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