Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Hidden in the Short List

The last two Man Booker award winners didn't excite me much. Although I'm sure White Tiger and The Gathering are good books, neither one of them piqued my interest. But in each of the last two years a wild, dangerous, wonderful book was hidden in the short list.

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz

The narrator of this book is Jasper Dean, nephew of the revered Ned Kelly type outlaw figure Terry Dean, and son of hated national villain Martin Dean. The story mostly focuses on Jasper's relationship with Martin, a hyper-intellectual who has thought himself into a philosophical stasis. Marketed as an irreverent picaresque novel (and in a way is), A Fraction of the Whole hides some radical (and some might even say dangerous) ideas about the individual's relationship to society, or rather, society's proper place in the identity of the individual. Toltz pulls off a number of rare literary feats in this novel. All three Deans are fascinating, fully formed, and sympathetic. Jasper is a hilarious narrator, regardless of and in response to the madness that constantly surrounds him. And The Handbook of Crime is one of the best fictitious works I've ever encountered.

Darkmans by Niccola Barker

Set in contemporary Britain, the guiding spirit of Darkmans is John Scoggin, the infamous medieval court jester. If not for the fact that there is a dark presence warping and twisting everything, it could be a good old- fashioned father and son, clash of generations, working out emotions novel. Sometimes the spirit possesses the characters directly. Sometimes it possesses events. Sometimes it's just in the atmosphere. This force would be easy to hate if it wasn't so funny. The humor in Darkmans is malicious, but it is still always funny. Barker has also created some amazing characters; the medieval artifacts forger, the Samurai sword wielding forester, and the salad-fearing, dice-throwing Kurd. In a sense, the idea of history, like the presence of John Scoggin, is a character as well, permeating everything. Whether you're prepared to grapple with the most sinister elements of why we laugh, or not, Darkmans will be a book unlike anything you've ever read.

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