It's easy to complain about the Booker award. We could talk about Ian McEwan--awarded for the muddled and aimless Amsterdam but ignored for genuine masterpieces like Enduring Love or Atonement. Or, we might mention Life of Pi--memo to Booker judges: a YA boys' adventure with a neat and thought-provoking twist at its end is still a YA boys' adventure, and, however well-written, not deserving of a major award. Or The Blind Assassin. Or The Handmaid's Tale.
In other words, when I turned the first page of Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, last year's winner, I was perfectly prepared, eager even, to despise it. Last year's Booker race was famously considered to be over as soon as the longlist was announced. Pundits and bookmakers alike were handing the award to David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. As it was and still is one of the finest, best-written, and most thought-provoking books I had ever read, I was overjoyed to see it recognized by an establishment that I had grown accustomed to thinking of as conservative and afraid of innovation. I was deeply disappointed at Mitchell's loss, and my only reason for picking up The Line of Beauty in the first place was to discover what about it made it better than Cloud Atlas. I didn't expect great things.
And, as it turns out, I was right. The Line of Beauty isn't a bad book, but neither is it a particularly good one. Like its protagonist, Nick Guest, it does almost nothing and aspires to very little. It's a terribly bland book--intentionally so, it seems--with almost no moments of emotion or surprise. Nick is a very flat and uninteresting character, while the secondary characters tend to run together, a sea of unmemorable names and personalities.
Beauty takes place in the mid- to late 80s, and charts Nick's infatuation with the family of his closest college friend, Toby--up-and-coming Tory MP Gerald, his refined, old-money wife Rachel, their bi-polar daughter Catherine and, of course, Toby himself, with whom Nick, a relatively uncloseted homosexual, has been unrequitedly in love since they first met. Nick is obsessed with beauty--the beauty of the antique furniture and paintings he sees in the houses of the wealthy and powerful and the beauty of the callous young men he meets in those houses. This obsession leads him to a fascination with wealth, and to a life as a hanger-on, something between a son and a servant, in Gerald and Rachel's house. The book charts the family's ascendancy as Mrs. Thatcher gains power, and their inevitable decline as the toll of the 80s--unemployment, economic collapse, AIDS--begins to bear down on them.
In other words, this is Brideshead Revisited. A less well-written, less humorous, less interesting, longer Brideshead Revisited, the homosexuality not as shameful but in the end no less destructive, and this is bearing in mind that one Brideshead Revisited was really a bit more than the world needed.
In a way, it would have been easier for me to talk about the Booker decision if I had loved The Line of Beauty. It's hardly likely, after all, that the Booker judges thought as little of Hollinghurst's book as I did. Nor did the reviewers, who called it "A masterpiece" (The Observer), "exquisitely written" (The Sunday Times), "magnificent" (The Daily Telegraph), and many other superlatives besides. Even accepting, for the sake of argument, that The Line of Beauty is a superb and insightful satire, that Hollinghurst's supple prose makes up for the deficiencies of his plot, that his characters are rounded and compelling, there is something disturbing, inexplicable even, about the decision to award it over Cloud Atlas.
Where The Line of Beauty is a tiny portrait of a single moment, Cloud Atlas is a sweeping vista; a grand, thrilling roller-coaster ride through the past, the present, and the future. Through the lives of six people, who may or may not be reincarnations of the same soul, Mitchell studies the human race itself: its moments of greatness and its darkest crimes, its impulse to do good and its predilection for evil. It is a book about kindness and cruelty, slavery and redemption, hope and despair. Cloud Atlas brings together a Western, linear narrative with an Eastern, circular one to ask an eternal question: is there hope for the human race? Is our civilization perfectible? The answer is both yes and no, and it is arrived at through a narrative structure that is playful, imaginative, clever, and great fun. In every respect, Cloud Atlas is a glorious triumph.
And yet the Booker judges preferred the stolid, down-to-earth Line of Beauty. For a moment, it's possible to see their point of view. Hollinghurst's novel, after all, deals with the here and now, with political realities that have left a lasting impression on Britons' lives. It is a naturalistic novel--boring people, dull situations, predictable results--and one can imagine the judges feeling that this made it more important, more relevant to their lives.
Another moment, however, and this viewpoint seems hopelessly parochial. By awarding Hollinghurst over Mitchell, the Booker judges essentially become the characters of Hollinghurst's novel--convinced that their tiny, insignificant day in the sun is actually the pinnacle of human existence. They preferred Hollinghurst's shrill morality play (lie down with rich, homophobic, Tory dogs and you'll get fleas--or rather, AIDS) to Mitchell's benevolent, searching exploration of human nature. They chose a mean satire, a true poster-child of the age of irony, over an emotional tour de force, with characters you might actually bleed for. I might say here that they chose style over substance, but in truth Cloud Atlas lacks neither and The Line of Beauty is short on both, so I'll say that they chose the fashionable and the hip--a book that they could see themselves (or, more likely, their political enemies) in--over the genuinely meaningful.
I have no way of knowing if any of this is actually true. I have heard negative reactions to Cloud Atlas, people who found its structure confusing, its characters unappealing, its narrative thrust less than compelling--it's possible that the Booker judges were among these people. And yet, they gave it a spot on the shortlist. All things being equal, accepting the technical perfection of both books, it's hard to see any reason, except for the judges' complete self-involvement, for Cloud Atlas' grand scope and ambitions not carrying the day.
UPDATE: Edward Champion has details about Mitchell's next book, Black Swan Green.