Will an American Finally Win the Man Booker?


One of the most respected awards in fiction, the U.K.-based Man Booker Prize has been crowning a literary champion every year since 1969. This year’s “Booker dozen,” as it’s known—a list of 13 titles selected by a panel of judges—has now been winnowed down to six outstanding books. With no mainstream names on the short list, and with many eras and genres represented, it’s difficult to pick a favorite to win.

Prior to 2013, only British Commonwealth, Irish and Zimbabwean citizens were eligible for the Man Booker Prize. But a rule change three years ago allowed for any fiction work published originally in English and in the U.K. to be eligible. This opened up the prize to writers from the United States and other English-speaking nations, but the past three winners still hailed from the Commonwealth. With two Americans on the short list this year (the only non-Commonwealth nominees), will 2016’s prize expand the nationality of the winners?

Let’s take a look at the nominees:

Paul Beatty, The Sellout

Equally caustic, funny and smart, this satire of modern race relations by American author Paul Beatty won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction. The protagonist—whose last name is, simply, Me—proposes to save the black and Latino residents of his Los Angeles community from erasure-by-gentrification by bringing back slavery and segregation. For his subversion of everything modern and moral, he ends up before the Supreme Court. The Sellout is a rollicking and inventive novel, full of characters that, as Seth Colter Walls wrote in The Guardian, “speak with a pop-philosopher patois.” A win for Beatty would certainly continue the prize’s unconventional streak.

Deborah Levy, Hot Milk

In this modern tale of millennial self-doubt and anxiety, Sophia, a 25-year-old anthropology doctoral student, travels to the southern coast of Spain in search of a cure for her mother’s health ailments. Sophia’s dysfunctional relationship with her mother fuels her own exploration of self and sexuality, and opens up space for her to regain initiative in her life. Levy’s last novel, Swimming Home, was short-listed in 2012 after having been rejected by all but a small, not-for-profit publisher. In contrast, the hypnotic and poetic Hot Milk was picked up by Penguin Random House—evidence of the book’s high quality and the influence of the Man Booker Prize.

Ottessa Moshfegh, one of two American authors on the short list, at the 2015 Texas Book Festival. Photo by Larry D. Moore.

Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen

The second novel by an American on this list (and the only debut novel nominated), Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen is a shocking psychological thriller that captures the menacing, oppressive stultification of a young woman in the mid-1960s. Like Sophia in Hot Milk, 24-year-old Eileen learns how to get free of a dysfunctional relationship with a parent in order to claim authority over her life. But while Sophia struggles to help her mother, Eileen is less sure of her intentions toward the alcoholic father whom she cares for. (Sometimes she wishes him dead.) Eileen’s situation changes dramatically when a beautiful stranger comes into her unhappy life, and a terrible crime ends with Eileen’s disappearance from the small town she longed to escape.

Madeline Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing

The history of China in the 20th century is bloody. Families were torn apart, and an environment was created in which “truth” was written, erased and rewritten so many times that it obscures as much as it reveals. The family history of Marie, a young Chinese-Canadian girl, is buried in a set of personal notebooks. Marie wants to understand what happened to her father, who committed suicide when Marie was 10, but her quest must traverse decades, language barriers and the government’s intentional obfuscation of the truth. It’s a multigenerational family story that echoes the difficult history of China, from pre-Cultural Revolution to 1989’s Tiananmen Square protests to today—a Man Booker Prize pick if historical profundity is your measuring stick.

David Szalay, All That Man Is

Marketed as a novel, David Szalay’s book is actually a collection of short stories about the struggles, anxieties and loves of modern men. The nine protagonists, who range in age from 17 to 73 (each section’s man is older than the last), span many social classes and occupations (an escort’s bodyguard, a student, a suicidal billionaire). Though readers may find the stories thematically repetitious, the repetition serves to clarify the novel-collection’s portrait of man today. That Szalay is able to sympathize with his characters (not mock them) and differentiate their individuality (not bury it under the book’s overall theme) is certainly what earned him his place on this list.

Graeme Macrae Burnet, His Bloody Project

Set in rural Scotland in 1896, Graeme Macrae Burnet’s murder mystery, His Bloody Project, is less a whodunit than a whydunit: Seventeen-year old Roderick Macrae clearly committed the deed, but we don’t know his reason. Told through documents, including the killer’s own memoirs, Burnet’s thriller looks like a true-crime novel but is much more unsettling and original. His Bloody Project was an underdog to make the short list, and as a “genre” novel it would perhaps be the most daring pick for the prize.

All of the above titles are now available for purchase on Mediander. Tune in to the BBC on Tuesday, October 25, when the Man Booker Prize winner will be announced live at London’s Guildhall.

Feature photo: Booker Prize Foundation