Surely even the literary world’s most sagacious commentators couldn’t have anticipated a Booker Prize shortlist quite like the one we have this year: six books, four of them debuts and, for good or ill, only one written by a UK citizen. That book is Shuggie Bain, the gritty first novel by Scottish-American author Douglas Stuart. The story revolves around Hugh ‘Shuggie’ Bain and his mother, Agnes, who, following an abusive relationship with Shuggie’s violent, adulterous father, falls victim to cruel, soul-sucking alcoholism among the slag heaps of 1980s Glasgow.
One might call this a bildungsroman, though Shuggie’s coming of age is characterised less by moments of social awkwardness and romantic frisson than by a scarring loss of innocence before his time. Preteen Shuggie arranges three mugs next to his mother’s sleeping body, ready for when she awakes, ‘one with tap water to dry the cracks in her throat, one with milk to line her sour stomach, and the third with a mixture of the flat leftovers of Special Brew and stout … this was the one she would reach for first’. Since the age of eleven, Shuggie has been squirrelling away a portion of Agnes’s weekly benefits to buy food. Everything else goes on lager.
Much of the novel is deeply affecting, but as a whole it’s slow-moving and its carefully constructed tension is too often punctured by hammy phrases like ‘she let the amber sweetness of Special Brew soak her heart’. More frustratingly, Stuart never fully settles on a coherent narrative voice. The writing can lurch from loquacity to strained earthiness. It’s hard to believe that Shuggie’s abusive father would look out at George Square and think of ‘the city at peace, before it got ruined by the diurnal masses’.
Shuggie Bain is heavily autobiographical: Stuart has spoken about his mother’s alcoholism and the gruelling experience of growing up as a gay man in 1980s Glasgow (Shuggie is gay, too, and the target of homophobic bullying). The relationship between mother and son, perhaps because it is so close to Stuart’s heart, has an overwhelming intensity of feeling. Reading the details of it is like taking repeated abdominal punches, one for each time Agnes hauls herself onto the wagon and tumbles back off again. For Shuggie, the devoted optimist, it is only late on that he realises, with some relief as well as melancholy, that his mother is stuck with this sickness. Nobody, he ponders, can ‘be made brand new’.
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Wallace, the protagonist of American author Brandon Taylor’s debut, Real Life, is a black gay introvert on an overwhelmingly white PhD programme who spends most of his time tending to his nematodes in the lab. Early on in this novel he decides to hide from his friends the fact that his father has just died. Perhaps ‘decides’ is the wrong word: there is a Mersaultian languor to Wallace, a sense that life simply happens to him. When he reveals the death to a friend, she kisses him on the lips in a flourish of melodrama, giving the very ropey justification that ‘he’s gay … it doesn’t count’, and then tells their friendship group about Wallace’s father without his consent.
Real Life follows Wallace as he struggles through college, acutely aware of his outsider status. Taylor writes with great lucidity about how Wallace’s race is casually kicked around in conversation among his friends and lovers. At dinner with friends one evening, Wallace’s thoughts about leaving his PhD course are met with disbelief: ‘Why would you do that? I mean, the prospects for… black people, you know?’ It is, of course, an encapsulation of how black identities are often lumped together in public discourse. In a recent interview Taylor said that his work is frequently and misleadingly compared to James Baldwin’s. In fact, Real Life is a campus novel in the tradition of Sally Rooney and Ben Lerner, and Taylor is as good as either of them – a sharp, witty and generous writer.
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‘If I were a thought experiment,’ says Rachel to her girlfriend, Eliza, one night, ‘what one would I be?’ This odd snippet of pillow talk unfolds into a tricksy, ingenious philosophical novel about empathy and experience, comprising a web of interlinked chapters, each one revolving around a different thought experiment.
Love and Other Thought Experiments, by the actor and writer Sophie Ward, was longlisted for the Booker Prize but – unfairly, I think – failed to make the shortlist. Some sections, focusing on Eliza and Rachel’s relationship, their sexuality, the birth of their son and Rachel’s illness, are coolly naturalistic. One chapter – inspired by Thomas Nagel’s ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’, which discusses a thought experiment exploring the unknowability of another being’s experience – comes from the perspective of Rachel’s mother, Elizabeth, who, having found out that her daughter is gay, tells her, ‘it’s a cul-de-sac, darling’, before revealing that she had heard ‘a woman on Radio 4 say this’ and that it ‘had struck a chord’.
But this sharp realism frequently waxes into something much stranger and more ambitious. One chapter explores the possibility of multiple parallel realities when a boy swims out to sea to retrieve his football and either drowns or lives (or is it both?). By this time it’s clear that the book isn’t so much a philosophical manifesto in the manner of Sartre’s Nausea as an extended thought experiment itself, more in the mould of Deborah Levy’s intricate The Man Who Saw Everything. The point is not that each experiment matches up to its corresponding chapter with a satisfying click; it is, I think, to make you suspend all mental rigidity and disbelief as Ward barrels into, for example, a virtuosic extended monologue delivered by an ant living inside a human brain.
There are so many ideas crammed into this slender book that it’s natural to feel disoriented by it, but I’d wager that’s a reaction with which Ward would be content. Oh, and the answer to Rachel’s question? Hume’s Missing Shade of Blue. I’ll let you work that one out for yourselves.