Something to Answer For
by P. H. Newby
1969 Booker Prize
4 stars - highly recommend
Here's the abbreviated review:
Any attempt to summarize the plot is futile. I will quote from the dust cover (even though it doesn't really capture the essence of the novel)
"The story concerns itself with Jack Townrow, returned to Port Said as the 1956 Suez crisis is burgeoning. His intention is simply to help the widow of an old friend settle her affairs - and benefit as he might thereby. But nothing is simple: the widow now is uncertain what she wants to do; Townrow cannot find out how his friend died - or even where the body is.
"Subtly manipulating both his characters and his reader, the author removes the novel from the common stream of experience. Unsuspectingly, Townrow is thrust into a clockless world, one that has lost its accustomed dimensions - a world we all inhabit in sleep, in fantasy, in fever. Neither he nor the reader can distinguish the real and the unreal."
I'll say. What a total mind f&*k this book is. I oscillated between wanting to toss it aside to lusting after just a few more pages. Odd things start happening almost at once and the narration runs casually between past and present. "Reality" changes with every telling of an event.
The writing is brilliant, but elusive. I always try to look for good quotes to provide my followers a flavor of the book, but, taken out of context, passages I selected seem to lay flat. There are bizarre sentences that somehow seem completely logical in the context of the story:
"Why Christou found it necessary to vilify Mrs. K was puzzling. He seemed to think this kind of wit so precious it had to be translated and tossed across the street to the other side."
Townrow experiences so many unusual events that one quickly loses all ability to distinguish reality from hyperbole, from pure fantasy.
"He remembered a number of naked men with long tubes in their mouths. That was the glass factory in Arab Town years ago, when he was in the army, where the workers kept going on hashish and water. [Townrow] had the same joy and excitement now as then. There was the same clear awareness of the possibility he could run about inside his own body. He could course between feet, bowels, breast, and brain, singing, laughing, making great speeches."
You'd think from these brief quotes that the book would perhaps be tough going, confusing, yet it is surprisingly linear (in a round about way).
The book is written in the third person, but because the author focuses exclusively on Townrow, it comes across as some weird first / third, who's actually talking kind of thing.
Was the author on drugs or what? Total head case.
If you are ready for a bit of a literary adventure, give it a go. Stick with it. Don't try to figure it out, just let it wash over you. To say I enjoyed the experience would be a bit of an exaggeration, but at the same time I am glad I read it. I tend to read a lot right before sleeping and I swear the book messed with my dreams. Wacky, nutty stuff.
Final note. I was getting so fed up with the swill the Pulitzer Prize committee was selecting that I decided to give the Mann Booker a try. I confess a fondness for British drama in literature and video. It's just a bit more edgy, more raw. Something to Answer For won the first Booker prize and it did not disappoint. I've got book number two all queued up.