Saturday, February 1, 2014

Who's Afraid of the Booker Prize? a novel by Peter Cowlam, reviewed by Jack d'Argus

Jack d'Argus
Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? is the diary of computer-science graduate Alistair Wye, who has been hired by celebrity novelist Marshall Zob to act as his assistant and oversee his archive. Wye’s first job is to sift through the author’s computer discs, saved emails, fax printouts, and handwritten letters and postcards. All this goes towards Zob’s project in compiling material for a commemorative volume celebrating the life and work of his dead mentor, John Andrew Glaze. Secretly, Wye also starts his own record, a review of his life in the pay of a literary celebrity. The novel therefore is as much about the communications revolution as it is about vanity, greed, egotism, and the seductions of public careers. While that might sound a serious note, the book is remarkably funny.

The narrative depends for its material on modern communications – email and so forth – yet is never far from its epistolary precursors. The form is extended to dramatic new limits, blurring the relationship between reader, cult figure, and messenger. It tests accepted rules of plot and composition. 

The teeming world we find in Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? is bewildering, sordid, comic. Its narrative relentlessly deconstructs the nature of fame and reputation. Its chosen ground is a species of literary research reduced to professionalised gossip. The narrator Wye is the book’s master of pyrotechnics. In working through his employer’s archive, he unearths secrets Zob would have rather seen untouched – often with hilarious consequences. Nothing is static for long. As the plot unwinds, we are forced to consider our loyalties. Are we with Wye, the tormentor, or with Zob, a man undermined by paranoia? It’s certainly the case that his ‘friends’ of the literati are all too willing to conspire against him. 

The book is steeped in irony and the depiction of social mores. Its carnival of characters is a multitude of voices. It is a kaleidoscope of differing writing styles. As literary satire it is very sharp indeed, with a pedigree recalling Pope’s ‘Dunciad’ or Wyndham Lewis’s The Apes of God and The Roaring Queen. It also recalls cultural satires by Huxley (Antic Hay), Waugh (Vile Bodies) and, especially, Burgess (the Enderby trilogy). The fact that it evokes comparisons of that calibre is an index to its quality, while in style and form it’s completely original. The teeming vocabulary and the alternations between high literary style and low colloquialism are an achievement in themselves.

Paperback, 261 pages. Amazon and other purchase options available here.

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