The Man Booker Prize is the leading literary award in the English speaking world, and has brought recognition, reward and readership to outstanding fiction for five decades. Each year, the prize is awarded to what is, in the opinion of the judges, the best novel of the year written in English and published in the UK. It is a prize that transforms the winner’s career.
The full shortlist of six titles can be found here, but in this series of articles we will look at each title in detail.
Walker is a D-Day veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder; he can’t return home to rural Nova Scotia, and looks instead to the city for freedom, anonymity and repair. As he moves from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco we witness a crucial period of fracture in American history, one that also allowed film noir to flourish. The Dream had gone sour but — as those dark, classic movies made clear — the country needed outsiders to study and dramatise its new anxieties. While Walker tries to piece his life together, America is beginning to come apart: deeply paranoid, doubting its own certainties, riven by social and racial division, spiralling corruption and the collapse of the inner cities. The Long Take is about a good man, brutalised by war, haunted by violence and apparently doomed to return to it — yet resolved to find kindness again, in the world and in himself.
Thoughts on the book
The Writers’ Reading Group is one of the reading groups shadowing the Man Booker Prize this year and have been reading The Long Take:
“The Writers’ Reading group is an evening class group set up at the Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham fifteen years ago to explore the craft of writing by modelling on excellent classic and contemporary authors. We all immediately recognised that it was a great privilege to be selected to shadow both the International and main Man Booker prizes this year.
As we are predominantly a fiction group, there was, at first, a little ambivalence in being allocated The Long Take by Robin Robertson, which was described as an epic poem. As we felt that it might be difficult to fit an appreciation of a demanding work into busy lives, we read aloud at least part of the book together to share perceptions. Not everyone was able to attend the first daytime “Read In” so we incorporated a reading of sections of the long poem into our evening group discussion, which took place in a small theatre space at the MAC arts centre and was advertised to an external audience.The narrative of the poem/novel is told in the third person through the observations of Walker, a Canadian D-Day veteran as he travels across post war America from “sea to shining sea” and which is told in blank verse, and helpfully divided into short sections through the use of asterisks. The narrative is juxtaposed with Walker’s internal, first-person reflections, which is expressed in different fonts in the book and are generally expressed in poetic prose, although occasionally written in straight forward, journalistic language. We decided to “cast” the internal pieces, by allocating readers specifically to those parts, whilst everyone else in the group shared Walker’s narrative from asterisk to asterisk.
The reading aloud component proved to be very successful and on both occasions the readings triggered very lively and insightful discussions. Group members commented that it was an even better way of getting to know and appreciate the poetic language than to listen to it on audio books. “Listening to a reading by a professional actor is great” someone observed, “but in reading it aloud yourself you can also appreciate the beauty of the poetry/poetic prose by actually speaking it which enhances understanding. The act of reading aloud forces you to slow down, and in doing so, you are able to grasp Robertson’s meaning more easily and visualise his vivid descriptions….” This observation immediately led us to reflect on how the novel/book/ epic could be called a “play for voices,” and although ostensibly The Long Take is about Walker’s long take on post-World War 2 America, Robertson also captures a whole sense of a society which is in various stages of post-war PTSD, and includes the many voices of the damaged people he meets on his journey.
Participants commented on the theme of cinema, which is obviously suggested in Robertson’s choice of title. Some people said that although a film tells a story in pictures, The Long Take tells its story of war damage and New America through vivid poetic glimpses, which are enhanced by the inclusion of very well chosen photographs in the text. We discussed the key features of Film Noir and how it was, as Robertson described it, “German expressionism meeting the American Dream,” which led, of course, to the McCarthyite purges of those who sought to represent America in such a dark and menacing way. One person made the comment that the long take itself (a cinematic term for an unbroken, unedited sequence of film, creating a real life, documentary sense) is very close to Robertson’s literary form, as it is both realistic and mannered at the same time; “a sort of cold realism” he observed. Another suggested that the whole book could be read as notes for a the writer/director’s cameraman, who “paints in light” to create a chiaroscuro portrait of American cities in terms of dark and light, and shadows which stretch and shrink as the position of the light source changes. The imagery of shadows persists to the end, when a drunken Walker almost literally topples into his own shadow as he careers towards self destruction and we are reminded that in classical literature the term shades means ghosts. The shadow imagery persisted throughout, echoing cinema and the chimera of our own lives, but also painting Hopperesque pictures of American cityscapes:
“In the morning, the city appears out of the night’s shadow, each building drawing its own darkness under it like a long skirt: head turned to face the first warmth of the sun…”
“There were parts of the city that were pure blocks of darkness
Where light would slip in like a blade to nick it, carve it open:
A thin stiletto, then a spill of white…”
We discussed how Walker is both camera and participant in post-war LA where he was able to observe the shooting of iconic films in the old parts of the city which are no longer there as they have been knocked down, prompting him to observe that “the only American history is on film.”
As our name suggests we always respond to the books we read through our own writing, and The Long Take triggered an outpouring of wonderful responses, most of which were in poetic form. Some people wrote meticulous descriptions of our own city, Birmingham, which, like LA, seems always to be in the act of demolition and re-invention, others projected key figures from the poem into the future in order to explore the ongoing effects of corruption and rampant capitalism which Robertson depicts in post-WW2 America culminating in the outrages we all recognised as taking place under Trump. Other people wrote about the experience of PTSD after other, recent wars, such as in Afghanistan, whilst a few people felt moved to write about current experiences of refugees and the homeless.
We were disappointed, though not surprised, that Robin Robertson’s great work didn’t win, but we all felt that we would have been unlikely to have read it with such attention if we hadn’t been asked to shadow the Prize and we also appreciated the service the Prize was doing in extending its readership to a wide audience by including it in the shortlist. We have all recommended it personally to our friends, some of whom we invited to observe our open discussion and who are, in turn, recommending it as an accessible literary gem to their friends!"
Have you read The Long Take? Do you want to know what other readers thought? Leave your own review online.
What to know more? Download a Readers’ Guide for The Long Take, including information about the author, as well as some discussion notes and themed reading.
Want ideas on what to read next? We’ve created a supporting booklist with suggestions of other books that you might like to try if you enjoyed The Mars Room, including books with similar locations, writing styles or genres.
Find out about the other reading groups
2018 shadowing the Man Booker Prize and take a look at their reviews of the shortlist.