From the early days of 2020, I wondered how the pandemic would affect literature. Writing about the pandemic itself felt like a no-go – it was, and is, still unfolding, and it seemed impossible to weave a coherent narrative around it. But it seemed inevitable that the mayhem of 2020 would impact on our literary tastes. The sudden disruption, the bottomless uncertainty, the constant wrestling of the unforeseen and unforeseeable – it was all bound to drive us to certain narratives.
The 2021 Booker Prize shortlist, unveiled on Tuesday, reflects the angst we have had to contend with. If the six novels in competition have anything in common, it’s a focus on trauma, on the absurd, of the ways in which we lean on love to give us hope in dark times. This year’s list is an existential, powerful one, and a testament to the healing powers of literature.
There’s Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North, which explores “life, memory and trauma in the devastating wake of Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war”. Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This “unpicks the absurdities of our relentless exposure to social media when faced with the reality of human loss”. (Anyone who has spent even just a minute doom-scrolling in the past year and a half will be hard-pressed to think of a more prescient narrative.) Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men chronicles “a real-life battle against conspiracy, prejudice and a wrongful conviction for murder as a Somali seaman is hanged in Cardiff in the 1950s”. Not for nothing did novelist Pankaj Mishra call it “unsettlingly timely” in a blurb.
Maya Jasanoff, the chair of the 2021 judges, acknowledged in a statement that “the judges engaged in rich discussions not only about the qualities of any given title, but often about the purpose of fiction itself” when deciding on the shortlist out of a selection of 158 novels.
“Perhaps appropriately for our times, these novels share an interest in how individuals are both animated and constrained by forces larger than themselves,” she said. “...While each book is immersive in itself, together they are an expansive demonstration of what fiction is doing today.”
Individuals constrained by forces larger than themselves? That rings a bell. And it certainly makes sense for us to be drawn to narratives of people trying to exist while coping with the uncontrollable.
The pandemic has seen other literary phenomena. Albert Camus’s The Plague has experienced a resurgence, for obvious reasons. Stephen King’s The Stand, his 1978 apocalyptic novel in which a “superflu” threatens humanity, was also plucked from the shelves. But it’s interesting to see how the past 18 months have driven us to narratives that echo our experiences without mirroring them.
Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind, a 2020 National Book Award finalist about two families facing the apocalypse from an Airbnb, was deemed “a signature novel for this blasted year” by NPR. Uncertainty, a central theme in the book, proved to be a particularly fruitful narrative anchor by the time the book came out in October 2020.
“When I was writing the book, I think the nature of that uncertainty was related a lot to the climate,” Alam told The Independent at the time. “I think now, a readership situated in 2020 will understand that uncertainty as relating more to our electoral politics, or more to disease. But there’s a way in which the operating metaphor of the book is open enough that the reader fills in the blank.”
In other words: the uncertainty Alam felt when he was working on the novel probably wasn’t the same one readers felt when becoming immersed in his novel while the pandemic – and, in the US, the 2020 presidential election – unfolded. But they found solace in Alam’s narrative all the same. There is something profoundly healing in seeing parts of yourselves reflected in a story. The Booker Prize judges clearly know this.