Saturday, May 11, 2013

The World According to Alistair Wye. Who's Afraid of the Booker Prize? reviewed by Jack Degree

Who's Afraid
of the Booker Prize?
Not to be confused with the stage play of the same name (and by the same author), the plot of Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? centres on computer-science graduate Alistair Wye, hired as amanuensis to celebrity novelist Marshall Zob. One of Wye’s first tasks is to sift through an archive of computer discs, stored emails, fax printouts, and handwritten letters and postcards. That task forms a part of Zob’s project in gathering material for a commemorative volume celebrating the life and work of his recently deceased mentor, John Andrew Glaze. Secretly, Wye also starts and maintains a personal diary, recording his reactions to life in proximity to a literary celebrity. The novel, much of whose subject matter is owed to the communications revolution, is about vanity, avarice, egotism, and self-seeking publicity. It is serious in intent, and also remarkably funny.

The narrative leans heavily on modern communications – email and so on – yet is never far from its epistolary roots. It extends the form to dramatic new limits, blurring the relationship between cult figure, messenger, reader, and it tests traditional rules of plot and composition. One of the book’s many underlying ironies is that, cast in the modern world of advanced communications, it has much in common with its eighteenth-century precursors, without being in any sense a historical or costume drama.

The world according to Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? is bewildering and comic, ruthlessly examining the nature of fame and reputation, and is territory where literary research is transformed into something more akin to sordid detective work. The narrator Wye isn’t always the person he seems. As he works through Zob’s archive, he discovers secrets Zob would rather he left unearthed – often with hilarious consequences. Nothing is fixed for very long. As the plot unfolds we are forced to question whose side we should be on – on Wye’s, the tormentor, or on Zob’s, a man marred by paranoia, when the rest of the literati seem to conspire against him.

Cowlam is adamant his novel is not a roman-à-clef – he tells us as much before we have an opportunity to ask. There are strong hints that it is therefore a roman-à-clef, with the tantalising prospect of yet more to be culled from the author’s work and experience – if much of it may best be left unsaid. He excels at irony and the depiction of social mores. He inhabits his characters in a multitude of voices. He imitates their differing writing styles. He finds in modern media the perfect vehicle for his considerable talents. Most of all, he shows us Marshall Zob, fraud, demagogue and technophobe, and a writer destined to be blanked under the weight of his own commercial hype.

Who's Afraid of the Booker Prize? is published by CentreHouse Press. See Amazon purchase options: USA, UK.


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