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Steve’s 2018 Booker 3. Robertson, Robin. The Long Take

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 5 Aug 2018, 18:58

Steve’s 2018 Booker Longlist Readings

3.      Robertson, Robin. The Long Take or A Way to Lose More Slowly London, Picador Poetry.

This year I’ve decided not to set out to read all of the longlist but just those of which I had not acquired some prejudice (I’m not going to justify it as other than that).

The Long Take is, in the current Booker journalistic commentary, given the status of an unusual choice for the Booker judges but it seems to me entirely mainstream formally and excellent within that category. Until I read another 2018 Booker novel that so moves and surprises me, it is my hope that this novel, using poetry as a key mode of communication, wins the Booker.

If it is innovative, it is innovative in some other way than that of form, since there are many works which we can compare with it, such as Kevin Powers’ (or Owen Sheers’) works about the Vietnam and Iraq experience respectively. This gives us more distance from an actual and yet terrible war anf from the catastrophic onslaught of organised capital on the stuff of North American life (the Bunker Hill Urban Renewal Plan 236f.) and the terrible thinness of the American dream and the stories that sustain it.

Of course it matters that it is in poetry. You need quote very little to say that this mode communicates so well something that is achingly beautiful and has a stronger pull on the emotions because of that. Don Paterson (2018:77) examining just some of the effects of language arranged as poetry (and Paterson is Robertson’s editor for this novel p. 237) says (speaking of A passage from T.S. Eliot):

These effects are not the only reason the passage works – but they’re the principal reason the passage is experienced as sensually beautiful. All this work is completed best by the instinct …; but the instinct can be consciously trained into making better and more consistent decisions.[i]

What are some of the effects we might call those of poetry in Robinson? There are as many passages to choose as pages, and some take the superficial form of prose.

The echo of running feet still loud on the waterfront,

down the Montgomery Steps, and all through Chinatown.

Rita Hayworth is still driving up Sacramento

past the Brocklebank; the sniper

still crying in that upstairs room on Filbert Street;

Agnes Moorehead still falling

from her window at the Tamalpais, and Bogart

-        always running – still scrabbling down its fire-escape. (p. 137)

Here meaning and sound make such a beautiful contract to sustain each other in tension, that has something to do with the ambiguity of ‘running feet’ as a description too of effects of metricality and rhythm, that merge with the pattern of repeated words and assonance (especially on the ending of active verbs. Still and ‘running’ repeat at both ends of this passage, together with the assonance of the present participle. I lose some of the value of the passage through not knowing all the cinematic references here but none of the feeling of patterned tension of something that flows (sometimes floods relentlessly and apocalyptically floods or burns) on and yet desires to hang on in stasis. And these beautiful effects are of the substance of what this novel does with time, as it negotiates a war veteran’s involuntary returns of memory (seeringly painful and beautiful) with his attempts to move on in his relationships, his working life or career and identifications with others. Stuck in a ‘homeless’ mode, and continually returning to write about it and the war veterans, and others, that experience it, Walker (a good name) barely recognises that ‘moving on’ is possible even when life experience gives him positive evidence of that capacity. Staying still or moving back are the other alternatives and neither seem socially or psychologically possible.

So we read verse to allow us to savour how pace and speed register on the consciousness, whether that be mode of transport or of implacable unstoppable history which both adds and takes away, creates (although often only still and running ‘parking lots and roads’) and catacysmically destroys. Here are pieces on this in major and, as here, in minor key:

The ride west

Like his life, going by too fast

- barrelling through

        Towns in the dark – trying to read

        Each station’s name –

Or far too slow,

In the wastes of

Pennsylvania, Ohio,

… (p. 37)

Try reading that last line fast. It can’t be done. Sound mimics meaning, even in how we, like Walker, begin ‘trying to read’. And the use of 'station' to mean still point passed too fast. Lovely!

The major key example on p.223 is a prose-poem but I won’t quote because ‘it contains spoilers’ (or at least I think it does). The whole follows a period of US history of about 7 years but these are years of great shifts in history (from immediate post-World-War-2) demobilisation to Korea, from the New Deal pre-War to the dream of competitive individualism and the breakup of a social contract, from an American home to an American powerhouse fuelled by unmotivated  but rapid change against which we might all be losers (and still not ‘lose more slowly’ (the novel’s subtitle is quoted here). Walker tries to ‘lose more slowly’ by attempting a redemption from painful memory: a Wal;er counting the steps he ‘walked’ but he doesn’t ‘save’ much, while visiting Bunker Hill;

He saved his penny and walked,

Counting a hundred and forty steep steps to the top. (p. 50)

Keep reading those lines. See in particular how the rhythm and assonance in the last line compounds meaning and affect. This is a novel of great genius. A writer’s read perhaps (although I count myself only a reader) but a really rewarding one.


[i] Paterson, D. (2018) The Poem: Lyric, Sign, Metre London, Faber & Faber

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