This year’s Man Booker Prize longlist included, for the first time in its history, a graphic novel and a novel in verse. Only the latter made the cut, moving on to stand out on a shortlist containing five other books that, for all their creative differences, were at least identifiable as bona fide novels.
In the end, the black sheep — “The Long Take” — didn’t win. However, British poet Robin Robertson’s lyrical masterpiece made for a worthy runner-up and served as a crucial reminder that poetry is just as capable of telling a gripping and affecting tale as prose.
The book’s protagonist is Walker, a D-Day veteran from Nova Scotia determined to make a new start for himself. He arrives in New York in 1946, deciding that Manhattan is “the place for reinvention, mobility, anonymity.” When not at work on the docks, he walks the streets and trawls the bars. In one hangout off Union Square, he meets a film director who tells him he has “deep focus. Long eyes for seeing.”
Unfortunately those eyes have seen too much. Walker is a broken man unable to put himself back together again. When the Big Apple doesn’t work out for him and every bar comes to resemble “a battlefield sodden with carnage,” he uses up all his savings on a train ticket to Los Angeles. There he finds a kindred spirit in ex-soldier Billy and a job as a cub reporter.
Things look up, and in 1951 he is sent on assignment to San Francisco to research an in-depth piece on the plight of the homeless. But on his return he finds himself rocked by more frequent displays of injustice, hostility or apathy within society, and plagued by more flashbacked horrors from his past. In time, he struggles to secure a foothold in the city and a grip on reality.
“The Long Take” is an expertly stitched patchwork of various poetic parts and voices. Its main segments track Walker’s urban wanderings — his aimless journeys, blind turns and dead ends — and relay his sensory impressions. Interspersed throughout this main narrative are extracts from his journal, snippets from correspondence to those he has left behind in Canada, memories of war, recollections of youth and references to film noir.
Walker emerges as a deeply empathetic figure. We feel his disillusionment at being washed up and cast out, and are moved as he is ground down by post-traumatic stress disorder. For a while he gets ahead, but then an everyday sight or sound will remind him of what he yearns to forget. “A dropped crate or a child’s shout, or car backfiring, and he’s in France again.”
Robertson has written a book that manages to be epic and elegiac, and suffused with savagery and beauty. “I can’t make myself reappear,” his despairing hero says. But his presence is powerfully felt on every page.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Long Take
By: Robin Robertson.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 256 pages, $28.