Listen as you read. Narrator read by Gilly Anderson; Wye, Zob and Snell read by Peter Cowlam:
Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? is a satire on literary celebrity, set in the relatively safe remove of early 1990s literary London. There are three main characters. The first is Marshall Zob, whose father, of eastern European origin, has previously changed his family name from Zoblinski, or Zobilinsk, or something like that. Zob Junior is a literary celebrity, whose social ascent has taken him to London’s literary heights, through a network of media and literati contacts. Zob can and does delude himself that his success really is down to his genius. All that’s missing from his CV is the Booker Prize, which he feels he should have won, but hasn’t.
The second of the three main characters is Alistair Wye, a computer science graduate who by some monumental fluke has been hired as Zob’s amanuensis or assistant. Wye’s job prior to this was as overseer of a computerised database, one designed by him for a theatrical properties firm as a means of keeping track of its stock, its orders, and its clients. The entire book is supposedly Wye’s personal diary, recording his reactions to life in proximity to a literary celebrity.
The third main character is the hapless Andrew Glaze, one-time Professor of English Literature at Exe University. Glaze is already dead before the action of the novel starts. As Wye notes in the foreword to his diary, news of his death was ‘a passing that hardly caused me to put down my coffee cup, or extinguish my cigarette’. It’s a passing that’s important to Zob, since back in the 1970s he was not only Glaze’s student, he was his star student, or as Wye puts it, also in his foreword,
Marshall Zob, should you not already know, is the perfection of the dead Andrew Glaze, PhD, whose brightest student he was. This was back in the early 1970s, in the cloisters of Modern College, Exe University, where the writer and academic, and Blagueur Prize-winner (twice), the witty Zob Senior [that’s to say Marshall’s father], had passed before him. [Incidentally, Zob Senior was also Glaze’s friend and colleague. I am not meaning to suggest by this any hint of nepotism, which Glaze himself has remarked the English are so touchy about.]
Glaze’s personal life hasn’t been a great success. Prior to the novel’s opening, his marriage has collapsed and his wife Samantha has fled to New York. After the divorce, she intends to marry one of New York’s wealthiest bankers. All of this is chronicled in a series of letters, postcards etc. languishing in Zob’s archive.
Zob has been careless about filing these letters, and keeps them dotted around in no particular order. Furthermore his replies to his friend Glaze have all been made on an ancient IBM-compatible using word-processor software he never quite understood. That correspondence does still exist, somewhere on disc, but when that ancient PC refuses to boot up it is Wye’s job to find a solution and retrieve it all. In fact this becomes vital to Zob since, as an important academic, Glaze’s life and work is about to be commemorated publicly. For Zob there are also commercial opportunities in reproducing and annotating his long exchange with Glaze. Wye does manage to restore that creaking PC, and what he finds there, and what he finds in Zob’s paper archive, forms much of the material that ends up in his diary – which could be summed up as a ruthless exposé of the life of a literary superstar.
He is amused to find, in Zob’s letter to Glaze dated the 30th of May, reference to himself, on the subject of his appointment, which reads as follows:
Most recent interview took place in my pool hall. I go there a lot – it helps me to think, and relax. I couldn’t make it – or rather him – out. A native of Manchester, yet talked like colonial Tunbridge Wellian. His name’s Alistair, though he didn’t hint at a Scottish connection. He seemed – which is perhaps the operative word – seemed (stress) well informed generally. He assumes I am of the Left, because he’s seen my byline in The Observer, and told me he’d read and liked my lampoon on the decent, genteel exterior of former Tory prime ministers. I didn’t say hear hear…
For all this his degree’s in computer science, though the man was evasive about his university – a sleight of hand I thought these boffins weren’t capable of, having no intelligence outside that realm of the microchip. He could be very useful, as I wouldn’t mind all that hardware paraphernalia – though God knows I can make nor head nor tail of the box of tricks I have got. He works, he says, for a theatrical properties company in Mortimer Street, for whom he designed, wrote and installed a stock-and-order system. He reads a great many science books, and for that reason thinks he can talk down to me. I showed him a thing or two on the pool table.
Wye remembers that interview differently. This is from his diary entry of July the 4th:
The conversation we had in his pool hall was over a best of three games, which did, it is true, end on the final black. This, naïvely, he potted. The light from the canopy above, parcelled its tiny quanta in a varied dilution of yellow. Here perfectly was Zob’s imperfect illumination, in whose glaze I remarked on the soiled nap of the table. ‘Successive smokers,’ I said, and chalked my cue. Together we bent to those grey-green archipelagos, those swipes of ground ash. ‘I am interested in music,’ I said, in reply to his question what existed other than the written word. When he talked about literary prostitution this was, he said, merely a term in a very long series. According to him, we who worked prostituted ourselves in one way or another. In a glum status quo few authors had the courage to challenge anything. Did this, I asked, not leave your fellow pool players intellectually in vacuo? And to talk of society’s imbalance, wasn’t that merely society’s impregnability? That was more or less it, he said, never having claimed that the elevated tribes and scribes to whom he belonged really did have a social conscience.
He potted a first yellow, calmly: wasn’t he after all on the comic side of fiction, and therefore exempt? Then, he imagined, he snookered me.
‘Let me show you,’ I said, ‘how to bend a ball….’ Awkward, of course, to cue, just as our human quarks or men of conscience can’t with certainty cast their vote. To the massé nevertheless. My stolid white dragged its heels round an interposing yellow. It struck a side cushion and my object ball simultaneously. Result: Not the pot he’d expected. I allowed him, O ye dumb angels, bearing the professor’s footstool, just one more visit to the table. I took that first game, it has to be said without much effort. The second I gave him, only because he bought lunch, which consisted of egg, cress, warm mayonnaise, sandwiched with expert inattention in two squares of foam.
Now, as for those levitating letters tailing my surname, I cannot legitimate the embossed sheen of a doctorate, the gold plate of an MSc, nor even the albata filigree of a lowly MA. As a short-trousered first-former, and I agree a touch Romantic, I took Browning – with his ‘Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity!’ – and that ricochet off the book of Ecclesiastes – ‘…all is vanity’ – somewhat to heart. What after all is ‘education’ but the remorseless hum of commerce? At seventeen I wrote a one-page constitution, governing the life, aim and ideals of Wye’s pantisocracy. The project was doomed, naturally, depending for sovereignty on a deserted, disintegrating cottage just outside a tiny settlement called Capel, where I was known and loved. That wider kingdom sent in its head-shaking yeomanry, blued in look and uniform, with arguments against my scheme. Their central thrust was the minor matter of ownership. Our adopted country or cottage belonged to a Medway vicar, while the ‘discovery’ of marijuana also helped break up our experiment. This was one smoke-filled, winter afternoon, when the sky was a blossom pink (as I looked out and up, through a weald of elms).
I told Zob my qualification was as a computer scientist, though I have only a BSc, so in terms of the actuality that wasn’t entirely untrue. I watched him on that final black, which he’d failed to spot was equidistant from two corner pockets, making predictable the white as it holed itself too. Lucky we didn’t bet, eh, Marsy? Amazingly our second interview took place in a grimy café not far from his snooker club, and for a third he sent me to see his agent Cornelius.
Meanwhile Zob, in his political infighting in the brutish world of publishing, shows us his weakness for public accolades. He attempts, aided by his agent, to bribe his way into winning that prize of all prizes. That prize Wye can dismiss as a typically English parochial thing, but important internationally (apparently). Here Zob eventually comes unstuck, when a new and even more mediocre novelist, Justin Simms, appears on the scene just as it seems certain Zob will win. Simms has friends as powerful as Zob’s, and at the last moment is poised to snatch the prize from under Zob’s nose. Wye describes him thus, in his diary entry of April the 20th:
He was – and didn’t blush to hear it – of gentle birth. Throughout his boyhood he tinkered with a red Bugatti, which even before he was licensed he drove direct to Vire. He drove circuitously back, upsetting the gendarmerie. His first efforts in creative writing were naturally quite brilliant, winning him a prize. In researching his debut novel Simms wanted to know what was all the fuss about in post-industrial Britain? He lacerated his yachting pumps, which had cost hundreds. He fished out his striped rugby socks, his school wars fondly remembered. Some dungarees he had sprayed the Bugatti in served as principal garment, all enhanced authentically by a few days minus shaving tackle. The hair, bleached by a long weekend in Key Largo – where he was best man at an old chum’s wedding – well, those strands would just have to grow themselves out. So apparelled Simms set a course into the disintegrating streets of his and your metropolis. North of Oxford Street he sang – this was outside the Cambridge, with its early-evening throngs, where people pressed coins into his open palm. He moved on to the Blue Posts, offering a fabricated life story to its drinkers, or, he corrected, its drinkers outside under parasols – who urged him away with cash. For his nights he acquired a polythene wrap, into which he mummified himself, mostly in a doorway off the Strand. From that he graduated to a cardboard coffin in the precincts of Charing Cross. So on for a long three months, where his street life gave him – a realism actually lived through – the germ of his ‘powerful’ first novel. For most the palm was already his, that thing so close to Zob’s own heart.
Agent Cornelius, now faced with having to earn his commission, devises a five-to-six-point plan as to the problem of a dangerous rival.
1 A declaration of ‘war’ is inadvisable, as that could put you in a vulnerable light.
2 Conciliation is a best first step, with a public laudation, such as ‘Welcome, colleague’.
3 Open camaraderie between you and the new boy. By that we mean friendly, professional rivalry. This is the surest way to undermine the Crouch link. [Geraldine Crouch chairs the prize committee].
4 Remember! Crouch is a raging suffragette, and as yet no one has sounded out Simms on that score. Ideally he’ll be unsympathetic.
5 Finally Simms was born with money, and is bound to get bored with work. If so you might lead the rest of us in regretting his premature retirement.
PS 6 Have a party. Invite Simms, and Crouch. And me!
Preparations for that party are finalised by Wye, who is co-opted to serve as wine waiter. The invitation list is a ragbag of important, opinionated arts correspondents, commentators, reviewing hacks, book editors, journalists, devotees, and a low-budget filmmaker with options on Zob’s novels. Wye navigates his way through the gossip, the backstabbing, the career talk, the clash of egos, and has finally had enough when Shayle, the filmmaker, a dejected-looking man, regales those gathered around him with a tale of professional woes. Wye describes it as follows, in his entry of June the 25th:
The sullen Shayle took one of three last glasses on my salver. Symbolically Zob turned up then apologetically turned down the central chandelier, via the dimmer switch. An escaping cramped ellipse of light from a table lamp, in a burnt hue of burnt sugar, illuminated an eye, a sallow cheek, an ear lobe, as Shayle began to speak. He’d had a problem with extras – this on a shoot in Exeter. I don’t propose to make doubly clear that his job is largely low-grade entertainment, and that his lode is a TV production house I have the foresight not to name. ‘It’s what you get,’ I said, ‘for falling short of Equity rates’ – because, brothers and sisters in servitude, picture the scene:
Director circles that particular section of supremely pointless script where hero, an Italianate youth, whom ignorant author has named Sancerre, enters private casino. Silence. Action. There are six extras seated at each of three round tables, above which gaffer has suspended lights from makeshift gantry. Dealers deal cards onto green baize. This is draw poker, the rules of which are not entirely grasped by all eighteen. Other props are: a Churchillian cigar, numerous cigarettes, cold tea in whisky glasses, water for gin, where only the lemon is genuine, and low-alcohol lager. None is to be drunk, as no top-ups between takes. There is an imitation haze, and several thousand pounds in sterling, all in bank notes (and there, gentlemen, is the rub). There is one camera only, and this means an interesting interplay of angles is, well, frankly troublesome, and in the end a little nicety Shayle – already over budget – decides to abandon. Sancerre strides to table where he sees his great rival Anjou, and because the scriptwriter has no grounding whatsoever in mathematical probability theory fleeces his opponent, first with a full house, then a straight flush, finally four of a kind. This – as I yawn – does not conclude the story. The casino is folded up and put away. The players break up for coffee. Those bank notes are counted. They are recounted. Then they are endlessly recounted. Here we arrive at the brink of an accusation, though directed at which of those eighteen? Or perhaps the star Sancerre himself is underpaid…. Here I turn to the liver surgeon, whose surprised left eye socket seems momentarily monocled. ‘Do please have this last glass,’ I say.
Wye, utterly bored, and irked at officiating all night as Zob’s wine waiter, retreats from centre stage once most of the guests are drunk and past caring. With Snell’s assistant Merle, who is in the process of forming a breakaway agency, and is instrumental in bringing his diary to publication, Wye and two other guests decamp to the laundry room for a game of cards. He sums that up as follows:
How shall I wrap up this dismal scene? My departing Muse, in a lightness of tread, and with that cool air of exile she fans to my brow, has preached detachment. Gloria finished my bottle. Giles – who stumbled on my semi-hidden stocks – suddenly usurped my promotion to major-domo, at least insofar as Orphic revels needed to be supervised. Ms Crouch and Miss Bloge processed through the buffet lounge, where the former delivered her new tractate, Women and the Priesthood. Here I cannot take issue – without, that is, looking stupidly solemn – when that whole charade was essentially fun and games for the male of the species, a ‘poor chap’ who sought to dignify his workhorse status with the magic rain of mysticism (there I go: solemn). Flude, Snell and the impeccable Simms picked at a raspberry-coloured pâté, and were otherwise in conclave. Merle – star of my studded heaven – had got Isabelle and Blandford into the laundry room, and needed only the unsuspecting me for a hand of solo. Merle, my precious Merle! How could I disagree with your abondance (or agree with your misère)? It’s no matter. By two a.m. I had had enough, therefore dissolve, I say, inebriate sprite! The smiling Wye could find no right bid…
…for a twenty of diamonds…a duopoly of spade queens…a quartet of black twos…
…and was it you, was it you who put me to bed, shoes by the door, beige pantaloons overhanging my chair, shirt on a hanger?
The book plunges on through its rivalries, its artistic and academic failures, its family feuds, through its master-slave relationships, but does end on a bright note, when Wye is asked to pen his conclusions. ‘Well now, let me think,’ he says. ‘In my memoir of social decay, which has been after all the catalyst of artistic regeneration, I shall start I suppose with a fatality. The corpse, Glaze’s, is symbolic. Some time hence its transmogrified mulch is the moving ground that the grandeur of a renascent literature flourishes in. It shan’t be compacted – not by those clumsy hobnails our many Marshall Zobs tramp in our world of printed pages in.’ And abetted by Merle, off Wye goes to publish his diary.