This year’s best novel might just be a poem, according to the Booker judges, who have shortlisted one for the first time: this episodic epic by Robin Robertson, a bleak free-verse elegy for Forties Los Angeles.
The choice came as a surprise to many readers – not least Robertson himself, who has called his inclusion “bewildering”. But his place on the list is testament to a remarkable labour of love. Robertson spent four years writing and researching this poem, redrawing his own maps to LA’s lost streets (one is included here).
That work pays off: the vividly realised city becomes a character – or perhaps two. The fragile, older community up on Bunker Hill, reached via the aptly named Angels Flight funicular, is set against the hungry new Gomorrah below, “an infestation, a carcinoma” eating up the old and poor as its bulldozers “clear, grade and pave”. It’s a tale in the same vein of noir as Chinatown, where the real villain is faceless plutocracy.
LA may be a character in this novel, but it’s the only believable character. Various formal tricks – italicised memories, diary entries in a different typeface – try to bring us into the mind of our protagonist Walker, a traumatised Canadian D-Day veteran-turned-hack reporting on the plight of the homeless. But he feels frustratingly empty, albeit less so than the celluloid-thin supporting cast, such as Pike, his cartoonish young nemesis at the paper, or his exposition-ladelling best friend, Billy Idaho, or the various “whores” and “dolls” who fling themselves at him to no avail. (The misogyny is uncomfortable, but true to Walker’s perspective; he idolises his old flame back in an Eden-like Nova Scotia, and sees everyone else – himself included – as the dregs of a fallen world.)
Three years ago, eyebrows were raised when Oliver Langmead’s Dark Star – another noir-inspired crime epic written in verse – was nominated for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize. Dark Star was dismissed by some readers a nerdish novelty – it was, after all, set on an alien planet called Vox. Despite its real world setting, The Long Take can at times feel just as geeky.
The directors Robert Siodmak and Joseph J Lewis make cameos to talk (or rather, to allow the film-buff Robertson to talk) about their work, and the exact shooting-dates for each film set Walker stumbles across are provided in the endnotes. There’s a similar whiff of wish fulfilment to Walker’s jazz club trips (he catches Thelonius Monk, Dave Brubeck and more at their peak). It can feels as if the plot exists solely to tie together the author’s research and enthusiasms.
As a novel, it annoyed me. But as a poem, it had me hooked. On a second reading, I was still hypnotised by its mood of numb brutality, tentative reprieve and powerless despair. Robertson writes with plain, chilly grace about ghastly things – a “twisting rope” of blood, a “gray wing” of vomit. It ends with a haunting 40-page aria of destruction, intercutting LA’s falling buildings with flashbacks to the war, before a fine-tuned anticlimax. The book’s alternative title is “A Way to Lose More Slowly” (a line from the 1947’s Out of the Past) and that captures its mood to a tee.
The Long Take is a departure for Robertson in its content, but not its style. With his “long eyes for seeing”, Walker is essentially a camera through which Robertson can capture his images. The poet who described “a shoal/ silvering open/ the sheeted black skin of the sea” in 2006’s acclaimed Swithering is patently the same speaker who in The Long Take watches a swan “sending back slow chevrons to the shore”.
Another poem from Swithering, about “the city’s free-for-all”, could easily have appeared in The Long Take without seeming out of place: “The city saw my hesitation-marks,/ found my seam, and ripped. Night flails/ with sirens, the street-lamp’s sodium/ bars the back wall.”
Robertson prefers images to characters; his silent background extras often upstage his protagonists – such as the street cleaner “moving like a priest with a censer”, or the nameless woman who each day stops to touch the “L” on a sign for Lucky Strike. Although the repellent Pike never quite convinces, Robertson’s poetry excels when describing a more vivid antagonist: City Hall itself. It’s “lit up like God” when Walker first sees it, and the “lidless stare of that white panopticon” returns in a series of increasingly malevolent transformations – “a white crucifix/ up-ended in the ground” – until finally, in a world turned upside down, it “looked like itself/reflected in water”.
Walker bonds with the homeless veteran Billy by swapping lines from Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano: “We evict those who destroy!” These “simple and terrible words” (Lowry continues, in a passage Robertson does not quote) are “unproductive of any emotion whatsoever, unless a kind of colourless cold, a white agony”. Robertson’s own simple, terrible words have the same effect.