I picked up this Man Booker shortlist title in early October, hoping to finish at least the shortlist before the winner was announced. Spoiler: I didn’t quite. But I did enjoy the time I spent with Robin Robertson’s The Long Take, the only poetic narrative from the longlist.
About the book: Walker leaves Europe a changed man, unable to return to his Canadian home after the war. He writes to his parents and the girl he loved, but doesn’t go back to Nova Scotia to reunite with them. Instead he finds lodging and work in America’s cities, sampling mainly New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. In these places he tries to make sense of what he’s seen and what is left for him in post-war life, but he makes his home in a place that is falling apart, finding friends with similar post-war troubles who are being dragged down right along with the vanishing streets they inhabit.
” ‘…got shot up good.’ / ‘And welcomed home as a hero, I bet.’ / ‘Yeah. Just look at us now: two heroes in a hostel on Skid Row.’ “
The Long Take is a novel of sorts, told in verse but still a longer cohesive narrative. The plot is fairly simplistic, but as I went into this book expecting poetry I didn’t mind that the language took precedence over story arc.
The story is told through separated passages of prose that are each complete pieces in themselves. The writing style is consistent throughout, though some of the passages portray different things. Most of the narrative is composed of Walker’s present experiences (or recent past if the reader is to understand that he’s writing them himself in the aftermath). But there are also passages of dreams, and of flashbacks to scenes from Walker’s war experiences. There are notes he writes to send home, and memories of time spent with the girl he can’t bear to let see him again. It took me a few pages to know for sure what was what, as there are no labels to distinguish all of these parts, but it’s fairly easy to pick up on the distinctions and follow them through the book.
Before I go beyond structure, let me mention that I don’t read a lot of poetry, and I’m especially behind in modern poetry, so I’m probably not the most knowledgeable critic for this book. But I can talk about the reasons I enjoyed reading it, and the biggest of those is the wording.
“He woke suddenly and turned around, but the door of the dream had / closed behind him. Scrabbling at the surface he could find no handle, no / handhold, to let him back in to his childhood, to the bar at the end of / the world.”
Do you ever read a passage so striking that you have to stop and go back to read it again, slowly, to savor it? I do, sometimes even with individual words that just sound unusually nice in my head. Though The Long Take was pretty easy to read and understand at a normal reading pace, I read it pretty slowly because I loved Robertson’s sentences and smaller word combinations. The style was just an all-around good fit for me, and that was the biggest contributor to my enjoyment here.
I also had a clear picture of each of the cities in my mind, which is something that honestly doesn’t happen for me very often in novels. I’m so much more invested in the characters and plot that setting is just sort of a foggy background blur that’s only present enough to give me an idea of the characters’ lives within it. But with The Long Take, I felt a familiarity with these cities I’ve never visited, even though they’re portrayed in another time period. The settings in this book are as essential as the characters, the settings are characters themselves, and those are the only settings that really make an impression on me. When I think of Los Angeles, I will think of The Long Take.
Furthermore, I was hooked on the PTSD and general deterioration aspects. They gave the book a sense of doom, which is an atmosphere that always keeps my attention pretty well. The tragedy that is post-war civilization was the only part of the book that I engaged with emotionally; Walker did what was asked of him, but didn’t find much help dealing with any of it afterward. The world takes and takes, and only seems to give to those who already have. That’s universal, which bridged the fact that I haven’t seen much of war firsthand.
“The papers say / ‘Keep dogs and cats inside on the Fourth of July’ / but nothing about ex-servicemen. / You can’t get tanked enough to block / the fireworks’ whine, their / door-burst slam, the rustling / shiver as they fail, fissling away.”
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I picked this up when I needed a break from novels, and not expecting to love it. I think the lower expectations helped make this an enjoyable reading experience for me, but I don’t think my appreciation for it was entirely circumstantial. I just like words, and Robertson seems to be one of those writers who has a great relationship with words. They just work for him. I was not surprised that this one didn’t win the Man Booker Prize, but it will certainly stick in my mind for a while. I might even read it again.
Other Man Booker reviews in order of most to least favorite: Everything Under, The Water Cure, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Mars Room, Warlight, Washington Black, Snap. (I’ve also now read Milkman, The Overstory, and Sabrina with reviews for those coming soon!)
The Literary Elephant