John Berger won both the Booker Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for G, his picaresque novel about the illegitimate son of an Italian merchant and an English intellectual. The plot follows the life and loves of the unidentified hero from his birth in the late 1800s through middle age.
So far so good. Then, like Berger, I have to switch to metaphor to describe the book: Imagine sitting at a table with a watchmaker as he demonstrates to you how to take apart and put back together a complicated watch. He explains each minute process in detail to make sure you understand every intricacy.
In theory, this should be interesting – seeing a master craftsman demonstrate his talents doing something you've always taken for granted (how a watch works) and making you think in a new way. But in reality, it is going to be tedious. The parts are tiny, it takes forever, and no matter how much he explains, you are never going to be able to track it all.
Now imagine that you have to sit there while this watchmaker takes apart and reassembles four or five different watches, explaining the process in the same excruciating detail.
Now, for watchmaker and watches, substitute John Berger describing G's sexual conquests – in excruciating detail, from seduction, through climax, to afterthoughts. Over and over.
Now – yes, it gets worse – add a third person at this table. Interspersed throughout the Don Juan episodes (sometimes interspersed in alternate paragraphs with no transitions and no punctuation to indicate dialog), this omniscient narrator drones on and on about the historic events that are the backdrop to G's adventures. There is a 19th century labor uprising in Italy, the early Socialist movement in England, the Boer War, the first airplane flight across the Alps, WWI trench warfare, and Italy's plotting to free Trieste from the Austrians. But G isn't actually involved with any of these events, so they never become more than a newsreel playing in the background. (Sorry to mix my metaphors – blame Berger.)
G has more plot than many an experimental novel. And, like reassembling a watch, it may involve genius. But I was more than happy to see it end.
NOTESThis was my "double-dipper" choice for the 2010 Battle of the Prizes, British Version.
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