Black Magic: A Review Of Robin Robertson’s The Long Take…
There are regularly heated discussions about the worth of prizes in art and culture. Recently announced, the Scottish Album of the Year longlist provoked debate about the worthiness not only of those on the list, but of the nature of the award itself as a very long, (and very strong), list of eligible albums was whittled down further to twenty by a chosen group of critics, journos, and others (of which I should declare that SWH! was one).
The arguments for are that the chosen records and musicians will benefit from the publicity, reach a greater audience as a result, and showcase the strength of Scottish music at the moment. Among the arguments against is that all such awards reduce art and culture to a competition, one which pits artists against each other, and which, at least according to one well-known and respected musician, can lead to anxiety and stress amongst those who find their music being judged in this way.
Arguably the daddy of all such awards is the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Graeme Macrae Burnett, speaking on the SWH! podcast, spoke candidly about what making the 2016 shortlist, (and even just making the longlist), did for his novel His Bloody Project and his career as a writer. Whatever your views on these awards they are not going to stop any time soon, and what is to be hoped is that they allow people to discover artists, musicians and writers they may otherwise have overlooked.
For instance, I imagine that few people would have found their way to a book which is an exploration of noir, particularly with reference to American cities – one which is set in mid-20th century, written as narrative poetry, with photography, diary entries, italicised flashbacks, notes, and end credits, and which has been written by a Perthshire poet.
All of the above applies to Robin Robertson’s The Long Take which has made it onto this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist (and which has already won the The Roehampton Poetry Prize 2018). It is one of the most intriguing and involving books I have read for some time, and to say there is a lot going on is an understatement of seismic proportions.
Long form narratives written in verse are not new. From the ancient Greeks and Romans, through Dante & Lord Byron, to Vikram Seth and many more, there have been writers who choose to tell their tales in this form. In this writer’s opinion the greatest example is Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin – quite simply one of the best books ever written. The form encourages a different way of reading, with each line standing alone waiting to be looked at individually as well as a part of the whole.
It is the story of Walker, an ex-soldier and D-Day veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, suffering flashbacks to the terrors of that life. These are graphic and affecting, posing questions about how we treat those who make it back to “normal” life from time spent at war and in conflict which are as relevant today as they were after World War II.
With overwhelming feelings of guilt weighing him down, Walker feels he can’t return to his Nova Scotia home, choosing to lose himself in ever-developing and expanding urban settings. The conflict and comparison between living in the city and a more pastoral life is a constant, with Walker noticing how nature fights to find a place and survive in and around a metropolis.
As Walker travels from New York to Los Angeles to San Francisco looking for work and some inner peace, Robertson uses his story to explore the dark-side of the American dream, and where the ideas which fueled noir are to be found. There is an overwhelming sense of all-consuming paranoia from a nation divided (with Senator Joe McCarthy key to the national mood), the divisions often occurring along social and racial lines.
The background to this is an abuse of power and civic corruption leading to the collapse of the inner cities, and how the built-in obsolescence of capitalism leads to intrinsic transience. The description of Los Angeles as, “like a fridge or car now, it’s built to break, so it’s temporary” is telling. If that sounds familiar then that is a safe supposition as The Long Take feels as much a commentary on America today as that of the ’40s and ’50s, as well as how major cities continue to be where the extremes of wealth and poverty meet.
While it is written as noir, it is more of an examination into the genre itself with references to the infamous Black Dahlia murder case, and the mention of many examples of film noir such as Kiss Me Deadly, D.O.A, Night And The City, Rope, and Raw Deal. The soundtrack to noir, jazz, also features, and the unexpected rhythms of that music can be detected in Robertson’s poetry – similar in tone if not in style to the beat writing of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
The rhythm of the language is precise, even when it feels relaxed or natural. For those who are familiar with noir there are fabulous nods to its more recognisable tropes, “private eyes, the gun in the desk drawer, bottle in the filing cabinet, the body on the bed…”, but Robertson isn’t dealing in stereotypes, he’s investigating how they came to be, and in doing so asks why this is a mythology which endures.
The Long Take is packed with ideas, imagination and vivid imagery. It shows and tells, but also keeps secrets in a narrative which offers up more than it may appear to at first. I’ve read it twice now, but could do so another ten times and I’m sure I would discover something new on each occasion. Even the dedications at the beginning tell you something about what to expect – to Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod, singer-songwriter Jason Molina, and the writer and cultural historian Jean Stein. If you are familiar with any of their work you will detect their influence on the pages which follow.
It may not win The Man Booker (Scottish writers tend not to, with James Kelman’s controversial success in 1994 being the only one to date) but I guarantee you that The Long Take is unlike anything else you will read this year, and it certainly deserves to reach the widest readership possible. Fiction as art? The Long Take is this year’s model.