The Finkler Question – part one – why I hated the Man Booker 2010 prize winner


Books. Notice how close they are to the drinks.

It is not often I do not finish a book that I commence. Once I start, I am committed to finishing. I have finished one or two books I really didn’t enjoy. I have finished some of the most difficult books in the English language or in translation to English. War and Peace, Ulysses, Infinite Jest, Fox in Sox, to name but a few. I mean I’ve finished Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon. I have finished books that are emotionally difficult to read. Books like What is the What, The Book Thief, Outside Over There by Sendak.  Late last year, I read Room by Emma Donoghue (incidentally also shortlisted for the 2010 Booker). That’s a difficult book, at an emotional level, yet I finished it in two days. I have rarely started a book and abandoned it. Dead Air by Iain Banks, looms as one I can immediately recall not finishing.

Today though, my list of unfinished books includes The Finkler Question. The 2010 winner of the Man Booker Prize. I tried, really tried to finish it. I put it down. I read other things. I came back. Then I thought maybe I need to give it a few more chapters, so I ploughed through for another hour. Perhaps, I thought, the denouement is a creeping one? I kept at it.  For six long weeks. And today, while giving this book one last chance, I read this.

“Strange, how well you can come to feel you know a person, Treslove thought, from a name, a word, and a few photographs of his penis.

But then Treslove could afford to be generous: he had what Alvin Poliakov, epispasmist, had wanted all his life – a foreskin.” (p. 220)

That was it. I could read no more. It had reached farce in my view. I had had enough. I just didn’t care. I didn’t care about Treslove and his desire to be Jewish or not be Jewish, or whatever the hell he was trying to be. I didn’t care about his search for happiness or identity. I didn’t care about the epispasmist, that was for sure. I didn’t care much for any of the other characters either.

I was annoyed by the inconsistencies in the text. I was tired of verbless sentences. I was sick of looking up words. I was tired of the meta-narrative crowding out the actual, albeit tissue paper-thin, narrative. Initially, when I first wanted to stop reading it, I wondered if this was the literary equivalent, for me, of Wim Wender’s film Wings of Desire. I tried to like that film. Everyone else liked it. I just didn’t get it. Angels floating over Berlin. The voice over repeating over and over;

Als das Kind Kind war,

wußte es nicht, daß es Kind war.

Wings of Desire made no sense to me at all. I had tried so hard to like it, but I just couldn’t. It still sometimes pervades my mind. It is still in there, percolating away, and I still don’t get it. I wondered, early on in the six weeks, if The Finkler Question was the same. But it won the Booker! I told myself. It must be me. It must be Wings of Desire in a book! It has the same endless quest for happiness, same repetitions.

The Finkler Question, is a book I am reading for bookclub. While our bookclub includes food, drink and the usual gossip, it is also full of very serious readers. Serious as in, properly prepared notes for the presenters. I precipitated a heated debate in my first ever meeting, by announcing that I had enjoyed Atomised by Michel Houellebecq. There was almost a riot. In the same meeting, I vetoed any Roth books – one of my other unfinished books is American Pastoral* – from the list for 2011. I was about to do myself out of a bookclub. Fortunately I managed to recover enough for them to let me return.

I felt compelled to finish The Finkler Question, for bookclub. Perhaps I thought I needed to demonstrate my seriousness. Demonstrate that I could read I book I didn’t like and talk about it. Well, I can talk about, but I can’t finish reading it.

To be continued … after bookclub …

* Yes, I too, have detected a theme. More on that later. - Australia's #1 online bookstore