Is Granta 123 worth reading? When Anthony Burgess wrote a review of a new edition of the `Concise Oxford Dictionary' many years back for `The Observer', he said, when considering a new dictionary, he always checked the rude words first. So, what's appealing in this fourth selection of the Best of Young British Novelists? (Not rude, but attractive.)
The first to catch my eye was Steven Hall's `The End of Endings' whose opening sentence - `This is what I know for sure.' - is remarkably similar to Christopher Priest's start of `The Affirmation' (`This much I know for sure:...'). I was also reminded of B S Johnson because Hall, not content with black letters on a white background, presents us, every other page, with white characters on a dark background, which is also vertically inverted. So, derivative? No: Hall is his own man, and these two apparently linked tales hint at a forthcoming work of some complexity. His first novel `The Raw Shark Texts' also tinkers typographically. He made me want to read his work in full. Hall could be one to watch.
Adam Thirlwell's piece `Slow Motion', also from a novel in progress, drew me in effortlessly. What do you do if you wake up in a strange room next to a girl who appears to be sleeping but, judging by the blood on the pillow, may, in fact, be dead? It's a funny piece, despite the subject matter, although it's clear that there is a serious intention. And we are entertained by the narrator's monologue as he attempts to come to terms with the situation. Comic, stream of consciousness, existential panic. Another one I'm looking forward to reading in its entirety.
`Just Right' by Zadie Smith (novella in progress) is written in an assured style with a voice both innocent and knowing. A delight to read for the prose alone. Set in the USA, it appears to be a piece about the childhood discovery of self.
And the rest? Well, it's a bit like reading through a gauze. Someone left the fiction-writing machine on `pale and wan'. You're always aware you're reading a construction with little tangible reward. Unadventurous, some felt like autobiography, and I just wasn't interested. I kept having to force myself to read on.
Gauze plays a part in the authors' photographs, too. Nadav Kander appears to have shot all twenty writers through a fine curtain, unless it's a post-production conceit. The pictures are contrived and I learnt more about the man behind the lens than those in front. I should have been happier if they had all been given five pounds, asked to go the photo-booth and come back with four different poses each. Revelation rather than concealment is always preferable.
As for the fiction, what might Burgess have made of it? I don't know: perhaps he'd have preferred it if someone had sneaked into the fiction-writing factory overnight and turned up the dial on all the machines from `limp' to `f- the consequences'. Now, that would have been interesting.
1983 was a golden year - you can't help making comparisons - and I doubt whether any selection of under-forty talent could ever be as rich. The 2013, with exceptions, is a light bronze. Is it worth spending £12.99 on? Possibly not, but Amazon's cut-price deal makes your choice easier.