Shortlisted for the Man Booker this year, Robertson’s The Long Take manages to be both a sweeping view of post-war American, a victorious country in a state of internal turmoil, and an intimate account of a veteran’s struggle with what he has seen and done. Told in narrative free verse, Robertson’s novel is breathtaking in its scale and in its achievement. The style elevates his protagonist’s observations, giving them a weight that is at odds with the transience of the world he is a witness to.
Robertson’s focus is threefold – the impact of the war on those who fought it, the desire of those in power to sweep away the past in the name of progress, and the violent undercurrents running through America as it seeks to quell or remove those who challenge the new agendas of those in power. Tying the three strands to the film industry is an inspired structural device.
The aptly-named Walker, destined to seek out someone to listen to his account of his war – he eventually settles on ‘the one they called Glassface: half his head disfigured with a tight, marbled burn, like his face had melted all down one side, then frozen‘ – finds a job on a local LA paper and begins to document the stories of the displaced. He is cast in the role of the observer and it is this decision which allows Robertson to both pull back cinematically and zoom in on America’s post-war struggles,
‘You one of them Reds? One of them infil-traitors?
Sitting with your book, listening in?’
A long take, a single shot lasting long enough to make the viewer feel unsettled, is what Robertson does here with his poetry. Post-war America is the subject of an unflinching gaze and fans of film noir directors will enjoy the air of shadowy suspicion and violence which pervade the novel. It’s this playing around with form and style which sets this novel (I’m almost unsure whether this is the right term) apart.
The idea of the darkness behind the artifice is also ever-present:
‘This old doll at the other end of the counter, the look
of fallen masonry about her face
a ruin of crumbling plaster, badly painted,
eyebrows halfway up her forehead, her mouth
like it’d been dug out with a knife’,
and there’s a stunning violence Robertson brings to his descriptions. Early on, Walker describes Coney Island:
‘the noise of America at play
with the crush of the Atlantic
breaking under the boardwalk,
steady and slow.
To be young, and in this world. Alive!’
Walker’s PTSD provides a new tilt to the Romantic enthusiasm for living through changing times. There’s an irony here, particularly when he goes on to point out that, ‘by day, you can see she’s made of pasteboard, held together by nuts and bolts.’ The country that the D-Day veterans fought for is fraying at the seams. This is an America which isn’t providing homes for heroes, but is instead tearing streets down to make room for highways and parking lots. The reader is reminded less of Wordsworth and more of Ginsberg’s loud Howl. As another character, Billy, says, ‘We came back to somewhere different.’ This America rewards young men like the hideous, ambitious Pike who, too young to serve in the war, spends the minute’s silence in memory of Pearl Harbor, ‘looking at his nails; looking at his watch.’
I want to throw so many quotations at you from this book. It’s unlike anything I’ve read before and, as is perhaps obvious from the length of this review, I desperately want to discuss it with other people. As I said in a previous review, the Man Booker judges have gone for novels which challenge the conventional forms this year. I’m very glad this one has made it through to the shortlist – I’d like to see it win.