The organisers called it 'The World One Day Novel Cup', a jaunty if overblown title. It is tempting to imagine the novelists warming up in their track suits, with coaches telling them to get out there and express themselves, and managers shouting last-minute instructions from the bench: 'Somewhere a dog barked - do I not like that]' It ought to be possible to detach a text from the circumstances that created it, but in this case the conditions are so extreme and contrived it is hard to do much more than marvel at the sheer facts of the matter. Maggie Hamand wrote a fully thought-out 80-page novel in a day - even had the nerve to keep the suspense alive until the end. Sure makes you wonder what she might do if she took a couple of weeks, or 10 years.
But this whole idea of novel-writing as a spectator sport seems very Monty Python. Its brilliance as a marketing ploy is that it places the books themselves beyond criticism. Anything false or corny gets put down to sheer haste; we have no right to expect anything more than stories that are impressive, considering. Why chastise a one-day work for not being as deep or stylish as the best literature? It might have been easier had the contestants been given a theme rather than bringing one of their own: it would have been more like a game, and easier to compare the inventiveness of the variations. But as it is the World Cup inevitably offers us not novels, only novelty.
Probably it is best if we see them as works of criticism. On one level they remind us of a worthwhile truth: it's amazing what you can do when you're up against it. On another, they blow a nice ripe raspberry at an awful lot of published work, much of which is hardly less slapdash than this. So the competition might well send a message to authors and publishers. It could even succeed in inventing a new genre, one with the safe charm of a freak show and none of the embarrassing pitfalls of serious, brooded-on work. Who knows: perhaps top writers will defect, like cricketers in the Kerry Packer era, and renounce the slow grind of Test literature for the floodlit spectaculars of the one-day circuit.
The three finalists have little in common. David Thomas was the runner-up with Girl and Jeff Nuttall took bronze with Teeth. You have to say: Maggie Hamand wasted valuable seconds on her title - The Resurrection of the Body - but this composure also explains why she won: hers is the only story with a plot. Thomas's is a sitcom: a man goes to hospital for his wisdom teeth, has a sex change by accident, and learns what it is to be a woman. It's a neat idea, there are some warming jokes ('Apart from everything else, I've still got a bloody knackering toothache') and the author makes a virtue of haste by serving it up as a sloppy, insufferable monologue; but that's about it. Nuttall offers us a series of would-be poetic vignettes from the life of a married couple swearing at each other in Devon. The combination of ostentatious delicacy ('She had the face of a full grown doe') and outspoken coarseness ('It's shit. Someone's shat on the stairs') might not be everyone's cup of tea, but so what: it was only a day's work.
The Resurrection of the Body, on the other hand, reads like first-draft P D James. If it had a subtitle it would be Jesus of Hackney. A man stumbles into a London church on Easter Sunday, spouting blood and collapsing. He is taken to hospital and pronounced dead, but then his body disappears. The priest is curious, but the police are behaving strangely and seem to regard the priest himself as a prime suspect. Who the hell (more to the point, who the heaven) can the mysterious stranger be?
There are plenty of clues: the man is 30, bearded and with a long face, and he bears a striking resemblance to the figure in a mural of the crucifixion in the church. Somehow, in just 24 hours, Hamand managed to give the story straightforward mystery-thriller suspense as well as several intriguing depths. The biblical story is given a modern, science-fiction twist: the second coming releases a little touch of Dionysus - both eros and compassion - into the world. Then, too, there is the suggestion that miracles can be provoked by art: the mural started it.
The spooky thing is that it doesn't feel rushed. As it happens, Hamand was under even more pressure than the other contestants: when the half-time whistle blew, her seven-year-old son had suspected appendicitis, so she spent the night in hospital. She knew she'd been playing well: she was about 3-0 up already; but she had no idea whether she'd be able to make the second half. It really is odd that, apart from the inevitable ration of terrible piercing cries and pounding hearts and so on, the prose seems so unhurried. Here, for instance, the priest forgets himself with a parishioner:
'Tessa was not a beautiful woman. Her face was rather thin, austere, with heavy eyes. But she gave me a look of such intimacy that I forgot for an instant who I was with, and somehow, in my mind, I felt I was with Harriet, who was the only other woman who had ever been so close and looked at me like that. Instinctively I took her face in my hands and kissed her. It was not exactly a sexual kiss, but it was not exactly a chaste one either.'
Rowland Morgan's introduction explains the allure of the one-day novel by appealing to our accelerated culture and its search for faster, more dynamic links between writer and reader. He is eager, too, that novels should be news. We might well think that literature's main job in this busy world is to wave a flag for quietness and reflection, and we might also find it sad that the way for novels to make the news is to be fast rather than good (which does sometimes happen, even today).
But none of this matters, for the World Cup doesn't stand or fall on literary grounds - if only because it so easily deflects criticism, so confidently rejects the thought of having a conversation with a reader. It is very good fun, and the results (especially in Hamand's case) are terrifically impressive, but that is as far as it goes. In generating work that glories in raw immediacy, the cup draws attention to the failings of raw immediacy. A bit more stitching and unstitching would have done wonders, but also made the book pointless. It is hard to believe that this is really the future for literature: a weird undiscussable stunt that requires readers to say nothing more than: whoooo, look at those dolphins jump]Reuse content