Booker Prize 2021: Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

reading time: 4 minutes

“Circles are wondrous because they are endless. Anything endless is wondrous. But endlessness is torture, too. I knew the horizon could never be caught but still chased it. What I have done is foolish; I had no choice but to do it”.

Maggie Shipstead’s latest novel, Great Circle (2021), is a good novel. It follows two parallel plotlines, that of aviator Marian Graves, mainly set in 19th-century Northern USA, and that of actress Hadley Baxter, who is signed up to portray Marian after a franchise catastrophe in modern-day Los Angeles. The stories – especially those directly related to Marian – are quite compelling, the style reads with ease, most of the characters are relatable. Yet, this novel feels excessively artificial: it is as if it were trying too hard to be a good novel, always looking for the most original image, the wittiest association, the most nonconformist character, the smartest parody of contemporary high-brow “intellectuals”. The main problem of this novel is that it polishes everything to the point of flatness, and the edges the plotlines and the characters could have offered become stale and anonymous.

The best example is perhaps the metaphor in the title (a “great circle” is “a circle on the surface of a sphere which lies in a plane passing through the sphere’s centre”; it represents the shortest distance between two points on the sphere and thus the route usually taken by ships and planes), which permeates the book with no subtlety whatsoever. Circularity – similarities, parallels, repetitions – can be found in events, in different characters, in spatial and psychological movements, in imagery and style – believe me, I’m coming to hate enumerations. The polishing makes it worse, because it keeps the reader at a distance, as if you were watching all the 12 remakes of the same film one after the other. Right: there’s also a mediatic parallel between narrative – full of visuality, cuts, close-ups – and film. Mind you, it isn’t the metaphor per se, but rather the fact that all these parallels are made too explicit, as if you could overlook them – and thus fail to notice how carefully crafted this all is. 

Most characters and situations fall into the same pit, as if the author were trying to make each character tick as many boxes as possible: independent yet frail women, violent yet frail men, superficial yet deep people. Almost none of them is allowed true individuality. Themes and topoi – e.g., the ambivalent relationship between men and women, female emancipation, abuse in the film industry and in real life, (non)conformism, queerness, capitalism, animal rights, poverty, freedom, mental health, violence, dystopian YA sagas, fanfictions, fame, the internet – are portrayed as so serious to the point of superficiality. This need for seriousness dips everything into melancholy, spoiling humorous and joyful moments. This is a Very Intelligent Book. Ursula K. Le Guin was right. I’m not sure whether authors feel smarter in pursuing this particular approach to writing, or if they feel they won’t be perceived as intelligent if they don’t, but the length of Great Circle makes it very difficult to ignore such concerns.

Nevertheless, the novel is entertaining precisely because of this familiarity. Hardly anything in it surprises you if you know this genre, so you can approach it without worries as you’d approach its polished cinematographic equivalent (bonus: there’s also yet another parody of screenwriter siblings). I sincerely hope the author is aware of the parallels between her own work and the fictional ones she criticised in the novel. This review sounds so passionate because I truly believe that Marian’s story could have been original: the passages where she flies, where planes and air-craftsmanship are described are the best in the novel. There’s a freshness to them that further highlights the dull uniformity of everything else. And yet, alas, it’s as if the author had done with her what the designers do with Hadley’s costume for the film:

“She looks like a flying squirrel,” one said. He held up an arm and gestured to the space under it. “All webbed in here.”

“It’s authentic,” the designer said defensively, “a real-deal Sidcot suit, but I think we can tailor it so her shape isn’t quite so lost.”

My resolve cracked. I glanced in the mirror. They’d already cut my hair down to a severe sort of pixie and bleached it. I was a small pale head atop a huge brown body, puffy and fungus-like.

“Don’t worry,” the designer said. “We’ll make it more flattering.”

“I don’t care about that,” I lied.

“I promise,” she said, as though she hadn’t heard. “You’ll look great.”

Perhaps all this is intentional. Imperfect artificiality pointing at imperfect artificiality – of art, of life – and at the impossibility of a true representation of reality. If it were so, there could be a layer of irony giving a point to this all. Yet, the final impression is that of a novel taking itself so seriously, feeling so smart.

Why it could win

Great Circle is a Very Booker-Prize-y Kinda Book. It ticks (so) many boxes: one big overarching metaphor, parallels and connections between two independent-but-not-really plots; an imagery-driven, enumerating style full of periods; contemporary topics and concerns. It reminded me of Margaret Atwood, so good chances.

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