2018 Man Booker Review: The Long Take

31st August 2018

The Long Take, Robin Robertson

Picador, London, 2018

Reviewed by Claire Steele

In film-making the long take requires the greatest command of scale and precision. No technique is finer for prompting awe. However, it is not just a matter of technical audacity; there’s a seductive lyricism to the enforced slowness of the camera’s gaze. Maybe it has to do with the breath, maybe it has to do with the rhythm of the blood in the body as we follow something through that grows more thrilling the longer it is sustained. Inextricably associated with film noir, the long take has a kind of dark, irresistible magic that has us absolutely in its thrall.

Robin Robertson’s epic poetic narrative, The Long Take, offers precisely that arousing potency as well as the intellectual pleasures afforded by rigorous formal expertise. Here is the story of Walker, just Walker – he might be everyman, he might be post-war Odysseus – arriving in New York, unable to return home either to himself or to his family. “He walks, that is his name and his nature”.

The poem opens in media res with a long take, panoramic view of New York

And there it was: the swell
and glitter of it like a standing wave –
the fabled, smoking ruin, the new towers rising
through the blue,
the ranked array of ivory and gold, the glint,
the glamour of buried light
as the world turned round it
very slowly
this autumn morning, all amazed.

What unfolds over the next 200 pages, across three cities, is a narrative that is remarkable for its ability to balance the intimacy with which it focuses on the lived experience of Walker and the wide moral and metaphysical spaces into which he steps. Line by line, section by section, the reader is rewarded with his now dark, now brilliant take on the world. There is a sense of rousing surprise to Robertson’s evocations of space, the sureness with which he plunges us into crowded, sensuously alive scenarios, peopled with wide-boys and the dispossessed of Skid Row, many of them soldiers like Walker himself. It is writing that puts us simultaneously outside the frame, mesmerised by the unfolding drama, and right inside Walker’s head, inwardly vibrating to the changing frequencies of rhythm, emotions and tone. Classical cadences are fused with colloquial speech, nuance collides with passionate directness. It is a combination that provides the sensual amplitude of this work, the fullness with which each scene is developed before dissolving into something else.

What is even more remarkable is the way in which this poetry also suggests itself as convincingly novelistic. We care about Walker, the people he encounters, the losses he endures. The narrative develops to reveal something true about humanity. The work taps equally into the individual psyche and into the isolation of life in the teeming city. We are asked to consider the big themes of loyalty and love, masculinity and power, but we are asked to consider them in ways that implicate how we too might be asked to live.

Unsurprisingly, the writing is marked by the chiaroscuro of film noir, “The huge cathedral light angles down – in long smoking buttresses…he waited in the light; in the floating dust there like the beam of a projector.”

Time and again The Long Take holds our gaze for longer than is comfortable but its rewards are peerless. It’s not just a matter of technical prowess, though it has that in spades; it leaves us with something more visceral and profoundly felt than admiration. It offers us a pleasure so fused with the complicated emotional experiences of loss, displacement, trespass and acceptance, it feels exactly like love.

Find Your Local