Monday, March 14, 2011

2011 Tournament of Books: Breaking Down Week One

The first week of the 2011 Tournament of Books has come and gone. While there were no real shockers, that doesn't mean there weren't items of interest.

Here are few match-by-match highlights:

Match 1 Winner
Match 1: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen versus Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne, judged by Sarah Mancuso

Mancuso on Freedom:
"...Freedom focuses on two fully human adults who, despite their history of betrayals, return to each other. When Patty and Walter drive away from the lake house, they complete the book’s convincing depiction of a mature marriage—one that survives serious conflicts and requires serious mercies. It isn’t nostalgia for Walter’s affair that broke my heart; it’s Patty’s forgiveness, and Walter’s forgiveness of her own betrayal, and the reminder that such forgiveness is possible..."
Mancuso reads Freedom's end with considerably more hope than I do. In her assessment of these novels, Mancuso provides compelling textual evidence, but here at the end she abandons direct quotation of the text. To my mind, one paragraph describes the nature of Walter and Patty's reconnection, and it is the reader's interpretation of that paragraph that will determine how positive their reconciliation is. I'll quote at length:
"Her eyes weren't blinking. There was still something almost dead in them, something very far away. She seemed to be seeing all the way through to the back of him and beyond, out into the cold empty space of the future in which they would both soon be dead, out into the nothingness that Lalitha and his mother and his father had already passed into, and yet she was looking straight into his eyes, and he could feel her getting warmer by the minute. And so he stopped looking at her eyes and started looking into them, returning their look before it was too late, before this connection between life and what came after was lost, and let her see all the vileness inside of him, all the hatreds of two thousand solitary nights, while the two of them were still in touch with the void in which the sum of everything they'd ever said or done, every pain they'd inflicted, every joy they'd shared, would weigh less than the smallest feather on the wind" (p. 559).
I find it difficult to call this moment forgiveness. Forgiveness implies a kind of ethical transaction in which wrongs against a moral system are pardoned. Here, the moral system is completely obliterated by "the void." This absence of ethics makes any transgression meaningless, any emotional benevolence null. Their relationship here is cast as a strategic alliance against nothingness--not a turn to each other as subjects of meaning and value.

But that’s me.

Match 2 Winner
Match 2: Room by Emma Donogue versus Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky, judged by Jennifer Weiner 

Weiner on Bad Marie:
"It’s a world where grownups are savages, and children, even worse. (“Caitlin grinned. Caitlin was happy when she got her way. She seemed to get her way most of the time.”). The men are duplicitous and weak, other women are competition, the sex has more to do with power than affection, and everyone behaves badly."
Weiner on Room:
“Still, the book is, to resort to a cliché, unputdown-able, and it raises fascinating questions: What is a mother’s obligation to her child? How much of her independence must a mother sacrifice for a son, or a daughter’s, well-being? How do you survive hardship? How do you survive joy?”
First, I'm going to preen a little and say I called this in my odds-making for the first round:
Room is essentially a conservative book, reifying conventional beliefs about motherhood, child-reading, and how freaky men can be. Bad Marie is libertarian: the main character acts on impulse only, and we get very little sense of what she wants at all. I suspect Jennifer Weiner, the judge for this round who writes books with relatively familiar values, will go for Room.”
Second, does Room really raise "fascinating questions" about maternal obligation and freedom? Hardly--those questions require the ability to make choices that the mother in Room doesn't have.

Third, a kid getting what they want most of the time makes them "worse" than savage?

These points show the easy morality of Room, hidden in plain view by the narrative conceit and first-person narration. That’s not to say Bad Marie should move on necessarily; it relies heavily on awe-inducing coincidence. But considerations of form offer can more interesting discussion here.

Match 3 Winner
Match 3: Savages by Don Winslow versus The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobsen, judged by Rosencrans Baldwin

Baldwin on The Finkler Question:
"I read novels for plot, but I don’t need it—but in its place I do need life. Perhaps Finkler’s point is that Julian is not the center of the book. Maybe the point of Finkler isn’t to dramatize events or entertain its readers, but to flay, to scrutinize, to attack."
Baldwin makes an interesting point here about the problems of writing compelling satirical novels: they must, perhaps counter-intuitively, have an excess of plot to pull the reader along. Think of the great literary satires: Don Quixote, Candide, Gulliver's Travels---they overflow with narrative. Two reasons for this come to mind. First, story might provide a bulwark against ponderousness and self-importance. Second, the pleasure of compelling narrative might make the reader more receptive to the ideological content of satirical critique.  The Finkler Question's only real defense against preachiness and readerly fatigue is style; as Baldwin mentions, Jacobsen writes some extraordinarily fine sentences. Craft, however, doesn't seem to be enough sugar to help the medicine go down.

Match 4 Winner
Match 4: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan versus Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, judged by Anthony Doerr

Doerr on A Visit from the Goon Squad:
"One of the things I enjoy most about being a fiction writer is the unpredictability of what each individual reader brings to the work. If I write a story about a character with a stutter, say, a reader with a speech impediment will probably react to the story differently than a reader without one. If Jennifer Egan writes a book about time overwhelming characters and turning them into parents, a reader like me, who feels himself being overwhelmed by time and being turned into a parent, will plug into it in a certain way."
Doerr's judgment was my favorite of the first four matches, and this meditation on affection and timing was particularly insightful. One of the great pleasures of the Tournament of Books is that critical subjectivity provides as much of the fun as the winning and losing. This then allows us to revel in what we already know: that there is no high ground of evaluation, no semi-divine objective consciousness that can "properly" assign value. Like many truths, this is both liberating and frustrating. And devilish fun.

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  1. A cogent analysis of the books and the first week (+ 1 day of Week 2) of the ToB. I particularly like your description of "Savages." It coulda been a contender -- if not for the flat characterizations. And horrid violence.

    I haven't read all of the books quite yet. But this year is the first since I've begun following in 2008 where I've gotten copies of all of them -- or at least samples -- before the tournament began. My new Kindle has helped in this, as most are available as e-books.

    So I've got a foot in both worlds of reading, so to speak. The e-books don't seem quite as real as the printed ones. I do miss having the weight and feel of a book in my hands.

    Then again, with the exception of "Bad Marie," the other three print-books "The Finkler Question," "Nox," and "Lord of Misrule" have not appealed to me. So I don't feel so great about the extra money expended on these -- but then I can trade them in, give them to a local library or a friend. E-books can only be given to someone else who has the same sort of e-reader, they're locked into that format.

    I read the ToB decisions and commentary and readers' comments and blogs like this one -- not to confirm my own convictions -- but to expand my horizons. So when someone says they love some book I didn't like, I'm willing to give it a second or even a third chance -- particularly if they present a solid counter-argument to the perspective I took.

  2. Jack-
    Thanks for reading and commenting. If it's any solace, the print books you've read so far are not my favorite from the brackets either. I think SKIPPY DIES and A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD would be my two recommendations from this list. FREEDOM is a more complicated recommendation...

    Hope to see you around here.