Monday, March 7, 2011

2011 Tournament of Books: The Odds, Part II

And we're back with the odds for the second half of the field in the 2011 Tournament of Books (if you missed  the first installment, then you can brush up here). The good folks at The Morning News have done a little pregaming of their own, so be sure to check that out as well.

So here are the rest of the odds, including The Ape's pick to win...

Nox by Anne Carson
Chances of winning first round: 49%
Chances of winning The Rooster: 5%

This is the most difficult entry to handicap. Nox isn't a book so much as an excavation in paper: photographs, journal entries, dictionary definitions, scraps of correspondence, and fragments from antiquity are all bound in 192 accordion-form book-as-object fetishism. It is beautiful, moving, mysterious, and an anachronism in its own time. Before spending some time with Nox, I thought it had little to no chance of making much noise in this tournament, now I wonder. In the first round, we have Nox's singular form against Lord of Misrule's idiosyncratic style. If I were the judge here, I would be tempted to go with Nox's haunting obsession, but the two works don't even really exist on the same plane. This will be true for any future match-up, and I can't decide if this is a strength or a weakness. My sense is that its difference will be a hindrance in any individual match-up, but somehow this separation from this rest of the pack seems like an overall strength. I will be shocked if multiple judges choose Nox, but I also will be delighted.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
Chances of winning first round: 50%
Chances of winning The Rooster: 1%

The conceit here is pretty clever, and when I’ve told people about it, the universal response has been “That sounds kinda cool.” So here it is. On her ninth birthday, Rose Edelstein discovers, while eating a birthday cake made for her by her mother, that she can taste the feelings of others.  Not bad, right? (Have you noticed that nine out of ten cooks interviewed on the Food Network say that “love” makes their food special? How can “love” make it special if everyone says that? I want someone to say “Actually, it’s a gripping fear of death that makes my hamburgers so moist.”)

Rose goes to school. She tries, unsuccessfully, to make friends. She avoids eating food made by people she knows, and when possible eats mass-produced food as it has the bare minimum of human emotion in it. She gets interested in cooking. And that’s pretty much it. About one hundred pages in, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is like many other earnest, well-meaning coming-of-age novels. No worse, but not a whole lot better.

Room by Emma Donoghue
Chances of winning first round: 75%
Chances of winning The Rooster: 2%

Ah, yes. The book blogger darling, page-turning, soul-disturbing Room, the The Da Vinci Code of domestic horror stories. It can't be said that this book isn't gripping, assuming for the moment that you survive the first 20 pages of getting acclimated to the bracing 5-year old narration. After it's all over, though, I think you'll realize that Room has done to you something like what's been done to the main characters: you've been trapped and manipulated by the narrative and narration. And, as they say, the only way out is through.

Savages by Don Winslow
Chances of winning first round: 33%
Chances of winning The Rooster: .5%

Savages has the advantage of having a strikingly different tone than the rest of the field: its tale of drugs, kidnapping, revenge, and three-ways seems more cinematic than literary. It also, however, has the disadvantage of being mediocre. Flat characters, credulity-straining dialogue, and a glib indifference to horrific events and outcomes plague the book. Winslow's narrator has a tongue-in-cheek and streetwise attitude that is more interesting than really anything in the book. I give it a puncher's chance, though, against The Finkler Question just because it parries Jacobsen's narrative inertia with a forceful (and forced) plot.

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
Chances of winning first round: 25%
Chances of winning The Rooster: 5%

This was the great surprise of my reading year. The easiest synopsis might be that Skippy Dies is Dead Poets Society if Dead Poets Society were funnier, more complicated, and believable. Murray excels at dialogue and setting, two skills that can enliven even the now familiar frustrations of adolescence. In fact, it might be that Skippy Dies is so damn readable not because Murray does something all that new, but that he does something we know and makes it surprising and fun again. Too bad it's not going to make it out of the first round.

So Much for That by Lionel Shriver
Chances of winning first round: 50%
Chances of winning The Rooster: 1%

So Much for That is a necessary, painful story about the La Brea Tarpit that is America's health care system. In it, an upper class family of no particularly special quality finds themselves in the chokehold of insurance, doctors, employers, and the swirling emotions of terminal disease. It is quite a difficult book to get through, and it seems Shriver recognizes this, for after several hundred pages of Chekovian domestic misery, she throws us a few dozen pages of welcome, if flinching, relief. As this genre name suggest, bureaucratic realism instructs even as it enrages.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
Chances of winning first round: 80%
Chances of winning The Rooster: 5%

Super Sad Love Story takes place during the waning of an Empire in a dystopian near-future New York City where characters scramble to make sense of what is happening and find a place for themselves in the new world order. Here the Napoleonic Wars are replaced with the skirmishes of international capitalism; America’s economic weakness is being exploited by international conglomerates disguised as nations.

Those whose interests align with a resistance to technology (ie most writers and reviewers) will probably praise Shteyngart’s critique of the digital age. Those who see themselves at the vanguard of contemporary culture will probably accuse him of literary grumpsterism. Super Sad has the chops to go far here, but it has proven to be polarizing. In a single-elimination tourney, this isn't the most beneficial quality.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Chances of winning first round: 75%
Chances of winning The Rooster: 34%

Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad embodies much that is interesting and confounding about linked short stories. Like many such collections, the central figures of A Visit from the Goon Squad are not people, but ideas--in this case time, memory, maturation, music and technology.

A Visit from the Good Squad does contain two especially striking stories, both of which could stand on their own in a more traditional story collection. The most formally innovative "story" in the collection is actually a PowerPoint presentation called "Rock and Roll Pauses by Alison Blake." The presentation is a notebook-cum-diary of a young girl in PowerPoint form. The graphs, flowcharts, tables, and bullet-lists represent Alison's attempt to figure her family out, from her Dad's startling disquiet to her probably-autistic brother's obsession with pauses in rock music.

Egan's final story, "Pure Language," takes these same questions and turns them upside down. In it, 30-something husband and father Alex (who appears on the blind date in the first story) participates in an elaborate technology-driven promotion for an outdoor concert in lower Manhattan. Essentially, the scheme is viral-promotion masquerading as "authentic" word of mouth: using social networking, well-placed text messages to influential friends, and subliminal messages.

These two stories capture the larger questions of the collection: How do you understand people who don't understand themselves? How do you deal with incomplete or ambiguous information? How do you construct the story of your life out of the thin strands of your experience?

A Visit from the Goon Squad was the most innovative and well-executed work of fiction from 2010. Here's hoping Jennifer Egan has room in her yard for a chicken coop.

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  1. Superb analysis. Still love the odds-maker predictions. Again, I boringly find little on which to disagree with you. I will say, based on stats derived from my contest entries (and, thereby, assuming the wisdom of crowds), Skippy Dies has a much better than 5% chance of winning it all. I have not read it yet, though I am trying to get to it as quickly as I can.

    Let's see, the best I can come up with disagreement on your analysis of the books is: I do not consider myself at the vanguard of contemporary culture, but I am leaning more grumpster than fanboy on Shteyngart. A provocative and courageous stand, I know.

  2. I must disagree with you on the Savages vs. Finkler match up. Savages might be mediocre, but at least it was entertaining. Finkler was boring and self-satisfied---2 things I don't like in people and can't stand in novels. And it wasn't even that funny!

  3. Really enjoying your posts on this, and have added several of these to my TBR pile! Great analysis, thanks.

  4. These are fabulous. You guys are keeping the internet smart. That is nice to see. :)