Monday, July 11, 2011

Forecasting the 2012 Tournament of Books

We've reached the half-way mark of 2012 and many around the literary web are listing their favorite books of the year so far. This seems like as good as excuse as any to scratch my Tournament of Books itch. If literary 2011 ended right this very minute, what would the 2012 Tournament of Books look like? Commence totally unsupportable speculation. Let's take a look at this year's books that have the best chance of making the field of sixteen.

First, here were last year's contenders:

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender
Nox, by Anne Carson
Bad Marie, by Marcy Dermansky
Room, by Emma Donoghue
A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
Lord of Misrule, by Jaimy Gordon
Bloodroot, by Amy Greene
Next, by James Hynes
The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson
Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray
Model Home, by Eric Puchner
So Much for That, by Lionel Shriver
Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart
Kapitoil, by Teddy Wayne
Savages, by Don Winslow

One thing The Morning News does well is give us a nice mix: satire, short stories, poetry, coming-of-age, page-turners, comedies, etc. So the prime directive here is not necessarily to list the year's sixteen "best" books, whatever that means exactly, but to replicate the heterogeneity of previous tournaments. Here's my effort, with a brief explanation for each contestant.

In no particular order:

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
State of Wonder seems to be the literary novel of the moment. Like So Much For That from last year, it takes on the health care industry, though with considerably more adventure, style, and daddy issues than Shriver's novel. Should State of Wonder make the field, it has to, at this point, be considered a favorite.

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht
Winner of the Orange Prize, The Tiger's Wife is the surest bet here to be selected. Interweaving folk tales and family drama, this might have the finest writing of any of these titles, though I think it lacks the punch to take home The Rooster.

West of Here by Jonathan Evison
One thing is clear about the 2012 tourney: we're going to have much more temporal diversity. None of the 2011 picks had substantial narrative action that occurred before 1999, already The Tiger's Wife and West of Here delve deeply into history for material. West of Here is a big, sumptuous story of the settling of Washington State (with some prolepsis into more recent days) that brings to mind Annie Dillard's great All the Living. Evison's characters are bit more outsized than Dillard's, but this is as much a realist mythology as it is historical fiction. It's probably a little too long and a little too to do with logging to make it past the second round, but it's one of my personal favorites of the year.

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
This one is rising even as we speak. Tough to go wrong with a finely wrought family drama with an angle (bigamy!). Reviews have been glowing and it's next up on my reading pile. I can see this in one of those deadly first round match-ups between really good lower seeds (a match between Silver Sparrow and a higher seed like The Tiger's Wife could produce an early stunner. You heard it here first, from your local online literary tout).

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Another literary wunderkind, another tough to describe novel. For sheer imaginative virtuosity, Swamplandia! will be tough to top, though forays into the hyper-real don't tend to fair well in ToB land. Mid-round TKO in Russell's future I'm afraid.

Open City by Teju Cole
Going out on a bit of a limb here, but Cole's debut novel of immigration, race, youth, and aimlessness in New York City feels like it would fit right in here. The protagonist's rootlessness and wandering reminds me a bit of the tone of Teddy Wayne's Kapitoil, but without quite so much narrative affectation. Probably an early round loser, but it's the kind of book that could sneak into the field over more established writers who turned in mediocre efforts this year.

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Philips
The Tournament of Books is not afraid of literary brain-teasers like this and indeed could do something devilish like match it up against Blake Butler's There is No Year or The Lover's Dictionary for a first-round experimental fiction show down. If you can pull off textual fireworks like this, you get to come to the party.

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson
This is a very good novel, but I am including it here mostly because it reminds me so much of Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule. It's not about horse-racing, it's about 1980s New York punk, but it is a near-artisanal rendering of a particular piece of American sub-culture.

The Astral by Kate Christiensen
I can't believe we've gone this long without a novel about people living in Brooklyn. And, from what I've read, The Astral might be one of the best Brooklyn novels ever written (I feel a future blog post coming on here). It's both a snapshot of a borough and of a certain kind of relationship, a platonic friendship between a man and woman (Somewhere, Harry Burns is shaking his head). As a Brooklynite with vaguely literary concerns, I am contractually obligated to read this, but luckily it is supposed to be really something.

The Curfew by Jesse Ball
My favorite novel of 2011 so far. Beautiful, mysterious, haunting. Part Kafka, part Bruno Schulz, this one feels timeless. I have a review cooking, so I won't say more now. Going to be trumpeting this one like I did Matterhorn last year.

Faith by Jennifer Haigh
A compelling, complicated lead character is a good bet to do well in the tournament, and the protagonist of Faith is a seemingly sympathetic priest accused of sexual abuse. This is a story we've all read in the papers, and seen on the screen in the form of Doubt, but this one has a more definitive end and more difficult resolutions to handle. This is the kind of craftsman-like, quiet novel that tends to get overlooked by the tourney, but at this point I think it's in the running. (Novels coming in the fall will have something to say about this, however).

The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier
This has two elements that make it a likely pick: a central metaphor/condition connecting disparate stories and a strong dose of vaguely spiritual magical realism (just enough to be catnip for those whose only true belief system is literature).

There is No Year by Blake Butler
Challenging, bordering on nonsensical textual sleight-of-hand, Blake Butler's There is No Year is either one of the most accomplished novels of the year or one of the most contrived. It is also possible that is both. I can't tell. But what I can tell you is that I have spent more time thinking about this book than almost any other I've read this year and that counts for something.

Moondogs by Alexander Yates
This one gets the Gary Shteyngart memorial slot for a off-center, inventive, entertaining bizarreness. I sure miss new Tom Robbins novels and I think this is as close as I am going to get. Manic, irresistible fun--so attention must be paid.

So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman
And of course literary 2011 would just be incomplete without a of novel about male sexual violence. I am a little wary of how these books tend to go, but So Much Pretty is worth spending some time with. Hoffman is a journalist by trade and her taste for truth and resolution that some recent abducted girl books don't have (The Lovely Bones, The Fates Will Find Their Way). This take adds some meta-discourse about this paradox: male sexual violence happens all the time and no one thinks anyone they know is capable of it.

The Lover's Dictionary by David Leviathan
I've found nothing to fill Nox's slot from last year: something not a novel, but that it is book-length and coherent. Something that is a different take on a familiar subject or a familiar take on a different subject. David Leviathan's The Lover's Dictionary is close: a fractured, turbulent love story told in a series of dictionary definitions relating to love--at least monogamous heterosexual first world love.  I don't know that it has the pathos of Nox, but it is an original style deployed on the most unoriginal plot, which I suppose is the way you say something new about something everyone thinks they already know everything about.


You might notice that the most-discussed new work of fiction from the last six months isn't on here. I wrestled with including The Pale King, but I ultimately decided that since this isn't a book sanctioned by the author, it can't be considered here. It is a fascinating book with some dazzling prose, but it is not a novel in the way we talk about novel. It is more a textual artifact, a sepulchral remnant of what might have been.

So those are my guesses for now---they will prove to be embarrassingly and spectacularly wrong.The last half of 2011 portends some serious artillery (it is difficult to imagine the 2012 ToB without the new Eugenides or Whitehead, for example)

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  1. I'd love to see Arthur Phillips make the cut - good call!  And I'm heartened to hear another vote of confidence for West of Here - I've been going back and forth on that one.

    I balk a little at the first reason behind not including The Pale King - you're right, it's not sanctioned by the author, but why should that matter? What we do have is better than 99% of all sanctioned-by-author books out there. (Okay, maybe 75%...) But your description as textual artifact, I'll buy - indeed, that's a much better description of it than "an unfinished novel." It is the latter, sure, but almost in the same way that "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" is also an unfinished novel. The degree of unfinished-ness is why I'd agree with you on not including it.

  2. Sanctioning matters to me because this is a book Wallace didn't think was ready (or he wasn't ready). That affects how I think about the book, how it fits into his oeuvre, and how it fits into the literary scene. If you can say the sentence "If AUTHOR X was alive, this book either would not exist or not exist in this form" then it's hard to categorize it with what we understand novels to be.

    That is spectacular in places and probably will make the field. 

  3.  . . . there's really not that much logging, i swear! . . .

  4. Yea, I exaggerate. More the prospect of logging than actual logging. But lots and lots of trees. Beautifully described, though. 

  5. I admit The Pale King is an extreme case, but what of novels like 2666, Suite Francais, or hell, even The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo - does the same argument about author sanctioning affect how you think about those novels? And, is that to say, the author exists permanently within his work? (Kidding...don't answer that last one.)

  6. Interesting round-up! I've been trying to keep up with this year's buzzworthy fiction, so I've read 7 of the titles you've listed, and a few others are on my near-future To Read list.

    Some quick thoughts on the ones I have read:
    State of Wonder (liked this one quite a bit, nice summer escapist read),
    The Tiger's Wife (liked it, but not as much as some of the raves it received. agree it lacks a bit of punch),
    West of Here (this one impressed me, not my usual thing but I read it due to buzz and enjoyed it a lot. I knocked out the whole second half in one sitting),
    Silver Sparrow (this one is -great-. Jones's prose is not particularly complicated but still conveys so much feeling and depth),
    Swamplandia! (another big buzz book that didn't quite live up to the raves for me),
    Open City (really liked this one as well. very minimalist and detached feeling but it works so well),
    So Much Pretty (unfortunately did not like this one at all. it does have some interesting things to say, but it was difficult to keep myself interested and the big 'twist' at the end felt false, perhaps more due to the writing than the content itself)

    Hoping to get to the books by Henderson, Christensen, Haigh, and Butler sooner than later.

  7. You are well on your way. Glad to hear another vote for West of Here and
    Silver Sparrow. I think Swamplandia! might find itself outclassed come the
    end of the year. I wonder if there is a lesson to be learned here about
    trying to turn a somewhat gimmicky short story into a full length novel,
    akin to the problem of turning a good Saturday Night Live sketch into a
    feature film.

  8. I am less familiar with the stories behind 2666 and Suite Francais, but my understanding is that Larsson had signed off on at least the first book. 

    To use a sports metaphor about how I think about this, I tend to put a mental Roger Maris asterisk by these kinds of books. They get entered into the chronicle, but not without a disclaimer. 

  9. I better get cracking---I've only read "The Tiger's Wife" so far.

    I'm glad you compared "Ten Thousand Saints" to "Lord of MIsrule." I can now avoid it like the plague, since LoM was a DNF for me. Blech.

  10. I should say that stylistically, TEN THOUSAND SAINTS is not at all like LORD OF MISRULE, but more in terms of scope/approach. I suspect that most people who didn't care for MISRULE were turned off by the stylized prose; there's really nothing like that in TEN THOUSAND SAINTS

  11. Thanks for that advice. I was just kidding (sort of). I'm usually pretty easy and will read anything, so my antipathy for Lord of Misrule still has the power to shock me.

  12. I was inspired by this post to bump Silver Sparrow up the TBR pile. I had a friend pick up an ARC for me at a conference. I'm a middle school English teacher, and over the past few years, I've been on a bit of a quest: find books with African-American characters who aren't impoverished, imprisoned, or enslaved. Just a book with a middle-class black family. You would perhaps be amazed to know that is is almost damn near impossible to find. (the only good one I've found so far appropriate for middle schoolers: Eighth Grade Superzero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich.)

    Anyway, my friend thought Silver Sparrow might fit the bill. Unfortunately for me, too much sex, etc for the middle school crowd.

     I loved it, though. I hope it gets the audience it deserves. The writing is not splashy, but it's emotionally complex. It's hard, given the subject matter, to truly feel empathy for all the characters---and yet, the author pulls it off. I can't decide what I think of the narrative approach: each daughter narrates half, and then it returns back to the illegitimate daughter 12 years later. Something about that felt a little squishy, but I might just need some more time to think about that.