So Muchfor That
Parrotand Olivier in America
[Editor'sNote: The winners of the 2010 National Book Awards will be announced onWednesday, November 17th.]
When thefive finalists for the National Book Award in fiction were announced lastmonth, the lead in news stories was Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, the Novel Betrayed. Its absence occasioned the usualattack on awards, judges, critics, and literary evaluation in general. Butconsider the numbers. When I was a judge several years ago, about 300 bookswere nominated by publishers. If judges ignore authorial reputation and chatterabout the books, what are the chances that a book will make it into the finalfive? Say a hundred works are meretricious and nominated merely to please theirauthors. Now the possibles are down to 200 books, but if each judge gets tochoose a nominee it’s still only one chance in forty that a book will make thecut. You might find distasteful this probabilistic analysis of the process—”Allbooks are not created equal,” you say—but I hope the numbers will diminishthe consternation over Franzen’s absence and will encourage readers to give thenovels that are finalists a chance. Think of them this way: “Wow, thesebooks beat 40 to 1 odds.”
There is a downside to citing these numbers. “Waitjust a minute,” you say. “Nobody can read 300 books in the few monthsthe judges have.” And you’re right. Judges have to sample in the earlystages. So in the spirit of putting you in a judge’s seat, below are samplesfrom each of the novels, along with some context and description. The passagesare short—bite-size pieces of prose like the chocolates in a Whitman’s Sampler—butshould provide a taste of each writer’s style, sensibility, and, indirectly,his or her approach to fiction. Perhaps the excerpts will take you to the booksthemselves, and then you can imagine yourself in the hot seat, a chair at thetable where the judges have to argue their criteria and decide on the winner. Forsimulated opponents or allies, you can check the reviews (three appeared here) orread my own judgments down at the bottom of this sampler.
In Lionel Shriver’s SoMuch for That, theirascible middle-aged metalsmith Glynis is married to the usually placid ShepherdKnacker, who observes his wife’s combative relation with an old schoolmate:
Glynis disparaged Petra’s workas safe and cookie-cutter. Unlike Glynis, Petra did not press against thelimits of “craft” and yearn to join the art world proper. She madejewelry, period, for people to wear. Another tactless observation? Shep likedthat. He liked functionality. He was a handyman. He had always cherished thefact that his wife made objects not only attractive but utile, which shouldhave made them more valuable, notless. Thus he’d no patience for the loopy distinctions between art and craft that put the latter at a commercial disadvantage. If you madea clay pitcher that held water, it was virtually worthless. Bang a hole in thebottom and it was “art”: you could charge an arm and a leg. Howfucked up was that?
Living in expensive Westchester, Shepherd used to complainabout Glynis’s unprofitable artistic bent. Now that she is dying fromMesothelioma, he praises her aesthetic dedication. Although he can’t say so, hestill resents it because their one-income family is being bankrupted by thehealth-care industry—co-payments, out-of-network doctors, incredibly expensiveexperimental drugs. His ambivalence seems to surface in the range of diction:the arty “utile,” the clichéd “arm and a leg,” the vulgarrhetorical question. As Glynis’s condition worsens, the good Shepherd findslarger issues than art or craft to resolve: When should one calculate the costsof extending a life of suffering? When might suicide be a plausible decision? Forperspective and commentary, Shriver includes Shepherd’s best friend Jackson,who is raising a child doomed by Familial Dysautonomia and who supplies amusinglibertarian rants. Dictated by incurable disease, the plot is inexorable butsurprises with the ways that death can twist the living. As a novelist, Shriveris similar to her expert handyman protagonist: she knows her material, thenovel’s illnesses; she believes in the utility of fiction, the value of showingordinary people in extreme situations; and she employs a functional andplainspoken style occasionally punctuated with rage.
Jaimy Gordon’s Lordof Misrule is ahorse-and-human story set at a small-town West Virginia track in 1970. Thefollowing passage describes Maggie, the young protagonist, as she rubs down hergelding:
She had to slow down time, gointo a kind of trance state where sweet electricity pooled at her nerve endingslike nectar on the pistil of a honeysuckle. And then by running her fingers overthe animal she could find his hidden landing places. Not that there were jungleairstrips, few and hard to find. They were all over the place. But you had toapproach the body boundary reduced to this one brooding spark. You dangled froma headland, black empty space rushing by, and suddenly you were across. The keywas being tuned down so fine that you felt the crossing. Without that your fingerswere just dead prongs on a rake and nothing happened.
Gordon “rubs” her characters the same way, using”nerve ending” observation, linguistic fine tuning, extendedmetaphor, and shifting point of view (third to second) to bring out the “broodingspark” of the sometimes masochistic Maggie, the hidden mania of herboyfriend Tommy, the family sentiment of Maggie’s loan shark relative Two-Tie,and the suspicious generosity of Medicine Ed, an aged groom who, no doubt, willbe played by Morgan Freeman in the movie. Even horses are massaged intocharacters with emotional lives: the goofy Little Spinoza, the gutsy Lord ofMisrule. The plot is somewhat conventional—the rookie couple gets entangled inthe cynical dishonesty of low-end racing and finally has to confront a violentgangster—but Gordon handles with aplomb the required final Big Race, when themajor characters have different stakes. Plot, like a race, is less important toher than the slow time of the “backside” world of stalls and groomsand walkers that prepares horses (and readers) for a few minutes of intenseaction. Ultimately, it is this now lost world that Gordon “rubs” backinto being.
In Peter Carey’s Parrotand Olivier in America, thetime is the early nineteenth century, the young aristocratic Olivier resemblesAlexis de Tocqueville, and the low-born, middle-aged Parrot is Olivier’sBritish secretary. During their travels, they argue about almost everything. Inthe following passage, Parrot narrates and Olivier speaks first about art inAmerica:
“Art is produced to suitthe tastes of the market, which is filled with its own doubt andself-importance and ignorance, its own ability to be tricked and titillated byevery bauble. If you are to make a business from catering to those people, thewhole of your life will be spent in corrupting whatever public taste mightstruggle toward the light….”
“America is new.”
“Indeed,” he said, and I frankly loathed thecertainty of his judgment. He might go away and write a book about this, butwhat could he know from so short a visit? The time it would take to make thisnation would be put in centuries and it did not do to come prancing around inyour embroidered vests and buckled shoes and even if the New York Sentinel reported what you said, it did not mean you knew.
Like the excerpt, the novel’s chapters alternate point ofview, Olivier’s formal, structured, and often pompous manner, Parrot’s morecolloquial, loosely organized, and mocking speech, both probably modernized abit by the author. Their subject is personally crucial because Olivier believeshimself a connoisseur of beauty, and Parrot, an amateur sketcher, has a painterwife and a business associate whose works resemble Audubon’s. For Carey, artrepresents cultural invention and reinvention as his protagonists struggle tocreate themselves as Americans: Olivier to marry, Parrot to survive. The novel’sfirst third describes Parrot’s outlaw youth in England and Australia andOlivier’s royalist upbringing in France. The companions’ episodic and mostlycomic adventures in the New York City of the 1830s include contact with crooksand officials, resurrected acquaintances and recalcitrant Americans. As anartist, Carey would probably elicit scorn from Olivier, for the novel is ademocratic “bauble,” designed to satisfy “the tastes of themarket” for historical entertainments.
One of the five narrators in Nicole Krauss’s Great House visits acastle in Belgium where she sees a hall full of stored furniture, which remindsher of a photograph of Jews awaiting deportation to Treblinka:
The photo had struck me at thetime … because of the thoughtful composition which the photographer had clearlytaken pains over, taking note of the way the pale faces topped with dark hatsand scarves were mirrored by the seemingly infinite pattern of light and darkbricks of the wall behind them that trapped them in. Behind that wall was arectangular building with rows of square windows. The whole gave the sense of ageometric order so powerful that it became inevitable, where each commonmaterial—Jews, bricks, and windows—had its proper and irrevocable place. As myeyes now adjusted and I began to see, rather than just vaguely feel with someunnameable sense, the tables, chairs, bureaus, trunks, lamps, and desks [were]all standing at attention in the hall as if waiting for a summons….
A piece of furniture confiscated by the Nazis connectsKrauss’s narrators and other characters, most of whom are Jewish. The Israeliantiques dealer Weisz wants to find, five decades after World War II, hisfather’s desk, which has passed from a German novelist in London to a youngChilean poet, who reminds the novelist of her abandoned son, to an Americannovelist in New York City, who journeys to Jerusalem to find Weisz. This is thebasic story that eventually emerges from Krauss’s “thoughtful composition,”her almost perfectly “mirrored” two-part “geometric order”that begins four narrations in part one and finishes three in part two. TheAmerican confesses hidden suffering, a British professor discovers secretsuffering, an Israeli lawyer attempts to assuage past suffering, and Weiszcauses current suffering, as if the desk that unites them were a curse of theHolocaust. Like the grad student narrator of the sample, the other speakers aremonologist interpreters of experience who struggle to overcome self-indulgence.With its nineteen drawers, the desk separates and conceals things. Krauss makesher house of fiction a similar construct of deceptions and evasions. The novelis saturated with emotional “common material” and is painstaking instructure but perhaps not, like the photograph, “inevitable” in itsresolution and revelations.
Karen Tei Yamashita’s IHotel is a 613-pagenovel in the form of ten free-standing novellas linked by setting, a residencehotel in San Francisco during a decade beginning in 1968. Because the novellasare in wildly different styles—cinematic and dramatic scripts, collages ofliterary and political documents, narrative voices inflected byAfrican-American dialect and Chinese and Japanese culture, cartoons anddrawings—only the following sample represents them all:
Authors sometimes take strangeliberties.
The “passage” in a section entitled “Analects”is a bald statement set off by itself without any obvious context. Much ofYamashita’s prose is active, telegraphic, and assertive, yet qualified—the “sometimes”—byother direct statements. Her constant subject is liberation— political,economic, racial, and artistic. Perhaps a tenth of the book is composed ofquotations from political theorists, poets, popular singers, jazz musicians,revolutionaries, and others. The quotes, like the sample, may be authentic orinvented by the author. Many of them are concerned with perceptions by or aboutAsians. Since one of the primary liberties that Yamashita takes is renderingnovelistic action in the form of cinematic directions, Charlie Chan is anappropriate “authority.” As a detective, he is an ironic model forthe Asian-American author’s investigations of the criminalized politicalactivists of the period (one of the fictions takes the form of a police “dossier”).And just as a detective explains his reasoning at the end of a case, thenovelist articulates her rationale in her final novella, an epilogue that couldhave been a prologue to welcome readers into her book.
Each novella has two or three conflicting characters;several of the most memorable are a Chinese historian and a Chinesesaxophonist, a Japanese professor, a member of the Black Panthers, a Filipinoactivist, an early feminist. Characters from the first novellas sometimesappear briefly in later stories, but Yamashita’s most daring liberty is reversingthe usual proportion between foreground (continuity of character and action)and background (setting and cultural information). To readers who wereconscious adults in the early 1970s, her information about strikes,occupations, and riots may seem over-familiar, but to younger readers I Hotel offers a thick description ofthe period in a cut-and-paste structure that resembles contemporary hypertext. Theonly novel like it that I know is Robert Coover’s similarly obsessive andexcessive The Public Burning, whichdid for politics of the 1950s what Yamashita does for her decade. Since herWest Coast novel published by a Midwestern small press went largely unreviewedin East Coast media, I Hotel is atrue odds-beater as a finalist.
And now the hard part.
So Muchfor That is a very good mainstream novel with important topicalconcerns and engaging realistic characters but is rather pedestrian in itshandyman style. Lord of Misrule is avery good indie press novel with no topical concerns and somewhat stereotypedcharacters but contains award-worthy sentences. Although a comic novel recentlybroke through to win the Booker Prize, Parrotand Olivier in America is not as amusing as other Carey novels, and itdoesn’t penetrate America as perceptively as a European buddy book itresembles, Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon. Theextensively voiced sufferings of the graduate student, lawyer, novelists, andprofessor in Great House activelysolicit one’s sympathies but are given only an oblique connection to theHolocaust. Although Krauss is possibly more profound than the first three, Great House seems “needy” tome, artfully contrived to elicit the admiration of other writers. Of the five, I Hotel is the most ambitious in itscultural range, the most diverse in character, the most ingenious in form, andthe most idiosyncratic in style. It also has by far the most longueurs. I still think I Hotel should win—as a similar book bya West Coast writer, William Vollmann’s EuropeCentral, didthe year I was a judge. But Yamashita may be too anarchic or too declamatory ortoo alien—too off-putting in one way or another—to get the votes she needs. Kraussand Great House will probably receivethe award. In this space last year, I picked the winner, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. Butdon’t bet on Great House—unless youget great odds.