Today’s Match      |      Previous Matches      |      TOB Brackets [PDF]      |      Judges      |      About      |      Buy the Books from      |      Rooster T-Shirts
The Morning News and Powells Present
2006 Tournament of Books
MARCH 30, 2006
First of all, I’d like to say that I think bracket-based tournaments are maybe my favorite things in all the world. Oh, happy day when literature and sports collide!

Garner—sort of the George Mason or Bradley of novels—came in as a fan favorite, a scrappy little underdog with a talent for the long shot, the deep three, the fadeaway jumper. It’s a portrait of a small New Hampshire town at the turn of the century; at the start, a young girl is found dead, doing the Ophelia thing in a stream. It’s a nifty set-up, and Allio initially employs the promising device of breaking up the chapters by character—the creepy mailman, a summer boarder, more from the creepy mailman—to unfold the events that led to the girl’s demise. I immediately thought, “Ooh! a Northern Sound and the Fury!” and got all excited. But I spoke too soon: That structure doesn’t hold, and Allio’s prose is swirly and artsy to the point of incomprehension. She favors old-timey rhythms and dreamily austere observations over just telling me what the hell is going on—and I freakin’ hate that. It’s like being choked to death by someone wielding really nicely embroidered throw pillows.

I’m from Texas. We don’t hide
behind trees, and I kind of have no use
for people who do.
But more than wading through all the stoic we-are-people-of-the-land talk, I hated the women in this book. Frances, the dead girl, spends all her pre-mortem time flitting about the woods and speaking in riddles. The sophisticated summer boarder finds herself enraptured by Frances and trades in her sophisticated city clothes for the simple farm outfits the younger girl favors (so pure! so unsullied by, like, cars!). Wives are submissive but smart enough to know they are and keep doing it anyway; mothers hold secrets but also great kitchen-based love—and, of course, men are men. I’m sure this book is meant to be a comment on society and repression/oppression/depression, and I’m also confident that I’m “missing something”—I’m almost always “missing something” in this sort of book. Maybe if I’d grown up in New England I’d have a better understanding of its mythological landscape and the way everybody finds themselves all fucked up every time they go into a forest, but I’m from Texas. We don’t hide behind trees, and I kind of have no use for people who do.

Which is why I was more than happy to turn to Saturday, basically UConn, Duke, and Illinois all wrapped up into one 7-foot center of a dustjacket, threatening the smaller kids on the court by throwing alley-oops to itself all day. This book flew by like a plane on fire outside my window in the middle of the night. I won’t say what’s already been said: that it’s a perfect snapshot of the way things are now, that it’s not as strong as Atonement but McEwan’s attention to character and detail is sharp as ever, that the questions the book raises are important if not necessarily the stuff of great fiction so it’s lucky that the McEwan’s writing is the stuff. But I will say that I remember the Saturday of the title because I was on the streets of New York, freezing my ass off while marching for peace. And that at one point or another over the last five years, I’ve asked myself all of the questions that comfortably meticulous neurologist Henry Perowne is asking himself about the world in which we live. And that since finishing this book, I’ve been examining my surroundings, picking them apart, dissecting them down to the last molecule, McEwan’s voice ringing in my brain.

Look, I’m not afraid to admit my weakness here: I think the fact that I hated Garner means, in a lot of ways, I’m a failure as a woman. Yes, there is clearly something wrong with my chromosomes, because I couldn’t get behind this romantic celebration of bleakness and pain, not even for a page. (In fact, the first time I tucked in I was on the subway, and after about five minutes I found myself intently studying the 1-800-DIVORCE poster above my head instead.) But ultimately, Saturday kicks Garner’s ass for three non-gender-based reasons: 1) I wasn’t bored out of my skull, 2) I didn’t want to punch any/all of the main characters in the mouth, and 3) It manages to be both escapist and necessary, both personally familiar and yet completely foreign, both deeply emotional and yet almost surgically clean, and by the end of Henry Perowne’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, I already wanted to go back and live through it again.

The Peanut Gallery
Do you agree with the judge’s opinion?
Hell yeah! Good call.     Hell no! The ref’s blind!     Go