The Morning News Tournament of Books, sponsored by Powell’s Books, is an annual battle royale amongst the top novels in “literary fiction” published throughout the year. Read more about this year’s tournament »
Alentejo Blueby MONICA ALI
Apex Hides the Hurtby COLSON WHITEHEAD
Of the two books, Apex Hides the Hurt is clearly the hipster’s choice. It’s full of wonderfully clever observations about race, class, and popular culture, and I can imagine that it would be a fun book to teach in a literary theory class. The writing is always polished and gleaming, full of bon mots and scintillating sentences. It’s all very witty and smart.
Alentejo Blue, on the other hand, does not seem particularly cool. It’s a collection of loosely interconnected stories for one thing, and if that’s not dorky enough, it’s all about a crummy, run-down village in Portugal. The characters are leading lives of quiet desperation and the writing is full of a kind of gentle rue that has more in common with modernist writers like Katherine Mansfield than with contemporary novelists. Especially when Ali is writing from the point of view of her Portuguese characters, her prose sometimes takes on the maladroit earnestness of Steinbeck in The Pearl or something. Her attempt to bring all the characters together in the final chapter is clunky and unsatisfying.
But nevertheless I was genuinely moved and engaged by Alentejo Blue in a way that I wasn’t by Apex Hides the Hurt.
Frankly, I wasn’t expecting this. When the books came in the mail, I thought that the contest was unfairly mismatched. Apex Hides the Hurt is called brilliant in no less than four blurbs. Alentejo Blue, on the other hand, got some pretty savage reviews in the American press, even from traditionally kind-hearted reviewers like The Washington Post’s Ron Charles, who described the book as excruciatingly dreary. Actually, I’m ashamed to say that having seen a couple of reviews of this sort, I wasn’t even planning to read the book.
So in some ways I guess Alentejo Blue benefits from my lowered expectations. But I have to say that I was really taken with her characters, and even got a little verklemt on a couple of occasions. My favorite characters were the Potts clan, a trashy expatriate British family (drunk, pot-smoking dad; washed-out ex-junkie mum; deaf, slutty daughter; sad, aimless little boy) who are portrayed with great perception, richness, and nuance. I was impressed by Monica Ali’s ability to convincingly inhabit so many different people, and I appreciated the sympathy and generosity she extended to them. She seems genuinely interested in and curious about people.
Whereas Colson Whitehead doesn’t, really. Apex Hides the Hurt is a book that feels like it has everybody figured out to its own satisfaction, in ways that can sometimes seem a little pat. The critique of American commercialism at the heart of the novel is apt and intelligent, but it also strikes me as fairly familiar. When an irritated hotel maid leaves the unnamed consultant-protagonist an angry note: You THINK you are so smart, smarty-pants. But you ARE NOT, I kind of agreed with her. A little bit of the narrator’s quipping and deft observation and astute cultural analysis goes a long way. But you know, I find that I much prefer the company of losers, alcoholics, depressed housewives, obsessive fatties, self-deluded teenage girls, etc. Anyone but a consultant. This is obviously a matter of personal taste.
|Personally, I’m not sure a C-17 full of ActiveOn could hide the hurt of being spat upon by a National Book Award winner.||Kevin||John||When I read Colson Whitehead’s first novel, I thought I’d encountered the next great American novelist.|