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
WARNER: In this round we have a tough match-up between our second MacArthur Genius grant recipient, (Whitehead) and our second of Granta’s best young British novelists (Ali), and the first who is actually British. I’m also going to assume she’s somehow related to Muhammad Ali since it seems like there’s going to be an opportunity for some kind of boxing gag later in the commentary.
GUILFOILE: Ali, Buma Ye! Ali, Buma Ye!
Note: for any tourney fans who happen to speak Lingala (or who have seen When We Were Kings, the classic documentary about the Ali-Foreman Rumble in the Jungle) that joke doesn’t mean I literally want Monica Ali to beat Colson Whitehead to death. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be the first time Whitehead was physically assaulted by a competitor in this tournament, and anything is possible in the Zombie Round.
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. In 2005 I sat on a Virginia Festival of the Book panel with Kate Walbert and during the Q&A I was grazed with a tiny bit of spittle when she pronounced the word apostate. That part of my cheek still burns on very cold days, and she was only an NBA nominee. I can’t imagine the chronic pain that might result from deliberate and malicious Richard Ford expectorate. I suspect that if William Vollman ever spat on me, I would melt like a bespectacled Nazi who looked directly into an unsealed Ark of the Covenant.
WARNER: When I read Colson Whitehead’s first novel, The Intuitionist, I thought that I’d encountered the next great American novelist. It literally stunned me. Partly because it fell from a bookshelf on to my head, but also because it seemed to combine issues of race and identity and status and commerce all in a vaguely postmodern yet still highly accessible, thought-provoking, emotionally involving stew. Then I read his second book, John Henry Days, and I thought I’d read a good, but not great book by the next great American novelist. Then I read the reviews for Apex Hides the Hurt and I figured I’d wait until Whitehead writes a fourth novel before I dive in again.
Dan Chaon’s decision in this bout only reinforces that instinct.
On the other hand, according to Chaon, Ali’s Alentejo Blue floats like a butterfly and stings like a novel with engaging and convincing characters despite a botched ending.
GULFOILE: I, too, was blown away by The Intuitionist and was less impressed by John Henry Days, although I enjoyed that second book more than you. I liked it least when he started making lists of things, which reminded me too much of my days counting kerosene and tampons and safety razors and Ice-Melt and yo-yos and legal pads and Cabbage Patch Dolls and Styrofoam coolers and bottles of aspirin and cartons of Newports during inventory week at the Farm and Home Bargain Center, a process that consumed four straight Christmas breaks for me in high school. I know it’s fashionable to make long, detailed fictional lists, but all novelists should know that by doing so they risk alienating every reader who ever worked retail.
Which, nowadays, is all of them.
WARNER: Down goes Whitehead! Down goes Whitehead!