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The 2007 Tournament of Books is over. To view this year's Tournament, go here.


March 29, 2007

One Good Turn




I have an appetite for books Gary Shteyngart hasn’t yet written. I haven’t read his first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, but it was a hit with several family members and friends who promised to give me it for Christmas but never did. Also, he shows excellent taste in his blurbs, which—though ubiquitous on any bookstore’s “staff picks” table—often praise good books; there was an eight-month window when it seemed like Shteyngart and Jonathan Safran Foer were in a race, whipped on by manipulative publishers, for who could blurb the most and the most frothily, and I noticed that Shteyngart usually frothed over better titles. Also, he ran a several-page advertisement for Philip Roth’s career—which I relished—in the New York Times Book Review, and he loves food and drink, and he doesn’t seem pretentious. And on to the writing: He’s good, he has a zippy imagination, there’s a honed skill for teasing out a story. After Absurdistan, I am hungry for novels that are only now microfilaments in Shteyngart’s head. He’s just starting to sharpen the claws. But the problem is, two-thirds of the way through Absurdistan, I flung it across my office, knocking over my tennis racquet.

The last time I threw a book that hard, it was Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. I was in a crappy motel room in Paris, and I tried to throw it out the window from the bed (the window was closed). Like in White Teeth, Shteyngart’s characters either wear too much makeup or not enough; they’re either clowns or ghosts, running around and screaming and jumping out of cars, or simply not there. Which isn’t to say the novel isn’t convincing—its scenery, its characters’ feelings, its passions are worked on and worked on, but for all that sweat, the stakes feel trivial. I wonder if Shteyngart won’t pull a reverse-Roth-awakening soon: Roth wrote the dull Henry James pastiches Letting Go and When She Was Good before getting in touch with Alexander Portnoy. Might Shteyngart soon drop the clowning and hunt bigger game? I’m hungry.

• •

Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, on the other hand, is ludicrous. Critics hail Atkinson for the depth of her characters, but the diction’s off; her characters are obese. It’s a detective novel for literary folk who don’t like detective novels. Even in the book’s final stages, Atkinson’s digging up new remembrances of things significant, historical tidbits that are meant to add one last shade to this or that character’s profile but instead drove me crazy. The problem is her characters are so laden with backstory they can’t move, and when they’re shifted from one scene to another (Atkinson makes Edinburgh feel like a soundstage), you feel Atkinson throwing them around.

Also, Vinnie Jones appears every 30 pages with a baseball bat to coincidentally alter the plot. And the ending is preposterous.

Absurdistan, though dropped in the first round, was reinserted here as a zombie because The Morning News’s readers loved it dearly. One Good Turn is less well-known and hasn’t wowed the judges, but that’s not important in do-or-die blood sports—it’s survival by any means necessary, including luck, and Atkinson’s ridden it well so far. No longer: Absurdistan isn’t my cup of tea, but it’s good, and I can’t say that for its competition.

• Today’s WINNER •


• About the Judge •

TMN Founding Editor Rosecrans Baldwin lives with his wife in Brooklyn. He has no personal connections to any of the participating authors.

• From the Booth •

American literary critics hate coincidence, which, in other countries and at other times, has been called “a good story.” I’m not sure when or where this started but the old timers had no problem with it. Kevin John It’s like having your wife fall asleep on you while having sex, as opposed to her slapping your hand away as you go for the goodies. (Not that either of these has ever happened to me. Not often anyway.)
» Read Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner’s commentary on the match «

• The Peanut Gallery •

Do you agree with the outcome of this match?

absolutely   no way

The Standings


• Round One •

Half of a Yellow Sun v. Absurdistan
judged by Brady Udall

The Echo Maker v. The Emperor’s Children
judged by Marcus Sakey

Firmin v. Brookland
judged by Sarah Hepola

The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo v. The Road
judged by Maria Schneider

Arthur and George v. One Good Turn
judged by Kate Schlegel

The Lay of the Land v. English, August
judged by Colin Meloy

Alentejo Blue v. Apex Hides the Hurt
judged by Dan Chaon

Against the Day v. Pride of Baghdad
judged by Anthony Doerr

• Round Two •

Half of a Yellow Sun v. The Emperor’s Children
judged by Jessa Crispin

Firmin v. The Road
judged by Mark Sarvas

One Good Turn v. The Lay of the Land
judged by Maud Newton

Alentejo Blue v. Against the Day
judged by Sam Lipsyte


Half of a Yellow Sun v. The Road
judged by Elizabeth Gaffney

One Good Turn v. Against the Day
judged by Sasha Frere-Jones


The Road v. Against the Day
judged by Andrew Womack

One Good Turn v. Absurdistan
judged by Rosecrans Baldwin


The Road v. Absurdistan
All Judges + Jessica Francis Kane