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 »
One Good Turnby KATE ATKINSON
Absurdistanby GARY SHTEYNGART
WARNER: Wow! Judge Baldwin comes out with some positively Peckian fire in his dual takedown of One Good Turn and Absurdistan in the Zombie Round matchup. I didn’t realize how much I missed the critical curmudgeon until now. Bravo to Rosecrans for taking off the gloves, for bringing the heat, for unleashing the fury, for smelling what the Rock is cooking, for insert indefinite number of clichés here.
Shteyngart is apparently writing the wrong books and Atkinson has written a bad one. As a writer, this is the kind of response from a reviewer that terrifies me. For me, Judge Baldwin expresses dismissal (ludicrous, detective novel for literary folk, drop the clowning and hunt bigger game), which is scarier than outright scorn. It’s a form of scorn I suppose, but it’s scorn that can’t be bothered, that has washed its hands of you. You do not matter. You are inconsequential. 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.)
I think our Morning News patron is being unduly harsh here, particularly to One Good Turn. Any detective novel is going to have more than its share of coincidences. In the architecture of the story, they aren’t coincidences, but merely events that haven’t yet been revealed to the reader. Perhaps the reveal is not always as well-timed or artful as one would wish, but it seems unfair to fault a detective novel for being a detective novel.
Bully for Absurdistan, particularly since it has been back on campus for weeks, catching up with all the classes it’s been skipping for the tourney and drowning its first-round losing sorrows in keg stands and co-eds. Somehow it got off the mat to scrape by into the finals. For all practical purposes it’s 0 for 2 with our judges, but somehow it still has a shot at the coveted Rooster.
In the end, apparently wrong beats bad.
The Road looks like an unstoppable juggernaut, though. The first two years have had relatively close races for the title. This time I feel like we’re looking at an ‘80s-era Little League World Series face off with The Road playing the part of the Taiwanese squad, which always showed up with a roster-full of six-foot-five pitchers with three-pack-a-day habits to deliver a slaughter-rule beat down to some blond kids from Pennsylvania.
Still, anything can happen. Do you believe in miracles?
GUILFOILE: 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. Where would Jane Austen be without coincidence? Or Shakespeare? Wait, you’re a sorcerer who’s been banished to a distant island and your brother just happens to float by on a boat? Oh, like that would really happen.
Coincidence is the only reason anyone is bothering to tell you a story at all. No one wants to read Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Extremely Probable Events. A few years ago I was returning my rental car to the Albany airport after visiting my parents, and a car pulled in behind me driven by my long-ago college roommate, who lived in Hawaii and happened to have been running a triathlon that weekend in Lake Placid. When I saw him I didn’t throw up my hands in disgust and say, Well this seems awfully unlikely and walk to my gate. I gave him a big man hug and thought to myself, Holy shit! What a great story!
There are, of course, good coincidences and bad coincidences. I once heard Quentin Tarantino say he thought the worst movie ending of all time was Patriot Games, when Harrison Ford is fighting with the IRA terrorist (who’s trying to kill his whole family) on a runaway boat and the bad guy slips backward and is impaled on an anchor, thus allowing Jack Ryan to escape and save his wife and kid but unburdening him of the messy culpability of actually having killed anyone. (The book ends a bit differently, incidentally.)
But the real news here is the resurrection of Absurdistan, and in the Book Bloggers’ Office Pool, that would vault Kate Sutherland from last place all the way to a close third. By my count, an Absurdistan win in the finals will put her in a jam up for first and we’ll have to break out the secret and sealed tiebreaker envelopes to determine the champ. A win by new Oprah fave The Road and Brockman takes the title outright.
By the way, Kate is playing for Rita Kasparek of Oakland and Brockman is playing for Michelle Dreher of San Francisco. So we have McCarthy versus Shteyngart, we have Brockman versus Sutherland, and, in the Battle by the Bay to determine who will win every book in the competition courtesy of Powells.com, we have Kasparek versus Dreher.