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 »
Then We Came to the Endby JOSHUA FERRIS
Petropolisby ANYA ULINICH
Sasha Goldberg, our heroine in Petropolis, is chubby and forlorn, child of an oppressive mom and a runaway dad. She grows up mostly friendless in an asbestos-mining Siberian town called Asbestos 2. She gets knocked up, has a daughter, moves to Moscow without her daughter, signs on with a mail-order bride operation called Kupid’s Korner, gets engaged to a flesh-bag named Neal, moves to Arizona, flees Neal for Chicago, lives for a while with a creepy family in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, flees again to New York, and winds up on her long-lost father’s doorstep as a big black girl in dirty red bubble jacket. I won’t spoil the end.
Chances are you haven’t heard of this book, which lacks an obvious first novel gimmick but is full of heart and sentences like His white shirt is strangely sheer, and Sasha can make out two islands of chest hair shaped like lungs in a medical drawing. Despite some odd editorial lapses, this is a very good novel.
Chances are you have heard of Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, with its gimmicky-but-still-somehow-effective collective first-person narrator. (I.e., We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise.) On the surface, Ferris’s book is about a bunch of office stereotypes tasked with writing a humorous ad campaign about breast cancer. Beneath its surface, the novel transcends its cubicle-dweller stereotypes by crackling with the kind of desperate isolation and spiritual vacuity anyone who has worked for a corporation for 10 minutes will understand.
Both Petropolis and Then We Came to the End are by first-time novelists who live in Brooklyn (shocker). Both writers are sensitive, vital, and funny, and both manage to somehow blend Swift-ian satire and Flaubert-ian realism in much the same way that, say, watching Hill Street Blues on a Japanese television in a Lithuanian hotel while spilling crumbs of Pringles made in Geneva on a sweater made in Madagascar blends incongruity and reality. These books are about the absurdity of global capitalism. I hope lots of people read them.
Now for the verdict segment of this preposterous exercise. Petropolis is not an entirely cohesive novel and there are at least two chapters and a lot of tangents (Sasha imagines letters back to her daughter in Asbestos 2 in italics) that could have been trimmed away. But Petropolis does possess a historicism and a spaciousness that Then We Came to the End, which can feel stiflingly compartmentalized, does not.
Really, what you have to ask yourself in this, the most ridiculous (and therefore perhaps the most sincere) of book contests, is this: If you were boarding a long-haul flight, and some airline attendant announced a new, psychotic policy that passengers could bring only one book on board, and if I was standing right next to you, in full possession of my hugely limited wisdom, which one of these two books would I urge you to stick with?
I’d say Then We Came to the End. Ferris’s book made me laugh out loud 20 times, and the scene toward the end of the novel, when Benny Shassburger answers every one of his co-workers’ questions with quotes from The Godfather, made me fall off the couch.
Joshua Ferris is a creative creative creating creative creative. (You have to read the book to know what that means.) So is Anya Ulinich. I wish them both happy and healthy careers.
|My next novel is about a squad of Arena Football all-stars shipwrecked with an all-male nude singing revue.||Kevin||John||This is something everyone within the book industry knows, that the odds of their contender for this particular box is facing very long odds, and yet they keep trying.|