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 »
Tree of Smokeby DENIS JOHNSON
Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Nameby VENDELA VIDA
When my kind Rooster hosts sent me this year’s matchups, I looked at the lineup and confidently thought, It’ll be between Tree of Smoke and The Savage Detectives, which suited me just fine. I found Bolaño’s masterpiece worthy of all the praise it had receivedtruly a once-in-a-generation kind of bookand I looked forward to comparing it against the year’s other Big Book, which I hadn’t found time for.
Imagine, then, my shock and dismay to find The Savage Detectives eliminated in the first round. Knowing our hosts’ taste for controversy, I wrote to them and pleaded the merits of jury nullification, so that I could undertake this clash of titans I’d envisioned. Mischief-makers that they are, they were tempted, but finally felt obligated to observe the rules of their own game.
Which, one supposes, is laudable. But it’s also problematic because the ejection of Bolaño, in favor of Vendela Vida’s effective if slight Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name is one of those Charlton Heston It’s-A-MADHOUSE! moments that undermines any other choices that might follow.
To be fair, I approached Vida’s novel with some hostility given the circumstances, but was gradually won over by the hard clip of the narrative and the weird atmospherics that she effectively deploys throughout this tale of attempted mother/daughter reconciliation. It’s hard not to get swept along with the narrative, despite too many self-consciously literary moments that can be cloying: In one scene, Clarissa, Vida’s admirably, determinedly unlikeable narrator, pulls out two loud-ticking alarm clocks I’d come across when furtively packing, and held one up to each ear. All I could hear was time. It’s one of those moments that smacks of a writer so in love with an improbable image that plausibility leaps out the windowwhat, after all, are the odds of realistically finding oneself in possession of two of these clocks? The title pages that separate the chapters with phrases like Who Sleeps Where in the Lavu and Family Portrait Above Altar feel a bit too Believer-meets-Frasier, undermining the otherwise effectively rendered reality of the frozen Finnish countryside.
If Vida’s novel is self-conscious in its literary-ness, Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke is equally self-conscious in its ambitions, presenting nothing less than the sweep of the 1960s. This Vietnam novel, which spans that decade and includes a coda from the ‘80s, opens with one of the most wrenching scenes I can recall having recently read, a random slaughter that sets the tone for all that follows. The novel’s prose is clean, clear, and unfussy, yet somehow appropriately weighty as befits its grand scope. Yes, it’s too damn long, and yes it’s an up-and-down mess, with riveting sections followed by unexpected longueurs. And it wears its sense of importance a bit gravely at times. Unlike Vida’s novel, which took an afternoon to read, Tree of Smoke makes unapologetic demands of its readers, many of which, though not all, are repaid.
So what to do now? Two books both with much to recommend them, yet neither a slam dunk. Well, obviously I want to undo the unfathomable wrong of the prior round and advance The Savage Detectives. That’s my real choice.
But since I don’t have the option open, and since neither book excited me as much as last year’s The Road, I’m going to advance Tree of Smoke, on the grounds (as good as any) that in the event that it makes it all the way through to the finals, it is precisely the sort of Big Literary Book that frequently gives Nick Hornby such conniptions in his Believer column, and it will be entertaining to see how he takes to it.
But really: The Savage Detectives.
|As much as I enjoy being called a mischief-maker in my advancing age, Mark is kidding when he says we considered his request to nullify Elizabeth Kiem’s first-round decision.||Kevin||John||I’m tempted to give Judge Sarvas the Dale Peck Pretentious A-Hole of the Tournament award for this review, but while the level of hubris here may be Peck-ish, it doesn’t manage to reach truly Peck-ian proportions.|