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
Then We Came to the Endby JOSHUA FERRIS
JOHN: A truly titanic battle between two of the most acclaimed books of the year. This was Duke v. North Carolina, Clinton v. Obama, Alien v. Predator, Steve-O v. his own body.
In past years we often have books advancing merely for being less bad than their challenger. In fact, if memory serves, in 2005 I almost gave Choire Sicha an aneurysm when I chose I Am Charlotte Simmons over Birds Without Wings. To let you know how little I thought of Charlotte Simmons, here’s a portion from that review:
In focusing on an experience (college) that is so widely known, [Wolfe’s] breathless observations are often stale. College students drink, have sex, say fuck a lot, and drive SUVs. Surprise! His title character, an academically gifted but sheltered girl from Sparta, N.C., is also patently fraudulent. At one point, another character jokes that it’s like Charlotte’s from Mars. I’d say it’s more like a small box on the surface of Mars. She is naive to the point of impossibility.And yet, because I’m a simpleton, because I found Birds Without Wings kind of boring, I ended up giving Charlotte Simmons the nod.
But there’s been very little of that this year, which is either a testament to the overall quality of the field, or merely the quirks of the books matched up with their particular commentators. Gary Shteyngart’s review ably demonstrates the significant differences between Tree of Smoke and Then We Came to the End, but nonetheless, both books won him over with their specific charms.
In the end, it’s the young upstart, Ferris, who has received significant praise from the judges in every pairing, who makes it to the Zombie Round. He needs to be careful, though. No less than Thomas Pynchon got knocked out there last year.
KEVIN: In that first tourney, I Am Charlotte Simmons made it all the way to the Final Four. It was one of the most-hyped novels of that year, and possibly this decade (which is how it made our list). It was also one of the most derided. But again, Simmons benefited from low expectations. There are indeed silly passages in that book (one of the things that clearly shocked Wolfe in his months of research on college campuses is that young men don’t part their hair anymore, because he mentions it on every other page) but he can be a keen observer, and the story kind of skips alongin both his fiction and non-fiction Wolfe is almost always an entertaining companion. And the ToB judges kept advancing it because it wasn’t as bad as they’d heard.
This decision, on the other hand, represents an invocation of the unconscious snowboarding scoring system we all keep in our heads. Without putting words in Gary’s mouth I think we can say that Tree of Smoke is a novel of grand ambition, the literary equivalent of attempting a double cork 1260, and gets great admiration as well as a multiplier for difficulty, but, in the minds of all our judges, the execution might not have been 100 percent. Then We Came to the End is a book of slightly lesser ambition, perhaps, but executed perfectly and Ferris nails the landing, if I might mix my snowboarding and gymnastics metaphors.
Today’s match also represents something like redemption for Ferris (not really because this award doesn’t count for anything, but still). He and Johnson were both finalists for the National Book Award, with the N.B.A. going to Tree of Smoke. Interestingly, tomorrow’s match-up is between finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, with that title having gone to Díaz earlier this month. Is it possible the Rooster could pull off two major award reversals in two days?
JOHN: Yesterday, I noted the passing of the writer Jon Hassler, and today, let me lament another passing, the apparent end of The Litblog Co-Op. More than one of their picks has wound up in our Tournament of Books, and just as we were lamenting earlier in the Tournament that there are too few non-traditional venues to champion books, another one goes by the wayside.