commentary by KEVIN GUILFOILE & JOHN WARNER
Kevin: Every once in a while we throw a book to the wolves in this Tournament. We don’t do it to be cruelwe actually hope that maybe something unusual and interesting and magical might happen. You never know. When we seeded the teams and then assigned them (more or less randomly) to judges, I had no idea that Anthony Doerr has been that unfortunate wolf three times.
In the match between 2666 and Steer Toward Rock, we talked a little bit about the phenomenon of the gravitas gap that inevitably impacts the first-round matches. As much as a person might enjoy a certain book, it is difficult for a judge to put it past a novel with loftier ambitions. But I’m going to say that I enjoyed the hell out of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. (Is it inappropriate to enjoy the hell out of a YA book?) I’m going to give it to my own kids when they’re older. I’m going to buy it for my nieces and nephews. It’s a terrific novel, and it’s actually kind of about somethingself-respect and identity and gender and empowermentthat’s probably as important to teenagers as whatever Shadow Country is about is supposed to be to me.
I didn’t mean to insult Shadow Country there. The truth is I’m still reading it. And I’m enjoying it, as well. I am enjoying it exactly as much as I expected to, which is a lot, and I don’t mean to suggest that I think Anthony made the wrong decision. But Disreputable History really surprised me, and that kind of surprise when you pick up a book is both unusual and exactly why we all love to read. It might appear to be slight at times because, as you pointed out in an email, Lockhart has to lay out her themes in a more obvious way than she would in an adult novel. But that and blowjobs are the only qualitative differences between this novel and Prep, which was once one of the New York Times’s best five novels of the year.
There’s probably only one other book in this tournament that surprised me the way Disreputable History did, but more on that later.
John: Doerr really nails the conundrum of assessing these two books in juxtaposition to each other when he says that it’s akin to comparing a 777 with a tangerine. Shadow Country is big in every sense of the wordpage count, scope, vision, ambition. It is a major author’s major work and it wears those traits on every one of its 912 pages. The book is literally awe-inspiring.
And yet, for me, I read on more out of duty than pleasure. It’s a book that I admired, but only intermittently enjoyed. Mathiessen’s obsessions and passions that are so thoroughly explored in this book just aren’t mine. Here again is another instance of your gravitas gap, that has me recognizing the wisdom of Doerr’s decision, even as I disagree with it.
I really, really enjoyed The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. Like Doerr, I have no particular animus towards young adult literature, but neither do I find myself turning to it often. If many YA books are as good as this one, I’ll be reading much more of it. (I may try my hand at writing it too because it seems like a lot of fun and an interesting challenge.)
I think E. Lockhart deserves more credit for the depth of ideas in Disreputable History than Doerr gives her. Yes, we are in the fairly rarefied territory of the elite prep school, but the exploration of identity and self, particularly as it’s developed in young women struck me as nuanced and plenty deep.
I laughed many times. I eagerly turned the pages toward the end. Plus, any book that name-checks Foucault and has a running metaphor on the Panopticon isn’t spending all its time in the shallow end.