by Margaret Atwood
Nan A. TaleseBuy at Powell’s »
March 22, 2010
It’s almost ideal that these two books should come up against one another, in that they’re both American historical novels, or, more accurately, novels set during moments of great import in recent American history. And while they vary a bit in the period in which they spanLet the Great World Spin mostly takes place over the course of the days surrounding Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the two towers of World Trade Center in August 1974, while The Help travels a longer road through early 1960s Mississippithese are both books about where America was and how we lived then, with the obvious corollary of How That Lead Us to Now.
This decision was actually more difficult than one would think it would be, if one judged solely on literary merit: McCann’s book owes a very obvious debt to the DeLillo school of Great American Statements, while Stockett’s novel is clearly of the Here’s What We’re Reading Next for Book Group ilk. It’s much easier to reject that kind of snobbery when you read them both all the way through; Stockett’s book is, for all its flaws, somehow more compelling and readable, while McCann’s makes you work a little more, and takes you outintellectuallyof the narrative far more frequently, to its detriment.
For me, though, it came down to the question of authenticity as concerns the dialogue. I am a firm believer that any writer, regardless of race or national origin, should be able to write any kind of dialect, so long as he or she pulls it off. And while McCann lets an errant Irishism into what should be the purely American voice of some of his characters, Stockett’s incredibly rendered voices of Aibileen and Minny, the African American maids who are two-thirds of her book’s narrators, are rendered in such a way that even if they were 100-percent accuratewhich I don’t necessarily believe that they arethey would still be so jarring as to keep the reader from fully concentrating on the book without thinking about the artifice involved in its writing. While they both have much to recommend in them, I choose Let the Great World Spin to move to the next round.
Alex Balk is a co-founder of The Awl. Known connections to this year’s contenders: Conflict-free!