by Margaret Atwood
Nan A. TaleseBuy at Powell’s »
April 1, 2010
I agonized over this decision. For a couple of days it sent me into a real lost-in-the-wilderness aesthetic-crisis-of-faith tailspin. I went back and forth many times. I actually lost sleep. I started to think that the books had been paired, intentionally, because they would activate totally different regions of my brain and force me to choose, in public, between two rival forms of readerly pleasure. I talked to my wife about it for so long that she literally refused to talk to me about it anymore. So now I’m going to talk to you.
Miles From Nowhere is a total joy. Its voice is bright and smooth and punchy and funny even when it’s narrating the most wretched eventsthe story of this fundamentally good person thrown into a horrible junkie life. (I kept feeling like I was reading the autobiography of Bubbles from The Wire, if Bubbles had been a Korean girl in the Bronx in the 1980s.) Every story is loaded with great lines, paragraphs, scenes: when Joon calls her estranged dad and just lets Pop Rocks fizz into the receiver, when she lays on a bench so orange I wanted to drink it, when she feeds the starving dog some chicken. When her friend Knowledge puts on her gloves, which were really tube socks with ten finger holes. Way too many great moments to name here. The book deserves every blurby adjective we can come up with: true, thrilling, hilarious, disturbing, poignant, trenchant, whatever. I recommend it, very highly, to everyone in the whole world.
That said, it also has some fairly obvious weaknesses. Joon’s voice occasionally crosses over from genuine poetry and wisdom into cutesiness. (God didn’t show that day, but one of his angels did.) Plots sometimes feel a little forced, even manipulative; I rolled my eyes several times. I wonder if the subject matter was so bitter and gritty that Mun felt like she had to inject some chicken soup for the junkie soul sweetness in order to keep the general reader. I wish she hadn’t. And then there’s the perennial problem of the short story cycle: Its parts connect so tangentially that it doesn’t quite give you the final wallop of a good novel. My love for Miles From Nowhere is more about paragraphs than it is the total book. Which is a problem, obviously, in a Tournament loaded with full-on novelistic juggernauts. (Cf. the way Mun got steamrolled by Colum McCann in the Opening Round.)
Kingsolver’s novel was basically the opposite experience. It irritated me immediately, on several fronts. First of all, it subscribes very clearly to the Forrest Gump school of historical fiction: Every private experience has to be tied somehow to the forward march of History. The narrator’s mother can’t just get in a car accidentshe has to get into a car accident on her way to see Howard Hughes flying one of his experimental airplanes. The narrator can’t just leave a letter lying aroundthe letter has to cause a fateful rift between Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky. It can feel a little mechanical.
One of the great things about The Lacuna is that it’s formally ambitiousit’s cobbled together out of a bunch of different documents, some fictional, some real: diaries, letters, newspaper articles, a H.U.A.C. transcript, editorial notes. But Kingsolver either isn’t a good enough stylist (which I doubt), or just isn’t committed enough, to make all of these voices sound 100 percent plausible. She cheats sometimes. The little boy’s diary is a little too polished, the newspaper articles too transparently stupid, the H.U.A.C. transcript too poetic. In other words, everything smells a little Kingsolveryyou can sense her behind the scenes, tampering, making sure no symbol goes unexplored, no key phrase unrepeated. It’s distracting.
In general, I wish Kingsolver would trust the reader a little more. A character doesn’t have to use slang 43 times every sentence for us to recognize that she is speaking in slang. (I’m just razzing you. I’d take up with a pinko in two toots, if he was famous and had a wad of tin. That artist’s little girlfriend is one lucky duck.) We get it. Also, we get that mid-20th-century America was an ugly place: homophobia, internment camps, McCarthyism, tabloid hysteria, etc., etc., etc. But it’s not like any of these are new and difficult targets. Too often The Lacuna crosses the line into flat-out editorializing. I wrote the word tiresome in the margins a lot. I wanted to cut, say, 50 pages.
And yetsomehow, in spite of all of these irritations, The Lacuna finally grew on me in a way that Miles From Nowhere didn’t. It may just be a question of genre: The long historical novel, with its macro and micro chronologies of public and private history, has more time to get its hooks into you (and a wider variety of hooks to use) than a relatively brief short-story cycle. Although Kingsolver’s main character is less immediately loveable than Nami Mun’s, I ended up getting addicted to his weird, fussy voice. There’s plenty of beautiful writing here too: an egret walking across a room, lifting its long legs at the knee like a man riding a bicycle; a cat walking flattened to the wall as if pulled sideways by a separate order of gravity; lines of typed Russian lined up like rows of little men doing bending exercises.
In the end, the books probably gave me a similar net pleasure: Mun’s for the immediacy of that voice, the quick and constant pleasure of the style, the dark humor; Kingsolver’s for the formal ambition, the degree of difficulty, the historical weight, the long slow build of the narrator’s life. It came down to a decision between head and heart. I’m going, just barely, with my head. And regretting it almost immediately.
Sam Anderson is a book critic at New York magazine. Known connections to this year’s contenders: Nicholson Baker: an early writing hero of mine; I interviewed him once for an hour or so on the phone, had a lovely conversation; but I can still be objective about him. Marlon James: I know and like his editor, Sean McDonald. The Book of Night Women made it onto my year-end top 10 list. Wells Tower: I reviewed his book; I had friendly lunch with him once; I put his book on my 2009 Top 10 list.