• March 15, 2011

    Opening Round

  • Commentary by

    Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

  • Today’s Winner:


So Much for That

John: A lot of our commenters were expressing a kind of Sophie’s Choice angst over our A Visit From the Goon Squad v. Skippy Dies matchup, but this is my personal caught-between-a-rock-and-the-Situation’s-abs.

James Hynes is a writer I love. I read The Lecturer’s Tale on a yearly basis, if not more often. I was singing the praises of Next as early as last year’s tournament. When my own book went out to publishers I wanted them to think I was the next James Hynes. I could talk about the awesomeness of Next in greater detail than the starting lineup of the 1984 Chicago Cubs, but I’m not going to because Jessica does her usual bang-up job in her judgment, and Next is moving on to the quarterfinals, and I’ve got a lot to say about Lionel Shriver and So Much for That.

Lionel Shriver is, in my opinion, one of our best contemporary novelists. We Need to Talk About Kevin, her take on a Columbine-like incident, is a masterpiece of storytelling. Narrated by one of the most complex and fascinating characters this side of Humbert Humbert, it has a story reveal that sent electricity shooting to the end of my limbs. She writes prickly characters better than anyone around, and her novels tackle big-time social issues while also exploring the complicated nature of families and relationships. They’re also often funny in a rather mordant way.

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It’s like Frontline meets Parenthood, as narrated by Lewis Black.

I see a lot of similarities between So Much for That and Freedom, actually. Big themes, multi-character, multi-faceted conflict. There are surprise story turns in both. Both authors even have a reputation for being a little difficult. The central character in each is set up as the most honorable man in America, the difference being we see why Shep Knacker deserves the title.

Jessica Francis Kane is a very fine novelist with a highly developed aesthetic that works to tremendous affect. In fact, the better the novelist, I think the more certain you become over what makes a book work because it’s this kind of focus that’s going to allow you to see your own idea through to the end. Since we often draw from the TMN stable, we’ve always been heavy on writers in our judging panel, and I sometimes wonder what kind of effect this may have on the judging.

Because as I read Jessica’s judgment, I believe that her objections are primarily aesthetic, a preference for Hynes’s melding over Shriver’s stacking. I can’t really take issue with anything in her take. The characters in this book do wax into occasional (maybe more than occasional) speechifying. Shep Knacker’s best friend, Jackson Burdine, seems engineered to deliver perfectly pitched indictments of the American capitalist system.

Judge Kane is clearly bugged by this stuff, and I can’t say that I blame her, because there were times I had the urge to trim some things back myself, but I submit that Shriver’s method is merely different than Jessica Francis Kane’s preferred cup of tea.

And there isn’t anything wrong with that.

I don’t see any reason why So Much for That didn’t get at least some of the same attention as Freedom for its exploration of health care and class and money in America, for its upending of all the clichés of what it means to “die with dignity” in its portrayal of both Shep’s wife, Glynis, and Jackson’s daughter, Flicka. Even though I have some qualms, I just admire the book for its general bravery and “fuck-youness.”

So Much for That is like Charlie Sheen if Charlie Sheen were exactly as smart and funny and dangerous as he imagines himself to be.

In fact, the more I think about it, I can’t see any reason why So Much for That couldn’t have been this year’s candidate for the Great American Novel.

Wait, yes I can. Scroll back to the top. Look at the cover again. I’ll be here, waiting.

Someone at Lionel Shriver’s publisher is doing her a major dirty with the cover designs for her books. Look at those colors. Check out that ripped postcard.

Does this cover say anything other than “beach read?” I have no beef with beach reads, but So Much for That is no beach read. On the cover of the paperback edition, Washington Post book critic Ron Charles says, “If Jodi Picoult has her finger on the zeitgeist, Shriver has her hands around its throat.”

If So Much for That is a beach read, it’s the kind of beach where the sharks come out of the water, walking upright and grow hands that they strangle you with.

From this cover we get, I’m picturing a young professional gal who has it all—great job, kicking friends, slamming body—who flies to a Caribbean rendezvous in order to meet up with the man who she thinks is about to become her fiancé, only to find him in flagrante delicto with a comely mocha-skinned barmaid. She ditches the man and the job (but not the slamming body), takes up scuba diving, and travels the world looking for an egg-bearing coelacanth. She never finds the coelacanth, because it really is extinct, but she does find love, in the form of a stray Jack Russell terrier mix she finds scrounging on the beach.

It’s Eat, Pray, Love meets Jacques Cousteau, with a side order of Marley & Me, smothered with a giant slab of half-melted Velveeta.

Clearly, Lionel Shriver’s publisher is trying to signal that her books are for women, which I suppose is savvy, given that women buy and read all the books, but no such concern seemed to be part of Jonathan Franzen’s cover design. You don’t see it in Eric Puchner’s Model Home either, another family-centric novel.

Kevin: This might be a good time to send readers back to Jennifer Weiner’s judgment, in which she passed Emma Donoghue’s Room on to the quarterfinals over Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie. You and I both praised her insight and the quality of her written decision, and while we were sympathetic to her opinions on gender discrimination in publishing, we were a little dismissive of her attempt to bring Room into the discussion, as Donoghue has been one of the year’s most celebrated writers of either gender.

In the comments, however (I love our commenters), several readers (and Andrew Seal in particular) pointed out what they believed to be the real issue with gender bias, that even when female writers are celebrated, they aren’t put in the context of the Great Novels (as Franzen clearly has been this year), but are put in some other, more easily dismissed category of popular fiction or whatever. You can think of some exceptions, of course—Harper Lee and Toni Morrison and Flannery O’Connor, maybe—but it’s hard to build a counterargument on their backs. And I think I hear you making the same point with regard to Lionel Shriver.

I’ll confess I put off reading So Much for That precisely because it sounded preachy, and fiction is just terrible at preaching. Fiction is very good at revealing things and very good at asking questions, but it’s very bad at telling you how to think, no matter how much Alan Greenspan enjoyed Atlas Shrugged.

(Actually, seeing as Alan Greenspan’s enjoyment of Atlas Shrugged was arguably the first cause of the collapse of the global economy, you could make an argument for Ayn Rand as the most important novelist of the 20th century. Take that, gender discriminators!)

Reading the excerpts, I’m still skeptical of So Much for That, I have to admit. But you make a compelling argument. And as you have often pointed out, the one thing the ToB does well is force all of us to examine our biases. I’ll reconsider.

Skippy Dies is first for me, though.

John: I don’t see So Much for That as any more preachy than Freedom, and in some ways it wears its ideas with a little more conviction, less of the ironic wink-wink, nudge-nudge, say no more, than Franzen works with. It has the courage of its own convictions and admire it for that.

Kevin: I read Next specifically in preparation for this tourney and I was all in from the start. It’s a difficult book to talk about without either mischaracterizing it or giving up too much, but the way that Hynes is able to marry the tight human observations that are the slow-burning fuel of the literary novel with the high stakes tension of a thriller is really a show that has to be seen. For me, the ending wasn’t really shocking—I was expecting it, frankly—but as I waited for it to happen I was turning the pages one after another thinking to myself, “Is he really going to do this? Does he really have the balls to do this?” And when it happens, more spectacularly than I imagined, there’s not even a shift in style or tone. It’s all so elegant. I loved this book and I’m glad to see it moving on.

If you need more reasons to pick up Next, consider that it is on the Believer Award shortlist (along with fellow ToB competitor Skippy Dies) and also finished no. 1 on Salon’s list of novels with the best sex scenes of 2011.

John: I’m pleased to see Next move on as well, and look forward to talking about what we can’t really talk about in regards to the book, in the quarterfinals. I hope everyone checks out both of these novels for themselves, as well as Jessica Francis Kane’s The Report, which you can get for 30 percent off from Powell’s for the duration of the tourney.

The left side of the bracket went chalk the whole way through. We’ve already had one 4-1 upset on the right side with Nox getting through. Tomorrow, we’ll see if we can have two Cinderellas in one tourney as Model Home goes up against the James Franco-endorsed Super Sad True Love Story.

Kevin Guilfoile is the author of two acclaimed novels, Cast of Shadows and The Thousand, which have been translated into more than 20 languages.

John Warner’s novel, The Funny Man, will be released late September of this year by Soho Press. For the time being, he teaches at Clemson University.

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