• March 15, 2011

    Opening Round

  • James Hynes

    3So Much for That

    Lionel Shriver

  • Judged by

    Jessica Francis Kane

So Much for That

It falls to me to judge two vivid evocations of contemporary life, and the more I think about that, the harder the task seems. In So Much for That, the main character gets himself to the right place at the right time and lives happily ever after. In Next, the main character gets himself to the wrong place at the wrong time and pays dearly. So Much for That is a novel of work and death. Next is a novel of sex and death. How to decide?

By the time Next’s Kevin Quinn meets the second woman of his daylong reverie around Austin, I thought it possible Hynes intended the book to be a modern version of A Christmas Carol, albeit with a lot more sun and sex. On a mission to interview for a new job (his life in Ann Arbor untenable for a number of reasons), Kevin arrives in Austin with many hours to spare. He tries to settle in at a coffee shop, but a fortuitous sighting of the woman he sat next to on the plane—Kelly—sends him stalking her around the city. “Joy Luck,” as he thinks of her, is his ghost of the past: Everything about her reminds him of past loves. The second visitation is from Claudia, who enters as Kelly disappears. Claudia grounds him in the present, briefly: They eat lunch and share secrets. The last is Melody, and I won’t explain how and where they meet because to do so would ruin one of the most shocking and terrific reading experiences you still have ahead of you if you haven’t read the book yet. But I think it fair to say that she serves as his guide to the future. The last chapter is full of terror and sadness and in the midst of it all, there is a reference to A Christmas Carol. I’d been reading along, thinking about the strange echoes of that classic, wondering if I was crazy, and when it shows up in Kevin’s memory of his grandfather’s death, I felt enormously reassured.

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I had a similar moment while reading So Much for That, a novel primarily about Shep and his wife Glynis, who is diagnosed with cancer just as Shep is finally prepared to execute “The Afterlife”—his plan to abandon the disaster of contemporary American life and retreat to a paradise where he can live on a few dollars a day. I was beginning to lose patience, frankly, when I hit this paragraph:

“Remember how sometimes, in the middle, a movie seems to drag? I get restless, and take a leak, or go for popcorn. But sometimes, the last part, it heats up, and then right before the credits one of us starts to cry—well, then you forget about the crummy middle, don’t you? You don’t care about the fact that it started slow, or had some plot twist along the way that didn’t scan. Because it moved you, because it finally pulled together, you think, when you walk out, that it was a good movie, and you’re glad you went. See?” he promised. “We can still end well.”

God help me, I thought, I hope so. Vast stretches of So Much for That feel less like a novel and more like a filibuster. The issues often highjack the story, as if the collective voice of the New York Times editorial board had decided to write fiction. Characters frequently think like this:

Shep was born to a country whose culture had produced the telephone, the flying machine, the assembly line, the Interstate highway, the air-conditioner, and the fiber-optic cable. His people were brilliant with the inanimate—with ions and prions, with titanium and uranium, with plastic that would survive a thousand years.

Is it third-person narration or a treatise? Every character can and does at some point deliver a diatribe on one issue or another with fluid sentences and the right vocabulary, making them really qualified to testify before Congress, but a little less compelling as fictional creations.

But something wonderful happens at the end, just as Shriver hints that it might. Perhaps she intended the sluggish middle in order to make the last chapter, when Shep and Glynis finally engineer a kind of escape, so revelatory. If Shriver can pull off this ending, I thought, what if the whole book is meant as an allegory? The book loses its way, just as Shep and Glynis lose their way trying to fight cancer. The moral of the story: If we wrest ourselves free, a kind of redemption will follow.


In Next, though the evocation of Ann Arbor was like candy to me (it’s my home town and Hynes’s portrait of the place is brilliant; I think the only landmark he missed was Dominick’s; come on, pitchers of sangria in the back garden?), there were moments when the obsessive, wheel-spinning narration of Kevin’s thoughts felt claustrophobic. Just when I thought I couldn’t possibly endure more, a cab driver says to him, “You need to pay attention, man.” Yes! Hynes knows exactly what we’re thinking.

Compare that to a scene in So Much for That when Glynis is behaving particularly badly. She has sent him back to the kitchen to make a pot of rice she will not eat. An already difficult person, her illness has made her nearly insufferable. We know it, Shep knows it. But what do we get?

He was not sure how to manage this. She was in a very volatile humor. He did not want to make everything worse.

We know! And there is no relief on the page, no space where we can breathe and see that Shriver has anticipated our understanding.

Also, the action is linked to the reflection in Next in a way it’s not in So Much for That. When Glynis is expecting a visit from a friend, the car pulls into the drive, but we have a page-and-a-half of topic-induced reflection before we even get to hello. The story line lurches in general from issue to issue, regardless of what the characters are doing. The callousness of doctors? Check. The cluelessness of friends? Check. The selfishness of capitalism and the expense of healthcare? Check, check. It’s as if action and reflection in the book are not taking place on the same stage.

In Next, the two are woven expertly. “It’s not too late, [Kevin] thinks, I could go back inside, change my ticket, and be back in Ann Arbor by mid-afternoon.

He realizes that he’s stopped walking. Other passengers step around him…

It’s a small moment, but his thinking actually stops his walking, and that pleases me. It makes it easier to believe in a character as more than just a suitcase for an issue.

And finally, some descriptions from Next because I love them so much:

  • An urban park full of “underachieving trees and yellowed grass.”
  • A strip mall with a “wide-open, sun-hammered, nearly empty parking lot.”
  • A public lobby with a “knot of people straining like sunflowers toward the television.”
  • And my favorite: “A Michigander can be every bit as prickly as a New Yorker, just not out loud.”

These thrill me and make my own little writerly heart skip a beat. I do not have such a list from So Much for That, though I did love this line: “Decisions take a split second. It’s not deciding that takes all the time.” It suits both books, actually, and it’s good advice.


Jessica Francis Kane is the author of a story collection, Bending Heaven (Counterpoint), and a novel, The Report (Graywolf Press), which was a finalist for the 2010 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and a Barnes & Noble “Discover” pick. Kane’s writing has appeared in many publications, including VQR, McSweeney’s, and Granta. A new story collection is forthcoming from Graywolf next year. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “Marcy Dermansky and I met on book tour in New Hampshire when the great River Run Bookstore invited us to read together. She impressed me immediately by announcing that she was walking to Maine (easier to do from Portsmouth, N.H., than you might think, but still). We’ve been in touch ever since.”