by Aimee Bender
DoubledayBuy at Powell’s »
March 14, 2011
In Nox, Anne Carson remembers her estranged, deceased brother, combining poetry, prose, classical literature, photos, and handwritten notes, and presenting the work as a single accordion-folded sheet of cardstock laid inside a box. It’s not a novel, it’s not fiction, it’s not even presented as a bound book. So how is this a contender in the Tournament of Books?
Upon opening Nox, that’s what I wondered. To read this, you must reach into the box, excavating the pageswhich are something like a flattened scroll. The act of reading Nox is therefore an uncomfortable experience. There is nothing easy hereperhaps this is the point.
Nox is basically a collage. There’s no real narrative pulling the reader from start to finish; the tension that draws us through is Carson’s own struggle to assemble an idea of her brother in this way. Carson’s approximation of her estranged brother isn’t fiction, but it’s also not entirely fact, a point she concedes deep inside the work, when she quotes a passage from the second book of Herodotus: So much for what is said by the Egyptians: let anyone who finds such things credible make use of them.
The last time my Classics minor proved this useful was for spotting intricate subtexts in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I pulled my copy of Histories from the shelf, and found the full passage, translated here as:
Anyone may believe these Egyptian tales, if he is sufficiently credulous; as for myself, I keep to the general plan of this book, which is to record the traditions of the various nations just as I hear them related to me.
This rendering, I think, communicates Carson’s point more clearly: History is necessarily inaccurate; we only can comprehend it based on the information we receive, and only can relate it to the best of our recollection. It’s a frequent point made by Herodotus, who signs off his seventh book with: That, at any rate, is the story of what happened. Translation: Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but that’s what I heard.
Nox is a book about a dead siblingone whom the author did not know well. It’s a story told meditatively, intimately, and from a distance all at once. Carson makes this loss palpable, and I felt it. By admitting that her book was only as accurate as what she’d heard from his widow, as well as from their mother and what she herself remembers from their childhood, Carson pulled me in headlong. Poring through this scroll, the author’s creative exploration, I felt by the end that I maybe only understood Carson’s brother as well as she didi.e., not very wellbut I came away understanding much more about the faults of memory and the unfinished edges of our relationships.
I reached the end of the scroll and slid the box closed. Even with the book closed, I felt that discomfort again. When the task is to sum up a life, how adept can any of us be? Carson comes to terms with her brother’s death by accepting that she won’t ever know all the answers; sometimes out of chaos comes only more chaos. Nox is a beautiful new look at life and what comes before and after it, and an enrapturing read from beginning to end.
Still, I was wondering, does it qualify as a contender here? I’m still not completely sure. If there were a nonfiction version of the Tournament of Books, I decided, this work wouldn’t fit so neatly in there, either. It’s part-this and part-that, and no one except the author, and probably not even her, can know which are which.
Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule shows us the dark underbelly of a seedy horse-racing track in West Virginia in the early ‘70s. Gordon populates this lurid world with a cast of trainers, owners, gamblers, and mobstersall miscreants of varying degreesand I couldn’t understand a word any of them said through the first full quarter of the novel. I wasn’t familiar with horse-track patois, nor this strange, criminal world, and Gordon offers no signposts.
I dug in more than once, feeling my way through the first 75 pages, trying to hang on amidst the frequent shifts in perspective. This really is the book’s hookcontinually tightening the camera on each main character’s motivations, some brought more into focus than others. But it’s also a hindrance, teasing information and cutting a chapter just shy of the nugget we wanted, then trading the perspective to another character. It kept the pages turning, and my teeth grinding.
From a pair of trainer-grifters to the track owners and assorted mobsters, nearly everyone is trying to screw someone else, literally or figuratively. Fittingly, only the gelding is immune to the frayand even he gets his own moments of perspective, which are actually quite nice.
So I do have complaints about Gordon’s shtick, but without those shifts, I don’t think I would have been hooked into the plot. More than once, I needed one set of characters to explain what the previous group had just done, Gordon’s racetrack patois being so thick. Sometimes this upped the tension, but too often it became my crutch. Still more frequently I became suspicious that her device wasn’t working the way Gordon intended it, and maybe I’d only hacked it to solve my desperation as a reader trying to figure things out.
I found the plot, and I found a groove, but from then until the ending, Misrule flipped course: too much was predictable and satisfying, in the way that what we want to happenas people who like for good things to happen, who believe in Hollywood endingsdoes happen. I didn’t want that here. I wanted to taste the grit and grime that was so strongly hinted, yet never arrived. Finally, where was the disillusion? The dark underbelly? I wanted fewer just-deserts, yet Lord of Misrule was too scripted and tidy for far too many pages.
In a battle of devices, Nox would win by using its unique form to connect and communicate a depth of intricacies, where Lord of Misrule falls short with its unrewarding character shifts. But the choice here is for the better story, and on that count, Nox is the more unpredictable, the more grippingand the one that kept me guessing and still keeps me thinking.
Andrew Womack is a founding editor of The Morning News and the publisher of The Staff Recommends. Known connections to this year’s contenders: I worked with Teddy Wayne on two pieces he published at TMN last year. My advertorial network, The Staff Recommends, promoted Skippy Dies last fall.