• March 23, 2011


  • Anne Carson


    James Hynes

  • Judged by

    John Williams


As an object, Nox is stunning: a sturdy box that contains an accordion of pages filled with reproductions of torn pieces of (sometimes illegible) letters, fragments of photos (some of poignantly lost people and places, some of unidentifiable objects), and desperate-looking etchings. It could be the diary of a madman.

How it got into a tournament of novels, I have no idea. Last year’s Logicomix is the only ToB contestant I can remember that really stretched the definition of a contestant, and Nox is far less categorizable even than that graphic novel about Bertrand Russell. I’m eager to hear the reasoning for its inclusion, but I vowed when I got my assignment to take its inclusion at face value, not to privilege or penalize it for being different.

Critiquing someone’s expression of grief is always dicey, but no dicier, in fairness, than publishing an expression of grief—especially one this stylized. Carson is an acclaimed classicist, and the pages in Nox that feature text alternate between increasingly poetic dictionary-like translations of Latin terms from an elegy written by Catullus (nox is “night”) and very brief thoughts from Carson about her brother Michael and his sudden death in 2000.

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There are arresting—but exceedingly rare—details that hint at the texture of Michael’s life: “My brother’s widow tells me that when she first met him (Amsterdam) he was penniless. He walked into the bar and she looked up and said, That one I want to marry. They lived for two years on the street, sleeping in stairwells, eating once a week, this was after Anna, drinking a lot.”

Carson’s project is built around not just her brother’s death but his disappearance from her life more than two decades earlier, when he fled to Europe in the face of his possible arrest. She says the two of them spoke “maybe 5 times in 22 years.” Necessarily then, Nox is built on lack. Whether the conjuring of that lack comes across as more affecting or affected is the question. For some, like Meghan O’Rourke, who reviewed Nox in the New Yorker, the book’s allusions and obfuscations are deeply rewarding strategies: “Nox is also the Roman goddess of night… and in Carson’s elegy Night becomes a kind of elusive character, with whom the mourner repeatedly attempts to engage. It’s as if to look Night in the eye would be to understand the tangled relationship between character, fate, and memory.”

O’Rourke strains to give voice where the book is silent, an effort I found almost impossible to mount myself. Carson’s loss must have been profound, and Nox’s profundity is meant to arise from the gap between her almost illusory relationship with her brother and her real suffering. The fact that she has a far more intimate knowledge of Herodotus and Catullus than she does of her brother might strike some as interesting, even moving. I just found it distant and cold.

James Hynes’s novel is imperfect but powerful. It’s built to linger. This is partly due to its audacious final section. It’s hard to discuss Next in a meaningful way without giving away its ending. I won’t spoil it here, though it’s hardly a Crying Game-level shock when the novel pulls down its drawers. Having read some coy reviews at the time of Next’s publication, I had a pretty good idea of the surprise’s general nature. Still, the way Hynes orchestrates his final 50 pages, switching between a firecracker climax and the increasingly profound reminiscences of his protagonist, is impressive.

The way he gets there has its ups and downs. Hynes lives in Austin, a city (and a region) in which I’ve spent significant time, and he captures well the place’s endless construction, “anonymous” apartment complexes, and tactile heat. His narrator, Kevin Quinn, a restless 50-year-old in town from Michigan for a mysterious job interview, spends the hours leading up to the interview trailing an attractive stranger named Kelly while thinking about Beth, Lynda, and Stella, women from his past and present, “stuttering now before him like a mis-sprocketed film.”

I found the majority of Kevin’s thoughts less rich than the middle-aged rue of characters written by, say, the Richards Ford and Russo, but there’s no shame being in that ballpark—or even its parking lot. There are a few stretches where Kevin’s wanderings are considerably less than riveting, but I never quite felt stuck; Hynes’s prose keeps the pages turning.

The only thing that really bothered me was the way Hynes got me (and Kevin) to the very grand finale. Hynes keeps the reader clued in to certain unfolding events that are miraculously eluding Kevin. His blindness is much too conveniently manufactured. For a day-in-the-life book rooted very much in the real, this one magic trick felt particularly cheap.

Judging Carson’s idiosyncratic artifact of mourning is even more subjective than most of the judging that goes into this event. And pitting these books “against” each other is so asymmetrical as to be impossible. Nox would no doubt knock some people over, but alas, it wasn’t for me. I’m not sure that Next, for all there is to recommend it, is worthy of the ultimate prize, but I give it a decisive push into the final four.


John Williams is the founder and editor of The Second Pass, an online book review. His work as a freelance writer has appeared in Slate, Stop Smiling, the Barnes & Noble Review, and other publications. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “Last year, I was a consulting editor on a series of original humor pieces for Barnes & Noble’s Nook device. I communicated with Teddy Wayne about a few of his pieces, including some minor edits. I stopped working for the series late last summer, and the whole enterprise was discontinued soon thereafter. I’ve written about a few of the other books/authors on the Second Pass, but have no personal connection to anyone else.”