• April 4, 2011


  • Commentary by

    Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

  • This Year’s Champion:

    A Visit From the Goon Squad

A Visit From the Goon Squad

Kevin: Celebrated author Jonathan Franzen narrowly loses book award to a lady writer! Again!

Congratulations to Jennifer Egan. We were actually were able to contact Egan over the weekend with the news, and she had this to say about the award: “A rooster will fit perfectly into our Brooklyn landscape…our sons will be thrilled; our two cats, even more so.”

We will also be making a donation in Ms. Egan’s name to Heifer International, which will provide actual fowl and livestock to people, largely outside of Brooklyn, who desperately need them.

Field NotesBuy anything from Field Notes from now until the end of the ToB and receive a special “reading list” memo book free, while they last. Use coupon code ROOSTER.

OK, wow. But, so, what are we supposed to do with this decision? A definitive result that predictably resolves nothing. If there had been 15 judges, or 19, we might very well have had a different champion. It’s difficult to imagine anyone reading those decisions one after another and having a clear idea what they should read next. About half the judges truly loved both books, and that group split just about evenly. Only a few (maybe three) of the judges seemed largely unimpressed with both, but that group broke exclusively (and, as it turns out, decisively) for Goon Squad. It’s the inverse of a half-cocked theory I proposed earlier in the tournament: Maybe if you dislike two books equally, you hold the longer one in greater contempt.

This is the second year in a row we’ve ended up with a nailbiting, 9-8 decision in the ToB championship. It hasn’t always been that way. In 2009 it was 11-5 in favor of Toni Morrison’s A Mercy. In 2008, Junot Diaz won 12-4 with The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Cormac McCarthy clobbered his way to a 15-2 victory with The Road in 2007. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas won 10-5 in the pre-Zombie days of 2005. You and I once even speculated that this format might encourage such lopsided results, as we watched an upstart book face a heavyweight in the championship year after year, only to be have its literary hat handed to him by the panel. It seems like the Rooster is just a streaky hitter.

John: To reach for the sports cliché, in a 17-game series, anything can happen. Or, as you say, in a 15-game series or 19-game series, or a 57-game series. We didn’t think to poll the readers on which they would personally pick (as opposed to their prediction), but judging from some of the unsolicited comments, there’s plenty of positive sentiment for both books, along with a fair bit of—I think hype-related—negative sentiment held for Freedom.

Tony Doerr notes some of the thematic and stylistic similarities between the two books, so maybe it’s not surprising that they wind up so close in the sweepstakes for the affections of the individual reader. You note that most of the judges tended to either like or not like both. Even the legendary “gravitas gap” doesn’t come into play, as I think that Goon Squad gets some extra credit for its unconventional structure.

(As an aside, I think this aspect is over-praised in both books. Goon Squad’s scope seems more accidental/incidental to the story form each chapter takes. It allows the reader to see many different angles that are plausibly, but not deliberately present. And the big-picture social issues that Freedom tackles are really the book’s least interesting parts. In each case, what works for these books is their ability to bring these fictional people alive on the page, which they both did brilliantly for me.)

One of the things I like best about the championship is that seeing all of the commentaries together reminds me that book and reader is, always has been, and always will be a partnership, a conversation, and each conversation contains a manifestation of the reader’s values.

Kate Ortega likes Freedom because it handles its theme with more depth and skill. Jennifer Weiner laments that neither book is “fun.” Rosecrans felt Freedom was better at “dramatizing human life,” the reason he reads. Sarah Manguso appreciates Egan’s ability with a range of voices. Freedom appeared to hit Elif Batuman on a just-in-time basis (and who hasn’t experienced that?), and on and on and on…

What I think the championship commentary does year after year is celebrate reading and the engagement with literature, and it’s a real privilege to be a part of it. In fact, I feel so damn sincere now, I can’t even make a joke, which is totally not like me.

Tiger blood!

Kevin: Last year, the 16 ToB judges split evenly and the extra decider in the championship round, Jessica Francis Kane, turned out to be the tiebreaker. This year, the 16 judges went for Goon Squad 9-7 and the estimable C. Max Magee of the Millions brought the final tally to the narrowest of margins. It’s somehow appropriate that Max gets to give an eloquent defense for Freedom on its ToB deathbed. And although I preferred Goon Squad just a little, I’d argue to anyone debating whether they should read it—and in response to Jennifer Weiner—that Freedom is kind of fun. Not all of it, of course—it’s not exactly the Lemony Snicket approach to this particular series of unfortunate events—but most of it really is a page-turner. It’s more fun than your average reader will be expecting, is what I want to say.

John: I thought both of these books were fun, as were quite a few in the final 16, particularly Skippy Dies, Bad Marie, and Kapitoil.

Last year I started what I’m now going to think of as an annual tradition during our final commentary, that is including a “watch list” of books for next year’s ToB. To be clear, this is a personally compiled list, culled from various sources, entirely idiosyncratic, and in no way, shape, or form is the definitive list of books that will even be considered for the tournament, let alone be chosen.

Open City by Teju Cole
Pym by Mat Johnson
Three Stages of Amazement by Carol Edgarian
So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman
Swamplandia by Karen Russell
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obrecht
Other People We Married by Emma Straub
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
When the Killing’s Done by T.C. Boyle
Abbott Awaits by Chris Bachelder
The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady by Elizabeth Stuckey-French
Gryphon: New and Selected Stories by Charles Baxter
Miracles, Inc. by T.J. Forrester
The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard
The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah
The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Luminarium by Alex Shakar
West of Here by Jonathon Evison
The Great Night by Chris Adrian
11/12/63 by Stephen King
1Q84 by Haruki Marukami
Bright’s Passage by Josh Ritter
Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman
A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Doc by Mary Doria Russell
The Paris Wife by Paula McClain
Millennium People by J.G. Ballard
The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollack
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America by Albert Brooks
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
Long Drive Home by Will Allison
The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai
Us by Michael Kimball
The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
Zone One by Colson Whitehead
The Upright Piano Player by David Abbott
Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks
My New American Life by Francine Prose
The Call by Yannick Murphy
The Beginners by Rebecca Wolff
A Man of Parts by David Lodge
Bed by David Whitehouse
House of Holes by Nicholson Baker
The Submission by Amy Waldman
The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler
Orientation and Other Stories by Daniel Orozco
Emily Alone by Stewart O’Nan
What You See in the Dark by Manuel Munoz
The Free World by David Bezmozgis
Dreams of Molly by Jonathan Baumbach
Juice by Ishmael Reed

Kevin: Like my “To Be Read” pile needed that. I’m actually reading an advance reader’s copy of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus right now and am quite enjoying it. I have the Boyle and that will be next. The Upright Piano Player is queued up after that. Let me look at my nightstand and also add Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf—yes, another werewolf novel—that is expected to see a fair amount of hype this summer. I can’t help but wonder what Anis Shivani thinks about that.

Of course to really anticipate the 2012 tourney, we have to look over the list for the big names that have never been in the ToB: DFW, Kevin Brockmeier, Stephen King, Haruki Marukami, JG Ballard, Tom Perrotta, Francine Prose, Stewart O’Nan, Geraldine Brooks. And then the big names who have been to the Rooster before, but were knocked out in the early rounds: Boyle, Colson Whitehead, Nicholson Baker.

John: I don’t have a crystal ball or a DeLorean with a flux capacitor, but just like last year at this time, I couldn’t imagine a ToB without Freedom, I’m going to make the same prediction for The Pale King. I’m both excited and afraid to read the book. It looks like it’s going to be our last and only chance to have David Foster Wallace in the tournament, though it seems like we couldn’t avoid talking about him this year, even when he wasn’t competing.

And of course, there’s going to be surprises along the way, books that aren’t on anybody’s radar that manage to catch fire and suddenly be everywhere. It’s not that publishing is a meritocracy—for sure, many books come into the world with all kinds of advantages when it comes to gaining readership—but in the end, readers have the final say, and are always capable of surprise.

Kevin: And it won’t be eligible for the Tournament of Books, but let me say that I am really very excited about your debut novel, Funny Man, which will be released by Soho Books in September. I have read an early draft of the book and it (not surprisingly) made me laugh out loud and I hope lots of ToB fans check it out in the fall.

John: Indeed, I am releasing to the world just what it needs, another WMFUN. My hope is that it tells the story of the potential FU in all of us. My mother just finished the galley and said, “I’m not sure I enjoyed reading it, but it was really well done.” We’re thinking about putting it on the cover. Some book-related talks and appearances are likely, so hopefully I’ll have a chance to meet some of our commenters and contributors on the road. I’m happy to come wherever I’m invited, and even places I’m not.

Kevin: And finally, thanks to all of you, the readers and commenters that make the Rooster such a blast. We are always tinkering with it, but I think I speak for everyone who works so hard to make our thing go each spring—especially Rosecrans Baldwin, Andrew Womack, Liz Entman Harper, and Matt Robison—that it really didn’t click until we gave the readers a voice after every judgment. Your insight has been intelligent and funny (and fun) and surprisingly free of troll activity. In fact, if we hadn’t brought ToB readers into the mix, I don’t know that we would still be bothering. Y’all are awesome. Even when you call John and I on our sometimes half-baked bullshit. Even especially then.

John: It really is a pleasure to be held accountable for the ideas one publishes on the Internet without being told to do horrible things to oneself with farm animals, and I think we reached some sort of record for total number of posts without anyone mentioning fascism. I’d also like to thank everyone at TMN for making it so easy for us to just spew our nonsense and then have it magically appear looking great. The commentary leaves my computer wearing sweatpants and somehow shows up on the page in a tux. Thanks also to all the judges for their perceptive and thorough judgments, which left plenty for all of us to gnaw on, and, as always, we should acknowledge Field Notes and Powell’s for sponsoring the fun. I’m pretty sure we couldn’t do it without them.

And of course, congratulations once again to Jennifer Egan. I can’t wait to see whatever she writes next.

Kevin: Which brings us to our contest winner. Thirty-three readers had the result exactly right, which only underscores how close this match was in the minds of most observers. After some shuffling and random number generation, the winners of an awesome Field Notes gift pack and a $50 Powell’s gift card are Marijke Heijn and Wendy (B00kworm97). Please email for info on how to collect your prize.

And finally, it’s already April and we have the best sampling of smart readers anywhere. Tell us below what books you have read so far in 2011 that we should be considering for next year’s ToB. Or else, what books you are most looking forward to.

John: Cue inspirational music, run credits over highlight reel, fade to black.

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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