by Nathacha AppanahBuy at Powell’s »
March 21, 2012
2The Tiger’s Wife
It was a lot closer than I expected.
A first novel by a young Bosnian-American versus an eagerly awaited tome from one of the greats of contemporary international literature? Well, let the rueful sighing and the polite averting of eyes begin. This isn’t going to be anywhere near fair. Probably even cruel. Just going by heft of the books themselves, the matchup was lopsided.
But it’s easy to see why critics and writers have been falling all over themselves talking up Téa Obreht and The Tiger’s Wife, why she made the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 list without a single book to her name. It’s because the book that would be attached to her name was going to be that one, The Tiger’s Wife, an at once familiar but uncanny tale of war and cruelty and family written in crisp sentences. Reading it, you’re reminded, as they say down South, that some people, like Elvis and Neon Deion, have had the Hand put on them. What you’re witnessing is talent that, God bless you, all the pushups and wind sprints and vocal lessons and practices upon practices are never ever going to put in your reach. (I know, I know, hard work is key and talent alone isn’t enough, I know, but roll with me here.)
Reading Obreht, that’s the feeling I got. Given her age, and given her abilities, we’ve got something to look forward to in the decades to come. And in the meantime, we have this novel that’s utterly unpredictable, and that, most impressive to me, knows how to work different narrative threads of differing tones and knows how to keep the reader on the hook. Think about the story of the Deathless Man (it’s pretty much what you might be inferring). It’s hard to think when I read something more plainly engrossing and entertaining—so very much a good piece of glorious storytelling—as when Obreht first introduces that character in her novel. (As it turns out, just because you can’t be drowned or can’t be lit up by bullets to the back of your head it doesn’t mean you can’t be horribly thirsty. And as far as good storytelling is concerned, that’s a detail that makes all the difference.)
And yet. Yet.
I am incapable of escaping—most likely because I don’t want to escape—the vision manifested in Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. It’s titanic. It’s eerie, and beautiful, and horrific. It’s exquisite. It gets under your skin, and suffuses your thoughts, but probably only if you’re receptive toward Murakami’s measured sentences, the reading of which has the accumulative effect of deep breathing exercises: it puts one in a meditative state. I am, and have been for a long time. I’m receptive to the tristesse of his fiction, to the uncanny vibes radiating from it. I like the angular dialogue. I like his version of Japan, which is to say his vision of the modern world. Like the sentences that give it life, it’s a sleek and muted world, but one nevertheless pillared upon deep feeling and thought. It’s the work of an assured artist.
So what am I saying here? It’s that I’m taking the Little People over the Deathless Man. I’m taking the wealthy dowager over the grandfather doctor. I can’t forget about that Earth where we live under two moons at night. And how we get to that point! Murakami takes his time to introduce the truly unusual into his novel, first giving us a story line of a female assassin specializing in dispatching violent husbands, and then one of a young burly writer re-writing an odd novel by a teen girl into a bestseller—and then he springs on us the possibility of parallel worlds and fantastical creatures. And that’s only in the first third of an 800-plus-page book. For me, it’s the seeming mundaneness in which these story lines are cloaked that appeals, making impossibilities seem possible. Ultimately, it’s the potency of the dream Murakami unfurls over the reader, over me, that I’m picking. This is an entirely subjective pick, in the same way you might prefer a dream in which you can fly versus a dream in which you are talking to somebody beloved but long lost. The Tiger’s Wife is the former; it’s urgent, moving, exhilarating even. 1Q84 is the latter: meditative, intimate, and somehow preordained—but with hotel sex and bursts of violence. A very compelling dream, indeed.
By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner
Kevin: So, the literary beast of the 2012 ToB lumbers somewhat predictably into the semifinals. I think Judge Villaron really did like 1Q84, but from the tone of his decision he almost seems powerless against it.
In the first round there was a fair amount of MFA-bashing in the comments, much of it in regard to The Tiger’s Wife. Some of that was less about the book and more about this HuffPo rant in which Ruth Fowler, a former exotic dancer and trader in hand jobs (according to her own bio, anyway) declares the Master of Fine Arts a scourge on American fiction. To me, the entire piece reads less like an indictment of American MFA programs than as an exposé of Fowler’s own alma mater’s inability to teach inductive reasoning. I wonder if her anger at Tea Obreht’s patently successful education is really just misplaced rage at the fact that she went to Cambridge and still ended up (for a while, anyway) “penniless” and on the lowest rung of the sex trade ladder.
But I don’t want to get all ad hominem here (are you as amused as I am by the fact that hominem and homonym are homophones? This is why I would be a horrible standup comic). So let’s look at the actual argument: Fowler calls the MFA “the singularly most devastating occurrence to hit literature in the 20th century, churning out writers of utterly indistinguishable competence.”
The whole of her evidence for this claim is the work of Cornell MFA grad Tea Obreht (whose novel she’s read 50 pages of), Junot Díaz (also MFA, Cornell), and Zadie Smith (no MFA, but she did manage to graduate Cambridge without becoming a prostitute). Her counter-examples—that is, writers who learned the craft the proper way, you know, on the streets—are Lionel Shriver (MFA, Columbia) and Vladimir Nabokov (creative writing professor, Cornell again), and then in the comments she adds Phillip Roth (M.A. in English, University of Chicago; creative writing professor, Iowa and Princeton), John Updike (English degree from Harvard, one-time chairman of the critical elite), and Margaret Mitchell.
OK, she has me on the last one.
Like B.R. Myers before her, Fowler is promoting the idea that contemporary literature is bland and the critics have no clothes. She resents being told by the New York Times that books she doesn’t like are good, and believes there’s a diabolical conspiracy of elites who obviously don’t get these books any more than Fowler does, but are trying to establish they’re smarter than everybody else by pretending to like them. Yet when pressed for an example of a contemporary author she does like, the only living one she can come up with that doesn’t directly disprove the very point she’s trying to make is 80-year-old Philip Roth.
Just this one time, when deciding who really has no clothes, I’m going with the stripper.
John: I’m worried that I may have been at least partially guilty in cracking open the MFA-bashing door with some comments on Salvage the Bones, where I said, “the book displays some of the values often championed in the writing workshop—careful observation of sense detail, evocative metaphor, absorption in the moment—to mixed effect.”
I’m a bad candidate as an MFA basher, given that I have one and teach creative writing, and despite the occasional difficult moments (see opening round commentary on State of Wonder) during my graduate studies, I count them as easily the most important period in my personal development as a writer. The notion that graduate programs in creative writing are somehow clogging bookshelves with mediocrity is absolutely ridiculous and Fowler’s little traffic-trolling festival of sour grapes is embarrassing to read. (For her.)
The notion that somehow the study of creative writing is producing some kind of homogenized product doesn’t stand up against even the briefest scrutiny. Ann Patchett (Iowa) writes good, old-fashioned realism. Tea Obreht (Cornell) works an amalgam of realism and fantasy. Donald Ray Pollock (Ohio State) mines the territory of literary pulp.
That said, like any groups where people gather and share ideas and inputs, a set of values is likely to arise and be shared by many members of that group. Often, these values are already in place prior to the person joining the group, and they have sought out this group because they see like-minded individuals already there.
If you are drawn toward Goldman Sachs, your values are likely to center around the rapacious pillaging of the market economy for your own individual benefit and enrichment.
You also are absent a soul.
If you are drawn to graduate study in creative writing, you probably love language and beautiful and original sentences, the feeling that the right choices in language can somehow give birth to a unique and startling understanding of the world. Sentences and language and what language gives birth to in fiction—atmosphere, voice—
become the focal point of what you talk about in your group. It also happens that these are relatively easier things to talk when presented a 20-page excerpt from something much larger for discussion. In that context it’s easy to note an original and arresting metaphor or dazzling bit of verbal work, but very difficult to talk about a novel’s architecture, so the value of language continues to be reinforced inside the group.
Again, I have no problem with this. Those values are my values. I believe that the primary unit of storytelling is the sentence and it’s the sentences that have to be right. The notion that studying in an MFA program may produce soulless work is crazy-making. In my experience, the process is much closer to an extended search for one’s soul. It’s the core subject of the entire deal.
However, by valuing these things over other things, you tend to get stories that may look different from stories written by people who have different values.
Kevin: I really don’t have anything more thoughtful than that to add on the subject. In an extremely informal survey of the stuff that I read, MFA graduates produce work that I like/dislike at exactly the same rate as everyone else. And while having an MFA no doubt has boosted your career as a teacher, I think you will testify that it is no guaranteed short track to getting published.
John: Boy howdy!
Kevin: But most of the MFA grads I know feel about their experience much the way you do. It made them more thoughtful writers and more intelligent readers.
Kevin: The act of writing is personal and instinctive, and that simply doesn’t change when you get an MFA.
I’m sure this is a subject that will continue deep into the comments.
Speaking of which, one of the trends this year has been a proliferation of terrific “shadow commentaries” for the Rooster. The comments section here has been incredibly rich, but for those who want even more, I’d like to point to a couple of really interesting multi-person Rooster discussions that are going on in other places around the web. Morgan Macgregor and Jeff O’Neal have a great back and forth going over at Book Riot, and the well-read staff at the Sunflower Bookshop in suburban Melbourne, Australia, are really having a blast with it, as well.
Kevin: The Tiger’s Wife did not get enough votes in our poll to knock off either The Art of Fielding or State of Wonder, so Harbach and Patchett remain the Zombies for now. 1Q84 rolls to the next round, almost by inertia, setting up perhaps the most intriguing matchup so far in the tourney—a semifinal tilt between it and Lightning Rods. And tomorrow we have this year’s Cinderella, The Sisters Brothers, up against one of the real critical and popular darlings of 2011, Swamplandia!