Lightning Rods
  • March 9, 2012

    Opening Round

  • Helen DeWitt

    3Lightning Rods
    2Salvage the Bones

    Jesmyn Ward

  • Judged by

    Mark Binelli

Salvage the Bones

Every so often I have a really terrible idea. Reading Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, for example, made me think of the Michael Vick scandal—one of Ward’s characters breeds and fights pit bulls—which in turn reminded me of my reaction to the Michael Vick scandal at the time, which had been, “I wonder why no one has made a Street Fighter-type video game, only with dogfighting?” My speculation was rhetorical, of course—obviously, the notion of a dogfighting video game is incredibly offensive! “But,” (I thought, then) “aren’t modern video games supposed to be offensive? Aren’t there games where people get to beat up hookers?1 Why was my idea worse? Maybe it wasn’t offensive enough, and gamers would find its ripped-from-the-headlines marriage to realism banal and uninspired, and the trick, in fact, would be to expand the concept to include multiple species (adjusting the numbers on either side to make fair fights), so you might wind up with (say) a pair of German Shepherds versus a Komodo dragon, or a single human judo master against a dozen angry Puggles and a penguin with a cockfighting razor strapped to its beak, or... ”

Mark Binelli is the author of the novel Sacco And Vanzetti Must Die! (Dalkey Archive) and the forthcoming nonfiction book Detroit City Is the Place to Be (Metropolitan/ Henry Holt), and a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. He lives in New York and Detroit. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “I had dinner once with Karen Russell.”

This line of thought didn’t continue for very long.

Helen DeWitt had a similarly awful idea, but instead of stashing it away for later recycling as a jokey introduction to a short essay, she decided to tease it out beyond any reasonable boundaries of taste or self-restraint, until eventually she had a 273-page novel called Lightning Rods. This sounds like a critique, but I’m actually wildly impressed. DeWitt’s first novel, The Last Samurai, was brought out in 2000 by Tina Brown’s short-lived Talk Miramax imprint, to great acclaim. I’m guessing the concept of Lightning Rods, which I’ll explain in more detail later, had something to do with the fact that it took her over a decade to find a new publisher.

Salvage the Bones also comes with an underdog’s pedigree. After being almost completely ignored by major reviewing organs, the novel emerged from nowhere to win the National Book Award last year. It takes place in coastal Mississippi, the week of Hurricane Katrina. I wanted to read a Katrina novel about as much as I wanted to read a novel about 9/11 or Occupy Wall Street—which is to say, not at all—but Salvage the Bones almost wholly avoids obvious topicality, focusing instead on character, an evocative setting and the familiar pleasures of the coming-of-age story. Often gorgeously written, the book opens with a visceral description of a prize pit bull named China giving birth to a litter of pups, some already dead. Shortly after the violent birthing scene, the book’s teenage protagonist, Esch, discovers she, too, is pregnant. Subtlety of theme is not among the book’s strengths. Ward has Esch reading Medea. We flash back to Esch’s dead mother wringing the necks of chickens, and we’re treated to the image of China, fresh from the delivery room, ripping out the throat of another dog. And on the horizon looms Katrina, described as “the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered.” Or, as Esch’s often-drunk father notes: “The storm has a name, now. Like the worst, she’s a woman.”

It’s refreshing, I guess, to see motherhood be allowed to embody and deliver the sort of Old Testament ass-smiting more typically conjured in the stark, womanless landscapes of books like Blood Meridian. I also found Ward’s unsentimental eye for the details of a world rarely portrayed in fiction (rural black poverty in the contemporary deep South) compelling. But in the end, there was an overripe, self-consciously literary quality to both story and prose that became off-putting, at least to me. (My taste in PETA-disapproved fiction runs more in the direction of Charles Willeford’s hard-boiled Cockfighter, reissued last year in a lovely new paperback edition by PictureBox/Family.)

From dogfighting, on to glory holes! Lightning Rods also opens, strangely enough, in the wake of a hurricane — Hurricane Edna, which turns out to be fairly incidental to the plot, except that it harms the business of a traveling salesman named Joe enough to give him substantial downtime in his Florida trailer, where he begins to engage in a very particular sexual fantasy, which I’ll let DeWitt explain:

His first fantasy was about walls. The woman would have the upper part of her body on one side of the wall. The lower part of her body would be on the other side of the wall... Sometimes the woman would be naked from the waist down. Most of the time she would be wearing a short tight skirt that could be pushed up and underpants that could be pulled down. Sometimes he would have trouble deciding whether it was better with or without the pants. The high point was pushing the skirt slowly up to reveal a firm, tight, unsuspecting ass.

It goes on from there. That passage appears on page eight, by the way. Though he’s hopeless as a vacuum cleaner salesman, Joe eventually figures out a way to monetize his fetish, not via the quotidian route of Internet porn but rather by convincing offices around the country to install “lightning rods” — secretaries who anonymously slip off to the ladies’ room at periodic intervals throughout the workday to provide sexual relief for hard-charging male employees, thereby lowering the risk of workplace sexual harassment lawsuits. To keep the anonymity intact, only the lower halves of the women appear to the men in question, who, er, “access” this workplace benefit via an adjoining stall in the men’s restroom.

Surprisingly, given the subject matter, DeWitt has not written an especially sexy book. Instead, with a single-minded attention to detail, she honors her crazy premise by getting deep in the weeds, spinning out every imaginable technical hitch and sociological repercussion of Joe’s business model as it becomes a viable service provider in an otherwise recognizable corporate America. It’s a great, unexpected move; at times, the book reads like Michael Lewis on assignment in CivilWarLand. (New Directions should really try to get this novel placed in airport bookstores next to Malcolm Gladwell and Freakonomics and the other books for business travelers.)

But unfortunately—and somewhat amazingly—after a hundred pages or so, Lightning Rods becomes kind of boring. I was delighted to hear DeWitt told the New York Observer she wrote the book because she “felt like she was getting fucked from behind through a hole in the wall” by the publishing industry. But despite her obvious wit—I laughed aloud at certain passages—the book never approaches the truly unhinged hilarity (let alone verbal dexterity) of last year’s other major work of literary smut, Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes. DeWitt’s prose often feels lazy, and as much as I loved being drawn into her deranged world, the lack of any real payoff made the final stretch of the book an aggravating experience.

What commitment, though! Winner (by TKO): DeWitt.

1As the datedness of my Street Fighter reference might suggest, I no longer keep up with video games.

TODAY’S WINNER: Lightning Rods

Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

John: Before I ever read it, I had warm feelings towards Salvage the Bones. The book was released about a month before my novel, and given mine and Jesmyn Ward’s alphabetically similar last names, when I’d go to bookstores—to confirm the physical existence of my own book—I’d see Salvage the Bones on the shelf next to it, and feel a certain kindred spirit. Here was another book being (unjustly, of course) ignored by the mainstream book reviewing culture, another book whose stack was basically the same height week after week. I could find solace in the idea that it wasn’t me, but the system that put the “Wa” section of the new fiction releases behind the sales 8-ball.

Maybe if we were on a higher shelf.

It’d be an interesting discussion as to why Salvage the Bones was, as Judge Binelli notes, “almost completely ignored by the major reviewing organs,” and since there’s only a one in eight chance of the book returning as a Zombie, maybe we should have it now since we’ll have Lightning Rods to bat around at least one more time.

Field NotesBuy anything from Field Notes during the ToB and receive a special red, letterpress memo book free. Use coupon code ROOSTER.

Part of it is perhaps Art of Fielding and The Marriage Plot sucking up all of the critical oxygen at the time. Art of Fielding had the exciting debut slot, and even book coverage upstarts like Full-Stop were spending five days’ worth of virtual real estate to talk about The Marriage Plot. Or maybe Karen Russell and Tea Obreht had already gobbled up the “grotesquely young and preternaturally talented” coverage quota for the year.

I’m going to say that race and subject matter almost certainly had something to do with it, probably more than something. I can just feel reviewing entities deciding that Katrina has already had its moment in the literary sun. The characters are black and underclass. That’s too small a niche, right? Salvage the Bones was well on its way to joining the hundreds and thousands of novels released each year that deserved more attention but weren’t going to get it.

And then it was nominated for the National Book Award. Laura Miller at Salon groused that the inclusion of books like Salvage the Bones (and eschewing of Harbach and Eugenides) was a kind of forced medicine, the NBA prize committee deciding to honor books that, in the words of Miller, “you ought to read, whether you like it or not.” I like Laura Miller, and lord knows she’s been kind to our yearly madness here, but I think she’d fallen prey to what Ron Charles at the Washington Post admitted to in his (belated) review of Salvage the Bones when he’d had similar thoughts of disappointment over the NBA list, “I was operating under the time-tested prejudice that books I’ve read are always better than books I haven’t read.”

This is a tautology, but a book needs readers if it’s going to find readers. As much as the Internet has decentralized and democratized the world of book discussion, if people like Ron Charles and Laura Miller (two of the small handful of voices with megaphones capable of starting a book-related discussion) pre-decide that a book isn’t worth reading, that book has a significantly smaller chance of finding a larger readership.

Fortunately for Jesmyn Ward, former ToB competitor Victor LaValle and the other judges on the prize committee decided to, in the words of LaValle, choose the books that “worked some special kind of magic on us,” rather than the ones they thought other people might or should like.

And now Jesmyn Ward has won the National Book Award, which comes with both a medal and a trophy, which is not live-rooster awesome, but still pretty cool.

I don’t want this talk to overshadow the work itself, which is an absorbing and harrowing read. There are a handful of scenes that I had to experience through parted fingers, my stomach sinking to my feet. Ward never flinches in this story and it’s a tough read at times, but this is even more to Ward’s credit for refusing to spray light where it wasn’t warranted.

My only critique of the novel is similar to Mark Binelli’s. I note from Ms. Ward’s Wikipedia page that she’s both an MFA grad and a former Stegner Fellow who now teaches creative writing, and at times, I feel as though 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. Occasionally, Ward’s pyrotechnic prose just doesn’t sit well in the mouth of her young protagonist. There’s a number of beautiful passages that I just didn’t buy as anything other than the poetic observations of Jesmyn Ward.

But that’s a quibble. I’m grateful that the right reader pushed it into the tournament’s hands, and while I too would’ve chosen Lightning Rounds in this matchup, I’d be psyched to see Salvage the Bones return as a zombie.

Kevin: One of the discussions we always have with readers at Rooster time is why our list is so mainstream. I think some people think the ToB should be exclusively about promoting great books that haven’t received a lot of media coverage, but that’s not really what it’s built for. We always have a couple of slots for books that have been under the radar (I had never heard of Green Girl before it popped up in the nominating discussion) but what I really think has been lost as our collective books discussion migrates from newspapers and splinters into billions of little cubbies on the internet is a common book culture. Book coverage on the web is fantastic and rich, but on the internet (where you are your own gatekeeper) it’s also easy to wander around in some kind of Escher drawing made from one’s own tastes and biases.

The last few weeks I have been talking about the ToB with readers I meet—friends and neighbors and book club members—and, like Laura Miller, I’ve found it amazing how many of them haven’t heard of even the big literary books of 2011. 1Q84 and The Art of Fielding and The Marriage Plot and on and on. These are big readers, people who read 20 or 30 books a year, but they never look outside of their comfort zone.

This is something we’ve lost with the disappearance of book sections that come wrapped with the Sunday paper. Oprah’s Book Club filled that role for a while, I think. People can gripe all they want about the selections, but there is something valuable about someone saying, “This is a big book and we should all get together and find out why other people are talking about it.” Even if you don’t participate, there’s value in just being aware that there are these common cultural reference points.

Years ago, Chicago launched its annual “One Book, One Chicago” event with a citywide discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird. Last week they announced the 2012 selection: Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, a collection of short stories set in 1970s China written by 2010 MacArthur genius Yiyun Li. Now, I’m sure it’s a fine book, but, if I can borrow Miller’s point for a minute, this is clearly designed as some kind of civic medicine. If you want to invite people to have a large-scale discussion about books, then the books need to choose themselves. They need to be books that people are already gravitating toward, that people are already arguing about. That’s the discussion that people want to leap into. And that has always been what the ToB was about.

This is not to say that Salvage the Bones shouldn’t have won the National Book Award just because few people had read it. It’s very deserving, and the NBA has a tradition of picking books just like it. In fact the Tournament of Books was conceived during the public debate over the relatively obscure finalists for the 2004 NBA. The National Book Award perceives the championing of the underdog as being part of its mission, and that’s great. There’s plenty of room for all kinds of awards and all kinds of discussion.

I just don’t think every arbiter of literary taste needs to be a scold. There’s also value in embracing our common literary culture.

John: A critic who doesn’t have the courage of her convictions wouldn’t be worth much as a critic, and when it comes to critical opinions we really shouldn’t be asked to accept anyone’s opinion but our own, but as you note, mere disagreement isn’t all that conducive to conversation.

In the end, Laura Miller’s piece on the NBA list spurred a lot of conversation surrounding the potentially award-worthy books of that year, and here we are now talking about it months later, so that can’t be too bad a thing. I do think it’s important to note that the mission of the National Book Award is fundamentally different from movements like “One Book, One Chicago,” or something I’m more familiar with, the common book programs at universities. The College of Charleston recently announced Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer as its 2012 selection. It’s an interesting and provocative book, but I wonder if it isn’t going to read like “medicine.” Students arriving at a university setting are uniquely open to new experiences and having their minds expanded. I worry that Foer’s book will send some mixed signals on that front, that their minds need to be turned, rather than expanded. (I better stop before I go into Santorum territory.)

What these things always point out is how hard it is to find a one-size-fits-all book. “One Book, One Chicago” is sort of doomed before it began.

Kevin: I have to admit to being increasingly fascinated with the very idea of Lightning Rods’ existence since the day I started reading it. As Judge Binelli describes it, the entire novel is basically a reductio ad absurdum satire about the acceptance of, and even promotion of, ridiculously bad behavior. But what’s remarkable about Lightning Rods is that it isn’t anything other than that. This must have taken a superhuman level of concentration and discipline to write. The temptation to include something like a narrative arc. And characters. And at least one other idea. Why, it must have been enormous.

I know it sounds like I’m making fun of it, but I actually say all this with sincere admiration. Granted, if it hadn’t made me laugh I’d have thought the whole enterprise a colossal waste of time, but that only adds to the high-wire act because Helen DeWitt is certainly aware how hard it is to make people laugh, especially at novel length.

And there are moments when she flat out teases the reader over this. This next part might be a little bit spoilery, but there is a section in the middle in which a new character is introduced. He is developed in far greater detail than any other person in the book, even the protagonist. It is not only hinted at, but explicitly stated in a bit of naked foreshadowing that he is going to have a major role in the development of the book’s plot.

And he is mentioned again only one other time. Barely in passing.

You don’t even realize a joke is being played on you until like two days later when you get to the last page. And at that point I must have had an eye-watering look of wonder and fury on my face like the one Justin had when he figured out that Ashton and a rented moving van nearly had him convinced that his accountant fucked up and the IRS was taking possession of his house.

Right at the point where you might be getting frustrated that this is basically a work of fiction with no conflict, DeWitt sets up a point of explicit tension. She even says it’s going to happen. And so you start to anticipate it. You read faster and sweatier. The book is heading downhill toward confrontation and denouement.

And none of that ever happens.

I’m not sure how many people are going to be as amused by a book-length punk like that. But I can only say, brava.

John: I’m more of an Entenmannologist (mmmm poundcake!) than an etymologist, but I believe “brava” comes from brave, and that’s what Lightning Rods is in more ways than one. Maybe Helen DeWitt’s nickname should be Honey Badger because she just really doesn’t give a shit about what anyone expects from her writing or her books. That may be why it took a reported decade between completion and publishing for Lightning Rods. A trip to second round further justifies Ms. DeWitt’s belief in her own work.

Tomorrow is this year’s “apples-to-bowling-balls” matchup as the massive and heavily-hyped 1Q84 goes up against the slim and unassuming The Last Brother. Murakami has to be a heavy favorite, but just about every year a fourth seed rears up and takes out a number one in the first round.

Stay tuned.

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