by Nathacha AppanahBuy at Powell’s »
March 14, 2012
1State of Wonder
4The Sisters Brothers
I’ll spare you any sort of contrived suspense (there’s plenty of that in State of Wonder) about which book I picked to send to round two, and just cut to the chase: I had to restrain myself from reading The Sisters Brothers in one sitting, and State of Wonder felt like the most tedious homework assignment I’ve ever had in my life. The Sisters Brothers easily and handily wins this matchup.
I really wanted to like State of Wonder. According to everyone in the world, Ann Patchett is a delightful person who has written some truly outstanding novels, but I think I must be the wrong audience for this particular title, because I couldn’t connect to any of the characters in State of Wonder. In fact, I found them all so unlikable that by the middle of the book, I resented them. Maybe it’s because Patchett did a legitimately good job creating pretentious academic intellectuals, and I just can’t stand those people in real life. Maybe it’s because, as a 39-year-old man, I just couldn’t relate to a 42-year-old female protagonist who has such profound daddy issues she dates a man who is not only her boss but is 20 years older than her. Maybe it’s because I so thoroughly enjoyed The Sisters Brothers, it’s impossible at this moment for anything that isn’t John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars to compare to it.
Whatever the reason, State of Wonder did not live up to the promise of its jacket copy, which told me: “Sometimes being on the vanguard of scientific progress thrusts you into the teeth of danger. For Minnesota pharmaceutical researcher Dr. Marina Singh, that means being sent into the remotest region of the Amazon jungle to track down her former mentor. Finding Dr. Annick Swenson promises to be perilous: The last scientist assigned to find her has disappeared too.”
Holy shit! That sounds awesome! Get out of my way, Everything Else I Have to Do In My Life, because I’m going on a thrilling adventure in the Amazon!
…100 pages later… Still waiting for something to happen.
…150 pages later… OK, we get it, the main character has daddy issues. How about something happens now?
…160 pages later… Wow, the doctor we’ve been waiting all this time to meet is a giant asshole. That’s good, because what this story needs is less interesting plot and more unlikable characters.
…200 pages later… Oh, finally, something’s happening!
…250 pages later… Annnnnd we’re back to endless conversation with Doctor Condescending Asshole.
This is where, were I not reading this book for the tournament, I would have given up. (Honestly, I would have been out by page 100, following my “give a book one hour or 100 pages” rule.) Life’s too short to spend hours slogging through a story filled with unlikable characters, and a story that demands so much suspension of disbelief it may as well have asked us to accept sailing down a river flowing with unicorn tears.
Taking my responsibilities as a judge seriously, though, I struggled on to finish it, hating myself more and more with the turn of every page, wishing that I could just tell Jack Bauer where the bomb was located so he’d let me stop reading. Eventually, everyone gets their redemption, the supposedly surprising twist that was repeatedly telegraphed in the first third of the book happens, everything is wrapped up in a neat little package, and I could finally evict this menagerie of unlikable, unrelatable characters from my mind.
If State of Wonder made me feel like I was struggling to stay awake during The English Patient, The Sisters Brothers made me feel like I was sitting in a movie house in Red Dead Redemption, watching an episode of Deadwood that was written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by the Coen Brothers. If I was the wrong audience for State of Wonder, I’m pretty much the perfect audience for The Sisters Brothers.
Set on the trail between Oregon and San Francisco during the California gold rush, The Sisters Brothers tells the story of Charlie and Eli Sisters, hired killers who are sent by their boss the Commodore to track down and murder a man named Herman Kermit Warm.
Unlike State of Wonder, which starts out strong in its first dozen pages and then gets progressively less readable, The Sisters Brothers starts out slowly, written in Eli Sisters’ voice (that wasn’t the easiest thing in the world for me to get used to), and gets progressively more interesting and compelling. Both novels are a classic Hero’s Journey, but where State of Wonder introduced me to supporting characters that seemed, in the words of one reviewer, to be there just to take up space, The Sisters Brothers is populated with a cast of supporting characters that are as interesting as they are perfectly suited to the Old West: greedy prospectors who are slowly going insane (and some who are already there), wealthy, corrupt officials who are ultimately shown to be soft-bellied cowards, innkeepers, whores, and soon-to-be-dead tough guys who picked a fight with the two worst people they could have chosen.
Both Eli and Charlie are deeply flawed in their own way: Charlie is a cruel, violent alcoholic and Eli is the codependent who enables him. They are very good at killing (and not much else), though Eli tells us that he doesn’t have the same heart and stomach for it that his older brother does. He speaks with the same sort of simple poetry that Nicholas Cage used in Raising Arizona (he was once a great performer in wonderful films, kids; ask your parents), which is in beautiful contrast to the wanton violence he brings to nearly every person he encounters.
As they journey from Oregon to California, we get a not-entirely-comfortable view of them doing what they do best, and by the midway point of the novel it’s easy to understand why the mere mention of their name can clear a room. Eli’s also made it plain that wants to hang up his guns, find a woman who will fall in love with him, and leave his life of violence behind him. He makes his case with such simple sincerity, I found myself cheering for him in a way that not a single character in State of Wonder could inspire. By the end of the story, I felt a deep connection to Eli, and I cared about Charlie as much as he did. I was glad to have spent the time with them that I did, and I hoped that they each got what they wanted out of the rest of their lives.
I suspect (and respect) that I’m not the person State of Wonder was written for, so my dislike of it shouldn’t disqualify it from your personal consideration. I’m not sure the other judges will enjoy The Sisters Brothers as much as I did, but I hope they do, because it’s a tremendously satisfying, character-driven novel that I’d love to see go all the way and win this thing.
By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner
John: Ann Patchett and I have a history. I’m sure she doesn’t remember it, though I do, quite well, and in a lot of ways, I owe whatever career I have as a writer to her.
It was spring semester of my final M.F.A. year and Ann Patchett was scheduled as a visiting writer. At the time she was a solid mid-list novelist, with two well-received books (The Patron Saint of Liars and Taft) already behind her and another (The Magician’s Assistant) that she read from while on campus on the way. She was, in just about every way, a model for what we wanted to be, a successful, publishing novelist. That she was just a little older (or in some cases younger) than us, made her seem even more accomplished.
Part of her duties as a visitor was to read stories by each of the graduating students and engage in one-on-one conferences. The memory of the story I gave her exists more as a feeling—shame—than anything else. I believe it involved a guy who was managing a Putt-Putt golf course. It was, no doubt, goofy, but probably had some kind of serious twist, a sudden act of violence or something. I have little doubt that it was not good.
I don’t remember the specifics about our discussion except for the end, when she said something like, “you have to decide whether you’re going to be serious or whether you’re going to be funny.”
I’ve quoted that, though it’s a paraphrase. It feels like a quote in my memory. The remark struck home and it hurt. I had not been having success, and held many doubts about my own approach, and here was someone who knew better than me telling me that I’d been rambling down a dead-end path. She’d confirmed something I’d feared. It was the penultimate nail in the coffin of my ambitions to be a writer—the final one being my thesis, which I could barely stand to look at on its way off of the printer.
I graduated and returned to my parents’ basement and didn’t write a word for six months and generally directed my attention toward unmaking my desire to write while finding a job that would take me out of my parents’ basement.
And then I got a notion for a story about a man talking to a career counselor, and all of the sudden the career counselor, instead of helping the man, starts talking about his career as a cage-fighter, and that he might just go and have sex with the man’s wife, something that man is likely incapable of stopping.
The story got weirder from there, and for the first time in a long time I was having fun writing. It also happened to be the first story that I ever published in an outlet of any significance.
In a recent interview, Charles Baxter talks about how he tells his graduate students that they need to cultivate a “fuck-you attitude” in order to succeed, and I think that story was the beginning of me developing this necessary trait that is now probably a little overdeveloped, to tell you the truth. If you’re ever going to write something that’s worth reading, you probably need to be saying “fuck you” to someone.
I feel a little bad about it, since Ann Patchett is a fine writer, and really one of the good guys considering her completely delightful writing memoir, as well as sinking her own money into an independent bookstore, but I’ve been saying “fuck you” to her for the last 15-plus years.
I can’t really thank her enough.
After reading Wil Wheaton’s take on State of Wonder, it seems possible that Ann Patchett will be saying “fuck you” to him for some years to come and we’ll have some really good books to look forward to.
Kevin: “Visiting professor Ann Patchett says ‘fuck you’ to Wil Wheaton” sounds like a Big Bang Theory episode description.
We’ve known each other a long time and I’ve never heard that story. I like Ann Patchett a lot. I often list Bel Canto among my favorite books, and I liked State of Wonder a little more than Judge Wheaton did. But I think one of the reasons she loses here is that State of Wonder seems to set up some expectations it doesn’t quite deliver on. The premise sounds awesome. In fact, it’s a story we almost can’t get enough of. Stanley and Livingstone. Heart of Darkness. Apocalypse Now. The current-and-probably-soon-to-be-canceled ABC series The River (OK, maybe we can get enough of it). The point is we know this setup and in the past, the payoff has frequently been thrilling. In this book, as Judge Wheaton points out, we do a lot of waiting for that payoff. It’s almost as if, having decided on a premise with such a familiar, plot-oriented hook, Patchett keeps running away from the story’s possibilities. It’s a good thing—even a necessary thing, I’d say—to subvert the reader’s expectations, and I think that’s what she’s going for here. Clearly she wanted to write a novel that was more than just an adventure story. But she also ended up with something not quite as satisfying as an adventure story.
Ann Patchett has terrific chops. I just don’t think she chopped enough on this one.
I suppose this would be a bad time to say that I also enjoyed The Sisters Brothers more because it’s funnier.
The irony you note is that, although Patchett made you feel bad and you were incredibly discouraged at the time, her comments caused you to really examine who you wanted to be as a writer—which was the very thing Patchett wanted you to do, even if you came out of it deciding that she was wrong. And you are undeniably a stronger writer having put yourself through that process.
To think that Ann Patchett has no idea that the cover of your book, perhaps sitting on a shelf in her own store, has been both taunting her and thanking her at the same time.
John: Ann Patchett is a pro, which is why all of her books are good and she’s one of the most popular contemporary literary novelists out there. You can’t really say there’s a thing wrong with State of Wonder, though I agree that the classic structure works against it. As the novel builds toward the end, we see forking, rather than branching paths, which makes the surprise not all that surprising, particularly if we’re thinking that she’s obligated to surprise us given the audience’s familiarity with the novel’s framework. I found myself predicting the end, rather than anticipating it, and it threw me out of the story.
The Sisters Brothers is also weighed down by certain expectations prior to the reading experience. It’s both a western adventure novel and a commentary on the western adventure novel, and it’s hard to find a description of the book that doesn’t compare it to True Grit. I actually tried reading this close to its release and wound up putting it down after a dozen or so pages, likely because those expectations worked against me as I read. It never helps to go into a book measuring it against True Grit, which is one of the most brilliant works of contemporary American fiction around.
The second time I picked up The Sisters Brothers was because it had been chosen for the tournament and was just after I’d finished Salvage the Bones, and at the time, it was just what I needed. I found the book hilarious and fun and became deeply involved with Charlie and Eli. I understand the need to compare new books to older ones for the purpose of sales and marketing, but I’d prefer it if we could figure out a way to just take books as they are, rather than what they’re supposed to be.
Kevin: You talk about familiarity. The western is such an iconic form in America that John Ford was making post-modern westerns in the ’30s. I suppose it would still be possible to write a western that wasn’t also some kind of ironic meta-commentary on the western form, but it’s hard to imagine wanting to read such a thing, unless it’s Lonesome Dove.
One of the nice things about being in the booth for the Tournament of Books is that every year there are a handful that I read without knowing much about them. I was aware of The Sisters Brothers, but I downloaded it to my iPad, so I bypassed the reviews and blurbs and jacket copy. I just dove in and I loved it all the way through. It’s dark, it’s thoughtful, it’s funny. And once you fine-tune the voice in your head to the one on the page, it all just flies along, episode after episode.
deWitt is able to generate a tremendous amount of empathy for his horrible characters. You find yourself feeling sad for Eli’s hopeless stabs at finding love, or laughing at their obsession with the newfangled toothpaste fad. Then in the next paragraph they’ll just kill five dudes.
deWitt does a credible job with the period, too. He doesn’t bury you in research, but it all feels right, at least to my inexpert mind. The occasional bit of historical homework, like the fires that consumed San Francisco in the early gold-rush days, are dropped in elegantly. There was one device that really didn’t work for me late in the novel—a discovered diary that provides a lot of convenient and unlikely exposition—but deWitt had already sold me the car by then. I was just driving it home.
John: State of Wonder’s defeat throws expert ToB handicapper, BookRiot.com’s Jeff O’Neil’s predictions into a state of disarray, but given its popularity, it may have a second life as a Zombie.
Tomorrow, one of our contestants is the freshest face of early 2011 (Karen Russell). The other (Michael Ondaatje) has a beard that deserves its own Twitter feed. Haven Kimmel gets to figure out which one will advance to meet The Sisters Brothers.