• March 15, 2012

    Opening Round

  • Karen Russell

    2The Cat’s Table

    Michael Ondaatje

  • Judged by

    Haven Kimmel

The Cat's Table

The two novels I was to consider for this round, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, are so disparate in both style and tone that as I was reading the latter I couldn’t imagine a contest that would include both. I might as well claim I just won an argument with a 15th century Yemeni goat-herder. (I totally won.) Russell’s is a fantastic tale of an isolated alligator-wrestling family empire in Florida’s Everglades; the prose manages to be dense and language-y and whimsical all at once, which I imagine many readers will find intolerable. In addition, Russell alternates two points of view, Ava’s and Kiwi’s, but Ava’s is in the first person and Kiwi’s is in the third, which strikes me as a failed attempt to fix a structural problem with a stylistic solution. It’s just not right.

Haven Kimmel is the author of numerous books. She belongs to a nearly extinct religious sect, and lives in rural Chapel Hill, N.C. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “I have no conflicts of integrity with any of the proposed titles.”

Ondaatje’s latest is the story of an 11-year-old sailing alone, for all intents and purposes, from India to England in the early 1950s, aboard the Oronsay, a ship in the Orient Line. As in all of Ondaatje’s work, the small and familiar is wed to the grand and exotic in one perfect sentence after another, none of them drawing attention to the writing itself in any particular way.

Besides the surface incompatibilities, Swamplandia! is Russell’s first novel following a collection of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, which I haven’t read because I keep confusing it with a different book with a long and a-smidge-too-precious title. My not having read her first book is my failure, not Ms. Russell’s, but she is also young and a New Yorker darling, one of their prized, ambitious 20 Under 40. I didn’t like young writers when I was one, and these days I want my authors like I want my Scotch: aged and peaty, with a bouquet of regret.1 Ondaatje is pushing 70, and he is crazy handsome, and he wrote two of my favorite novels of all-time, Coming Through Slaughter and In The Skin of a Lion. I decided the fairest thing would be to read Swamplandia! first and allow it to avoid the odiousness of comparison, to paraphrase Donne. The book begins thusly:

Our mother performed in starlight. Whose innovation this was I never discovered. Probably it was Chief Bigtree’s idea, and it was a good one—to blank the follow spot and let a sharp moon cut across the sky, unchaperoned; to kill the microphone; to leave the stage lights’ tin eyelids scrolled and give the tourists in the stands a chance to enjoy the darkness of our island; to encourage the whole stadium to gulp air along with Swamplandia!’s star performer, the world-famous alligator wrestler Hilola Bigtree.

Now I read this and sigh with pleasure over what’s ahead, but in the moment I merely sighed. All those semicolons? The grim awkwardness of the exclamation point separating Swamplandia! from its own possessive? The stage lights’ tin eyelids, the too-colorful names? I love a book that costs me something, heaven knows, but I also want my prose transparent,2 and throughout the first chapter I had to stop and consider numerous lyrical and idiosyncratic choices, just in order to see through them to the strange universe of Swamplandia! itself. I don’t recall the moment my fussy irritation fell away, because by the second chapter I’d forgotten I was Reading, and was simply reading.

Swamplandia! centers on one summer in the life of the Bigtree family. The father, Chief, is struggling to keep the family’s amusement park open, and is in denial of the hopelessness of the task. He is recently widowed; the above-mentioned Hilola is newly dead of cancer at the age of 38. The Chief’s own father, Sawtooth, who was the greater source of masculine power on the isolated island, is suffering from senile dementia and has been exiled to an assisted-living facility that is actually a docked boat some distance away in the swamp, I think? Somehow I was never quite clear on the various marshy accommodations. The Chief and Hilola have three rather feral and unschooled children, Kiwi, an autodidact and only son on whom the weight of the family’s disaster lands squarely; the middle child, Osceola, who at 16 is a practicing spiritist engaged in a love affair with a ghost called the Dredgeman; and 13-year-old Ava, fearless and grief-stricken and the perfect (terrible) age for a mythical journey.

When Chief leaves on a mysterious mainland errand, and with no promise of when he will return, the children are free of the last impediment between themselves and the catastrophic change that occurs as much in the soul as in the world of the newly orphaned. Russell is explicit about what each child must do: Ossie follows the ghost of the Dredgeman into the underworld, guided by an old map found on the wreckage of a dredge. Kiwi becomes an employee at The World of Darkness, a rival amusement park where families enjoy a recreation of Hell, including the main attraction wherein one is swallowed by a whale, then vomited back out along the creature’s waterslide tongue. And Ava must save Ossie from her ghastly marriage, using as her own guide a stranger named the Birdman, who is a vulture-whisperer and wears a long coat of black feathers.

I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, but I will say that from the midpoint until near the end I wasn’t at all sure of what I was reading, and that fact—along with riches too numerous to count—made my heart speed up with a kind of delicious dread. Swamplandia! has elements of magical realism but is not magical realism; it is both a place and the noplace of lost children and dead parents. The water is murky and populated by ancient, toothy monsters, which is as fine a metaphor for how it feels to be a 13-year-old girl as any I can imagine.

The Cat’s Table—the title refers to the actual seating in the dining room of the ship; it’s the table where the children and the odd are placed, as far from the Captain’s Table as possible—by contrast, begins like this:

He wasn’t talking. He was looking from the window of the car all the way. Two adults in the front seat spoke quietly under their breath. He could have listened if he wanted to, but he didn’t. For a while, at the section of the road where the river sometimes flooded, he could hear the spray of water at the wheels.

The novel never varies, stylistically, from those clean lines, in part because our narrator, Michael, is recounting events in the distant past, but also because he’s being faithful to how little he understood of those events as they transpired. As wild and almost reckless as Russell’s narrative undertaking is in Swamplandia!, I can think of nothing more fraught with peril than entrusting a story to an eleven-year-old boy. Having raised both daughters and sons and having been, myself, a very stupid child, I can attest that boys at that age are so dim and instinct-driven they shouldn’t be entrusted with sandwiches, let alone storylines. The discrepancy between the authorial intelligence and that of the actual boy on the ship is problematic; when the narration switches to the present (which happens mostly near the end, and feels extraneous) the adult Michael is still distant. He is hardly wiser or more enlivened than on those three weeks at sea so long ago. Where the danger facing the Bigtree children is immediate and visceral, nothing that happens to the protagonists in Ondaatje’s novel feels dangerous at all, regardless of the extremity or potential drama. The dynamic range is condensed to a single mid-range tone, which requires a great deal of skill on the part of the novelist. The rewards are clear when that’s effective; when it isn’t (as it wasn’t quite, for me, in this case) the story might still be engaging and worthwhile, but I don’t feel much about it. Characters can live or die, they can vanish into bleak fates or experience mad, worldly success. It’s rather all the same, in the end.

For quite a long time in The Cat’s Table almost nothing happens beyond the essential drama of the voyage, and I was prepared to enjoy an entire novel of not-much-happening-in-an-Ondaatje way. After reading the first few chapters I told my husband I thought it was going to be a book about a young boy at large on a ship who takes up with two other boys similarly adult-free, and the adventures they get into: the life-changing nature of being adrift. But in fact what begins as an almost-too-subtle novel ends as one in which too many things occur too close together and too near the end. I wished for more time to enjoy one or two of the surprises in the plot, rather than having to wrestle with the question of whether each surprise was justified. That said, The Cat’s Table is a lovely novel, one I ultimately found vivid and poignant, and my love of Ondaatje continues unabated.

But between these two stories of parentless children on the water and the single season that nearly drowns them, only Swamplandia! got under my skin, and that may be as much about what irritated me as it is about what I admired. I went into the judging of this round believing the fight wasn’t fair, and that turned out to be true, just not in the way I anticipated. The Cat’s Table is the work of a master, even if it isn’t a masterpiece, but you know: Michael Ondaatje has done just fine for himself. He gets plenty of attention. Karen Russell is young! I am now on the side of the young writer! She’s insanely talented, with a super huge cranium and enough bravado to send three children into Hell. I want her to write many more books. Ondaatje will scrape by without this one victory.

1I don’t actually drink Scotch.

2When I say I want my prose to be transparent I mean I want other people’s prose to be transparent, as I am clearly incapable of such a feat.

TODAY’S WINNER: Swamplandia!

Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

Kevin: This year we filled the judges table with all first-timers and I have to say, through six matches now, the quality of judging has been remarkably and consistently good. One after another these literary magistrates have been informed and eloquent. Each has taken his or her responsibilities seriously, but every one also seems to be having fun. There’s almost nothing for you and me to do. We can’t make fun of them. We can’t really question their judgment, or explain the books any better. The clown act we usually fall back on would just seem sort of disrespectful.

Speaking of which, on the side of this box I found the original title of Jonathan Safran Foer’s last novel.

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

Like Judge Kimmel, I too was initially bothered by the alternating first-person/third-person POVs in Swamplandia!, but Russell actually uses it to solve one of the novel’s structural problems. Ava has lived her whole life in a seemingly magical place, and she doesn’t really know that her head exists in a space outside reality. As a result her narration is somewhat unreliable. Sending Kiwi out of the swamp and into the real world and accompanied by a third-person narrator grounds the reader and lets her know that in the other chapters Ava is describing the space inside her head (as it was when she was a child, at least) and not necessarily the actual world of the book. I thought it was rather elegant.

It does create some other problems. Time isn’t moving at the same rate in the alternating chapters and that sometimes felt like a cheat. And the climax in which the two stories dovetail was more convenient than a drive-through liquor store on a cannonball run. I had a hard time buying it. But Russell makes a nice save in the coda where the Bigtree family makes a hard but feel-good landing in the real world. I thought the whole novel was charming and suspenseful and beautifully written.

Of all the books in the tourney, I actually think this is the easiest one to recommend to another reader. I suspect it probably has the widest appeal. If it can make it all the way to the final, that’s a quality that I think could make it hard to beat when the full court weighs in.

Full disclosure, the editor of Swamplandia!, Knopf’s Jordan Pavlin, was the editor of my first two novels (although I hadn’t realized that until I finished the book and read the acknowledgments). More importantly, she was also the editor of last year’s champion, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. Could we be looking at the first editor to win back-to-back Rooster titles?

How’s that for a geektastic inside-literary-baseball storyline?

John: You’re talking about Swamplandia!, and momentarily, I’m going to be talking about Swamplandia!, because I didn’t read The Cat’s Table (and maybe you didn’t either), and I’m sort of wondering why I didn’t. Each year, my intention is to complete all 16 tournament books, a goal I have yet to achieve. The closest I came was last year, where I finished 14 books and got about halfway through The Finkler Question before giving up on it. There’s always one book I just can’t bring myself to start, and this year it’s The Cat’s Table. I don’t know why. I like Michael Ondaatje’s work. I’ve read several of his books. The Cat’s Table comes with some excellent notices and reviews. It’s just that as the list of tournament books shrank, I chose something else over it, and now that it’s been eliminated, unless you tell me at the end of Round 1 that it’s in the Zombie running, I’ll probably let it pass by without knowing anything more about it than what Haven Kimmel has to tell me here.

Our commenters are wonderfully lively this year, so maybe they can help us out. What makes them bypass books that they’re “supposed” to read, or that everyone else is reading?

Reading the first few pages of Swamplandia!, I got the same kind of electric jolt as when I read Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned for the 2009 tourney. The level of talent on display is exciting and humbling, the kind of experience that reminds me of my own limits as a writer. No matter how much I improve, I’ll simply never be that good. She has a gift that she’s clearly also taken great care to nurture and develop.

Which is why I’m also going to say some unkind things about this book because I think structurally, and perspective-wise, it’s kind of a mess.

I used a Derek Rose analogy for Wells Tower, likening his ability to Rose’s legendary crossing over of Andre Miller during Rose’s rookie year. You could tell there was some development still to go, but the ability is so thrilling, you know greatness is coming. Rose won the MVP last year. Tower, I assume, is working on his next book. I’m still hotly anticipating it.

For Russell and Swamplandia!, I’m going to go with Jeremy Lin. The comparison isn’t perfect, in that Lin was largely overlooked while Russell was identified as a major developing talent early in her career, but I’m thinking about Lin’s stat line: 20-plus points, 10 assists, and eight turnovers. There are a lot of turnovers in this book, the way she handles the perspectives and time being the biggest one.

There’s also a consistent issue with perspective in terms of who and where the storytelling Ava Bigtree is at the time of telling. Clearly, it’s retrospective, with all the telling happening after the events in the novel. And at times, that adult perspective peeks in, but for the most part, we’re confined to the child-Ava, who often describes things in ways child-Ava doesn’t have access to. The immature voice also provides a safe place from some of the more harrowing realities of the Bigtree family’s situation. She’s allowed to be wide-eyed and wondrous, sad and plucky, and there were many stretches that I just didn’t buy.

I think you and I would probably both agree that there’s nothing harder in the world than finding a working structure for a novel, and this book just doesn’t have one. I felt like the third-person narration for Kiwi’s story was much more successful. I’ve heard it compared to George Saunders, which is both apt and not sufficient because Kiwi’s tale sustains itself in ways Saunders shorter narratives don’t.

I think it’s probably not coincidental that Kiwi’s story was fresh material not found in the original material, Russell’s story “Ava Wrestles the Alligator.” It felt like she was freed to invent from a brand-new place, and this material holds together in ways Ava’s story does not.

I’m sounding harsher than I mean to be. I’m awed by Russell, but I think also a little annoyed that those turnovers are forgiven because of all those points. I’m looking forward to when it all comes together for her.

Kevin: I agree that if you take Ava’s narration at face value the book has some problems, but I think it’s pretty clear that we’re not supposed to. Her story is told through a lens colored by her naivete, her precociousness, her isolation from the world, and a repression/romanticizing of her weird-ass childhood by whatever adult version of Ava is recounting these events. But we all do some version of that, not just novelists but anyone who is telling a story from another time. As you point out, this technique “provides a safe place from some of the more harrowing realities of the Bigtree family’s situation,” but that’s intended so when you leave that safe place and remember the world as it really is, you go, “Holy shit, that stuff over there is fucked up.” You see it as a cop-out, but I see it as the novel’s strength.

Is it airtight? Of course not. Russell took some liberties with the POV for the purpose of lyricism (and occasionally convenience) or maybe sometimes just because it felt right. There are inconsistencies. Sometimes Ava sounds like she knows better and sometimes she doesn’t. But it all felt pretty much in bounds to me.

I suppose it feels right to me because I’ve apparently bought into #KARENsanity and you haven’t. I am Spike Lee to your Buzz Bissinger. As I aggressively defend her choices as a novelist, I don my “Russell Terriers” t-shirt and bark at every mention of the Bird Man, who certainly is one of the creepier characters in fiction last year—creepy precisely because of the gap between Ava’s heroic, feather-clad description of him, and the actual, ordinary monster the reader knows he will turn out to be.

I think I said this in a previous tournament, but our reactions to any book are more emotional than intellectual. Like people, all books are imperfect and your relationship with a novel is a lot like your relationship with anybody—it all depends on what and how much you are willing to forgive.

John: And in this case, the problems I perceive with Swamplandia! just happen to take root in a couple of personal bugaboos. The truth is that I’ve spent far too much time writing books and thinking about writing books and teaching writing, and perspective and narrative POV happen to be two hobbyhorses of mine. To put it another way, I’ve warped my brain. The inconsistencies bother me far out of proportion to their actual impact on the narrative. I’ve actually recommended this book more widely and more often than just about any other this year because I think it’s both enjoyable and meaty in ways that mean most passionate readers will really dig it. From the beginning I thought it was a good bet to go far in the tourney.

Tomorrow, two novels with the emotional lives of young women at their centers take the arena stage as our Cinderella Green Girl goes up against Times Square-appearing juggernaut The Marriage Plot.

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