by Nathacha AppanahBuy at Powell’s »
March 22, 2012
4The Sisters Brothers
For someone who only emerges from her cocoon of musical instruments and staff paper to offer the occasional opinion on albums, concerts, and contemporary opera, the idea of passing any sort of official judgment on these novels is terrifying. Both are narrated by disarming characters with imaginations that have outgrown the world around them. Both authors spin mundane details into poetry that lodged in my brain for months: the way fishnet stockings make an “itchy sound” and “ceiling fans whip ordinary air into a torture” in Swamplandia!, the image of a ranch hand simultaneously scratching his forehead and his genitals in The Sisters Brothers. Both novels are outstanding.
Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! is narrated for the most part by Ava Bigtree, a 13-year-old who wrestles alligators for the entertainment of tourists at her family’s isolated theme park in the Everglades. When Ava’s mother, the star of the show, dies of cancer, the Bigtree family is at loose financial and emotional ends. Ava’s sister Ossie goes deeper into her own private world, holding séances, dating ghosts, and eventually vanishing in search of the underworld. Her brother Kiwi runs away to the mainland to find a job and her father leaves on mysterious business, leaving Ava to make sense of her increasingly isolated life. Russell weaves these stories together with writing that is itself beautifully swamp-like; she paints a humid, unwashed, overgrown world for Ava and Ossie, where water moccasins “wrinkle” across the rivers and “strange things happen to personalities this far out.” It’s a Goonies-esque setting where we’re not sure what to believe, and I found myself more than willing to dive into the cool relief of Ava’s vivid imagination.
It’s only when a disturbing event brings the fantasy back down to earth that I realized the extent to which I believed in this ratty teenager. I was invested in this girl. I wanted her to exist in a place where it’s possible to date ghosts and visit the underworld, where magic could lift her out of her isolation at any moment. When the fantasy evaporated it was actually a supremely satisfying moment; in a single sentence I felt that dreams and reality switched places. The “real” world of Kiwi’s mainland became a place where miracles could happen while the island became a place of confusion and danger where fear was, like the ubiquitous mosquitoes, “a force that could drain you in sips without ever knowing what you had been, or seeing your face.”
Eli Sisters, the sagacious narrator of Patrick De Witt’s The Sisters Brothers, weaves his inner world out of considerably drier but no less vivid material. His brother Charlie has dragged Eli half-unwittingly into a life of crime, and as the novel begins we watch them set off on assignment to kill one Hermann Kermit Warm. Yes, this is an incredibly violent novel. The violence of everyday 1850s Wild West life (nausea alert: A horse’s eye is removed with a spoon!) is topped with the violence the Sisters brothers inflict upon roughly half the people unfortunate enough to cross their path. The setting is familiar and so is the story; the Sisters brothers have colorful dealings with whores, malicious bosses, backstabbing partners, trappers, Indians, and hollow-eyed lonely men who pan for gold.
But it’s not the story itself that makes this novel so fantastic, it’s Eli’s honey-toned (I’m sure of it!) voice and philosophical take on the mayhem cartwheeling around him. Eli speaks in short, contraction-less sentences that sit with the reader like proverbs to be untangled: “My very center was beginning to expand, as it always did before violence, a toppled pot of black ink covering the frame of my mind, its contents ceaseless, unaccountably limitless.” “I stood a long while before her looking glass, studying my profile, the line I cut in this world of men and ladies.” “I experienced a shudder of happiness... It is true, I thought. I am living a life.”
The juxtaposition of this detached, romantic voice and psychotic violence is seductive and harrowing. I want Eli to narrate everything, including my own life, and for a few precious days as I read this novel, he did. While Swamplandia! got a little slow in the middle before all the narrative threads wove together in the eleventh hour, each word of The Sisters Brothers felt essential, inevitable and surprising. Ava’s adventures come to a satisfying but predictable end, while I feel like Eli’s journey is still going, that this character is still vivid and alive. Both novels drew me into an intoxicating and wonderfully impossible world, but it’s Eli’s voice, not Ava’s, that stays with me weeks later.
By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner
John: We have a treat for ToB fans today, something we started last year where we invite special guests into the booth to join in the commentary fun. In the grand tradition of the Gifford-Cosell-Dandy Don Meredith years of Monday Night Football, this also gives Kevin and me a chance to hit the sauce.
So, in the MNF spirit, we’ve gone to great expense to bring you the reanimated corpse of Frank Sinatra to comment on today’s matchup.
No, we haven’t. We have something better, Rosecrans Baldwin, co-founder of The Morning News as well as co-creator of the tournament itself. Not only that, but he’s a damn fine novelist (You Lost Me There) and now memoirist with his forthcoming expatriate tale, Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, due next month. Publishers Weekly says it’s one of the spring’s top 10 travel books, Kirkus has given it a starred review, and this person thinks it may just “blow your face off.”
Welcome to the booth, Rosecrans.
Rosecrans: It is a pleasure and an honor.
John: When you conceived of the tournament, is this what you were thinking?
Rosecrans: Not quite. It’s so much better. Kevin, Andrew, and I were drinking at a bar one night, and we talked about wanting to start a book award that removed the smoke and mirrors and added in some blood-thirst. We definitely didn’t imagine it would get this big, or that people would respond to it so passionately—as shown by the terrific comment discussions this year.
John: This is your first year not playing a judging role in the tournament. Do you miss it? Any past judging experiences that really stand out?
Rosecrans: I miss it. But we decided after last year that no one who’s judged before can judge again, to keep things fresh; each year going forward will have a new slate. But I’ve always loved reading the judgments and reactions—being involved as a reader. Frankly I find the Rooster book assessments and discussions more interesting than the majority of book reviews. I don’t know if it’s some new form of reviewing, but it’s something.
One experience that stands out is how we got Junot Díaz to judge in 2009. He won the Rooster in 2008 with Oscar Wao, and he’d told us how much he liked the ToB. So we invited him to judge. He said he’d do it on the condition that we got him a decent Rooster T-shirt; after he’d won, his editor had made him a T-shirt with the Rooster logo at a local Kinko’s, but it was cheap stuff. So we hired an illustrator to make the most hardcore Rooster shirt imaginable.
If any MIT students see Junot in the gym in this shirt, please grab a pic for us!
Kevin: That reminds me that for eight years we’ve been talking about having a meeting about how we haven’t taken full advantage of Rooster merch and swag opportunities. (I, for one, have been lobbying for production of a ToB-branded weather vane.) Any chance that, going forward, people will be able to buy an awesome ToB cap or cat sweater, or are we just going to concede that market to Etsy?
Rosecrans: Is this something people want? Merch can be a pain; but I love a good T-shirt as much as anybody. If enough people said in the comments that they want merch, we might find a way to make merch happen.
John: How about those commenters? They’re so lively this year it’s like Kevin and I are hardly necessary. We are still necessary, right?
Rosecrans: I’m not so sure anymore! It’s been a wonderful development, to see the conversation flourish without people talking (too much) trash or insulting one another.
I’ve really enjoyed the debate in the last couple of days about art versus entertainment. Like you guys, I try not to wade in too much. But that conversation about Art of Fielding and Open City… I’ve been working on a new novel for the past year, and the struggle between art and entertainment is a daily one. It’s both a structural and temperamental issue for me—how to entertain without being cheap, how to build meaningful weight without bulking up. The greats in my mind do it idiosyncratically—Mary Robison’s withholding of information; Ian McEwan’s bit-by-bit brick-laying; Iris Murdoch’s philosophical soap operas, which I mean in the best possible way. Among the kings for me is Graham Greene. You want art and entertainment, look at The End of the Affair, The Comedians, The Ministry of Fear. And they’re still so slim! A great novel isn’t always a stuffed turkey.
Kevin: I know we share a love for Graham Greene. I’ve always found it funny that he needed to label certain novels—Our Man in Havana, for instance—as “entertainments” when his literary triumphs—The End of the Affair, The Heart of the Matter, The Power and the Glory—are among the most enjoyable and suspenseful page turners of the 20th century, according to me.
John: And me!
Rosecrans: Word up.
Kevin: One of the great perks of being a contributor to The Morning News is that more or less weekly you send an email around to the staff with general news about the site and you also tip us to what music you’ve been listening to lately. In the tradition of Largehearted Boy’s Book Notes, do you have any songs in mind that might make a good soundtrack to this year’s Rooster?
Rosecrans: “Comeback Kid” from the new Sleigh Bells record. It’s trashy and thrashy, plus the lyrics are suited to anyone with a chip on their shoulder. I.e., writers.
Kevin: I just bought the new Sleigh Bells this morning, so there must be something to that. It is awesome.
Your new memoir, Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, won’t be on shelves until next month but it’s getting great advance buzz. I haven’t read it yet, but mutual friends of ours whom you like better than me have read it and they have been rave-bragging to me about it for weeks. I don’t think I would ever consider writing a memoir, with that medium’s constant demands that things be “true,” and populated as it is with real people who could be offended. Did your wife go through the manuscript with a red pen and a scissors, the way mine would?
Rosecrans: She was fine with being portrayed. She’s a writer too, and as you said, I couldn’t change events from what I had in my notes. Now, if I had started inventing things, or exaggerating, she would’ve been upset. But the truth was already so odd there wasn’t any need for embellishment.
But the book is mostly about my individual experiences—about my life in a Parisian office, and how to find a city beneath the clichés. So there are a few people who probably won’t want to be my friend after it’s published, but thankfully they all live 4,000 miles away. Anyway, I’m by far the book’s biggest idiot.
John: This past fall we had the privilege of reading together at the amazing Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. If I recall, you read a very funny excerpt about looking for an apartment in Paris. It seemed like a low point, and you’d just gotten there. What was the lowest moment?
Rosecrans: Probably when we learned that there would be construction on the sixth side of our apartment. This was about eight months into our stay. Each month a new construction project would start in one of the apartments nearby—above us, below us, next to us—until finally every planar surface of the apartment had drill sounds coming through it for 8-10 hours a day. But at some point—which sort of goes to the heart of the book—you figure out that a low point is relative, especially in Paris.
Kevin: Apparently my earlier hint about wanting a free copy of Paris, I Love You But was too subtle. I want a free copy of Paris, I Love You But. And I don’t want to wait until April 20-something when it comes out. What’s a boy gotta do?
Rosecrans: Boom: Since the book is inspired by the column I wrote here at TMN, my publisher has set up a giveaway. All you need to do is go like their Facebook page between now and April 1, and you could be one of 10 people chosen randomly to receive a shiny new book in the mail.
Also, I want to thank the ToB audience who are still reading for indulging me in this pre-publication blathering. I’m out!
John: Kevin, before we sign off we should probably talk about today’s judgment. Looking at the audience commentary following Swamplandia!’s opening round victory, a sizable portion of our readers will be pleased. At a No. 4 seed, The Sisters Brothers has the look of one of our more successful Cinderellas in tourney history.
Kevin: While I was reading The Sisters Brothers I had this thought: John C. Reilly would be an awesome choice to play Eli Sisters. And then last week I was reading Printers Row, the new weekly book section published by the Chicago Tribune (where you, John, as the Biblioracle, will be writing a semi-regular column) and there was this feature where they ask celebrities what they are reading and John C. Reilly tells them he’s already optioned The Sisters Brothers and plans to star in it himself. I should have a job where all I do is give good actors novels I think they should star in. Then again, I’d probably do nothing but give books all day to John C. Reilly.
John: If John C. Reilly is Eli, who plays Charlie? I’m thinking Viggo Mortenson for some reason.
Kevin: I championed Swamplandia! in the opening round, and I still think it’s a terrific novel, but my vote here would also go to The Sisters Brothers. It’s my favorite book in the tourney this year. This is way premature, but the enthusiasm behind its little run here reminds me a bit of Sam Lipsyte’s Homeland, which you and I championed and which made it all the way to the finals several years back.
So The Sisters Brothers makes into the semifinals, where it will face tomorrow’s The Marriage Plot-Open City winner. And as for the Zombie results, this got a little interesting.
Swamplandia!, which was one of the most popular books of 2011, fails to make it into Zombie contention by just a single vote. If the Zombie Round were held today, The Art of Fielding and State of Wonder would still be our unholy and undead challengers.