by Nathacha AppanahBuy at Powell’s »
March 28, 2012
4The Sisters Brothers
Let’s get this out of the way: Both novels I am judging were written by authors with the same last name. I’ll have to call them H and P.
My predispositions: I rarely care for westerns, especially not sad ones. I quite like a smutty book, especially a funny one. The Sisters Brothers is a sad western and Lightning Rods is a smutty comedy, so I read H’s novel first, pleased to be descending into a bit of highly literary obscenity. I write for teenagers, and the books I read for work are often pretty horndoggy—but never creatively filthy.
The novel is indeed both super creative and super filthy, but I soon got bored. I put the book down. Then one evening, a friend asked me what Lightning Rods was about and I began telling how the first 10 pages of the novel explain this guy Joe’s fantasy: a game show in which attractive women lean their upper bodies through holes in a wall. They carry on conversations while “one contestant was penally challenged from behind. Panelists had to guess which…. An inset in the screen showed the thrusting buttocks of a man giving the contestant the old Atchison Topeka.” The winner is the woman who keeps calm enough that no one can tell she is being aggressively rogered throughout the proceedings.
Joe gets distracted by the details of his fantasy, though. Half the time it doesn’t even get him off. He becomes preoccupied by the rules, the logistics, the personalities of various contestants. At one point he notices the game is rigged; he wonders how they recruit contestants and what his favorite participant did with her winnings.
Anyway, I was telling my friend all this. He started laughing hysterically and demanded to read the novel. Suddenly I remembered that Lightning Rods is indeed bizarre and dirty and funny as hell. I love the way H strung this wacked-out game-show fantasy along for so many pages. She manages to be erotic and astute about human nature, to make me laugh and make me think—about offices and sex and the social structures that continue to support unequal relationships between men and women. I went back to the book with a much better attitude, but it never really gripped me.
Thing is, H essentially eschews the storytelling techniques I would have learned in creative writing classes had I ever taken more than one. Joe is a schlemiel and kind of a blank one at that, despite his creative fantasies. Nothing seems at stake for him except that he’d like to make some money. The novel is not so much his story as a chronicle of how he makes a success of the operation.
Near the end, a new guy thinks of a pay-per-fuck system with a variety of extras (anal, etc.). H discusses monopolies for a couple pages after this happens, noting that, “if you have a monopoly on something that people look at askance…if your product is something that attracts a certain amount of odium, all that odium has only one place to go. It goes straight to you.”
Her point is smart, the phrasing is clever, that last line is punchy. It’s like that all through the book. But we are still talking about monopolies and how they operate in the marketplace.
H writes Joe in a rather cool third person, as if she can’t quite bring herself to admit identification with such a chronic and sexist masturbator. I found myself longing to see what the book would be like if Joe had been the narrator—if I weren’t always viewing him with a critical distance, but was immersed in his slimy, idiosyncratic, and innovative brain. What Lightning Rods lacks is that most basic of narrative devices: a guy to care about.
In contrast: P’s book, The Sisters Brothers, uses a bevy of tried-and-true narrative techniques, the kind you read about in screenwriting how-to books, of which I have read many. There are so many techniques, and they are so blatantly used, that I felt acutely conscious of the architecture of the novel as I read it—and yet they worked on me, big-time. The Sisters Brothers is a rollicking good read.
Eli Sisters is a professional killer, a sweaty, fat gold-rush-era gunslinger traveling from Oregon to Northern California with his even meaner brother Charlie. They’re on a job for the mysterious Commodore, who sends them out to kill anyone who has crossed him in any number of business interests.
Throughout, we are inside Eli’s head and body, both of which are suffering. There’s no backstory until most of the novel is through. No scene setting, no messing around. The Sisters Brothers is action, action, action all the time. In every scene, something changes for Eli, who bit by bit grows a conscience and also a consciousness that there is another way he and Charlie might live.
In the first paragraph, we have not only the “inciting incident” (in screenwriter terms) but fire, death, horseback riding, and a “save the cat” moment that allows us to fall in love with this miserable specimen of humanity. “My new horse was called Tub…. I was very fond of my previous horse and lately had been experiencing visions while I slept of his death, his kicking, burning legs, his hot-popping eyeballs…. I never laid a hand on him except to stroke him or clean him and I tried not to think of him burning up in that barn but if the vision arrived uninvited how was I to guard against it?”
That opening chapter is only two paragraphs and two pages, but it makes us understand a brutal killer, sympathize with him, and know that something has begun to change in his heart since the death of that horse.
On every page I was stunned by P’s mastery of these kinds of conventions of plot-driven storytelling. They are much, much more easily discussed than executed. Probably people who aren’t fiction writers won’t be sitting around noticing this stuff. They will be seduced by Eli’s beautiful voice, a curious mixture of erudite and uneducated thug, and by their desire to know what happens when the notorious Sisters Brothers find Herman Kermit Warm in San Francisco and realize the Commodore wants him killed for different reasons than they’d understood.
The death count is massive. There’s a lot of boozing, whoring, vomiting, blistering, bleeding, suffering, blindness, amputation, and surprisingly, tooth-brushing. (A motif! Just like the screenwriting books want you to have! But an effective and light-handed one.)
Despite the gore, The Sisters Brothers is ultimately the story of a guy trying to figure out how to be a good brother, a good son, and a good friend; how to deal with the evil inside him, and reconcile with the evil he has done.
That is all of us, I think.
Chekov said, “Cut a good story anywhere, and it will bleed.” It’s a quotation I think about often. Lightning Rods is bloodless, for all its eroticism and smarts. The Sisters Brothers bleeds its guts out on every page. It wins the round.
By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner
John: The undead have risen, and a couple of wayward living souls fleeing from the lurching, slavering horde have wound up inside the ToB booth with Kevin and I. We’re glad to have them. C. Max Magee is the proprietor of the indispensible literary site, The Millions. Carolyn Kellogg is the indispensible writer for the Los Angeles Times covering all things books and publishing. We’re honored to have such august company trapped inside with us, and out of the gate, we’d like to apologize for the smell. That’s not rotting zombie flesh. Kevin and I have been here for three weeks.
Carolyn Kellogg: I’d always wondered what it would be like to live inside the world of The Walking Dead. Look, there’s Hershel—and a bar! Awesome. I’ll be right back.
C. Max Magee: After three years as a judge, I’ve somehow landed myself in the booth. I feel like one of those guys who comes back after graduation and loiters creepily around campus, remembering my faded glory days. But in a good way! Seriously, though, it’s generous of you to invite me, and thanks for putting in the tremendous amount of work behind the scenes that makes The Tournament of Books such a fun ride each year.
John: Total honesty. Prior to the start of the tourney, which book did you see winning, and why?
Max: Having read fewer of these books than I care to admit but also having (I hope) my finger on the pulse of what readers are really digging, I thought The Tiger’s Wife had the inside track. OK, I’ll admit it. I haven’t read The Tiger’s Wife (yet). But our Millions staffer Michael Bourne, whose taste I trust, led off his review of the book with this phrase: “Let’s just get this out of the way up front: Téa Obreht is the real deal.” And later he wrote, for good measure, that the book was “by far the most startling, bizarro-brilliant debut since Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist in 1999.” At The Millions we publish dozens of reviews every year, and in reading and editing them all, I come to know quite well the proclivities of various writers, particularly the staffers. And so, knowing well the particular readerly sensibility behind our review of The Tiger’s Wife, I’ve had the book on a mental pedestal for a year now. I’m also excited about The Sisters Brothers tourney run, as it’s a great scrappy underdog to root for (insofar as a Booker shortlister can be called a scrappy underdog.)
Carolyn: I did read The Tiger’s Wife, and I also interviewed Obreht. I think she is a real talent, preternaturally gifted in that Jonathan Safran Foer way. But I don’t know if that makes her a ToB winner. I’d say from the get-go, my guesses as to the strong contenders were: Murakami’s 1Q84 (because it is big and ambitious and Murakami), Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (because it’s got a sassy appeal, and an exclamation mark), and Teju Cole’s Open City (because it’s exquisite and quiet, and will stand out for it). That said, I have been an enormous fan of The Sisters Brothers since day one and I hope it has many, many long lives, maybe even one with a Rooster.
John: The big discussion we have every year is over what makes a good book. Kevin and I blather about this incessantly, so it’d be nice to get some other opinions coming out of the booth. For you guys, what makes a good book?
Max: There’s always a lot of tension around whether a book being “good” is more bound up in how it challenges and innovates or how it entertains and transports. But we’re all pretty tired of these false either/or arguments, aren’t we? For me, and I think for many, a good book is one that does both things. My best reading experiences are provided by books that are engrossing but that also push back and make me work. To pull a random example from among the books that I have loved over the years, take The Known World by Edward P. Jones. The plot is riveting, but the book is also formally challenging in a way that enhances the overall experience and somehow makes having read the book feel weightier than if I had read something that was pure escape (or pure drudgery). These discussions also leave out all those other, more prosaic reasons why we love certain books more than others. For example, I have a serious weakness for novels that span various geographies. If in Part One the main character is in New York and by Part Two she has popped up in Istanbul, that’s something I love, often irrespective of where the book falls on the “fun to read/eat your vegetables” scale. We all have things like this that we love (and hate) in our reading, and those preferences are what drive the richness of the literary landscape.
Carolyn: The easy answer to what makes a good book is what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote about porn: I know it when I see it.
As a book critic, I try not to reach for good or bad but for nuance, to unfold the ways a book is delightful, innovative, shallow, baffling, disappointing, obvious, maudlin, cold, clever, pretentious, complex, delicate, demanding, unusual, wrenching, sublime—and no book is any just one. These days I really appreciate when a book is surprising: in a turn of phrase, a character, a plot twist, a metafictional wrinkle. Although surprise, of course, is not enough.
Kevin: I’m interested that you use that word, Carolyn, because I think the many ways a book can surprise us is absolutely key to our enjoyment of it. In fact, to the degree that many of the judges and commenters (and John and I, as well) have been disappointed by one or the other of this year’s contenders, it’s for exactly the failure to surprise. Books by big-name authors are thought to compare poorly to their earlier books. Heavily touted debuts are thought not to live up to the hype. The books that have, let’s say, “overperformed” so far have been ones that snuck up on people. I don’t think it’s possible to read Lightning Rods without being surprised by it. Clearly, Open City wins over many people as they read it. And I know some people think The Sisters Brothers had a lot of wind behind it but, at least here in the Midwest, the Booker shortlist is not a tool used by anybody to build their To Be Read pile. None of the readers I talk to regularly had it on their radar.
You guys get piles of advance reader copies every week and you get to crack many books before they are released. Do you think this is an advantage for you as a reader? Is it easier for a book to surprise you in some way because you get to read it before anybody else is talking about it?
Carolyn: To be honest, I stole that surprise thing from Tod Goldberg, which I heard on the new podcast he’s doing, Literary Disco. I stole it because it’s true, and it’s directly related to what you ask about, the piles of books. Le deluge. Each Saturday arrives and there are 100 new books piled up on my living room floor—not that it gives me an inside track, more of a book-weariness that I never thought I’d feel. There are so many. Why does anyone even try to write one? And then along comes a book that smashes through my existential malaise, like A Visit From the Goon Squad. As a reviewer I don’t read any previous reviews, and Los Angeles is fairly removed from New York’s buzzy cyclones; the surprise for me is internal to the book itself, to its workings and language. Ninety-nine books on my living room floor will deliver what I expect; I admit, I delight in the new. I enjoyed The Marriage Plot very much, but feared it had nowhere to go—yet it did. Win.
Max: I work out of my house, so I’ve been battling the ARC onslaught for years now, and I’m pretty sure my mailman thinks I’m up to something nefarious involving padded mailers. But I don’t like finding out about books that way, anyway. It’s all about word of mouth for me. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of readers whose taste I trust and admire. I see what these people are talking up on Twitter and Facebook, and I also see the books that my writers are pitching me. Alongside my core circle of literary fiction fans, I have people who know the experimental indie scene and others who know genre very well. Dating back to my indie bookstore days (Book Soup in West Hollywood), I’ve been a big proponent of what I call the “trusted fellow reader.” It used to be you could only find these trusted fellow readers working at and/or hanging out at your local independent bookstore. They’re still there, but now they’re also online. If you keep an eye out, you’ll find out about lots of exciting books as they start to bubble up, and ideally you’ll find some hidden gems that aren’t getting the big publicity push.
Kevin: What books did the ToB miss this year? I don’t just mean to say “what were your favorite novels of 2011” but which ones do you think might have compared favorably to this year’s survivors (Lightning Rods, The Sisters Brothers, and Open City). I guess I’m asking which are the books that, for you, really snuck up and delighted you?
Max: It’s impossible, I’m sure, to include every worthy book in the Tournament, but here are three more that would have been fun to see make a run for the Rooster: Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta, Zone One by Colson Whitehead, and (why not) 11/23/63 by Stephen King.
Carolyn: Stone Arabia! Totally agree. Also Ben Lerner’s Leaving Atocha Station, which is a self-conscious portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-youngish-fuckup that’s very smart. And to go with Lightning Rods, how about House of Holes by Nicholson Baker? I haven’t read either, but they both seem to be literary porn, or porny literature.
John: I’m chiming in on behalf of Stone Arabia. Like Open City it’s a book I liked my first time through, but also where my admiration grows stronger as time goes on.
Kevin: Finally, we should talk a little bit about this decision. I liked both of these novels, but I’ve already said The Sisters Brothers is my favorite book in the tourney. Assuming you’ve read one or both of them, would you have voted the same way as Judge (and former Rooster competitor) Lockhart?
Carolyn: I haven’t read Helen DeWitt, so my vote would be unfair, but I really have been a fan of The Sisters Brothers since it hit shelves. I read Patrick deWitt’s previous novel, Ablutions, and found it really, truly original, so I was eager to get my hands on The Sisters Brothers. It was so different, so accomplished, so funny and gross and sweet, that I have been rooting for it ever since. Booker shortlist? Holy moly. Also, I think the hardcover was my favorite cover design of 2011. I fully support Judge Lockhart’s decision.
Max: I’m thrilled that Helen DeWitt made it this far (is there any other book award that would have heaped this much praise on Lightning Rods?) But The Sisters Brothers seems to be on a miracle run, and I’m not going to get in the way.
Kevin: Indeed. Thanks again to Carolyn Kellogg and C. Max Magee, both for their comments today and for their longtime enabling of this preposterous event.
Open City is the last undefeated book in the tourney, but tomorrow, the estimable and inestimable Walter Kirn will drop in to decide if the The Art of Fielding can come back from the Rooster netherworld to advance to the championship match against The Sisters Brothers, or if Chad Harbach’s much-hyped debut will go down a second time to Teju Cole, an event that would no doubt go down in ToB lore as “Cole’s Curse.” Or maybe “Harbach’s Boner.”
The Open City Miracle?
The Rooster Cole-burn!
Epic rematch tomorrow. Championship match on Friday.