by Daniel AlarcónBuy at Powell’s »
John Darnielle: I should say before I say much else that I don’t read a lot of books that come right out and tell me their stories. I like Blake Butler; I like William Gass; I like Mercè Rodoreda’s Death in Spring and Elsa Morante’s Aracoeli. I tend to seek out books that don’t just ask me to work for it: They won’t give me a damned thing unless I do.
But I got caught up in A Tale for the Time Being pretty quickly. Its several narrators felt like real human beings with real depths; that shifting-alliances feeling one gets from trading off between speakers produces its own comfortable rhythm over the space of several hundred pages. One story would hang from a cliff while the next picked up just at the point where things had looked utterly hopeless. I was immersed. Several scenes made me cry or nearly cry; I liked Nao, the teenage narrator in Tokyo, and believed in Ruth, the grown-up in Vancouver who’s reading Nao’s diary. I felt for Nao’s family. They were struggling. I wanted to see them succeed.
At the same time, the braiding effect between the two central plotlines and their smaller subplots was kind of Dickensian, which cuts two ways. If you don’t have some love for Dickens, I don’t get you: Storytelling is a high calling, and Ruth Ozeki, like Dickens, is called. But everybody who’s spent some time with Dickens gets familiar with that lurking suspicion, almost always rewarded, that no matter how high the tension gets, the hero’s going to emerge largely unscathed. Some ingenious solution will be arrived at to spare us, and all good people concerned will be spared from what seem, in the telling, like the inevitable consequences of the plot.
And so several points in A Tale for the Time Being put me in that really uncomfortable position of wanting harsher consequences for people whom I’d come to love, people to whom I wished well. Nao’s father’s failed suicide attempts, for example: He’s a diligent, thorough man in most spheres of his life. When he sets his mind to a task, he makes something of it, even if it’s only turning his once-beloved philosophical texts into origami. But his first two suicide attempts are blocked, and his third is blocked by magic reaching backwards through time. I was relieved that he’d been spared! Because I liked him. But he lost some of his humanity in the process, and I missed it, even though its full presence would have meant real horror.
In many ways this tension is what A Tale for the Time Being ends up being explicitly about: the shared knowledge, between author and reader, that there are a number of ways the telling of a life might go, and that many of them aren’t very nice. Ozeki loves her characters, it seems clear. She doesn’t want them to come to harm if she can help it, and of course she can help it: They are always rescued from disaster in some way. Even when Nao’s inescapable ending is confronted—i.e., she must have died in the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011—we’re presented with some quantum-mechanics workthroughs that ease the blow. To me that felt like wanting to have your cake and eat it, too. If you’re going to kill one of your characters, you have to live with the loss, and let the reader fully suffer it.
Still, I loved the people in this book, a lot. I wanted them all to live to see another day, always. Pretty clever of a book to point out to you that magic’s necessary if you, as a reader, are going to get what you want. The less turbulent of the two central plotlines—the story of Ruth, the writer in Canada who finds Nao’s diary and translates it, scrambling to learn Nao’s fate (the other story, naturally, is the diary itself)—boasted such deft characterization that I found myself drawn deeper into it even as its twin, Nao’s story, went through more dramatic passages and told the harder story. Finally—and this was a big plus for me—there’s so much information in this book about things I knew next to nothing about. Primary texts of Zen Buddhism. Japanese history and geography. Recent developments in Japanese culture. Mythology, legend. I like when a story is teaching me things without letting me know what’s going on. Which brings me to James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird.
The framing device—a found manuscript from an unverifiable source, presented to speak almost entirely for itself—is right up my alley. The story that follows is exciting, then funny, then shocking, then profound. It’s hard to say much about a book that speaks so clearly for itself. The prose lilts; it’s packed end to end with tall-tale phrasing (“Doyle, barefoot, quaked like a knock-kneed chicken and begun moaning like a baby” is the one I found just now opening the book at random and scanning down the first page I looked at) and a lot of really unlikely from-the-jaws-of-death rescues, many of which are rooted in historical fact. It’s the story of John Brown and his movements over the years leading up to the raid on Harper’s Ferry, about which I knew only the barest details before reading The Good Lord Bird.
Telling a comic story whose context is slavery while not minimizing its horrors is a really neat trick. Shifting the tone just enough at exactly the right moments, reminding the reader of the weight of the struggle and the monstrousness of its target, threading the comic and the unimaginably tragic together without letting the seams show—yanking the rug out from under you, I guess I mean, when it’s time to show you the floor—that’s something bigger.
Here, the narrator, Henry Shackleford, a kid, is an invented character surrounded by historical personages: John Brown, his family, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass. John Brown frees Henry by kidnapping him, mistaking him for a girl in the process; Henry declines to correct him or his men about this, and lives as a girl for the rest of the book. That Henry is more narrative device than character gets a little too clear during his years working in a brothel (he manages to fool everybody, and works in the saloon rather than in the beds upstairs) but McBride uses Henry to bring deeply moving stories of struggle and survival—slaves teaching one another to read in secret, the movements of the underground railroad—to light. Henry’s insight into the problem of would-be white liberators who don’t listen to the people they ostensibly want to help is delivered with such wit that you want to hand the book to your friends. Here, read this: It says something really clearly right under your nose.
I’m giving The Good Lord Bird the nod between these two because of how effortlessly it glides between its comic clothing and its sober, resonant heart. It almost never shows its hand; it lets the story do the work. I loved A Tale for the Time Being, and I have to say that Ozeki’s narrators seem more substantial to me than Henry Shackleford does—Henry, as I say, is there to tell you about what he saw. He gets out of a lot of scrapes that are unbelievable, but others don’t. Henry’s a way to get a look at the bigger canvas. But the stories he tells you! The people you meet!
John: I always get a little irked when people who are super talented and successful in one field like…I don’t know…music, prove that they can cross over to the only area in which I have any facility whatsoever and also do that better than me.
Which is to say that I don’t think anyone is going to be comparing John Darnielle to Andrew W.K.
I was interested in Judge Darnielle’s declaration that he tends to gravitate toward books that make him work. There was a time in my life when I read books like that almost exclusively, when I thought the writer’s obligation was to reinvent storytelling every time around. My ability to grapple with these challenges has gradually diminished, partly because I have less time and mental space to do that kind of battle, but also because I now know how hard it is to put even a straightforward tale on the page in a pleasing manner. Still, a couple of times a year I like to take a shot at a book that has the potential to judge me harshly.
Judge Darnielle frames The Good Lord Bird as a “comic” story, which was my overriding take on the novel as well. It’s been a long tournament, so maybe I’m forgetting things, but I don’t know that we’ve emphasized this aspect of the work. Shackleford’s voice/narration is essentially comic; the cameo by Frederick Douglass is comic. For me, the novel is comic in the sense that Twain is comic: a tall tale that’s going to insinuate its deeper stuff into you while you’re not paying attention. I’ve now written the word “comic” so many times I’m forgetting what I mean by the word, but paging through the novel again, I had a crazy association between The Good Lord Bird and Elmore Leonard’s novels. Leonard is a little different in that his central characters are almost always “heroes”: flawed but capable, and not shy for conflict in the way Shackleford is. But the peripheral characters in The Good Lord Bird very much remind me of Leonard’s. They show up and are instantly recognizable, as well as a little off-kilter.
Leonard’s books make an argument that the world is about 99 percent populated with lunatics, and I think you can say the same of the world of The Good Lord Bird.
Kevin: That’s an interesting comparison. Leonard’s early books were westerns, of course, so they fit comfortably with The Good Lord Bird in terms of setting. There are certainly more surprises for me reading McBride’s prose; Leonard was a wonderful writer but his sentences are stripped down all the way to the studs. It’s why young people who want to write fiction (or even nonfiction) should read him, maybe even exclusively, until they can nail that down.
But you’re absolutely right. The members of Brown’s crew—Owen and Fred and Bob—are Leonard types all the way. And when you consider how many Leonard novels involve someone being kidnapped or otherwise held against their will in a comical way (which is to say, almost all of them) Henry’s predicament kind of fits the bill.
Specifically, Judge Darnielle marvels at how deftly McBride transforms such a complex and difficult subject into a stage for comedy. Of course, the reason talking about slavery is so complex in America is not only the unspeakability of its horrors, but the fact that it is a reminder that this country got one of history’s easiest moral questions completely wrong (and not all that long ago). We got it so wrong that only lunatics like John Brown could clearly see the truth: that a whole fucking lot of people were going to have to die to make it right.
Impossible as it seems, there are Americans even today who are in denial about this. I think we have to keep telling the truth in as many different ways as possible because somehow, even 150 years after the Civil War, we are still not looking the evils of American slavery squarely in the face.
John: Some of the commenters have been musing on us doing offshoot tournaments, like maybe a tournament of champions. I tend to think these things sound better in theory than reality. For one, pulling multiple events together would probably break us. And also, the reason we treasure it so much is that it only comes around once a year.
But if we are going to do something like this, I’m intrigued by the thought of a Tournament of Celebrity Novels. We can wait for John Darnielle to finish Wolf in White Van for FSG and include him. I’d nominate something from Steve Martin, and Hugh Laurie’s The Gun Seller as well. Michael Palin and Laurie’s former comedy partner Stephen Fry are eligible. James Franco released Actors Anonymous. This past year I remember seeing books from both Lauren Graham, of Gilmore Girls and Parenthood frame, and Mike Greenberg of ESPN radio/TV, who published what seems like a Jennifer Weiner novel.
Could we easily fill out a 16-author bracket?
Kevin: Could we? Swine Not? Sorry, that’s the name of Jimmy Buffett’s novel. It’s about a family of southerners who have to hide their pet pig while staying at a swanky New York hotel. I’ll let every aspiring novelist with a manuscript currently on submission just soak that in for a moment.
The truth is that you and I have the easiest jobs at the ToB, and even for us it means we put all other writing pretty much on hold for a couple of weeks. But there are other people for whom the Rooster is a really a tremendous amount of work. I’m not sure a second tourney could happen without either a MacArthur grant or a nervous breakdown.
The Good Lord Bird advances with an unblemished record into the Zombie Round. Sadly, A Tale for the Time Being will not. It does not have enough votes to unseat either The Goldfinch or Life After Life.