by Daniel AlarcónBuy at Powell’s »
Lydia Kiesling: I began reading A Tale for the Time Being and by page seven felt guilty that this process was going to be such a breeze. Some books are so upfront about the fact that they are going to beguile the shit out of you that you can’t do anything but cancel your plans, hunker down on the couch with your mohair blankie, and be beguiled. Ozeki’s novel is itself structured around these kinds of beguiling narratives. I arrived home to a package on my doorstep; inside it were unfamiliar books and salted caramels. This novel’s protagonist (Ruth, suspiciously like the author Ruth Ozeki) walks along the beach and finds a bag covered in barnacles containing a Hello Kitty lunchbox and assorted wondrous texts. One of these is the diary of a young person so winsome that Ruth enters into a whole metaphysical Zen space-time science situation in order to help her out. Naoko Yasutani, aged 16 and channeling a little bit of Harriet the Spy, writes from the refuge of a French maid-themed cafe of dubious repute, telling her unknown readers about her bullying classmates, her Zen Buddhist great-grandmother, and her suicidal father, with whom she is “living in a spaceship” in Tokyo, orbiting her happy former life. Like Ruth, I loved her right away.
When I finished Ozeki’s novel and began Hill William, I was not beguiled. I felt the urge to hunker down, but only to protect myself from the raw shit the universe doles out to the people living in it. All the same, I wondered if I was going to be the bystander/referee in a classic David and Goliath scenario. In the curious way of fiction, the novel’s narrator (Scott, suspiciously like the author Scott McClanahan) makes real the things you read in the news, makes you feel how lives are ruined because someone asks the wrong neighbor boy to babysit. His defenseless little animals—a baby flying squirrel crushed in a La-Z-Boy, a hamster named Hardees lost in a concrete porch—are analog to their human counterparts: raped boys and girls, the lonely and reviled Gay Walter. Hill William made me want to gather up the whole world in a hug and just suffer the little children right unto me. But you know the kids would turn into fractious, rage-filled men like Hill William’s own narrator; the hamster would smell and eventually die.
I am not the first Tournament judge to end up with books weirdly ordered around similar themes. The people of these novels are helpless in the face of things they cannot control, from the micro to the macro, from individual human threats of cruelty and sexual violence, to enormous forces like capitalism, plate tectonics, and time. In Hill William, it is poverty, mental illness, and perennial abuse. If you’re a flying squirrel, it is the hard luck of falling in love with a recliner and being crushed in its coils. It is deafness and blindness and trucks that haul away the trees, leaving the mountains “chewed up and raw.” In A Tale for the Time Being, it is the sadism of teenagers and the cowardice of substitute teachers. It is Alzheimer’s, the Fukushima reactor, and the military-industrial complex. All of the two books’ respective characters have to assert themselves where they can. In Hill William, they carve their initials into soft turtle bellies. They molest their neighbors, get baptized, punch themselves, see a therapist. In Ozeki’s novel, they drop bombs on whales. They join convents, aim their kamikaze planes into the sea, write memoirs, plant an Eocene forest.
While I admired both of these books, I finished with a clear favorite. Conceding this made me fretful and preemptively defensive. I don’t know that Ruth Ozeki exactly has the backing of the entire publishing establishment, but her novel sports an award medallion on its cover and a blurb from O, The Oprah Magazine. Hill William is a small unorthodox square, with authentic typos on its thin pages. Everything about it says “underdog.” I did not even think of it as a novel until I finished it and saw someone refer to it as such on the internet. I had been thinking of it as a series of short stories, or face-punching little vignettes, child rape, and misery linking together like a remote mountain chain. A Tale for the Time Being began to look almost safe and cozy by comparison. I am not at all enthusiastic about McClanahan’s primitive-ecstatic style—“I hit myself. / It feels like a prayer. / I hit myself. / It feels like something strange. / I hit myself. / It feels like something beautiful.”—but that’s just, like, my taste. How bourgeois of me, I thought, to order art in accordance with my taste. I thought of the mohair blankie with shame.
But the thing is, I love long, beguiling books you lose the day to. I love frame narratives and frames-within-frames and smart suffering teenage girls and depressed fathers and frustrated novelists with writer’s block and missing cats. I love reading about people’s weird marital vibes and their homes on desolate islands with tall trees and ancient oyster beds. I love putting a book on my shelf that I know I’m going to read again, on some future platonic day when the rain falls and I’ve got nowhere to be. I love getting punched in the face, too, and Ozeki delivers her own kind of punch. If we decide to measure achievement by things that profoundly disturb the heart and the stomach, recall Nao’s own sexual assault at the hands of her classmates, the evidence posted online for her father to discover. Obsessively trawling for coverage of the tsunami, Ruth watches an interview with a man who saw his wife and infant son get carried away by the wave: “‘That life with my family is the dream,’ he says. He gestures toward the ruined landscape. ‘This is the reality.’”
When Ruth asks a beachcomber friend about the origin of the Hello Kitty lunchbox, she is warned against letting “narrative preferences interfere with [her] forensic work.” “I can’t help it,” Ruth replies. “My narrative preferences are all I’ve got.” I think that, in contests like these, bizarre things happen when people circumvent their aesthetic instincts to satisfy a metric of quality or justice to which they do not naturally ascribe. So I’ve decided not to worry about underdogs or who is more raw or who has had more fellowships. Yes, my face aches from McClanahan’s punches. My heart aches for his denuded mountaintops and all his wounded little boys and girls. But in the end, it’s Naoko Yasutani I want to put my arms around. It’s Ozeki’s novel I want to take home.
Kevin: Well John, Hill William came into this Tournament disgruntled and I imagine it leaves every bit as disgruntled, but I hope whatever embarrassment we inflicted on Scott McClanahan by more or less liking his book has now been salved by this loss to a novel about Hello Kitty, Buddhism, “Speed Tribe Biker Chicks,” and Edith Piaf.
A Tale for the Time Being is even weirder than Hill William, which is saying something. There are so many moving parts to it. I’m a fan of kitchen-sink kinds of stories, though, and this is a novel that you could pick up in a bookstore, flip through, and hurt your head wondering what all these things have to do with one another. Ozeki grounds it in the parallel narratives of two distinct and compelling characters, and in doing so manages to keep it in the realm of the familiar. I’d have voted the same way.
John: I imagine McClanahan probably couldn’t handle being an insider, so it’s lucky he’s been ousted before he got an invitation to the awards banquet. Though I bet he would’ve known what to do with a live rooster.
I think you could call both of these novels “kitchen-sink” stories. They’re populated with the kind of effluvia that most of us walk around with, our small obsessions that don’t mean much outside the fact that for whatever reason, our brains have latched on to them. The writer part of me strongly identifies with this. For years and years I was obsessed with a quote from an unnamed Bush Administration official (likely Karl Rove) to journalist Ron Suskind in the years before the invasion of Iraq:
We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
I couldn’t tell you why I was so stunned by it—the hubris, I suppose—but I carried it around, flotsam in my brain, until I offloaded it onto a character in The Funny Man, word for word. Even at the time I knew not a single reader would pick up on it, but including it felt necessary to me.
There have been a number of comments from judges and readers about some of the books that could’ve used better editing (or more attention to something other than what the author paid attention to). Sometimes I agree with these opinions, but I also believe the most compelling books are the ones that give space for the author to empty their cupboards, to extend the kitchen metaphor. In doing that, there are going to be oddnesses, incongruities, and unexplainable, irreconcilable things. There was some generalized disappointment regarding the end of At Night We Walk in Circles, and while I haven’t yet read the book, I wonder if Daniel Alarcón was even capable of writing something different. I imagine the end is exactly what his deepest creative self believes it should have been.
Writing a novel is the process of creating our own reality, and it first has to be real for the author. While strong “editing” may arguably create a more shapely, maybe even more “successful” work, moving it away from the original artist’s intent also can make it less, for lack of a better word, “alive.” I don’t know how many people have read the de-Lished versions of Raymond Carver’s short stories, but after decades of loving the versions with Carver’s editor’s stamp on them, the originals as Carver intended them are more interesting to me. They’re sometimes baggy and occasionally mawkish, but also wonderful. In film, I rarely prefer the “director’s cut” of a movie to the original release; sometimes the idiosyncrasies, the flaws, are the most interesting bits.
Kevin: My sons are really into the video game Minecraft. And if you walk beyond your little part of the world, the Minecraft universe starts rendering just a little distance ahead of you, creating new land right before your eyes. (There is a guy who has made a full-time living for three years now by just walking in one direction inside the game, hoping to find the end of it, and posting those videos on YouTube. The estimate is that it will take him more than 20 years.) Watching them play, I’ve always thought it resembles the reading of a novel. As you read you anticipate what will happen next, and the dissonance between your expectation and the book’s reality—you are surprised or delighted, disappointed or bored—is your experience of the novel.
As Judge Kiesling points out, both of these novels have protagonists named after their creators. Most people reading them will derive some meaning from that, and I suspect that was the intention of the authors. In my novels and all the stories and screenplays and other fiction I’ve written, I don’t think I’ve ever named even a minor character Kevin, and I suppose that is simply because I didn’t want anyone to make anything of it. But I also think that, as a writer, there’s something that feels kind of dangerous when you call a character you’ve invented by your own name. We name characters without giving it much thought all the time (newspaper bylines and baseball cards are two of my favorite sources for fictional names), but I don’t think it’s possible to give a character your own name without thinking about why you are doing it. Names are just names except for your own name, which signifies, I don’t know, something.
You have written hundreds of short stories. You’ve published a novel and I think you’ve written at least most of another one. You have basically the most common male name in the English language. How many characters in your stories have you ever named John?
John: Ha! Never have I used “John” unless you count a series of quasi-stories I did for our hosts here documenting my childhood as though it was being reported in the New York Times. I may write from my kitchen-sink obsessions, but I never, or almost never, write closely from my own experiences—I live the most boring (by design) existence known to humankind. I’ll admit that I occasionally feel pangs of envy over writers like Scott McClanahan who have so much personal material to mine for their books, but then I remember that to have the rich personal material, you have to have lived through some horrible shit. So no thanks.
However, when I need a dog for a story, I often use the name Oscar, which is one of my dogs’ names. There is no better dog name than Oscar, so why mess with perfection?
Kevin: I probably spoiled this at the top, but Hill William did not receive enough votes to be in the running for a Zombie resurrection. If the Zombie Round were held today, our dead-eyed walkers would still be Life After Life and Woke Up Lonely.