by Daniel AlarcónBuy at Powell’s »
John Green: I am a longtime fan of the Tournament of Books, but I never realized until now what a dirty and messy business it is to choose one excellent book over another. And now, not entirely convinced of my own decision, I must endeavor to convince you that I made the right one.
Let us begin with Life After Life, Kate Atkinson’s novel of the multiverse. On the first page, Ursula Todd murders Hitler in 1930. In the following chapter, she dies while being born in 1910. Each time she dies—and she dies a lot—we turn the page and she is alive again, in an otherwise identical world, with a vague deja vu-like awareness of what must be done in order to avoid death. This allows us to see 20th-century England from many perspectives: In one life, she is living in Germany and married to a Nazi; in another, she is a victim of the Blitz.
But what’s most interesting about Ursula is the lives she can’t lead, because she is a British woman born in the early 20th century. She can’t, say, be a fancy higher-up in the Home Office during World War II like her brother. To seek a career is to reject marriage. To be married is to lose sovereignty. Ursula can live again and again, but she can never wake up from history.
The obvious questions here—if you could live your life over, would you do it better; how do we construct meaning in human life when such tiny details decide our fate; etc.—are interesting enough, but what makes the novel really work is the Todd family itself. Atkinson’s pastoral English family drama is so rich and witty that when Ursula ends up (in most of her lives) leaving home for London, I kept missing the family homestead, Fox Corner, even though Ursula’s lives during the Blitz offer up lots of thrilling bombing and intrigue and sex.
Ultimately, the novel is distinguished not by its premise but by its precise characterizations and relationships. At one point, a character (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here) describing grief says, “I feel as if I’m waiting for something dreadful to happen, and then I realize it already has.” That line gave form and expression to my own experiences with grief, and in doing so helped me to feel less alone in the world. Ursula’s story did lose some momentum for me in the final 100 pages, but I experienced those wonderful jolts throughout the book.
And then we have The People in the Trees. What a book. What a weird, fascinating, and provocative book. I’ve never read anything like it. The People in the Trees is the fictional autobiography of disgraced Nobel Prize winner Dr. Norton Perina, who helped to uncover a group of people whose lives have been dramatically prolonged by eating the meat of a certain turtle, although at the cost of profound dementia. They live forever, but squawk incomprehensibly, and the women don’t even shave their armpits.
The genius of Yanagihara’s story is that she takes established ideas—about civilization and language and privilege and capitalism and science—and offers us a genuinely fresh perspective through Perina’s profoundly unreliable narration. For instance, it had never previously occurred to me that one of the reason “civilized” people (especially academics) are so interested in foraging communities is that they are immortal in a way we aren’t: Their way of life in their communities could go on as currently lived for millions of years; we know ours cannot.
Yanagihara wonderfully plays out all this and much more through the lives of the Uvu’ivuans, the Micronesian people Perina devotes his life to studying. But of course the romanticization of the primitive is as dehumanizing as any other single way of imagining the other, and Perina is quite the essentializer.
The knock on this novel is that Perina himself is pretty horrible: He’s long-winded, exceptionally pleased with himself, and astonishingly misogynistic. Here, he is describing a female colleague:
I did not look at her, but around her seemed the sickening scent of menstrual blood, a tinnily feminine smell so oppressive that it was a relief finally to begin the day’s climb and to find it vanishing slowly into the odors of the jungle. And from then on I was unable to look at her without thinking of oozing liquids, as thick and heavy as honey but rank and spoiled, seeping from her every hidden orifice.
If that’s not enough to make you want to punch him in the face, Perina is also a pedophile.
But anyone who has read much anthropology—particularly the stuff from the ’50s and ’60s in which white men would write of their encounters with untouched, uncivilized, innocent primitives—will recognize the narrative voice. These days, it seems likable protagonists are a requirement of literature, but I’ve always enjoyed reading from the perspective of someone whom I can joyfully revile, and Perina fits the bill. But of course what’s finally so troublesome is that Perina isn’t so different from any of us whose privileged gaze takes in those we see as less civilized.
I’m still trying to get my head around The People in the Trees; it left me bewildered and troubled, and while certainly Perina’s voice can be exhausting, it’s a magnificent way into examining race, power, and what we mean when we talk about civilization. Don’t fear that it’s all boring and philosophical, though: There’s jungle adventure and the thrill of discovery and the horror of the Faustian debt coming due. It’s a roaring good read, provided you don’t mind despising your narrator much of the time. I can’t remember the last time I read a first novel so complex and intellectually engaging. This is the real deal—a big book that’s also a very good one, centered on issues that are absolutely central to the well-examined contemporary life.
Because it feels so fresh and relevant, my vote goes to The People in the Trees, but I do hope that through the magic of Zombie voting, Life After Life will live to fight another day.
Kevin: While reading Life After Life I had another one of those book-film convergences when I happened to watch a documentary called Dear Zachary. It’s a devastating film about a young man whose life, along with the lives of every single person he knows (and people who aren’t even born yet), is tragically altered by an instant of chance: At a vulnerable time in his life, he meets a woman who turns out to be a psychopath. There is a moment late in the film when a man, a very good man, arguably the moral center of the story, speaks frankly about how he thought often and seriously about killing this woman. He thought about when he would do it. And how he would do it. And what the consequences might be if he did it. And although he still thought it might be worth it—that it might, in fact, be the right thing to do—he didn’t murder her for the perfectly existential reason that he is a good person.
And you, the viewer, also a good person, but a person who knows the end of the story by this point in the film, sincerely wishes he had.
But that isn’t the only point of synchronicity I had with the novel. Throughout the film you identify all of these moments where the story could have forked and ended up in a very different place. Like Life After Life, Dear Zachary somewhat resembles a Choose Your Own Adventure story, and in this universe, improbably, fate moved toward the tragic ending every time.
This book and that film will always be connected in my memory.
John: As a kid, I used to love the Choose Your Own Adventure books, except no matter where they were set—the woods, the moon, King Arthur’s court—it seemed the inevitable end was wandering into a cave and getting eaten by a bear.
Maybe they were just trying to get us ready for real life, which often feels like a series of bear attacks. Life After Life treats the different paths in Ursula’s life as “forks,” but the reality, as Dear Zachary shows us, is more complicated. The Butterfly Effect, if you will. For purely practical reasons it would be impossible for Atkinson to show how different Ursulas would have altered the trajectories of the people around her, but the impact of even small changes in our lives are infinite, not binary. Even contemplating something small, like my participation in the Tournament of Books, seems impossible when examined in hindsight. There’s a dozen things that had to happen in my own life to bring me to this time and place. That’s not even considering the larger apparatus that makes the Tournament possible in the first place.
Or maybe there is no such thing as free will and I have my own Kate Atkinson pulling the strings. If so, I’m glad that I haven’t yet been made to fall out a window or get Spanish flu.
Kevin: I read The People in the Trees last spring when Doubleday sent me a copy. There are themes with regard to science and fate that are similar to those in Cast of Shadows, and so I suspect someone at the publisher thought I might like it. (See John? People send me free books and I don’t even have a newspaper column.)
I had no idea what it was about, but I started reading, and it has the quality of a first novel in the very best way—really daring and ambitious (and beautifully written). All first novelists have to invent for themselves how they are going to write a novel. It’s why, for me, the best debut novels are so exciting. When you write your second and your third you are using a lot of the same equipment again, but the first novel that comes off the line is often a real work of personal ingenuity, and that’s how I felt about The People in the Trees. As Judge Green says, I can’t think of a novel that is quite like it.
I think there are some fairly serious flaws with it (another characteristic of a first novel, of course). I don’t think it’s nearly as interesting once the story returns to the US for good, and I sort of wished there had been more surprises as the book neared its end. But in general I was just captivated by it. I wouldn’t say it’s as skillful a novel as Life After Life, but it was so exciting to read. Hanya Yanagihara’s next novel will be a Tuesday-of-publication buy for me.
John: I remember your early interest in The People in the Trees. In fact, if my memory is right, it was one of the first books of the year you personally identified as a contender for the tourney. I was looking forward to reading it for a long time.
But I’m disappointed to report that it’s a book I gave up on after 100 pages. I’m hard-pressed to explain why. When people articulate its virtues, I understand what they’re saying, but I just don’t share that opinion. Normally, an unreliable, unsympathetic narrator is in my personal wheelhouse, but I found Perina more annoying than interesting, and the footnotes from Kubodera, which seemed to exist only to manufacture a kind of faux suspense in anticipating future developments, went clang clang clang in my head every time I read them.
In truth, though, the more important reason is that while I was trying to get into The People in the Trees, I was “Knaussgarded.”
Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knaussgard is becoming something of a sensation to English-reading audiences who encounter his six-volume autobiographical novel, My Struggle. I picked up Volume I of the book last year after reading a number of interesting notices and wondering about the set of stones on someone who gives his autobiographical novel the same title as Hitler’s memoir.
Disenchanted with The People in the Trees, I turned to My Struggle, and suddenly I had no interest in reading anything else. I don’t want to belabor why I think it so thoroughly captured me, other than to say, it was the right book at the right time and The People in the Trees couldn’t get back in the fight. When I saw it advance in this matchup I thought that maybe I should give it another go, but being honest with myself, I think it’s probably going to remain unread by me forevermore.
Kevin: It would be difficult for you to put four words in order that would make me want to read a book less than “six-volume autobiographical novel.”
This verdict will certainly be a surprise to many people. I suspect most observers thought John Green (perhaps the best-known quantity among the judges) would choose Life After Life, but then, a lot more people have read the Atkinson book than have discovered The People in the Trees. It’s naturally going to have a larger rooting section. And Life After Life is more engaging on several different levels. Ursula is much more fun to spend the afternoon with than Perina, even with all the sudden fades to black.
This would have been a very difficult decision for me. My gut says I might have chosen Atkinson because I think it is a better executed novel overall, and because I have a lot of goodwill toward her as an author—I’ve enjoyed other novels by her very much. But then I think I might have to agree with Judge Green, if only because Life After Life feels like a novel I’ve read before, and The People in the Trees does not.
As there is every year in the ToB, there has been some discussion in the comments about how the Bechdel Test applies to the 17 finalists, and that led to an interesting debate about the Bechdel Test’s relevance. Life After Life is a wonderful example of a powerful novel with interesting women at its center in a genre (war/sci-fi) often dominated by male characters. But it is also true that you can write an excellent novel (or make an excellent film) in which female characters play few or no roles. The Bechdel Test doesn’t tell you very much about the value of, say, My Dinner With Andre. In fact, a large percentage of books written with first-person male narrators are going to flunk it big time.
But I think the value of the Bechdel Test has never been in evaluating a single work of art. Its power is apparent when you apply it to the aggregate. When you realize how many popular novels and films do not pass it’s rather startling, and raises a profound question: “Why does our culture apparently still value stories about men over stories about women?” I don’t think there is an easy answer for that. As commenter Naoko (JunDo) said, “What matters is that it reminds people to think about female characters and what they’re allowed to do within media, and why.”
It is, if I can bring the point around to one of the emerging themes of this year’s ToB, a powerful tool of criticism that is not all that revealing in a review.
John: Word. I can’t improve on what you say, but I figured I’d use our little platform here to alert readers to a Bechdel-related controversy at my employer, the College of Charleston, which has now been punished by our state legislators for choosing Fun Home as our Campus Reads! book last year. It’s the kind of thing that I didn’t think happens anymore, except here it is.
Kevin: Jesus. It is so weird watching anti-gay bigots who really seem to think popular opinion on this issue is going to turn in their favor any day now. It’s more than just a delusion, it’s a glitch in their philosophical software: Social conservatives are constantly forced to double down on long-term bets they can’t win. The house is progress and the house always takes your money in the end.
This brings us to the end of the first round, which means we get our first peek at the Zombie results. As a reminder: We held a poll of our readers after the shortlist was announced. Once we winnow the contenders down to semifinalists, we bring back the top two vote-getters from among the books that have been eliminated, and they get a second chance at the Rooster crown.
Among the eight books that have been eliminated so far, the two novels that ranked highest in the Zombie voting are, in alphabetical order, Life After Life and Woke Up Lonely. (It is interesting to me that the early Zombie picks are the same two books that faced each other in the pre-Tournament playoff. Perhaps many readers believed whichever book lost that match deserved a second shot.)
The Zombie contenders can change as more novels are eliminated, but this does mark the official end of the road for The Tuner of Silences, At Night We Walk in Circles, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, The Dinner, The Lowland, Long Division, and The Luminaries.
John: Tipping a personal 40 for How to Get Filthy Rich…, The Dinner, and Long Division.