by Daniel AlarcónBuy at Powell’s »
Greg Walklin: As an attorney, I take comfort in the old legal proverb “the best judge knows least,” as I knew next to zilch about either Elizabeth Gilbert or James McBride or these two books. I’d like to think that this gives my judgment some modicum of objectivity. It was, of course, impossible for me not to know Gilbert as the author of Eat, Pray, Love, or that McBride had penned The Color of Water—the former was ubiquitous in my neighborhood coffee shops around the release of the Julia Roberts flick, the latter among composition undergrads when I was in college. But nothing I’d seen or read had left much of an impression.
At first blush, these two novels appear strikingly different. One is about a rich white woman living among Euclidean gardens, and the other about a starving black slave aiding a violent rebellion. Upon finishing them, however, what struck me were their similarities: both The Good Lord Bird and The Signature of All Things are historical fiction, both are set in America in the 19th century (1859 is a year of particular import for both stories), both have narrators whose obliviousness causes them heartache, and both are, I’d argue, coming-of-age novels.
Both are also pretty great.
In The Signature of All Things, Alma Whittaker grows up “a girl possessed by a soaring enthusiasm for systems, sequence, pigeonholing, and indexes.” Early on, there is a beautiful scene where Alma learns how to tell time by the opening and closing of various flowers, and another where she plays the role of a comet in an astronomer’s living model of the solar system. “What Alma wanted to know most of all was how the world was regulated. What was the master clockwork behind everything?” The bulk of this novel finds Alma studying away in her estate’s carriage house, examining plants under microscope, and ignoring the sacrifices those around her make, until she finds a special fascination with mosses. It’s not as dull as it sounds. She’s searching—although she’s not always actually aware she is searching—for the ultimate system (“the signature of all things,” as her evanescent husband terms it).
Lest you think Gilbert has departed entirely from her bestselling memoir, Alma does eventually go on her own midlife crisis eat/pray/love-ish quest to Tahiti—this, rousing Alma out of her (and the plot’s) funk, is the novel’s strongest section. But Alma’s problems are more complex than what some yoga and good cooking can fix: they’re existential, sexual, and intellectual, and while they’re modern issues, Gilbert is talented enough that they don’t feel altogether anachronistic.
While one long early chapter recounting Alma’s father’s rags-to-riches rise seems out of place, The Signature of All Things ultimately emerges as a different kind of bildungsroman, where the heroine takes an entire lifetime to come of age. Even though this makes for a slow plot, I didn’t mind it much: Alma is charmingly ignorant of the social world and scholarly without being pedantic. Her silver-spoon upbringing doesn’t elicit much of my natural sympathy, so keeping her likeable is a notable achievement. Undoubtedly, in this age where it takes many of us longer and longer to grow up, Alma’s lifetime of learning—and her social awkwardness—is particularly relevant. (If she’d been born in the 21st century, some physician might even have stuck her somewhere on the autism spectrum. Like some individuals with autism, Alma does have an oral fixation, although hers is of an erotic variety.)
Henry Shackleford, the enslaved protagonist of The Good Lord Bird, presents a stark contrast to the privileged Alma. Henry doesn’t have an endless library, microscope, or carriage house. He is forced to grow up nearly overnight after being suddenly liberated by John Brown, the violent, scripture-quoting abolitionist. Initially because of a mix-up, Henry dons a bonnet pretending to be Henrietta, sobriquet Onion. For his own safety, he remains masquerading as a girl most of the novel—all the way to Brown’s famous raid on Harpers Ferry.
Onion’s forced cross-dressing is at times not terribly believable, but mostly it’s a brilliant choice: this book highlights, like none other I’ve read, the falsities and contradictions of America before the Civil War. “[E]verything on this prairie’s a lie, child,” a self-hating prostitute, who recognizes Onion is a boy, says. “Ain’t nothing what it looks like. Look at you. You’s a lie. Slavery is a lie, of course, that certain people aren’t equal to others.” John Brown is considered “crazy” partly for claiming all men are created equal, but “would tell a fib in a minute to help his cause.” The usually lionized Frederick Douglass is lampooned as a bigamist, lothario, and drunkard who strongly implies “mulattoes” are better than “most Negroes.” Of the historical figures fictionalized in The Good Lord Bird, only Harriet Tubman emerges generally unscathed.
McBride uses Onion’s indelible voice, which accomplishes a variety of feats—it feels authentic and original, and manages to be readable despite being entrenched in the idiom of the age. The Good Lord Bird wouldn’t be half the novel it is without Onion’s gems of description and insight: Onion speaks of prostitutes “generally so ugly they’d make the train leave the track” while the courtesan Onion falls for (the aforementioned self-hating woman) “had the kind of rhythm that you could hear a thousand miles down the Missouri.” Funny, sad, lapidary, moving, transgressive, puzzling: The Good Lord Bird makes a strong case that it, in fact, should move on.
Since I loved both novels, then, how could I choose between the two? After agonizing for a while, I fell back on my profession: like all lawyers, I tried to reason my way through it. Writing lists of weaknesses and strengths, the idea was to assess which one had the stronger case, the better “argument” in legal speak. But that proved fruitless, so I looked back at previous Tournament of Books judgments for guidance—our own version of legal precedent. Previous judges inspired my standard: If I was going to subject another judge to the winner of these two novels, which book was more deserving of being read again?
And it was The Good Lord Bird that more urgently demands, I think, another reader. Many facets of McBride’s picaresque slave story made me stop and seriously pause—such as the small detail revealed in the opening chapter that, despite wanting throughout the novel to flip off the bonnet and announce himself as a boy, Onion ends up cross-dressing his entire life, until he is accused of “scoundreling and funny-touching a fast li’l something named Peaches.” Great books, it has been often said, make you go back to the first page and start reading again. That was the first thing I did upon finishing The Good Lord Bird.
By the end of my reading, I had pretty well figured Alma out, but Onion escapes my comprehension (and his own, too, I’d wager). I like that. The contradictory world of The Good Lord Bird feels far more authentic than the neat, orderly system that The Signature of All Things assembles. How far should we go to accomplish things that we know are right? Was John Brown justified in his violent rebellion? Was he a hero whose comrades failed him? Did the whole country fail him? Or was his apotheosis a lie? The world is on trial in The Good Lord Bird, and there’s evidence for its guilt and innocence. I want to see what another judge (and another, and another…) will think.
Calvino once wrote, “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” While The Signature of All Things starts conversations, I don’t think The Good Lord Bird will stop talking to us for a long time.
John: Greg Walklin continues our undefeated streak of outstanding reader judgments. It can be tough in the quarterfinals (I know I find it tough) to find fresh things to say about these books, but he had me reconsidering The Signature of All Things with his intriguing note that these novels are set in the same era, but in completely different worlds.
It’s telling that his attempt at a rational weighing of the evidence didn’t bear fruit—this stuff just doesn’t seem to work that way. (Maybe Nate Silver’s new journalism outfit is working on quantifying the best books of the year. If so, good luck to them.) Fortunately for Judge Walklin and us, he does a more-than-credible job, because if he didn’t, our readers would be more than happy to tell us so.
Every year we get feedback from readers who wish we had done something differently: different judges, different pairings, different books, maybe even different color commentators. While I’ll occasionally get my dander up (“They’ll pry my blood-red Rooster blazer off my cold, dead body!”) I quickly remind myself that the reason this happens is because our audience actually cares about what we’re doing, and that’s the greatest flattery I could imagine.
It’s also kind of nuts, if you think about it. I’m not saying we’re playing with the Bookers, Pulitzers, and National Book Awards, but for a contest invented on the back of a napkin by some drunk people as a vehicle to demonstrate the inherent unreliability of book-related prizes, we’re not doing too badly.
Kevin: It’s too late to do it this year, but next year we should think about picking a few matches and turning over the commentary to some invited guests. Not to suggest that you and I aren’t all-day brilliant, but it would be fun to give another pair the soapbox and megaphone on occasion. (I’m saying this in front of everybody so we’ll remember to talk about it. We are constantly doomed to think of stuff we should do after it’s too late.)
As for this year, there has been some curiosity in the comments specifically about how the shortlist is finalized. I think we’ve talked about this in the past, but it’s worth going over again.
In the innermost circle of the Tournament of Books are the chairmen, Rosecrans Baldwin and Andrew Womack. If anyone could be said to have a final word when it comes to all things Rooster, it would be them. But input comes from many, many different places. In the next orbit would probably be me, John, and Nozlee Samadzadeh, who is the person who pulls all the levers to really make the tourney run (she also designs the levers, builds them, and then paints them in her garage). The next circle would be all TMN contributors, then TMN readers and ToB fans, and then outside of that, general critical consensus.
So we consult all the best-of lists, the grandaddy source, of course, being Largehearted Boy’s amazing list of lists. Then we ask TMN/ToB readers for their input—this year you responded with many hundreds of suggestions. Those of us in the innermost circles have books we lobby for with varying degrees of passion, and then the back-and-forth starts as we try to balance the shortlist with novels that were either popular or acclaimed (in general the tourney attracts more enthusiasm when it includes a critical mass of books people are familiar with and can root for or against) as well as books that, for one reason or another, might have flown under the radar for many people. We’ve never felt that the ToB’s mission is to be entirely about underappreciated books, but at the same time I think discovering at least a few great novels you hadn’t heard of is part of the appeal. I know it is for me.
It occurred to us this year that one way to illustrate all this would be to compare the final list with the one that would have resulted had we only taken into consideration the pre-tournament reader poll. These were the top vote-getters when we asked you, way back in November, what your favorite novels of 2013 had been. I’ll put them in alphabetical order because I don’t want anyone trying to make assumptions about the Zombie voting, even though Zombie votes were tallied from a separate poll taken after the shortlist had been announced.
Play-In (these three novels tied for the last spot):
It’s a strong list and everyone (including us) will look at it and find multiple novels they wish could be in the competition. It doesn’t have National Book Award winner The Good Lord Bird or Booker winner The Luminaries, but it does include Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (which won the NBCC’s John Leonard Award for first books last week) and Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. It has a nice balance of male and female writers. It’s awfully white, a well-deserved criticism of the Rooster list in certain years past.
It is notable that every book that was on both the reader list and the Rooster shortlist advanced out of the opening round, except for Long Division, which lost to The Goldfinch.
John: Also not on it is Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which just won the National Book Critics Circle award and got a lot of love in the comments during the opening round.
And missing from both that list and the Tournament are my two favorite books of last year, Want Not by Jonathan Miles and Return to Oakpine by Ron Carlson. I remember lobbying for both, and at some point they might’ve been in a provisional bracket, but in the end, putting either or both of them in would’ve meant removing someone else deserving. I’m happy to have a chance to champion them in this space, as well as point to this interview with Miles by Brad Listi at his Other People Podcast that buries any remaining notion that the work of a novelist holds any glamour.
Kevin: But in terms of quality, this list is as good as the real one, I think. (I might have a few personal quibbles, but I have those with the real shortlist, as well.) This brings us to a point we try to make again and again: We never feel like the makeup of the 16 finalists is anything approaching definitive. You could have 16 entirely different novels in the bracket that are every bit as excellent as the ones we settled on. The books that make the tourney, ultimately, are simply ones we think will be fun for everyone to talk about.
And perhaps of interest to those who lamented the absence of a King Family Cage Match, the next highest vote-getter on the reader list (missing the mark by just one ballot) was Save Yourself by Stephen King’s daughter-in-law Kelly Braffet. She gets bragging rights this year as the King family member with the most popular 2013 book among Rooster followers.
John: Maybe readers would like even more transparency, but it’s tough to unravel a process that’s fluid, chaotic, and happens over the course of a year’s time. We’re already amassing possibilities for ToBXI. Some readers asked why we didn’t include a book like Tenth of December—after all, the New York Times declared it the best book of the year last January. I can’t speak for the group, but I remember saying that I thought its chances in the tourney were limited because short stories have historically fared very poorly and that, as much as I like the book, I’d rank it the third best George Saunders collection behind CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia. Now, as a fanboy, that still makes it one of my favorite short-story collections of all time, but I wasn’t sufficiently passionate to stomp my feet and hold my breath until it got into the final 16 (something I was well prepared, but thankfully wasn’t called on, to do for Long Division).
Kevin: Finally, I’d say that we try to strike a balance between taking input from the crowd and resisting the urge to turn the ToB into a straight-up popularity contest. A certain amount of bias and curation are necessary to keep this interesting. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s somehow better than letting one person make up the list, and also better than letting 1,000 people do it.
As for remaining business, The Signature of All Things might seem like a Zombie contender, but it did not receive enough votes in the poll to bump either Life After Life or Woke Up Lonely from their perches.
Tomorrow we have one of the oddest pairings since Pynchon was matched up with a comic book (graphic novel, I know, but the words “comic book” provide more dynamic resonance): It’s human scalping versus school bus handholding as The Son meets Eleanor & Park.