by Daniel AlarcónBuy at Powell’s »
Welcome to the 10th anniversary of The Morning News Tournament of Books—ToB X, anyone?—presented by Field Notes.
Per recent tradition, we start today with a pre-Tournament playoff round so that everyone can use the restroom, get a drink, and take a seat before the daily competition really gets going this Thursday, March 6.
Several months ago we asked two of our favorite book geeks which of their favorite 2013 novels would be enjoyed most by one of our favorite novelists, Pulitzer Prize-winner Geraldine Brooks. Lev Grossman of Time magazine selected Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. David Gutowski of Largehearted Boy chose Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely. We asked them to explain their choices:
Grossman: I came to Atkinson through her mystery novels, the Jackson Brodie series, so when I heard she was publishing a standalone novel—and worse yet, a literary one—I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about it. Here’s how I did feel: physically electrified. Life After Life is about a woman named Ursula who’s born in England in 1910 and then dies immediately, strangled by her umbilical cord. But through some mysterious magic she comes alive again, and repeats her brief life, this time surviving her birth—only to die again, age five, drowned at the seaside. Every time she dies Ursula goes back to the beginning, slowly and painfully correcting her false starts and wrong turns, through sorrow and love and toil and folly and wisdom and two world wars: the universe won’t let her go till she gets it right, and her life has become a kind of existential 20th-century epic. Life After Life is a masterpiece, and a triumph of storytelling skill as great as anything published this millennium, but it’s also a warm and funny and intimately human book. Like the rest of us, Ursula is just trying to live her best life, and become the person she ought to be. She just gets more chances at it.
Gutowski: In a year filled with impressive novels, my personal favorite is Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely. The book is a vibrant, engaging, and endlessly inventive exploration of loneliness.
These two books were then delivered by a dedicated Rooster courier who stood in Brooks’s driveway until she emerged with her judgment.
Welcome to the Tournament.
Geraldine Brooks: First of all, I’m not a hand wringer. I don’t angst much. Nor do I have an MFA. In fact, I dropped English Lit after freshman year. But while reading the two books in my matchup I have found myself staring at the ceiling, pondering Large Questions in a most uncharacteristic way. To wit:
What is fiction for?
What is a novelist’s duty?
What is her minimum responsibility?
And then, more immediately: If you dislike a book, if you—let’s be blunt—actually hate it, is that OK?
I’m not talking about a tawdry, lazy, shitty piece of work here. I’m talking about a legit attempt at making art. A book with a Big Theme, even. A book in which the writing itself—the actual use of our glorious and rich language—is fresh and bold and lively. It’s just that these lovely, perfectly selected words and splendidly formed sentences are deployed in the service of creating characters so thin and plastic they might as well be Glad wrap.
But let me step back from value judgment and attempt to more or less dispassionately describe the two novels in my matchup. Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely has one foot in the sad squalor of quotidian American life in the years following the bungled Bush/Gore presidential election, and the other in a jazzed, revved, slapstick send up of that reality. Thurlow Dan is leader of Helix, a flourishing cult-like movement whose promise of rescue from loneliness has drawn thousands of followers to its speed-dating sessions and commune-like Packs. But like all such movements, it has attracted fringe elements with agendas that reach beyond issues of interpersonal connection to the advocacy of violent (if need be) revolution. So the government gets interested and assigns a freelance watcher/fixer to the group. Think: Carrie Mathison without an actual CIA credential but with the prosthetics genius from Mission:Impossible in her employ. “Today’s prosthetic: a nose brinked on caricature that appeared to have been launched from the putty of her face like a dart. Today’s chin: prognathous. She wore a wig. Sawdust blond, washed out, limp. Bowl cut—a vase, really—that came in at her chin.” Carrie—sorry, Esme—recruits a band of misfits to spy on Dan. He takes them hostage, and mayhem ensues. Oh, and I forgot to mention: Esme is Thurlow Dan’s ex-wife.
Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson, follows Ursula Todd through the toughest years of England’s 20th-century history, from her birth in the winter of 1910 to her death in, well, just about every year that follows until 1967. It’s like a condensed book version of A Dance to the Music of Time, only with a middle-class protagonist, and string theory.
Atkinson kills off Todd so many times I lost count. (But I kept reciting Dorothy Parker’s “Resume” to myself, and wondering if Atkinson also memorized it in her teen years.) Todd dies at birth, she falls from the roof, she drowns on a beach vacation, she succumbs to the influenza epidemic, a septic abortion, a gas leak, the London blitz, and she suicides as the Russians capture Berlin. Her reiterating life is a canvas created by the ideas of Buddha, Plato, and Nietzsche. Gradually, she is able to decipher some of the underlying text in the palimpsest of her multiple existences, and realizes that her mission is to use the next incarnation to take everything she’s learned and go kill Hitler before the Reichstag fire.
Whhaaaaa the farrrk? I hear you say.
And fear not. This is no spoiler. Atkinson actually turns over this card—this ridiculous, dumb, Inglorious Basterds-style plot point—in the very first chapter. Which, I’ll admit, put me off the book for quite a number of pages. I was also in a grumpy mood because I felt Atkinson had made me take a busman’s holiday. As someone who spends my work day deciding how my characters must live and die, I became chagrined that she had eschewed this duty, and was more or less laying before me several dozen drafts of a life, as if she couldn’t be bothered fulfilling her novelist’s contract with the reader, the one in which you stipulate: “I’ve thought about this life and struggled to write the best version I can for your reading pleasure. Here it is.”
But soon enough, Atkinson won me over. The device ceases to look like a cheap trick, and actually becomes a masterful and transcendent way to deal with the multiple horrors of the London Blitz. Because Ursula Todd experiences the Blitz first as a victim, then as a rescuer and dies and survives in both of those guises, Atkinson’s portrait of the nightly bombardment becomes multidimensional. “Her attention was caught again by Lavinia Nesbit’s dress hanging from the Millers’ picture rail. But it wasn’t Lavinia Nesbit’s dress. A dress didn’t have arms in it. Not sleeves, but arms. With hands. Something on the dress winked at Ursula. A little cat’s eye caught by the crescent moon. The headless, legless body of Lavinia Nesbit herself was hanging from the Millers’ picture rail.” Her writing comes most alive in these descriptions violent deaths.
Maazel’s writing, by contrast, never needs resuscitation. She wields words with the breathtaking deftness of a chainsaw juggler. But—and I asked myself the same question the first time I saw someone juggle chainsaws—what for?
Dave Eggers famously asserted that you shouldn’t criticize a book until you’ve written one. For which assertion he has been taken to the woodshed repeatedly. But I know what he means: that writing books is hard, and criticizing them is, by comparison, pretty easy.
And that’s when I started hoping that the ceiling would provide me with some guidance here. There’s no obligation for fiction to be plausible. So what if Maazel’s cult leader is so wet and whiny that no one would follow him out of a burning building? So what if his supposedly entrancing speeches bring to mind fortune cookie inserts rewritten by semiotics majors? So what if no one like Esme actually exists in the world of national security? So what if her prosthetics are impossible? (At one point, in North Korea, she’s disguised as a Kim Jong-Il impersonator—which is mega, even for meta.)
Sometimes, we read novels to escape hard truth. Or we find truth in the confections of richly implausible fantasy. And even though my own bias lists strongly toward story, a novel is not obliged to tell one, if its characters are compelling or its style mesmerizing. All a novel really needs to do, I concluded, is give the reader an incentive to turn the page. In piling frenzied incident atop wild antic, in playing even the most tragic losses for laughs, Woke Up Lonely ultimately left me bereft of that incentive.
And therefore, long live Life After Life. Ursula Todd survives, yet again, to face another round.
John: ToB X. I heard a rumor during Super Bowl week that the NFL was considering phasing out Roman numerals because they’re worried about Super Bowl L looking like a typo in two years’ time.
ToB X looks like a typo to me, to be honest. We’ve come a long way from ToB I, where instead of having a Pulitzer Prize winner as a judge we had...me.
Continuing our tradition from ToB IX, we offer a playoff game. This year’s twist: We asked two of the most widely read people in the world of contemporary literature to tell us who belongs in the Tournament. Now, those titles are battling it out for entry into the final 16.
Kevin: We considered a number of options for the playoff round this year. One possibility that you and I were particularly excited about was a King Family Cage Match, with novels by Stephen, his sons Joe Hill and Owen King, and Owen’s wife Kelly Braffet all battling it out for a single slot. People higher up and with leveler heads informed us that the logistics of this would be a nightmare, considering that Doctor Sleep and NOS4A2 alone add up to about 1,300 pages. I have read three of the four so far (I haven’t yet gotten to Owen King’s Double Feature) and recommend them all. If someone wants to play fantasy judge, that would be a fun summer project for you.
Instead, we decided to ask two readers we have tremendous respect for, Time magazine’s Lev Grossman and David Gutowski of Largehearted Boy, to each select a novel to be judged by Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks. So while many observers of the ToB wondered how Life After Life, one of the most hyped and celebrated books of the year, seemed to be one of the last books to make the field, it was actually one of the first books selected, courtesy of Grossman. Is it fair to Kate Atkinson that she must duke it out against a spunky indie favorite just to make the round of 16? Probably not. Do we care very much about fairness around here? Not really. Do we think Kate Atkinson gives a brass farthing about any of this? That seems doubtful.
John: Not that she needs it, but I would like to reassure Geraldine Brooks that it’s OK to hate a book. I recognize the emotion, though. As someone who keeps trying to write books, it always feels like a bit of a betrayal to look at someone else’s attempt and just say it’s just not worth your time.
I fall somewhere in between David Gutowski and Geraldine Brooks on Woke Up Lonely. By its description, Woke Up Lonely was in my wheelhouse, and Maazel’s talent is obvious, but for me, it doesn’t do enough of the less glamorous things I look for in a really absorbing book. I’m usually very accepting of the unconventional, but I never quite believed the things that happen in the novel, even as I was impressed and entertained by the high-wattage creativity. To me, it just never seemed fully confident in what it was trying to be. That showed on the page.
Brooks’s judgment of the novel in the face of Gutowski picking it as one of his books of the year is example 147 in the history of our Tournament that when it comes to books, there is no “one size fits all.”
There might not even be “one size fits most.”
Kevin: I really enjoyed Woke Up Lonely at the outset. I didn’t believe anything in it either, or at least no more than I believe that Melody Oriole-2 von Peterswald lives in the Empire State Building. In fact, Vonnegut’s Slapstick seemed something like the template for this novel to me at first. The themes of loneliness are in the same ballpark, and an undercover agent from the Department of the Interior living in a mansion who, with the help of her majordomo, is also a master of prosthetic disguises, felt solidly in Vonnegut territory. That didn’t bother me.
For me, the problem became that Maazel never leaves her foot on the gas. It was sometimes absurd, and sometimes sincere. Sometimes funny, and sometimes serious. The story had preposterous characters with real-life problems who still felt genuine emotion, often described at some length. I felt jerked in and out a bit, like someone had spliced together bits of Ordinary People with The Following and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. OK, that sounds more flippant than I want it to. What I mean is all the parts were extremely well made, but I wasn’t sure what my relationship to them was supposed to be.
As an example, a large part of the backstory is revealed when one of the characters speaks into a camera directly for the benefit of one of the other characters. But Maazel abandons the device after only a few paragraphs. Perhaps that’s nitpicking to a certain extent (as Judge Brooks says, writing novels is hard), but it’s just one of the inconsistencies that knocked me out of the story. My liking of it fell right around yours on the spectrum, I think. As you say, Maazel is very talented. I enjoyed many of the parts more than the whole.
John: Despite being a certified Kate Atkinson fanboy, I was resistant to Life After Life when it came out. Part of it was my resentment that it’s not a Jackson Brodie novel, which is totally unfair to Kate Atkinson, but it’s also her fault.
If loving Jackson Brodie is wrong, I don’t want to be right.
So I’m glad that Lev Grossman forced my hand because otherwise I never would have read it, and I’m glad I did. The key phrase for me in Brooks’s review is “won me over,” because while there are some books that have me at “hello”—this year it was Ron Carlson’s Return to Oakpine—in Life After Life’s case, it took a fair bit longer.
The conceit where Atkinson rubs Ursula out more often than South Park snuffs Kenny bugged me for the first 120 pages or so. I suppose it’s supposed to add tension to the telling, but since I knew she was going to bite it my focus was on which moment might prove calamitous, which kept me from full absorption.
But once Ursula exits childhood and we get into her lives during the Blitz, the novel takes off and I forgot the gimmick. (If you want to call it that.) I stopped wondering if there was an incentive to turn the page and just kept going.
Kevin: One of the things good mystery writers treat as gospel (and something all writers would be wise to learn from them) is that you need to put a question—an unresolved conflict—in the reader’s head right from the get-go. Page one if you can do it. The desire to answer that question, to close that circle, will compel the reader to turn pages all the way to the end. The classic mystery question, of course, is Whodunnit? but it obviously doesn’t have to be that. It can be something small and personal, but in any good novel the author lets the reader know that she is writing toward the end, not away from the beginning.
I, too, love Kate Atkinson (who is an excellent mystery writer), but if Life After Life had begun on page three, I probably would not have finished it. Pages three through 175 were a bit of a slog for me, frankly. Ursula spends most of that time as small child (and a chunk of it in utero) dying again and again, and so for the first quarter of the novel the protagonist isn’t able to develop much definition or momentum as a character. The constant restarts were frustrating, made more so since we hadn’t really arrived anywhere yet (February 1910 is now my least-favorite month of the 20th century). I don’t think I could have made it.
Except that on page two, Atkinson has grown-up Ursula shoot Adolf Hitler.
Although this is something of an alternate-history cliche, unlike for Judge Brooks it didn’t put me off the story. Indeed, throughout the next 170 pages of the pre-pubescent Ursula Todd multiverse, it was sustaining to know I had some sweet, sweet Hitler murder to look forward to. Killing Hitler is a crowd-pleaser. It’s like sci-fi’s version of “Sweet Caroline.” (Today’s companion read from The Guardian: “Time Travellers, Please Don’t Kill Hitler.”)
As you say, when Ursula is at last allowed to become a teenager, the book really takes off, and I actually forgot all about the Nazi stuff for a very long time. The relative tedium of Ursula’s early years, however, is essential to the story, and I was grateful to have an author as good as Atkinson to hold my hand all the way through it.
John: Our next match we get into the brackets proper with one of our specialties—pairing two books that couldn’t be more different—as indie superstar Scott McClanahan takes on international prizewinning superstar Eleanor Catton.