by Daniel AlarcónBuy at Powell’s »
Jeff Martin: I’m sure you’re dying to know. What’s the best part about being a judge in an enterprise such as the ToB? The element of surprise. No contest. It’s hard to stay as eclectic as one wants or perhaps intends to be. I strive for diversity of all kinds on my real and virtual bookshelves, but it’s all too easy to follow the narrow paths of interest laid out by previous favorites and authors of comfort. Not to mention those pesky “You might also like this” algorithms. All of this is to say that Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life completely blindsided me. Of course I knew of Atkinson’s work, but until I cracked the spine on this ambitious tome, I hadn’t read her. In the wake of a truly significant work of art, and Life After Life certainly qualifies as such, my mind becomes obsessed, for lack of a better word, with figuring out why I personally found said work so impactful.
Being the youngest of three boys, there’s something to be said for birth-order theories. There’s also something interesting about the order in which we read. For no obvious reason, I read Kate Atkinson’s book before picking up Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees. I’m not sure why. They arrived together. I had both sitting on my nightstand. Either way, the power and shock to the system that Life After Life provided left a lingering impact that threatened to overshadow The People in the Trees. Unfair or not, it’s the truth. Order matters.
Based on a real-life story of a Nobel Prize-winning doctor’s dual role as helper of humanity and predator of the weakest among us, it’s got all of the pieces that should add up to an “important” work of fiction. Yanagihara’s boldness of style (footnotes and literary devices abound) reminded me of Dave Eggers’s more recent novels. There’s no doubt that we’re dealing with an immensely talented writer and serious themes of global importance. Did I mention that this is her debut novel? The level of confidence here is off the charts. If David Foster Wallace and Barbara Kingsolver had produced a child with equal literary ambition, Yanagihara might bear some resemblance. But I struggled at times getting past the shiny exterior—I feel this way about Wes Anderson’s films from time to time. And the first-person, unreliable narrator thing going on here leaves me more disinterested than intrigued: “…despite my obvious interest in this narrative, this is not my story. For one, I am a quiet man. For another, I am not interested in telling my story anyway—after all, there are altogether too many stories nowadays.” Yanagihara has the goods. No doubt about it. And I will look for future work based on the high points here.
I’ll be candid. When I opened the package that contained Life After Life, I was hoping for something else—anything, really. But my skepticism faded quickly with the introduction of Ursula Todd. She is born. She dies. Rinse and repeat. And repeat. And repeat. This novel, crafted with a watchmaker’s precision, could have become the literary Groundhog Day. Then again, I felt from the first two pages that we might be entering some sort of noir/femme fatale territory:
“A fug of tobacco smoke and damp clammy air hit her as she entered the cafe.”
“The blonde lit a cigarette, making a phallic performance out of it.”
“Around the table guns were jerked from holsters and pointed at her. One breath. One shot.”
These words wouldn’t feel out of place in a work by Chandler, Cain, or Hammett. And given Atkinson’s history with mystery, I assumed the narrative would stay in this territory. It doesn’t.
There are many lines and passages repeated to great effect. Several times within the 500-plus pages, I had that eerie sense of déjà vu. Such a unique sensation. Had I already read this? Why does this seem so familiar? And with that use of language and attention to detail, Atkinson gives us, the readers, that greatest of gifts: we feel what Ursula feels. Only in tiny flickers, but the recognition of feeling blurs the line between reading it and living it. The book is so full of surprises, I was immediately searching for friends and family to discuss it with. It’s a hard book to explain, and more to the point, why would you want to? But “trust me” and “see for yourself” aren’t always the most convincing arguments for diving in. Maybe Hunter S. Thompson said it best: “Buy the ticket. Take the ride.”
It’s been reported that The People in the Trees was a decade in the making, so it may be a while before I have a chance to see what’s next from Yanagihara and reassess. I do know for certain, though, that 10 years from now, I will have revisited Life After Life numerous times: sometimes on the page, but more often than that, in my head.
Kevin: After a Tournament that probably saw more upsets and surprises than any other in our 10 years doing this, we’ve ended up with a championship match that I think a lot of people might have anticipated before this thing started: National Book Award winner The Good Lord Bird versus bestselling critical darling Life After Life. Both are alt-historical fictions—one a comic take on real events, the other a speculative one.
We also have a rich history of championship matches in which a writer from the UK faces off with an American author, beginning with the very first ToB, when David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas defeated Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. In the four years in which we’ve had a cross-Atlantic battle for the Rooster, the UK writer has won three. The only exception was Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which defeated Tom McCarthy’s Remainder in 2008.
John: This looks like a close final to me. The Good Lord Bird is already a major prizewinner and Atkinson is a “Tuesday morning release day” author for a lot of people. But Life After Life has to be the underdog in the final matchup given its path to the showdown. It’s sort of amazing to think of the journey that brought it to the final. It wouldn’t even have been in the Tournament without Lev Grossman putting it into the playoff, and today it had to rise from the dead to defeat the novel that had vanquished it previously (which was maybe wholly predictable given Life After Life’s conceit).
As usual, we encourage all readers/commenters/peanut gallerians to predict the winning book and margin, keeping in mind that there will be 17 votes. I don’t think we’ve talked to them specifically, but I imagine Field Notes could scare up a Rooster pack for the winner, randomly selected from the correct guesses.
Brief interruption: We’ve spoken to Field Notes, and, yes, a randomly chosen, correctly guessing reader will receive a very nice Field Notes “kit,” plus their latest seasonal release “The Shelterwood Edition,” and a ToBX memo book. We’ll name the winning reader in tomorrow’s commentary. To enter, comment below with the title and margin. Thank you, and now back to the show.—eds.
Kevin: I’m intrigued by Judge Martin’s comment that the order in which he read these books affected his opinion of them. No doubt that is true for all of us, but I wonder how often we even notice it. Unless you are specifically asked to compare two books to one another, would you even be conscious of the fact that the book you are reading has been “overshadowed” by the book you read just before it? Thinking about it now, I actually think the book that has overshadowed much of the fiction I have read so far in 2014 is nonfiction: Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. That book is so strange, and contains so many WTF moments—I don’t think I have ever stopped reading to exclaim out loud to an empty room more than I did with Going Clear—that a lot of the fiction I’ve read just seems not fantastic enough. What, your novel has no insane sea captains? No alien overlords living inside your brain? No coerced labor to plant a field of wildflowers in the desert because Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman have a whim to run through one? That’s some tough competition for the imagination.
John: Here’s a prediction I’m going to make: you’ll be hearing from the PR arm of the Church of Scientology. I say this because it happened to me when I named Going Clear as a runner-up for “scariest” book in my year-end Biblioracle Book Awards and said that Wright “pretty definitely proves that Scientology leaders are subjecting some of their followers to something that approaches torture.” I had an email the next day impugning Wright’s research and telling me to investigate the truth about Scientology. I declined the offer.
The winner of “scariest” book was The Dinner, but neither Herman Koch nor his representatives contacted me to register their offense.
Kevin: I promise to tweet the exact time and temperature when I am contacted by the Church of Scientology.
John: Going back, I see that I chose The Good Lord Bird as “the easiest book to recommend to the most people,” which seems pretty true to me today. It’s a crowd-pleaser without being weightless.
I rarely think of this “overshadowing” consciously, but I often find previous reads lingering over current ones, particularly when I’ve really enjoyed a book. Whatever comes next will often seem to pale in comparison—not because it isn’t good, but because it’s different and there’s a certain amount of expectation-resetting necessary to give oneself over to the new reading experience. Maybe in future years we should specifically measure the impact that reading order has on judgments.
Does anyone have Nate Silver’s number?
Kevin: Tomorrow we bring all the judges back to issue their opinions, after which we will threaten either James McBride or Kate Atkinson with the presentation of a live rooster. I have not seen the verdict yet, so I will chance a guess. I’m going with The Good Lord Bird. When you read these two back to back, I think McBride’s humor wins out over Atkinson’s dark multiverse. It’s a terrific pair of novels, though. Anyone from the future who is using an archive of this year’s ToB to grow their TBR pile could do worse than to start with those two.