by Daniel AlarcónBuy at Powell’s »
Mat Johnson: I really wanted one of these books to suck because then judging would have been a lot easier. In fact, I think I only agreed to do this because I assumed one of them would be awful and then I could just breeze through the immediate pain of having to read it and crown a winner and get on with my life. Instead, both How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia and A Tale for the Time Being are good—a statement which says nothing, I know, but begins to speak to my dilemma. They are both, in fact, very good, and at times brilliant, and I left both feeling like I learned something about what you can do with the novel and the concept of story—which of course still says very little but sweet Jesus, give me time to warm up.
I read How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid first because it was short and I’m busy and also I am really getting sick of the long literary novel. Size doesn’t matter, sure, we are above the mundanity of counting page-length, but ever since the larger publishing world got it in their heads that longer novels are somehow more serious and of greater literary merit, there have been more and more literary books that sit bloated and bulging and would really do well to go on Paleo or start counting points or something. Actually I don’t know if this is a new phenomenon, I just know I walked into a bookstore about a decade ago and all the serious literary novels being promoted on the premier shelf looked big enough that if you dropped one you could break a toe. I see all that fat and I think award bait. It’s one thing if they needed to be long, but I’ve read a lot of them that didn’t, that had an ancillary 175-page narrative line whose primary purpose was to get it on some committee’s short list. It’s not fair, I know, and it’s my personal prejudice, but when I see a 200+ pager like How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, I think, Oh boy, looks like somebody doesn’t want to bore me.
Written in the form of a self-help book, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia follows the protagonist’s life from boyhood in impoverished rural Pakistan through the entirety of his existence as he rises to corporate opulence and beyond. Let me say first, I couldn’t create an entire lifespan for a character that feels this rich and true and poignant and visceral and still manage to fit that into a 200-plus-page arc. Really, it’s a marvel. Add onto to that the fact that Hamid does this in second person—which must rank just below the vosotros form as one of the most widely reviled literary tenses—and the book’s a stunner. While it focuses on our rising star, the novel is, at its heart, a love story. A writer who’s a lot more successful than me once told me, “All great stories are love stories.” He might have been drunk and overreaching but I like choosing to believe that. And this is a great story, with great prose riffs like:
We are all refugees from our childhoods. And so we turn, among other things, to stories. To write a story, to read a story, is to be a refugee from the state of refugees. Writers and readers seek a solution to the problem that time passes, that those who have gone are gone and those who will go, which is to say every one of us, will go. For there was a moment when anything was possible. And there will be a moment when nothing is possible. But in between we can create.
Just lovely. And it’s a testament to the work that when I think of the novel now, its prose isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Hamid is a storyteller. We praise certain writers for being prose-stylists, but we assume all writers are storytellers. Well, some writers—a lot of writers—aren’t. They can tell a story, craftwise, but the essence of storytelling, embracing the magic at the heart of a tale, either eludes them or is secondary to other craft considerations. For true storytellers, casting the spell of the tale is central. The parts, no matter how luminous, remain in service to the grandeur of the whole.
God, I sound pompous when I talk about writing.
Oddly, the one thing I found specifically lacking was the framing of the work as a self-help novel, supposedly its central conceit, which takes place in the form of perfunctory self-help-referencing opening paragraphs for each chapter. Some were good, some distracting. All, I started to feel, unneeded. Because the book was so damn good. I didn’t want the device. I just wanted to jump back into the story.
In contrast to Hamid’s little gem, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being is a big book. Not break-your-toe-big but, you know, big enough. It’s also happens to be haunting and rich and hard to quantify, which is apt because it’s about the discovery of a manuscript that could be described the same way. Here, an author, also named Ruth, also living on an island in British Columbia as apparently Ruth Ozeki does, discovers the existential diary of a Japanese teenager, Nao Yasutani, which has mysteriously floated across the Pacific and landed on North American shores. The narrative is mostly broken into two streams: Nao’s diary itself and the life of Ruth as she investigates and negotiates the truth behind the diary—if it’s even a real diary to begin with. The tension of the novel is that the space between these narratives, of knowing and not knowing, of truth and fiction, of present and past.
I knew it had me when I found myself reading just for some proof that Nao was real and not some hentia/perv’s fictional creation, because rationally I know that either way Nao is a work of fiction—the difference is only a question of how her fiction is layered in the narrative. What I love about this book is how much I love it even though there are so many things I normally hate: the protagonist being an alter-ego of the writer (you don’t get points for that anymore), having a bulk of the book come through a teenage narrator (this is not a valid literary concern, I just dislike teenagers), having the character in a book about knowing having a name that is pronounced like the word know, a plot that leans forward but more often winds its way back in circles, and again the fact that it’s a long book and I got shit to do. And yet I loved it anyway. Because it works.
With its myriad of interworking pieces, it clicks together like a masterfully designed clockwork marvel. While at first seeming meandering in its philosophical, quantum scientific, and political tangents, the more I read the more I appreciated how intricately they were intertwined and interdependent. Ozeki writes, “Information is a lot like water; it's hard to hold on to, and hard to keep from leaking away.” In A Tale for the Time Being, it does leak. But it also pools, and starts to feel like an ocean.
I enjoyed the reading of How to Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, the act of reading it, more. But I was overwhelmed by the overall experience of A Tale for the Time Being, and I found myself immersed in the book even in the moments I put it down, and still after its completion. Maybe it’s the effect of immersion, when done right, that is the big books’ advantage. It was an advantage here.
John: Is it coincidental that @mat_johnson, one of the most engaging writers on Twitter, likes his novels trim?
I agree with Johnson that we sometimes mistake heft for depth. I cringe every time a reviewer backhand-compliments a short novel with “slim”—or worse, “slight.” There’s often an assumption that if a writer has pecked away enough to make 700+ pages, they must be some kind of genius. But the inconsistency is obvious: a perfect 2-minute-30-second rock song can be considered art alongside a full-length symphony, and even the greatest of symphonies may have their boring stretches. The short novel is a particularly special kind of art considering the fact that the same perfect song could be ruined by being five seconds too long or too short. To go back to your figure skating example from yesterday’s matchup, the short novel is like gambling everything on a single, signature leap. That deserves some respect.
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia was one of my favorite books of the year. I’m glad to see that confirmed by Johnson because I’d previously read a review by Raging Biblioholic and ToB superfan Drew Broussard that makes Hamid’s novel sound like one of the worst books of any year, let alone 2013.
For me, it’s one of the books I picked up and didn’t put down again until I was done. Sure, some of this is due to its relative brevity, but it’s also a testament to its humor and pathos, carried along on the back of its inventive structure for which I fell immediately, and hard. It’s short in page count but covers an entire life, and not only did I want to know what was going to happen next, I cared.
Kevin: I was initially skeptical of the conceit in Filthy Rich. It felt like a gimmick that could work in a much shorter piece—like a McSweeney’s bit (to tip a hat to the benevolent indie publishing empire for which you and I have both scribed). Only on McSweeney’s it would have been called:
A BIOGRAPHY OF MY
UNCLE NICK, IF UNCLE NICK
HAD BEEN BORN IN
LAHORE, PAKISTAN INSTEAD
OF ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN
IN THE FORM OF ONE OF
THE SELF-HELP BOOKS
I HAVE BEEN COPY-EDITING
FROM HOME SINCE I LOST
MY H.R. JOB AT A MID-SIZED
GROCERY CHAIN, WHICH WAS
RECENTLY LIQUIDATED BY THE
HEDGE FUND THAT OWNED IT.
Throughout the first half of the book, I admit that I was wishing the artifice would go away and that Hamid would just tell the story.
Then I realized that I was falling victim to one of the fallacies of the bad reviewer (whose habits we already discussed at length in yesterday’s commentary). I was wishing that Hamid had written a different book than he had. How I might have written this story is completely irrelevant. It would be like dismissing The Godfather because I wished it were a musical. The novel needs to be considered on its own terms.
Once I got over that, I actually came to embrace the structure. It permitted Hamid to fully tell the story of one life (two lives, I guess), but do it in this amazingly efficient way—a distillation of a character from birth until death. Just a lovely book, and one I would never have picked up without the ToB, even with a personal rec from the Biblioracle.
John: A Tale for the Time Being is a pretty strange book that, to use Johnson’s word, should not work, except that it does. It’s part YA, part metafiction, part Murakami, and yet it all manages to come together in a way that had me engaged to the very end.
I don’t know that I fully agree with Johnson’s assessment that the novel comes together because of a masterful design. I don’t see the clockwork here. It feels much freer and messier to me—in a good way—but what I think it illustrates is the powers of a novelist who has earned the trust of her reader (and probably her editor and publisher before that because, to be honest, I’m not sure this book would ever get considered if it was coming in blind). There’s no hook, other than “it’s good,” which is what every aspiring novelist believes about his book.
But Ruth Ozeki is not aspiring any more. We know that she can deliver a good book; we trust that the threads are going to come together and they do. I’ve written elsewhere about my concerns for the “mid-list” novelist, a category to which Ozeki and Johnson belong and I hope to join one day, as they’re subject to market pressures. There was a time when publishing ran on the irrational emotions of love and trust, but the age of data has ended those good times. No longer can we turn a blind eye to the likelihood that a book is not going to earn out, because every book and author’s track record is available with a couple of keystrokes. Cormac McCarthy starting out today never would’ve been allowed to arrive at his sales breakthrough All the Pretty Horses.
A solid mid-list novelist has earned something: the publisher will take that next book, even if the marketing hook is not obvious or it defies easy description. While I don’t know Ruth Ozeki, I have to believe that knowing this, even in the back of her mind, may make it easier to write a better book—she doesn’t have to spend her time worrying if it’s going to find a way into the world.
I worry that we’re not making as many of these novelists as we used to.
I have only just started A Tale for the Time Being, so can’t tell you yet if I would have preferred it over Filthy Rich. I know I’m bringing it down to the wire, but this list is a challenge for all those who try to read every novel each year (I will come close, but I won’t quite make it). They aren’t necessarily the most challenging group of novels we’ve ever had, but the sheer number of pages is daunting for a relatively slow reader like me.
Here’s a question for you: Keeping in mind that there is some serious selection bias involved when considering this list of 17 books in particular, but given that we are constantly hearing how people are reading less and less, are you surprised at the popularity of so many doorstop literary novels this year? Is this a subconscious backlash on the part of readers, authors, and publishers? Have the number of fiction readers been winnowed to a point where serious readers now exert greater influence over the bestseller list? Are there not, in fact, any more big books this year than in any other year and I have just created a non-existent issue because I haven’t read the Ozeki yet and don’t know what else to say about it?
John: I’m going to be a little bit cynical and suggest that in the present age, where it can be difficult to find a marketing hook for a book, “big-ass novel” is something that publishers know how to sell. The biggest publishing deal of the past year for literary fiction was for Garth Risk Hallberg’s City of Fire, which sold for $2 million and comes in at a reported 900 pages—a full 66 more than even The Luminaries. Obviously, I haven’t read Hallberg’s book, but I imagine it is like most really long novels in that there are parts that are more engaging and parts that are less engaging, and maybe even the best way to read it will be using what I’m going to call the Guilfoile method from now on. What I do know is that a 900-page novel sold for $2 million gets a lot of press, and is virtually guaranteed review coverage after publication.
For me, as a reader, length is sometimes an impediment to me actually buying the book. When I consider that I could read three average-length books in the time it takes me to read one behemoth, I have to really believe that my investment is likely to be worth the long haul. Based on the description and reviews of The Luminaries (even the positive ones), the novel never made the sale for me, not even once it got in our field.
So far, my favorite new release of the year is Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, and each of its 192 pages contains passages that can stop you in your tracks.
How about an opening round matchup between City of Fire and Dept. of Speculation for ToB XI?
Kevin: Well, at least two books we speculated about in last year’s ToB—The Dinner and The People in the Trees—ended up in this year’s tourney. We shall wait and see.
On Monday we have James McBride’s National Book Award winner The Good Lord Bird versus the tourney’s only book in translation, Mia Couto’s The Tuner of Silences.