Message in a Bottle
Pull the Other One, Sir

The Columbia University School of Journalism handed out its prestigious Pulitzer Prizes this week in twenty-one categories. I didn’t pay much attention to most of them, which honor various achievements in news reporting, although I did note that Seattle’s own Eli Sanders was recognized for his Feature Writing in the Stranger. The award that always gets the most attention is Fiction, and this year the buzz is even louder because nobody won. That’s right—no prize for anyone. Even this year’s judges (novelist Michael Cunningham, critic and English professor Maureen Corrigan, and newspaper books editor Susan Larson) are up in arms about the snub. They approved three finalists (Denis Johnson for Train Dreams, David Foster Wallace for The Pale King, and Karen Russell for Swamplandia!) and handed them to the Pulitzer board of trustees for the ultimate decision, but that august body couldn’t reach a consensus and isn’t talking about why. Now, it’s possible that support for at least a couple of the nominated books was so fervent that the group deadlocked, but the more likely explanation is that they were underwhelmed by their choices.

                             

This has happened several times before, but not for almost thirty years. The incident I still take personally occurred in 1974, when the judges unanimously recommended Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow to win, but the board refused them, citing the novel as “turgid” and “obscene.” Maybe that’s what the judges liked about it. Anyway, the 2012 non-decision once again points out what makes the Pulitzers unique, for good and ill. The judges, always literary experts of one kind or another, are different every year, while the board has twenty members drawn from journalism schools and news organizations, serving rotating three-year terms. There’s often conflict between the specialized tastes of the judges and the allegedly more mainstream outlook of the board. Much of the time the tension is productive, and the fiction that wins has appeal for both groups, but some of the time…well, that’s what happened this week.

So no author has an extra ten thousand dollars in his or her pocket to go along with the sales boost that the 2012 Pulitzer usually brings, but in the long run, the controversy probably benefits the world of books. People are talking about literature, which can only be a good thing, and now we all get to decide who really did deserve the prize. Given that we at Island Books had Train Dreams on our year-end ten best list, I suppose that would have been our consensus pick among the finalists, but the slate has been cleared and that’s all out the window now. Who to choose? I might stump for Open City by Teju Cole.

The novel is a debut work that focuses on the meanderings, mental and physical, of a psychiatric resident; he’s Nigerian but living in Manhattan. He roams the city incessantly, pondering recondite topics in art, history, and philosophy while dwelling on his isolation, only occasionally making contact of any kind with those around him. It’s a novel of drift rather than drive, strongly reminiscent of the output of late German writer W.G. Sebald. I read Open City months ago and found it intriguing, though sometimes opaque. It’s just come out in paperback, and seeing it again I realize that its images and events have been quietly simmering in the back of my head for months. The measured way the narrator reveals himself has left a strong impression, like a guest at a party you initially overlook but who proves a fascinating conversationalist when you lean in close. I’m sure not everyone will find the book as compelling as I did, but it’s just the kind of unusual, important fiction that deserves to be rewarded and would have glowed under the Pulitzer spotlight.

Ask me again tomorrow and I might vote a different way, of course. Chris Adrian’s The Great Night? Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife? Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station? Enigmatic Pilot by Kris Sakunssemm? Arthur Phillips’ The Tragedy of Arthur? I have no idea if any of these were even on the judges’ radar (the only thing I really know about the Pulitzer Prize is that you’re supposed to say “pull it, sir” not “pyool-it-sir”) but they probably should have been. I’ll have to mull over my decision, but in the meanwhile, I’d love to know which book you think should have taken home the trophy.

—James

Many Words About Relatively Few Words

I wrote some time ago about the special pleasures of really fat big-boned books, and it remains true that there’s nothing like sinking deeply into the warm bath that is a long novel. There’s not enough time to indulge in one of those every day, though, so lately I’ve been looking into the bookish equivalent of the brisk shower—the novella. What is that exactly? Well, if it’s longer than a short story but shorter than a novel, it’s probably a novella. Somewhere between 15000 and 50000 words, or 50 to 175 pages, just to give a ballpark definition. Stephen King once called the form “an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic,” probably because fiction of that length can be a tough sell, difficult to fit into a magazine or a collection and perhaps too slim to market on its own. But as publishing options expand and daily life grows more distracting, it feels as if more writers and readers are willing to eschew the heavier classes, at least some of the time, and enjoy a bantamweight bout.

Two Island Books favorites of the past year were slender things indeed. Train Dreams by Denis Johnson had a mere 128 pages, while We the Animals by Justin Torres was 144 pages long. For the purposes of off-the-cuff blogging, that would be more than enough evidence for me to start expounding on the Resurgence of the Novella, but this is a serious journal of ideas, so I’m held to stricter standards. Around here, it takes three to make a trend, so let me cast about to find another example.

The first that comes to mind is Rebecca Lee’s The City Is a Rising Tide, a book that took ten years to hone into its final form. The result of this obviously painstaking effort is a marvel of concision, with a complex story that deftly hopscotches from China to North Carolina to the plains of middle Canada. Lee’s sympathetic but fundamentally untrustworthy narrator works for a nonprofit organization that’s attempting to build a spiritual retreat along the Yangtze River, but given the impending damming of the river, she knows the project to be a futile effort. These professional troubles are further compounded and paralleled by an unrequited romance with her boss. Drifting along in apparent passivity, she nonetheless becomes the central figure in a series of financial, legal, and even cinematic crises. Even as the settings vary, the emphatic center of the book is New York. The city is lit with a nostalgic 1990s warmth (how much of that nostalgia is intentional and how much is simply inevitable when referencing the period before 9/11?) that makes this melancholic comedy of manners a real love letter to Manhattan. It’s more than that, though. Rising Tide treats an entire network of personal, political, sociological, aesthetic, and even theological topics; it’s surprising how many ingredients are combined into something that initially feels so light. One character says, “A person can carry a whole world of ideas and associations and plotlines, don’t you see?” Rebecca Lee proves you can carry that world conveniently in your pocket. It’s a marvelous read, but it’s just over 200 pages and came out a few years ago, so it’s slightly too long and too old to make a perfect threesome. 

Instead I’ll try The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers by Delia Falconer. It’s only 133 pages, so I’m on safe ground lengthwise. The book speaks in the imagined voice of Captain Frederick Benteen, survivor of the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, as he reminisces about his experiences with Custer’s army. The narrator was a real participant in the battle whose company escaped the massacre, and he was frustrated in later life to see his name tarnished for an excess of cautiousness while his reckless general became a folk hero. Inspired by a letter that offers him a chance to redeem his reputation, the fictional Benteen relates his version of events with remarkable accuracy, but the story doesn’t focus on military tactics. It’s the personalities that come to the fore, along with the inner landscape of minds at war. The boredom and crass humor of the barracks share stage time with the thrilling danger of combat, rounding out the cardboard cutouts from our textbooks. Falconer’s great achievement is finding poetic language that brings life and significance to every detail, however mundane it might otherwise appear. Pure history buffs may not find exactly what they’re looking for, but lovers of fiction can’t help but be impressed. Fresh as the story is in my mind, though, I realize that it too is a few years past its first publication, so maybe it’s not topical enough to prove my point.

Lucinella by Lore Segal? It’s a remarkably effective satire of a rarefied subculture that simultaneously celebrates it. The titular heroine is one of my favorite fictional characters, a sweet-natured but sharp-tongued poet striving to make her way in the low-stakes but cutthroat world of writer’s retreats and cocktail parties. She’s so multi-faceted she has to appear in more than one incarnation—older and younger visions of herself pop in continually to comment on the action. All three manifestations can be charming or annoying, and Lucinella has (they have?) a quality that’s unusual in fiction, the self-awareness to recognize her imperfections. She and her compatriots are exceedingly bright, and Segal displays that intelligence convincingly instead of just asserting it. Few books are this smart, and fewer still are this witty and playful at the same time. I dare say no others manage the feat in less than 160 pages. It was published more recently than the others I’ve mentioned, but it still doesn’t qualify for my trend-piece because it’s a reprint of the original release, which has been unavailable since the 1970s. 

Wait, I know another novella that came out this past year. It’s called The Duel, and it’s by Heinrich von Kleist. Or is it Giacomo Casanova? Joseph Conrad? Anton Chekhov? Alexander Kuprin? All of the above, actually. Five different authors at different times in different places all chose the same title for their very different stories of romance and rapiers. They’re great tales on their own, but taken together they’re like a mosaic portrait of a cultural phenomenon. The archaic practice of dueling, where honor was purchased in spasms of ritualized violence, is an ideal subject for the narrow turf covered by the novella. Narratives need conflict, and novellas need containment; two antagonists choosing swords or pistols fill the bill quite nicely. OK, all these stories were written over a hundred years ago, but if a hip publishing outfit like Melville House has chosen the present moment to bring them out again, I think we can be sure that we’re seeing a trend. Skinny books, like skinny jeans, are officially part of the zeitgeist.

—James

Near Misses, Or The Best Of The Rest

Our list of the best books of 2011 includes twenty titles, half non-fiction and half fiction, but there were at least twice as many that got a mention when we were hashing out the final results. In the headline above I referred to them as near misses, but it’s probably more accurate to say that those books didn’t miss what they were aiming at, we just moved the target. As we keep pointing out, the list is inherently arbitrary and at a different time under different circumstances, any of the also-rans might have appeared on the medal stand. They’re the equals of our so-called winners, they just didn’t fit what we were thinking of as “The Best of 2011” that day.

For example, Embassytown by China Miéville is an outstanding book by any measure. Set on an alien planet inhabited by a bizarre, insectoid species, it’s solidly in the science fiction camp, but will defy many people’s expectation of what that means. Miéville’s always been known to string sentences together in a more sophisticated manner than the stereotypical raygun and rocketship author, but in his latest novel language itself is the focus. The aforementioned multi-mouthed alien race speaks an unfathomable tongue in which their words are more than just signs for other things, they’re in a sense the things themselves. So literal they cannot lie, for these aliens a concept must exist in the real world before it can be uttered. The human protagonist of Embassytown has to become a living figure of speech by enacting a strange ritual so that they can employ her as a metaphor of sorts. She is “the girl who was hurt in the dark and ate what was given to her.” And that’s just the beginning of a lyrical, richly philosophical work that doesn’t neglect the pure fun of a carefully-drawn fantasy world or an action-filled plot. Wonderful as the book is, in the end we decided its appeal wasn’t quite broad enough to warrant a “best-of” slot.

Similarly, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive by Chris Boucher (not to be confused with the hippieish 1969 repair manual of the same name) is a stellar piece of fiction, but it’s definitely an acquired taste. A paperback original by a 21st-century Richard Brautigan, it partly takes the form of an automotive guide, but it’s really about parenting, loss, confusion, and love. The single dad at the heart of the story just happens to be the father of a 1971 Beetle, and the son of a man felled by a Heart Attack Tree. It’s a strange setup, to be sure, but if you give yourself over to the rhythm and creative vocabulary of the book, you’ll feel tremendous emotion behind the quirky novelty. After a chapter or two, a universe where a child’s sufferoil needs constant changing and the clocks measure dollars instead of hours won’t seem strange at all. 

                       

A far more traditional novel fell off the list only because not enough of us were yet familiar with it. 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson takes place after World War II as a woman and her child travel from Poland to England to be reunited with their husband and father, but despite their determination to make a fresh start, the past threatens to destroy their dreams. Infidelity, the horrors of war, and even deeper secrets come into play before all is said and done. Miriam sums it up: “Hodgkinson’s poetic voice is impossible to forget, and the shocking and hopeful ending of her remarkable historical novel will leave readers reeling—and satisfied.” Given this strong support, it’s clear that the book didn’t fail to make the list, we failed the book.

It was largely length that cost We the Animals a place in the winner’s circle. Justin Torres tells his story in the collective voice of three high-energy brothers, sons of a Puerto Rican father and a white mother living in Brooklyn. It’s an intense and beautiful depiction of childhood and beyond, and it’s so tautly written that it needs less than 150 pages to pack a real wallop. But with one novella-sized book on the list, Train Dreams, Roger decided that we didn’t need another, even though he was probably Torres’s biggest fan. 

I haven’t even touched on the non-fiction side of things yet, and that’s another oversight. See how we prove our fallibility over and over again? We don’t mind our mistakes being pointed out to us, so do let us know what other books were your personal bests of 2011.

—James

Best Of 2011

Those who subscribe to our email newsletter already know that the biggest awards of the year have just been handed out, the equal of the Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, and Tonys put together. We’re speaking, of course, about the prizes for appearing on our list of the best books of 2011. Weighty gold statuettes depicting a book-holding castaway on a desert island, colloquially known as Rogers, are on their way to the winners now, along with the customarily exorbitant honoraria. 

Closer to the opposite is true, of course. We put a list like this together every year, and if there’s one concept always in mind, it’s that it doesn’t mean very much. It’s impossible to rank any kind of art, literature included, in terms of objective quality, for one thing. Even more significantly, it’s impossible for anyone to keep up with everything that’s published in a calendar year, even avid readers like us. Who knows what wonderful books escaped our attention in 2011? Knowledgeable as we are, we do like to remind people that we’re not authority figures or cultural gatekeepers. When we make recommendations, think of us not as drill-sergeant principals wearing severe suits with power ties, but as friendly, sweater-clad guidance counselors in argyle socks. All that said, it’s fun and even useful to look back at the year and choose some outstanding titles to feature. So much so, that I’m taking a further step and highlighting the highlights here.

Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife is the kind of book it’s a pleasure to promote. The author has described it as “a family saga that takes place in a fictionalized province of the Balkans. It’s about a female narrator and her relationship to her grandfather, who’s a doctor. It’s a saga about doctors and their relationships to death throughout all these wars in the Balkans.” It’s a delicately balanced mix, juxtaposing the hard-hitting truths of urban life against the myths and superstitions of family and village history. It’s a richly-written, assured, ambitious novel that’s all the more impressive when you consider that Obreht was born in Belgrade as recently as 1985 and came to the US at the age of twelve. Shades of Nabokov and Joseph Conrad. I’d like to resent this upstart whippersnapper’s success, but the book is just too good for that.

Moonwalking with Einstein is another debut work that I was glad to stumble on before the hype machine got hold of it. At a glance it seemed like a wacky, disposable thing, almost an overgrown magazine article, but the title was enough to get me to open the advance copy I’d been sent, and within a few pages I was hooked. I subsequently learned that Joshua Foer had taken home a substantial advance and the book was getting a major push from its publisher, and after finishing it I could see why. Recounting Foer’s involvement with the U.S. Memory Championships, it’s an extremely engaging and amusing memoir that’s also remarkably informative. He refers to the book as an example of participatory journalism, but it’s a model of popular science and history writing, too. This level of talent seems to run in his family.

Both of the above titles have enjoyed considerable publicity, but flying slightly below the radar we find Tony and Susan by Austin Wright. We’ve blogged about this one previously, so I won’t say more about it now except that it’s the kind of story we love—I’m talking both about the story the book tells and about the story behind the book’s (re-)publication. Without dedicated readers who didn’t honestly love it, Tony and Susan wouldn’t be around to appear on our list at all.

There’s more to say about every book on the list, really, but I don’t want to take up too much of the time you could be spending reading them. I’ll just throw in some honorable mentions, first to Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams for accomplishing so much in so little space, and then to Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve for making Roman-era philosophy and Renaissance-era handwriting so fascinating, and finally to Ken Jennings’s Maphead for having the cutest dust jacket photo of 2011. 

—James

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