The Morning News Tournament of Books: Week 1

(If you have no idea what the Tournament of Books is, here’s a handy synopsis.)

March 7, 2018
The Play-In | The Idiot v. Savage Theories v. Stephen Florida

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The 2018 Tournament of Books begins with a “campus novel” play-in round, and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, an account of a young woman’s freshman year at Harvard in 1995, takes it. (I originally said this win was “to no one’s surprise” but the comments revealed that, in fact, many people were banking on Stephen Florida, by Gabe Habash, which is about a college wrestler in his final season.) The Idiot would have been my pick, too, although I have to admit that I didn’t particularly respond to any of these novels, and couldn’t even bring myself to finish Pola Oloixarac’s Savage Theories, which is set at a university in Argentina (and which I can’t really describe further because I didn’t finish it). A week or so ago I tweeted that I simply wasn’t a “campus novel” sort of person, and maybe that is true. But what is probably truer is that this is my daughter’s first year of college, and my son is headed to college next year, and maybe I can only handle so much youthful narcissism/wistful middle-aged nostalgia (depending upon your point of view) before the weight of it sinks me.

I spent this past weekend at Cornell College, where my son matriculates in August, and although its architecture looks nothing like that of my own alma mater, Rhodes College, it still had enough of that small-liberal-arts-feel that at moments I felt like I was stepping back in time, waiting for my friends in the lounge, thinking about classes for next year. The model dorm room set up for the parents’ admiration was arranged so much like my junior year dorm room that I had chills. (Granted, it was noticeably neater, and–my former roommate pointed out–lacked the multiple cans of Secret aerosol deodorant that, based on photographs of the era, seemed to dot every surface in our room. Why did we need so many cans of deodorant? Why are they in all the pictures?)

None of the three books in the play-in round affected me as much as this weekend did. Someone should write a novel about weekends like that one, I think, weekends when you’re slapped in the face with the stark contrast between the life you anticipated and the life you ended up with. That’s a campus novel I would be interested to read.

March 8, 2018
Opening Round | Lincoln in the Bardo v. Fever Dream

If I had made a bracket, this decision would have busted it, because I expected George Saunders’s first novel Lincoln in the Bardo, about the real-life death and fictional afterlife of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie, to go quite a long way. And yet, here it is, out of the tournament on day one. But upsets can be fun, and this should make for an exciting, wide-open tournament.

I didn’t really appreciate Lincoln in the Bardo the way others did; for reasons that escape me I never quite seem to get Saunders. I had high hopes: I am a lifetime Lincoln-phile, and the death of Willie Lincoln has always struck me as an enormously tragic loss. And indeed, the opening pages of the book are wrenching — am I going to cry the whole way through? I wondered — but after a while I just felt restless, and irritated by the Purgatory conceit. I would have preferred to read a more straightforward novel about the same events; which, to be fair, is how I often feel about experimental work. (Although for some reason I adore Ali Smith, so I don’t know what to tell you.)

Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, on the other hand, lost me at the very beginning, when we’re introduced to a woman named Amanda and a boy named David and we don’t know quite who they are, except that David is not well; I could never get my bearings, and although that may have been intentional, and reading it truly did feel like reading an account of someone’s fever dream, that doesn’t make me like it any more. (Lincoln in the Bardo started its literary life as a play, but I think the stage is where Fever Dream might really shine.) But it won the ToB’s summer series this year and it won this round, and there were a lot of delighted commenters, so I seem to be in the minority on this one.

At any rate, I am not terribly sorry to see Lincoln in the Bardo go, and curious to see what future judges make of Fever Dream.

March 9, 2018
Opening Round | White Tears v. The Idiot

Sigh. Today I feel like Kat on Survivor: Worlds Apart, when she proclaimed “Blindsides are exciting and fun!” about five minutes before she was shocked to find herself being voted off the island. Because yesterday’s upset was, you know, exciting and fun, and today’s was heartbreaking. That is a bit of an exaggeration, but I cannot deny that I was legitimately bummed out for much of the morning over the defeat of Hari Kunzru’s White Tears by, of all books, The Idiot.

It’s very difficult to explain to people who are not as invested in the tournament as I am (*cough* my husband *cough*) why the loss of a novel that I loved but didn’t (after all) write to another novel that I liked somewhat less can cast a pall over my morning. It should, if anything, make me happy that a novel centered on a young woman’s experience of the world is doing unexpectedly well in the tournament, right? And this is, after all, a tournament that is intended to be meaningless but fun. (The big prize in this tournament, for those not in the know, is a rooster. An actual, live rooster. Assuming the winner is zoned for it.)

And yet. I am invested. To me, White Tears–which is about a couple of twentysomethings who create a fake blues recording purporting to be from the 1920s, and I am deliberately not explaining further–was a tour de force, a ghost story, a thriller, a comedy of manners, and a commentary on race and class in America all rolled into one with a great story to boot. I wanted to see it go far; I wanted to have several days to talk about its structure and its plot and its characters. And now — although I still hope to see it resurrected in the Zombie round in a couple of weeks — it’s gone and I have to talk about The Idiot, which is witty and epigrammatic but also meandering and too long and ultimately tedious, instead. And that made me irrationally grumpy when I read the decision.

I’ve been following this tournament since it was born in 2005 and when a favorite wins its round it’s enough to boost my mood for the rest of the day. And when a book that for whatever reason just does not speak to me goes inexplicably deep (I’m looking at you, How Should a Person Be?) I am perplexed and dismayed. The Tournament has been so good for my reading life: I’ve picked up books I would never have encountered otherwise; I’ve seen books that I hated and books that I loved from fresh perspectives; I’ve learned to recognize that the books to which I do not respond can be life-changing for other readers. But I can’t quite get rid of the rooting interest. Maybe it’s just human nature to pick a horse in a race, or maybe it’s a vanity-driven desire to see my own taste validated. Whatever the cause, I always have a handful of books that I believe should go the distance and I am always crestfallen when they lose.

I’m still hoping that White Tears will live again to fight another day.

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