In the Times today, critic Caryn James has strong views about this year’s crop of National Book Award fiction nominees.
When the fiction nominees were announced, there was much grumbling about their sameness–all women, all living in New York City, all little-known names. But the minor resemblances of sex and city are nothing next to what really makes this one of the least varied lists of nominees in recent years: a short-story aesthetic. Not one of these books is big and sprawling. And not one has much of a sense of humor….
…all five are built on compressed observations that easily veer into precious writers’ program language, too woozy and poetic for its own good.
That claustrophobic sameness doesn’t help readers. Awards are inherently silly, but there’s a method to their silliness. Whether it’s the National Book Awards, the Tonys or the Oscars, contests become guides to what the public might want to catch up on, offering something-for-everyone choices. For the best-picture Oscar, there is an art house film and a popcorn movie, a “Lost in Translation” and a “Lord of the Rings.” At last year’s National Book Award ceremony, Shirley Hazzard’s eloquent novel “The Great Fire,” about memory and lost love in postwar Japan, won over T. C. Boyle’s “Drop City,” a raucous story of a 70’s hippie commune. It was a mismatched contest, but a competition that suggested the breadth and vitality of the year’s fiction.
This year’s list serves readers who like only a certain style–the style, say, of Rick Moody, the novelist and short-story writer who is chairman of the five-person fiction panel and who has been known to write some woozily poetic prose of his own. Whoever comes out ahead when the winner is announced on Wednesday, it defies logic to think that five such similar books just happen to be the best of the year–a year in which Philip Roth’s chilling historical fantasy “The Plot Against America” and Chang-rae Lee’s understated story of a suburban man’s life, “Aloft,” deserved their extravagant critical praise.
In that infamous Believer essay by Heidi Julavits that is remembered principally, and ad nauseum, for decrying “snark” in book reviews, Julavits also advanced the corollary–to me more interesting and creditable–that critical snark is frequently deployed to punish just what should be encouraged: literary ambition. I note with interest the compatibility of this claim with James’s misgivings about the set of novels nominated for the NBA. And it is as a set crowded into a narrow range that they give her pause. I found her essay honest, thoughtful, and especially informative if, like me, you haven’t read any of these books. The only shred of knowledge I have of these writers is of a previous novel by Joan Silber, Lucky Us, which I reviewed some years ago. That novel also operated on a fairly small scale, but it impressed me utterly. Here’s some of what I wrote then:
Seldom does a title encapsulate a book’s tensions and revelations as well as Joan Silber’s snappy, deceptively simple “Lucky Us.” As a scrap of arch commentary on the truly malignant misfortune that befalls this novel’s protagonist couple, “lucky us” is a pithy epithet that could have fallen from the lips of either of these congenitally irreverent New Yorkers. But Silber, deservedly celebrated as a vivid chronicler of modern manners and the urban everyday, gently strips away the irony from the title statement as her plot unfolds. By the end of the book, one of the main characters finds himself amazed to realize, “You can have good luck as well as bad.” This strikes him as “a complicated new truth, a beautiful and irrefutable fact.”
Ultimately, the apparently ironic “lucky us” proves just as true to the experience of this novel when read as a sincere statement of thanks for life and love. In Gabe and Elisa’s Manhattan love story, most of the usual romantic conventions are overturned or at least tweaked. Romance is unchained from conventionality in their unlikely pairing. Ruminative, selfless, centered Gabe is 50-something, with the lightly checkered past of a year spent in jail for dealing drugs as a young man. Now content with the modest lifestyle of a camera salesman, he stands as the serene, solid center around which Elisa, half his age, flutters rakishly.
Alive with “dizzy, selfish sweetness,” Elisa styles herself a bright young pro at desire–at cultivating and satisfying longings of her own and at planting them in others and basking in the attention that results. “I thought of myself as a lavish bit of bounty I was gifting him with,” she says of her initial courting of Gabe. She’s just self-aware enough to make a virtue out of vanity. The world is her oyster, and she finds it very much an aphrodisiac.
In he-said-she-said fashion, Elisa and Gabe narrate alternating chapters of their story. The first chapter is Elisa’s, and she imbues it with all her sunny, lusty blitheness. So her diagnosis as HIV-positive near the end of the chapter, just as she and Gabe are planning their wedding, is a dark shock and the the first, most tremendous blow of bad luck that wallops the couple. It sets off a chain of reactions that threaten to sabotage her relationship with Gabe as Elisa struggles to see herself in the new light cast by the virus. Elisa is left picking up the pieces of a dismantled identity and inhabiting a body suddenly strange to her….
Why Lucky Us was never reprinted in paperback is beyond me. Perhaps the NBA nomination of Ideas of Heaven will change that.
UPDATE: I was curious whether googling a phrase from the above review would lead resourceful readers to my identity. A test run led instead to the delightful revelation that the review was lifted a short time after it ran, chopped in half, and was attributed to somebody named Lee Hall. Charming! OGIC, in case you are wondering, is not Lee Hall….