16 November 2004

Another Gratuitous Note on the National Book Award Nominees

The last thing the world needs is more verbiage about the National Book Award nominees for fiction, but I believe in excess and uselessness, so I can't resist the urge to comment and synthesize a bit more (since I've already added to the plethora of punditry once, why stop now?).

Some of the best coverage of the finalists has been done at Beatrice.com, where you can read short interviews with each finalist: Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Kate Walbert, Joan Silber & Lily Tuck, and Christine Schutt. There are also some short commentaries responding to the barrage of criticism The New York Times has launched at the nominees.

Yesterday, Ron wrote something that I'd thought a few times about Philip Roth and The Plot Against America:
On the one hand, I'm pleased to see that somebody is coming even closer to calling Roth's book science fiction, but let's not overstate the case: Plot has gotten plenty of bad reviews as well as the good, and it's hardly a slam-dunk nominee save for its pedigree. If, to throw out a name here, Harry Turtledove had written the exact same book, (well, okay, maybe with the name of Roth's family changed), would people honestly say this book had been overlooked? And mind you, I like Harry Turtledove; I'm just using him as the most convenient hook for speculative fiction--any science fiction author I named here would be just as likely not to pass muster with the fiction judges and the harping industry pundits.
(For a review of Plot from an SF point of view, see what Paul Kincaid has to say.)

I'm currently reading both Madeleine is Sleeping, one of the nominees, and The Labyrinth by Cathrynne M. Valente, a book that has much in common with Madeleine: both books are the first published novels of young writers (Valente is in her mid-20s, Bynum her early 30s), both are written in a rich prose, both are full of imaginative flourishes, both ignore traditional narrative forms for the novel. Though I'm more or less enjoying each book, The Labyrinth so far seems to me to be superior. Frequently, reviewers call Bynum's language "lush", but it is hardboiled compared to Valente's, which stretches toward the far side of sense. There is sense and substance to the book, though -- I got impatient during the first twenty pages, then discovered I was enchanted and read the next forty with great pleasure. (You can read a long excerpt of The Labyrinth at Fantastic Metropolis.) Madeleine is Sleeping is having the opposite effect on me: I enjoyed the first fifty pages tremendously, but now that I'm half-way through the book, it's feeling repetitive. (I should reserve judgment on both books until I've completed them, I know...)

In any case, one criticism of Madeleine is Sleeping that I don't have much use for is the one in Laura Miller's recent NY Times Book Review article that the short, fragmentary chapters, which resemble prose poems, make the book inherently inferior or tiresome. The technique itself does not have to be tiresome -- As I Lay Dying has short, fragmentary chapters (including the famous one-sentencer, "My mother is a fish.") and is one of the greatest works of American literature. Samuel Beckett worked wonders with fragments (e.g. How It Is). Most of David Markson's novels are nothing but fragments, and most of those novels are excellent. There are plenty of other examples. The form is not the problem; how the form is handled may be, but that, too, depends on the reader, some of whom have more tolerance for fragments than others. In the case of Madeleine is Sleeping, I think the design of the book has some effect on readers who don't like fragments -- if there were less white space, with more than one chapter per page and the titles in a smaller font, some readers might not feel the book is more like a collection of poems than a novel. It doesn't matter, though -- the book is what it is, and the author has constructed it carefully and with sensitivity. It may not be entirely successful, but that is not because of the form, but because of what the author chose to do (or not do) with the form.

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