Last night, as a member of the National Books Critics Circle, I attended the Circle’s event announcing the finalists for its 2010 book awards (see the full list below). I’m happy to report that there was some good news, like Dalkey Archive Press being awarded The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. Dalkey is one of my favorite presses, which consistently publishes a substantial percentage of literary works-in-translation in the United States, while also rescuing the works of a number of great American authors, like Stanley Elkin, William Gass (who I nominated for the The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award), John Hawkes, Flann O’Brien, etc. I was also happy to see, at least conceptually, that two of the finalists for fiction were books-in-translation, including David Grossman’s To the End of the Land (Knopf) and Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). A pity that the quality of their translated prose (and here I defer to those who can attest to whether the translations are faithful to their respective sources) doesn’t merit the distinction of their having been nominated (I should note that I hardly got past more than a few passages of their respective books (see my, perhaps, unfair reasoning below). As expected, most of the finalists in the Poetry category came from independent presses, and includes Anne Carson’s Nox (New Directions), Kathleen Graber’s The Eternal City (Princeton University Press), and C.D. Wright’s One with Others: [a little book of her days] (Copper Canyon). Further inroads by the independent and university presses were made, like Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne (Other Press), which received a nomination in the Biography category; like the following four books in the Autobiography category: David Dow‘s The Autobiography of an Execution (Twelve), Christopher Hitchens’s Hitch-22: A Memoir (Twelve), Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s Hiroshima in the Morning (Feminist Press), and Darin Strauss’s Half a Life (McSweeney’s); like these three books in the Criticism category: Clare Cavanagh’s Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West (Yale University Press), Susie Linfield’s The Cruel Radiance (University of Chicago Press), and Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir (Graywolf). Nice to see the N.B.C.C.’s board thinking out of the box by selecting Monson’s excellent cross-genre book as a finalist for the Criticism award. Eleven out of the thirty spots were taken by the so-called small presses, making this a very good year for this publishing domain, but the real measure, I think, will be which books finally receive the awards.
Considering that both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for fiction of 2010 both went to independent presses, I rather naively hoped that we were observing a kind of sea change in the perception of the so-called small press, and that this recognition of the vitality and quality found outside of the so-called major presses would be reflected in the N.B.C.C.’s choices for fiction. Instead, what was offered were five rather tepid choices.
Time is short, so, like most people, I don’t have time to give writers my attention beyond a few lines or paragraphs, or, in some cases, a few pages. Unless I’m reviewing a book, if my interest isn’t captured within that narrow stretch of time and space, then I have to move on to something else. There are just too many great books for me to catch up on that I just can’t see myself trudging along after a weak opening. I can’t see how you’d get past the first page of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad (Knopf), containing this introductory paragraph:
It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall. Inside the rim of the bag, barely visible, was a wallet made of pale green leather. It was easy for Sasha to recognize, looking back, that the peeing woman’s blind trust had provoked her: We live in a city where people will steal the hair off your head if you give them half a chance, but you leave your stuff lying in plain sight and expect it to be waiting for you when you come back? It made her want to teach the woman a lesson. But this wish only camouflaged the deeper feeling Sasha always had: that at, tender wallet, offering itself to her hand — it seemed so dull, so life-as-usual to just leave it there rather than seize the moment, accept the challenge, take the leap, fly the coop, throw caution to the wind, live dangerously (“I get it,” Coz, her therapist, said), and take the fucking thing.
It’s hard for me to get past the cliches and generally dull observations, e.g., “barely visible,” “ half a chance,” “in plain sight“, “teach the woman a lesson,” and “take the leap, fly the coop, throw caution to the wind, live dangerously”; and the voice, while blustery, hardly provokes me to continue reading. It’s possible to argue that this character mirrors reality since most people speak in cliches anyway, but its an argument that doesn’t work for me since one of the reasons why I read is to escape the rattling beat of the humdrum.
Here is the first paragraph from Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray:
Skippy and Ruprecht are having a doughnut-eating race one evening when Skippy turns purple and falls off his chair. It is a Friday in November, and Ed’s is only half full; if Skippy makes a noise as he topples to the floor, no one pays any attention. Nor is Ruprecht, at first, overly concerned; rather he is pleased, because it means that he, Ruprecht, has won the race, his sixteenth in a row, bringing him one step closer to the all-time record held by Guido ‘The Gland’ LaManche, Seabrook College class of ’93.
There’s something about so-called invisible prose, the kind of prose Murray mismanages here, that makes it even more visible, which reminds me of that moment in Gertrude Stein’s book Everybody’s Autobiography, where, after failing to find her childhood home in Oakland, CA., she writes that “there is no there there.” In other words, as I work to find something there in Murray’s prose, I fail, which makes the recognition of the lack of something there ever more pronounced. And there’s a jarring oddness to this sentence that doesn’t seem intentional: “It is a Friday in November, and Ed’s is only half full; if Skippy makes a noise as he topples to the floor, no one pays any attention.” What’s exactly “half full” here? Ed’s Friday? Strange. Seems like there’s an antecedent clause, or something, missing here.
Here’s Franzen’s tepid attempt at mimicking John Updike from Freedom:
The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally—he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now—but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times. According to a long and very unflattering story in the Times, Walter had made quite a mess of his professional life out there in the nation’s capital. His old neighbors had some difficulty reconciling the quotes about him in the Times (“arrogant,” “high-handed,” “ethically compromised”) with the generous, smiling, red-faced 3M employee they remembered pedaling his commuter bicycle up Summit Avenue in February snow; it seemed strange that Walter, who was greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural, should be in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people. Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.
The trouble here is that Franzen’s clunky sentences simply don’t match Updike’s lyrical brilliance. Why should I continue reading when I haven’t read anywhere near enough Updike? Bland qualifiers like “long and very,” and cliches, like “quite a mess,” hardly rise above the imagined Times article here containing more of same; and the bit on Walter being “greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural,” doesn’t quite save the paragraph, considering that its almost-cleverness only makes me wish for witty writing that is more commandingly managed. Speaking of which, there was at least one book from the major presses, namely, Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, which had that very quality, and much more, that might have earned it a nod from the N.B.C.C. Surely this is a better first paragraph than those belonging to the award finalists, which I describe above:
America, said Horace, the office temp, was a run-down and demented pimp. Our republic’s whoremaster days were through. Whither that frost-nerved, diamond-fanged hustler who’d stormed Normandy, dick-smacked the Soviets, turned out such firm emerging market flesh? Now our nation slumped in the corner of the pool hall, some gummy coot with a pint of Mad Dog and soggy yellow eyes, just another mark for the juvenile wolves.
Here we find what we expect from an accomplished author, that is, careful attention to language. In just a few lines we have a voice, whose corrosive observations can only draw this reader in; an indelibly drawn character; and nouns with unexpected qualifiers (“frost-nerved, diamond-fanged hustler”; “some gummy coot”; “soggy yellow eyes”).
And here’s the first paragraph to Robert Steiner’s Negative Space (published by Counterpoint Press, an independent publisher), a book I read in a single sitting, and then read again quickly afterward:
In the hour before sunrise, I lie beside the woman I love, studying her face in the darkness, as if I have studied it in a dream, just as I used to awaken in the night, covering her body with mine because in a dream my body covered hers. I know she is unfaithful to me because I dream of it, so in the darkness I see in her sleeping face the need to be elsewhere, to be someone else elsewhere, with someone who is not me. I observe the face of her infidelity, resting my head beside hers, my eyes watching hers in case they open. I slip from our bed to an armchair while my wife wrestles the dawn—ash yellow, or ash gray, now and again red as a peach. While my wife is unfaithful to me, she is faithful to her new needs, among which her lover is the most urgent. During her hour before sunrise, in the torpor of my wife’s infidelity, I smoke in an armchair in the bedroom because everything has changed, and nothing will be the same, and what I have believed between nothing and everything is no longer what it was, whatever it was. I begin to discern day from night, then true from untrue, then her torpor from my despair, then I think I am, our shortest sentence, the simplest observation to thwart death.
Carefully navigating a somewhat clinical depiction of detail with an evocative and wrenching self-reflexivity, Steiner’s prose almost pulsates off the pulp its printed on. Steiner also uses repetition to great effect, offering a peculiar limning of a peculiar consciousness, one which tinkers with pairs (opposites and other combinations), a type of exploration further mined throughout the novel; a consciousness that castigates human duplicity as much as it recognizes its inevitability; a consciousness that revels in language, which can find terrifying meaning within the smallest of sentences, that sentence expressing a kind of futility; it doesn’t, after all, say, as that imagined god in the Old Testament, says, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh,” which means “I am that I am.” There’s actually a lot more I can write about this first paragraph, but suffice to say that this paragraph propelled me toward reading the entire book.
Of course, a first sentence or paragraph should not be the measure of a book’s entire worth, but they do offer some signals about the writer’s project, and is one indicator of whether a reader should give up the time he or she would use to read something almost guaranteed to be better, whether a book already read and needs to be reread, or one sitting on a shelf, gazing at them, tempting them, like Lance Olsen’s Calendar of Regrets, The Poems of Marianne Moore, Samuel Beckett’s The Complete Short Prose, Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, or any number of books that are doing this to me, right now, as I write this.
There are any number of books that could have been nominated by the N.B.C.C. for the best in fiction (not to mention every other category) for 2010. Which books would you have selected? Here are the The National Book Critics Circle Finalists for 2010 Awards:
Jennifer Egan: A Visit From The Goon Squad (Knopf)
Jonathan Franzen: Freedom, Farrar (Straus And Giroux)
David Grossman: To The End Of The Land (Knopf)
Hans Keilson: Comedy In A Minor Key (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Paul Murray: Skippy Dies (Faber & Faber)
Sarah Bakewell: How To Live, Or A Life Of Montaigne (Other Press)
Selina Hastings: The Secret Lives Of Somerset Maugham: A Biography (Random House)
Yunte Huang: Charlie Chan: The Untold Story Of The Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History (Norton)
Thomas Powers: The Killing Of Crazy Horse (Knopf)
Tom Segev: Simon Wiesenthal: The Lives And Legends (Doubleday)
Kai Bird: Crossing Mandelbaum Gate Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978 (Scribner)
David Dow: The Autobiography of an Execution (Twelve)
Christopher Hitchens: Hitch-22: A Memoir (Twelve)
Rahna Reiko Rizzuto: Hiroshima in the Morning (Feminist Press)
Patti Smith: Just Kids (Ecco)
Darin Strauss: Half a Life (McSweeney’s)
Elif Batuman: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Terry Castle: The Professor and Other Writings (Harper)
Clare Cavanagh: Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West (Yale University Press)
Susie Linfield: The Cruel Radiance (University of Chicago Press)
Ander Monson: Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir (Graywolf)
Barbara Demick: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Spiegel & Grau)
S.C. Gwynne: Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American (Scribner)
Jennifer Homans: Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet (Random)
Siddhartha Mukherjee: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (Scribner)
Isabel Wilkerson: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Random)
Anne Carson: Nox (New Directions)
Kathleen Graber: The Eternal City (Princeton University Press)
Terrance Hayes: Lighthead (Penguin Poets)
Kay Ryan: The Best of It (Grove)
C.D. Wright: One with Others: [a little book of her days] (Copper Canyon)
John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.