A fact that might seem odd to those who know me: I really like fiction about sports. ToB round one was the play-in round for me! But I actually only managed to read one of the books, The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder. The cover completely rips off The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach – the authors’ names even look kind of similar spelled out. But Throwback is nothing like Fielding. It’s about a group men of a certain age who get together once a year to reenact the tragic NFL play in which Joe Theisman was horribly injured. In a close third person it jumps between the 14 (I want to say 14? It could be another number. I really don’t know how sport works.) men, giving the reader little snapshots of their lives and their psyches. Some get more attention than others and lots of things are left out. That’s kind of what made the book work for me. I never actually wanted a complete picture of any of them but leaving bits out somehow made me more invested in their interactions. Like Judge Diamond says, the snippets of information ‘are supposed to tell little stories about the characters who make up this small book, and it’s clever, but again, I ultimately wanted a little more. And also a hell of a lot less.’ The absurdity of their get-together also kept me engaged as I wondered how exactly such a weird thing was going to work. The reenactment itself was viewed from afar and the hands-off approach of the author gelled with the way the characters were handled. I thought the whole thing was interesting and clever. But ultimately I don’t care about the tenuous friendships between a bunch of un-self-aware middle-aged dudes.
Sudden Death winning is exciting because it gives me another chance to read a sport book. Although the description of the book as Bolaño-esque is not really appealing to me… But that is a story for another time!
The first real match up of the tournament on Monday made me pretty happy. Judge Butler seemed very in tune with how I felt about the books. I won’t talk too much about The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead because I’ve learned from experience that if I do I’ll run out of things to say pretty quickly. I will say that, like her, I had to do some quick and furtive research to make sure the Underground Railroad was not, in fact, a real railroad. I am not American! Which is a pretty poor excuse.
However, I did like Black Wave by Michelle Tea more than Judge Butler did. I didn’t find the meta-narrative thing so annoying and I quite liked reading about Michelle’s (character Michelle that is) aimless and destructive drugged up wanderings around San Francisco. Then just when I was getting sick of that she moved to LA. Then just as that was getting boring the world ended. So good pacing all round. I liked the light and self-deprecating way the author handled character Michelle’s self-righteousness and general selfishness. If you’re going to have an eponymous character you get points for making them an annoying but funny egocentric dick. I actually haven’t finished the book yet, and I will, but I still have to agree with Judge Butler’s verdict:
Whitehead is just operating on another level here. The proof of his virtuosity may lie in how well this novel tricks the reader, in fact, into thinking it’s classical when what it’s actually playing at is jazz. For one thing, there are the fantasy trains. For another, each of his heroine’s layovers as she tries to outrun her past—in South Carolina, Tennessee, North Carolina, and finally Indiana—is actually a set piece for a different aspect of the African-American experience. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of how stylized these parables are; it’s that I saw the book’s score and then promptly forgot its notation. You can read The Underground Railroad and remain fully aware of its constructedness, or you can put those thoughts aside and give yourself over to its thrumming engine, its beating heart.
The next matchup was between The Vegetarian by Han Kang and All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. But in this case I actually disagree with the way Judge Ganeshananthan got there. The Vegetarian is the brutal, spare and perplexing story of Yeong-hye, an apparently unremarkable woman who suddenly decides to stop eating meat. Her husband and family flip out and three sections from various perspectives see her gradually shutting down, slowly removing herself from the world by disregarding the oppressive social contract she’s been living by. The book is full of strange sexual acts and dubious consent, force-feeding, rape, purging and self harm. Yet it wasn’t the kind of painful I expected, its depictions of violence more deeply unsettling than grisly. Like Judge Ganeshananthan, I hoped more would be revealed in the last section but the fact that it wasn’t was kind of the point of the whole book. I All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, on the other hand, was a delight to read. Fun, funny, self-aware and, as Judge Ganeshananthan writes, full of ‘propulsive energy in the face of disaster.’ Judge Ganeshananthan ‘wanted to know that I was in the hands of a writer who wouldn’t be falsely optimistic, but could still bring me joy.’ I understand that feeling but I ultimately disagree. The Vegetarian was like nothing I’ve ever read before and achieved so much in so few words. All the Birds in the Sky, while not huge, definitely feels spacious and didn’t surprise me in the same way. As I said to a friend, ‘It’s like a not as good Lev Grossman book’, which is not really fair, but gives you an idea of how I felt about it. I’ve recommended it to people, even bought it for one, and I definitely liked it more. But The Vegetarian was a much more fascinating prospect.
So that’s it for my first week back on the ToB trail. Here’s looking forward to week two.