The House of Broken Angels
  • March 26, 2019

    Semifinals

  • Luis Alberto Urrea

    2The House of Broken Angels
    v.
    1The Mars Room

    Rachel Kushner

  • Judged by

    Kelsey Osgood

The Mars Room

One of these books made me cry, but, weirdly enough, is not the book that gets my vote. Then again, that might not be such an enormous accomplishment, making me cry right now: Both books feature lost sons—in one, two young men shot dead, and in the other, one little boy lost inside the byzantine social welfare system—and as someone who recently gave birth to a baby boy prematurely (a second son), who thought at many points over the course of my child’s gestation and birth that she would certainly lose him, well, you can see why any work of literature that even so much as contains the word “son” should maybe be slapped with a trigger warning meant specifically for me.

A graduate of Columbia University and Goucher College’s MFA program in Creative Nonfiction, Kelsey Osgood has contributed pieces to publications including New York, the New Yorker’s Culture Desk blog, Time, Harper’s, Literary Hub, and Jezebel. Her first book, How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, was chosen for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program. She was a consultant to former head of the FDA David Kessler, MD, on his book Capture: Unraveling the Mystery of Mental Suffering. She edited The Read Along column at The Rumpus, has a blog no one but her husband and her dad read, and a Twitter account with 13 followers. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

The son in The Mars Room, the unstoppably cool Rachel Kushner’s follow-up to her blockbuster The Flamethrowers, is Jackson, offspring of Romy Leslie Hall, who we meet being ferried to a Southern California women’s prison to carry out her two back-to-back life sentences. We don’t spend a ton of time with Jackson, as the book is primarily Romy’s story, with jaunts into the perspectives of a few other characters (a dirty cop, a prison teacher, Romy’s now-deceased stalker). Since I’ve already made it clear we’re actually talking about my life and not dispassionate criticism, let me state outright that I was mildly irritated through the first half of this book. I found Romy’s omnipresent anhedonia dull; on occasion, I felt like I was being asked to watch an advocacy documentary about the plight of the incarcerated rather than read a novel. Don’t get me wrong, the struggle for prisoners’ rights is important—I just don’t enjoy social justice packaged as fiction, which I read primarily for escapism. The book isn’t exactly poetic, and the plot plods along, which isn’t ideal for me right now: I craved something sexy and fast and absurdist to wrench me out of the drudgery of my daily life, in which I’m constantly passing out covered in some unidentifiable bodily fluid, with a baby splayed across my chest and a toddler about to stick his finger in a wall socket by my feet.

Because I am apparently predictable, I opened The House of Broken Angels with the same kind of preemptive boredom I felt in the early pages of The Mars Room. What can I say? Family epics are, to use my friend’s mother’s phrase, “Nisht far mir”—just not for me. At times, it did seem like Luis Alberto Urrea’s book might be big-hearted and raucous enough to overcome that definitely unfair predisposition. The story of the populous, mostly-Mexican-American de La Cruz family has moments of tenderness and joy that rival anything I’ve read in recent memory. Here’s the dying patriarch, Big Angel, lying in bed with his wife, reminiscing:

“A good life,” he finally said. He lay back and withdrew his hand and clutched the warmth of her in his empty palm.

She lay beside him, making that happy sound lovers know so well. “What was your favorite part?” she said.

“Of the party?”

“No, Flaco. Of our life.”

He responded immediately: “Everything.”

I don’t know why this corny passage (prefaced by a rather eye-rollingly TMI discussion about sex and lactation) made me teary, but I think it is related to the fact that in these all-consuming early days of caring for an infant, I often resent or forget my spouse (I am not the lone witch in this). Now as we approach two years with children, it feels sometimes like our lives have been swallowed up by the drudgery of offspring, and the idea of a moment alone like this, celebrating our own dyadic happiness, is like a delicious dream, one I hope we won’t have to wait for someone’s deathbed to fulfill.

Field NotesBuy this special ToB Memo Book for $5 and Field Notes will donate 100% of the proceeds to 826 National, which provides free educational programs to under-resourced youth.

Despite these touching interludes, I never was able to truly love this book. Probably that’s because the centripetal force of the narrative is protagonist Big Angel’s charisma, and I just can’t get on board with a guy who proudly declares “I am Don Corleone” with zero sense of irony. The tone was much too casual: many of the sentences were short, mirroring the way one thinks, which gave the read a staccato, conversational feel that grated after a while. It took a long time to get all the characters in order—no, she’s the HOT sister-in-law, not the one with the alcoholic husband!—only to then be introduced to five new family members. It was just so busy, and while there were moments when The House of Broken Angels name-checked various hot-button topics—the border wall! Gender noncomformity! Dreamers!—ultimately it felt like the Lego masterpiece Big Angel and the de La Cruz family’s developmentally disabled neighbor labors over in a backyard shed: beautiful and meticulous, but only truly valuable and accessible to those within the family unit.

To contrast, about three-quarters of the way through The Mars Room, I found myself gripped by the story. (Kind-of-a-spoiler ahead!) There were a few subtle seductions—Romy’s escape from prison was invigorating, and the time she spends hiding in the belly of a redwood tree I found inexplicably moving—but ultimately what made the difference was that The Mars Room, in the eighth inning, allows us into the mind of Romy’s stalker and murder victim. Kurt Kennedy is a repulsive sad sack: a hard-drinking, pill-popping process server whose sole hobby is frequenting the strip club where Romy works. His interior life is disturbing because of how deftly he manages to delude himself into believing his love for Romy is pure and reciprocated. “He wasn’t any kind of creep. He was just so attached to this girl that he needed to be sure she was getting home safe.” Just reading about the way he skulks around made me instantly empathize with Romy in a way that her blasé recounting of previous victimizations did not. “Save yourself, save your baby!” I nearly cried aloud. She came so fucking close, too! When she finally kills him—has to kill him, is forced to kill him!—I felt outrage that no one came, or had ever come, to her defense. The circumstances made me think beyond the narrative: I wondered if, in the #MeToo era, Romy’s story wouldn’t have been met with more sympathy. Maybe her lawyer could have made a case for acting under duress, or maybe Romy would have become a cause célèbre for feminists and celebrities and freed with a presidential pardon. I’m still asking these questions today, as if she were a close friend out there alone, in trouble. Someone I could save.

TODAY’S WINNER: The Mars Room

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Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

John Warner: I think of Rachel Kushner as what I call a “honey badger” novelist, as in “honey badger really doesn’t give a shit,” which I mean as a compliment. I’ve read two Kushner books (this and The Flamethrowers), and in both cases, the connective tissue, line to line, scene to scene, chapter to chapter, seems to come straight from the author’s subconscious, rather than worrying about the reader’s experience.

Boy, that doesn’t sound like a compliment, but I admire it deeply, even more so that she’s able to pull it off. But… The Mars Room is a novel that I like much more in hindsight than I did during the reading itself. Judge Osgood’s experience of the opening several chapters perfectly captures my own. I was itchy for both context and something to happen, for some narrative strands to tie together.

As more perspectives enter the telling, I felt the story crack open and I became more invested, and by the end, I was ripping through the last 25 to 30 percent of the book. I could see a different sort of novel with Romy at the center, but that spotlight shared a little more with some of the other characters.

But of course, that’s a different book, isn’t it. By grounding the novel so completely in Romy’s experience, even when we are close to the sad-sack prison English teacher, she looms over his story, even when she isn’t present. The book I’m envisioning, a novel about these different characters latticed together, would not be The Mars Room. It would be more conventional, perhaps more accessible, but this is why Kushner is a honey badger novelist and I am not.

Ultimately, there’s an integrity that shines through in her novels that’s undeniable, which is why I think the book lingers with me and why I would’ve voted the same way as Judge Osgood.

Kevin Guilfoile: Kushner has terrific instincts as a writer. Those early chapters bounce around from time to time and place to place in a manner that is not so much stream of consciousness, but rather mirrors the way we think and remember. It all felt very familiar to me, actually. The risk she takes is in narrative momentum. You read for many pages without knowing where the story is heading (and you’re pretty surprised when it gets there), but I found the book to be excellent company along the way. If you can keep your readers entertained, they will go on a long ride with you.

It’s often tempting to imagine a novel was written in a different way and then compare the flaws of the actual book (because every novel has flaws) to the perfect, nonexistent one in your mind. As you point out, that’s unfair to the author, but it’s common in reviews, especially amateur ones. No story can hold up against that kind of scrutiny. The Mars Room is a daring novel that absolutely succeeds by its own metrics.

Can I bring up an unrelated subject just because it’s a longstanding peeve of mine and I’m curious if you or any of the Commentariat share it? I really dislike it when novels include a realistic depiction of the main character on its cover. The jacket of The Mars Room features a photo (Nan Goldin’s “Amanda in the Mirror, Berlin, 1992”) of a young woman who looks a little bit like Elisabeth Moss. As I was reading and trying to form pictures of the characters, Elisabeth Moss kept sneaking into the cast of my mind movie. One of the great pleasures of reading fiction is the reconstruction of the book’s world inside your imagination. In this way, everyone ends up reading a different novel. Except now your Romy looks just like my Romy, John, and I don’t like that. By the way, the jacket designer is Peter Mendelsund, whose work I greatly admire and I actually think the cover is terrific apart from my personal bugaboos.

Is this a thing you have ever given any thought to?

John: I gave great thought to it when the cover was being designed for my novel The Funny Man, and the original version had a full shot of a cartoon rendering of the funny man holding one of the boards they give you for your mugshot. My wife recoiled from it, saying something like “Is that what he looks like?” I hadn’t thought about it because in the book, told from his POV, he’s never really described, and the whole point is that he’s an “average white guy.” But there was something disturbing about seeing his whole visage.

The solution was to push in on the image and a crop, so you only see him mid-nose down. I think it works to convey average white guy without planting a specific seed in the reader’s mind.

This is a long way of saying, I’m with you. On the relatively rare occasion where I’ll read a book after there’s a movie version, I find my pleasure dimmed by picturing the actors and actresses as the characters. The text tells me what I need to know about how a character looks. I don’t need to be nudged along by anything else.

Kevin: The latest look at the Zombie Poll numbers has some bad news for us friends of the de La Cruz family. The House of Broken Angels does not have enough support to break into the final two, so we have to say so long to that novel. In any year, an appearance in the semifinals would constitute a good run, however, and I’m glad a novel I loved found so much support among the judges.

This means that our Zombie Round is set, as Warlight will take on debut sensation There There in tomorrow’s match. Then on Thursday, The Mars Room will face debut sensation My Sister, the Serial Killer. How about that?

Do you remember that one season of the ToB, John, where we had an in-house statistician, Andrew Seal? He was awesome. That was after only six years of the tourney, as well. Imagine all the Roosterball nuggets we could be mining today. For instance, I’m 75 percent sure we have never had two debut novels as Zombies. On the other hand, I’m 100 percent sure I’m not going to go back through 14 years of results to confirm it.

John: This would be a good trivia question for our diehard Commentariat, though because anyone can look it up, we can’t do a contest or anything. There was indeed a previous year when both Zombies were debuts. Because it’s fun, I’m not going to say which books or which year, but suffice it to say that you are 110 percent incorrect.

Everything has happened at least once in the Tournament of Books.

 

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