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The Morning News and Powells Present
2006 Tournament of Books
APRIL 12, 2006
Finally, a contest between apples and oranges (!). Between two books that depend on clever wordplay and story design to tell us about their characters and how they fit in the world! Two books where characters tell stories to themselves and the rest of us to keep the world at bay when too often the world disappoints, injures, or frightens us! Hooray!

(None of those exclamation marks are meant sarcastically. I really enjoyed both books and it was exciting to compare them and see how they were similar. Hooray!)

With Foer I had more fun. With Smith I was more entangled. Entertainment or enlightenment—how to choose? I prize Philip Roth as much as John Le Carré, Iris Murdoch as much as Patricia Highsmith (and Graham Greene more than the rest of them, if only for The End of the Affair), so it’s a toss-up.

Do I choose the book I couldn’t put down or the one I couldn’t forget?

Extremely Loud has a young boy, Oskar, grappling with the death of his father (note: who died on Sept. 11), whom he believes left behind a puzzle for Oskar to solve by traveling around meeting strangers in New York City. In The Accidental a family on holiday takes in a mysterious vagabond who shakes them all up just when they’re fizzing anyway. Style is paramount in both books with each narrator (there are several in both stories) in possession of his or her own style of describing the world (think Sound & Fury, Chaucer, that schizophrenic cousin who frightened you as a kid). In Foer’s book there’s also lots of clever graphic trickery (which I enjoyed a lot—why must novels always be vanilla?), and in Smith’s there’s lots of clever motif weaving and herky-jerky Mark Morris dancer-esque relating of consciousness. What else—Foer’s story flies by present-tense for the most part, while Smith’s is largely remembered in slowly teased fragments.

(If each book had a surrogate for its author embedded in the spine controlling things, Foer’s would be some teenage magician with expensive exploding cards; Smith’s would be a heavy gray brain nostalgic for its former body’s sex life. Both novels are so heavy in style, in-your-face about construction, so extremely deliberate and structurally didactic, Roth’s The Counterlife or, again, Sound & Fury, look subtle in comparison.)

Am I a sucker for realism, or do I simply hate
being smacked by the scaffolding?
But both authors possess their stories. Nothing is half-baked or squirmed over. Foer’s book is extremely sure of itself and surprisingly fun and funny in parts. It errs, though, on slightness. The roles of Dresden and 9/11 never seem significant. Trickery becomes too clever (and heartless) very fast. Foer also has a hard time with subtle tempo changes, and when he slows down I don’t find the story skidding on much I recognize as emotionally real. Oskar and his grandmother talking on their walkie-talkies—yes; Oskar’s mother discussing her new boyfriend—yes; but so many times a very deeply intoned, no way.

(Am I a sucker for realism, or do I simply hate being smacked by the scaffolding?)

Smith plays slow. How her sentences are built tells as much about her characters as what’s actually being said. This made the book richly satisfying, particularly because Smith is so handy with a reveal; it also exhausted me. Every chapter I skipped paragraphs, whole pages. All the mental unraveling of a scene’s clues and references felt too much like I was stuck talking to that geekiest friend of mine who can reference a film, an anecdote, a piece of news trivia, and his girlfriend’s agility with parallel-parking all in the same review of a new album. Too much Christmas; too much figgy pudding; too many motifs and cues and CONTEXT-CURRENTLY-BEING-PROVIDEDs.

But then, many times I loved (in a very relaxed, succumbed, “I-remember-why-I-love-reading” kind of way) Smith’s hand with surprise and dialogue. Her characters have their bodies filled in, and their shadows, too. I carried them around with me for a week.

It wasn’t an easy pick. I greatly enjoyed both books. To Faulkner again, though, Light in August is my favorite, not Sound and Fury; with Roth, The Ghost Writer, not Operation Shylock. I’m a sucker for being moved while reading, but not when I feel the author’s finger prodding me in the back.

The Peanut Gallery
Do you agree with the judge’s opinion?
Hell yeah! Good call.     Hell no! The ref’s blind!     Go