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The Morning News and Powells Present
2006 Tournament of Books
APRIL 13, 2006
Eleanor Bukowsky

When I found out that I was to be a tiebreaking judge, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, what are the chances of a tie? Not too great, I’ll wager. So what does my opinion matter anyway? On the other hand, I thought, having to read just the final two books will save me the pain of slogging through Kostova, because no way could The Historian make the final two.

So, we’re down to Home Land and The Accidental.

Unlike some other judges who have already weighed in, I am not a fan of Lipsyte’s annoying account of Lewis (Teabag) Miner’s profane, jejune, and self-absorbed newsletters to his New Jersey alma mater. Miner has been called a modern-day Holden Caulfield, but that is a profound insult to Salinger, whose anthem of adolescent agony is far more poignant and universally meaningful than Lipsyte’s. Although Miner is ostensibly an adult, you would never know it from the way he behaves. This is man has no real profession, no serious relationships, except with his druggie friend, and no goals. Yet, he criticizes the shallowness, materialism, and arrogance of his former classmates whose lives have turned out very differently from his. Entertaining and hilarious satire? No. Boring and irritating tripe? Yes.

I breezed through The Accidental in less than a day. As everyone must know by now, this book deals with a “skillful freeloader who lived by charming her way into people’s houses.” The year is 2003, and thirtyish Amber MacDonald barges into a summer home inhabited by the Smart family in Norfolk, England. Amber is a beautiful woman with a forceful and charismatic personality, and the emotional depth charge that she hurls at the Smarts explodes their complacency and changes them forever.

Initially, I was put off by Ali Smith’s puns, wordplay, and quirky style. There are long, meandering passages written in the third person, in which the author recounts each individual’s random thoughts. There are also a few sonnets, many sentence fragments, and of course, no quotation marks. The Accidental is a non-linear novel that is challenging to read and absorb.

However, I loved much of the descriptive writing, and the characters are all beautifully delineated and fully realized. This is a work of sharp social satire in which Smith explores the elusive nature of truth, the various roles that people play to get what they want, the fragility of interpersonal relationships, and how chance, in a short time, can alter a person’s entire existence. I was moved by the story of this dysfunctional family and deeply invested in how it would all play out. In my humble opinion, The Rooster should go to The Accidental.


Karl Iagnemma

Home Land is funny, ridiculous, mundane, juvenile, insightful, prosaic, and honest. It’s not profound or meaningful, but then it doesn’t try to be profound or meaningful.

The Accidental is intriguing, impressive, stilted, insightful, tiring, and disappointing. It works hard to seem meaningful, which is a shame.

Is Home Land the best book of fiction published this year? Seems somewhat hard to believe. Nonetheless, Home Land should win the cock.


Whitney Pastorek

OK, so both feature terrific crazy people. Both natter on about the philosophical and practical with equal weight. Home Land has the great line, “Each of us walks to the beat of a different drummer. It’s just that some of these drummers suck,” and The Accidental makes lots of awesome Sound of Music references. But I’ve read stories similar to Lipsyte’s before (if not with equal talent, then at least with equal tone), while Ali Smith’s unexpected prose managed to suck me way the hell into what’s really not much more than a generic domestic melodrama. That takes some doing. She gets my vote.


Mark Sarvas

I love a surprise upset and, with the final pairing of Home Land against The Accidental, I couldn’t help but imagine what a dramatic flourish it would be if I were to disavow my earlier round choice. And the glowing praise heaped upon The Accidental from all quarters, coupled with my enjoyment of Smith’s earlier book, Hotel World, set the stage for a flip-flop of earthshaking proportions. The Accidental certainly starts off promisingly enough, offering the kind of dense, chewy literary read that I enjoy. But I gradually began to chafe under what felt like the book’s self-consciously airless high style. In the end, the bawdy, straightforward charms of Home Land proved too potent to resist. Or perhaps I just have a soft spot for misfits. My choice: Home Land.


Georgie Lewis

Julian Barnes calls book awards “Posh Bingo.” After judging this year’s tournament, I’m inclined to agree—about the bingo part, if not the posh. Even so, the finalists surprised me in their…ordinariness. I never found Home Land engrossing, hilarious, deep, or any of the other superfluous adjectives bestowed upon it. I found it banal and irritating. Whilst not in love with The Accidental, I’ll give it my vote because it does get to the psychological make-up of some of the characters. Home Land by all accounts seems to be the class favorite, so I guess it will triumph as Sarvas predicts. I just don’t agree with him when he presumes it is “well-deserved.”


Dale Peck

In this battle between sing-song glibness and virtually unreadable kitsch, the question is not who wins but, rather, who loses; and the answer, of course, is not one or another novel—because, really, I just don’t care—but, rather, readers and writers, and all the other people who docilely follow the hackneyed trends of contemporary fiction. The aplomb with which such mediocre work has been greeted is further proof that something—the academy, or the masses to whose opinion critics have come to cater—has long since infantilized the novel into a kind of psychoanalytic case study along the lines of Freud’s mythlets about Little Hans and Anna O. and the Rat Man. All the platitudes, aphorisms, easy analyses and really cheap ironies of contemporary culture-making are in play here. One is vaguely modernist, the other mildly postmodern, but both novels lack the courage of their convictions, aesthetic, political, or otherwise; as stories, they evade the implications of their own narratives; as signposts (to borrow Forster’s term), they point not at the real world but at an aesthetically mediated simulacrum. The idea that a novel might do anything other than augment readers’ cocktail party vocabulary—or, worse, their blogs—has been ceded here, along with any real political resistance to the tragedies that are steadily, quantifiably destroying the world, and that here function as “backdrop.” Fiction like this saps our strength with false catharses even as it encourages us to congratulate ourselves that we know—and care!—so very, very much about the doom with which novelists are fully, sanctimoniously complicit. And, as a judge in this contest, I’m way past blaming writers for this crap. I blame you, for reading it.

Editors’ note: Dale refused to vote, and we refused to toss another coin.


Jessica Francis Kane

Since I picked Home Land in the first round, I’ve had the pleasure of watching it win steadily. Like the tired coach in a made-for-television movie, I’ve felt myself drawing closer to that poignant, final scene where the team prevails and the poor old sap gets credit for believing from the beginning. Then I read The Accidental, and all my visions of hugs and high-fives flew out the window. Both books are terrific, but where Home Land perfects one voice, The Accidental perfects four. Lipsyte’s “Teabag” is heir apparent to a noble line of apathetic narrators, but Smith’s Astrid, Eve, Magnus, and the peculiar Amber who changes them all, seem new to me. I agree with Maud Newton that Smith’s prose is sometimes as distracting as it is compelling, but still I was impressed. I think the Rooster should be sent across the pond. Hope he likes warm beer.


Anthony Doerr

Class reunions, masturbation, murder with a mace. Aborted suicide, ottava rima, a philandering professor. Hmmm… But you have to decide: Is this apple the tastiest apple it can be? Could you plunge a striped straw into the bowels of this orange and suck out its sweet, sweet nectar? No, and no. Both writers are obviously in love with language, which is wonderful, but these novels are not Moby Dick. Still, Lipsyte dives into English and wrecks it and exalts it in his own filthy way. If either book deserves an angry cock stuffed into a crate, it’s Home Land.


Andrew Womack

Though I loved The Accidental and Ali Smith’s emotional, variegated writing—of her and Lipsyte, she is the superior “writer”—in the end I believe Home Land to be the better book. I believe the novels are comparable: Where Smith is magical, Lipsyte is surreal; where you hope for The Accidental’s characters, you laugh at Lipsyte’s. But, for me, where Home Land truly nosed ahead was in the novel’s final movements, when I really, truly started hoping for him. Plus, that ending? Unexpected and—I won’t tell you what. But I will say that I re-read it 10 times.


Nell James

My first-round choice, The Accidental, survived by accident (or conspiracy). It just “ended up” here, like me: the Token Teen. But Home Land seems beloved by my Rooster elders. My thoughts in haiku form.

I’m not so into
Romanticizing losers
There are too many.

I dropped out of school
To avoid the stoned jack-offs
My whole freaking class.

Easy for Lipsyte
To make Teabag talk witty
He teaches college.

Piss, poo and codpiece
Rabelais did it the best
Hail Pantagruel.

Can’t explain the shit
About Home Land that I liked
Hundred-word limit.

Neither book’s my fav
Home Land was well written, no
Accounting for taste.

Pick: The Accidental


Adrienne Brodeur

Not surprisingly, neither Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land or Ali Smith’s The Accidental would have been my pick for “novel of the year.” Let alone the coveted Rooster Award. But given that I must choose a book—though can we all admit that we’re more than a little jealous of Dale Peck’s approach?—I pick The Accidental. Why? For one, it actually is a novel. Call me old fashioned, but I appreciate plot—even just a little—and Smith’s novel had one. As for Lipsyte’s 229-page rant? I admit it made me laugh out loud a couple of times, but in the end, there was just no there there.


Brigid Hughes

I’m sticking with Home Land. I know Ali Smith has her fans, but I’ve always had trouble with her work. And The Accidental was no exception. At least for me, it reads like it’s trying too hard. Home Land is at the opposite end of that spectrum—whatever its flaws, I was glad to be too busy with the characters and their stories to notice the writer behind it all. Three cheers for Home Land.


Maud Newton

Ali Smith’s The Accidental reads like nothing of the kind. Despite the whimsical stream-of-consciousness narration, an atmosphere of contrivance predominates and the arrival of a carpe diem guru clinches it. Of the four primary characters, only the depressive son comes alive. A more accurate title for this book, unfortunately, might be The Artificial. I’ll take Home Land. Lipsyte’s novel comprises the blunt, horny, cruel, and often funny alumni newsletter bulletins of one Lewis “Teabag” Miner. Although stuck in suburban New Jersey without a car, girl, or job, Teabag is well-equipped to call bullshit on the people you hated in high school.


Choire Sicha

Did I finish reading either one of these books? Hell no. Is that shabby? Fully! But I just didn’t want to. And is there any pleasure greater than not finishing a book you’re not in love with? (Perhaps unsubscribing your TiVo from a show you’ve come to hate. Or beating your TV with a hammer.) The Lipsyte book made me laugh, though so, hooray, it gets my lame-ass vote.


Kate Schlegel

In The Accidental, we get an insightful portrait of a crumbling family, collected from the viewpoints of each of its members. The parallel plot developments keep the story moving forward and the surprising climax gives the payoff I want in a good novel. Very early on in Home Land, it became clear that Lewis Miner is a character in the vein of Ignatius P. Reilly, never a favorite of mine. I got about 130 pages in before giving up in frustration, still unable to determine what, exactly, the plot was and tired of all the masturbating and Catamounts. Some people will like this book. I am not one of them. The Accidental, all the way.


Rosecrans Baldwin

I really enjoyed The Accidental, but I was ready to love Home Land—everyone told me how much it made them laugh. I didn’t laugh once and I feel like the Grinch for saying so. There wasn’t anything to bind me to the text, and though I enjoyed Lipsyte’s ridiculous set-ups and dialogue, I excitedly give my point to Smith.


Jessa Crispin

While I wasn’t blown away by either book, I did enjoy reading both. The Accidental was prettily written, and I loved Astrid, but I had an increasingly difficult time caring about any of the other characters. I thought Home Land was hilarious at first, but it didn’t really go anywhere. And that ending at the reunion was awful and forced. I’m going to have to go with The Accidental, if only for the remarkable voice of Astrid, and the fact that a bad ending, for me, ruins the whole book.


And the Rooster goes to...THE ACCIDENTAL by ALI SMITH!

Winner Seal

Tournament note: We investigated several ways to ship a live rooster to Ms. Smith in the UK; none were legal. Instead, the ToB will donate $100 in Ms. Smith's name to Heifer International, enough to buy five flocks of chicks. When we emailed Ms. Smith to tell her about her award and our plans, she responded:

“I am cock-a-hoop! I have NEVER won a prize of which I've been more delighted and proud. If you tell me how to go about it, I will donate another $100 worth of chickens in my euphoria. Thank you and The Morning News for this great, great honour.”
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