The Morning News

The Morning News Tournament of Books, sponsored by Powell’s Books, is an annual battle royale amongst the top novels in “literary fiction” published throughout the year. Read more about this year’s tournament »

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Powell's Books


March 19, 2008

Tree of Smoke


Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name

judged by MARK SARVAS

When my kind Rooster hosts sent me this year’s matchups, I looked at the lineup and confidently thought, “It’ll be between Tree of Smoke and The Savage Detectives,” which suited me just fine. I found Bolaño’s masterpiece worthy of all the praise it had received—truly a once-in-a-generation kind of book—and I looked forward to comparing it against the year’s other Big Book, which I hadn’t found time for.

Imagine, then, my shock and dismay to find The Savage Detectives eliminated in the first round. Knowing our hosts’ taste for controversy, I wrote to them and pleaded the merits of jury nullification, so that I could undertake this clash of titans I’d envisioned. Mischief-makers that they are, they were tempted, but finally felt obligated to observe the rules of their own game.

Which, one supposes, is laudable. But it’s also problematic because the ejection of Bolaño, in favor of Vendela Vida’s effective if slight Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name is one of those Charlton Heston “It’s-A-MADHOUSE!” moments that undermines any other choices that might follow.

To be fair, I approached Vida’s novel with some hostility given the circumstances, but was gradually won over by the hard clip of the narrative and the weird atmospherics that she effectively deploys throughout this tale of attempted mother/daughter reconciliation. It’s hard not to get swept along with the narrative, despite too many self-consciously literary moments that can be cloying: In one scene, Clarissa, Vida’s admirably, determinedly unlikeable narrator, pulls out “two loud-ticking alarm clocks I’d come across when furtively packing, and held one up to each ear. All I could hear was time.” It’s one of those moments that smacks of a writer so in love with an improbable image that plausibility leaps out the window—what, after all, are the odds of realistically finding oneself in possession of two of these clocks? The title pages that separate the chapters with phrases like “Who Sleeps Where in the Lavu” and “Family Portrait Above Altar” feel a bit too Believer-meets-Frasier, undermining the otherwise effectively rendered reality of the frozen Finnish countryside.

If Vida’s novel is self-conscious in its literary-ness, Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke is equally self-conscious in its ambitions, presenting nothing less than the sweep of the 1960s. This Vietnam novel, which spans that decade and includes a coda from the ‘80s, opens with one of the most wrenching scenes I can recall having recently read, a random slaughter that sets the tone for all that follows. The novel’s prose is clean, clear, and unfussy, yet somehow appropriately weighty as befits its grand scope. Yes, it’s too damn long, and yes it’s an up-and-down mess, with riveting sections followed by unexpected longueurs. And it wears its sense of importance a bit gravely at times. Unlike Vida’s novel, which took an afternoon to read, Tree of Smoke makes unapologetic demands of its readers, many of which, though not all, are repaid.

So what to do now? Two books both with much to recommend them, yet neither a slam dunk. Well, obviously I want to undo the unfathomable wrong of the prior round and advance The Savage Detectives. That’s my real choice.

But since I don’t have the option open, and since neither book excited me as much as last year’s The Road, I’m going to advance Tree of Smoke, on the grounds (as good as any) that in the event that it makes it all the way through to the finals, it is precisely the sort of Big Literary Book that frequently gives Nick Hornby such conniptions in his Believer column, and it will be entertaining to see how he takes to it.

But really: The Savage Detectives.

• Today’s WINNER •

Tree of Smoke

• About the Judge •

Mark Sarvas’s debut novel, Harry, Revised, will be published by Bloomsbury in May 2008, and in more than a dozen countries around the world. He is best known as the host of the popular and controversial literary weblog “The Elegant Variation”, a Guardian Top 10 Literary Blog, a Forbes Magazine Best of the Web pick, and a Los Angeles Magazine Top L.A. Blog. It has been covered by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Scotsman, Salon, the Christian Science Monitor, Slate, The Village Voice, New York Newsday, The New York Sun, NPR’s Day to Day and All Things Considered, and numerous other fine publications. His book reviews and criticism have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Threepenny Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Truthdig, The Modern Word, Boldtype and the Los Angeles Review, and he is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Connections to this year’s competitors: “Joshua Ferris, whose novel I have touted, has guest blogged for me and has blurbed my debut. I am friends with Junot Díaz’s editor. I have exchanged a few friendly emails with Jonathan Lethem, who I have interviewed at my blog.”

• From the Booth •

As much as I enjoy being called a mischief-maker in my advancing age, Mark is kidding when he says we considered his request to nullify Elizabeth Kiem’s first-round decision. Kevin John I’m tempted to give Judge Sarvas the Dale Peck Pretentious A-Hole of the Tournament award for this review, but while the level of hubris here may be Peck-ish, it doesn’t manage to reach truly Peck-ian proportions.
» Read Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner’s commentary on the match «

• The Peanut Gallery •

Do you agree with the outcome of this match?

absolutely   no way

The Standings


• Round One •

Tree of Smoke v. Ovenman
judged by Tobias Seamon

The Savage Detectives v. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name
judged by Elizabeth Kiem

Then We Came to the End v. Petropolis
judged by Anthony Doerr

You Don’t Love Me Yet v. New England White
judged by Jessica Francis Kane

Run v. Shining at the Bottom of the Sea
judged by Kate Schlegel

What the Dead Know v. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
judged by Elizabeth McCracken

On Chesil Beach v. Remainder
judged by Ze Frank

The Shadow Catcher v. An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England
judged by Helen DeWitt

• Round Two •

Tree of Smoke v. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name
judged by Mark Sarvas

Then We Came to the End v. You Don’t Love Me Yet
judged by Maud Newton

Shining at the Bottom of the Sea v. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
judged by Ted Genoways

Remainder v. The Shadow Catcher
judged by Mark Liberman


Tree of Smoke v. Then We Came to the End
judged by Gary Shteyngart

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao v. The Shadow Catcher
judged by Nick Hornby


Then We Came to the End v. Remainder
judged by Rosecrans Baldwin

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao v. The Savage Detectives
judged by Andrew Womack


Remainder v. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
All Judges + Jennifer Szalai