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 26, 2008

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao


The Shadow Catcher

judged by NICK HORNBY

The truth is that I would never have picked up Marianne Wiggins’s novel in a thousand years. It was called The Shadow Catcher, for a start, a title so unarrestingly quiet that you could be forgiven for wandering off halfway through reading it. The cover depicts a landscape—firs and distant mountains—and is every bit as sleepy. And the jacket blurb promises a historical novel wrapped up in a tricksy present-day narrative featuring a writer called Marianne Wiggins—but not, apparently, the Marianne Wiggins who wrote the book.

The opening of the novel set my prejudices even harder. Marianne Wiggins is taking a meeting with a bunch of stupid Hollywood suits who want to turn her historical novel into something vulgarly redemptive. We’ve read and seen things like it before, and even intelligent writers make the mistake of portraying movie producers as dim. They’re not—they’re almost always smart. Vicious, shallow, two-faced, obsequious, money-grubbing, and smart. But from that point on, The Shadow Catcher turns into something else. The present-day story turns out to be both intriguing and discursive, and the historical novella buried within, about the photographer Edward Curtis, is beautiful, strange, and absorbing. In the end, I was sorry that The Shadow Catcher ran straight into Junot Díaz’s juggernaut.

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a career-defining novel. Arriving 10 or so years after Díaz’s collection of short stories, it pretty much had to be great, and it is—it’s angry, funny, sad, sexy, exuberant, imaginative, and completely controlled. I didn’t know that I wanted to learn so much about the Dominican Republic, but in Díaz’s hands, the Dominican Republic is the whole world and two-thirds of a small island at the same time. Marianne Wiggins shouldn’t mind too much, because this book would have mashed any other novel I’ve read in the last year. Who’s going to stop it?

• Today’s WINNER •

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

• About the Judge •

Nick Hornby is the author of the novels How to Be Good, High Fidelity, and About a Boy, as well as the memoir Fever Pitch. He is also the author of Songbook, a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award, and the editor of the short story collection Speaking with the Angel. The recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters E. M. Forster Award for 1999 as well as the Orange Word International Writers’ London Award 2003, he lives in North London. Connections to this year’s competitors: “Vendela Vida is my boss. I read Josh Ferris’s book in manuscript, and wrote about it long before it was published. His publishers used a quote for the cover, and then bought me dinner. And Josh was there. I have met Laura Lippman's husband. I have met Ian McEwan and Jonathan Lethem (a few times). Junot Díaz and I share a publisher.”

• From the Booth •

In order to get to the finals, Ferris and Díaz will each have to get past a book left for dead. An angry, pus-oozing, brain-eater of a novel that has been given a second chance at the title. Kevin John I could pass by that book on the new-fiction table 100 times and it just wouldn’t call out to me, saying, “Pick me up, read my description, check out my blurbs.”
» 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