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The Morning News Tournament of Books

The Tournament of Books is an annual battle royale between 16 of the best novels published in the previous year.

A new match is played here each weekday in March.

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John: So, it’s City of Refuge that’s finally able to slay the monster of 2666. Interestingly enough, Tom Piazza’s book wins with a strong, but not full-throated endorsement from Liz Entman.

I’ve exhausted my personal pixel limit on 2666, so I’ll leave it alone except to say that Liz’s description of 2666 as, “big and baggy and unmanageable—like one of those weird water-filled rubber tube toys designed to slip through your hands no matter how hard you grip,” is about as apt a take as I’ve seen.

As you remarked last round, City of Refuge is a hard book not to like. It’s immediately accessible and compelling. The narrative moves like a rocket. There’s a handful of knockout scenes of undeniable depth and humanity. The subject matter is simultaneously familiar and unknown and Piazza does a great job unlocking it for the reader. Our head-to-head match-up system often forces judges into picking a title they see as “less flawed” and in the immediate aftermath of reading it, City of Refuge tends to make you remember its virtues, rather than its shortcomings.

I think Liz does a nice job illuminating some of those shortcomings and I’d add a couple more. The plot and structure is relentlessly schematic and that, combined with the narrative non-fiction sections, always makes you aware of Piazza’s hand on the wheel. Early on in the book, pre-storm, at a backyard crawfish boil, one of our main characters, Craig, makes a big to-do about meeting an oily real estate developer/house flipper who doesn’t “get” New Orleans (he’s described as being dressed like Craig was when he first arrived in the city). Craig and Bobby have a conversation about real estate and Craig bristles at the notion that he’d ever sell his “home.” At the moment, the inclusion of this character in this scene stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb and so when he later appears in the narrative, rather than getting a pleasant click, the plot mechanics thud into place.

I was also often bothered about Piazza’s willingness to jump into his characters’ heads and lay out the emotional subtext of a scene. This is particularly apparent in some of the scenes between Craig and his wife, Alice, where the nature of marital discord is spelled out in exact detail. For me, this reduced them to vessels of very specific, easy-to-articulate feelings rather than fully fleshed characters. Strangely, though I cared about what happened, I never felt all that invested in them.

I think that problem is less apparent with the character at the helm of the other main story thread, SJ, but it’s still there to some degree. In contrast, I kept thinking about a book like The Northern Clemency where facets of the characters kept being revealed even as the book wound its way toward conclusion and how that kept me fascinated. Because the main characters in City of Refuge are New Orleans and Katrina, the people in the story often look like props.

Unlike A Mercy, as the emotional wallop of the best scenes in City of Refuge fade now that my reading of it is two weeks behind me, I’m now more likely to remember the flaws, rather than its virtues. It’s a very good, very solid book, but it’s not great.

Kevin: Piazza clearly is trying to make a political point, and that’s often a dangerous position for a novelist to be in. A reader can’t argue with a novel—the author is the god of the reader-writer relationship and he can always make the facts of the story fit his thesis. So once the reader senses an agenda on behalf of the novelist he sometimes feels like he’s being lectured to, which is often unpleasant. On the other hand, the writers who are extremely skillful at it can have a lot of power. I remember reading The Fountainhead when I was like 20 and walking around for days in a trance. If Rand had told me to cluck like a chicken on page 650 I probably would have run out and laid an egg on the quad. Later somebody must have snapped their fingers and I remembered the real world isn’t actually the way she describes it—that the novel’s internal logic doesn’t survive external scrutiny.

I suspect Piazza wrote this story as a novel and not a non-fiction narrative because, while it would have been fairly easy to find real white characters in Craig’s situation and real black characters in SJ’s place, it would have been difficult to find real people who could give him the proper internal monologue for his story. Real people probably wouldn’t be as candid with a writer about the difficulties of their marriage, for instance. And he would have had to be lucky to find a couple whose particular marital stresses exactly mirrored the dilemma of the New Orleans middle class—whether or not to return after the storm. And while it wouldn’t have been hard to find individual acts of heroism, it no doubt would have been hard to find someone quite as selfless as SJ. The most difficult questions of race and class are certainly raised in the novel, but they aren’t really dealt with. In fact they just barely (and literally) miss each other.

Those are legitimate choices, though, and I think Piazza gets away with slipping in a little op-ed here and there because the point he makes about the tragedy and how it might have been avoided, or at least ameliorated, isn’t one too many would want to argue with.

City of Refuge is written by someone who clearly loves New Orleans and who fears he might have lost it, and it’s a very moving story besides. You want to cut a book like that some slack. 2666 is more like a drunk, rambling, arrogant asshole that keeps pawing your girlfriend and provoking you at the bar. You don’t want to concede anything to it. But now the bouncer has shown 2666 the door and we can finally stop talking about it.

Or maybe not. I’ve just run the numbers again and with only one match remaining before the Zombie Round the two eliminated books with the most votes are (in alphabetical order):
  • 2666
  • The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
I hope those two are having fun in the Green Room.

Reader Comments

On March 25, 2009 at 11:18 AM Cat said…

Ah, after the first match-up I predicted (although it wasn't recorded anywhere for posterity, sadly) that 2666 would eventually be knocked out in the third round by City of Refuge, and here we are.

On March 25, 2009 at 12:07 PM Drew Johnson said…

I was also pretty sure Bolano would lose this round...but I believe that 2666 is a pretty definite zombie round returnee.

On March 25, 2009 at 1:21 PM Capybara said…

What I love about 2666 is that I can't get my hands around it. What I think distinguishes me from those who aren't in love with it, is that I think it is worth continuing to grapple with. If it is a garrulous drunk at a bar, it is a drunk who knows something, if you can figure out what it is.

On March 25, 2009 at 1:21 PM Anne Ridgway said…

You lost me with this decision: City of Refuge is easily the weakest entry this year and reads like a 'lite' version of Nine Lives.

While it's been made abundantly clear that many people did not share my intense enjoyment of 2666 (and in particular, its mordant humor), seeing City of Refuge with its myriad flaws advance at the expense of so much truly excellent writing is demoralizing in the extreme.

For all those who were so struck by CofR's subject matter, man oh man you people need to, if not get out more, READ more. With so much incredible writing out there about sides of the human condition undreamt of in works such as The Disreputable History of Frankie Whosie-Whatsits (gah!), there is NO excuse for falling for a mediocre piece of not-even-journalism because it's focuses on an under-served population of tragedy victims.

Bah, I say, BAH.

On March 25, 2009 at 3:36 PM Sarea said…

I wonder how far City of Refuge would have gotten in the tournament if we pulled 'survivor guilt' out of the equation. I know that in real life I have a lot of people who want to buy me drinks just because I'm from Nola and they're northern and white and they think that they owe me something. Pushing ahead this book that 'might not even count as a novel' seems to me like just another free drink.

On March 25, 2009 at 4:43 PM Rob said…

I wonder if any of the 2666 haters made it thru part five...

On March 26, 2009 at 2:47 AM maro said…

"I believe that 2666 is a pretty definite zombie round returnee."
If I am understanding right, there's no way 2666 is not in the zombie round. There's only one elimination left, either Shadowlands or A Mercy, and even if the one eliminated ranks higher than 2666 in reader votes, 2666 would still come in at second place in reader votes and hence be the other zombie. Right?

On March 26, 2009 at 4:41 PM Beau Lano said…

Does part five magically make the first four parts less boring?

On March 26, 2009 at 5:55 PM meave said…

If I never have to read another word of praise about a book that is so full of misogyny and violence and misogynistic violence, it'll be too soon. Damn it, Zombie Round.

On March 28, 2009 at 2:16 AM Billy Bob said…

2666 is one of the best books I've ever read. It changed how I think of words and stories. It's bigness and bagginess is a boon, not a flaw, thought the small-minded often miss that, as well as miss the ways the five parts connect.

A disaster story about New Orleans that is, as reviewers say, preachy and political and filled with weak characters, does not even stand a chance.