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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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Kevin: Max Magee and I are singing the same song on this one, John, although it’s certainly curious that Max owns a scale that measures things in ounces. Unless he’s a butcher or a registered owner of a Pitney Bowes machine, I suspect the authorities are descending on his house as we speak. Based on his thoughtful review, I will be available as a character witness.

I think we’re starting to see the shape of this year’s tourney. We have 2666, a behemoth, heavy in every way, and in this bracket we have its counterpart, Shadow Country. You can like them or not but neither of these books can be easily dismissed or ignored.

2666 will be up in the next round against City of Refuge, a book that is easier to grasp, a novel that holds fewer mysteries than the Bolaño, perhaps, but given the recent trauma of the subject matter, I don’t think anyone would call it slight.

We don’t know what book Shadow Country will face, but whether it’s A Mercy or My Revolutions it’s going to be a contest that pits sprawling ambition vs. tight focus. One way or another, the Rooster is going to make a statement. It might be a statement that is obviously untrue—like when Doris Lessing said in her Nobel Lecture: “I have a friend from Zimbabwe, a Black writer. He taught himself to read from the labels on jam jars”—but it will definitely be a statement.

Things are not so clear on the Zombie front, however. The elimination of The Lazarus Project has bumped Steer Toward Rock out of top-four Zombie contention. Steer Toward Rock will not be returning. Through today’s match, the top four vote-getters among books so far eliminated are (in alphabetical order):
  • The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
  • The Lazarus Project
  • Netherland
  • Unaccustomed Earth
John: I’m glad to see two of my personal favorites (Disreputable History and Unaccustomed Earth) in the running for the Zombie round. I think both books were prematurely (if not unfairly) dismissed, primarily due to matchup problems, rather than any shortcomings of their own. The caprice of our tournament setup claims multiple victims every year and I think they are two leading candidates for that status.

In its first round matchup, some of our commentators questioned the eligibility of Shadow Country given that this book really is the combination of three other, previously (individually) published books. Our commentator makes a Blade Runner director’s cut analogy that I think is apt, but to work with our basketball metaphor, isn’t this like Duke deciding to enter a team with a starting five of Mike Giminski, Christian Laettner, Johnny Dawkins, Grant Hill, and J.J. Redick?

We punted the problem, figuring that if it’s good enough for the National Book Awards, it’s good for us, but in some ways it does feel like Matthiessen is in a lifetime achievement award category all his own.

I ask, rhetorically, if any of the sections of Shadow Country were in the tournament individually, would they have even sniffed the semis? Would any of them get past Lazarus Project here? Not to my reading, which to me, ultimately tempers my admiration for the book. In this case, I’m literally giving it the benefit of many more doubts because of its size. I perceive the achievement to be large and significant, at least in part, because of the book’s heft.

This sort of thing has happened in previous tournaments. Last year’s weightiest tome, Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke is described as “too damn long,” and an “up-and-down” mess in its second round judging commentary, and yet it prevailed.

An even better example is 2007 where Pynchon’s Against the Day made it to the semis without the second-round judge even finishing it.

(Sasha Frere-Jones held Against the Day’s size against it in that semi-final round, essentially opting out of reading it, so I suppose size can cut both ways.)

As the widespread positive reception of 2666 shows, we’re willing to tolerate mess in the name of perceived “ambition.” I think you and I both agree that with 2666 it doesn’t really pay off, but many others disagree. I’m certain we wouldn’t tolerate much of what 2666 apparently gets away with in a shorter book that didn’t display those ambitions in its page count.

I don’t want to tar Matthiessen with the “messy masterpiece” brush however, because Shadow Country is decidedly not messy. I think it’s longer than its subject deserves and outlasts its interest for the reader, but it’s hard not to admire Matthiessen for working his obsession until it saw publication in the form he’d always envisioned and I understand critics wanting to judge the book on those revised terms. I always marvel at these stories of writers who can and do work over their already published work. There’s a famous story about John Fowles who wrote and re-wrote The Magus for almost 25 years, continuing to revise extensively even after the book had been an international bestseller.

However, right now, I’m declaring that if the “full” six-book version of 2666 is declared eligible for a future tourney, I’m taking that year off.

Reader Comments

On March 23, 2009 at 11:22 AM Edan said…

I write for the Millions and Max is a friend of mine. He and his wife gave me and my husband a kitchen scale for a wedding gift. It measures in ounces (or grams, if you wish.) It is awesome. I'm pretty certain Max has one at home just like it.

On March 23, 2009 at 11:56 AM Kim said…

I love John's statement "I think it’s longer than its subject deserves and outlasts its interest for the reader." I find that to be true far too often recently. I don't know if editors are losing their influence, writers are growing sloppy or I'm just not as tolerant of the extra unnecessary 100 to 150 pages.

On March 23, 2009 at 1:41 PM Troy said…

Well, the next time you select a book for the tournament, make sure it's actually new fiction. Why don't you just stick Moby Dick in there next year?

On March 23, 2009 at 2:47 PM Herman Melville said…

I resent that.