Big Machine
  • March 18, 2010

    Opening Round

  • Commentary by

    Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

  • Today’s Winner:

    3Big Machine

The Year of the Flood

John: For me, Margaret Atwood is like T.C. Boyle in that she can’t write a truly bad book. Some are going to be better than others and a handful over her career are going to be the masterpieces, but none of them are going to outright flop, quality-wise. (I should admit I haven’t read all of her books, so commenters, feel free to take me to task if I’ve missed her resounding dud.)

The Year of the Flood isn’t a perfect book. It doesn’t belong in the Atwood pantheon, but it’s really really good because she’s just an excellent writer. She’s got that off-kilter humor thing she does so well going here, when you’re never quite sure how seriously you’re supposed to take things, while at the same time, I got pretty wrapped up in the fates of the characters. It wasn’t my personal favorite read of the tourney, but I had it in the top half of what I thought was a very strong field.

Kevin: I wonder if consistency doesn’t work against an artist, sometimes. I realize I’m talking completely out of my ass here, but I have wondered in the past if a songwriter like Elliott Smith never quite got his due because his work was so consistently good and consistently similar. I mean there seems to be a lot less media anticipation for a new Margaret Atwood book than there should be. On the other hand, if you like Margaret Atwood, I don’t imagine there is an entertainment you can count on more reliably than another Margaret Atwood novel. (This argument seemed like it made perfect sense in my head before I started writing it down, by the way.)

John: I wanted to like Big Machine more than I did. As Kate Ortega describes the different elements and threads at work in the novel it sounds like exactly my kind of book, but for me, those flavors just didn’t gel. I ended up wanting more of just about everything, more about Ricky the junkie, more about the work of the scholars and the library. Much more about Ricky’s childhood with the Washerwomen. Big Machine felt to me like a massive Pynchonesque novel that got compromised and compressed in the name of narrative thrust. The supporting characters like Solomon Clay and Adele Henry are just barely sketched, concepts over characters, and the simmering themes of race, the underclass and faith are skipped off of, rather than dived into.

LaValle is another fantastic writer, and I hate it when people chide authors for not writing the book the way they (the readers) want them to, but Big Machine reminded me of molecular gastronomy, where the chefs/scientists boil (or sous-vide) foods down to their essences to leave you with a single bite of complex flavors. I was looking for the full meal, more courses than I could finish.

That puts the Opening Round in the books (hah!) for another year. Only one major upset with Lorrie Moore going down to Marlon James and a couple of mild ones in Margaret Atwood and Richard Russo going down. We’re going to step away from the mics tomorrow to let ToB statistician Andrew Seal share some more numerical insight into what’s happened thus far and what’s coming up. And let’s not forget the Zombie Round, where any of our previously vanquished titles can rise from the grave and march toward the crown.

Kevin: Let’s remind everybody what the Zombie Round is. Before the Tournament began, we asked TMN readers to vote for their favorites among the 16 books in the tourney. We have those results locked in a vault at TMN headquarters. After we whittle the 16 books down to two, we will take the top two vote getters from among the 14 novels that have been eliminated and bring those two books back from the dead to compete again in the Zombie Round.

Since I have the combination to that vault, I am going to right now leak the top four vote getters among the eight books that have so far been eliminated from the competition. And after every match from here on out I will update this list in case a novel with more votes than these loses its contest. If a book is out of the tourney and not on this list, it definitely will not be coming back for the Zombie Round.

Of the books that have so far been eliminated, the top four Zombie vote getters, in alphabetical order, would be:

  • Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
  • Fever Chart
  • A Gate at the Stairs
  • Miles From Nowhere

We’ll release the final two Zombies on the eve of that round.

As for our side bet, which had us in a tie after the last match, I had Big Machine ranked slightly higher than you did. I retake the lead at the end of the Opening Round, 70-65.

Stay tuned for Andrew Seal tomorrow. Monday’s matchup pits perhaps the year’s most celebrated book, Let the Great World Spin, against its most popular, The Help. It’s like Animal Collective versus the Black Eyed Peas, y’all!

Kevin Guilfoile is a contributing writer for TMN. His debut novel, Cast of Shadows, has been translated into more than 17 languages, and his second novel, The Thousand, will be published in August 2010 by Alfred A. Knopf.

John Warner is a contributing writer for TMN. He is the author of Fondling Your Muse: Infallible Advice From a Published Author to the Writerly Aspirant. He teaches at Clemson University.

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