• March 29, 2011


  • Commentary by

    Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

  • Today’s Winner:

    2The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

John: This one is going to cause some waves in the commentariat. In my completely informal surveying of the post-match postings, I think The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake has come in for the least amount of love. Next has had its detractors as well, but Lemon Cake has taken a cuffing. One commenter (Sophronisba) went so far as to say, “If it (Lemon Cake) beats Next, I may have to reexamine my own literary worldview.”

I have felt precious little of this kind of pain during this year’s tournament, that peculiar feeling of wondering what I might be missing, of a book passing me by completely. At the start, I said how many of these books I enjoyed, and there’s only one (Finkler) that I wouldn’t recommend.

In 2009, you and I waged a lonely campaign as just about the only people not won over by 2666, and each successive round, we were further chastised for failing to get with the program. I really remember feeling out on a limb each time 2666 came back around and knowing we’d have to talk about it again and anticipating the backlash. It was always friendly backlash, but it really made me question my own taste and reading abilities. One of the most pleasurable aspects of reading in general and the ToB in particular is that while it’s a solo enterprise, afterwards there’s a communal aspect—in this case, our own month-long book club. Being able to talk about books with others is one of the best reasons to read a book. My favorite part of teaching is always the experience of just talking about books or stories with my students, seeing the texts differently as they’re interpreted through their eyes. I mentioned earlier that I’d assigned Super Sad True Love Story for my contemporary literature course and my appreciation for the book has risen significantly as I’ve thought about it more and more deeply as I read my students’ responses to the book.

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To feel left out of that begins to sting a little bit.

One thing we don’t have this year is a truly “challenging” book. Nox is unusual, but it takes less than an hour to digest (at least the first time). Freedom and Skippy Dies are long, but very straightforward in terms of form and execution. Every year the tournament is missing something because it’s impossible to include everything, and maybe the thing we’re missing this year is that big, unwieldy tome.

Kevin: I wouldn’t have guessed going in that The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake would be one of the most polarizing books in the tourney, but you’re right. There is, as you say, some hate for it going on in the comments, but it finished quite high in the Zombie poll, in which we asked readers to pick their favorite book entered in the ToB. And it has been extremely successful in head-to-head matchups, today breezing past Next into the Zombie Round.

This tournament really is missing a juggernaut. Freedom seems to have had an air of inevitability from the get-go, and it has been up to the challenge, vanquishing both the number one and number two reader picks in our Zombie poll. (I don’t think I’m giving away company secrets by disclosing the fact that if Goon Squad had defeated Freedom yesterday, Skippy Dies would have survived into the Zombie round.) But even as it is widely liked, it really doesn’t seem to be a book that inspires a lot of passion. Or it hasn’t after the first giant exhale of hype.

Is there a big, ugly, monster of a book from 2010 that we could have unleashed on the tourney this year? David Mitchell had a celebrated novel out, but it too was kind of traditional. Personally, I thought this was a great year for fiction, but there wasn’t that one book that had everyone at each other’s throats for the love or hate of it. Lemon Cake is no 2666 in that regard. Even the controversy over Franzen was about everything but his book. Maybe Adam Levin’s The Instructions might have offered some of that—it’s certainly ambitious and has many fans—but I don’t know that the level of passion surrounding it is overheated.

Is there some bullshit conclusion we can come to about this apparent lack of collective literary ambition? What does the fact that we are publishing (and reading) such conventional narratives about our times say about our times? Is this a business malaise or a cultural one? Or is my premise completely off base?

John: I’m going to go with none of the above. I think it’s a fluke. In addition to The Instructions we have Witz by Joshua Cohen, another doorstop about Jewish identity. If we’d included both of those books, we’d be talking about a different trend right now.

Coming out next year we have David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, which looks plenty challenging. We also have Haruki Murakami’s IQ84 (which is 984 pages and was published in multiple volumes in Japan), and The Marriage Plot from Jeffrey Eugenides. The Third Reich by Roberto Bolaño (the Tupac of publishing) is currently being serialized in the Paris Review, and will be published in book form in November.

I don’t know that any of these are a lock for the tourney, but if they make it, we could be talking about the year of the experimental maximalists.

Kevin: So the final Zombie results are in and Room and A Visit From the Goon Squad, the top two vote-getters in our reader poll, get a second chance to make it to the final round, where all the judges in the tourney, plus C. Max Magee of The Millions, will weigh in on a final vote.

But first we must address a situation that we’ve never encountered before at the ToB. Freedom has already faced and bested both of our Zombie books. A rematch is inevitable one way or the other. After a hasty discussion, we decided that since Freedom just faced Goon Squad in the semifinals (and since the book that made it farther in the tourney should have the more beneficial seeding), the Zombie pairings will be Freedom versus Room (tomorrow) and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake versus A Visit From the Goon Squad (Thursday).

We’re going to take one more breather from competition on Friday to look back on the semis and Zombies and look ahead to the championship. We’ll also be holding a little contest Friday, so watch for that.

The Rooster gets a new home on Monday.

Kevin Guilfoile is the author of two acclaimed novels, Cast of Shadows and The Thousand, which have been translated into more than 20 languages.

John Warner’s novel, The Funny Man, will be released late September of this year by Soho Press. For the time being, he teaches at Clemson University.

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