Sing, Unburied, Sing
  • March 14, 2018

    Opening Round

  • Jesmyn Ward

    1Sing, Unburied, Sing
    4The Book of Joan

    Lidia Yuknavitch

  • Judged by

    Maris Kreizman

The Book of Joan

Warning: There are no upstarts in this match of the Tournament. Both Sing, Unburied, Sing and The Book of Joan are novels written by two of the best authors in the game right now. Coming at this as an earnest fan of both women is difficult—I wish I could have a hot take but I’ll just have to gush instead. (Yes, there’s one novel in this year’s ToB that I think is way overrated, but I have not been asked to talk about it here—DM me!)

Maris Kreizman is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Vanity Fair, BuzzFeed Books, Longreads, Vulture, Esquire, GQ, and more. She’s the creator of Slaughterhouse 90210, a blog and book (Flatiron Books, 2015) that celebrates the intersection of literature and pop culture. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

Scorched Earth books thrived in this past hellhole of a year, and The Book of Joan is one of the best. Set in 2049, Lidia Yuknavitch’s first work of speculative fiction is insanely fast-paced for a book that must explain a virtually unrecognizable future world. Long story short: Devastated by war and natural disaster, Earth is no longer inhabitable. A group of “privileged” survivors occupy CIEL, a platform in space that hovers above their former home. Devolution has taken effect in this dystopian future: The human forms on CIEL are sexless like Barbie dolls and their skin color is pure white, depleted of all pigmentation. Gender and race are constructions of the past. Suffice to say, God has been dead for ages.

In this less-evolved world where very little is familiar, you might recognize the villain, a dictator who runs CIEL like a police state: “His is a journey from opportunistic showman, to worshipped celebrity, to billionaire, to fascistic power monger.” What better genre of asshole was there to hate in 2017? Of course, there are also rebels on CIEL, including master skin grafter Christine Pizan, who tells the stories of their world by writing them directly onto her body. Here is Christine’s explanation:

I’ve been thinking about how our desires and fears manifest in our bodies, and how our bodies, carrying these stories, resist the narratives our culture places on top of us, starting the moment we are born. … But the body has a point of view. It keeps secrets. Makes its own stories. By any means necessary.

The story that Christine has chosen to graft? It’s the epic tale of the child warrior Joan of Arc (known here as Joan of Dirt), who, in this retelling of her life and her ultimate sacrifice, is a literal force of nature and the only hope for Earth’s survival.

Lidia Yuknavitch writes brilliantly about violence and sex and art and their intersections. In The Book of Joan, with intertwined narratives by Christine and Joan, the erotic and the grotesque blur together, and self-harm becomes an act of love and empowerment and defiance. Martyrdom is an act of ultimate beauty.

The histories of the characters in Jesmyn Ward’s third novel are less explicitly passed down. In fact, so many of the griefs of the past are unspeakable for the family in that they are haunted, quite literally. Leonie can see her murdered brother every time she gets high (which is often) and neglects her 13-year-old son Jojo and his younger sister Kayla. Jojo can see Richie, the ghost of his grandfather’s young friend from his time held at a barbarous prison in the Jim Crow South. When Leonie takes Jojo and Kayla on a disastrous roadtrip to pick up her children’s father from prison, the ghosts from the past mingle with the demons of the present. Here’s Richie observing Jojo:

Field NotesBuy this special ToB Memo Book for $3 and Field Notes will match your $3 and donate $6 to 826 National, which provides free educational programs to under-resourced youth.

He looks even younger when he falls asleep. His baby sister has flung herself across him, and both of them slumber like young feral cats: open mouths, splayed arms and legs, exposed throats. When I was thirteen, I knew much more than him. I knew that metal shackles could grow into the skin. I knew that leather could split flesh like butter.

If the supernatural element adds just a bit of the fantastical to the novel, then the remaining majority is realistic enough to shatter. Leonie’s half-hearted attempts at mothering are cruel and frustrating, but the parts of narrative told from her perspective help to humanize her. And the way that Jojo takes care of Kayla is both tender and terrible, making up for his parents’ neglect as best he can. Here’s a visceral example (trigger warning: puke):

She turns around and ignores all of us and looks out the front windshield, gummy with bug splatter, so she doesn’t even see when Kayla startles, her eyes open wide, and throw-up, brown and yellow and chunky, comes shooting out her mouth and all over the back of the front seat, all over her little legs and her red-and-white Smurfs shirt and me because I’m pulling her up out of her seat and into my lap.

It’s worth noting that this novel about the tribulations of three generations of poor black Southerners won the National Book Award for Fiction this year. This makes Jesmyn Ward the very first woman to win twice (she won in 2011 for Salvage the Bones). The Great American White Male Novelist Canon has been due for a shakeup, and now Ward joins the likes of Bellow, Cheever, Updike, Faulkner, and Roth in this honor.

And no, of course we shouldn’t judge a book based solely on the awards it has won. But consider this: The ghosts in Sing, Unburied, Sing are so well integrated into the story that they never take you out of the moment. They add to the experience, rather than detract. Although the prose in The Book of Joan is phenomenal, I wish there was more world-building. I was constantly taken out of the story because I wanted to try to make sense of the world. I could barely picture Christine and her grafts in my mind—I wanted more guidance and time to process.

Has a book ever lost the ToB for being too short? Because I could’ve used about 200 more pages (maybe even a whole trilogy?) to take in all the action The Book of Joan so breathlessly puts forth. Not one detail was off in Sing, Unburied, Sing. It’s a masterpiece, and the masterpiece must prevail.

TODAY’S WINNER: Sing, Unburied, Sing

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Match Commentary

By Jess Zimmerman & Nozlee Samadzadeh

Nozlee Samadzadeh: Hi Jess, thank you for joining us! Can you introduce yourself a bit?

Jess Zimmerman is the editor-in-chief of Electric Literature and also writes for various places. She is the co-author of Basic Witches.

Jess Zimmerman: Hi, I’m Jess Zimmerman, editor-in-chief of Electric Literature and former Rooster judge 2016.

Nozlee: I highly recommend a re-read of Jess’s judgment from the 2016 Tournament if you’re in the mood for a perfectly calibrated metaphor about chairs and also a discussion of that year’s runner-up, The Turner House, as well as Electric Literature, which has been filling the The Toast-shaped hole in my heart with essays and humor like “Literary Fiction Titles That Should Be Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books.” (By the titles of Franzen’s last three novels, they’re obviously a “Hunger Games-style trilogy about a spunky kid escaping a repressive dystopia.”)

On to the judgment at hand: Did Judge Kreizman’s decision today come as a surprise for you?

Jess: Not at all—I’m surprised Sing, Unburied, Sing didn’t run away with it wholesale. As Judge Kreizman notes, awards can be arbitrary and should absolutely not be the sole measure of a book’s literary worth, but Jesmyn Ward is a two-time National Book Award winner and it’s not an accident. Any book going up against Sing, Unburied, Sing is going to have a tough time of it.

Nozlee: What do you think 200 more pages would have given The Book of Joan? I found myself wondering about our expectations of worldbuilding in literary speculative fiction versus “genre“ fiction like sci-fi.

Jess: I felt there was already too much worldbuilding in The Book of Joan—I love sci-fi but often feel there’s too much worldbuilding. Authors are proud of their imaginative feats, or worry about readers getting lost, and in my opinion they let the story bog down or stagnate while they make sure you didn’t miss anything. The Book of Joan opens with what is essentially a long, expository YouTube video about the process and purpose of grafting, so it lost some goodwill from me there.

Here’s the thing about Book of Joan—I really should have loved it! It is a science-fiction version of Christine de motherfucking Pizan. People told me it was a sci-fi retelling of Joan of Arc, which fine, but it’s a sci-fi version of Christine de Pizan! What! That’s made for me! Unfortunately, it’s very much a cerebral exercise, which for me only really connected in a few sort of “I see what you did there” moments. (Jean de Men. Cute.) Another 200 pages might have given it the opportunity to build more richness and depth for the characters and their relationships, so that the reader would care about them viscerally and instinctively instead of being told she should care. I don’t know that this was Yuknavitch’s project, though. She might have used that 200 pages in other ways, which I would continue to respect but not really enjoy.

Nozlee: And that’s something that Sing, Unburied, Sing did more successfully, in your opinion?

Jess: The characterization is the crown jewel of Sing, Unburied, Sing, for sure. The plot itself is pretty simple, but it’s filigreed with personal histories and traumas and emotions; the book gives a lot of space and attention to the human wounds of every character, even people who would be the bad guys in a lesser novel. The thing I was most struck by is something Judge Kreizman points out: that the “bad mother” figure, so often a trope used to motivate or add depth to a young character, was herself given so much humanity and understanding. I’m glad Judge Kreizman noted that, but I was surprised it didn’t play a more explicit role in her decision—to me, that success in making a typical villain into in many ways the emotional heart of the story did more to cement Sing, Unburied, Sing as the more deserving contender than any of The Book of Joan’s imperfections.

I think where Judge Kreizman and I differed on The Book of Joan is that she thought it needed more brain, and I thought it needed more heart. But more than that, I was just so affected by how much heart Sing, Unburied, Sing had—enough heart for everyone.

Nozlee: Last question: Are there any books of 2018 that you’ve enjoyed so far that you might anticipate on next year’s Tournament long list?

Jess: I haven’t yet started but am excited to read R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries. I’d be surprised if we didn’t see An American Marriage on the long list and probably the short one, too. And The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin made me wish I were in a book club—I liked it so much and my criticisms are so strong and specific!—so I’d love to see that one discussed as well.

Nozlee: I love the idea of the Rooster as one big, month-long book club. Thank you for (re)joining us!

Tomorrow we’re in for a treat as novelist Merritt Tierce takes on Pachinko and So Much Blue, with Kevin and John replacing Jess and me in the booth as commentators.

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