The End of Eddy
  • March 13, 2018

    Opening Round

  • Édouard Louis

    2The End of Eddy
    3Lucky Boy

    Shanthi Sekaran

  • Judged by

    Caitlin Roper

Lucky Boy

It’s probably a personal failing of mine, but I find it distracting to know personally a writer whose novel you are trying to read, or the town where the story is set, or a specific character, whether veiled or clearly identified. It’s like watching a very famous actor attempt to embody a character in a movie, and even as you are pulled in to the story, you’re distracted—you think about that weird statement the actor recently made about sexual harassment in Hollywood or the photos you saw of them bodyboarding in Kauai on their most recent vacation.

Caitlin Roper is the special projects editor at the New York Times Magazine. She creates new sections of the newspaper like the Kids section, Puzzle Mania, and the annotated Constitution. Before joining the Times, Roper was the articles editor at WIRED, and before that, the managing editor of the Paris Review. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

My father is a novelist, and I have always struggled with this problem trying to read his books. I once got a chapter in to one of his novels and discovered that the protagonist was wearing a specific baseball hat that I had given my father years before. I had to put the book down. Just the hat was all it took to derail me. And that’s not to mention descriptions of characters that resembled me, or my mom, or family friends, or, god forbid, references to sex. Just one silly hat.

So when I started reading Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran, I stumbled on the first page of chapter one, when one of the protagonists, Kavya Reddy, mentions buying a sari on University Ave., because I knew right away she was in Berkeley, Calif., my hometown. Look, I’m not saying this is fair, precisely, but from that point on I found myself distracted by each reference to Berkeley, pausing to evaluate and consider its veracity. (Is August in Berkeley more “muggy than warm”? Um, no, not really.) Even so, the story was quickly engrossing, telling two simultaneous tales: one of Kavya’s desire to have a baby, and the other of Solimar Castro Valdez’s arrival and adjustment to the US from a small village in Mexico, pregnant. Solimar, who goes by Soli, is 18 and on her own. Kavya is 35, the daughter of Indian immigrants, married to her college boyfriend Rishi. Soli’s son Ignacio (she calls him Nacho) is the heart of the novel before he even appears. His existence, his life, his fate are the axis the entire book turns on.

It’s a novel about infertility, immigration, and motherhood, but also an empathic character study. Lucky Boy clearly sets out to get into the minds and emotions of two very different women whose lives converge. Both Kavya and Soli are enormously sympathetic. The book’s language is lovely—warm and funny. “‘I can’t wait. I can’t wait like this. I want a kid now.’ She realized she sounded like Veruca Salt demanding an Oompa Loompa, but there was no way but the direct way to say what she meant.” The novel is able to keep the double protagonist setup working, even though dual storylines can so easily pull me out of a story just when I’m most engrossed.

I especially loved Soli, and the fact that Sekaran chose to tell the story of a young immigrant to this country. Deeply sensitive storytelling about the immigrant experience is a powerful political statement today. But even as I cared immediately about Soli as she hopped a train flying north, I was distracted, thinking of other tales of crossing from Mexico to the United States, because there have been many powerful firsthand accounts of this trip. I always think of the 1983 film El Norte, Gregory Nava’s harrowing tale of crossing the border, which I saw in school as a child and have never forgotten. I was disappointed that the freight of other border-crossing stories made it hard to lose myself in Soli’s, to let go and just be in it.

So maybe at this point you’re sure I’m a distractible, grumpy, Princess-and-the-Pea of a reader. You’re not wrong! I used to finish every book I started. It was a point of pride. And then I got old. And picky. On the day in my early thirties when I realized I would eventually die without reading many great books I want badly to read, even if no more great books were produced from that day forward, I stopped reading to the end of novels that I couldn’t lose myself in. And it turned out I don’t lose myself in novels as much as I did when I was young. (I did read all of Lucky Boy.)

Reading The End of Eddy by Édouard Louis was a reminder that even though I’m old and cranky, I am still able to lose myself in a good book. I knew almost nothing of Louis’s autobiographical novel about growing up in rural France before I started it. I had no expectations, and no connections to the story. I also knew nothing about life in working-class Northern France. The book begins with Eddy’s torment at the hands of two bullies at school. They spit on him, and as the glob of spit slides towards his mouth, he realizes he could easily abort its course, but he doesn’t, “for fear of offending them, for fear of making them more agitated than they already are.” Gross and horrifying, right?

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Actually, so much of Eddy’s experience as a child is gross and horrifying, from vicious homophobia to parental neglect, and you’re trapped in it as you read, in the exact way that you get trapped, powerless, in your own specific circumstance as a kid, no matter how unfair, or upside down. But I found this powerful—locked in to Eddy’s experience by his stripped-down, frank, direct, authentic voice. It was like reading the firsthand account of a child’s experience, magically filtered through a wiser adult with more perspective, and yet still absolutely the kid’s story. Perhaps that’s because Louis is still so young—he wrote the book in his early twenties. And it’s clearly quite autobiographical. (This was publicized and clear reading the book, and the cover has a photo of a real boy, presumably the author, and the author bio at the end begins “Édouard Louis, born Eddy Bellegueule in Hallencourt France in 1992…”)

Eddy is poor, gay, and growing up without much kindness or empathy (though there are potent slivers of the latter), in a community that does not value what he has to offer. Even though Eddy is frequently traumatized in the story, he never fully blames his tormentors, he is never quite a victim. He tries constantly, wearyingly, to adapt, to be attracted to girls, to perform masculinity, but nothing quite works.

One day in the schoolyard, Maxime … asked me to run, there, in front of him and the boys he was with. He said to them You’re gonna see how he runs like a fag assuring them, swearing, that they were going to have a good laugh. After I refused he made it clear that I didn’t have any choice. If I didn’t do as I was told, I would pay for it I’ll smash your face in if you don’t. So I ran for them, humiliated, fighting back tears, feeling as if each leg weighed hundreds of pounds, as if each step would be my last, they were so heavy, like the legs of someone running against the current in a rough sea. They laughed.

Man, I was rooting so hard for it to not work, for Eddy to manage to change his circumstance rather than himself. Of course in some part of my brain I knew he must have—both because he periodically zooms out to view his younger self with hindsight, and also because this tormented kid eventually wrote a book! A good one! And yet I never paused to pull back myself and consider anything, I just ripped through the book, captivated, finishing the whole thing in two sittings.

For me, The End of Eddy was consuming, engrossing, fast. The story felt pure, brutally honest, tense, emotional, with a brilliantly clear voice. I was never pulled out of the story, and for the day between putting it down and picking it up again, I thought about Eddy as if he were a close friend in need, floating at the edge of my thoughts, nagging me, worrying me, until I could pick up the book again and get to the end of the story, to Eddy’s future. I related to his experience and point of view even though our lives and childhoods have been so different. By contrast, there was so much in Lucky Boy that was familiar to me, from the setting of Berkeley and Soli’s response to it, to Kavya’s yearning to have a child. And yet I read it more haltingly, even as I grew to care about its characters. I was frequently distracted, pulled out of the story by familiar details, yes, but also by the flipping between the two protagonists’ lives and points of view, and by tiny doubts about the characters. Would they really feel that way? Would they really say that? I could just never get all the way in.

After reading both novels, I wondered if it was fair to compare the most authentic book I’d ever read, near-nonfiction, to one that tested the bounds of the writer’s ability to embody an experience vastly different from her own. But the Tournament pauses for no one, so I had to call it. And I chose an utterly immersive story over one that I had trouble fully losing myself in. You, reader, only have so much time, and so many books to read. The End of Eddy is worth your (limited) time.

TODAY’S WINNER: The End of Eddy

The Rooster needs your help


Match Commentary

By Julie Buntin & Rosecrans Baldwin

Rosecrans Baldwin: Before we get started I want to remind everyone that it’s only day five of the ToB. I promise there’s more craziness to come. We love your dedication, your intellects, even the most out-there of opinions. But if you’re in the comments, please don’t let your passion add heat to how you treat one another, unless it’s with impassioned respect.

Julie Buntin is the author of Marlena, and the director of writing programs at Catapult.

So, today in the booth we’re excited to be joined by Julie Buntin, director of writing programs at Catapult and the author of Marlena, one of our Rooster Summer Reading Challenge books. Julie, let’s dig in: What did you think of Judge Roper’s decision?

Julie Buntin: I enjoyed reading it. It’s smartly argued, and I appreciated Judge Roper’s nuanced reading of both novels, and her self-awareness about what she was bringing to each text. It made me want to get a beer with her to talk books.

Rosecrans: I agree. I really enjoyed the clarity of her emotional experience, all the particulars of her time with these books.

Julie: I’ve always loved how openly personal the ToB is, how it embraces the fact that judging a book is a messy and human and emotional thing. And I respected Judge Roper’s points about how the details she recognized in Lucky Boy kept her from fully dissolving into the story—even if, as a writer, those points made me a little itchy. Part of reading a novel means giving in to a fictional world, letting it dislodge you from your real life; the writer’s work is to make that both possible and worth it. But because Judge Roper’s memories of Berkeley overrode Lucky Boy’s details, the book never really had a fighting chance. Isn’t it possible for two different people with knowledge of Berkeley to disagree about whether the weather is more “muggy than warm” and both be right? I wished Judge Roper had been able to wrangle her annoyance—it seemed a case of wrong reader, wrong time.

Still, Judge Roper also took issue with Lucky Boy’s POV shifts and characterization. And she was so clearly moved and transported by The End of Eddy; she writes with so much enthusiasm it’s hard to not want to run out and read the book immediately. Where she landed makes sense.

Rosecrans: You recently published a novel, Marlena, that was tuned to a place and time. Did you catch flak from readers or critics over specifics?

Julie: Ha—perhaps it’s showing that I’ve thought about this before. I didn’t catch any flak about that from critics, and I try to stay away from places like Goodreads and Amazon, so I’m not sure about readers. Though I was drawing from my own memories of where I grew up, I was writing a novel, not a faithful representation of place. I would have felt claustrophobic on the page if I’d tried to get the roads right, the distances. Plus, Michiganders have a lot of (justified) regional pride, and I didn’t want to go there. So I changed place names as a way of indicating to any reader from that area that I wasn’t trying to fiddle with their memories of home.

I did scrub all dates from my book, a choice a few people have told me they did not like—though you can infer that the girlhood scenes take place circa 2006 (there are some technological references), in general time is blurry and impressionistic, as (I thought) would best suit a book largely about memory. This is really audacious, but I also hoped it would help the book age gracefully.

Rosecrans: I know what you mean. It reminds me of how much I dislike seeing blog posts in books, formatted like we’ve just conjured up a website. Or that moment when you turn a page and suddenly there’s an email, with a timestamp, plus “to:” and “from:” fields, all rendered in sans serif. For my part, in The Last Kid Left, there’s a lot of chatter on different platforms, threaded rumors, revenge videos filmed on phones and mass-distributed online, but I didn’t want to name any of the forums properly—I think I mentioned Snapchat once—for fear of The Friendster Effect (i.e., woe to any novelists working in 2002 who dedicated paragraphs to Friendster).

Julie: I have to admit, in thinking about this now in the context of Judge Roper’s response to Lucky Boy, I also scrubbed dates because, as a reader, I’m sometimes distracted by specific dates in fiction. It brings the “real” world too aggressively into focus, and can snap me out of the story. I suppose that should make me more understanding of Judge Roper’s response.

Rosecrans: Give me a sense of your thoughts about autofiction. Maybe it helped nudge The End of Eddy into a winning position over Lucky Boy’s dual “vastly different” storylines?

Julie: I like autofiction, even if I’m not really sure why we’re calling autobiographical fiction autofiction now. I do think novels that seem to come from personal experience have the added advantage of feeling extra urgent to a reader, and in this case, it seems to have increased the novel’s emotional power for Judge Roper. It’s interesting that the setting details Judge Roper rejected in Lucky Boy were the ones that were probably informed by some lived experience, as Shanthi Sekaran grew up in Berkeley.

Rosecrans: I bet you see a lot of manuscripts at Catapult. Is autofiction popular? What’s the most influential style at the moment?

Julie: For the past year, I haven’t been reading much on submission for Catapult; I’ve taken a break from editorial work as I focus on developing our creative writing program. So I’m not sure I’m the best person to speak to trends. I do think there’s an increased interest in autofiction at this particular literary moment—how could there not be, with writers like Rachel Cusk, Karl Ove Knausgård, Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, so many, at the top of their form? Like I said, maybe it has to do with the urgency of the form, the way it feels like you’re getting something intimate and necessary and real, a piece of art with a clear reason for existence. With so many demands on our time, fiction has to fight harder than ever to justify itself to the reader.

Rosecrans: Judge Roper addresses that in a big way, in my opinion, when she calls Eddy “the most authentic book I’d ever read.” This will seem like an odd question, or I’m just not putting it very well, but where do you place “authenticity” on the range of things you value in fiction? If a novel doesn’t feel lived-in, particularly a realist novel, if it feels artificial or designed, how long are you willing to keep going?

Julie: It’s not an odd question, but it’s a tricky one. The magic of fiction is that it’s a made-up thing that feels real. Fiction has to be “authentic” in order to work, no matter how “realistic” it is. I wonder if marketing a book as autobiographical makes it a little easier to accept what you read as authentic.

Rosecrans: It definitely looks like marketing to me—the same way movie and TV producers love fiction that’s “based” on true stories. I mean, how many more Knausgårds sold once FSG stated plastering his smoldering, smoking gorgeousness on the cover?

Julie: But I’m a bit wary of the idea that seems to follow, which is that writers need to have lived their subject matter in order to be the authority on what they are writing. That seems very limiting to me.

Rosecrans: I’ll say I sympathized with Judge Roper’s description of getting distracted by certain details. Do you have any tics that make or break a book for you?

Julie: Not really. I’m a firm believer in the idea that anything can work if it’s executed in a way that generates pleasure and narrative momentum. I think that comes from reading submissions. You have a certain moral responsibility to the writer and their work when you’re reading on behalf of a publisher. Your job is to take the manuscript on its own terms, without subjecting it to your thoughts and feelings about other books you’ve read on the same subject, or set in the same place, or written in the same mode. Sometimes that’s impossible, but in my working life, I read every first page hoping I’m going to accept the book, and in my personal reading, as if I’m going to love it. That breaks down when the writer relies heavily on cliché, takes my intelligence or my time for granted (via exposition or too much detail), or employs elaborate dialogue tags (OK, there’s one thing I truly hate).

Rosecrans: Final question: Judge Roper talks about the difficulty of reading her father’s work. You’re a novelist who’s married to a novelist (whose novel Stephen Florida happened to be in the ToB this year). I’m also married to a writer, and I’m always curious about how other couples operate. Do you read each other’s work? Edit one another? Does it bother you if you see things from your life together turn up in your partner’s fiction?

Julie: I’m sympathetic to Judge Roper’s response to her father’s novels. I know some members of my family feel the same way, and I respect that it’s got to be weird as hell to see things you recognize as “true” ripped from their context and distorted.

Gabe and I do read each other’s work, and in general I won’t let a piece out into the world without getting his take on it. It’s funny, I think as fiction writers who are familiar with way the imagination alchemizes the stuff of life into fiction, we’re maybe more tolerant of seeing bits and pieces of each other, or our lives, in each other’s work. Because, look, fiction has to come from somewhere. I need to describe a blanket, so I describe the one on my couch, or a version of the one from my nana’s sofa, or an amalgamation of the two flavored with all the blankets I’ve read about and seen. Stealing details and putting them into a fictional universe is part of the work of fiction. For me and probably for many fiction writers, these closely observed details are like paint. Without paint, there’s no painting.

Rosecrans: That’s a great note to end on. Our major thanks to Julie for joining us today. Tomorrow, Sing, Unburied, Sing and The Book of Joan will be read and judged by writer Maris Kreizman. And joining Nozlee in the booth will be another special guest, Jess Zimmerman of Electric Literature. See you in the comments.

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