March 7, 2018

The Pre-Tournament Play-In

Judged by Angela Chen

One of my most striking memories from college came right at the end. I was sitting in my thesis advisor’s office, offering ideas about the “themes” I wanted to “explore” in my work. I must have said something overly earnest and pretentious because my advisor, I kid you not, actually looked past me and said quietly to herself, “There’s probably something about this period of life that just makes everything so vivid.”

Angela Chen is a science journalist at The Verge and a columnist at Catapult. Her reporting and essays have also been published in the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, the Atlantic, the Paris Review Daily, Hazlitt, and more, and she is a contributing editor at TMN. Her book ACE is forthcoming from Beacon Press. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “I interviewed Rachel Khong for The Millions and Elif Batuman for The Rumpus.”

The comment would have bothered me if I hadn’t liked my advisor so much; it’s also what came to mind as I was reading this trio of campus novels, or novels set at a university. I’ve read recent incarnations of this genre—The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides and Donna Tartt’s The Secret Historyand both left me cold. I love the ivory tower and spent years reporting for a trade paper for academics; until fairly recently, I was in college myself. It is because, not despite, these reasons that I used to avoid campus novels. For so long, my relationship with academia was close, uncomplicated, and admiring, and that made it harder to appreciate the complexities and contradictions of university life. Give me a tumultuous family saga instead.

Of these particular three books, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot is unquestionably the best known, having appeared on multiple year-end “best-of” lists. Set in 1995, it chronicles the first year of college for Selin, a Harvard undergrad. The opening chapter has Selin arriving on campus and setting up her first email account, which she soon uses to start a correspondence with Ivan, an enigmatic mathematician in her Russian class. Their messages continue throughout the book and serve as a throughline for her reflections on language, meaning, academia, ambition, and daily life. Selin wants to be a writer. She is young and wants to to understand the messiness of the world and so she (at least initially) turns to academia, attending linguistics lectures on Chomsky and Skinner and learning that “‘snow is white’ is true iff snow is white.”

The protagonists of Savage Theories take an academic route to understanding, too. Rosa, the narrator, writes a thesis on violence and tries to prove the Theory of Egoic Transmissions, a “model for an anthropology of voluptuousness and war.” Meanwhile, an ugly-but-intellectual couple named Pabst and Kamtchowsky consider themselves anthropologists of Buenos Aires, taking drugs and having orgies with a far-more-beautiful pair, partly as a means of performance art.

Both novels are steeped in academia, though The Idiot focuses more on the social aspect of university while the pages of Savage Theories are crammed with references to artists, philosophers, and revolutionaries. (Batuman holds a PhD from Stanford; Oloixarac is completing her PhD at Stanford.) Selin explicitly mocks her professors (“It was inspirational to see that Gary was actually good at something”), while Savage Theories more subtly skewers a certain type. “I have so often feared for my life, and for the lives of those around me,” Rosa says. “Philosophy is Satan’s playground.” Her library is divided into sections such as “Hobbesian Frenzy,” “A Social Engineering Night’s Dream,” and “Police Academy 9: The Positivists Return.” Pabst (the male half of the ugly-but-intellectual couple) murmurs “Kristeva and Chomsky, hold on tight!” while he ejaculates.

The eponymous protagonist of Stephen Florida, on the other hand, has never cared for academia and cannot see life beyond graduation. He does not want to understand the messiness of the world, because he has used force of will to whittle down his world until only one thing matters, and we learn what it is on the second page: winning the Division IV NCAA Wrestling Championship in the 133 weight class. Stephen pursues this goal with monkish devotion, starving himself, not masturbating, not thinking of anything else.

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He goes to classes like “Drawing,” “What Is Nothing?,” “Basic News Writing,” and “Meteorology I,” but school is secondary to the cause of wrestling; when he develops a taste for poetry, it is because he was trying to decipher writings he found in his coach’s notebook, trying to figure out why the coach doesn’t want him on the mat. This is not one of those books where the narrator learns that the real prize was the friends he made along the way. It is a character study of a character of, simultaneously, immense strength and fragility. Stephen remembers the name of the 99 wrestlers he’s ever lost to. He meets a girl who loves him, and he loves her, but not more than his obsession. “I would trade my family and Linus and Mary Beth and all the kid friends I had growing up that I can’t remember anymore,” Stephen says, “for a championship in Kenosha.”

All three novels recount a time when one political discussion or one wrestling championship or the affections of one guy in your Russian class meant so much. They’re all suffused with an emotional intensity—a loss of perspective—that is almost myopic, as Rosa stalks her professor and Selin daydreams about Ivan, and Stephen about the win.

Savage Theories is a self-aware book heavily steeped in the political history of Argentina and combining real theories and people with false ones. The result is a multi-layered world much like the online video game Pabst and Kamtchowsky create: a map of Buenos Aires with many layers of the history of the city. Savage Theories is often funny—it succeeds as a satire—and a good exploration of loneliness. But the mannered pretentiousness of the protagonists and the pages and pages of academic jargon drag, even when you know this is in service of skewering that very types. The complexity can feel forced. The lurid mix of sex plus drugs plus gaming plus Wittgenstein becomes tiring and feels emotionally removed despite the shock value of the actions.

With Stephen Florida, I found myself really falling into the rhythm of the prose and feeling Stephen’s sense of urgency and desire. As with Savage Theories, there were surreal, dark plotlines—watch out for the Frogman—but they inflected the seeming monotony of Stephen’s life instead of being distracting focal points. The focal points are simply his thoughts, as he trains, gets injured, deals with a long-lost relative who pops up, and so when the middle parts feel repetitive, one can’t help but think that repetition is the point. His voice, stark but so determined, is hypnotic, and even when he doubts if he’s truly, ontologically a wrestler, his commitment never wavers. All three novels made me nostalgic, but only Stephen Florida made made me miss a time in life when I was miserable. The novel is such a clear, poignant throwback of what it means to passionately desire something that most people have never thought of as important at all. You know he’d be happier if he could look up from his obsession, but you still envy him for being so disciplined and sure.

And yet, it’s The Idiot that I keep returning to, because it turns so little into so much. I read The Idiot right when it came out this past spring, and went into this Tournament round not wanting to privilege it because of this fact, or because it was already getting so much buzz. The novel is a little overgrown, and the second half is weaker than the first. But of all the books I’ve read this year, it’s the one that has stayed on my mind. It doesn’t have the porn and drugs of Savage Theories to distract. It lacks the single-mindedness of Stephen Florida, but that makes it more reflective. It’s a girl going through a year in which nothing major happens, wanting to understand, a little bit unsure. The first time I read it, I was struck, for personal reasons, mostly by the nature of the quasi-romance and how it’s handled. Re-reading it for the Tournament, the playfulness and the wide-ranging observations jumped out.

The subject of Selin’s thoughts are often banal and flit from one topic to another, but the observations are funny and insightful, emotional without the deadly seriousness that underlies Stephen Florida’s musings. She wants to understand the difference between truth and fiction, but her professors go on about whether a single inaccurate prop used in a documentary makes everything false. She threads beads with her friend Svetlana, wondering if women have always threaded beads and if “this was why women would never amount to anything.” When her Hungarian host offers to take a weasel out of the bedroom so Selin doesn’t wake up frightened, Selin insists on keeping it because “if you really wanted to be a writer, you didn’t send away the weasel.” She wakes up frightened.

Ultimately, The Idiot has the range. It is a character study of someone intense and smart but also vulnerable, a satire of academic life and its own protagonist that doesn’t get tiring, an intellectual meditation on the question of how to understand and know (and many other topics), and an emotionally affecting snapshot of a moment in time. The quotidian passages build up to a portrait of both focus and unsureness, and the emotional heft of being young and everything mattering so much, everything being vivid.


The Rooster needs your help


Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

Kevin Guilfoile: So, we’ve got a field, and we’re off. As we leave the starting gate, we’d like to give thanks to our presenting sponsor Field Notes for their ongoing support of the Tournament of Books. It’s safe to say we couldn’t do it without them.

John Warner: Kevin, in its entire history, I have never been simultaneously less prepared and more ready for the Tournament of Books. Prior to the long list announcement, I’d read only three books on the list, and I’ve only added a fourth since. It is unlike me to be so ignorant of a list of such intriguing books and I’m hoping the Tournament stokes a fire in me that seems to be missing.

Some of this is a consequence of a couple of book projects that had me reading a lot of very particular nonfiction and research. I simply had less time for reading fiction than in previous years, and toward the final months, deadlines and the pace of work made it hard to squeeze in anything that felt like leisure.

Kevin: I have actually had a rewarding year of reading. What those rewards did not include is almost any of the books on the shortlist. One actually. Before the chiseling of the shortlist, I had read only one of the books on it, and I’ve been trying to steam through them ever since.

John: I think there is a more significant cause for my malaise, and I almost hate to admit it because verbalizing it gives it power, but trying to pretend it isn’t there hasn’t been particularly helpful, so here goes: Donald Trump has colonized part of my brain.

It’s not that I’m obsessively seeking out news about him or gulping up conspiracy-theory Twitter feeds. In fact, I’ve taken care to limit my exposure to him as much as possible. And I’ve been plenty productive—I finished three book manuscripts last year (a novel in addition to the others)—but in those times when I’ve previously been able to find pleasure and escape in fiction, I find worries about the fate of the country and world creeping in, eroding my ability to leave my conscious mind behind and join the narrative in my hands. I’ve often looked at fiction as a way to make sense of a senseless world, but I now wonder if there’s any sense to be made, period.

Because of all this, I’m on the bandwagon in 2020’s election for “Person I Can Forget Exists for More Than 20 Minutes at a Time.”

My hope is that the annual gathering of the ToB commentariat in combination with the thoughtful work of our judges will have a restorative effect.

Kevin: The attempts by this president (and the villains who enable him) to render the truth impotent certainly has some effect on the relevance of fiction. Exactly what that is I haven’t figured out yet. I don’t know that it’s affected my enjoyment of literature. But I have definitely spent more time trying to be informed (and to put current events in the context of past events and also scream cathartically into the void), and so my overall time spent with fiction this year probably took a hit. No doubt that has had an impact on my writing. Reading fiction makes you a better writer of it, and if I have been reading fewer novels, I am sure it is bad for my typing. I’m glad I have the Rooster to put me back on track.

Before we get started I just wanted to mention one novel I was reading when I was not reading any of the 2018 contenders, and that was The Last Kid Left by TMN co-founder and Rooster organizer Rosecrans Baldwin. That particular book is not on our shortlist because we have a rule against including books by ToB principals, but I truly enjoyed this book and I hope everyone checks it out. It’s clever and insightful and exceptionally well-written and kind of like a traditional mystery (the setup could be a Harlan Coben story, which is a large compliment) and also not. And you know I’m not just saying this because Crans is a longtime friend, because when I am forced to say nice things about books I don’t like that are written by my friends I always use a code word. I can’t tell you what that word is, but I promise you I am not using it now. When you are done powering through the shortlist, read The Last Kid Left.

John: I can second the good news about The Last Kid Left.

Also, this being Day One we should get in a word about the tourney. Most of you probably know this already, but if the HQ Trivia guy has to go over the rules twice a day, we should do it once a year. As always, we have taken a bunch of novels published in 2017 and sorted them into an NCAA March Madness-type bracket. Why do we do this? The answer is probably disappointing.

Kevin: Everyone should know that we do not claim that these are the best 18 novels published in English last year. In fact this whole exercise is evidence that attempting such a list is folly. These are novels that people were talking about, or novels that weren’t talked about enough. Novels that won awards. Or made some year-end lists. Or that one or more members of the very small group of people who put this thing together feel passionate about. That’s all it is. They aren’t necessarily the best books, but they are, we think, interesting books that are in some way representative of excellent fiction from 2017.

Every day for the next few weeks a judge will read two of these novels, select one, and advance it. Then another set of readers (either John and me or some special guests) will offer commentary on that judgment. Then it gets really fun when you and other ToB followers flood the commentary with your insights. We will do this until the Zombie Round, when a pair of previously eliminated novels will rise from the dead to take on the presumptive semifinalists. Eventually one novel will reign supreme and we will award the author of that book a live rooster.

John: In theory, anyway. Sometimes that gets complicated. Regulations, ordinances, community standards, those kind of things come into play.

Kevin: Today’s match sets the the field for this year’s tourney, with The Idiot moving on to the “Sick Sixteen.” (I’m trying to work on our branding. I think “sick” might have been a popular slang term around the time we started the Rooster. I still think we can get it to catch on.) Judge Chen diagrammed her argument for Batuman’s book rather elegantly, I thought. The Idiot is largely a novel about the way we think about things, and as such it does have a way of working itself into your brain. Judge Chen says it’s the novel she “keeps returning to … the one that has stayed on my mind.”

If you know just one thing about me (and you know many things about me, but this is perhaps the first thing you knew about me), it is that I am generally impatient with novels of low incident. If I’m going to spend 10 or 12 hours with a story, I like some surprising stuff to happen. I know many smart and admirable people who see plot as an allergen, but story for me has always been plot and character hand-in-hand.

My own college days were not particularly wild, but I remember a lot of hijinks nevertheless. And low jinks. Lots of jinks. And so I struggled with The Idiot a bit because that novel reads a lot like a college freshman let you read her diary, but not before blacking out most of the interesting stuff she did. This was vexing to me because Batuman has such obvious love for Russian literature and especially Dostoevsky (which is way out front in her work, even in the title), and I do, too. Because those Russian novels are super jinksy! Characters are constantly plotting against each other and marrying the wrong person and getting stabbed and going to prison. In Dostoevsky there’s a lot less going for a walk to get ice cream. So like I said, I struggled.

John: I feel like our three-way play-in contests, which we do occasionally, are always tricky, particularly when they’re themed like this and we’ve sort of explicitly invited a comparison. Judge Chen does a fine job articulating the ways these different books explore a similar milieu.

Kevin: She does. And, despite all my internal struggling, I think she made the right call. Batuman is really good. The Idiot is funny and perceptive and the more I read it the more I enjoyed being with it. I felt a little removed from the story—I think I liked being with Batuman more than the characters. But sometimes you just have to stop fighting with yourself. Judge Chen says, “The quotidian passages build up to a portrait of both focus and unsureness, and the emotional heft of being young and everything mattering so much, everything being vivid.” That’s pretty good stuff, even if more people don’t get stabbed.

John: And now we’d like to welcome TMN publisher Andrew Womack into the booth for a special announcement.

Andrew Womack: Before we get too far into this year’s Tournament, I want to extend a very special thanks to our Sustaining Members. One year ago, because of some pretty major revenue hits, the future of the Tournament of Books was uncertain. So we came here, into the commentary booth, and asked for your help. Due almost entirely to those of you who joined us as Sustaining Members and supported us throughout the year, the 2018 Tournament of Books is today a reality.

Now we need to ask for your support again. The ToB is a month-long event, but it takes months before and after to bring to reality. Not to mention the Summer Tournament, and some other exciting new things we’ve got planned. For everyone who signed up a year ago, please consider supporting us again. It really makes a huge difference as to whether or not we’re able to continue. For everyone else, please take a moment to find out why we’re asking for your help, and become a Sustaining Member today. Again: you have our enormous appreciation and gratitude.

John: Welcome to the Tournament everybody!

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