• March 8, 2019

    Opening Round

  • Anna Burns

    3The Italian Teacher

    Tom Rachman

  • Judged by

    Chelsea Leu

The Italian Teacher

Ah, reading. That last bastion of sustained focus, the simple act that will save our withering attention spans and concomitant moral decrepitude in an age where the production of text is as thoughtless as agreeing to a Terms of Service. If we could only wrest ourselves away from our phones and emails and Twitter and just concentrate on a book, one thinks, then all of our problems might be solved.

Chelsea Leu is a writer and a 2018-2019 NBCC Emerging Critic whose work has appeared in the New York Times, WIRED, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, and others. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “I reviewed There There for the San Francisco Chronicle back in June, and (not sure if this is a major conflict) I owe Lydia Kiesling a review for The Millions.”

This is naive and not a little pearl-clutchy, which doesn’t stop me from kind of believing it. I am also, I’m sorry to say, part of the problem. The decline of civil society as we know it is me, a millennial, reading Milkman and The Italian Teacher over two days during the holidays at my parents’ house while simultaneously: fielding texts from friends which somehow became scrolling through Facebook looking at acquaintances’ wedding photos, receiving and failing to respond to increasingly desperate emails from Tournament organizers, getting caught up in defensive conversations about my love life with my parents, complaining about my love life to my long-suffering sister, stuffing chocolate and whole wheat Goldfish into my mouth, looking up words I didn’t know (mostly from Milkman: identikit, cinqasept, amphibology, perquisition) and various Britishisms (both Milkman and The Italian Teacher are written by authors from the British Isles and are partially set there), and my mind itself turning traitor, flickering away at certain phrases or scenes or details from the book in front of my face to replay painful recent memories of a particularly shitty ex-boyfriend.

Beyond obliterating my credibility as a judge, I say this all because amid the distractions, the books got me thinking about the uses of attention. Of the two books, Milkman demanded more of my focus, and not just because it won one of the biggest prizes in English literature last year. Mostly it was the prose: sprawling sentences of clause upon clause whose antecedents needed to be carefully tracked. The plot required doubling back, too, as events were introduced and then put on hold as events prior to that event were recounted first. I kept arriving at certain junctures in the book—say, when the narrator holds a severed cat head and talks to a man who casually hints that he might murder another man she may or may not be in a relationship with—and thinking: How did we get here again?

The narrator, an 18-year-old woman known as “middle sister,” wonders that a lot herself. She lives in a state-renouncing portion of a city (heavily suggested to be in Northern Ireland) in the 1970s, where bus hijackings, bombs, and riots are a fact of existence and everything reminiscent of “the country ‘over the water’” and “the area ‘over the road’” are reflexively shunned. When she attracts the attentions of a local paramilitary boss known as Milkman, he begins to loom over her life in an omnipresent, deeply icky way: He has her followed, seems to know her every thought and opinion, and appears out of nowhere to walk alongside her. To protect herself from him and the rumors that spread, middle sister retreats, becoming “a carefully constructed nothingness.”

There isn’t much in terms of an actual plot. What Burns seems to be after, and succeeds brilliantly at, is capturing the pressures and dysfunctions of a community where all deviations from the highly politicized norm are noticed and judged, accompanied by spasms of anxiety over what those norms actually are. Everything is hazy, vague, viewed through a scrim, because middle sister herself isn’t quite aware of what’s going on around her. What makes her community suspicious of her isn’t that they think she’s having an affair with a violent dissident. It’s because she walks around reading old books, hiding in her “nineteenth-century, safe-and-sound literary thoughts.” Her memories have odd gaps and fractures; she talks of having a persistent sense of jamais vu. Basically, she isn’t paying attention.

But middle sister is self-aware enough to know that if she did allow herself to fully consider the political complexities and violence of the time, “if unmediated forces and feelings burst to my consciousness, I wouldn’t know what to do.” And her problem is everyone else’s problem too. One of the most striking moments in the book comes when middle sister’s French class refuses, in a chorus, to accept the teacher’s assertion that the sunset before their eyes isn’t blue:

If what she was saying was true, that the sky—out there—not out there—whatever—could be any colour, that meant anything could be any colour, that anything could be anything, that anything could happen, at any time, in any place, in the whole of the world, and to anybody—probably had too, only we just hadn’t noticed. So no. After generation upon generation, fathers upon forefathers, mothers upon foremothers, centuries and millennia of being one colour officially and three colours unofficially, a colourful sky, just like that, could not be allowed to be.

Further, noticing facts about reality implies action and moral culpability:

It was the convention not to admit it, not to accept detail for this type of detail would mean choice and choice would mean responsibility and what if we failed in our responsibility? Failed too, in the interrogation of the consequence of seeing more than we could cope with?

Milkman is a blistering, clear-eyed look at what happens when an entire community turns away from reality, becomes numb to it, and in the process renders itself dangerously incapable of handling emotions or heeding them.

Field NotesBuy this special ToB Memo Book for $5 and Field Notes will donate 100% of the proceeds to 826 National, which provides free educational programs to under-resourced youth.

A psychologically overbearing male presence drives much of the action in The Italian Teacher too. Pinch is the son of vaunted painter Bear Bavinsky, a maximally charismatic, self-absorbed serial philanderer whose seventeen children nevertheless adore him. Pinch is no exception; he’s always defined himself by what his father thinks, first by imitating his painting, then (after his father delivers the crushing judgment that Pinch will never be an artist) studying art history to boost the critical assessment of Bear’s oeuvre for posterity.

This is one of those “becoming your own man” stories, but it isn’t just his father Pinch needs to escape the sway of—it’s people in general. Pinch faces rejection after rejection, and spends much of his youth rehearsing for dates that never happen. It’s only when he ends up utterly alone that he begins to create art and take pleasure in his own senses, “alive to taste and sight…reflecting on the potency of experience known only to oneself, which nobody else can ever witness, and heightened for it.” The work that brings him the most joy is undertaken in a remote French cottage, in complete solitude, and the paintings he creates are either unheralded or destroyed—a move that evokes pleasingly Zen overtones of the ephemerality of all things. “Each perception explodes inside him, then dissolves, experiences that are saved nowhere.” We are all ultimately alone.

Each section of the book (“Childhood,” “Youth,” “Adulthood,” etc.) is set off by museum labels: These are portraits of Pinch, we’re to understand. But they feel like rushed sketches, the summary of a life rather than a meaningful examination. His marriage, from meeting his wife to their separation, is all of 11 pages. But other people aren’t really the focus of this novel. “I’m actually doing this. I’m going to do this,” Pinch says to himself after he tells Bear that he intends to go into academia to sway critical judgment in Bear’s favor. Then, 57 pages later, after Bear brushes off Pinch’s doctoral thesis: “‘Not done yet,’ he says, body quaking, eyes blinking. ‘I’m not done yet.’” Then there’s Bear, old and desperate, echoing Pinch: “‘I’m not!’ he wheezes. ‘Not done yet!’” Then, finally, when Pinch executes a scheme that manages to both vindicate his artistic talent and protect his dad’s legacy: “‘It’s done now,’ he says. ‘Done.’” Then there’s this gem of a line, a snippet of Pinch’s internal monologue: “You work for me, Dad. Without meaning to, you ended up working entirely for me.” All this exhausting talk of doing, of Great Works and legacy! Must it all be an ego-measuring contest?

But what was most galling about this book about art, what made me eventually want to throw The Italian Teacher across the room, is that it’s stuffed with clumsily drawn caricatures. A wealthy art collector from Nebraska, complete with trophy wife, is uncultured and brash. One of Pinch’s fellow Italian teachers says vulgar things about his female students, “speaks appallingly bad Italian,” and cheats on his wife, a patient Mandarin teacher who pronounces Pinch’s given name, Charles, “Chars.” When Pinch’s flighty gay friend falls on hard times, “he fell low indeed, even selling himself for a few years to pay for cocaine and amphetamines.” Then there’s one of Bear’s wives, who says to a young Pinch, “Where’s Sweden again, honey? Is that in Switzerland?” (Confusing the two, sure. But not in!) No hints as to what color her hair is.

What gets me so worked up about these details is that they’re lazy, inattentive to how capacious and strange life actually is. They insist that the sky can only ever be blue. And that gets me to what I think is so important about good stories: They help us perceive the full variegated complexity of the world by considering it in a new, surprising light. Which is vital, because how we understand reality determines, on a fundamental level, how we act, how we treat people, what we think is right and wrong. And not to be heavy-handed about it, but I think we’re morally behooved to see reality as clearly as possible. Fiction, specifically excellent fiction, is one of the best ways I can think of to get us there, or at least closer.

“The truth was dawning on me of how terrifying it was not to be numb, but to be aware, to have facts, retain facts, be present, be adult,” middle sister thinks near the end of Milkman. It is scary. But reading that sentence only reminds me that, now more than ever, I need to pay attention—to what’s going on in the world, to my own feelings, to other people. One of the books I read at my parents’ house helped me do that; the other didn’t. It was no contest.


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Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

John Warner: Judge Leu’s evisceration of The Italian Teacher has me feeling sheepish about saying that the novel was one of my favorite reads from last year, and I even teared up at a couple of points considering Pinch’s sad, thwarted life.

In its effects it bore a strong resemblance to my response to cult classic Stoner by John Williams, in which an English professor who simply loves literature beyond all sense is stymied by his own nature in the face of life’s challenges. Some of those challenges are problematic in the light of contemporary day.

To me, they are books about a quest to satisfy the demands of the self, the establishing of an inner peace, and the degree with which these characters long for it moves me deeply, perhaps to the point where the problematic parts wash out of my consciousness. In the novel, Stoner’s wife, Edith, is frigid and domineering, Stoner a mark from the moment they meet. With distance I’m troubled by the story of a man who is pure of heart whose chance at happiness is torpedoed by a greedy, manipulative ice queen—it’s there on the page—but I can’t deny what happened to me as I read the novel. Of course, Stoner was published in the 1960s, and covers a time prior to that—though the novel’s second life is much more recent—while The Italian Teacher is essentially about present day.

I won’t deny my deep enjoyment of The Italian Teacher, even as I feel somewhat chastened by the points Judge Leu raises.

Kevin Guilfoile: Perhaps everything Judge Leu says about The Italian Teacher is true (I’m not sure I agree with the weight she places on Rachman’s depiction of minor characters). But the thing I loved most about the novel was that it was a terrific companion. I loved returning to Pinch’s story across the handful of days I spent reading it. Rachman is good company. Still, Judge Leu’s assignment was different than mine. Her brief required her to really examine it and for her it didn’t hold up when measured against her expectations and experience. And also to the force that is Milkman. I, however, recommend it without reservation. It does for me everything I want a novel to do.

John: I made two runs at Milkman and could not muster the momentum to keep going. There’s a number of factors at play here. One is the book itself, which does not give itself up easily, as Judge Leu well articulates. It’s not impenetrable, but not a ton of attention has been given to making sure the audience is secure in their seats, lap belts cinched and along for the ride. Please don’t read this as being anti-“difficult” novels because I’m not a fan of describing novels as difficult or not difficult. Sometimes we’re prepared for one ride, sometimes we’re prepared for a different ride. For whatever reason, I haven’t been able to take the Milkman ride.

This could be due to the fact that the vast majority of my reading is done in the time between when I climb into bed and when I fall asleep. I sometimes come back to the place I marked before closing the book the night before and have to go back pages to find the last point I remember.

The exception is when I’m travelling, or during holidays when the usual flow of work shuts down when it’s just me and a book and nothing else. It’s probably not coincidental that my personal favorite books in the tournament were consumed during these moments. I don’t doubt the virtues that Judge Leu describes, but I fear I will never experience them for myself.

Kevin: This will surprise you, I think, as I am usually the defender in these parts of more traditional storytelling, but I really enjoyed Milkman. Maybe it’s all the Irish in me, but I caught the wave of Anna Burns’s voice and just rode on top of it like a gnarly wave. As you point out, once you’re all the way inside it, the text itself, on a sentence level, is not all that difficult. It’s a long and dense novel, but I read it pretty quickly.

Years ago a reader asked me to sign one of my novels and as I was inscribing it she said, “I loved your book. The chapters were all exactly the right length.” It felt sort of like praise, I thought, but it wasn’t exactly the kind of praise I aspired to. A short time later I was having dinner with a much more successful, New York Times-bestselling writer friend, and I told that story and I made some sort of face, and he said, “No! Don’t roll your eyes at that. As an author you instinctively made all these structural decisions that allowed your novel to be digested and understood. That reader couldn’t quite put her finger on all of them so she said it in kind of a funny way, but it’s not a small thing. You helped her get enjoyment from your book and that’s an important element of the craft. Take the compliment.”

Burns, on the other hand, makes decisions that sometimes force the reader to work harder. Most of the characters don’t have names, and it often feels like she had to return part of her advance for every paragraph break. But some books are automatics with power steering and some are standard transmission, and it’s often a lot more fun to drive with a stick. Every reader has to decide for themselves if the added work is producing extra enjoyment. With Milkman it did for me.

John: Not a close contest for Judge Leu in this one, but perhaps Monday’s matchup of Washington Black versus The Dictionary of Animal Languages will prove a tougher knot for Judge Nichole Perkins to untie.

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