The House of Broken Angels
  • March 14, 2019

    Opening Round

  • Luis Alberto Urrea

    2The House of Broken Angels
    3So Lucky

    Nicola Griffith

  • Judged by

    Willa Paskin

So Lucky

Early in Nicola Griffith’s So Lucky, Mara Tagarelli swivels to grab something else from the fridge and finds herself splayed on the floor. She is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Up to this point, Mara, who is in her thirties, has been coolly self-sufficient. A regular practitioner of martial arts and the head of a AIDS foundation she personally built into a multimillion-dollar nonprofit, she has just separated from her long-term partner, but has immediately embarked upon another love affair. Her diagnosis upends all this. She loses her health, her job, her hobbies, her new paramour, and her mental well-being. She is increasingly hobbled, alone, and furious. “I am sick and possessed by a disease and this thief is stealing my life,” she thinks, in one of her calmer moments.

Willa Paskin is the TV Critic at Slate and the host of the podcast Decoder Ring. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

Mara has always reacted to fear and powerlessness with action and anger, and she tries to do the same with her diagnosis. Horrified by the lack of services offered to people with MS, she starts a foundation and attends conferences; disgusted by the way the identity of “Sufferer” and “Victim” has suddenly affixed itself to her person, she hardens herself, pulls away, rages. But no matter what she does, she can’t get her body back, and her anger mounts in lockstep with her isolation. As the book goes on, Mara becomes convinced that someone is targeting patients with MS, a grisly serial killer hunting the helpless. Is it real? Is it in her head? She buys a gun.

Griffith is, herself, a former self-defense instructor who became a full-time writer after being diagnosed with MS. In the author’s note she writes, “No one—not even me—knew I was going to write this book,” and So Lucky, 180 spare, sprinting pages, does have the urgency of something that demanded to be written. But its strength and its weaknesses are the same: It is raw, not entirely worked through. So Lucky—the title, I think, is meant to be read with dripping, scathing irony—is against anything as cheesy as “closure” and “acceptance,” in part because anything approximating that is still, for Mara, very far away. It’s a feral kind of book: Being in close quarters with it feels uncomfortable, dangerous, not altogether pleasant. I didn’t want to take my eyes off it.

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.

Like So Lucky, Luis Alberto Urrea’s The House of Broken Angels centers around a sick protagonist and concerns itself with larger questions of how to go on living when dying, the previously shy guest at the dinner party, suddenly makes itself impossible to ignore. Big Angel, the patriarch of a large Mexican-American family, has terminal cancer, an illness that has shrunk his body and put him in diapers but not otherwise dampened his spirit. Like Mara, Big Angel has an irreducible vitality despite his prognosis, but the similarities in the novels otherwise end there. So Lucky is concise, edgy, raging. The House of Broken Angels is meandering, bittersweet.

The House of Broken Angels flits, in close third person, between nearly a dozen members of the San Diego-based de La Cruz clan, occasionally jumping into the past to fill out the backstory, relaying a kaleidoscopic view of the family in energetic, epic, shifting language punctuated with Spanish. (“Big Angel’s arrival at his mother’s deathbed was the most heroic thing his wife had ever seen. This, after a lifetime of watching her Flaco be a hero.”) The language is a kind of fakeout: It feels like it’s going somewhere. But for more than two-thirds of the novel, the plot idles, a shaggy dog tale dressed up in sharp, strutting prose. That plot essentially is: a birthday party. Big Angel is turning 70 and he has decreed that he will have a massive bash, a kind of celebration of his life. The majority of the book concerns itself with the assembling of said party, keeping all sorts of high-octane plot elements—a vengeance side plot, for example—in the deep background, taking its time introducing the various characters.

And then comes the ending. Like a lot of people, I have a thing about finishing books: I feel bad when I don’t. In the last few years, I’ve tried to get over this. Life is short, time is fleeting, I shouldn’t waste it reading just-fine books, yadda yadda. But The House of Broken Angels is going to set me back, dooming me to finish a lot of middling books for fear of missing out on an ending as moving as its own. The House of Broken Angels takes its sweet time with all that slow, whispy non-plot, but that gives it a lot of string to pull together for the climax, which is propulsive, cinematic, and extremely satisfying.

Right up until the ending, I thought So Lucky would make it to the next round. I didn’t much enjoy it, but enjoyment isn’t its point. The point is being inside the disorienting, terrifying, rage-inducing experience of having your body, your autonomy, your control, and your identity abruptly ripped away from you: What is there to enjoy in that? It’s a prickly book that sticks you and then sticks to you. The House of Broken Angels, on the other hand, has an ending some (heartless) people might describe as being a little sentimental: It suggests that closure, acceptance, and a good death are real, and might be achieved with a hard-won cuddle in a family bed. But I was moved by this sentiment, and it’s the only 50 pages of either of these books that I really loved.

TODAY’S WINNER: The House of Broken Angels

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