The Mars Room
  • March 15, 2019

    Opening Round

  • Rachel Kushner

    1The Mars Room
    4The Parking Lot Attendant

    Nafkote Tamirat

  • Judged by

    Evan Handler

The Parking Lot Attendant

It would be silly to say this is the hardest thing I’ve ever been asked to do, but it is one of the most awkward. I’m the author of two memoirs. If I manage to conceive and publish a third by 2020, then I’ll have kept to my pace of issuing one every 12 years. My own reading consists almost entirely of nonfiction (unless you buy into the notion that much of the news I voraciously consume is “fake”). So, it’s difficult to describe the inadequacy I feel, when contemplating the audacity I’ll need to muster to express my impressions of the two beautifully wrought books I’ve been assigned (and sent, free of charge, in hardcover!) to “judge.”

Evan Handler is best known as an actor for portraying two iconic characters in two highly popular TV shows, HBO’s Sex and the City, and Showtime’s Californication. Handler is also the author of two books, Time on Fire: My Comedy of Terrors (Little/Brown; Owl Books), and It’s Only Temporary: The Good News and the Bad News of Being Alive (Riverhead), each of which delve into different aspects of his battle with, victory over, and the long-term aftermath of, a supposedly “incurable” leukemia diagnosed in 1985. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

Furthermore, if you subscribe to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which posits that the mere observation of matter alters it, I can assure you that critiquing and comparing two books dramatically alters the experience of reading them.

How is this even to be accomplished, I wondered? Do I literally keep score? Am I to scratch hash marks in the margins, to record how often each book made me think, “Oh, nicely done!” I found myself nearly paralyzed with qualms, even debating whether or not which book I chose to read first might unduly influence my impressions of each. (Unless I alternated between the two, reading only a chapter of each before switching back? Just a page? A sentence? Single words? You start to see how one might get stuck.)

I dove first into Nafkote Tamirat’s The Parking Lot Attendant. The novel’s unnamed narrator is a high school student who develops a complex attachment to Ayale, who runs the parking lot where the narrator spends her afternoons doing homework. Ayale is later revealed to be a sort of leader-in-waiting of the Ethiopian émigrés who populate the bulk of the story. They, and she, appear to regard Ayale as something close to royalty, while they engage in mysterious (and mysteriously shrouded) meetings, exchanges, and deliveries at his behest.

Some of my favorite passages involved increasingly contentious conversations between Ayale and the narrator, as when they joust about her admiration of Robert Redford:

“What is it with you and that idiotic actor anyway?”


“No really, tell me. I’d like to know.”

“He’s made some incredible films.”

“Name them.”

All the President’s Men.”

“Dustin Hoffman. Next.”

Ayale involves the narrator in his surreptitious dealings, with looming dangers infusing much of the book. Unfortunately, I remained largely unclear as to precisely what those dangers were. The novel builds toward an ominously suggested political uprising of some sort, emanating from an island to which the narrator and her father are eventually exiled, and which the book refers to only as B———.

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I found The Parking Lot Attendant’s storytelling to be stylistically effective, but narratively confounding. Not only didn’t I glean why B——— was called B———, or why the narrator’s name was withheld, but histories, motives, and goals driving the central narrative were obfuscated to the point that I was frequently uncertain as to what was even going on. In terms of characters, The Parking Lot Attendant has only a select few that are deeply detailed, with the rest merely sketched as seeming backdrops. Still, indications of Tamirat’s talent are significant.

The Mars Room, on the other hand, has an abundance of piercingly astute observational detail throughout its depictions of a San Francisco strip club and a Central Valley California women’s prison. My ridiculous hash-mark strategy (yes, I really did it!), which I’d abandoned only one chapter into The Parking Lot Attendant, didn’t last more than a couple of pages in The Mars Room, before its incisively drawn characters induced me to relax the rigor of my surveillance.

The book’s central character, Romy, a one-time sex worker, is serving two consecutive life sentences for killing a man who stalked her. For me, that made the case clearly enough, but The Mars Room’s additional thoughts on the capriciousness of sentencing standards are concisely dispersed. “All she did was drive the car….If the driver cuts the lights, that is premeditation. If the driver cuts the lights, it’s murder.”

One of the book’s first scenes, in which a busload of prisoners are being transported to a new facility, introduces an obnoxiously loquacious co-convict who lingers on the nirvana-like naming of her hometown. Apple Valley, she suggests, is as euphemistically monikered as the United States itself. It “sounds like a wonderful place, doesn’t it?” she asks. You can practically smell the apple blossoms and hear the honeybees. “Except,” she clarifies, “it is mostly the baking and preparing of meth that is traditional in Apple Valley.”

If Apple Valley sounds bad, you don’t want to know about Magic Mountain. “There was a lady on my unit who stole children” begins a story you might wish you hadn’t heard.

…a mother might have children running in three directions and go off to chase one and…she would be sitting there knitting and offer to keep an eye on the child. As soon as the parent was out of sight, this child was escorted to a bathroom with a knife under his chin…The kid was fitted with a wig, different clothes, and then that sneaky old couple muscled the poor thing out of the park.

That’s effective. It’s chilling. But The Mars Room employs the plural. Are we to believe that Magic Mountain has been the site of serial child snatchings, without such news becoming widely distributed?

A plethora of minor characters are effectively rendered. Of an oft-abused schoolmate Romy says, “Dean Conte had experimented with various solutions to being maladjusted.” Commenting on a member of the Aryan Brotherhood who had a black girlfriend she states, “Things are more complicated than some can admit. People are stupider and less demonic that some can admit.” I’ll buy both those declarations, and declare them well delivered.

I was hired to write one book review in the past. But I was told by my editor, “We’d like to give the book a good review. If you don’t think you can say anything positive about it, let us know and we’ll get someone else.” Putting the horror of that immorality aside, her guidelines did simplify my task. Find what you like and write about that (or else surrender the gig). Reading two books, and trying to measure which strengths felt stronger, and which shortcomings were most crippling, interfered with my getting as deeply involved with either as I might otherwise have. I actually felt Tamirat might well have the deeper, more personal connection to the world she was writing about. And The Parking Lot Attendant does demonstrate talent. But The Mars Room—in spite of periodic clichés, and my suspicions of questionable (though clearly well-researched) authenticity—is much more packed with well-observed moments of human thought and behavior. Though the world Kushner creates feels more investigated, and less lived, it’s still The Mars Room that demonstrates greater insights into people and their peculiarities—and I can say that without even counting up any hash marks.


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Match Commentary

By Jessica Francis Kane & Pitchaya Sudbanthad

Pitchaya Sudbanthad: So this is what the courtside seats are like. The lights. The roar of the crowds. The lingering scent of spilled blood.

Jessica Francis Kane is the author of a novel and two story collections. Her second novel, Rules for Visiting, will be published by Penguin Press in May. (Preorder it here.)

Pitchaya Sudbanthad is the author of Bangkok Wakes to Rain, published by Riverhead (US) and Sceptre (UK).

Jessica Francis Kane: For so many years I have admired the knowledge and artistry of John and Kevin in the booth. It’s an honor to be here, and so nice to be here with you, Pitchaya, old friend.

Pitchaya: Let’s start off with the requisite self-promotional introductions. I’m Pitchaya, a longtime contributor here at The Morning News. My debut novel Bangkok Wakes to Rain was recently published this year by Riverhead Books.

Jessica: Yes, indeed. And I am Jessica, also a contributor for TMN, though not for as long as you have been. I found my way to this wonderful corner of the internet in 2004, and you were already here! My second novel, Rules for Visiting, will be published by Penguin Press in May.

Pitchaya: I must say that I also faced Judge Handler’s dilemma in choosing which book to read first. As a debut novelist this year, I grew anxious imagining this decision being made at a bookstore table: a new voice versus an acclaimed name. It made me wonder even more about how readers decide which book to pick up and when to give a lesser known author a chance.

Jessica: I did not share this qualm. Both books received a fair bit of attention in the press, so I was aware of them before the Tournament started. I was eager to read The Mars Room because I’ve admired Kushner’s work in the past, and so I started there without much ado. But an exciting new debut novel is always a delight.

Pitchaya: I thought about my own experiences in the past making that decision. My reasons to choose a book vary incredibly, from a friend’s earnest recommendation to the tactile feel of a book’s cover-paper stock beating out another’s, but previous impressions definitely give a better known author formidable incumbent advantage, actual quality of writing aside. Perhaps as an act of new author solidarity, I ultimately chose to start with Tamirat’s novel, defying my own pre-formed desire to begin with Kushner’s on account of having enjoyed The Flamethrowers. In the Tournament, does it matter if a book is read first or second? I think so. What do you think, Jessica Francis Kane?

Jessica: (Readers might be interested to know that in the 10+ years I’ve known Pitchaya, he has rarely used just my first name, in print or in person, one of his many endearing traits.) I disagree. I feel we’re setting up the books here as if they were part of a cheese course, where it certainly matters which cheese you taste first. But a book is a whole meal in itself. More compelling to me might be when I read the books. Since having children, I do my best everything in the morning.

Pitchaya: For me, another comparison would be between the order of reading here and a football or soccer team winning a coin toss for starting possession or which color pieces one plays in a game of chess. Offense and defense are both involved, and the book chosen first begins on the offensive in a game of whoever keeps and wins the necessary attention in its favor. I felt last year’s victor, Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, was well advantaged in the offensive game. It was a lean, fast-moving freak of a book going up against comparatively heftier and more sluggish giants. This year, I feel that The Mars Room epitomizes victory through flawless, disciplined defense. Its slow, masterful building of character and place kept me coming back in my simultaneous reading of the two novels, so that this larger book with the more labyrinthine narrative was the one I finished first.

Jessica: I thought both books were stupendous in their first halves. I loved the opening sequence of the prison transfer in The Mars Room, and I thought the mystery of The Parking Lot Attendant’s opening was well done. I was delighted to see Judge Handler pull out a bit of Tamirat’s dialogue because I thought it was so good. I will not soon forget the scenes between father, daughter, and the monk. They were hilarious.

Pitchaya: I kept circling back to Judge Handler finding The Parking Lot Attendant to be “narrative confounding.” The first sentence does start off the book with an act of concealment: the island’s name veiled as B———, and one doesn’t get a sense until much later of why the narrator and her father would choose to be at this island with its strict, cultish rules. I think some readers and other writers might be put off by such early secrecy, while others find it intriguing. I counted myself among the latter, maybe because I don’t necessarily think of confounding as a bad experiential quality in reading fiction. Did you have the same reaction as Judge Handler, Jessica Francis Kane?

Jessica: No, I agree with you. I wasn’t bothered by the unnamed island. It reminded me of the great Russian writers and Kafka and felt appropriate to the mood she was creating.

Pitchaya: I’ve observed a certain expectation of constant narrative transparency and clarity in American literary fiction, even if unreliable narration is involved, and, having grown up reading indiscriminately across genres and cultures, I find consistent compliance to it not a feature but a bug. Most lives don’t proceed with such perfect knowledge, with sure footing and cohesive logic; for all the effortful verisimilitude of conventional realism, its neatly introduced and later explained guns don’t compare to our reality of endless red herrings. With many of the world’s literary traditions, readers don’t expect fiction to be so on-the-level. In a recent profile in the New Yorker, Marlon James talked about how in African folktales, the story “…is not here to make things easy for you, to give you faith so you don’t have to think.”

Jessica: For me the key to this match is these novels’ second halves. In The Mars Room, I ultimately began to feel the noble thoughts about the tragedy of these lives got in the way of the storytelling. The back half of the book began to feel like a case worker’s notebook and the final revelation of Romy’s crime (from the perspective of her victim) felt misplaced, anticlimactic, even as it reveals yet another layer of tragedy. As for The Parking Lot Attendant, I was actually convinced during the first half that it should win this match because it seemed to me it was casting a more convincing fictional spell. But then, oh dear, without giving away any spoilers, the ending felt like watching a gymnast with a near-perfect routine stumble on the landing.

Pitchaya: I think the intentions of The Parking Lot Attendant became clearer to me in the second half, and I think the book accomplished what it set out to do. I thought similarly as you did, Jessica Francis Kane, about the second half of The Mars Room, but I didn’t mind the backstories at all. I mean, give me more of those case files, if they’re written the way Kushner wrote these narrative threads.

Jessica: It’s a powerful book, but I agree with Judge Handler’s description: The Mars Room feels “more investigated, and less lived.” The Parking Lot Attendant felt lived, in the sense that I felt I was inside a well-told story, not a documentary. I like documentaries, but I want novels to feel different. For me, The Parking Lot Attendant had this match until the end. Then, when the novel didn’t quite fulfill its promise, I reconsidered The Mars Room. But it also let me down in the second half. So what can I say? This match for me was a draw.

Pitchaya: Yes, it’s not uncommon for depth of research to come off as a showboating power move. Behold all the effort spent to convey heavyweight reality with a capital R! I’m glad that for a match involving a newcomer versus a National Book Award finalist, there was at least competitiveness. They’re very different books with similar veins; both books had characters becoming part of situations and communities of which they have dangerously imperfect knowledge and from which they couldn’t easily escape. Defiance and survival come at a steep price for the powerless.

Jessica: Beautifully put, Pitchaya.

Pitchaya: I can’t wait for the quarterfinals. The Mars Room will be a formidable opponent for whichever book that advances to meet it.

Jessica: And I can’t wait to meet you back here in the booth. Next time, you bring the snacks.


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