March 8, 2021

The Pre-Tournament Play-In

Judged by Gabino Iglesias

I’ve let my mother down so many times I’ve lost count. I was sure those days were over when the cops stopped showing up at my house on Sunday mornings to ask questions about Saturday night events they were sure I’d been involved in. I mean, I went to college three times just to give her three graduations! Anyway, the thing is she was always telling me not to judge others, and these days I do a lot of judging. Ah, it’s OK. I’m sure she’ll keep finding it in her heart to forgive me. That’s what moms do.

Gabino Iglesias (Twitter) is a writer, literary critic, editor, and professor living in Austin. He is the author of Zero Saints and Coyote Songs. His work has been translated into five languages, optioned for film, nominated to the Stoker and Locus Awards, and won the Wonderland Book Award for Best Novel. His reviews appear in places like NPR, Publishers Weekly, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other venues. He teaches creative writing and SNHU and offers low-cost online writing workshops. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “I reviewed Luster for NPR.”

Being judgmental is easy. It’s so easy everyone does it. That said, judging books is no easy matter. Literature is art, and judging art means you have to stare all your biases in the face and wrestle them to the ground so you can control them. Then, when you’re judging literature professionally, you have to explain your thoughts and feelings to yourself in order to understand them well enough to explain them to others.

I was given three books. I was hoping two of them were horrible. All three were great. That made things far more difficult that I wanted them to be. However, when you accept to be part of the Tournament of Books, you know that once you sign that contract in blood, backing down might mean the death of everyone you know, so I came up with a system to help me pick a winner: Go with the book that stuck with me the most, the one what borrowed under my skin and wrapped itself around my ribs like a creeping vine. Let me tell you why I decided Gish Jen’s The Resisters didn’t make it to number one.

The Resisters is great. It’s about a young woman with a golden arm who plays baseball in the Olympics for her country, AutoAmerica, a land controlled by an entity somewhere between an AI and the internet. It takes place in a near future where “ChinRussia” has “absorbed most of Asia,” cars fly and park themselves, athletes can regrow tissue instead of getting surgery, and PigeonGram—a Facebook/Instagram hybrid with carrier pigeons—is all the rage. The book possesses superb character development and a tender heart that makes a dystopian future look welcoming. It’s funny and masterfully uses dialogue to carry most of the narrative. Jen also has a knack for brief descriptions that accomplish a lot and simultaneously place readers in a place and a state of mind:

She was sitting in a yellow wallpapered room, at a dark dining room table full of scratches. Above her hung the ornate frame and remaining pendants of what had once been a crystal chandelier; catching a bit of sun, it glittered. She was still wearing the outfit she had on when she was arrested—a tesserae-patterned sweater in all different blues, light gray pants, and a belt. But she was weirdly circumspect, as if rationing her energy expenditure.

Despite all of those elements making The Resisters a great read, it’s also about baseball. Futuristic baseball, but still baseball. While not being a fan of the sport certainly doesn’t get in the way of enjoyment here, there was a part of me that didn’t fully connect to that element of the story, and it’s an element that hangs over almost everything. When you have to pick between three great books, something as small as that can make a huge difference.

The second book was harder to eliminate. Ilze Hugo’s The Down Days is a wildly entertaining and ridiculously imaginative story that takes place over the course of a week in an African city under quarantine (yeah, I know, but it’s great!). It’s also a timely read that shows us a plausible world dealing with a deadly pandemic (sigh). The characters are memorable (especially Tomorrow, whose pain from losing her baby brother you feel in the pit of our guts…or maybe you aren’t human); the language flows like a river of English, invited words, and Afrikaans slang; and the action never stops. Two passages that deal with The Laughter, their pandemic, deserve attention:

The one-armed bleach seller across the road was building a plastic Tower of Babel. Above his head an LED government sign spouted statistics and soundbites on repeat: “The Laughter is real. Denialists kill with words / Hiding infected family members is a crime / Remember to wash your hands / A healthy city is a happy city. The Laughter is real…”

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Too real, I know. Now dig this passage about masks:

The woman fiddled with her mask and Tamatie wondered what her mouth looked like. It had been so long since he’d seen a real, live, female mouth. Was it small and sleek and prim, with lips turned up a smidge at the tips? Or full and thick with a prominent cupid’s bow and a nice plump and curvy bottom? And the color? Plain Jane nude or nice and rosy? Soft and smooth to the touch or slightly chapped? Did she have dimples when she smiled?

Deciding not to go with The Down Days wasn’t easy. I hope we’ll be hearing about Ilze Hugo for a long time.

Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill is the novel of a man who can’t fix himself because he doesn’t know what’s broken and a woman who went looking for her true self and found a lot of darkness. Vague? Sure, but if you’ve read this far, you know competition was fierce and none of these books deserved to get second place, so what pushed Red Pill to the top?

  1. This is actually two novels. Yeah, things start out and then, 113 pages into the book, to be exact, we start what feels like an entirely different novel. Both are engaging and great, but they possess distinctive voices and styles. The first is a literary blast that mixes academia, insecurity as a perennial state of agitated stagnation, and the crumbling life of a writer. The second is a bizarre, straightforward punk manifesto about being different in a society where that can land you in jail and cost you all of your friends.
  2. We’ve all floated above ourselves with a frown on our face, looking down and wondering what the hell is wrong with us. Sometimes we can intellectually process our immediate reality—which includes everything from our love life and finances to whatever we consider success and our health—but are unable to cope with the sum of its parts. This narrative captures that feeling incredibly well. Our narrator has a good partner, a healthy child, a somewhat successful career, and now a prestigious writing fellowship…but his life is still falling apart and he doesn’t know why.
  3. This is a smart novel. As a literary critic, I know that term is dangerous and often turns readers away, but I have to be honest. There’s a character here, a neurophilosopher named Edgar, who embodies everything that is wrong and pretentious about academia. The narrator loathes him, but there are plenty of conversations that show how some intellectuals believe their pockets are full of absolute truths. In any case, this is a novel that talks about other books and engages with the ideas of figures like Theodor Adorno and Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist while skipping showers, binge-watching a violent cop show on Netflix, eating cold noodles, and pondering tristesse.

Perhaps the writing itself was the silent deciding factor. I love fiction that incorporates other languages. If you know the language, the narrative becomes more immersive. If you don’t, then not knowing—or merely getting the gist of what’s being said—makes you an outsider, an other that’s missing a piece of a puzzle and needs to find it by paying even more attention to context. Also, the narrator is brutally honest, and while he doesn’t know exactly what’s wrong with him, he often has clear ideas of some of the elements that afflict him. Whenever that happens, Red Pill shines:

People never talk about the insanity of the decision to start a family with everything an adult knows about the world, or about the terrible sensation of risk that descends on a man, I mean a man in particular, a creature used to relative speed and strength and power, when he has children. All at once, you are vulnerable in ways you may never have been before. Before I was a father I’d felt safe. Now I had a child, everything had changed, and it seemed to me that safety in the past was no predictor of safety in the future. I was getting older, weaker. Eventually I would fall behind, find myself separated from the pack.

The three books I read are great, but Red Pill stuck with me the most. It stuck with me the way my mother’s words on judgment stuck with me because there’s something about witnessing characters being vulnerable and flawed that appeals to me, something about it that makes me feel less awful about how frail we often feel. Red Pill is about hovering above your life and realizing it’s a mess but not doing anything about it because you can’t put your finger on the problem. Kunzru’s ability to look at nihilism, depression, weakness, and desperation in the face and then put it all down on the page unflinchingly was the element that pushed Red Pill over the top, and the thing that still makes me think about it occasionally. Life is tough and sometimes just being gets us down, and this narrative embraces that just like my mother embraces me even when I spend so much time judging things.

OK, that was too long. Sorry. More later. Much love.


The Rooster needs your help


Match Commentary

By Rosecrans Baldwin, Kevin Guilfoile,
John Warner & Andrew Womack

Rosecrans Baldwin: Welcome, everyone, to the 2021 Tournament of Books, presented by Field Notes®. It’s been a long year since our last installment, never mind the Super Rooster in the fall, and we are thrilled to be back here discussing books with you all month long.

Before we get into it, a big shout-out to Field Notes, our longstanding presenting sponsor, who not only make all of this possible, but they also make the notebooks we use and love. Thank you, Field Notes! Also, tons of thanks and love to Bookshop, this year’s book sponsor, who are driven by a mission to support local bookstores. Thank you, Bookshop!

Andrew Womack: And thank you also to our Sustaining Members, who continue to help make the Tournament of Books happen, year after year. If you want to keep the Rooster crowing, the best way to do that is to join us as a Sustaining Member or make a one-time donation. (Please also note that Sustaining Members receive 50 percent off all purchases at the TMN Store, now freshly stocked with 2021 merch.)

Now let’s head over to John and Kevin for today’s commentary!

John Warner: We’ve barely had a chance to clean up the playing field following last year’s epic Super Rooster, and yet here we are again, Tournament of Books lucky number 17.

Kevin Guilfoile: The Rooster is starting to compile its list of colleges, John. Texting with its crush. It’s probably taking an SAT prep course (remotely). Trying to figure out what the summer job situation will be like in a world that’s like 50 percent vaccinated. It’s grown up so fast.

John: When I saw this matchup, Kevin, knowing that you grew up in Cooperstown, NY—home of the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame—I could not wait to hear your thoughts, and how they may (or may not) intersect with Judge Iglesias, who was not raised in the cradle of the National Pastime.

Kevin: You have known me for more than 20 years, and you are also a professional recommender of books, and so you understand that a novel that combines dystopia and baseball is basically written for an audience of me.

When I look at the cover of The Resisters I mostly feel angry that I didn’t write it. Predictably, I enjoyed it a tremendous lot. The AI-governed AutoAmerica is a fascinating and fleshed-out world, a society so efficient it has created a glut of consumables, and the underclass is needed not for labor but consumption. It’s a satirical premise with implications I am still thinking about almost a year after I read it. The baseball stuff is good fun, a more-than-worthy entry in the genre of “baseball prodigy bildungsroman,” with a satisfying gender twist. My only reservation is that the story is narrated by someone other than the main character, and a good chunk of the action occurs in places the narrator is not. So Jen needed to develop an epistolary device that removed the reader from the good stuff. It’s like I was eating Oreos for half the book and then suddenly I was listening to someone describe how delicious Oreos are. I still really liked it, though.

John: I am with you on the narrative conceits that give us access to Gwen, the novel’s protagonist, including parental spy tech, that also leave us, as readers, distant from Gwen. This is clearly deliberate, and I think points to a desire to tell the story from the parents’ perspective, the conceit illustrating the distance in a way, but that choice walled off stuff I think I wanted to know about. It’s interesting how for Judge Iglesias, it’s the baseball that provides the sticking point, while for you and me, a couple of baseball people, it’s other things.

Kevin: Would I have enjoyed this novel as much if Gwen’s talents were in an activity that does not interest me? Say, water polo? That’s an excellent question. I don’t want to scare people away from this book if they are not baseball fans; plenty of non-baseball types enjoy W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe.

On the other hand, a significant number of pages in the first half of Red Pill are dedicated to the narrator’s (mostly unsuccessful) attempts to write a book-length work of poetry criticism. If you have no interest in poetry criticism, specifically “the construction of the self in lyric poetry,” should I tell you to give Red Pill a pass? That seems obviously absurd to me.



In fact, Judge Iglesias does a terrific job of describing what’s satisfying about Red Pill. I would add that for all the book’s historical and philosophical digressions, it feels extremely timely. Although it’s set in the 12 months or so leading up to the 2016 election, it seemed even more reflective of 2020, a year in which a substantial percentage of our population has fallen under the spell of insidious, fascistic propaganda similar to the kind discovered by the narrator in Red Pill.

Kunzru wrote an essay in the January Harper’s about QAnon (among other things) that could be published as an afterword in future editions of Red Pill. In it he writes:

Recommendation algorithms have divided the public sphere into myriad bubbles, in which hoaxes, crazes, and viral disinformation may thrive without being visible to outsiders at all. Consequently, we experience the world as increasingly strange and inscrutable. Instead of an era of simplicity and elegance, we find ourselves in what the artist and media theorist James Bridle has termed the New Dark Age: we find ourselves in the world of Q.

If we live in a New Dark Age, what hope is there for us to act in a meaningful way?

That is the dilemma of Red Pill, more relevant than ever.

John: Red Pill kind of spooked me in that I think it illustrated that the desire to get a handle on what the fuck is going on with the world may actually be the route to madness, rather than understanding. I’ve always been big on trying to peer more deeply into whatever phenomenon has taken hold, but Red Pill shows how easy it is to get lost in one’s own deceptions. What cemented the book for me was Kunzru’s rendering of the narrator’s return to his old life, the essential fragility of it. As the narrator tries to un-strange what was previously so familiar, so comfortable, we get a full sense of what’s been lost.

I think a lot of us are carrying around a similar sense of loss these days, as it seems impossible to ever believe in the world that existed a year (or five years) ago.

Alas, The Down Days is one of the books I was not able to get to this year, but Judge Iglesias gives us plenty to gnaw on, and I’m betting that the Commentariat members who have done the reading will be able to add their two-plus cents.

Kevin: Red Pill advances to the regular bracket, which opens tomorrow as ToB veteran James McBride’s Deacon King Kong takes on the provocative Argentinian novel Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica. And here’s Rosecrans again, with a quick word about tomorrow’s commentary booth.

Rosecrans: Considering the year behind us, we wanted to pay tribute to our nation’s wonderful bookstores by spotlighting some of our favorites from across the country. For tomorrow’s matchup, I will be joined in conversation by Michael Bender, co-owner and co-founder of Split Rock Books in Cold Spring, NY, and the next day, Andrew will be talking to Jason Jefferies from North Carolina’s Quail Ridge Books. There will be plenty more booksellers to come in matches after that, and also lots of John and Kevin, too, of course.

John: It’s really good to see everybody again. Let’s have some fun.


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