Klara and the Sun
  • March 29, 2022

    Zombie Round

  • Kazuo Ishiguro

    Z1Klara and the Sun
    2The Trees

    Percival Everett

  • Judged by

    Jenny Bhatt

The Trees

When your working life is about critiquing fiction, both published and unpublished, that mindset leeches into your personal reading life, too. Your brain is constantly assessing what works or doesn’t and why. Novels are not simply stories that entertain or enlighten. They must be rich, complex allegories that shine a new light on our past and present, flash possibilities of our future, and blow up the usual stereotypes and tropes. They must do all that and also delight with their language, their zigs and zags, their compassion. Substance and style, plot and prose. I want it all or I want none of it. Not bragging here. This is more a hindrance to sheer reading pleasure than anything else.

Jenny Bhatt (she/her) is a writer, literary translator, and book critic. She is the founder of Desi Books and teaches creative writing at Writing Workshops Dallas. Her debut story collection, Each of Us Killers, won a 2020 Foreword INDIES award in the Short Stories category and was a finalist in the Multicultural Adult Fiction category. Her literary translation, Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu has been shortlisted for the 2021 PFC-VoW Book Awards for English Translation from Regional Languages. Having lived and worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the US, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

Thankfully, the two books I read for this Tournament phase checked off several of my boxes. And, while they’re almost entirely different, both have these intensely immersive alternate realities that unsettled me at every corner. Both have hybridized multiple genres in singular ways. Both took my breath away enough times that, for once, my inner critic sat way back down dumbfounded. At least while I was reading.

* * *

In The Trees, Percival Everett takes the well-known historical lynching of Emmett Till and turns it into a revenge fantasy and a social satire. The novel whiplashes so much between comedy and horror that the book is a genre of his own. Yes, the story is about a long overdue racial reckoning, and, recently, some similar-themed much-needed novels have been getting their well-deserved attention. But Everett, a master at his craft, doesn’t stop there. The Trees wants to rewire our inner circuitry so that we go beyond understanding the oppression and killing of Black people to understanding what it is like to be oppressed and killed.

And why shouldn’t The Trees have some fun along the way, dammit, even with such weighty, serious matters? Don’t believe me? Exhibit A: The characters have some hilarious names like Hind, Chancey, Mama Z, Fondle, Junior Junior, Braden Brady, Delroy Digby, Helvetica Quip (who marries and gains the last name of—wait for it—New), McDonald McDonald (“no relation to the restaurant”), Red Jetty, and several more such. Mostly, the proper (as in: not wordplay) names are those of real Black people killed in race-related violence that one of the characters, Damon Thruff, keeps writing or typing out so he can eventually erase them and set them free. Exhibit B: The story even brings in Trump and the Trumpian White House with scenes that would do just as well as Saturday Night Live sketches.

Technically, this is a stunningly crafted work. The Trees shows how, when you’re critiquing white supremacy and all its attendant evils, everything’s fair game and you also get to make up all the rules. Mystery, horror, detective story, thriller, satire, comedy, absurdism, parody—it’s got everything. And, if you’re already an Everett reader or fan, you’ll find all his trademarks here: experimental hijinks, bold pacing, and idiosyncratic conceits.

Dialogue is what I loved best in The Trees: It scorches, skims, skips, and even skids off the page often. But the real masterclass this book offers us is with subtext: the implied, half-visible, unspoken communication going on between all these characters. The novel knows just how much of it is needed to foreshadow, intensify, and heighten the drama as the body count keeps going up. As a fiction writer myself, I envy the small, timely, pitch-perfect observations, movements, and silences in this book.

My favorite bits, though, are the Trump scenes. Here’s one such: “The president cowered under the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. Secret Service filled the room, faced the doors and the windows while the vice president tried to talk the president out of hiding.”

Listen, even if you didn’t know who Trump and Pence were, these two sentences—which could be the opening to a whole separate novel—tell you plenty, right?

* * *

If The Trees brings the still burning past into our precarious present, Klara and the Sun takes that precarious present into a conceivable near-future. Klara and the Sun has the archetypal Kazuo Ishiguro protagonist who’s caught between worlds and, therefore, comes off as detached, repressed, and even tedious. They’re misunderstood by the world and, in turn, misread that world. But all of this gives them such defamiliarizing perspectives that, through their points of view, we question our own realities.

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Whether it’s Stevens, the butler in The Remains of the Day, or Kathy, the donor in Never Let Me Go, or Klara, the Artificial Friend in this book, Ishiguro has always given us significantly different protagonist-narrators with every novel. The two traits they all have in common are their sense of alienation and their unreliable perceptions of their worlds. It’s the latter that interests me the most with Klara and the Sun. The former—that sense of alienation—is a preoccupation with many writers, especially immigrant or diasporic writers like me. But Ishiguro’s unreliable narrators are unlike most others. Despite never giving us straightforward, credible, accurate, or impartial accounts, they fascinate, beguile, and enchant us.

Klara is simultaneously frustrating and endearing—another characterization skill Ishiguro is so good at pulling off. She’s selected from a store filled with other humanoids by a teenage girl to be a friend and companion. And despite her non-human mind, Klara develops an acute empathy for her young charge and wants to save her life. As with The Trees, I don’t want to give the plot away but this humanoid’s humanity is way beyond what most of the human beings show in this story (in our world, even). Along the way, Ishiguro threads in some of his perennial themes. For example, the manufactured social hierarchies in this story are between machines and humans and also between human beings. Emotionality isn’t only a human trait; even an artificially intelligent voice can, paradoxically, express emotion in different ways. Klara’s distanced and dislocated views on spirituality and memories show how we constantly make and remake our memories and, in so doing, make and remake ourselves. Here’s Klara toward the end of the novel trying to do just that:

Over the last few days, some of my memories have started to overlap in curious ways. For instance, the dark sky morning when the Sun saved Josie, the trip to Morgan’s Falls and the illuminated diner Mr. Vance chose will come into my mind, merged together into a single setting. […] I know this isn’t disorientation, because if I wish to, I can always distinguish one memory from another, and place each one back in its true context. Besides, even when such composite memories come into my mind, I remain conscious of their rough borders—such as might have been created by an impatient child tearing with her fingers instead of cutting with scissors—separating, say, the Mother at the waterfall and my diner booth. And if I looked closely at the dark clouds, I would notice they were not, in fact, quite in scale in relation to the Mother or the waterfall. Even so, such composite memories have sometimes filled my mind so vividly, I’ve forgotten for long moments that I am, in reality, sitting here in the Yard, on this hard ground.

Ishiguro’s books have been accused by some well-known, respected critics of a blandness or a flatness in their prose. To me, the language in an Ishiguro novel always fits the story and the narrative voice(s). Take, for example, Stevens in The Remains of the Day, whose voice alternates between supercilious and victimlike. Or the humorless, repetitive voice of Kathy in Never Let Me Go. Similarly, Klara’s voice here is never about showing off or drawing attention to itself. This restraint is actually harder with the worlds that Ishiguro creates. Many of us would be compelled to add lush lyricism or intricate ornamentalism in service of, as we say in the biz, “worldbuilding.” Even the wordplay in Klara and the Sun is understated. Yes, there’s the obvious near-future lingo like “oblongs” that people stare into all the time and children who are “lifted” through certain socioeconomic privileges. However, his prose is best when he gives us those askew, off-kilter observations Klara makes about the other characters or about the world around her.

Throughout, Klara and the Sun isn’t interested in making us meditate on how we live and die but on how we make sense of all our living and dying and what that eventually does to our living and dying.

* * *

I zipped through The Trees, laughing, shaking with anger, and almost crying in many places. With Klara and the Sun, I had to keep putting it down every so often as I inhabited Klara’s life and mind and let her thoughts take up space in mine.

The Trees knows exactly how it wants readers to feel and think about what it knows to be true. Klara and the Sun, on the other hand, wants readers to grope and stumble through ambiguities and uncertainties to find their own many-sided truth.

Dialogue sparks throughout The Trees. Interiority glows with Klara and the Sun.

We can never escape or heal from the past, says The Trees. It all depends on how we make and process our memories, Klara and the Sun points out.

Don’t bother getting behind or against a single character, warns The Trees. Don’t avoid that ache you feel for Klara, her naiveté, and her goodness, proposes Klara and the Sun.

You want characters dropping insights like they’re casually tossing about sharp knives? Head for The Trees. You want them to place their insights carefully before you for your close examination, if you should choose to do so? Gaze upon Klara and the Sun.

* * *

Have you noticed how, sometimes, a clever book critic positions a flaw as a virtue? I don’t mean that the reviewer takes what you or I might consider a flaw and elevates it to a virtue but that they point out and then dismiss the flaw as irrelevant. For example, “Writer X is not strong at A because their books are profoundly about B.” Or “Writer Y isn’t especially committed to C but that’s probably because they’re more compelled to explore D.” These may well be true. But this kind of finessing doesn’t take away from the fact that the books in question are lacking in A or C.

And you know what? That’s as it should be. To my mind, there isn’t a single perfect book in the world and never has been. A book is an unwieldy thing to create over a period of, often, years. For it to change something significant within the reader, it must change something radically within the writer during that long, solitary creation process. The writer is never the same person at the end of a book as they were at the start of it. The process is uneven and the end-result is more so.

Similarly, there is no perfect reader or critic response to a book. We all bring all kinds of baggage to our reading, just as we do to our writing. And we’re all influenced and conditioned by the world around us. Had I read these two books in the wake of the 2020 George Floyd protests, I would have been most moved by The Trees. The seething anger so many of us felt as we watched the Trump administration mismanage everything during that election and pandemic year would have, I know, meant a satisfying sense of avengement from The Trees. But, reading these books in early 2022, after everything this neverending pandemic has put us through, I am more drawn to the indefiniteness and searchingness of Klara and the Sun. Ask me in a few months and I may well reverse this choice. That’s also how it should be. Books are living, breathing, sociocultural artifacts. They must speak to not just the time they were created and also the time they are read and reread.

TODAY’S WINNER: Klara and the Sun

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Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

John Warner (he/him): I don’t think I have ever read a judgment more on the edge of my seat than this one. I won’t say that my favored books never do well in the Tournament, but it’s rare, and disappointment is a far more common experience. This has made me hardened over the years, trained me to not invest too much emotion into the proceedings, but I will admit that seeing The Trees march through the rounds had me hopeful that it might take the whole thing. I mean, objectively, I know none of this matters, but arriving at the end of the judgment and seeing that it’s Klara and the Sun that would be moving on felt like my favorite basketball team losing on a final shot three-pointer, upsetting and deflating. I won’t argue that Klara and the Sun is undeserving, but my sentiments ran the other way.

Kevin Guilfoile (he/him): Same. Also, The Trees getting its nuts cut off by a Zombie is a little on the nose.

Judge Bhatt does a nice rundown of the Pynchonian naming system Everett employs for his characters. (Everett waves Gold Lorry pretty hard in this novel, John.) But one of the remarkable things about The Trees is that it has several major characters who are actual people. And these are not just bad people, but despicable ones. I’m trying to think of a precedent for this in modern literature—real but not very famous people portrayed as giant assholes in fiction—and I’m drawing a blank.

When I was in college, I was a driver for W.P. Kinsella at my university’s literary festival (I’m sure I’ve told a different part of this story in the ToB before). Tooling around campus, we talked a bit about his use of JD Salinger as a character in the novel Shoeless Joe. Salinger was super-reclusive and heavily litigious, and his publisher debated whether they should make him change it or not. Kinsella said that the publisher’s lawyers decided that as long as Salinger was portrayed as an extremely nice guy, there would be no basis for him to sue. (Movie studios are apparently less brave and the character was fictionalized in the movie Field of Dreams, and just to be sure they cast the very un-Salinger-like James Earl Jones to play him.)

Now in this case the real-life counterparts from The Trees probably have no desire to go to court, where the burden would be on them to prove that they aren’t terrible. Everett and his publisher are probably safe. According to the Associated Press, Granny C might be headed to court soon, regardless.



John: I was particularly interested in Judge Bhatt’s apparent familiarity with Kazuo Ishiguro’s broader oeuvre, and I’m wondering what impact this might have not just on Judge Bhatt, but readers in general when put in the position of judging one book against another. It’s a form of “baggage,” as Judge Bhatt puts it, that we bring to our reading. It’s interesting to think about all the baggage we bring to a reading experience, and how it might influence our reception to a book. Like when Jonathan Franzen or J.K. Rowling publishes a book, there’s a whole extra conversation to be had around what Franzen or Rowling mean (or don’t mean) to contemporary literature and culture, and it gets hard to separate the book from the chatter. There’s a few writers I like who I’ve had to mute on Twitter because what they have to say about certain issues makes me not want to read their books anymore, which is a problem because despite their weird-ass Twitter presences, I like their books. At the ToB we very intentionally try to achieve this separation, asking people to look at the books in isolation as they match up against each other, but of course we cannot hermetically seal ourselves off from what we know or have experienced in the past.

Ishiguro has a deep well of goodwill, which is why the flat prose charge doesn’t land for me. Given his track record, I’m more than willing to believe that every choice is deliberate and intentional, and while a specific choice might not work for me, I don’t judge the work itself as faulty.

Kevin: I really loved Klara and the Sun, but it didn’t grab me from the first. The opening section, which takes place in a shop populated almost exclusively by robots whose only concern is in-store product placement, was pretty long. If I didn’t have such admiration for Ishiguro, this could have been a DNF for me after about 50 pages (Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled was one of those for me, sadly). I’m very glad I didn’t bail, but you probably need to have that “well of goodwill” with your readers to pull that off. Most writers would have been in the car with Josie and Klara 30 pages sooner.

I’m obligated to mention, by the way, that here is another novel in Rooster 2022 that employs artificial intelligence as a character/plot device. It’s done quite masterfully here. Ishiguro creates a character of tremendous warmth and empathy (as Judge Bhatt notes, she’s more human than the humans) while also leveraging the ironic distance between all the things the reader knows about the world and all the things Klara does not. It’s a beautiful novel.

We have our first finalist, John. Tomorrow we’ll find out which other book has its day in the sun with Klara—Matrix or No One Is Talking About This.


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