The Confession of Copeland Cane
  • March 18, 2022

    Opening Round

  • Keenan Norris

    2The Confession of Copeland Cane
    3The Echo Wife

    Sarah Gailey

  • Judged by

    Anita Felicelli

The Echo Wife

“You imagine the carefully pruned, shaped thing that is presented to you is truth. That is just what it isn’t. The truth is improbable, the truth is fantastic; it’s in what you think is a distorting mirror that you see the truth.” Jean Rhys wrote that in Good Morning Midnight, and the image of mirrors has been haunting me lately, when I’m upset about whatever way I think a novel has been inauthentic or distorted a reality I know, but I’m also doing my damnedest to talk myself out of my outsize feelings.

Anita Felicelli (she/her) is the author of the short-story collection Love Songs for a Lost Continent and Chimerica: A Novel. Anita is the editor of Alta Journal’s California Book Club. She is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and currently serves as its VP of Fundraising. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

I tell myself a novel is its own system, following its own logic, founded on its own premises, not necessarily a mirror of reality. What matters is that it follows its own rules, not those of what already exists, our world. This dialogue I have with myself convinces me sometimes. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if the premises of a novel’s dramatic arguments are true reflections of the real world, so much as that they invent a planet spinning on its own without interference. But I confess, with anxiety, even as I type these words, the desire lurks for a book in conversation with reality. Still, when I went into Sarah Gailey’s novel The Echo Wife, I wasn’t expecting any kind of authenticity, not knowing what authenticity could even mean, given the zany premise.

We meet Evelyn Caldwell, a scientist who has developed a method of cloning humans and is receiving an award for developing the process of “taking an adult clone and writing their personality into their neurological framework.” As the awards ceremony unfolds, we learn that Evelyn’s mediocre, corner-cutting husband Nathan cheated on her and left. So far, so typical. But the absurdity of the adultery emerges quickly: Her husband cheated on her with her clone.

Nathan wanted children and Evelyn, most assuredly, preferred a brilliant career, so Nathan appropriated Evelyn’s technology to make a version of her, a Galatea-type figure named Marthine, that not only wanted children, but could do what clones can’t: reproduce. Marthine shows up for tea and announces her pregnancy to Evelyn, shortly before killing Nathan and asking for Evelyn’s help in cleaning things up. (This occurs around one fifth of the way into the book and is intimated in the marketing materials, so I don’t think it qualifies as a spoiler.) In the universe of the book, clones like Marthine, developed under ideal conditions, are not perfect duplicates of their originals, so Marthine does not have quite the same self that Evelyn acquired in the course of living. Clones need to be deliberately conditioned, which means the harm experienced by the original must be inflicted again on them, and Evelyn wrestles with that and her past.

I have no idea whether what Evelyn describes is a reasonably feasible process for cloning in real life. I have to think that conditioning, as she describes it—messing with womb fluids and temperatures, wounding the blank slate, the ideal, by breaking a finger here or there—is merely a fascinating, sadistic plot device, rather than a potentially real process. Its authenticity, in other words, isn’t something about which I have a clue. But I was too caught up in the entertaining mash of sci-fi, suspense, philosophy, and introspection to care. The thriller wilds out after Marthine murders Nathan, so I didn’t notice the taste of my coffee or the cold, or the rain. Instead, I put off writing my own pages, to keep turning Gailey’s. Its loopiness ensnared me. Evelyn’s circumstances are so preposterous, the exploration of her psyche and personality so totalizing, I couldn’t help but want to stay on the ride.

The Confession of Copeland Cane is an intricate, clever, ambitious dystopia set in the not-too-distant future when the media has merged with national security in an entity called Soclear. Copeland, or Cope, is an East Oakland teenager who sells sneakers. His friends have been rounded up as threats to the system, but he’s on the run, describing himself memorably, alliteratively, as “the alleged accomplice, the fugitive, the ghost, the rabbit, the radiated, the remediated, medicated, incarcerated, the child who fell outta Colored People Time and into America.”

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Most of the book is a 48-hour-two-minute-and-17-second transcript of Cope’s recorded account of what led to his flight, but it’s peppered with footnotes from the newly invented “Insurgency Alert Desk” and Urban Dictionary that explain the future’s shifted social structures. Cope is wise, depressed, stringing together astute insights about where society is headed and why. He’s aware enough to see beyond the propaganda and realize that the structures are a sham. I repeatedly found gems, observations about Oakland, observations about the Bay Area where I’ve lived for nearly four decades, that I recognized. I loved the book’s reframing of the California Dream from the perspective not of white settlers, utopians, technocrats, but those that gentrifiers have displaced.

When judged solely on its merits as a mirror, The Confession of Copeland Cane came out a bit ahead of The Echo Wife. Still, I struggled. The trouble was its shape. Cope announces his own digressiveness on the first page—“I tend to tell three stories to tell one and get sidetracked sometimes, but I’ma try and not do that shit”—and then goes about proving it. At the tail end of the novel, Cope’s former classmate Jacqueline reveals she edited his transcript, what we’ve read, but the purportedly edited version remains unduly chatty: on and on, like that lonely guy on a long subway ride who tries to court your attention with desultory anecdotes.

By its very design, then, The Confession of Copeland Cane seeks to present reality on the terms by which we encounter it outside of novels. Unfocused. Baggy. Diffuse. Difficult to parse. A stew of illusion, delusion, facts, and sad-hard situations. I think, perhaps, in all its postmodernity the novel was too intent on accurately commenting on our own surveillance state, pushing it only a couple steps further into hell, to let the characters loose into the thicket of their own gnarly, idiosyncratic dramas. I read a few smart pages that culminated in explanation rather than drama. I nodded, agreeing with the explanation and admiring the intellectual heft behind the book. I put it down. I folded the laundry. I read again, agreed, and then I hid myself in some paid work though it wasn’t due yet, before returning to Cope. I was impressed by interesting, rhythmic, mimetic sentences, but man, those explanations were gears being cranked in the footnotes. I was too conscious of The Confession of Copeland Cane as a construction, as an instruction, as an edification. I was supposed to be, but even when the language vibrated, it felt at times more like a predictive theory of our systems of power than its own breathing universe.

Meanwhile The Echo Wife was messy in its relationship to reality. There was no effort to prove anything from page to page, but paradoxically, I was persuaded. Far from being a novel about cloning, the novel riffed on romance and marriage, and one ambitious, talented woman who has to wrestle her conscience to avoid unleashing her pent-up anger on her clone, and thereby harming Marthine in the way she was harmed by her father as a child. It was a weird, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic exploration of humanness and exploitation, of what it means to be human, of personality. What makes us, us?

No quirky digressions in The Echo Wife. Nothing unusual in how it was told. The language was lovely, not entirely transparent but consistently revealing and sensitive, not too showy or distracting. The weight of our gendered reality is established in sentences like “Twice I have arranged myself within a great complication of fabric to prove that I understood the importance of a moment. It’s clothing as contrition, a performance of beauty I have to put on to pay penance to the people gathered to acknowledge me.” Yet the batshit premise also allowed for darkly comic sentences, the literal wedded to the idiomatic: “My shoes scrabbled at the dirt as my clone hauled me out of the grave I’d made.”

Evelyn is fascinating. She’s monstrous with increasing frequency, but she is alive in ways that feel real. She grapples with a small, absurd, somewhat irrelevant trouble: How do you help your clone get away with killing your former love? The Echo Wife has a wound at its heart, and it’s Evelyn’s wound, and it felt honest and authentic even when it was ridiculous. I couldn’t pull myself out of the novel’s demented but internally coherent reality, the way the first problem spiraled into ordinary, quotidian questions yet still held its shape. Are we replaceable? Could our spouses find another version of us that would fit better with who they are? Does lack-of-nurture trump nature?

The Echo Wife carried me to a summit, chugging around the turns of the coaster, and then dropped me in a freefall as Evelyn and Martine attempted to clean up the murder of their egomaniac partner. It was wicked fun, hanging suspended in the air for that exhilarating second before gravity claimed me.


The Rooster needs your help


Match Commentary

By Reggie Bailey & Meave Gallagher

Meave Gallagher (she/her): Welcome back, friends! My partner in the commentary booth for this momentous occasion is award-winning literary Instagrammer and podcaster Reggie Bailey. Welcome, Reggie!

Reggie Bailey (he/him): Hi, Meave. It’s wonderful to be your partner in the booth. As you mentioned, my name is Reggie Bailey and I am a Bookstagrammer, a book influencer whose primary stage is Instagram. Through my love of literature, books, and reading, I try to set and live up to an example of what a literary citizen can be.

Meave: A good literary citizen! How do you define that?

Reggie: My concept of good literary citizenship first asks the reader to meet the author where they are at, then asks if the author is ready to meet the reader where they are.

Meave: How long have you followed the Tournament of Books?

Reggie: I started following the Tournament in 2016 when The Sellout won, and I have been in love with it ever since. I have been a lover of basketball my entire life, and what’s better than a March Madness specifically for books? It’s interesting, because it could have been fan votes the entire way through (shoutout to the Zombie Round), but choosing judges is a wonderful way to ensure that upsets and the unexpected can occur each year.

Meave: The Zombies are so stressful when you’re invested in a winner.

Reggie: One bonus for me is when the long list and shortlist come out and I can say, “I’m reading that right now!” or “I read that!” They always introduce me to new works, too. All of this is to say that I am very happy to be here.

Meave: And we’re so happy to have you! Let’s get to the judgment. Have you read the books in contention? I haven’t finished The Confession of Copeland Cane, whereas I read The Echo Wife as soon as I could and then evangelized about it for months. How do you feel about the ruling?

Reggie: I have also not finished The Confession of Copeland Cane, though I have enjoyed what I have read, and I have not started The Echo Wife yet.

The judge’s ruling seems fair to me. Something that stood out is her saying she felt dropped into The Echo Wife’s world, while she felt like she was being led by the hand through The Confession of Copeland Cane’s. I listen to a podcast called Marlon and Jake Read Dead People, and one thing co-host Jake Morrissey says that I tend to agree with, especially when it comes to fiction, is: “If you’re going to make it obvious, then just hit me over the head with a two-by-four.” That always makes me laugh—I imagine a two-by-four to the head would hurt a lot more than reading an author who tells more than they show.

Meave: That’s a familiar feeling, yeah. So, having said how much I loved The Echo Wife, I’m well pleased to see it advanced. I do wonder about the way Judge Felicelli describes it, though. She refers to the premise and plot as “batshit,” “demented,” and “ridiculous,” among other apparently negative adjectives. If she found it so easy to fall into the world Sarah Gailey has created, is it really so bizarre?

Reggie: The word I take from your question is “apparently.” If someone hears a novel is “zany,” “batshit,” etc., they might expect it to be bad, but those words make me think it will probably be awesome! One amazing novel that I read in 2021 that I would apply those same adjectives to is The Black Cathedral by Marcial Gala, so when I read those descriptors here I had a positive reaction.

Meave: That’s so funny! Here’s me worrying Judge Felicelli’s adjectives are going to put readers off, and you’re like, Those are good words, give me that book. Also I am now putting The Black Cathedral on my TBR list, though it sounds very scary.

Reggie: I imagine any world dominated by humans can only be so bizarre, as we are endlessly complex and capable of nearly anything, but I think ultimately it goes back to how the judge felt she was dropped into the world—a sink-or-swim kind of thing. A matter-of-fact voice will take you a long way when it comes to a narrative, and it’s clear that The Echo Wife was more matter-of-fact and less explanatory than The Confession of Copeland Cane in the eyes of Judge Felicelli.


Meave: Good point. My book friends and I share many tastes, but sometimes our interpretations of a book will differ so wildly. I’m like, Do I even know you? Which maybe harks back to what you were saying about having judges versus a flat readers’ vote—I’d bet every judgment surprises at least one reader.

Reggie: Certainly, and that is, once again, something that makes the Tournament of Books truly the March Madness of literature: Never have we ever, and never will we ever, see any NCAA tournaments go chalk (meaning all of the higher seeds win every matchup), and that is probably the best way the ToB imitates March Madness.

Meave: I’m going to leave the win stats to the Commentariat (I know some of you beautiful fanatics have spreadsheets), but what you’re saying sounds right to me.

Judge Felicelli says that she “was too conscious of [The Confession of Copeland Cane] as a construction, as an instruction, as an edification…. Even when the language vibrated, it felt at times more like a predictive theory of our systems of power than its own breathing universe.” I hear her saying that The Confession of Copeland Cane is more intent on checking dystopian boxes than “let[ting] the characters loose into the thicket of their own gnarly, idiosyncratic dramas,” which she evidently did not like.

Reggie: I would expect a younger man like Cope to be more explanatory and handholding than an older, more assured narrator, as the judge characterizes Evelyn.

Meave: Oh, there’s an insight. Younger people do tend to take the long way round when telling a story, don’t they? Well, if only we had time to keep going, but I believe we’ve come to the end of our judgment of the judgment. Any closing remarks?

Reggie: This is probably a good opportunity to talk BAPC, and by BAPC I mean Books Are Pop Culture, a live show and podcast that I co-host with the brilliant Akili Nzuri that provides insight into and cultural commentary on the latest and greatest in books, book news, and book culture.

Meave: That sounds fun! Any episodes you’d recommend a new listener start with?

Reggie: You could try our interviews with ToB longlisted authors Robert Jones Jr. and Dawnie Walton to get an idea of how our author interviews go, and an Instagram Live episode we did titled ”Sally Rooney vs. the World” to get an idea of how we work without a guest.

Meave: I loved The Final Revival of Opal and Nev, I will have to check out that Dawnie Walton episode. And you have a reading challenge as well, right?

Reggie: 10 Books 10 Decades, which I created in 2020, is I ask readers to read 10 books from 10 decades during a calendar year. I like to think that it’s the perfect combination of fun, demanding, and rewarding, helping readers develop more context and see the giants whose shoulders our favorite contemporary authors are standing on. My Instagram is the place to be for updates for my projects, and other ideas, thoughts, or anything else that I have and want to share. Thank you so much for being my interlocutor, Meave. This is a real special moment for me and I’m glad to share it with you.

Meave: Oh, no, the pleasure has been all mine, Reggie, thank you so much for sitting down in the commentary booth with me, and best of luck with your literary ventures. Oh! Before we depart: Any hopes or predictions for a 2022 winner?

Reggie: I would love to see Percival Everett bring home the Rooster via The Trees.

Meave: Oh, I think you will find a lot of company in the Commentariat with that opinion! Thanks again, Reggie. And before I go, since today marks the end of the opening round, I’m going to call in Kevin Guilfoile to give us our first Zombie results update. Kevin?

Kevin Guilfoile (he/him): Thanks, Meave! For those of you who might be new, we took a poll before the Tournament to determine the audience’s favorite books. That’s because as we narrow the field to two books, the finalists will each battle a previously eliminated contender in what’s called the Zombie Round—and the Zombies are the top two favorites in the pre-tourney poll.

The results may change as more books are eliminated, but if the Zombie Round were held today, Klara and the Sun and The Sentence would be our reanimated reads.

And this means we must say goodbye for good to Our Country Friends; Beautiful World, Where Are You; Libertie; Subdivision; All’s Well; Several People Are Typing; The Book of Form and Emptiness; and The Confession of Copeland Cane.


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