March 8, 2022

The Pre-Tournament Play-In

Judged by Atom Atkinson

I, too, have been writing with The Decameron in mind throughout 2020 and 2021. If you’ve somehow escaped the literary groupmind of the era, I’m referencing Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century collection of stories, which he framed as a 10-day narrative exchange amongst 10 youths seeking refuge from the Black Death. Even mentioning that I started doing this in 2019 makes me sound like a plague-era record store clerk. But I want to be truthful: There have been a number of rapidly conceived Decameron-adjacent publications, and 2022 likely offers more, but even the very best have managed to spark in me the flame of petty frustration—you know, the one that capitalism manages to fuel even during the least petty global calamities?

Atom Atkinson (they/them) is a writer and consultant who has served as the Director of Writing Programs at Catapult and the inaugural Director of Literary Arts at Chautauqua Institution. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

In this sense, Gary Shteyngart’s Our Country Friends, which opts instead for Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya as its pandemic inspiration, is the topical novel for me. It is also, I’m a little embarrassed to admit, the first Shteyngart novel I’ve read, though perhaps that also frees me from the expectations I noticed several reviewers placing on this novel vis-à-vis his previous work.

My friends and colleagues and I could nearly be said to be this topical novel’s topic to varying degrees: A group of well-drawn New-York-based characters have convened at main character Sasha’s country estate, and two are writers (seemingly on either side of career pinnacles) who each pull their identities and personal histories to the fore. They are not the only members of the eponymous cohort whose job descriptions amount to a kind of professionalized representation, which Slate’s Laura Miller has already brilliantly detailed. As a result (it seems to me) the diverse cohort generally shares a kind of heightened contrast with their immediate rural surroundings that at any moment could present itself as merely about class, or straightforwardly racist, or xenophobic, or antisemitic, yet feels confoundingly elusive in the moment, and even upon reflection. While the book mostly doesn’t take those stakes head on, its apt insertion of this key theme evidences that they should be on our mind. After one character snaps a photo of a white-supremacist sticker bearing the Afrikaans for “whites only” and promoting the “Patriotic Defense League,” Shteyngart comically renders the real fear and angst of his characters:

Senderovsky and Masha both thought of the many tattoos gracing the ankles of their handyman. “I’ve seen stuff like that around here, and it’s frightening,” Masha said. “Down by the main road, someone has a flag of an eagle sitting on top of a globe. And the globe has an anchor through it.”

“I have three uncles in that organization,” Dee said.

“The Patriotic Defense League?” Masha asked.

“No, the US Marines.”

“Oh,” Masha said.

I wish I were a little less familiar with scenes like this myself (!) as a trans person who spent four years in rural Michigan and New York without a car, before I ever lived in New York City. I confess I felt a little let down by the book’s observations of the estate’s regional surroundings and the mostly possibly white-nationalist-sympathizing inhabitants—not for lack of enchanting prose or richly layered humor, but for what it amounted to: There is a disappointing timidity of purpose underneath all the vivid detail, which seeps into the sometimes compulsory-feeling nods to the pandemic or authoritarian creep. Where is the urgency of all this relevance?

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For me, all urgency lies with Vinod, author of an unpublished novel and the heart of this published one. This reader could have shed every bit of topical detail and even the country estate setting, connected as the latter is to Sasha’s sense of cultural identity, for a longer look at the many impressive glimpses the book offers of creative and interpersonal generosity, where they overlap and diverge, and how professionalism can loosen our hold on those answers, or warp them. This absolutely won’t be the last Shteyngart novel I read, and I’d follow one of his sentences just about anywhere, I think.

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich pairs neatly with Our Country Friends via shared investment in 2020, as well as in the worlds of books and writers in the United States. Where Shteyngart is himself a Russian-born novelist with an upstate New York estate, so is his Sasha; and where Erdrich is a Native writer who owns an independent Minneapolis bookstore, an independent Minneapolis bookstore is where Tookie, Erdrich’s Ojibwe woman protagonist, works after completing a prison sentence she endured in no small part because of a relentless reading practice. While I don’t wonder if the challenge of writing a 2020 book for 2021-22 publication led to fewer imaginative leaps in these books,  I do wonder if the challenge of writing a 2020 book convinced some of our very best authors that the right move was to place themselves, or at least some key fragments of their lives and minds and hearts, directly and plainly under the microscope.

If so, it’s an understandable impulse, and another shared quality of these novels is that it manages to bear some fruit for both. When Tookie senses the bookstore is haunted and sets about solving a mystery, it was, without any pointing or underlining, a quietly touching allegory for the ways so many people were haunted by the past and chasing answers well before the compounding traumas of 2020, including and especially in Minneapolis, charged onto the scene of our lives. Beyond this, I felt less sure the more I read what had been gained by introducing us to Tookie at this moment in history and in this particular city, or from loading all of these narrative tones into the same book. That was a very surprising outcome for me, given how well suited I have experienced the murder mystery genre to be, quietly and loudly, to matters of social justice. (For anyone interested in reading this, might I suggest pairing it with Angel Dance by M.F. Beale and/or Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha.)

For a book titled The Sentence, and which opens with really strong riffing on the literary and carceral resonances of the title, which I had been hoping for, the prose is not out to wow the reader. It’s spare, pithy, and mostly functional, with occasional bursts of strangeness that felt convincing to me as a window into what makes (and has made) Tookie tick, just as much as it evidenced her reading habits. Like a less precious Coen brothers creation, she narrates, “Everything about her was altered, even her strictly tended details. Perhaps caring for a baby gave her no time to suffuse her hair with product, for it fell naturally to one side in a glamorous sweep, the ends hennaed a soft orange.” I could have used even more prose that seemed to delight in itself from a character who has read “with murderous attention” for years. The novel succeeds most in its portrait of Tookie, a character I fell more in love with even as I fell less in love with the book—her passion, her compassion, her many flaws, her literary analyses, her navigation of the (entertainingly rendered) minutiae of running an independent bookstore. It all makes her the one-of-a-kind every-person detective I’d hope to keep reading, given a bit more attention to the potential of the genre.

By the time I started reading Keenan Norris’s The Confession of Copeland Cane, its near-future setting and variety of first-person narrators felt like a relief from the oppressively implied wisdom of the Topical Author. Not only does each narrator’s voice sound utterly distinct, but their manner of delivering and pacing narrative information suits their personalities and the content of their section, masterfully at times. That’s a complicated way of saying that Norris let me sink deep enough into this novel’s many pockets that I could forget, periodically, that the garment is capital-R Relevant. Which actually enhances the effectiveness of the moments when you’re reminded, like a punch in the gut, that it very much is. For a plot-heavy book, I was mostly enchanted by everything else (including an exquisite sensory description of a last visit to an Oakland men’s barbershop, before the pandemic changed the world but also particularly the neighborhood).

This isn’t all to say the novel is a pleasant or especially navigable read, nor that it’s necessarily designed to be. The ethical tug of war inside a Black student journalist (with her own understandable ambitions) is juxtaposed with the banality of corporate-news anti-Blackness, then quickly followed by the title character’s reassurance to the reader that his audio recording comes to us via the most “off-brand unheard-of cell phone app you will ever encounter”—so our trust in him and our lack of trust in technology might be in conflict. Like the most ambitious uses of unreliable narration, Norris’s is highly philosophical and philosophically sound. It also starts from the fact of everyone’s implication in that narrative unreliability, including anyone reading, rather than springing that on us like we didn’t know that might be coming. (Heads up to other authors, a lot of your closing revelations should be in the first 50 pages!) This book could be described as a portrait of the speed with which, one day, a sharp Black literary mind can be pursued with private school scholarships, then literally pursued by police and courts and the media for “anti-white” attitudes the next. Admiration of Norris’s writing is hardly a liberal escape from culpability. Which is all to say that the scope of analysis for double consciousness is so far-reaching it directed my gaze clean off the physical page and back onto it, with plenty more philosophical richness and intellectual and moral challenge following from chapter one.

There were times I grew impatient with the slow descent of various puzzle pieces into their respective places, and it was hard for me to abide by the early warning not to “vex,” or at least to be satisfied doing it on my own time. Like the perils and wonders of Thomas Pynchon (an apt comparison I’ve seen here and there), they’re largely one and the same in this novel.

From a set of three books each staking some claim to the moment, each inviting blurbers and reviewers to cite “prescience,” only one picked me up and sat me back down in space and time—and early. Like a storyteller in The Decameron gone meta, the first of this book’s multiple narrators lists the reasons people give for declining to join street protests. After some world-building details are nestled into the details of the familiar-sounding justifications, the narrator tacks on: “Oh, and that it isn’t 2020 anymore. That everything is so different now, even though so many things are the same.” On a craft level, it’s a strong hint as to why so little worldbuilding was needed for Norris to convincingly render his East Oakland and broader United States. But on an emotional level, I felt at once a heightened presence in the now, vivid recollections of 2020 activist actions, despair at having already inhabited the kind of near-past momentum that feels sealed off by the very act of historical citation, and a deepened investment in Norris’s dedication to the future: “May it prove me wrong.” Selecting a winner felt difficult at first—but much easier when I wrote all of this out.

The Rooster needs your help


Match Commentary

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

Rosecrans Baldwin (he/him): Welcome, friends, to the 2022 edition of the Tournament of Books. We couldn’t be more pleased to be sharing this month and space with you.

As ever, we are thankful for Field Notes, our presenting sponsor, and Bookshop, our book sponsor, for helping to bring this event to fruition. Even more, we are grateful to our Sustaining Members, who really, truly make this event possible.

We’re also grateful to our esteemed panel of judges for considering this wonderful, challenging survey of some of the more interesting examples of recent fiction. We’ve got multiple books that speak to the moment, and we’ve got multiple books that have nothing to do with it. Works in translation, works that are plain weird. We’ve got a book about Twitter written in the form of Twitter, and one about Slack written in the form of Slack. It’s 2022, for better or worse—💛💙—and somehow we’re still here to celebrate literature.

Andrew Womack (he/him): And that’s one thing that, year in and year out, remains the same for the Tournament of Books. And of course another thing that remains the same is: change.

Every few years we like to find ways to change up how some aspects of the Tournament might work or how you’re able to follow the action. And this year we’re introducing two new features.

One, an entirely new Rooster newsletter. During the Tournament, many of you open it each day as a way to get notified when a new match is live. However, given how much time we all now spend in our inboxes, we’ll be including the entire match judgment within the newsletter so you can read it right there. And if you still prefer the classic ToB website experience, you can continue to view the matches in the same way we’ve posted them for years—and the newsletter still includes a link to the site. Either way, it’s the same judgment, and we even make sure the same book wins in both places.

Next, we’ve opened a Tournament of Books Discord. It’s been a couple of months since we started, and the conversation is already hopping. Disqus will still be available on the website for each match, but I’d also encourage you to sign up for Discord to try it out with us. For now, it’s only an experiment, but we’ll be really curious to know if you all end up liking one system for comments over the other.

Meave Gallagher (she/her): Speaking of commenting, hi, everyone. Welcome back to me reading all your comments and trying to rescue the ones that got caught in the stubbornly inexplicable filter.

So, now I have to figure out what is The Thing to say on Day One, the most first of days? How about a pile of advice I’ve been recently given: Remember the importance of nuance; if your library/historical center/&c. isn’t hosting events like Lenapehoking, at my local library, ask them to—libraries (generally) love programming suggestions; be gentle with yourselves and others, and care for those who need it; be open to learning; consume critically; work toward utopia, especially when it feels like dystopia is the only possible future; and in These Times—I truly don’t know. Have a good cry and read some Bookchin? “The assumption that what currently exists must necessarily exist is the acid that corrodes all visionary thinking.”

May we all, in our reading, in our thinking, in our writing here at our annual bibliophilic reunion, be thoughtful, generous, and as kind as we are spicy. Good luck out there, pals.

Andrew: And now let’s head to Kevin and John for today’s match commentary!

Kevin Guilfoile (he/him): The ToB is 18 this year, folks. Eighteen! It’s just shocking, frankly. Why, the year we introduced the Rooster, a young kid named Elizabeth Holmes had just recently dropped out of college to start a can-do company called Theranos with nothing but $6 million and a frog in her throat. And now look at her!

John, you and I have known each other for even longer than that, and you are on the shortlist of my closest friends, but it occurs to me that these commentaries each spring have become the primary way you and I communicate. Sure, we sometimes text throughout the year, and trade emails, and occasionally talk on the phone, but in terms of the number of words and ideas exchanged, all other conversational media combined can’t even come close to what we share in these little bookish public dialogues. It’s our own weird pandemic friendship story. Somebody write a Black Mirror.

John Warner (he/him): I suppose this is our way of keeping it fresh, my friend. The pandemic has had me vacillating between believing I could quite comfortably go without ever seeing or speaking to another human outside my immediate household again, to a desire to do something truly foolish, like start a podcast so I have an excuse to talk to other people. It continues to be disorienting, which is why being able to come back to this familiar space is something to look forward to, and here we are!

Eighteen years is a long time ago. Eighteen years ago I was still in my thirties and also had a healthy meniscus in both knees. In that very first Tournament we also believed that I was a suitable choice as a judge, rather than color commentator. I put the lie to that quite thoroughly by choosing Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons over Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières, declaring of I Am Charlotte Simmons, “This book is not nearly as bad as many of the major reviews make it out to be.”

Such brilliant insights. We do much better for ourselves judge-wise, these days.


Kevin: If it makes you feel any better, most of that book is not nearly as bad as major reviews made it out to be. Some of it though…

Atom Atkinson is the perfect judge to kick off this Rooster. This is a thoughtful and thorough judgment that might even have changed my mind about which way this play-in should go. Honestly, The Sentence is my favorite of these three novels–I just completely enjoyed the time I spent with it. But Norris’s ambition really makes The Confession of Copeland Cane shine, especially in an exercise like this. It’s easy to talk about why it’s a good book, because it includes a lot of original ideas executed in surprising and interesting ways. In general, it’s easier to talk about why something is good, rather than why you like it, and those aren’t always the same thing, which is why way more books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than have been written about Allison Krauss.

John: The Sentence was also my favorite of these books—going back to one of our go-to points of discussion, it was my favorite companion of the three—but The Confession of Copeland Cane is the book that sticks with me out of the three. I found it a real challenge at times, which results in some frustrating moments as it doesn’t give itself up, but I also found myself willing to go back and keep puzzling over it.

(Note to readers: I just had the same experience with John Darnielle’s new novel, Devil House.)

Kevin: The Confession of Copeland Cane makes clever and extensive use of footnotes, which offloads all the heavy exposition it needs to pull this story off. As a result it avoids awkward monologues from characters who would otherwise, for the reader’s benefit, have to explain things to each other that everyone in the book would obviously already know. Norris couldn’t have told this story the way he wanted to without a device like this. There is a cost to it, however. Having to leave the story to read them, as interesting (and genuinely funny) as they are on their own, can be a little exhausting. As a reader, I did not much like doing that, even as I recognized that they were useful and good. As you point out, sometimes the more effort you put into a novel, the more you get in return, and I think that is largely true of The Confession of Copeland Cane. And to be fair, the footnotes become less of an issue the further you probe into the novel, but they were definitely a bit of an obstacle as I tried to get a toehold into that world.

John: Unlike Infinite Jest with its copious endnotes, many of which I ignored along the way, I felt like The Confession of Copeland Cane required engagement with the footnotes to truly keep up with the story you were being told. It’s daring. I think there are going to be some readers who it just won’t work for.

Kevin: Still, The Confession of Copeland Cane is an impressive feat. Most notable to me, as Judge Atkinson notes, are the distinct voices of the characters. Norris employs dialect without being cringey, but he also stylizes his prose just enough to allow the reader to easily navigate.

On the other hand, Judge Atkinson describes Erdrich’s writing as “spare, pithy, and mostly functional.” I would describe it as “effortless.” Strictly as a prose writer, I don’t think Erdrich has a peer in this grouping, and there are only a few writers in the whole Rooster this year who are her equal.

John: Louise Erdrich is in the category of writer who cannot write a bad book because her prose is a guaranteed pleasure. It’s like it unfurls in your mind with perfect precision, completely itself.

I should also say that I greatly enjoyed Our Country Friends as well. As a Shteyngart completist, I’d rank it behind Super Sad True Love Story, but there’s always a crackle and energy at the core of his books that I really dig. Like Judge Atkinson, I also thought Vinod was the heart of the story, and part of me wonders if that only became apparent to Shteyngart himself as he went along. His story is truly the deepest and richest of the bunch and while I found the concluding sections on him quite moving, I also felt it could’ve been more deeply seeded earlier in the book.

Still, three great books to kick us off and fix the final 16 in place.

So, Kevin, who do you like? Which book are you rooting for? Are those the same? I know the Commentariat will have thoughts on this front.

Kevin: I don’t know if you and I have ever shown our cards in the opening round! (Before we make any predictions, we should remind everyone that, as we write this, John and I do not know who will win and have no influence on the judging. We are like those Olympics announcers calling the curling action in Beijing from a TV studio in Connecticut. We’re in the Rooster Bubble, John!) I enjoyed a great many novels on the shortlist, but my favorite books in the tourney this year, not including The Sentence and in no particular order, are Matrix, Klara and the Sun, The Trees, and Subdivision. And if I had to make a prediction, based on my gut and 18 years of observing the organic trends and vagaries of the Tournament of Books, I predict that The Trees is going home with the flightless fowl this year. I think that novel is shocking and funny and confrontational and relevant in a combination that every other book will find difficult to overcome. It’s also my favorite read of last year.

What’s your pick?

John: The Trees is at the top of my list in terms of a prediction and my wishes, which likely means it’s going down early, but its opening-round opponent, Matrix, is my second choice, so perhaps that’s a win-win.

And let’s not forget the potential for any vanquished favorite to rise from the dead in the Zombie Round.

Buckle up folks!

Rosecrans: Thanks guys, and welcome again to everyone here! We very much look forward to spending March with you, whether it’s your first or 18th March. If you’re here, the Tournament of Books is your home.


2022 Tournament of Books merch

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