A Mercy
  • Oct. 30, 2020


  • Toni Morrison

    A Mercy
    Normal People

    Sally Rooney

  • Judged by

    All Judges + Nozlee Samadzadeh

Normal People

Nozlee Samadzadeh: My great secret from helping produce the Rooster for most of the 2010s is that I’ve wanted to be a judge the entire time. I’ve fantasized minutely about the clever quips I’d make about my two assigned books. They’re so different, and isn’t it wild that I have to create this framework to pick one of them after years of watching judges do just that? And then I get handed these two books, like some kind of cosmic joke. A Mercy, from exactly one year before I started helping out backstage, and Normal People, the winner from this year’s tense first month of lockdown that Helen Rosner, Drew Broussard, and I talked about on Zoom in front of an audience of Rooster fans. (Remember that heady first month of Zooms, the endless anxious hours we tried to fill?)

Nozlee Samadzadeh (ToB producer 2010–2018) is a senior software engineer at the New York Times.

By the time I read A Mercy for the Super Rooster, I was grinding my way through a sixth month of not-quite-lockdown, my attention span shot such that I had to leave my phone at home and force myself to read the book sitting on a bench outside the muddy dog park a couple blocks away. I’m not gonna lie to you and say I had a good time reading it.

However genuinely completely distinct each shifting voice was, the effort required to figure out who I was reading, much less where and when they were, took so much effort that I never got lost in the narrative itself. And once I did get situated in space and time, those 17th-century voices were awfully keen on emphasizing points intended to hit heavy with the modern reader, rather than the experience of characters who ineffably needed to exist the way they existed in the book. There’s Jacob’s jocular little thoughts about Papists and the way “few things angered [him] more than the brutal handling of domesticated animals.” Get it? It’s about how he’s overly self-congratulatory for his disliking of slavery! There’s Lina taking the time to think to herself, for the reader’s benefit, that “Europes could calmly cut mothers down…but were enraged if a not-Europe looked a Europe in the eye.” There’s the obviousness of finding out that Sorrow’s whole deal is more complicated than how people see her (to say nothing of finding out that Florens’s abandonment is more complicated than how she sees it). There’s the repeated assurances that people are totally cool with Willard and Scully sleeping together.

In writing this, I went back and read what the Rooster judges had to say about A Mercy in 2009. I’m not as bad as Jonathan Eig (“Truth told, I fell asleep a couple of times mid-page”) but I do agree with Kevin Guilfoile’s quarterfinals comment from that year that “A Mercy is a much better book after you’ve read it.” Multiple people in the championship asserted that it would be read “again and again” (Witold Riedel), “for hundreds of years” (Jonathan Eig again), and even “forever” (David Rees). That’s probably not true, although it is still in print!



Normal People has its own problems: Marianne’s eating disorder does too much work in signaling her frailty; the book’s neatly wrapped-up domestic violence plotline makes light of the inextricable specter of domestic violence. (I will say that both the book and the miniseries get Connell’s now-infamous chain completely right.) But these signposts exist in the plot external to the experience of the characters themselves, who talk and fuck and protest against the war in Gaza and write earnest emails and listen to Vampire Weekend in ways that aren’t primarily about reminding you that they are the kind of people who do those things. This book might not be forever, but it’s certainly for now.

And in this Tournament about arbitrary decision frameworks, that’s enough for me.

A Mercy Normal People
0 1

Helen Rosner: Normal People is a pleasingly sketched YA romance about thin, pretty white people endowed with narratively attractive forms of damage, who deal with their emotions by sexily brooding and/or becoming even thinner. The fact that it’s won one Rooster is a personal injury (I eliminated it from competition, and yet it Zombied back in to take it all); that now, in the Rooster of All Roosters, it has again made it to the championship round is unfathomable. I can’t believe I even have to entertain a thought experiment where Sally Rooney’s less-good novel might be better than one of Toni Morrison’s best. Stop it. Go away. Think about what you’ve done.

A Mercy Normal People
1 1

Chelsea Leu: So many of Normal People’s conceits are as flimsy as two-ply Kleenex tissues: Why are our brilliant, magnetic, inexplicably miserable protagonists able to converse with each other in “perfect synchronization,” yet fail, over and over again, to work through even the most basic of miscommunications? And yet at certain quietly intimate junctures of the book—when Lorraine embraces Marianne, when Connell and Marianne hold hands in bed—I found myself reaching for those very tissues to dab at my traitorous eyes, which were welling up with tears I felt surprised and a little ambushed by even as I was crying them. Why? Normal People is as much about the durability of human ties, I realize now, as A Mercy is about their fragility. A Mercy suggests that while orphans might briefly find comfort and common cause with others, eventually the brutality of life will show these things to be illusions; in order to exist in a chaotic wilderness one must in a way become the wilderness, to become as untouchable and unforgiving as Florens does at the end. After all, her mother tells her, “to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing.” Marianne seems to arrive at precisely the opposite conclusion. Why not “depend on people for everything,” she thinks—isn’t that the human condition? Maybe quarantine has finally done away with the vestiges of my critical faculties, but I can’t help but find the idea of true, free intimacy with another person excruciatingly poignant right now—and something worth advocating for.

A Mercy Normal People
1 2

Carolyn Kellogg: Sally Rooney writes with emotional intelligence and style, and Normal People may be a lasting novel of two conflicted young lovers, with a bit of class concern thrown in, which is always nice. Toni Morrison has a back catalog so impressive that it’s hard for anyone, even herself, to live up to it. Reading A Mercy for the first time, I wondered if she was relying too hard on old tricks—the unique prose of a subjective narrator, for example. Actually, I’m stretching. I take no issue with her prose or anything else. A Mercy is a stunning achievement, a literary masterwork of history and imagination and moral complexity. It wasn’t even close.

A Mercy Normal People
2 2

Rumaan Alam Sally Rooney’s Normal People is a smart study of two particular characters; it shares with the author’s previous novel a lightness of touch easy to mistake for artlessness. As a text, it has no real ambition beyond the exploration of character—which is fine! Enjoyable as it is, the novel does not, to my mind, serve as the Rosetta Stone to a whole generation, as is often claimed. It’s a well-told yarn to which my response is, in a nutshell: “Kids today!”

A Mercy shows what a writer as gifted as we already know Toni Morrison to have been can accomplish: No novel about the 17th century has any business feeling this modern, this urgent. A Mercy is a work of allegory that is somehow a captivating story; I’d not have believed such a thing possible, but here we are.

Smart as it is, Rooney’s novel is a confection. Morrison’s is something else altogether—chewy, dense, difficult yet somehow also diverting, alive with intelligence but also, crucially, feeling.

A Mercy Normal People
3 2

Merritt Tierce: This is going to be a weird judgment. I feel like I shouldn’t choose the winner I chose, in this particular matchup, partly because the winning book is just a love story. What could be more basic than a love story? In fact it’s just a love story with a class divide, and what could be more familiar than a love story with a class divide? The winner also has a problematic ending I can’t declare myself in favor of, as a writer or a feminist, but none of the above stopped me from devouring Normal People like I’d never read a good book before. I wouldn’t say it’s better than A Mercy, which is much more novel and breathes with some kind of cosmic wisdom. But Normal People got me harder, and I’ll probably remember it longer. Normal People is a rush, it finds layers inside layers of ordinary experience and describes them with fine, poetic precision and wholehearted interest, over and over. The writing is exciting. Our heroes feel like they can’t be together, and they try to resist each other, but over and over they fail. In the end they submit to an irresistible pull, and in the end I’m following their lead.

A Mercy Normal People
3 3

Jess Zimmerman: Toni Morrison is at her best when she’s expertly stage-managing the reader’s experience by interweaving characters who have different understandings of events, motivations, history, or even space and time. In A Mercy, she wields revelation and obfuscation as skillfully as a burlesque artist. It’s downright Faulknerian, though I’m aware of the absurdity of praising one of our greatest Black women authors by comparing her to a white male writer crowned by the canon. What I mean to say is that any Toni Morrison novel could go toe to toe with any of the other best works of 20th- and 21st-century English literature. She is up against Normal People. I think even Sally Rooney would say “it was an honor to be nominated” and vote for A Mercy.

A Mercy Normal People
4 3

Myriam Gurba: Both A Mercy and Normal People are fantastic books. They are also unlikely competitors and in the interest of advancing one, I must choose A Mercy. Normal People is a wonderful apéritif but A Mercy brings substance along with pleasure.

A Mercy Normal People
5 3

Natasha Vargas-Cooper picked A Mercy to advance.

A Mercy Normal People
6 3

Jessa Crispin did not select either book to advance.

A Mercy Normal People
6 3

Victor LaValle: It’s probably no surprise that A Mercy wins for me. Morrison’s novel is a masterwork, one of the last in her legendary career. And its concerns, its scope, are immense even as it remains a portrait of only a handful of human beings. As our country threatens to disassemble, it was quite meaningful to read a novel about what it was before it came into being. Everything that ends, has a start. Here’s hoping this big messy national experiment of ours isn’t quite over yet. We’ll see.

A Mercy Normal People
7 3

Nicole Chung: I liked Normal People just fine (advanced it, in fact, a couple of rounds ago), but while I admired the skill with which it was written, in the end neither the story nor the characters moved me deeply. Toni Morrison is a don’t-look-away-don’t-even-blink writer if there ever was one, and to be honest I’d have felt a little bad for any novel going up against this. To encounter A Mercy is to be held in utter thrall while you read and haunted long after you finish it—it’s sweeping and intense and brilliant, and far above the competition here.

A Mercy Normal People
8 3

Will Chancellor: Near the end of Normal People, Connell finds the metaphor to make sense of Marianne: “There’s something frightening about her, some huge emptiness in the pit of her being. It’s like waiting for a lift to arrive and when the doors open nothing is there, just the terrible dark emptiness of the elevator shaft, on and on forever.” It’s an image thrown out mid-paragraph with casual lyricism, but it’s apt. We also see life inside that elevator shaft, the random pings for attention, the wiring of this emptiness.

A Mercy begins with Florens stating: “You can think what I tell you a confession if you like, but one full of curiosities...” It’s the “fullness,” rather than the confession, that lasts. The attic where Florens scratches out her story is so full that she writes on the floorboards. Even Sorrow becomes so full she changes her name to Complete.

Put me down for the full story that history erased.

A Mercy Normal People
9 3

Sarah Hepola: Ever since I read Normal People for an earlier round of this contest, I’ve been thinking about the characters, and the stubborn ways people refuse to reveal themselves, and the harm to the soul, and the way sex reveals us but also hides us. My fidelity to that novel is such that I could not watch the series, which apparently was so steamy and pining that two married friends told me (separately) it made them question if they’d ever been in love. I have been in love, and didn’t particularly want Hulu to remind me. Anyway, I picked up A Mercy almost certain the contest had been won, and the question was how, a suspicion confirmed by the opening pages of A Mercy, which had that Toni Morrison way of seeming to launch in the middle of a conversation, like: Wait, are you talking to me? It took a good 20 pages to tune in to this frequency, and I missed the easy-to-grasp millennial chill of Sally Rooney. But somewhere around page 30 I either gave up or fell in, and the story just took me. Damn. This was deep stuff about—what was this book about, exactly? Ownership of another person? Women and their survival? It was so different from Normal People: a world I didn’t know, in all its unfamiliar rhythms, but Morrison has that old-soul way of writing about humans, like we’re all in this together, whether we like it or not, and pretty soon I was in there with her. Somewhere around page 100 it became clear A Mercy would be the winner, but it almost felt wrong to declare one.

A Mercy Normal People
10 3

D.T. Max: The Rooster was designed to be absurd and how appropriate that the Super Rooster should be super so. A Mercy, a quasi-Biblical conjuring of the beginnings of slavery in the newly oppressive New World versus Normal People, which is—well, you already probably know—brilliantly about two Irish students talking and fucking and talking about their fucking. Parameters of behavior change but not the truth that relationships are core—and, as so many have commented, Normal People is as tonally perfect for our times as Jane Austen’s novels were for theirs—so I first gave it the nod. But, in the end, A Mercy won. Won because it both conjures great and still-relevant evil and because it too understands that as in Noah’s ark, pairing off is the original necessity, both novelistic and not. In Normal People intimacy is about personal survival while in A Mercy it’s about societal survival, and I like my stakes high.

A Mercy Normal People
11 3

Choire Sicha: I get that it’s nice to have things around in which the sentences aren’t very taxing and you can put a lot of yourself in the story because you’re young and horny and in pain, which is the state of being young, but we’ve done this a few generations already—if you’re feeling glum and regretful about your grotesque life but want something that feels gritty and LiveJournaley, why not read some Goethe or Patricia Highsmith or James Baldwin or Gary Indiana or like … Virginia Woolf. LOSER: Normal People.

A Mercy Normal People
12 3

Roxane Gay: This was no competition at all. I know how much people love the book but I couldn’t find a way into Normal People. Nothing about the book excited me, which is strange because this is exactly the kind of story I would ordinarily love. In A Mercy, Toni Morrison has created a layered, elegant narrative. I always think I don’t need to read another novel about slavery and then a writer tackles the subject in an unforgettable way, which is exactly what Morrison did.

A Mercy Normal People
13 3

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Match Commentary

By the ToB Organizers

Rosecrans Baldwin: Toni Morrison died in August 2019 at the age of 88. In her lifetime she received the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a National Humanities Medal, among other awards. A novelist, professor, essayist, and publisher, Morrison was the first Black female editor in fiction at Random House in the late 1960s. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2012. She received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction in 2016. Andrew, that is a lot of achievement.

Andrew Womack: But would any of it have been complete without, now, the first-ever Super Rooster title? Why yes, it would have. But if the Tournament of Books proves anything—and our lawyers tell us it doesn’t—

Rosecrans: (We don’t have lawyers.)

Andrew: —it shows the passion that all of us as readers, judges, and commenters have for these books. And it’s been wonderful over the past month to see how that passion for A Mercy has endured. If you only take one thing away from the Super Rooster, it’s this: Make A Mercy your next read.

Also, as we do for our winning novels at the Tournament of Books, we’re making a donation in A Mercy’s name to 826 National, which provides educational support for young writers.

Rosecrans: We’ll turn it over to our commentators Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner for their analysis of the championship in a moment, but let us thank our tremendous presenting sponsor Bookshop. In their mission to support independent bookstores, Bookshop has raised over $7 million. We always encourage everybody to support local shops first, but if you’re going to buy online elsewhere, Bookstore is the place to be. As the Chicago Tribune put it, “Bookshop.org hopes to play Rebel Alliance to Amazon’s Empire.”

Andrew: We also want to extend major hugs to Field Notes for again joining us as a Tournament of Books sponsor. Make sure to check out their new line of notebooks, the “United States of Letterpress”—also, while you’re thinking about America, go vote.

And thank you to all of our Sustaining Members for making the Tournament of Books possible. This is now a year-round thing, and never so much as in 2020, when we had the ToB proper, Camp ToB, and now the Super Rooster. And with that, stay tuned for the 2021 Tournament of Books longlist, which is coming soon. As in, November. (Sign up for the Rooster newsletter to be alerted when the list goes live.)

Rosecrans: And with that we turn it over to Kevin and John.

Kevin Guilfoile: This was a fitting end to the Super Rooster, as an early winner (2009 was the fifth year of the ToB) takes on the reigning champion and claims the big bird pretty handily.

As I mentioned in the last round, I went back through the 2009 judgments and it is interesting to see how the jurists’ opinions of A Mercy have evolved over the last decade. In 2009, many of the verdicts dismissed it as something like “lesser Morrison” even as they advanced it. Perhaps it was the slimness of the volume, but even many commenters thought it was sort of middle-of-the-road literature. John, you and I even mixed in a little dismissiveness with our admiration, although this was at least partly because A Mercy was an opening-round vanquisher of our favorite novel from that year, Keith Lee Morris’s The Dart League King. (Hey, everybody! Go read The Dart League King. It’s awesome!)

Field NotesField Notes® Limited Edition for the Fall of 2020 is the “United States of Letterpress,” which features the work of nine independent letterpress shops from across America. This series demonstrates a wide array of craftsmanship, ingenuity, and love for the age-old and tactile process of letterpress printing. Check the the short documentary film too.

We speak about A Mercy with a bit more reverence now, and it’s deserved. Maybe it’s because we are older. Maybe it’s because some of us have had an education in recent years, from police murders on video and BLM protests and the 1619 Project and more, and A Mercy feels more relevant to us than it did even when it came out.

Judge Samadzadeh brings up something I said in the commentary back then, but when I said A Mercy is better after you have read it, I meant that a lot of it is kind of confusing. The reader feels unmoored. This is deliberate on Morrison’s part, of course, and when it resolves it’s very satisfying. If any of the judges were rereading the novel, it’s a book that offers special benefits on a second look.

The Super Rooster wraps with a verdict that might be controversial to some, but yet a satisfying (to me) conclusion. I know Normal People is much beloved (Ha! I literally just got that joke as I was done typing it), and I love it, too, but putting the Super Rooster in the hands of one of the most celebrated novelists of my lifetime seems appropriate.

Throughout the tourney, we had plenty of thoughtful judgments and rousing discussions among the commentariat. I was often reminded of something that’s sometimes easy to forget: Most people don’t read at all. And among the percentage of people who read, most of them don’t read fiction. If reading corresponded with earnings, the group of us gathered here would represent the top tenth of one percent of readers. The ToB is the freaking Bilderberg meeting. The Biblioberg meeting.

But even among us there is a huge wealth gap, so to speak. I read a lot, but you, John—and many of the judges and commenters here—read way more than I do. And as a result we have different needs and desires, and derive different pleasures and have developed different prejudices, and once a year (twice in 2020!) we get to explore that in a meaningful way in this Tournament, and I think that is still really exciting all these many years on.

John Warner: I need a moment to drink in what’s happened here—16 years of Tournaments culminating in a Super Rooster to rule them all. It’s been a grand exercise in reflection to look back at all the prior tourneys in light of this one, to read past judgments and our commentaries and of course the rise of the Commentariat. Some of what I said in past commentaries makes me cringe today, but this is part of the point—16 years! I’m not the same reader or person I was five, 10, 15 years ago. I can’t claim to have increased wisdom, per se, but the very act of participating in this annual exercise has expanded my view of writing and art, and life.

Unlike every other literary prize, the Rooster does not seek consensus. Opinions of judging panels that would take us aback if we were privy to them are probably uttered all the time, but kept under the cloak of confidentiality. No such thing here. All the blood, sweat, and tears spilled in the arena are the very point of the exercise. A guy could get a little misty about it.

That said, it would’ve been something if The Underground Railroad had made it to the finals to face-off against A Mercy.

Kevin: With the Super Rooster in our vehicle’s backup camera, I think it’s safe to start looking ahead to Rooster 2021. I’ve been doing a lot of comfort reading, I’m not going to lie, but out of that have emerged some real gems. I really enjoyed The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe and Deacon King Kong by James McBride. You know I was raving to you earlier in the year about the fun I had reading Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks, which I recommend especially if, like me, you attended high school in the Northeast in the late ’80s/early ’90s (very specific, I know, but trust me). N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, featured in Camp ToB this summer, is terrific. And I’m not the first person to hype The Glass Hotel by ToB champion Emily St. John Mandel, obviously.

John: Like a lot of people, I think, I went through a very tough stretch of non-reading in the early weeks and even months of the pandemic. I was, to use the clinical term, too freaked out to concentrate on a book. Thankfully, that has abated and I’ve had some good stretches of satisfying reading over the last few months, which leaves me hungry for ToB 2021, which is already underway behind the scenes. This means we need recommendations of what should be up for consideration.

Some of my personal favorites from the year include: Telephone by Percival Everett, A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet, Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore, Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, The Cactus League by Emily Nemens, and Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind, which I just finished and creeped me the eff out and honestly wasn’t entirely pleasant, but also had me telling other people immediately that they had to read it.

Commentariat, let us know what you’re reading in the form below, and as I sign off, let me express a final appreciation for all the hard work from Rosecrans and Andrew that goes into pulling this thing off, and my thanks to the broader community of judges, readers, and commenters that makes this the liveliest book talk on the Internet.

Kevin: John and I will see you all in the spring, but before we sign off, I also want to give a huge shout-out to Andrew and Rosecrans, who put so much sweat into the ToB every year, and then this year decided to double the headaches. You guys have built a wonderful thing, and on behalf of Rooster Nation, I can’t thank you enough.

There are, of course, plenty more people to thank, and because I’m not even sure who all of them are, I’m going to hand it over to our benevolent headmasters.

Rosecrans: That is all very sweet, thank you. Major thanks go to all of our judges, guest commentators, and readers, not to mention the Commentariat for all of the wonderful conversations. We also want to give credit to Meave Gallagher, our stupendous community steward, who has read thousands of comments during the last four weeks. Meave, how was the month for you?

Meave Gallagher: Exhausting. Exhilarating. Look, I’ve been ride-or-die for the ToB since day one; being polite, I shall not list my bona fides here. When Rosecrans and Andrew asked me to be a moderator after Nozlee retired, I was thrilled to rejoin the family. And though the sheer number of comments is daunting, I do look forward to those hundreds of notifications in my inbox every day. During this endless, wretched, punishing month, participating in the comments again has been like making the rounds at a party where everyone is so excited to talk to everyone else. 2020 has been very lonely. Talking, ahem, LiTeRaTuRe with this thoughtful, prolific, relentless crew has eased that loneliness. So, thank you all for having me. I now plan to nap until I am recalled to duty.

Andrew: Agreed! Now, before we go it’s time to announce the two winners of our Contest of the Commentariat. Because our final score was 13-3 (and didn’t reach a full 17 votes), our contest finalists include anyone who predicted A Mercy would win with the correct number of votes for one book or the other—so, everyone who guessed either 13-4 or 14-3. From that group, we randomly selected two winners. Peggy D. and Brock Stevens, please send your mailing information to talk@themorningnews.org to claim your prizes: year-long subscriptions from Field Notes and Rooster merch.

And that’s it for the first 16 years of the Tournament of Books. Thank you, everyone, and we’ll see you again soon.

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