Who will win the National Book Award for fiction?

With the prize set to be announced Wednesday, we take a closer look at the finalists

Topics: Literary Prizes, Books to watch out for, Books,

Who will win the National Book Award for fiction?

When the five finalists for the National Book Award in fiction were announced last month, the lead in news stories was Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom,” the Novel Betrayed. Its absence occasioned the usual attack on awards, judges, critics and literary evaluation in general. But consider the numbers. When I was a judge several years ago, about 300 books were nominated by publishers. If judges ignore authorial reputation and chatter about the books, what are the chances that a book will make it into the final five? Say a hundred works are meretricious and nominated merely to please their authors. Now the possibles are down to 200 books, but if each judge gets to choose a nominee it’s still only one chance in 40 that a book will make the cut. You might find distasteful this probabilistic analysis of the process — “All books are not created equal,” you say — but I hope the numbers will diminish the consternation over Franzen’s absence and will encourage readers to give the novels that are finalists a chance. Think of them this way: “Wow, these books beat 40 to 1 odds.”

Barnes & Noble ReviewThere is a downside to citing these numbers. “Wait just a minute,” you say. “Nobody can read 300 books in the few months the judges have.” And you’re right. Judges have to sample in the early stages. So in the spirit of putting you in a judge’s seat, below are samples from each of the novels, along with some context and description. The passages are short — bite-size pieces of prose like the chocolates in a Whitman’s Sampler — but should provide a taste of each writer’s style, sensibility and, indirectly, his or her approach to fiction. Perhaps the excerpts will take you to the books themselves, and then you can imagine yourself in the hot seat, a chair at the table where the judges have to argue their criteria and decide on the winner.

In Lionel Shriver’s “So Much for That,” the irascible middle-aged metalsmith Glynis is married to the usually placid Shepherd Knacker, who observes his wife’s combative relation with an old schoolmate:

Glynis disparaged Petra’s work as safe and cookie-cutter. Unlike Glynis, Petra did not press against the limits of “craft” and yearn to join the art world proper. She made jewelry, period, for people to wear. Another tactless observation? Shep liked that. He liked functionality. He was a handyman. He had always cherished the fact that his wife made objects not only attractive but utile, which should have made them more valuable, not less. Thus he’d no patience for the loopy distinctions between art and craft that put the latter at a commercial disadvantage. If you made a clay pitcher that held water, it was virtually worthless. Bang a hole in the bottom and it was “art”: you could charge an arm and a leg. How fucked up was that?

Living in expensive Westchester, Shepherd used to complain about Glynis’ unprofitable artistic bent. Now that she is dying from Mesothelioma, he praises her aesthetic dedication. Although he can’t say so, he still resents it because their one-income family is being bankrupted by the healthcare industry — co-payments, out-of-network doctors, incredibly expensive experimental drugs. His ambivalence seems to surface in the range of diction: the arty “utile,” the cliché “arm and a leg,” the vulgar rhetorical question. As Glynis’ condition worsens, the good Shepherd finds larger issues than art or craft to resolve: When should one calculate the costs of extending a life of suffering? When might suicide be a plausible decision? For perspective and commentary, Shriver includes Shepherd’s best friend Jackson, who is raising a child doomed by Familial Dysautonomia and who supplies amusing libertarian rants. Dictated by incurable disease, the plot is inexorable but surprises with the ways that death can twist the living. As a novelist, Shriver is similar to her expert handyman protagonist: She knows her material, the novel’s illnesses; she believes in the utility of fiction, the value of showing ordinary people in extreme situations; and she employs a functional and plain-spoken style occasionally punctuated with rage.

Jaimy Gordon’s “Lord of Misrule” is a horse-and-human story set at a small-town West Virginia track in 1970. The following passage describes Maggie, the young protagonist, as she rubs down her gelding:

She had to slow down time, go into a kind of trance state where sweet electricity pooled at her nerve endings like nectar on the pistil of a honeysuckle. And then by running her fingers over the animal she could find his hidden landing places. Not that there were jungle airstrips, few and hard to find. They were all over the place. But you had to approach the body boundary reduced to this one brooding spark. You dangled from a headland, black empty space rushing by, and suddenly you were across. The key was being tuned down so fine that you felt the crossing. Without that your fingers were just dead prongs on a rake and nothing happened.

Gordon “rubs” her characters the same way, using “nerve ending” observation, linguistic fine tuning, extended metaphor, and shifting point of view (third to second) to bring out the “brooding spark” of the sometimes masochistic Maggie, the hidden mania of her boyfriend Tommy, the family sentiment of Maggie’s loan shark relative Two-Tie, and the suspicious generosity of Medicine Ed, an aged groom who, no doubt, will be played by Morgan Freeman in the movie. Even horses are massaged into characters with emotional lives: the goofy Little Spinoza, the gutsy Lord of Misrule. The plot is somewhat conventional — the rookie couple gets entangled in the cynical dishonesty of low-end racing and finally has to confront a violent gangster–but Gordon handles with aplomb the required final Big Race, when the major characters have different stakes. Plot, like a race, is less important to her than the slow time of the “backside” world of stalls and grooms and walkers that prepares horses (and readers) for a few minutes of intense action. Ultimately, it is this now lost world that Gordon “rubs” back into being.

In Peter Carey’s “Parrot and Olivier in America,” the time is the early 19th century, the young aristocratic Olivier resembles Alexis de Tocqueville, and the low-born, middle-aged Parrot is Olivier’s British secretary. During their travels, they argue about almost everything. In the following passage, Parrot narrates and Olivier speaks first about art in America:

“Art is produced to suit the tastes of the market, which is filled with its own doubt and self-importance and ignorance, its own ability to be tricked and titillated by every bauble. If you are to make a business from catering to those people, the whole of your life will be spent in corrupting whatever public taste might struggle toward the light.”

“America is new.”

“Indeed,” he said, and I frankly loathed the certainty of his judgment. He might go away and write a book about this, but what could he know from so short a visit? The time it would take to make this nation would be put in centuries and it did not do to come prancing around in your embroidered vests and buckled shoes and even if the “New York Sentinel” reported what you said, it did not mean you knew.

Like the excerpt, the novel’s chapters alternate point of view, Olivier’s formal, structured and often pompous manner, Parrot’s more colloquial, loosely organized and mocking speech, both probably modernized a bit by the author. Their subject is personally crucial because Olivier believes himself a connoisseur of beauty, and Parrot, an amateur sketcher, has a painter wife and a business associate whose works resemble Audubon’s. For Carey, art represents cultural invention and reinvention as his protagonists struggle to create themselves as Americans: Olivier to marry, Parrot to survive. The novel’s first third describes Parrot’s outlaw youth in England and Australia and Olivier’s royalist upbringing in France. The companions’ episodic and mostly comic adventures in the New York City of the 1830s include contact with crooks and officials, resurrected acquaintances and recalcitrant Americans. As an artist, Carey would probably elicit scorn from Olivier, for the novel is a democratic “bauble,” designed to satisfy “the tastes of the market” for historical entertainments.

One of the five narrators in Nicole Krauss’ “Great House” visits a castle in Belgium where she sees a hall full of stored furniture, which reminds her of a photograph of Jews awaiting deportation to Treblinka:

The photo had struck me at the time because of the thoughtful composition which the photographer had clearly taken pains over, taking note of the way the pale faces topped with dark hats and scarves were mirrored by the seemingly infinite pattern of light and dark bricks of the wall behind them that trapped them in. Behind that wall was a rectangular building with rows of square windows. The whole gave the sense of a geometric order so powerful that it became inevitable, where each common material — Jews, bricks, and windows — had its proper and irrevocable place. As my eyes now adjusted and I began to see, rather than just vaguely feel with some unnameable sense, the tables, chairs, bureaus, trunks, lamps, and desks [were] all standing at attention in the hall as if waiting for a summons.

A piece of furniture confiscated by the Nazis connects Krauss’s narrators and other characters, most of whom are Jewish. The Israeli antiques dealer Weisz wants to find, five decades after World War II, his father’s desk, which has passed from a German novelist in London to a young Chilean poet, who reminds the novelist of her abandoned son, to an American novelist in New York City, who journeys to Jerusalem to find Weisz. This is the basic story that eventually emerges from Krauss’s “thoughtful composition,” her almost perfectly “mirrored” two-part “geometric order” that begins four narrations in part one and finishes three in part two. The American confesses hidden suffering, a British professor discovers secret suffering, an Israeli lawyer attempts to assuage past suffering, and Weisz causes current suffering, as if the desk that unites them were a curse of the Holocaust. Like the grad student narrator of the sample, the other speakers are monologist interpreters of experience who struggle to overcome self-indulgence. With its 19 drawers, the desk separates and conceals things. Krauss makes her house of fiction a similar construct of deceptions and evasions. The novel is saturated with emotional “common material” and is painstaking in structure but perhaps not, like the photograph, “inevitable” in its resolution and revelations.

Karen Tei Yamashita’s “I Hotel” is a 613-page novel in the form of 10 free-standing novellas linked by setting, a residence hotel in San Francisco during a decade beginning in 1968. Because the novellas are in wildly different styles — cinematic and dramatic scripts, collages of literary and political documents, narrative voices inflected by African-American dialect and Chinese and Japanese culture, cartoons and drawings — only the following sample represents them all:

Authors sometimes take strange liberties.

Charlie Chan

The “passage” in a section titled “Analects” is a bald statement set off by itself without any obvious context. Much of Yamashita’s prose is active, telegraphic and assertive, yet qualified — the “sometimes” — by other direct statements. Her constant subject is liberation — political, economic, racial and artistic. Perhaps a tenth of the book is composed of quotations from political theorists, poets, popular singers, jazz musicians, revolutionaries and others. The quotes, like the sample, may be authentic or invented by the author. Many of them are concerned with perceptions by or about Asians. Since one of the primary liberties that Yamashita takes is rendering novelistic action in the form of cinematic directions, Charlie Chan is an appropriate “authority.” As a detective, he is an ironic model for the Asian-American author’s investigations of the criminalized political activists of the period (one of the fictions takes the form of a police “dossier”). And just as a detective explains his reasoning at the end of a case, the novelist articulates her rationale in her final novella, an epilogue that could have been a prologue to welcome readers into her book.

Each novella has two or three conflicting characters; several of the most memorable are a Chinese historian and a Chinese saxophonist, a Japanese professor, a member of the Black Panthers, a Filipino activist, an early feminist. Characters from the first novellas sometimes appear briefly in later stories, but Yamashita’s most daring liberty is reversing the usual proportion between foreground (continuity of character and action) and background (setting and cultural information). To readers who were conscious adults in the early 1970s, her information about strikes, occupations and riots may seem over-familiar, but to younger readers “I Hotel” offers a thick description of the period in a cut-and-paste structure that resembles contemporary hypertext. The only novel like it that I know is Robert Coover’s similarly obsessive and excessive “The Public Burning”, which did for politics of the 1950s what Yamashita does for her decade. Since her West Coast novel published by a Midwestern small press went largely unreviewed in East Coast media, “I Hotel” is a true odds-beater as a finalist.

And now the hard part.

“So Much for That” is a very good mainstream novel with important topical concerns and engaging realistic characters but is rather pedestrian in its handyman style. “Lord of Misrule” is a very good indie press novel with no topical concerns and somewhat stereotyped characters but contains award-worthy sentences. Although a comic novel recently broke through to win the Booker Prize, “Parrot and Olivier in America” is not as amusing as other Carey novels, and it doesn’t penetrate America as perceptively as a European buddy book it resembles, Pynchon’s “Mason and Dixon.” The extensively voiced sufferings of the graduate student, lawyer, novelists and professor in “Great House” actively solicit one’s sympathies but are given only an oblique connection to the Holocaust. Although Krauss is possibly more profound than the first three, “Great House” seems “needy” to me, artfully contrived to elicit the admiration of other writers. Of the five, “I Hotel” is the most ambitious in its cultural range, the most diverse in character, the most ingenious in form, and the most idiosyncratic in style. It also has by far the most longueurs. I still think “I Hotel” should win — as a similar book by a West Coast writer, William Vollmann’s “Europe Central,” did the year I was a judge. But Yamashita may be too anarchic or too declamatory or too alien — too off-putting in one way or another — to get the votes she needs. Krauss and “Great House” will probably receive the award. In this space last year, I picked the winner, Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin.” But don’t bet on “Great House” — unless you get great odds.

Tom LeClair is the author of five novels and two critical books

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