Monday, March 31, 2008

2008 Tournament of Books

For the past few years, The Morning News has hosted the Tournament of Books, a fusion of NCAA March Madness and the NYT 100 Notable List. Novels from the past year are seeded in brackets [pdf], like the NCAA Final Four Tournament, and guest judges weigh the matchups, advancing a book to the next round.

There are upsets, as one might expect, and controversies. In an interesting twist on the bracket system, after the semifinals, a "zombie round" has been added, in which a previously eliminated book can, by virtue of an esoteric selection process, re-emerge to contest the two books which made it through the field. In the end, the winner gets a rooster as a prize.

I'll cut to the chase: this year Junot Díaz won for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, defeating Tom McCarthy's Remainder after re-eliminating Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives, which had been ko'd way back in the first round by Vendela Vida's Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name.

I have written about Díaz previously (on Wao and on Drown) and about Bolaño (The Savage Detectives and By Night in Chile, and I'll probably have a post up about his Nazi Literature in America up in a few days—I just finished it). The rooster is a silly prize and so I guess I'm not too upset about Díaz getting the nod over Bolaño, there is no question in my mind that Bolaño is a writer of a whole different magnitude. This isn't a question of writers working on different types of projects, though that is the case, and I don't think it can even be settled as a matter of taste. There is something inherent about authors like Dostoevsky, Melville, Flaubert, Tolstoy that simply overstrides questions of taste or differences between the authors' "projects." I firmly believe Bolaño belongs in this group. Like him or not, there is a spiritual and imaginative depth, an intellectual capaciousness, a vigor and will of Promethean indomitability which he shares with those other writers which sets him apart.

Díaz, though, is very, very good and I'm glad he's being recognized. But the way the judges recognized him puzzled me. Most dwelt on the nerdiness of Yunior and Oscar, and claimed that they enjoyed the novel because they were drawn to that element and identified to some extent with it ("inside each of us beats a tender, geek heart"). Perhaps nerds are new in "literary fiction" but it seemed to me to be less the defining characteristic of the novel than the Dominican history and culture Díaz filled the book with. I mean, leave it to literate white people to grab onto the whitest element of one of the most brilliant immigrant narratives in English literature and run with it, but still. Completely unexpectedly, Nick Hornby was the only judge to really stress how much Díaz's feel for history meant to him while reading it.

This shifting of emphasis—from something non-white (Dominican/Caribbean history and culture) to something that is normally coded as white (nerdiness/geekiness)—is, I think, a very good example of the phenomenon I wrote of earlier this month—the conversion of immigrant narratives into a new "genteel tradition" for moderate white readers.

Is this a tragedy for Díaz's book? Certainly not—if you read the novel, you can tell just how aware Díaz is of what will happen to his story and his characters.

I don't mean to harp on this issue or be sanctimonious about it—I am very prone to the kind of narcissism I see in the new genteel tradition. It irritated me a bit, though, to see it so fresh and so strong.

But I did really enjoy Gary Shteyngart's shout-out to Bellow ("Not since early Bellow, folks, not since early Bellow…"); the man knows whereof he speaks.


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Lyz said...

I would have to agree that those comments about the nerdiness of Oscar and Yunior are a disservice to the book and if over emphasized completely diminish the other compelling forces/themes/ideas in the book. To me it seemed like a driving tension between being Dominican and "not Dominican" in the same way skin functioned for the women. Yet, while the nerdiness is isolating, it also helps Oscar and Yunior connect and come to an understanding about the forces at work in their lives and in their histories.

Instead, the way history comes alive and acts as a force in the lives of everyday people, the way histories are intertwined and in common, the way individual history becomes OUR history, these are the driving elements of the book and what made me love it.