And then there were five…
I’m still set on Colson Whitehead winning the 2016 NBA. Seeing that distinctive red cover of The Underground Railroad, I paused nary a second. He’s got this. While not the greatest living American writer, he has undeniable cachet. His kaleidoscopic imagination is impressive; his status as a writer of serious literary fiction cannot be contested. Having read and reviewed his prose, I’m well aware how very good he can be.
The Underground Railroad has serious forward momentum unrelated to its NBA nomination. The Oprah endorsement unleashed the great masses, bringing Whitehead a much-deserved wider audience, but I’m wondering if snobbery will rear its head when the judges bring down their gavels. While Whitehead is a literary writer, opinion about Oprah’s seal of approval is a lot more mixed. There’s a chance she’ll do him more harm than good.
Colson Whitehead’s novels are rebellious creatures: Each one of them goes to great lengths to break free of the last one, of its structure and language, of its areas of interest. At the same time, they all have one thing in common — the will to work within a recognizable tract of popular culture, taking advantage of conventions while subverting them for the novel’s own purposes.
“I lifted my head to look up into the changing leaves, thinking how at some point, we were all headed home. At some point, all of this, everything and everyone, became memory.”
– Another Brooklyn
I’ve read pieces of Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn, a short but meaty novel easily downed in the space of an afternoon. Effortlessly elegant, it’s very heavy in ideas and depth of truths revealed. But for all its smooth perfection, I don’t see it beating out the Magnificent Whitehead.
It’s simply not big enough: not in scope, not in power.
Paulette Giles I know purely through osmosis, from bits I’ve read becoming lodged in my consciousness forming my vague impression of her. From what I’ve gathered, she writes great book club picks. Never have I considered her works heavily literary. I was a bit surprised seeing her here.
If one of these things is not like the others, I’d have to pick Paulette Giles.
Reviews of her book are sparse, a little curious considering the NBA committee pushed her through to the final round. Even the Kirkus review I found says precious little of substance:
In post–Civil War Texas, a 10-year-old girl makes an odyssey back to her aunt and uncle’s home after living with the Kiowa warriors who had killed her parents four years earlier.
A bit less than compelling.
I found no long-form reviews of News of the World. Curious.
About the other two I know not at all, so I did a little digging:
In his wistful and elegantly written fourth novel, “The Throwback Special,” Chris Bachelder plays Jane Goodall to a large group of middle-aged men who assume the role of his chimpanzees. Bachelder observes their rituals with a blend of affection and befuddlement over the course of a weekend, when they have gathered to take part in an activity that feels somehow both wildly imaginative and completely familiar. For 16 straight years, they have re-enacted one of the most iconic and gruesome plays in football history, when the Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor sacked the Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann in 1985, shattering Theismann’s leg and ending his career.
I could never have imagined a book about sports-addicted men appealing to me, but dammit, this one does. The review left me bug-eyed. I can’t imagine a premise less appealing, yet I found it fascinating.
The New Yorker:
In “The Association of Small Bombs” (Viking), Karan Mahajan’s second novel, Shaukat (Shockie) Guru, a Kashmiri terrorist, considers the explosion he has just set off at a busy market in Delhi and glumly concludes that it “was all anticlimax.” This is a dark thought about mass murder, and a dark joke about the narrative nature of terrorism.
Reading The New Yorker’s review, it becomes readily apparent this is a heavy-weight contender. Are we ready for such a treatment on the topic of terrorism? Mainstream as it’s become, ubiquitous in its everyday-ness, I think so.
“Too soon” has passed.
The Association of Small Bombs is described here as “daring(ly) imaginative,” and “promiscuous.” But don’t imagine his is a dismissive treatment of terrorism, nor any silly rendering:
“In the first few pages of his new novel, he renders the spectacle of the bombing with a languid, balletic beauty, pitting the unhurried composure of his prose against the violence of the events it describes.”
Terrorism is another topic near the bottom of my list of favorite fictional themes, but this review is simply phenomenal.
Count me on Team Whitehead, though if any other book comes back to bite The Underground Railroad, it will be The Association of Small Bombs. Because if there’s one thing a literary award should honor, it’s big, relevant themes – which both these books share.
That’s where the money is.
NBA, we’re waiting.