Monday, February 22, 2010

Nationally awarded books

Coincidentally, I started a 2009 National Book Award finalist, American Salvage, on my plane out to San Francisco and began that year's winner, Let the Great World Spin, on my return trip. This juxtaposition inspired the following musings about what pepole like to read, the preferences of award committees (insofar as my mere mortal mind can wrap round them), and my own reading habits--all wrapped up in what I term a sort of "books review." What can I say, dreaming big here.

First up, I was totally enthralled by American Salvage. I learned of its author, Bonnie Jo Campbell, when she read from her competition-winning Love Letters to Sons of Bitches at my book arts volunteer job. As far as I can tell, she's a cross between a mechanic, a circus performer, and a rockstar; I've rarely seen anyone read so charismatically. Shortly thereafter, I discovered a book of her short stories was a finalist for the National Book Award. I acquired a copy from the Elliott Bay Book Company (whose bad financial straits I read about and was moved to alleviate, however slightly, on the always up-to-the-minute Moby Lives). Along with the excellent book, the Book Co also sent me a newsletter and bookmark in a lovely brown paper-wrapped package (Support your (not-always-so) local indie bookstore, folks!).

American Salvage is a (short) short story collection, a form that is not my natural element (for reasons perhaps I'll explore here one day). Even though it had that working against it, the stories completely gripped me. Seriously, they're unlike any other short stories I've ever encountered. Some of them were so short as to be almost snapshots, yet all of them conveyed a sense of character, as well as of place, mostly the rural Michigan landsape in which its author makes her home. Confusion and rancor abound, relationships take twists and turns, natural disasters are never far away, and Campbell's often-hapless characters find themselves caught up in storms of their own and the world's making. The lives portrayed in the stories are very different from my city slicker upbringing, but Campbell made them real to me. With few words she conveys unexpected situations: an immobilized injured man in the eye of a storm which he comes to conflate longingly with his girlfriend; a woman guiltily munching her way through a fancy chocolate bar on the way to pick up a hog in a last-ditch attempt to save the farm; an accident victim and the fleeting, almost loving connection that passes between her and her unwitting assailant. The stories often ended suddenly, but never abruptly. They do what my poetry teacher always urged me to do: end on a note that is never neat and pat, always unexpected yet somehow right.

Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, is, in contrast, a (long) novel. Weighing in at 350 densely-worded (though never difficult-to-parse) pages, it tells the stories of a sequence of New Yorkers affected by Philippe Petit's 1974 tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers. (It also, of course, offers implicit, and very occasionally explicit, commentary about September 11th) Of course, since this is a big, sprawling, many-points-of-view novel about a day in a city, "Joycean" gets bandied about by reviewers like nobody's business. Coming from Modernist-land as I do, I found that this adjective shaped my expectations of the book, I think in large part doing it a disservice. Sure, I felt, digging into one of the novel's early sections (which are short-story- or novella-esque, really), it's describing an Irishman's experience and it occasionally goes sort of stream-of-consciousnessy, but Joycean? McCann is a good prose stylist, certainly, but World's got nothing on the wordplay and inventiveness of Ulysses, not even close.

It's a shame that this is the baggage I brought to my reading, because World is really a good novel. Particularly in its later sections, McCann draws pictures of characters that make you cry for the agonies they've endured and laugh with them at the ways they still manage to stay one step ahead of their world. His section from the perspective of unconsolable-yet-strong Tillie, a prostitute in jail taking the rap for a robbery she committed with her daughter, is particularly noteworthy in this respect. And McCann gradually links together the stories of his disparate figures--a lonely Irish immigrant, a judge's wife, a teenager with photographer dreams, a lonely divorcee from the projects...--which ultimately add up to a moving meditation on the ways in which we are all connected. The book's final section, set in 2006, offers a look at what's happened to some of his characters in the intervening years, but never attempts to offer too neatly bow-tied an ending.

On the whole, I found World enjoyable and satisfying. I'd also like to add that, importantly for me, McCann does a pretty good job of evoking the city as character: defiant, snarky, browbeaten, ephemeral, transcendent. And there is a moment, just before the book moves to 2006, where I found the Ulysses comparison to be beautifully, gracefully deserved.

But! Affecting though I ultimately did find World, I still prefer American Salvage, which I think breaks more new ground, in terms of both the stories Campbell tells and how she tells them, than McCann's big novel-of-ideas. Call it a case of my tendency to perpetually side with the underdog, but McCann's novel seems like such an easy critic-and-fancy-reader-pleaser, with its epic-tending length, its highfalutin Modernistesque ways, and its New York panorama. I think it's a shame that large, sprawling epics tend to win these prizes most of the times I can recollect (even though I love many of them--I am a big fan of Oscar Wao, Middlesex, The Corrections). Why not let the truly-unexpected win for once?

Any thoughts? Has any of you read either of the books? As is probably obvious, I recommend both, and I've got copies for lendin'!