|The winner gets a rooster!|
I had sort of an off-year for current fiction; of the field I have read only three books, marked with an asterisk. All odds are therefore set by a complex algorithm derived from GoodReads chatter, selected reviews, gut-feelings, and past lunacy. There are a few reliable guideposts: short story collections do horribly, award winners do better than you'd think, plucky underdogs almost always get their come-uppance, and the only winners are the commentariate, who enliven all festivities with their insights, which are often better than the judges but in no way affect the outcome of the tournament, I think.
Other things to note: There doesn't seem to be an oddball from a weird category this year. No box-of-poems, no graphic novel, no YA angst machine. Also, no play-in round!
The Booker Prize winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, got a curious pass this year. Not only would it have brought Oceania further into the mix (Evie Wyld is also Australian), but it could have been a nice matchup with David Klay's war-based collection of stories.
So, in order of alphabet (author's last name) here are my uninformed rundowns of the 16 entrants and my grebmaR-certified odds for the author to have barnyard fowl in their yard (or dinner plate) come April.
Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball
An oddball, Kafka-esque noir mystery set in Japan, I can see this novel having some appeal, but don't see it going deep into the tourney. The ideal reader will be a Zenn-diagram intersection of readers fascinated by: 1) Mysterious unknowable Japan 2) Kafka-esque dysphoria, and 3) Compulsive meditators on the nature of Truth. The odds of this book getting that reader four times in a row are approximately 100-1
A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall by Will Chancellor -
Billed on Goodreads as a cross between The Art of Fielding and The Flamethrowers, ABMSST looks high-concept to death: A 7-foot, one-eyed former athlete travels to Berlin to be an Artist; his father tries to become a great intellectual. That's a lot of pretenses, and when this novel meets a reviewer more interested in meat-and-potatoes Normal Rockwell than foie-gras meets faux Warhol, potential is high for an undignified exit. 50-1.
* All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
A beautifully written novel that plumbs the fathomless depths of World War II. It's about a blind girl struggling to survive in a beseiged French city, and a young radio enthusiast whose talents are exploited by everyone's favorite unforgivable inhuman bastards, German Nazis. I loved this book, and so did a lot of people - it's 4.24 GoodReads ranking puts it second on the ToB list. On the other hand, books I love never do well in the ToB. 10-1
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante
The third part of an Italian cross-generational romance, TWLaTWS seems again to have limited appeal, though with its GoodReads score of 4.3 (with far fewer votes, which tends to skew books higher), it is well loved by those who did read it. I can't see that being the third part of a trilogy and having five pages of character biographies at the beginning, and an exposition-heavy first chapter (I read a kindle sample) can possibly be overcome, but stranger things have happened when the Rooster begins to crow. 100-1
* An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
(GR 4.16) A pre-tournament favorite if only for Roxane Gay's towering status in the blogosphere and literati zeitgeist. A chronicle of a kidnapped Haitian heiress who endures rape and torment for 13 days, and the just as traumatic aftermath, for many readers AUS was the book of the year. An important book and a deep contender, definitely, though any judge coming at this from outside the hype machine may take it down for any number of reasons, which may include it being unrelentingly grim, rhetorically repetitive, and a heartbreakingly frustrating read. 8-1
Wittgenstein Jr by Lars Iyer
A melancholic, tormented philosopher, his ennui-ridden Oxford students, this novel of the life of the minds seems like a sleeper targeted, once again, to a very narrow demographic. Given that the average Goodreads score is 3.37, the lowest in the field, I don't see Iyer advancing far unless he meets a series of like-minded philosophy majors in the judges chambers. Or, as Linda summed up on her 1-star Goodreads review: "ugh. If you did not read Philosophy or go to Cambridge, do not read this book." 150-1
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
I feel like this is going to be the dark horse of the tourney, and not just because the author has ties to my home state, Minnesota (Go Gophers!). Anything combining murder and Bob Marley is okay by me. This one could also pair up nicely with Roxane Gay - two novels of the violent legacy of Caribbean nations. 15-1.
Redeployment by Phil Klay
I read one of the stories in this collection, and it was wonderful. Klay comes from the tough-guy sentimental school, the storied, battle-scarred genre of war-and-its aftermath where men silently go about the miserable, violent job of being a Man. Paired with Roxane Gay's novel, and at the hands of the right judge, we could see an epic evaluation of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome viewed through geopolitics and gender issues. I would love to see that. Downsides include short story collections natural tendency to sag against the taut narratives of a single volume novel, so I'm putting the odds at 15-1 on winning the tournament, and 10,000-1 on seeing that insightful conversation of violence, gender, and geopolitics.
* Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Another critical darling. Station Eleven takes literary chops at a shopworn genre cliche, in this case a postapocalyptic America in which a caravan of Shakespearean actors are on the run from a Mad Prophet. The climax may be a little weak and the themes - Art and the Assholes who make it - a bit twee, and some may say the intricate plotting relies a bit too much on coincidence, but overall this is a fine, inspired piece of imagination, and will match up well against any contender in this strong field. 8-1
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Perennial literati darling David Mitchell returns with another dense clockwork novel; I won't even attempt a plot synopsis. I have not read any Mitchell and intend to start one day; he strikes me as a Pynchonesque madman. Mitchell could become the ToB's second winner (He won for Cloud Atlas several years back). Drawbacks: Mitchell fatigue. 10-1
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Another book with a great hook: a mixed-race family in the 1970's experiences turmoil when their beloved daughter dies. There's no better set-up for exploring what America is or does or can be. If Ng executed even half of this premise, there's no reason for this not to be the upset special of the tournament. 15-1
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
A tender, moving portrait of a middle-class marriage. It's themes seem if not slighter when compared to the war-and-trauma heavy contenders elsewhere in the feed, then there seems to be a subtle lack of gravitas. It's always a strange matchup when a family potboiler goes up against a so-called Book for the Ages. Due to a perceived gravitas gap, I'm putting this book at 75-1
Adam by Ariel Schrag
A young boy goes off to college and masquerades as a trans to win the heart of the girl he loves. A brilliant combination of queer studies, 00's nostalgia, and the coming-of-age novel. This one feels wonderful, I love the idea of this farce from a former graphic novelist. Again, there's a gravitas gap at play, but there are enough intangibles to make this novel the little horse that could. Then again, in the Rooster, the big boys and girls tend to crush delicate quirky flowers of a book like Adam. 30-1
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
A period piece with a fairly conventional premise, The Paying Guests is probably the darkest horse in this race. It's 1920's London, and a down-on-their luck family takes in borders who according to the weirdly vague synopsis will shake up their lives in unexpected ways. It's probably better than the weak synopsis makes it out to be - are the boarders ghosts? anarchists? theater people? - but with the heavy hitters in this year's field I'm afraid The Paying Guests will be evicted early. 100-1
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Gravitas, Gravitas, Gravitas. An eco-thriller set in some anarchic eco-disaster future, Annihilation probes the dark regions of Area X, where teams of scientists enter and, if they return at all, come back scarred and transformed. Look for a matchup with the field's other post-apocalyptic potboiler Station Eleven for a discussion on how different two visions of a nasty future can be. I'm giving Annihilation long odds based on it being the first of a trilogy and the always elusive but fairly predictable 'this-is-just-not-for-me' factor. 25-1
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
Moody atmospherics on a haunted island, you say? A woman sheepherder with mysterious scars? Foxes, sheep, and wind-battered vistas? Interesting... Again, the synopsis is light on details - apparently sheep-herder Jake Whyte has a Haunted Past - but there's a likeable elegance to the prose I sampled. And this book was selected for the field by a small, independent bookstore in Glen Elyn, Illinois as their most-hand-sold book of the year, so there has to be something brilliant lurking in the rain-swept highlands, right? Right? 30-1
* Books I've read as of 1-18-2015
Well, that's it. Please remember to keep all wagering on a gentlemanly level. I will post updates when the final pairings are posted in March. Till then, happy reading!
Let the Rooster Crow!