National Book Critics Circle Awards 2008 -- The Pre-Show!
You knew going into it that Heath Ledger was going to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and you know going into it that Roberto Bolaño is going to win the 2008 National Book Critics Circle award for fiction.

(Heath Ledger)

That settled, let's begin: by mysterious fortune I got the opportunity to attend the finalists' reading for this year's NBCC awards. Like Charlie Bucket before me, I presented my invitation and walked through the doors of the New School into another world. I sat down next to a woman who may or may not have been Joyce Carol Oates. She turned her sad eyes upon me and then she turned them away.

Who here has read Stephen Manes's Be A Perfect Person in Just Three Days? Do you remember the vision the main character has of sitting in a vast auditorium drinking weak tea in silence? That is what it was like, sitting among the members of the National Book Critics Circle. As a rule they were in their 50s and 60s, because that is how old you must be to truly understand literature. You will spend your entire life learning to truly understand literature, to appreciate it with every inch of your soft palate. The older book critics had an ethereal quality, a glowing quality. The stage was bare, almost shabby; the audience shined with a strange and sacred light, bodies from whom all of the rough edges and meat of life had been winnowed by time and sheer good taste. The other youngish people I saw scattered around the room were as a rule silent, stopped, uncomfortable-looking in their possibly rented suits. The performers waited in the front rows and elsewhere, nervously hunched over the copies of their books, biting lips and crossing knees. It was like being at a piano recital.

Let the fun begin! There are six categories for the National Book Critics Circle awards: biography, autobiography, criticism, poetry, general nonfiction, and fiction. You can read about all of them here at the NBCC's swingin' blog, Critical Mass. I don't want to go into detail about every single reader, but for the record here are my picks for tomorrow's winners in every category that is not fiction, along with relevant odds for purposes of bookmaking:

Which brings us to Fiction. There are five people up for the award; four were present at the reading. Aleksandar Hemon couldn't take the pressure. Here's my report on how well all of the rest were at reading their own work.

Roberto Bolaño, 2666

(n.b.: Since Bolaño is unfortunately dead, his work was read by his English translator, Natasha Wimmer. Points off for bad sportsmanship.)

Style: Wimmer won them over in a dramatic black and white suit/sweater ensemble with a daring scoop-neck and classically tentative critical theory glasses.

Elocution: Nervousness breeds speed, and that's not what we need! Still, a decent sense of articulation and a feeling of respect went hand in hand in the end.

Poise: It is maybe cheating to read work that is not your own, although the words are technically Wimmer's and some measure of the sentiments surely are as well. Still, Wimmer, despite the waver in her voice, maintained a commanding stage presence, one which seemed impervious to the screaming crowds of book critics below her, a professional to the end.

Writing: I have not read 2666 (although there are those among us who have.) Based on the selection from 2666 chosen by Wimmer tonight (the part which includes a line to this effect: "Everything in Mexico is an homage to something else in the world"), I will probably read 2666.

Marilynne Robinson, Home

Style: A noose made of pearls; an olive sweatshirt; a black trenchcoat with a Sherlock Holmes lapel; a mysterious elegance.

Elocution: Upper-class, a hint of retiring and ingrown preciousness.

Poise: A very pronounced difference when the audience was laughing and when the audience was not; a sign of nervousness growing into confidence. Excellent posture throughout.

Writing: I think that if Marilynne Robinson were someone that I knew personally, and I learned that she had written this novel as a way of working out complicated emotional relationships with members of her family, I would probably like this a lot more than I do now, when instead I've learned that this book was someone's choice for the highest-quality and most interesting work of fiction published in America in all of 2008.

Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteredge

Style: Icy in the manner of Meryl Streep: the same few strands of hair in artful disarray, the same white-on-beige scarf-and-suit ensemble, the same tight smile, the same meaning of business in the eyes.

Elocution: Clipped, forceful, emphasis on the verbs rather than the nouns. A true professional reader.

Poise: By far tonight's winner in terms of poise. Perfect posture, a winning stance behind the lectern, a breezy air, a crisp walk onto and off of the stage. Smiles at the audience at all the right moments, wonderful delivery.

Writing: I'm sorry but this was just a string of cliches. Maybe the actual book is better?

M. Glenn Taylor, The Battle of Trenchmouth Taggart

Style: A well-maintained goatee under a smooth and shining forehead, a skinny mod tie, a Mormon chic dress shirt. The overall impression of a man who understands spiritual things.

Elocution: When he is introducing his book: Edward Norton. When he is actually reading his book: Billy Bob Thornton, Clint Eastwood. Where did his accent come from?

Poise: Supreme confidence that the words he was reading were perhaps the best words we had ever read in our entire lives. Big smile when he was talking about "raccoon pecker-bones"; a certainty that he would enjoy this concession to gross biological minutiae (every modern novel must have a concession to gross biological minutiae.)

Writing: Why do people who aren't from the South have such a fascination with the South? This was an excerpt from a novel about some kind of Man With No Name, a real Rough Customer who in the excerpt is lying in a field of cotton or some goddamned thing. He has a magic flask which contains a magic gun, and he is inscribing magic sigils on a magic piece of bone with a "raccoon pecker-bone". The plot of the excerpt is that he uses his magic gun to shoot a hole in something and it is a very precise shot. Basically if you read this instead you will get essentially the same effect as reading this book, I think.

So there you have it. I was hoping that it would be a closer race this year and that I'd have lots of commentary on the subtle little variables and quirks of individual narratives that would make me lean toward one or another book as the winner, but 2666 is just so clearly better than any of these other books that there's no point. The only possible dark horse is "The Lazarus Project", which I haven't read, but come on: it is competing against the allure of a dead man. A dead man wants you to give him an award. That plus the raw quality of 2666 compared to its rivals means a victory meal in Fiction Heaven tomorrow night (a victory meal in Fiction Heaven consists of short ribs, overbrowned, and a tin of baked beans, and a cupcake that someone has tried and failed to write your name on in red gel icing. The floors are checkerboard linoleum and the fluorescent lights flicker, constantly, and three old men are always playing spades at a booth in the corner, and there is always room for you in that booth and in the game.)

I could, of course, go back tomorrow night for the announcement of the winners, or for the $45-a-head reception to take place afterwards. Instead I will probably go to Neon Cicada Universe featuring the Fiction Circus's own Goodman Carter. Let's all go; we'll toast to the victory of 2666 together.

Posted by future on Thu, 12 Mar 2009 00:37:52 -0400 -- permanent link

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