National Book Award Fiction Reviews 2014


Heather’s Reading Challenge
By Heather Nielsen

This month, I decided to read all five books shortlisted for the National Book Award in fiction.

My challenge began when I read Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and swore it should win the award. My co-workers here at GBHQ pointed out that I couldn’t possibly be sure of that without reading the other four contenders, so, I did. I now present you a review of my challenge, just in case you don’t have time to read five novels before the winner is announced tonight.

Station Eleven, Emily St. John MandelStationEleven

Station Eleven takes place sometime in the near future, in a post-epidemic America whose population is so devastated that infrastructure has collapsed, leaving the flu’s survivors living in pre-industrial settlements on the outskirts of former civilization. The plot bounces back and forth between pre- and post- epidemic to tell the story of the Traveling Symphony, a caravan of actors and singers who perform Shakespeare and classical music to settlements around Lake Michigan under the banner “Because survival is insufficient.”

The latter is a Star Trek: Voyager quote, and between that and the Shakespeare I would already have been sold; completely independent of these factors, I was entirely engulfed by this novel. I dreamed about it. I thought about it at work. I even canceled dinner plans one night so I could get home to finish reading it. And once the book ended, I wished it was twice as long, such was my investment in the world Mandel has created.

You might think a post-epidemic novel is too real in the face of Ebola-media panic. The epidemic and its aftermath are realistically depicted, but not couched in spectacle: these realities are merely the catalyst for Mandel’s post-industrial future. She asks us to think about our reliance upon technology and each other without bashing us over the head with answers. The characters are simply rendered–they seem to serve primarily as personality traits for the novel’s main character, Earth’s collapsed civilization–but they are nonetheless rich and sympathetic. The language is subtle and stunning. This book was lovely enough to prompt me to read four more, just to prove that this one was the best.

 

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

AllLightBecause I began reading this novel still in the throes of Station Eleven, I’ll admit I approached it with cranky bias. I’m generally frustrated by novels claiming to present yet another new perspective on World War II (more on that later).

The novel certainly does present readers with a new perspective, since it tells the story of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl in exile, and Werner, a German orphan boy made to fight, too young, for the SS. This novel’s scope is expansive: across Germany, Russia, Paris, and the seaside fortress of Saint Malo; between Werner, Marie-Laure, ancillary characters, and letters; and back and forth in time. It begins during the story’s climax–the American bombing of German-occupied Saint Malo–and alternates to track the children’s adolescence leading up to this moment.

If this book is to win the National Book Award, it will be for its status as Most Extensively Researched. The novel works with history masterfully–not only in the conventional World War II novel ways regarding military protocol or battle dates, but in the characters’ respective passions. Marie-Laure’s love of Jules Verne, of mineralogy and mollusks, Werner’s fascination with electricity and the transformative power of the radio. Such details make this book more human than many of the other recent WWII narratives that treat the war as the main character; those other narratives can often seem interchangeable when they let history subsume the story. I certainly appreciate Doerr’s desire to give the voiceless voices, especially in the case of Werner, a boy whose life could only have been improved by his morally fraught decision to join the Nazi ranks.

Ultimately, I wished the book were shorter. The plot is catalyzed by a precious stone and its associated myths, but this device acted more like a McGuffin than anything that actually enhanced the story. I left it still feeling Station Eleven was more unique, and packed its emotional punch with more utility.

 

An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih AlameddineUnnecessaryWoman

This novel took me the longest to read (indeed, I finished the final two books on the list before I finished this one). I imagine this is due to the novel’s structure–actually, I’m not sure I could classify this as a novel given its lack of structure. Out of all the nominees, An Unnecessary Woman has the most unconventional narrative: the first-person narrator, Aaliyah, a seventy-something year old single woman living in Beirut, speaks directly to the narrator in an unbroken stream of consciousness that lasts 300 pages. It’s an incredibly intimate way for a reader to access a character’s interiority, but it doesn’t make for fast reading during a self-imposed book challenge.

Many National Book Award winners I’ve read seem to be intertextual, books about books. This is probably because the NBA selection committee loves books, and must therefore love books about books. This novel is definitely the most intertextual of the five. Aaliyah is an autodidact who translates one book a year from English or French to Arabic (she never shows these translations to anyone)–therefore her narration is richly punctuated by references and allusions ranging from the Quran to Greek mythology to Calvino to Kant to Sebald. I’ll admit my own bibliophilic heart leapt at most of these references, but can imagine this book would be hard to tackle for less-versed readers. Overall, I’m still not sure where I would rank this book, but I enjoyed getting to know its narrator.

 

Lila, Marilynne Robinson

LilaI was frustrated to realize this book, like An Unnecessary Woman, also lacked any chapter structure–fluid, stream of consciousness writing has its merits, but less so when you’re trying to read quickly during a business trip. This novel caught me by surprise. I believed that I was uninvested in the characters of this novel until I realized I couldn’t stop thinking about them.

This novel is about Lila, a girl who is raised poor, on the road, by a woman who is not her mother, somewhere in the American south sometime in the 1930s. It centers around her marriage to an elderly pastor and their delicate relationship of dependence and mistrust.

I found the husband and wife’s stilted, careful, vulnerable interactions to be a lovely, realistic illustration of two strangers trying to learn to love eachother. Most interesting was the depiction of Lila’s ignorance: she grows up with very little schooling, to the point she doesn’t know her country has a name, and she ends up married to an educated preacher. I had not thought much about what it must be like to grow up so removed from education that you don’t know feelings and concepts have names.

Despite this unique quality, I do not think Lila stands out enough among its contenders to win the award. However, it is definitely worth the read for those interested in the psychology of their fiction characters.

 

Redeployment, Phil KlayRedeployment

Thankfully, this last book’s structure allowed for one-day consumption, otherwise I might not have beaten my own challenge. Phil Klay’s dual status as US Marine Corps Iraq veteran and MFA writer seem to have equipped him well to write what, to my knowledge, is one of the first literary fiction accounts of our most recent war.

Redeployment is a collection of short stories, each from a different character related to the US Marine presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. After two less-than-structured books with stream-of-consciousness narratives, I was looking forward to investing myself in some new central characters, and admittedly was somewhat disappointed to be foiled once again. However, the vignette style here allows for incredible breadth of perspective. Readers see the front lines, the back offices, the chapels, the hospitals, the humvees, the bunks, and the many post-war homes. My favorite section by far, entitled “Money as a Weapons System”, details the bureaucratic comedy of a frustrated Foreign Services Officer trying to get clean water for an Iraqi community when the US is fixated on teaching Iraqi children how to play baseball.

There was nothing in this book that really surprised me: it had the requisite coarse language, military terminology, and grit to be expected from a war narrative. But, like any seminal war-literary-fictional account (as this one is slated to be for Iraq and Afghanistan), it works very well to provide various human perspectives to something that has become a series of cliches like those which the characters of this book criticize. Redeployment will win the award if the committee is hoping to solidify its place in the war-literary-fiction canon containing books like The Things They Carried and A Farewell to Arms. 

 

So, who should win? After five books, I still think Station Eleven stands out as the most remarkable–it’s the one I want to talk about, the one I keep recommending to friends, the one I just spent ten minutes touting to my poor unsuspecting boss when he asked which book I liked best. Surely the National Book Award winner should be the book we can’t stop talking about.

I guess the real question is, which book can’t the selection committee stop talking about? We’ll see tonight when they announce the winners at 7pm EST TONIGHT. Watch the livestream here!

Have you read any of the nominees? Do you pick a different winner? Tell us in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter (tweet @hthrnielsen to include me in the conversation!).

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