Tournament of Books: Census

A few days ago I finished reading the tenth Tournament of Books 2019 book, Jesse Ball’s “Census“, which is running against Lydia Kiesling’s “The Golden State” in the fourth round of the competition.

Perhaps unfairly, but when I first saw “Census” I thought that it was going to be novel in the vein of Max Porter’s “Grief is a Thing With Feathers”. I blame the the cormorant on its cover and the published blurb about it for putting me in that frame of mind. It was very clear a few pages in that “Census” would not survive that comparison. Then again, so few books could.

“Census” is book with a very moving preface and some very moving photos at the end. In the middle is a featureless wasteland. It is populated by unnamed characters that function in an unnamed, ill defined world that is maybe desolate, where a peculiar census is conducted each year in which people are asked questions by a census taker who then marks them and posts their answers onwards. Nothing in this novel is given edges, well defined. Everything is wishy washy, vague, seen through thick, milky glass. But that preface… so you stick to it, and it helps that the book is short, though it has no plot to speak of and the setting is bleak and bland. The key to this novel is its characters then, and that’s not surprising because after all, you’ve read the preface and that’s what’s keeping you here.

And that’s the biggest frustration, because when Jesse Ball lets himself write good characters then by God the man knows how to write good characters. There’s a tiny vignette of a ex-fossil loving boy that’s so precise, so concise and so convincing that you want to howl that the rest of the novel isn’t like that. That the surgeon-father-protagonist isn’t like that. That the son, the whole reason for this novel, remains a shapeless mass with nothing making him hum – no distinct feature, tic, preference. That the wife is the best defined major character and even she is seen through thick fog. It’s never personal, emotional, realistic or if he’s really going for the absurdist (which is a poor stylistic choice for the subject matter IMHO) then it’s far from fully embracing that even.

What is feels like is that the writer took a subject that was too close to home, too painful, and tried to deal with it while not dealing with it at the same time. The result is a novel that does everything possible to make it difficult for you to feel anything for any of its characters, including empathy. It very easily lets you slip into the “oh this has nothing to do with me” mode, and from there to “none of these characters are likable, hate-able or even interesting, so why should I care” mode.

But then, the preface…

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Tournament of Books: Census

Vintage Faber Castell Sharpener

I found this beast in a dusty corner of my favourite vintage shop in Jaffa. It’s far from pristine, but it’s so overbuilt that it still works. The body is Bakelite and somehow still whole, and even the green shavings receptacle isn’t cracked. I haven’t been able to find anything about the Faber Castell 52/18 (except for an eBay listing that says that it’s rare), but I love the design enough to wish that they were still being made today. Something about that green cutout in the black body just works.

Vintage Faber Castell Sharpener

This Week’s Long Run: Evening Birds

Saturday was supposed to rain cats and dogs, so I pushed my Saturday morning 10K to a Friday evening one.

This is a terrible picture of a heron, but that’s what I have I’m afraid.

Momma Egyptian goose keeps an eye on her swimming little ones. Not pictured, the rat that was foraging for food a few meters from them.

Sea scouts out in their boats:

A pair of Egyptian geese watching over the river:

It was very windy, so the surfers were out in force:

This Week’s Long Run: Evening Birds

Tournament of Books: The Dictionary of Animal Languages

Yesterday I finished reading the ninth Tournament of Books 2019 book, Heidi Sopinka’s “The Dictionary of Animal Languages“, which is running against Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black” in the third round of the competition.

“The Dictionary of Animal Languages” is a technically difficult novel to read: the language is dense, the plot isn’t linear and at least at first it takes time to figure out who is talking, what’s going on, and in which timeline (one of the several past ones, or the present) you are. It doesn’t help that dialog isn’t delineated with quotation marks and often it isn’t clear who is talking, or whether they are talking or you are in their mind. If it wasn’t for the tournament I would have probably not have bothered with this book after wading through the first 2-3 chapters.

Ivory’s life is complicated and fascinating, but difficult to construct when broken up into non consecutive pieces and portrayed as it is. The characters and settings are very good (vivacious and interesting), and if the story was reconstructed in a more linear fashion it would be “unputdownable”. Sopinka is trying to show Ivory’s life in bursts, not unlike field recordings that you listen to in the lab and try to make sense of, but it really is too much effort for the ending result.

The novel is lyrical and touches on a lot of interesting themes (women’s roles and choices in the worlds of art and science, for example) , but the first third of it moves like thick pudding through a fine sieve. If you get through that, the last half is so much more interesting and rewarding than the first one, although it rushes through some plot points that feel like they shouldn’t be rushed through. There are too many coincidences in the plot (get captured and escape from prison camps much?), there are familial ties that are severed with no explanation or time to mourn (what happened to her brothers? Did Lev really breeze through retelling his brother’s death with not even a moment’s pause?) , and then there is the peculiar animal languages dictionary that is constantly evoked but never really explained to the reader, and you wonder why.

In short, this is a book in need of a more adept writer or a much stricter editor. The bones that are there are interesting enough to merit wading through the first part if you’re interested in contemporary fiction. There’s something there that with time and experience could probably make for a masterpiece some day.

It’s interesting that the Tournament of Books pitched “The Dictionary of Animal Languages” against “Washington Black” as the first has a weak beginning and a strong ending and the last has a strong beginning and a weak ending. Could they have made a perfect collaborative novel together? Jokes aside, Sopkina’s book is a better, if far from perfect, work of fiction, and her novel is lyrical while “Washington Black” only tries really hard to be. “Dictionary”‘s characters are better written and conceived, its plot, once reconstructed, is more compelling, and even its treatment of the animal conservation theme and social pariah/underdog themes are more nuanced and compelling. That is surprising considering the idea behind “Washington Black” seems more powerful and interesting than the one behind “Dictionary”, but Sopinka totally wins in execution against Edugyan.

Tournament of Books: The Dictionary of Animal Languages

The Tournament of Books: Washington Black

I recently finished reading the eighth Tournament of Books 2019 book, Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black“, which is running against Heidi Sopinka’s “The Dictionary of Animal Languages” in the third round of the competition.

This is the only Tournament of Books book that I heard of before the competition. It made quite a splash when it came out last year, a sort of slave/coming of age narrative with steam punk slapped on for flavour. Sounds interesting, right?

The first half of this novel is. The story of Washington’s childhood (if you can call it that) as a slave, Kit’s story, Faith plantation, Barbados and the Wilde family — they’re all vibrant, alive, speaking volumes through history. Washington’s escape, his travels, his survivor’s guilt, they’re all fascinating, complex, well written, until Washington reaches Canada, where everything grinds to a halt. The narrative enters a kind of swampy ennui, characters become cardboard specimens viewed through milky, distorted glass, and the only thing that maintains the earlier vibrancy is the setting. It was as if all the narrative urge was drained out of this novel and Edugyan was working for a word quota. Slash the novel after the point where Christopher steps into the ice storm and you not only lose nothing, you end up with a better narrative. Christopher trapped and Washington free is more interesting than Christopher being a man-child unable to face the world and Washington chasing him to get no answers. And the “love story” between Tanna and Washington feels more like a last minute after thought than a believable, integral part of the tale.

This could have been an excellent novella, instead of an almost good novel that lost narrative steam halfway through. What a shame.

The Tournament of Books: Washington Black