More Rooster Fun!

March 19, 2008 | 3 books mentioned 4

Mark Sarvas is the next to weigh in on this year’s Tournament of Books, deciding between Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and Vendela Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. He spends much of the review lamenting the early loss of Robert Bolano’s The Savage Detectives (as Garth did here), but he’s able to momentarily put his chagrin aside to judge the two novels at hand. Since I haven’t read any of these three books, I can’t agree or disagree with Sarvas’ assessment. I was most interested, though, in the commentary by Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner. Guilfole wonders if Sarvas’ description of Vida’s novel as “effective if slight” is really praise at all. He goes on to say:

To be fair to Mark, I’m now going well beyond what I think is either his conscious or even subconscious intention, but the “slight” business in this case strikes me as vaguely sexist as well, as though a book about a young woman literally searching for her identity, no matter how skillfully it is rendered, could live up to the grand (at least judging by physical size) ambitions of either Bolano’s or Johnson’s opuses.

Guilfoile admits he might be reading too much into Sarvas’ commentary because he loved Vida’s novel so much, bit it did get me wondering: Was Sarvas correct in advancing Denis Johnson’s novel because it is, in his words, the “Big Literary Book”?

There’s also some interesting commentary, mainly by John Warner, about how Sarvas, with the publication of his debut book, Harry, Revised, is “about to make the complicated transition from critic to novelist.” A sticky (and exhilarating) situation to be in, for sure.

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. I haven't read Johnson's novel yet, but I suspect Sarvas made the right choice: "slight" seems to fit with my impression of Vida's book as well. There are stunning pieces to her writing, and I was entranced by the setting, but there were so many missed opportunities to take the story deeper (not necessarily longer), that I finished the book rather frustrated. Vida's talented, and I'll look forward to her future work, but this novel is underwhelming.

  2. Since when can a novelist not be a critic as well?

    The word 'slight' must be stricken from one's vocabulary after being published? Many of our greatest novelists have also been our greatest critics… I really hope that our best writers can recognize when a book fails to achieve that special something… and many are able to look back on their own work with an equally critical eye.

    While I remain unconvinced by Sarvas' appreciation of "Tree of Smoke" (for me, the action/'longueur' combo was exactly the point…), I feel the need to defend his right as a critic.

    Oh, and "Tree of Smoke" was amazing.
    Though my money's on "Remainder", which was equally great (better?).

    Aside; am I the only one who hated "Oscar Wao"?

  3. Winjer, I respect Mark Sarvas as a critic (I like his blog a lot), and of course I think one can write novels and discuss them in the public sphere, but certainly it's not as easy as doing just one or the other. Since I didn't read Tree of Smoke or Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, I can't say which I'd "advance" to the next round (which, is a pretty funny way to read books anyway, but so entertaining!).

    For the record, I loved Oscar Wao, and absolutely hated The Remainder–but I seem to be the only one who had a hard time with that one…

    Thanks for your comments!

  4. winjer —

    While I certainly didn't hate Oscar Wao (Diaz can flat-out write, there's no doubt about it) I found myself very frustrated by the jumping around between characters. I felt like Diaz went through all this trouble to create a compelling, interesting, empathetic lead character in Oscar, and just when I would follow Oscar anywhere, poof!, we're in someone else's story. Maybe some felt this deepened the story, but I felt it made the story more superficial. Of course, that may be personal taste.

    It also left me with the nagging feeling that Diaz didn't really have a story to tell, and when he ran out of ideas, he would just simply turn to a different character.

    (It also, frankly, made me wonder what in this book took 10 years to write, when not only does it draw heavily on Diaz's own experiences, but his previous book of short stories, Drown. Here's hoping Diaz will broaden his horizons with his next book.)

    For my money, Diaz also went to the pop-culture/geekery/nerdlinger well for references far too many times, and I felt like he used it as a crutch to avoid tackling real human emotion.

    Of course, all of these tactics could just be his attempt to dress up what is essentially a story about a nerd trying to get laid.

    I think the novel works best if it's looked at as a collection of loosely collected short stories, and not a "novel" per se. And once I realized Diaz wasn't going to be writing a story-driven novel, it became more enjoyable.

    (Though I have to ask, why title the book that way? I think that also helped create a false impression.)

    Anyway, this got a little long, but while I don't know if I would recommend this book, I do know I will at least pick up the next thing he writes, as long as he stretches his wings some.

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