By now you’ve read the result, Toni Morrison’s A Mercy edged out Tom Piazza’s City of Refuge to win The Tournament of Books. Now, if I were a betting man, and it were possible to bet on the Pulitzer winner, I’d bet on A Mercy. Why? The Tournament of Books has called the Pulitzer winner the last two years running. In 2008, Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao took home the Pulitzer on the heels of the Rooster. And in 2007, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road saw its Pulitzer win presaged by not just a Rooster, but also its unlikely companion, an Oprah’s book club pick. On April 20th, we’ll see if the Rooster still has the jump on America’s oldest literary prize.
The Booker longlist was announced yesterday. Going over the list, I noted that it didn’t seem very multi-cultural. One of the interesting things about the Booker is that any author from the Commonwealth of Nations or from Ireland is eligible. This means that any of 54 countries might send a writer to Booker glory. This year, however, the judging committee is keeping things geographically constrained, with only three countries represented among the 13 finalists:England, 9 (Byatt, Foulds, Harvey, Lever, Mantel, Hall, Mawer, Scudamore, Waters)Ireland, 3 (O’Loughlin, Toibin, Trevor)South Africa, 1 (Coetzee)Moving on to less serious matters, the Booker betting odds are now out (and subject to change as punters put their money on the line). The bookmakers like Toibin and Waters to win, but James Lever is putting in an impressive showing with his mock memoir of a chimp.4/1 Colm Toibin – Brooklyn4/1 Sarah Waters – The Little Stranger5/1 Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall6/1 J.M. Coetzee – Summertime8/1 James Lever – Me Cheeta10/1 A.S. Byatt – The Children’s Book12/1 William Trevor – Love and Summer14/1 Ed O’Loughlin – Not Untrue and Not Unkind14/1 Simon Mawer – The Glass Room16/1 James Scudamore – Heliopolis16/1 Adam Foulds – The Quickening Maze16/1 Sarah Hall – How to Paint a Dead Man16/1 Samantha Harvey – The Wilderness
The Booker Prize has whittled down its longlist to an intriguing shortlist, and none of the authors tapped has previously won the Prize. As was the case in prior years, two Americans make the shortlist this year: Paul Beatty and Ottessa Moshfegh. They are joined by the UK’s Graeme Macrae Burnet and Deborah Levy, and Canadians David Szalay and Madeleine Thien. The bookies suggest that Levy, the only author remaining to have previously landed on a shortlist, is the favorite to win.
All the Booker Prize shortlisters are below (with bonus links where available):
The Sellout by Paul Beatty (The Inanity of American Plutocracy: On Paul Beatty’s The Sellout)
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (Ottessa Moshfegh’s Year in Reading)
All That Man Is by David Szalay
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) is a curious group, though given that they’re a writers’ guild, curious is par for the course. Gathering together scribblers from two related but nevertheless distinct disciplines under one umbrella seems like a holdover from a less genre-friendly time, when artists like these needed to band together for strength and comfort. After all, when the Edgar Awards come out every year, it’s under the aegis of the Mystery Writers of America; that’s it, just mystery.
But the SFWA are a welcoming bunch, nevertheless, handing out their Nebula Award in recent years to everyone from crackerjack dreamweavers like Neil Gaiman (the mainstream dark fantasy American Gods in 2002 and the fey nightmare Coraline in 2003) to once-mainstream writers gone gleefully genre like Michael Chabon (his brilliantly imagined counterfactual-cum-detective novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union in 2007). Time will tell if the last decade’s batch of winners will hold up to scrutiny like those in its first decade, when the Nebula was passed out to Frank Herbert’s Dune, Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, three foundational works in 20th century science fiction.
There are six novels nominated for this year’s Nebula Award, which will be announced May 19th. They cover the future, the present, and the indefinable. They feature shy faeries, magicians who wield bugs like weapons, and a postapocalyptic steampunk traveling circus. What they don’t do much of is splash about in that shallow, mucky pool of vampire/alien/cop/erotica/fallen angel serial potboilers (new variations ever-spinning off as though generated by some genre virus) being snapped up by ever more readers. Only two of the six Nebula nominees are series books, the rest are novel-novels – left to live or die on their own, no cliffhangers to entice you back.
Firebird by Jack McDevitt: McDevitt is one of those increasingly rare practitioners of the far-future space opera; unfortunately, Firebird is not exactly an advertisement for the subgenre. The sixth of a series, it’s narrated by Chase Kolpath, dutiful assistant to the series’ star, Jack Benedict, a kind of archaeologist-cum-rare antiquities dealer (an earlier Benedict novel, Seeker, took the Nebula in 2006). Chase and Jack meander their way into a mystery linking a disappeared physicist named Christopher Robin and a series of spaceships that have disappeared. The prose has the monotone feel of a constant hum, only slightly upticking even when Chase and Jack are besieged by a band of malevolent AIs rampaging about like more advanced versions of the human-hating machines in Stephen King’s “Trucks.” Alex’s God-like sagacity turns less Sherlockian as the story bumps on, Chase’s dully Watson-like dependability is slightly tweaked, but the lack of dimensionality to the characters is nearly complete. It’s true that McDevitt ratchets up the cross-dimensional drama once more is discovered about the disappeared ships and stirs some embers of an intriguing debate over the souls of AIs. Sadly, though, he sets aside any attempt to portray a cross-galaxy human society many centuries in the future as truly any different from today’s.
The Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin: Jemisin is a rising talent with a couple of Hugo and Nebula nominations to her credit and a sharp voice — check out her quasi-manifesto: “Don’t Put My Book in the African American Section.” Like half of this year’s nominees, her novel is more fantasy than science fiction, but as previously discussed, all are welcome here. The final entry in her “Inheritance Trilogy,” The Kingdom of Gods is set in the same magic-plagued world as the previous two, but with different characters. The narrator Sieh, is a “godling” who still winces at the memory of his long imprisonment by the Arameri, a tyrannical human dynasty (whose Vatican-sized palace is built in a “World Tree” the size of a mountain range) which has lost the power to enslave gods. Sieh’s a bratty and bloody-minded Loki-esque trickster figure who thinks nothing of slaughtering dozens in a fit of pique, but nevertheless steals the hearts of a pair of Arameri royal siblings. Jemisin paces her book fast and knotty (the glossary at back helps), downgrading Sieh to mortal status and setting him adrift in the roiling dramas of this hyperbolic, violent, and power-crazed world. It’s overripe and overplotted, but rich with detail and emotion; she channels the darker fratricidal and genocidal themes of Greek mythology like few other writers can. Jemisin doesn’t make the mistake of ascribing human morality to her godly characters just because they have recognizably human emotions.
Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine: Valentine’s short fictions have been anthologized many times — everywhere from various Year’s Best collections to more themed-works like War and Space — but this is her first novel. The easiest definition of Mechanique’s loosely-threaded story would be “steampunk circus.” No airships and not a pair of goggles to be seen, but still, there’s enough fascination with clanking machinery and low-tech bioware, as well as a fuzzy disinterest in time-period specificity. Call it steampunk-adjacent. The Circus Tresaulti, as described by the young and romantic narrator George, is a fabulist’s dream of patched-together tents and critically wounded performers reborn as pre-digital cyborgs with metallic limbs, surgically attached wings, and lighter-than-air bones (the latter very handy for the aerialists). Their female Ahab is known only as the Boss (whose skill with the performers’ mechanized add-ons seems more than a little Faustian), the circus trundles through a vaguely-described and war-blasted landscape of ruined cities and feral audiences. The whole affair is tied together far too late in the game with a climax that feels too familiar by half. Valentine has imagination, but only to a point. Her characters take too long to come into focus, and her writing just doesn’t have the strength to carry such a lightly-plotted piece to fruition.
God’s War by Kameron Hurley: First-timer Hurley has a sensibility not too far removed from Jemisin’s. Both have a fine feel for action and have no compunctions about burying readers up to their necks in conspiracies and bloody intrigue. Where Jemisin works in a vein of mythological overkill, Hurley has a grittier cyberpunk feel to her writing. Her fascinating God’s War is another far-future story set on a planet far from Earth in terms of light years, but quite neighborly in the similarity of its politics and problems. Two vaguely Muslim nations, Nasheen and Chenjan, have been locked in a grinding war for longer than living memory. The planet is ridden with disease and toxic with religious orthodoxy and terrorism-inspired paranoia. What high technology there exists seems to come entirely from the specific manipulations of the planet’s native bug species. With entire generations of men sacrificed to the front, women comprise nearly all of civilian society. Hurley’s antiheroine, Nyx, is a former Nasheenian bel dame, or court-appointed assassin, who now plies her trade (bringing a bounty’s severed head back to whoever can pay) freelance. When Nyx is hired for a particularly onerous job, she takes on a larger crew, including Rhys, a Chenjan magician who is not particularly good at bug magic but will do for now. Hurley is a gut-punch kind of writer, with harsh characters in a harsh world doing whatever they think is necessary to survive — even if survival frequently seems little better than the alternative.
Embassytown by China Miéville: The newest, frequently baffling novel by the never-rote Miéville is the most welcome entry in this list, most particularly because it is the novel that most truly immerses readers into a world well beyond their ken. On the planet of Arieki, humans live in tenuous coexistence with an alien race known as the Hosts. A delicate balancing act keeps most humans in circumscribed boundaries, the only dialogue capable via human ambassadors who work in pairs. (The Hosts speak via two mouths, resulting in twinned streams of communication, a fascinating concept that Miéville runs wild with.) The book’s narrator is Avice, an Arieki woman who works as an immernaut, piloting the great depths of space between systems. She is wrangled into helping manage the crisis that erupts after a verbal virus begins to spread in the Hosts, leading to the collapse of the planet’s social order and the threat of all-out war. Miéville’s world is an immersive one, with few roadsigns to assist the beleaguered. But the novel’s all-encompassing alien nature is like a lexicographical blanket, enveloping the reader in abstruse, world-changing theories and riddle-wrapped drama. It’s all less dense than it sounds, for all Miéville’s language-mad word wizardry, there’s a thread of story here that makes it as thrilling and readable as any work of science fiction in recent memory.
Among Others by Jo Walton: You could consider Walton more a fan of science fiction than a practitioner of it, but that isn’t to do disservice to her writing, it’s to give credit to the potency and sharpness of her fandom. Among Others is a rainy, moody thing where the story is little more than a whisper. The narrator, Morwenna Phelps, is a Welsh girl (like Walton) who’s sent off to boarding school in England after a mishap with magic cost the life of her sister but just may have saved the world from the evil powers of their witch mother. Now Morwenna walks with a cane and tries not to let her magic show around the posher schoolgirls (her ability to see and speak to fairies might throw them), all the while trying to reconnect with her daffy father and figure out what to do if her mother returns. That’s all background atmosphere, though. Walton’s real story is Morwenna’s love of science fiction. The novel is told in diary form, and nearly every entry includes some finely argued notation on the joys and merits of what she’s reading. Her list is heavy with dark transgressors like Samuel R. Delany and John Brunner, as befitting Walton’s late-1970s setting. There’s a gripping, deeply-learned love here that goes beyond mere fandom, delivering one of the most intelligently impassioned odes to science fiction, and reading in general, ever put to paper. As Morwenna says on entering her father’s study: “I actually relaxed in his presence, because if there are books perhaps it won’t be all that bad.” Anybody who has felt the glow and tug of mind-warping joy that comes with devouring a stack of broken-spined sci-fi paperbacks will know exactly what she means.
The IMPAC Award shortlist was announced last night. The IMPAC sets itself apart with its unique approach. Its massive longlist is compiled by libraries all over the world before being whittled down by judges. This makes for a more egalitarian selection. It’s also got a long lead time. Books up for the current prize (to be named June 17th) were all published in 2008, putting the IMPAC more than a year behind other big literary awards. There’s a distinct upside in this. By now, all the shortlisted books are available in paperback. We’ve also always found the IMPAC interesting for the breadth of books it considers.This year’s shortlist is typically eclectic, representing six countries and ranging from bestsellers, to relative unknowns.The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker (excerpt (pdf), Best Translated Book Award shortlist)The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (excerpt (pdf))In Zodiac Light by Robert Edric(Guardian review)Settlement by Christoph Hein (at The Complete Review)The Believers by Zoë Heller (The Millions Interview)Netherland by Joseph O’Neill (O’Neill in our Year in Reading, Garth’s review, Kevin’s review)God’s Own Country by Ross Raisin (excerpt)Home by Marilynne Robinson (excerpt)
A curious statement was made by this year’s Pulitzer Prize committee as, for the first time since A River Runs Through It failed to win in 1977, no award was given in the fiction category. Instead, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King will get to split the “tie” on their records. In the history of the Prize, there have only been nine other years without a fiction winner.
Meanwhile in the General Nonfiction category, Stephen Greenblatt‘s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern took home the top prize.
Here are this year’s Pulitzer winners and finalists with excerpts where available:
Winner: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt (excerpt)
One Hundred Names For Love: A Stroke, a Marriage, and the Language of Healing by Diane Ackerman (excerpt)
Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men by Mara Hvistendahl (excerpt)
Winner: Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable (excerpt, The Millions review)
Empires, Nations & Families: A History of the North American West, 1800-1860 by Anne F. Hyde (excerpt – PDF)
The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan (excerpt)
Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America by Richard White (excerpt)
Winner: George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis (excerpt)
Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution by Mary Gabriel (excerpt)
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable (excerpt, The Millions review)
Winners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.
There are, for my money, only two worthwhile moments in that perennial PR orgy known as the Academy Awards. The first comes when actresses prance down the red carpet in their vomitous million-dollar get-ups and an interviewer poses that weirdest of questions, “Who are you wearing?” The second moment comes when writers, who spend 364 days at the bottom of the Hollywood food chain, get to belly up ever so briefly to the big banquet table. The Oscar for Adapted Screenplay is almost enough to convince me that the horror stories are untrue. Some people in Hollywood actually do read.
In years past, the works of a galaxy of gifted novelists have inspired Oscar-winning screenplays. They include Edna Ferber, Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Mitchell, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, James Jones, Jules Verne, Harper Lee, Henry Fielding, Boris Pasternak, Mario Puzo (twice), Ken Kesey, Lillian Hellman, Larry McMurtry, E.M. Forster (twice), Jane Austen, James Ellroy, John Irving, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Cormac McCarthy.
This year, alas, the source material in the Adapted Screenplay category is immaculately fiction-free. This year all five finalists turned for inspiration to non-fiction — memoirs, reportage, even earlier screenplays. The reason, I suspect, is that writing an adapted screenplay is an act of alchemy. Essentially it’s the act — the art? — of transmuting ink on paper into gold on the screen. It’s a maddening thing to try to do, which is why the five most magical little words in Hollywood are Based on a true story.
The key words here are “based” and “true.” “Based” gives the filmmakers a few acres of wiggle room, freedom to massage the truth to their artistic and commercial ends. And “true” stories, in both books and movies, are usually easier to write, make, and sell. They’re also less likely to dazzle and amaze — effects that are achieved, more often than not, by an imagination that’s off the leash. Which is to say a novelist’s imagination.
This year’s five nominees for the Best Adapted Screenplay spring from material that varies widely in tone and quality. This source material is not all bad, by any stretch. But there isn’t the handiwork of an untethered imagination in the pack:
This is the contender with the thinnest pedigree. Written by its director, Richard Linklater, and its two stars, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, it’s the third installment in the ongoing 20-year romance between two adorable bohemians named Celine and Jesse. Under the Academy’s arcane rules, sequels count as adaptations because they’re based on previously published material, namely earlier screenplays. The dialog once again has a breezy, improvised feel, but the writers insist that what’s on the screen hewed strictly to a taut script. “You can’t cut things out of this screenplay,” Delpy said. Maybe not, but as adaptations go, it’s all a tick too inside-baseball for me. Maybe the Academy needs a new category for Perpetually Evolving Screenplay.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Terence Winter’s script for this Martin Scorsese film was inspired by a memoir by Jordan Belfort, a kid from Queens who made millions running a shady stock brokerage, lived a life of excess that would have made most Roman emperors quail, then crashed and burned and went to prison. Belfort’s memoir exhibits an appreciation for the cost of luxury goods that puts him in a league with Balzac. He lives on a diet of Quaaludes, cocaine, Xanax, and adrenaline, and he wears an $18,000 gold watch, walks on $120,000 Edward Fields carpets, pays his chambermaid $70,000 a year and his chauffeur $60,000. But there’s no mistaking Belfort’s prose for Balzac’s. Here’s Belfort walking across the trading room floor, listening to his salesmen bark into their telephones:
Fuck this and fuck that! Shit here and shit there! It was the language of Wall Street. It was the essence of the mighty roar, and it cut through everything. It intoxicated you. It seduced you! It fucking liberated you! It helped you achieve goals you never dreamed yourself capable of! And it swept everyone away, especially me.
(Full disclosure: This is not only the language of Wall Street. I once worked in a similar bucketshop in Los Angeles, selling oil leases in Oklahoma that, for all I knew, didn’t even exist. The things my fellow brokers and I barked into our telephones were echoes of Belfort’s mighty roar.)
Winter’s script for Wolf came in at a hefty 150 pages, well above the 100-or-so-page average. (A rule of thumb is that each page of a script translates to one minute of screen time.) The bloat of the writing shows: the movie runs, at full throttle, for three hours. But in this case bloat is not a dirty word. This is, after all, a story about success and excess, American-style, and Winter and Scorsese decided wisely to leave restraint off the menu. As Winter told an interviewer, “Very early on, we just said, ‘We’re just going to go for this, 100 percent, the whole way.'” And that’s precisely what they did. Thanks to some superb performances, especially by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill, the sheer foamy hog-wallow exuberance of this lifestyle becomes both humorous and strangely joyous, almost admirable. We all dream of throwing the rules of decorum and decency out the window, but these guys, for a brief glorious bawdy moment, actually went ahead and did it.
12 Years a Slave
John Ridley spent four years turning Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir into a screenplay. It came in fat, too, at 157 pages, much of it lifted directly from Northup’s account of living as a free black man in upstate New York before getting kidnapped in Washington, D.C., then sold into slavery in the Deep South. I’m guessing that this screenplay will win the Oscar because the only thing Hollywood loves more than those five magic little words is a story that allows a movie to ascend to the high moral ground. Some dragons are irresistible to Hollywood, such as the Holocaust, racism, big government, terrorists, pirates, the gun lobby, big pharma and, now, slavery. But there is a dark little problem at the heart of this noble exercise. Ridley’s script is built on an appeal to counterfeit outrage: It asks us to feel bad for Solomon Northup because of the scalding injustice of having his freedom yanked away from him. But is his condition more appalling than the condition of his fellow slaves, fresh off the boat from Africa? This movie wants to say yes, but I say no. There is no way to calibrate pure evil. It is seamless, implacable. The high moral ground, it turns out, can be a slippery place.
Martin Sixsmith has worked as a foreign correspondent with the BBC, a novelist, and a spin doctor for Prime Minister Tony Blair. In 2004 he met an Irishwoman who told him that her mother, Philomena Lee, had given birth to an illegitimate son in 1952 and been forced by Roman Catholic nuns to put the boy up for adoption. Sixsmith began investigating the claim and learned, as he wrote recently in The Daily Mail, that half a dozen convents “continued to send regular parties of so-called orphans to the U.S. for almost two decades. And no wonder — the trade was a lucrative one.” Sixsmith also learned that Philomena and her son spent years looking for each other, but the nuns did nothing to facilitate their reunion. The nuns, according to Sixsmith, regarded unwed mothers as “moral degenerates.”
Sixsmith’s book, Philomena: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search was adapted for the screen by Jeff Pope and the English comedian Steve Coogan (who plays Sixsmith in the movie). The movie adds another wrenching chapter to the Catholic Church’s long history of perfidy, and it has reduced audiences to tears. For his part, Coogan told an interviewer that his long career as a comedian left him hungry for something more than laughs. “Acerbic asides don’t really feed the soul,” he said, adding that the movie is “partly a conversation I’m having, out loud, about challenging my own cynicism.”
Billy Ray adapted his script from A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty. The book’s subtitle is like one of those trailers that lays out the entire plot of the movie it’s trying to sell — it says it all, which is to say it says way too much. We’re back in Dragon Country, this time the baddies being a gang of Somali pirates who board a container ship captained by a solid citizen played by — who else? — Tom Hanks, an Everyman who does heroic things. It’s a perfectly fine story, and what winds up on the screen is perfectly workmanlike. That’s not faint praise, but it’s a long way short of glowing.
The message is clear: This year, Hollywood screenwriters need to mix more fiction into their diet.