The Rooster: A Judge’s Notes

March 26, 2009 | 3 books mentioned 5 3 min read

My moment in the Tournament of Books spotlight has come and gone, but I’ve enjoyed following the series throughout. It’s been particularly interesting, from the perspective of a “judge,” to see how the other judges have responded to the books I read.

coverThe Lazarus Project got surprisingly little ink during its run. I suspect that the book was something of a trendy pick for those following the Tournament. Aleksandar Hemon has a compelling back story and not long ago joined the elite ranks of young, literary superstardom like Jonathan Lethem, Edward P. Jones, George Saunders, and David Foster Wallace in winning a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. I had actually read The Lazarus Project last summer (and was all set to write a review then – I’m glad I held off), and I felt lukewarm about it at the time. In her first round judgment, Monica Ali noted “the narratives simultaneously unfolding and folding up on themselves,” and that was what stood out to me much more in my second reading of the book. In rereading it, I caught more threads to the story, and the ending, even though I knew it was coming, hit me harder.

But I still wasn’t entirely won over. In his commentary on the first round match, John Warner pretty much hits the nail on the head, “I got the sense in reading that Hemon was also fascinated by the Averbuch story, but at some point became more interested in his own fascination than in Averbuch himself.”

coverFor my match, meanwhile, Lazarus didn’t merit much attention from the commentators. Instead the focus was on Shadow Country (which, like that other Frankenstein of the Tourney 2666) gave pause because of its heft and peculiar path to publication. As I was reading the book I was a bit thrown by that as well – Shadow Country is really three books, all previously published, cobbled back together and revamped by Peter Matthiessen. At times, it really did feel like three books smashed into one package, particularly, as I noted in my ToB piece, when I began the book’s third part and, poised to read another retelling of Edgar Watson’s life, I felt the whole thing growing a bit tiresome. Luckily, the third part of the book is stunning, and it ultimately won me over. In the end, I felt that the book stood well as a repackaged whole in that it heightened its obsessiveness and highlighted the complexity of Matthiessen’s Watson. In the long book, the reader is given the opportunity to peel back layer after layer of Watson, until finally only Watson’s own voice is left. This was where the book derived its power.

Interestingly, though, it was the repackaging that was the main focus of the Shadow Country discussion during the ToB, and it was ultimately the cause for its departure. The two commentators were quite ambivalent about it. In his commentary on my judgment, John Warner posited a question: “I ask, rhetorically, if any of the sections of Shadow Country were in the tournament individually, would they have even sniffed the semis?” In the commentary on Junot Díaz’s judgment, Warner writes “I don’t think we’ll be seeing any passionate blog postings or comments protesting the bouncing of Shadow Country from the tournament.” Meanwhile Díaz bounced the book for the quite credible reason, in my opinion, that he had previously read the three original parts of Shadow Country. I know that for me, having already experienced the three parts of as discrete stories would have robbed Shadow Country of its weightiness and obsessive power. This seemed to be what happened for Díaz.

It’s rare that I get a chance to read along side other readers like this, and its hard to think when I might ever have the opportunity to write in this way alongside others about the same books, but it definitely added to my reading experience.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. I have been struck dumb time and again by the decision to advance City of Refuge. I've never been more angry at a book–though 2666 has come close.

  2. I wasn't personally angry with it (and in fact haven't read it), I was just noting that much of the commentary during the ToB seemed to dwell on 2666's length and how it was really several books packaged into a single volume.

  3. I enjoyed the Lazarus Project but I didn't find it as moving and memorable as his short fiction. Love and Obstacles, which is archived at the New Yorker website, is one of my favorite short stories of all time. Even though i was kind on lukewarm on the LP (warmer side of lukewarm), i think he is terrific and i hope he has another novel out soon.

  4. Couple passages where it seemed like Bolaño was writing just to annoy the reader. A passage in Part 5 read like a conversation with an AIMbot. That made me angry. But most everything in City of Refuge infuriated me. You don't drop register in the middle of a novel to talk about reports on levee design, no matter how damning for the administration. It's not relevant to a work of fiction, and it's not fitting. That and the entire white family side of the book. I start to foam at the mouth just thinking about it.

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