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Franzen wins Round One in the Tournament of Books

March 8, 2011 |  7:39 am

The Tournament of Books kicked off Tuesday at The Morning News, and Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" has emerged the first victor. But that only means so much: There are many more rounds to go.

In the Tournament of Books, two books face off against each other in brackets, a la college basketball's March Madness. Where the basketball teams are able to fight to advance, playing a game which one will win, the books' authors have to hope that their works will speak for themselves -- and, specifically, speak to the judge to assigned them. Each round gets a different judge, plucked from the world of literary and sometimes no-so-literary culture.

Last year, Andrew W.K. decided to judge books by their covers. Literally.

Anyway, that was not the case Tuesday, when Sarah Manguso, author of the acclaimed "Two Kinds of Decay," took up Franzen's "Freedom" and Teddy Wayne's "Kapitoil."

It was hardly a fair matchup. Franzen landed on the cover of Time magazine in August, an honor not accorded a novelist in a decade, and Wayne is a debut novelist. Sure, Wayne's "Kapitoil" has been well-recieved -- Booklist named it one of its top 10 debut novels of 2010 and it was one of the Huffington Post's top 10 books of the year. And it was blurbed by Jonathan Franzen, certainly a score, but that illustrates the different places they are in their careers: Franzen is the blurb-er, Wayne is the blurb-ee.

Although she says the book is well-plotted, this is Manguso's larger take on "Kapitoil":

The book uses the emotional conceit of an apparently autistic narrator, the formal conceit of the diary form, the lexical conceit of a narrator with limited fluency, the second lexical conceit of consistent usage errors, and the narrative conceit of cumulative fluency. That’s five conceits.

I wouldn’t strike down a novel for employing conceits, but without them Kapitoil is left with its characters: one male coworker who is always a jerk while the other is always kind; a female coworker who is always moody; Karim’s mother, a dead saint; Karim’s friend the cabbie, behind whose rough demeanor is a heart of gold, and Karim’s sister, his ideal woman, their relationship forever untainted by sex.

She writes that the book is reminiscent of, but doesn't quite measure up to, the work of Mark Haddon, Ed Park, Joshua Ferris, Gary Shteyngart and Jonathan Safran Foer. And this is what she has to say about "Freedom":

Postmodernism seems to have let the blood out of half of the bad contemporary American novels, and sentiment masquerades as depth of feeling in the other half — in a naughty moment, Patty and Walter’s son refers to the latter sort of book’s reliance on “descriptions of rooms and plantings.” Franzen gets away with that crack, though, for what Freedom attempts is more ambitious than mere sentiment or mere intellection. It asks us to empathize with its lily-white characters, despite their Volvos and organic gardens and upper-body workouts, despite their chosen confinement in such banal surroundings. And since the book manages to render suburban St. Paul a viable setting for the full range of human emotional experience, I felt its characters’ pains and joys. With firm control of its dense and rigorous sentences, Freedom hits all its marks. Despite erratic pacing and an endpoint that seems somewhat arbitrary — why not 300 more pages, or 300 less? — the book satisfies its worthy ambitions.

Franzen's "Freedom" will next be seen in the Tournament of Books on March 21, in the first round of the quarterfinals when it goes up against Wednesday's winner.

On Wednesday, Marcy Dermansky's "Bad Marie" will face off against Emma Donoghue's "Room," a Booker Prize finalist. The contest will be judged by Jennifer Weiner. It's sure to be an interesting matchup -- Weiner, who writes popular women's fiction, has been a strong advocate for broadening criticial attention to include more books written by women, and more popular fiction. When sitting in the critic's seat, will she choose the book with the clear literary pedigree ("Room") or not?


The Morning News announces Tournament of Books contenders

Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom," reviewed by David L. Ulin

Jennifer Weiner is proud to be the queen of chick lit

-- Carolyn Kellogg