I haven’t paid close attention to the Tournament of Books, an annual March Madness-esque competition for the best novel of previous year, as judged by a batch of litbloggers and other smart folks. It’s a little insider-baseball, and I haven’t read many of the choices; also, there ‘s a rooster involved, but I’m not sure quite what for. But the latest matchup was between Vendela Vida‘s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name (a novel I very much loved) and Denis Johnson‘s Tree of Smoke (a novel I very much didn’t), I at least felt like I had a dog in the hunt. Mark Sarvas, after gassing a bit about his disappointment that The Savage Detectives didn’t make the cut, eventually takes Johnson’s side, a little unenthusiastically and a lot unconvincingly. (“Clean, clear, and unfussy” prose, my ass.) His complaints about Vida are well taken–occasionally the scenes feel too carefully blocked, and the dialogue is often bloodless. But the whole point was to evoke the feeling of life being stiffened, chilled, iced over–the neat trick of Northern Lights was that it honestly and humanely addressed a lot of emotional turmoil while still preserving that just-so feel; the tension of the prose echoed the tension of the plot.