All the Pretty Horses

Jaimy Gordon‘s Lord of Misrule is this year’s National Book Award winner in fiction, and there are a few obvious reasons why. It’s a finely considered portrait of a particular time and place—specifically a downtrodden West Virginia racetrack in the 1970s, where scam artists drive boatlike Cadillacs and everybody is placing too much hope on some B-list horse or other. Another part of the novel’s appeal is that its scam artists aren’t particularly artistic; Gordon has an shrewd eye for the emotional and financial clumsiness of each of her characters, and she’s skilled at exposing their foibles without holding them up to mockery. Mostly: Toward the end, when a group of two-bit mobsters and track habitues squabble over a ridiculous abduction, it’s hard not to think of William Faulkner‘s “Spotted Horses,” another horse story that featured people so thickheaded that part of the fun was recognizing that a) these scheming characters all deserved each other and b) you weren’t them.

But what’s mostly interesting about Lord of Misrule—the only thing that conceivably could have catapulted it to prizewinning status—is how it sounds. Early on, Maggie, the ostensible heroine of the novel, examines a horse:

The right front cannon bone on the black horse resembled an old ragged galosh right down to the lumpy buckles. Blister, cautery, everything had been done. And in Maggie’s eyes he had a giant prehistoric head—armor plated, scarred like a box and ugly as a rhinoceros.

That gets at Gordon’s feel for alliteration, rhythm, and (especially) simile—she has a tremendous knack for the image that exposes the rot and contempt in the world she describes. (“The game was funny, not funny ha-ha, funny like green lunchmeat.” “Natalie, the New Rochelle auto parts chainstore divorcee, with her big pink open mouth like a toilet seat.”) But those quotes don’t quite get at the dreamlike quality that Gordon strives for, how she counterbalances the petty despair of most her characters with the strangely attractive world of the track and the horses. Maggie again:

The racetrack asleep at night is a live and spooky place, especially if you think somebody might jump out at you, and she did think so—small world that ends at a fence, the dark blue restless air fragrant with medicinals, Absorbine, liniment, pine tar—everywhere light chains clanking, water buckets creaking and sloshing, round glimmers of water, horses masticating or snorting out dust, straw rustling, skinny cats glimpsed everywhere but only for a moment, always in motion, noiseless.

Better still is how she writes about the horses themselves: One stands “in his bucket of ice as cool as a Tiffany cocktail stirrer, dreaming in black jewelry eyes of emerald alfalfa and clover of Burmese jade.” But Gordon’s ambition extends beyond just crafting a prose poem about horse racing—she’s also chosen to pick up the additional task of weaving her own voice into the voices of her other characters. Chapters focused on Maggie’s boyfriend, Tommy, tend to be narrated in second person—a way to intimately show how his sense of ownership of horses extends to women as well. (“…you could get to her through her body. It was a black, rich, well-watered way, between rock faces. The word podzol came to mind. The word humus. Soil. Slut.”) With Medicine Ed, an aging black groom, Gordon plays with dialect (“And then he forgot about drinking, found he grew ponderful in the evenings on his own anymore, didn’t need no likka, no nothing”)—but tentatively, never diving so deep into his character that she has to choose between his voice and hers.

Reviewing the novel for the Washington Post, Jane Smiley suggested that this range of voices “allows for immediacy but not for perspective. The wisdom these characters offer is limited by the narrowness of their world.” But that narrowness is largely the point—Gordon’s task is to make her characters sympathetic in spite of their behavior, in spite of their lack of understanding of a world away from the track. (Only Maggie appears to have once lived a life not defined by horses, writing about food for a newspaper supplement.) What Gordon has really sacrificed in focusing so much on voice isn’t “perspective” so much as plot. Ultimately the story turns on little more than the outcomes of particular races, and Gordon herself admits to the preposterousness of the kidnapping storyline in the final third of the novel: “Nowadays you couldn’t just let some Black Bart tie you to the railroad tracks and walk away and leave you. The age demanded signs of a struggle even from a corpse.” And Black Bart-ish it is. Of course, it’s not just “the age” that demands signs of a struggle—novels demand it too. But Lord of Misrule‘s chief flaw is that it can’t quite couple a convincing struggle to the beauty of its language.

Links: Running Numbers

Aimee Bender: “I think a lot of writers do think mathematically, actually, because fiction, a made-up world, requires a lot of working through of logic. So it’s a kind of math, on the page, using words. A word problem, of sorts.”

The legal squabbling over Katherine Anne Porter‘s estate drags on.

Olga Grushin on The Line: This is not just any community; it’s a community that forms in the face of repression. On some basic level, this story, of hoping, of waiting, could have been set anywhere—say, waiting in line to audition for “The American Idol”—but the Soviet setting allowed me to explore additional aspects of oppression, danger and trust, and how the darkest times can bring out the worst and the best in ordinary people.

What is Southern lit? I don’t know. You get knocked down. Black holes burnt into a map. There is moss and gonorrhea. You scramble back up but don’t know your mind. What you were was it worth reaching fer? You can’t tell your Bad Faith actions from your authentic mind. It’s all a low fog, over soybean fields and the jawbone of a deer.” (This riff reminded me of George Singleton‘s comic short story “Which Rocks We Choose” [PDF excerpt], which sends up some of Southern culture’s best-loved cliches.)

In a Daily Rumpus email, Stephen Elliott talks about Frederick Exley‘s A Fan’s Notes with Tobias Wolff: “‘It was a writer’s book,’ Tobias said. We decided that it was better than a book that makes a big splash. Better to write a book that people are still reading 40 years later. He said Exley’s other books weren’t quite as good. Some of them were very good, but not quite to the level of A Fan’s Notes. It’s a hard well to return to. How does one write another book like that?”

Jonathan Franzen on putting current events in Freedom: “I had to cut the noise down by 99 percent, and just let that one percent trickle in.” A necessary literary strategy if you’re writing for posterity, or just evasive?

Yesterday I was a guest on Minnesota Public Radio’s Midmorning program to discuss the National Book Awards and the upset win of Jaimy Gordon‘s racetrack novel, Lord of Misrule. (More on that book soon.) Asked to suggest a couple of books the NBA judges might have considered short-listing, I put in for Yiyun Li‘s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl and James HynesNext. National Book Foundation executive director Harold Augenbraum gently noted that Li wouldn’t have qualified because she’s an American resident but not a citizen. He also noted that the foundation is giving some thought to breaking up the awards’ nonfiction category into smaller ones such as memoir, history, etc. It’ll be interesting to see if that happens, though I can’t imagine they’ll go as hog-wild with multiple categories as they did in the early 80s.

Adam Langer: “You could probably view the history of invention in storytelling as having begun all the way back in the Garden of Eden when Eve said ‘Apple? What do you mean, apple? I didn’t eat any apple.’ But, in that case, if Eve was the first fake memoirist, then it might be useful to point out that the first literary critic was a snake.”

“The majority of [Mary] Gaitskill’s lecture focused on something that creative writing courses tend to shy away from, considering that it cannot really be taught: the question of unseeable content, the form under the plot, ‘the deeper quality, the unconscious soul,’ the ‘inner weaving of a story that you can’t read—you have to feel,’ as Gaitskill put it.”

Stephen O’Connor on how he came to write the brilliant, peculiar story “Ziggurat.”

On David Foster Wallace‘s ill-fated attempt to balance a serious pursuit of philosophy and writing The Broom of the System.

Curtis Sittenfeld: “I think in general, novels by men tend to be taken more seriously than novels by women. But I also think that novels being taken seriously is kind of a nebulous concept. I mean, what does that mean? Getting multiple reviews in the New York Times? Personally, I have never wished I were a male novelist.”

Gish Jen:

Paul Auster: “All my stories are about America, they’re impregnated with American history, American literature. But… people care little about books, there’s no book culture here.”

Ed Park reviews the Chicago Manual of Style as if it were a postmodern novel.

Guess that settles it: “It is questionable whether Franny and Zooey is even a classic at all considering Wikipedia does not list it as a notable Salinger work.”