Monday April 4th, 2011

Barnburner Final Ends in 9-8 Vote

They say in a democracy, any one vote could make the difference. In a democracy the size of ours, this is almost inherently not true. But in a group of 17 people, it’s going to be true quite often. This year’s Tournament of Books came down to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. The winner carried the day by a vote of 9-8. Whether my decision was one of the nine that could claim to be the difference-maker, you’ll have to head over there to see. But here is my decision, at the 75-word length that was requested:

Egan’s refracted structure seems only half-necessary, and I’m not sure that in 2011 it’s as innovative as it’s gotten credit for. The last, dystopian-ish chapter bothered me. Still, she writes some fine sentences, and I even bought the PowerPoint chapter, which shocked me. As for Franzen, I’m in the “honestly befuddled” camp. It would take me 4,000 words to fairly explain why. I can’t imagine revisiting a single paragraph in Freedom. My vote: Goon.

All the talk of Franzen in the tournament has inspired me to get back to work on those 4,000 (or more) words. I hope to have my extended thoughts about Freedom — and what could the world possibly need more at this point than those thoughts? — up on the site sometime by the end of April.

I was really happy to take part in this year’s ToB over at The Morning News. Many thanks to Rosecrans Baldwin and Andrew Womack, the site’s proprietors, for asking me. The ToB is always a good time, and I think there are two elements that make it even more than that: Pitting books against each other is a good idea. Yes, of course the decisions are arbitrary. And yes, sometimes, as in my first-round matchup of Next vs. Nox, the books are so different that the competition angle seems even sillier. But having to judge books against one another often makes for more dynamic reviewing than the more straightforward book-report tone adopted by many current-day reviews.

The second element that makes the ToB so great is the running commentary by Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner, who opine on each judge’s decision (and the tournament’s general progress) as soon as each round goes up. They’re the event’s esteemed Statler and Waldorf, or, as one commenter on the final round has already put it, “the bass line that makes the song work.”