Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Beautiful Words or Heartbreaking Story: You Choose

Zadie Smith’s On Beauty got knocked out by Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation in today’s Tournament of Books.

It’s the tournament's first big upset, according to commentator Kevin Guilfoyle: “Say hey! Just when you thought the first round was going to pass without a major upset, Karl Iagnemma, a popular writer of robot erotica (I might be confused on that point), throws the bookies into a Black Friday panic by sending pre-tournament Final Four lock Zadie Smith packing on the QE II. It’s the first hair-dryer-in-the-tub shocker of the tournament, with one of the year’s most celebrated books falling to a graduate creative writing thesis project.”

The judge, Karl Iagnemma, summed up perfectly my feelings about On Beauty. He lauds Smith’s ability to create so many smart, convincing, funny and verbose characters, but then grows weary of their patter.

“This book’s blessing also seems to be its curse: The fluency of the voice and the interestingness of the characters leads to long, long exchanges, long descriptions, and long scenes. There are just so many…words. The effect is that it all begins to seem scattershot, even random, a shotgun blast of talented prose. I felt like I was on a cross-country road trip with an extremely smart but crushingly talkative acquaintance. I was ready to bail somewhere around Ohio—page 160, by my count—and I would have stopped reading were I not a “judge” for this tournament. I found myself wishing, truly wishing, for a bit of writerly remove. But British writers have never seemed all that fond of writerly remove.”

Despite that, I have to say I am glad I read Smith’s book. Her ability to spin words is remarkable, and offers much more than many other books.

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