Tournament of Books: Upset City, Baby!

by Patrick on March 11, 2009

vitaleI’ve figured out what makes the Tournament of Books so enjoyable — Dick Vitale has nothing to do with it.  This is the same thing that makes watching “The Wire” or drinking a fabulous bottle of wine so enjoyable – Dick Vitale isn’t there to ruin it.  Imagine, for instance, if he were there.  “Marlo Stanfield, bay-bee!  Witness intimidation city!” “I gotta tell you, this syrah is super scintillating and sensational!” Conversely, Dick Vitale’s presence is precisely what keeps attendance low at Tampa Bay Rays games.

Thankfully, Vitale isn’t around to ruin the Tournament of Books (you know he picked 2666 to win it), which is in full swing at The Morning News.  No doubt Vitale would’ve been rooting for the favorites, though, just as he does every year when he picks Duke to win the NCAA tournament (My father and I have a yearly tradition where we watch the selection show, then call each other to discuss how Vitale will choose all the #1 seeds to make the Final Four).  In this case, Vitale would’ve been disappointed.

The madness began yesterday when Kate Schlegel advanced Louis De Bernieres’ A Partisan’s Daughter over Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland.  Reading not only the decision but the commentary, it seemed that Netherland lost points for lack of believability, something I don’t completely understand, and a general bias against books that are too gooey about New York City, something I definitely get.  I haven’t read A Partisan’s Daughter, but it must be an incredible book to knock off Netherland, which I really enjoyed.  Netherland might return in the Zombie Round, although the tepid support it’s getting from the Peanut Gallery suggests that most people didn’t vote for it.

Today brought another upset as Jonah Lehrer chose Mark Sarvas‘ debut novel Harry, Revised over Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger.  In his decision, Lehrer says:

Both of these novels are pleasurable reads, but I found myself (much to my surprise) more interested in Harry Rent’s sandwich habits—he doesn’t like the Monte Cristo, even though he orders it every time—than in the perpetual “Darkness” of the Indian street described by Balram. The reason is that Harry’s inner monologue feels sincere, the endearingly authentic output of a confused mind, whereas Balram’s letters are so (over)loaded with cutting social observations that he eventually turns himself into a symbol. To be sure, he’s an evocative symbol, a potent stand-in for the hypocrisy of the Indian middle class and their shiny new shopping malls, but still a symbol. In contrast, the incoherencies and imperfections of Harry feel all too human.

This is the only match-up in the tournament’s first round that features two books I’ve actually read (I was pulling for Netherland to face 2666 so that it might happen again in the second round), so I feel compelled to comment on this decision.  I think Lehrer’s right about a number of things here.  Both of these books are really enjoyable (I recommended them both at the store), and I think there are moments when Balram is a bit of a symbol.  Adiga’s novel is a social novel while Sarvas’ is more of a personal character study, albeit one with an interesting narrative style.  In the end, I think I would’ve chosen The White Tiger, but I can’t fault Lehrer for picking Harry.

(Since the judges always disclose whether they know any of the authors involved, I will say that I’ve met Mark on a number of occasions and he’s commented on this blog before, and that I interviewed Aravind for our fifth Vroman’s Podcast.)

(Oh, and incidentally, I called it.)