Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Freedom v. Kapitoil

Today a Melville House entry on my Twitter feed let me know that The Morning News's Tournament of Books has begun. I clicked over to see if I would care and noticed that the first matchup is between Freedom and Kapitoil, which seems terrible, a fight between a scrappy cat and a dump truck. I'm not arguing that Franzen's novel is a dump-truck-load better than Wayne's (I haven't read either of these books, but I have read and enjoyed other things by both these writers), but it certainly hauls a dump-truck-load more weight behind it, after all the hooraying and hate vomiting that followed its release. It's hard to imagine Kapitoil beating Freedom, and it doesn't. Sarah Manguso dissects the former's stylistic tics with precision ("Karim tends to misuse corporate-speak outside the corporate milieu; I counted 24 recurring terms") and determines that once the conceits are removed the book's spirit is gone, the novel has turned into a thin sheet draped over off-putting people,

one male coworker who is always a jerk while the other is always kind; a female coworker who is always moody; Karim's mother, a dead saint; Karim's friend the cabbie, behind whose rough demeanor is a heart of gold, and Karim's sister, his ideal woman, their relationship forever untainted by sex.

Manguso digs Franzen's project much more fully. She does lay down a criticism or two, but finds that, in the end,

Despite erratic pacing and an endpoint that seems somewhat arbitrary--why not 300 more pages, or 300 less?--the book satisfies its worthy ambitions.

I wouldn't fault Manguso's criticism here; she engages carefully with both books, and is passionate about her dissection of them. Anyway, I'm sure it wasn't her who threw these two novels together into the blood pit. What sensible person would? Kapitoil is a first novel, and Freedom got its author on the cover of Time.

I have only read two of the books scheduled for upcoming days--Marcy Dermansky's Bad Marie and James Hynes's Next--and although I enjoyed both I'm already sort of . . . afraid of being spattered in gore if I read on. These are both novels that focus intensely on the inner lives of single characters, while pinballing them through wild but muted chaos, and I hope they're appropriately matched. Judge for yourself here.


  1. I thought her point about Kapitoil's conceits--and the effect of removing them--was pretty interesting. I haven't read the book though, so can't speak to it myself. (I have read Freedom though.)

    As for why they're up against each other, isn't that just the way seeding works in tournaments? Like, Ohio State gets to play Knoxville Community College in the first round?

  2. I don't know how they're set up. Of course someone had to go up against Freedom, and no author would want to like...back out of a matchup for fear of being trounced. But I can't imagine anything, really, winning in a mostly mainstream throwdown with that beast.

    You're right about Manguso's criticisms, though. She effectively conveys a sense of the overall novel while pulling out particular issues to look at. (Her technique reminded me, actually, of some of the desirable review techniques Baxter writes about in that Owl Criticism essay a lot of people linked to yesterday.)

    Anyone read either of these books? Other stuff on the list?

  3. I agree that the matchup is crazy (having read neither, but having hated what I read of the Franzen) but as a writer I would love to be in that fight, even knowing I would lose it.