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2014 NBA Longlist
In which I discuss the five books on the NBA longlist...as the title would suggest!
Hi, Y’all! Glad You’re Here—
In my last newsletter, we took a look at the five books that made the 2014 NBA shortlist, and this week, we’re discussing the five books from that year’s longlist—this includes Some Luck by Jane Smiley, Orfeo by Richard Powers, Wolf In White Van by John Darnielle, Thunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken, and The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol. Interestingly enough, this longlist features some even more recognizable, acclaimed authors than the short list did, with Richard Powers being a previous NBA winner (and future Pulitzer Prize winner), Jane Smiley being a Pulitzer Prize winner, and Elizabeth McCracken was a finalist for the NBA nearly twenty years earlier. I find these sort of connections exciting, and some of the things we’ll get into as we discuss each book.
The first book I read for this list was Wolf In White Van, a book I’d been meaning to read for several years. Back in 2017, I read Darnielle’s sophomore effort, Universal Harvester, and was so surprised and moved by this book that had been marketed as a literary thriller, but turned out to be an insightful meditation on grief—I actually think I once pitched Universal Harvester as “The Ring, but if instead of a girl coming out of a TV, it turned into a Todd Field movie”. While I do think Darnielle’s work suffers from a marketing standpoint, I do think he’s a great writer, and I love his work. I ended up listening to Wolf In White Van while on a work trip with a co-worker—our first buddy read/listen—and when I read the back of the book to her, she said it sounded like it might be similar to last year’s blockbuster novel, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. I can see why she’d think that; the book is about a man who, after isolating himself due to a disfiguring injury, creates a role-playing game called Trace Italian. The basic premise, in some ways, have similarities. But where Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is a large scale, crowd pleasing novel, Wolf In White Van is a little jewel, a slim novel that is intimate and at times hard to look at. Actually, since Darnielle is also a musician, I'll do my favorite thing and make a musical comparison—if Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is the Mariah Carey, then Wolf In White Van is the Kurt Cobain.
In many ways, this work feels very tied to the late 90’s to me—I’m not sure if it’s just that I associate that period of time with my own tumultuous circumstances, but I really couldn’t help but think about Kurt Cobain and Columbine while reading this book. I guess it’s not really a spoiler to say that, before the novel begins, our protagonist attempted suicide, only to make it out alive and with his face blown off. The book works itself backwards, to this moment in time, creating something so unnerving and inevitable, and I felt like there was a particular kind of violence that felt tied to the angst and the frustration people seemed to be feeling around that time. I don’t believe the book mentions a specific timeline, but it also feels very 90’s in the descriptions of the real world of his teen years. I would be interested to know if other readers felt similarly to this, but I have been trying to avoid reading other people’s thoughts about it before writing my review.
I can see why Darnielle’s novel was on this longlist—structurally it’s really interesting, and I feel like though some narrative elements didn’t quite come together for me, I still found it a really impressive and surprising debut. Solid prose, great turns of phrase, playful structure—all good things. It doesn’t deserve a place on the shortlist, but I do think it has merit for recognition and I’m glad to see it here.
The next book I read for this list was Some Luck by Jane Smiley, and it’s probably the book I enjoyed the most from these five. I hadn’t read Jane Smiley’s fiction before this, only her non-fiction work Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel—which I thought was brilliant, by the way. Some Luck spans 20+ years, following the Langdon family, with each chapter moving forward another year in their lives, going from 1920 to 1953. I wasn’t really sure what to expect going in, but there is something so striking about Smiley’s ability to make a narrative feel so whole despite the constant shift of focus in story and character. She also does the thing that makes every “sweeping” story work, I’ve noticed, which is that she just focuses on these really intimate moments in between the large swaths of time that pass. If you ever notice, most *popular* novels that cover more than ten years have a blurb that describes it as “intimate and epic” and I think that’s all it means. You never see a six hundred page novel that covers a large span of time without these long scenes focusing on the tiny moments of someone’s life.
Smiley’s prose here is clear and unadorned, there’s never a moment that feels as if she’s trying to show off—I assume it’s just what comes of being a seasoned writer—but even still, I found myself pausing every few pages to admire her deep insights and casual observations of the human condition. While this novel is deceptive in its simplicity, I think any good reader would struggle not to marvel at what she’s doing here. The way she manages to evoke the feeling of this period without ever boring the reader, to flesh out each member of this family and make them all seem so full of their own interior lives and also integral to the history of this family…it’s beyond brilliant. This is also the first in a trilogy and I cannot wait to see where she goes next.
The third book I read was Orfeo by Richard Powers, and while there is a lot about this book I mostly just nodded at out of slight confusion, I do enjoy Powers, and as far as his structures go, I find them fun and inventive. If we’re to go by the back cover, Orfeo is about a bioterrorist running for his life—but the reality is that this is a book about music. The way Powers writes about music feels both scientific and deeply heartfelt, which at times creates a point of conflict with each other and the point he's trying to make, but not in any way he’s unaware of—Powers spends much of the book wrestling with the technical and emotional sides of music, and it’s fascinating to watch him explore it. I won’t pretend that this is a book I completely understand, but I can at least recognize that it is smart, well written, thought provoking, and—for the right reader—an absolute gem.
The only other Powers I’ve read was Bewilderment—longlisted for the NBA in 2021—and I found that one to be much more accessible and maybe a little more traditional in its narrative, so if you've been discouraged by one of his older books, it’s worth checking that one out. I’ve heard his Pulitzer Prize winning The Overstay is also similar to Bewilderment. He previously won the NBA for his novel The Echo Maker, and was on the 1993 longlist for this novel, Operation Wandering Soul. He’s a decorated writer, and I see his name in conversation with a lot of other writers like Don Delillo and Jonathan Franzen, other writers of his generation who were maybe more exploratory or daring in some ways. I appreciate their modes of story telling, and I want to take a deeper look at them as writers eventually. For now, I’ll just acknowledge that I haven’t entirely caught up to all of their work and what they’re doing, and see where I need to grow as a reader.
Now, if we move on to the short story collections, the first one we have is The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol—whose name, for some reason, makes me think of Disney Channel star Anneliese van der Pol. This collection didn’t always work for me—there are several stories that feel like they could’ve been workshopped a little bit more, but I don’t think any of them are bad. In fact, I feel like many of these stories would be great for people who don’t typically like short stories—and I also found myself thinking about Bernard Malamud’s stories throughout my reading of this one. But I just had a hard time keeping myself interested here. To be clear, this could possibly be user error. It’s been highly praised by everyone I know and admire…maybe I just happened to have some readerly fatigue by the time I read this one. I also, weirdly, just haven’t been feeling the short stories I’ve been reading recently. Either way, I thought it was a fine collection of stories about people whose lives go down the gutter, whose stories take place all over and form various different experiences, and in these ways, the work was impressive. I admire anyone who writes about such different lives from story to story.
The last book on this list was Thunderstruck by Elizabeth McCracken, which I was expecting to hate, after really not jiving with her 2021 NBA longlisted The Souvenir Museum , but to my surprise, I ended up really enjoying these stories. This was McCracken's first collection since her NBA longlisted The Giant's House. I also find it interesting that each of her appearances on the NBA were for short story collections. I was actually a big fan of her memoir/novel/autofiction…whatever it was, The Hero Of This Book when it came out last year, and highly recommend—and I feel like there’s some connectedness between that book and this collection. McCracken seems to be at her best, to me, when she’s exploring ideas relating to loss and grief. She’s not emotionally manipulative in this mode, she’s often quite funny, but there’s an honesty and a tenderness that gives you hope in the face of tragedy. A lot of these stories deal with death and ghosts and all sorts of things, and her writing is so sharp and surprising. I never knew what to expect from them, but I found each story to be a little jewel, a marvel.
Now, having read and loved two of McCracken’s works, I feel an urgency to go out and get the rest of her books. I’m beginning to be a big fan.
I’m still not entirely sure what the 2014 longlist as a whole says about that year as a whole, but I do think there were some really exciting books released. Some of these longlists haven’t been as fun to interrogate and consider as a whole, but they have introduced me to some great works that I might have overlooked otherwise.
If you’ve read any of these books, I’d love to know your thoughts! I’m still processing my thoughts on some of them, and need to discuss.
Anyhow, I hope you all are having a terrific weekend. Hopefully I’ll have more bookish thoughts to share soon.
also isn’t it funny that both McCracken and Powers made both the 2014 and 2021 longlists without either making appearances separately in between? I don’t know, I just always enjoy these little fun facts.