Considering the 2019 NBA Longlist
In which I continue to confuse basketball minded readers by abbreviating the National Book Award...
Hi, Y’all! Glad You’re Here—
I wanted to start this week with a big thank you to everyone reading this. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been fortunate enough to gain some new followers for both the regular and paid newsletter—for those of you who are new to this newsletter or to me altogether, I started this Substack as a way to document my project of reading every single book longlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction from 1950 to now. While it’s taken me longer than I expected, it’s a project that has taught me a lot about the more recent history of American literature and also about myself as a reader. If you have any interest in checking out some of my previous letters, you can do so here! Today, I thought it would be fun to take a look at some books from a more recent list, the 2019 longlist.
I’ve tried predicting the NBA Fiction longlist every year since 2015, and 2019 was my best guess, because I got 8 out of the 10. My friend Bernie would argue that I cast my net a bit wide with my predictions, but I don’t care, I’m still giving myself a pat on the back. The 2019 list featured several of my favorite books of that year, but I really wanted to take a closer look at the five books that didn’t make the shortlist, because I think they show just how strong of a year it was for fiction.
The first book was Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, a novel about a recently single man whose summer of sexual emancipation is interrupted when his estranged wife drops off their two kids and disappears. The first time I read this book, I could not put it down. It’s such a compelling, page-turner of a novel, with such great observations about marriage and a thought-provoking critique about the way men navigate their relationships with women. When the book first made the longlist, I remember people being surprised—it’s only been in the last few years that we’ve seen more “commercially appealing” books make the NBA longlist—but I would argue that Fleishman Is In Trouble has just as much literary merit as it does entertainment value. I think that for some people, there’s this idea that for a book to be brilliant, it has to be boring. But that’s rarely the case. In many ways, this book reminds me of Saul Bellow, particularly his sliver of a novel Seize The Day—a book that was also longlisted for the NBA, back in 1957.
Both Seize The Day and Fleishman Is In Trouble take place over a very short period of time and focus on the realization the male character has with his own failings in his life, but with Fleishman, Brodesser-Akner approaches this narrative with a more feminist lens. The narrative style has been compared to her work doing celebrity profiles for The New York Times, and it’s this mysterious observer that offers us the most intrigue throughout the narrative—while we know this person is somehow involved enough to observe these events, we don’t have a clear idea of who they are until closer to the end. It’s this narrator that offers Brodesser-Akner the ability to voice her commentary in a way that a more impersonal third person might not have.
I think the reason this book was selected as part of the longlist over other books was because of this narrator. The chair of the 2019 judging panel was Jeff Vandermeer, who is known for playing with style and form, and so were the other writers on the panel, and every year we see a commonality with the book picks, and experimental form was what I noticed most here.
The next book from the longlist was Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons. I’m always a fan of short story collections, though on my first read, I had a hard time connecting with this one. I’d read some of the stories when the book first came out, and they just didn’t click with me at the time. But I read the collection again for this newsletter and fell in love with her strong voice, her ability to craft compelling characters in such interesting moments in their lives, and with how she let each of these stories unfold. I’m always talking about how sometimes it’s not the book, just the timing, and this is a perfect example of it. This is the kind of book that so fits into my current tastes as a reader, it’s just that for whatever reason, I wasn’t able to appreciate it on the first round. Now, I think it’s a strong collection and was worthy of being on this list.
It’s always more difficult for me to discuss short story collections here, because I’m never sure if I should try to break them down story by story—I won’t be doing that today, but if you would like breakdowns of each story in the future, just let me know! For now, I will just say that every story in here was strong, this is an “all hits, no skips” collection for me. I think if you like weird, dark stories that consider the trickier aspects of relationships between people, this is a good one to check out.
The third book on the list was The Need by Helen Phillips. This speculative horror novel follows a mother who believes there is an intruder in her home. While that’s the basic premise, the book is about much more. It’s trippy and weird and so well written. I was mesmerized by Phillips’s sentences, the way she was able to thread so much unease into each line, and how beautifully she articulates the anxieties of motherhood and the struggles of postpartum depression. It’s interesting to see both Black Light and The Need on a single list, given that both lean closer to the horror genre, utilizing it as a framework to explore more feminist ideas—we just don’t usually see a lot of books that lean into genre fiction as much. (this was also the year that Marlon James’s fantasy novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf made the short list, as well as the “missing girl” novel, Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips and Laila Lalami’s mystery, The Other Americans.)
While I enjoyed The Need, I did struggle with the ending of this one. It’s one of those moments where I can’t decide if I just didn’t get the ending or if it things just didn’t come together—it’s moments like this where I wish I was reading it in an academic setting, maybe, or that I was just surrounded by a bunch of smart people to discuss it with. As a side note, that’s a tip I have for if you don’t get a book—just seek out smart people and make them read it.
The last two books from the longlist were my favorites, the first being On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. I know that every gay and their mother have talked about their love for this book, but I somehow still feel a deeper claim of ownership. I’ll start by saying that I loved the prose. I think there’s such a deeply felt tenderness to the language, and Vuong offers us such a startling intimacy between these various characters. As the book goes on, the structure falls apart, intentionally so, becoming a “shipwreck” of a book—Vuong sort of explains to us how to engage with the work as he plays with the form in this way, which I feel like you kind of have to be a genius to be able to do. There are some parts that feel a bit overwritten and not every choice works, but I don’t think it takes away from the absolute brilliance here.
I know that a lot of my feelings for this book are tied to just how much it resonated with me. My life actually shares a lot of parallels with that of the main character, Little Dog. Little Dog was raised by his mother and grandmother—I was raised by my mother and grandmother; he spent a lot of his childhood in a nail salon—I spent a lot of my childhood in my Granny’s beauty shop; he fell in love with a redneck boy named Trevor, who eventually (spoiler alert) becomes addicted to opioids and dies—I fell in love with a redneck boy who eventually became addicted to opioids and, though for different reasons, died. Reading this book felt like reading a life that was almost my own, just in a funhouse mirror.
I love On Earth… and I think the Vuong is such a talent, but I also know that my love for this book will always be just a little bit biased because of the ways it resonated with me. Also, when I mentioned on instagram how I was desperate to read this novel, he messaged me and asked for my address so he could send me a copy, He signed it, and he was so kind. It’s something I haven’t forgotten about and I know I will always think of him fondly for that reason.
Moving on to the last book on the longlist, we have Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys. The novel is about two boys who end up at a fictionalized version of the Dozier school, here named the Nickel Academy. Whitehead, who was hot off the heels of his NBA and Pulitzer win for The Underground Railroad, had initially intended to write a much lighter follow up—then the 2016 election happened. I loved The Nickel Boys, as I have most of Whitehead’s work, and while this one wasn’t as vast in scope as his previous novel, I still thought it was well crafted and compelling. Whitehead always enjoys playing with genre, even in the darkest of stories, and he does really interesting things with how he approaches the narrative as a mystery of sorts. It’s well plotted and the way he navigates the story is well done.
I was actually surprised that The Nickel Boys and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous didn’t make the shortlist, as they were both such major books of 2019, but Whitehead did eventually win his second Pulitzer Prize for this one, so there’s that. I think it was deserving, and am happy that he’s one of the few people to have won the award twice. Who knows, maybe he’ll eventually take the Nobel Prize!
If you’ve read all of these books, I’m sure you’ve noticed the pattern in how they each experiment with form and structure, lean into certain genre elements. I think this was an exciting, unexpected year for the NBA. We don’t always see such bold choices. And even as far as the themes and ideas that were explored, I think it’s always clear that the outside world and the conversations we’re all having will be reflected in the work. Fiction is a more emotionally truthful account of history, sometimes, and I wonder how people will consider the works of this time—especially of this year, the last before the pandemic—in years to come.
Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s newsletter. I’m still trucking away on my overall project, though I think I might be less rigid in the new year, just to help me stay excited about it. There are just some year’s I can’t resist starting early! If you’ve enjoyed today’s letter, have any thoughts about the books discussed today, or just want to talk, feel free to leave a comment below! Thanks for reading!
Until next time,
A lot of the discussion around the books of this year are around truth and perceived truth, about structure of the story or novel, among other things.
Trust Exercise - when I read this one, I knew it would be the winner — this had elements of Fates and Furies, also similar to Trust from this year, where it has new revelations made with each new section.
Sabrina and Corina
Black Leopard Red Wolf
The Other Americans
- another one that works as a thriller but interesting in how it
short story cycle or composite novel, that operates as a thriller but
Fleishman Is In Trouble
structure in how it’s about a man from the perspective of a woman, weirdly reminds me of Saul Bellow, particularly that book of his Seize The Day.
pulp drama and there’s a big twist.
the mother and child thriller. The ending didn’t quite come together for me.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
this one is a shipwreck of a novel, intentionally. And it’s one of the things I loved about it. The structure of all of these books is what I find most interesting, and part of what makes this crop of books stand out.
2019 was definitely one of my favorite NBA longlists. Thanks for reminding me of all the reasons why!