Structural Integrity, or The 2019 NBA Short List
In which we consider the many ways the 2019 National Book Award shortlist prioritized structure and form in its consideration of the best books of the year.
Hi, Y’all! Glad You’re Here—
Before I start, I just wanted to say thank you so much to all of the new people who have subscribed in the new year. I started this newsletter over a year ago now, with the intention of documenting this reading project of reading every book ever longlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction, and it's been so thrilling to not only have an audience to engage with, but also to have a space where I can look back on my growth as a reader. Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing a handful of last year’s posts to the free subscribers, and if you have any interest in following along with the paid subscription, feel free to do so! The paid subscription is where I post my reviews of whichever NBA books I’ve read that week. I’m currently midway through the sixties, and hoping to get to the seventies by early March.
Today, for my first post of the new year, I wanted to take a look at a recent shortlist that I really enjoyed—and also one with books I know many of you have read. The 2019 longlist is one of my recent favorites, just because of how strong the overall list was. It featured some heavy hitters, with On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and The Nickel Boys, along with the recently adapted Fleishman Is In Trouble, and I think the fact that none of these three made the short list says a lot about how stacked this year was for fiction.
Each year, the longlist of books comes together to create a greater narrative about where we are in fiction and also the world. The books show what literary styles are most popular or considered worthy of merit, they discuss themes and ideas that we as a society find relevant at the time—reading a longlist of books from a certain year can almost act as a form of time travel that reading just one book can’t quite do. Whereas one book might feel like just one person’s observations about something they find important, seeing ten books gives a greater insight into the collective. Just considering the 2019 longlist alone, the books are all structurally innovative, many of them dealing with home and what it actually means to belong in a certain place, and many also deal with what it means to suffer with trauma and reconsider it later on.
In December, I covered the five books that didn’t make the short list, so today, I wanted to look at the other five, then consider the list as a whole. I want to know—now that we’ve had a little bit of distance, what does this list say about where we were at just a few short years ago.
The first book I’d read from the shortlist was Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. The novel, set in a Russian province, begins with the abduction of two young girls, before spreading it’s focus to the rest of the community over the course of a year. Each chapter moves the story forward a month, following a different person, with different characters coming and going from one story to the next. What’s interesting here is that the opening chapter would have you convinced this was a Gone Girl-esque thriller. In less than twenty pages, you’re immediately pulled into the story of these two young girls and what happens when they enter into a strangers car, only for the next chapter to pivot to something seemingly unrelated. This is where you might say that Phillips took the missing girl trope and turned it on its head.
When I first read this book, I wasn’t sure what to think of it. I think if you go into it with a certain expectation of the kind of book it’s going to be, it’s going to mess up your reading experience—Phillips isn’t interested in creating a mystery thriller type book, and you’re not going to get that. Instead,Disappearing Earth operates as a consideration of how a community deals with trauma, of the ways violence pervades the lives of women in a myriad of ways, and how your identity can be directly tied to whether or not anyone even cares about you at all.
Because I went in expecting the mystery, I didn't initially appreciate the brilliance of this book. One could describe it as a composite novel, which is a term people often use for a short story collection where all of the stories are tied together, but while I think each chapter can stand on its own, it really is a novel because of how the chapters operate within the framework. It’s well written and her eye for the precise details that build a world or a character are just stellar. I don’t think this is a story that would have been as impactful in its telling if it hadn’t utilized the space of the novel in the way it did, to explore the various people in the community and the ways they reacted to the news of the things going on in their community. Partway through the book, another girl goes missing, only this time it is a girl from an indigenous family, and it shows a striking difference in the ways the community reacts to her absence versus the girls from the beginning of the book. I have a lot of thoughts about this book that are too spoilery to get into here, but suffice it to say that I think it’s a great book and one worth reading—and also a strong contender on this list.
Now, the next book on the list is one I didn’t actually read until at the end of last year, and that’s The Other Americans by Laila Lalami. This was one that I knew I wanted to read when it first came out, but then it got a lot of hype with the people I follow on instagram, and I know I always judge hyped books too harshly. Reading this with some distance and on its own merits, I really enjoyed it. While the story itself isn’t as groundbreaking as others, I think Lalami’s use of the police procedural as a starting point for her social commentary was smart and innovative. (Since then, we’ve seen this done to less than stellar effect, but I won’t name names). She also creates an interesting challenge for herself in that she has nine different narrators for a single novel, which isn’t an easy task, especially for a reader as critical as I feel like I tend to be.
Lalami manages to create such distinct voices, perspectives, experiences, for each of these nine characters, and I found myself equally invested in each one. I’m always thinking of how difficult it is to really fill a novel with the many different types of people that populate our world, but I think this novel shows one of the ways that we can inch closer towards it. I also think that this is the kind of book where its so necessary to include as diverse a cast of characters as possible to get her point across, regarding the idea of what it means to belong. This book does such a beautiful job of examining the complications of the American identity, but without ever coming across as essayistic or letting her thought bubbles get in the way of the narrative. I think this is a struggle for many writers now, but Lalami’s confidence and respect for the reader lead to a stronger novel altogether. I can definitely understand why this one made the short list.
The third book on the list is Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James, which I technically started before any of the other books, since I had an advanced reader copy, but didn’t actually finish until a year later. This epic fantasy novel, which draws from African history and mythology, is both exquisite and extremely challenging to read. James is a brilliant writer, and I admire so much about what he did with this book. It’s violent, it’s unapologetically queer, it’s surprising and often thrilling—but it also shows that this is someone who takes language and form seriously, and that’s where he seemed to have the most fun. I’m not a big fan of fantasy books, so this one wasn’t really for me as a reader, but I don’t think a book has to be for you for you to be able to acknowledge its artistic merits and achievements. One of these days, I’ll actually read the sequel, which I have attempted and given up on twice now, but I like the idea of it.
The fourth book on the list is a short story collection, Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine. I love short stories, and when we talk about structure and form, the short story is one of the most exciting places to look at it, because it takes so much work to stuff a whole world inside such few pages. This is a brilliant collection, so full of life and color, written with a devastating beauty. Much likeDisappearing Earth, we see a heightened awareness of how violence sniffs out various women, intent on destroying them. Fajardo-Anstine does a beautiful job of crafting these characters and also writes about place with such affection, it could move you to tears.
I think even harder than writing short stories is assembling a collection of them, where they don’t feel too repetitive or like any of the stories are filler. There’s been a shift in how short story collections are assembled and marketed, with many writers now putting out linked collections or collections following a particular theme, but what I always find exciting is when a writer takes their obsessions and the questions that haunt them, and reconfigure them into new iterations for story after story, in a way that feels cohesive but not forced. I think Fajardo-Anstine has an “all hits, no skips” collection here, which is why I think it’s so worthy of being on this short list.
Now, moving on to the winner of this year,Trust Exercise by Susan Choi. I don’t wanna brag—that’s a lie, I do—but I predicted that this would win the National Book Award the first day of 2019. I saw the cover and thought to myself, this will win. Then I read it and thought, I was right, this will win. The novel begins with a romance between two drama students before spiraling into something else entirely, and to say anymore would be to give too much away. Trust Exercise isn’t for everyone—I got my friend Annie to read it, and while she liked it, the stream of consciousness writing wasn’t really for her—but I don’t think anyone can deny how well crafted it is. Susan Choi writes sentences that blow your mind, and they’re so frequent that you don’t even have time to process how great they all are, it’s almost that you end up taking them for granted. The book explores the power of perspective, the ways we create our own narrative for ourselves and how harmful that can be to those also involved in the narrative.
For me, Trust Exercise is a perfect encapsulation of what the narrative was that the judges were going for in 2019. While most of the books on the longlist were formally interesting and many of them dealt with violence against women, none of them married the technical brilliance with the spot on social commentary quite like this one. It’s not to say that the others are lesser works, to be clear, just that this book fit the particular narrative it seems that this jury was trying to tell. And it makes sense…this was the first year that we really saw the full impact of how Trump’s presidency impacted the literary world, the art being created. Several of these books were being written right around the time he began his campaign, and many of these books felt in some ways like a particular response to the fear of what a world with him as president would look like.
I should clarify, that’s just my interpretation of the list. I think that once we as a collective begin having conversations, the language shifts, becomes more precise or we develop a different vocabulary, and so I think that the structural innovations were these writers attempts to reflect the world they saw as the language developed, and these themes and ideas were each person’s response, and so it contributed to the evolving language that has made an impact on the conversations we’re still having now.
These are things I think about a lot, when it comes to my yearly reading. I don’t always know if my thoughts are right or not, but I do think it’s good to at least try to consider this kinda stuff while you’re reading, to engage with the works in whatever way you can.
I’m still, even now, thinking about what the 2019 books say about that time, which now feels so distant, post Covid. I also wonder what our current decade of books will say, once we’re able to look back on them. Our world shifts so quickly now, things change so fast, and yet people still do the same bad things and we still fight against it, and we still fear death and want love and don’t know what to do about it. I know it’s almost impossible to have any real perspective, time being so necessary to the enterprise. But it’s still fun, to wonder.
If you have any thoughts about the 2019 longlist, short list, the winner, any of the above conversation points, leave a comment below. And until next time,
Thank you. I appreciate the depth of analysis. Excellent write-up which will impact my 2023 reading goals.
You have me wanting to read all of these! Wonderful essay