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The 2014 NBA Short List
In which we look at the books on the 2014 National Book Award Fiction shortlist and consider what the narrative was for that year...
Hi Y’all! Glad You’re Here—
This week, we’re taking a look at the five books making up the 2014 National Book Award Fiction shortlist. This year’s books were: Lila by Marilynne Robinson, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, A Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine, All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and the eventual winner, Redeployment by Phil Klay. This was the year before I officially switched teams from the Pulitzer to the NBA, so I hadn’t paid very close attention to these books at the time. I remember Books-A-Million had chosen All The Light We Cannot See as it’s big book that year, and it was the favorite to win the Pulitzer (which it eventually did) but I don’t really know what the conversation was around it regarding this specific award. Marilynne Robinson’s third entry into the Gilead quartet, Lila had also appeared on the Booker longlist, so it was another buzzy book, and Station Eleven had been very hyped by all of the readers I knew at the time, many who championed the book and wished for it to win. I think this makes Klay’s win fascinating, and also really interesting when comparing it to the win the following year, with Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, as I don’t really know if either of these short story collections would’ve been considered front runners of their given years. I wanted to take a look at this short list and see what commonalities these books have, consider how they relate to each other and also how they differentiate themselves, and see if we agree with the turnout!
The first book we’re going to look at is Lila by Marilynne Robinson. I’m a huge Robinson fan, and it’s pretty much a truth universally acknowledged that she is a genius. Two of her previous novels were shortlisted for the NBA, and her second novel, Gilead, took home the Pulitzer Prize. Lila is the third entry in the Gilead quartet, this time following the wife of the narrator of Gilead, John Ames. Lila was such a mysterious figure in both Gilead and its follow up, Home, mostly seen through the lens of the men around her. With this third entry, Robinson reveals the greater complexity to this character, her traumatic past and more complicated present. The revelation here almost reminded me of March by Geraldine Brooks—March follows the father from the classic work Little Women, and towards the end of the novel, we’re introduced to Marmie, who, until this point, we’ve only known as the doting mother to the four leads of the original. Her character, in this work, is much sharper, surprisingly harsh, and while it initially takes us aback as the readers, it makes more sense that we would be exposed to this woman in this way when she’s in the safe space of the confines of her marriage. I think many recent works have operated as a reconsideration of characters who previously had been written as this almost angelic presence in their original works. But since Robinson is the sole creator of these characters, it creates another level of intrigue and understanding, and always feels intentional.
I’ve covered Lila in a previous newsletter where I discussed my love for the Gilead quartet, and I think the way it operates within that greater framework is fascinating. However, if we’re considering it in the context of this prize, we have to look at it as its own work outside of the quartet. Lila is a beautiful novel, well-written—duh—with such a fascinating exploration of this character. While it does cover more familiar terrain, it’s a type of novel I always gravitate towards—if you like those books about a young woman looking at her complicated past, trying to find stability in her life as it is now, while observing the beauty of the world around her and asking greater philosophical questions, I think you’d enjoy this one. This is also a deeply felt novel. While all of Robinson’s books have brought me to tears at one moment or another, this is the one that had me feeling the most throughout.
In much of the research I did about this book, it turns out that it was considered the favorite to win the NBA. I’d love to know the conversations the judges had around this book. Sometimes Robinson’s work can be labeled as too religious or politically minded for some readers, and while I doubt that was the case here, I do think her work is so focused on these deeper questions and exploring them that the work itself could maybe be critiqued at times for its heavy-handedness. (I personally don’t have this problem, but if I had to guess a potential reason it might not work for some of the readers.)
The next book we’re looking at takes a sharp turn, away from the past, looking at our potential future, with Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. It’s funny to look at this book now, in our current world, since many people in 2020 pointed to Station Eleven as evidence that Mandel was some sort of prophet. Several 2014 reviews commented on how the science said that a flu pandemic was highly probably in our future, and that Mandel looked at it through the most apocalyptic lens. A few of these reviews even said that the work felt overdramatized, or that the characters were presented as too normal in the face of such devastation. It’s interesting how those same reviewers were some of the ones who, in the early days of the pandemic, held up her book as this great predictor, a perfect example of what was to come.
Now, with a little more distance, it’s clear that there were many things that Mandel got right. This makes it an interesting read now, and one that I enjoy when comparing it to the rest of this short list. Two of the books are historical—Lila and All The Light We Cannot See—and are reconsiderations of our history, whereas Station Eleven was a speculation of our near future. It just creates a fun balance when looking at the entirety of the shortlist. While I don’t really think it’s fair to take any of her accuracy (or inaccuracies) into consideration here, since we wouldn’t have known back in 2014, it’s just fun to observe as a reader.
I remember loving this book when it came out and have since been a big fan of Mandel’s work. She’s great at weaving in many different plot elements without them feeling contrived, and her sentences are so sharp. I think there are many great things to admire about this work. It is inescapable, this comparison to other post-apocalyptic works, and there were several moments where I was reminded of Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, but I don’t really think you can write this kind of book without the elements that are so similar in their works, so I don’t dock points for that. If anything, I would question whether or not it being a part of this genre hurt its chances at taking the award—I think most any book following The Road has had a hard time, from a literary standpoint. Even still, Mandel holds her own.
The third book we’re looking at is An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine. This is one I hadn’t read until this year, for this project—every year, there’s a book on the shortlist that people don’t give as much consideration to, and I feel like this was that book. When I looked up the numbers on this one, it appeared to have the lowest readership on Goodreads, which is a pity because it’s captivating and a pretty quick read. It’s about this older woman living in Beirut who spends each year translating a different book into Arabic, though no one ever reads her translations or even knows they exist. This is the basic plot of the book, her relationship to literature, to art, her personal history and how it functions towards the greater history of the city she calls home. It’s so well-conceived and beautifully rendered, and an unexpected work in comparison to the rest of the shortlist.
Over the years, I’ve seen arguments relating to whether or not a book is “American” enough to make this list, and while I think that’s silly—as the award is simply looking for the best book by a U.S. writer—I do often wonder if books written by and about people from other places are being considered with a limited lens, when it comes to this award. Even 2020’s Shuggie Bain was written by a man born and raised in Scotland, writing about growing up in Glasgow, and when I think back on my read of that book, there’s a part of me that wonders if I approached it in the way that is necessary. Was I too critical of the books lack of specificity in the setting? There are little things that we sometimes forget we’re used to seeing in books by U.S. writers, but that we shouldn’t demand from other writers. Not every book is going to pull from the same influences, follow the same styles—one of the major criticisms lodged at Black writers in the late 40’s and early 50’s was that they were writing works that didn’t seem as “good” because they weren’t pulling from European influences. Now, there are quite a few of those books that are considered classics. Part of me wonders if there were aspects of An Unnecessary Woman that pulled from a different inspiration, and because of that, got overlooked. I can’t say for sure—it’s just a thought I’ve had more often as I’ve tried to read more world literature.
It’s actually interesting to consider An Unnecessary Woman in this context when we look at the next book, All The Light We Cannot See, which is another book that doesn’t take place in the U.S., though it’s a book by an American writer, and has a setting that is more familiar to American audiences. All The Light We Cannot See is a World War II novel following a blind French girl named Marie-Laure Leblanc and a German boy named Werner Pfennig. This was one of those books that everyone recommended to me when it came out, praised it left and right, talked about how beautiful the prose was, how lyrical, how fast paced and unputdownable it was. I will admit that I didn’t love this one when I read it—I don’t think it’s bad, it just didn’t hit for me at the time (though to be clear, I plan on revisiting it again in the future and hope to be able to appreciate its brilliance then). What I find so interesting about this book is the fact that it literally took home the Pulitzer Prize, the award given to the best book “preferably dealing with American life” and no one really comments on this aspect like they do books by writers of color, writers from places that aren’t as often depicted in American literature. This isn’t the books fault, of course, but I do think it’s a flaw in the way some readers critique these books, and something I’ve become more aware of as I’ve covered more of these NBA books.
The book itself is well-written and undeniably captivating. The short chapters create a propulsive energy that keeps the pages turning. It’s well researched without being bloated with unnecessary detail. From a technical standpoint, it’s a stellar work. I can see why it’s so universally loved. I’ve noticed that people just generally love WWII novels, too. If you loved this one, it’s one I would love to discuss, because I want to be able to appreciate it more than I do now.
Moving on to our last book, the winner, Phil Klay’s Redeployment is the sole short story collection on the shortlist (there were two collections on the longlist, as well), and is the second “war” book on the list. Klay’s stories are compelling and smartly written, but what is most striking about them is just how confronting they are when it comes to the experience of war as we know it today. One of the issues with many of the war novels I’d read when I was younger—one of the issues I still have with some war novels today—is that they don’t always seem to grasp the gravity of war and the breadth of experience from those involved. Klay’s stories are almost reminiscent of the works of the 50’s, written by those who’d served in WWII. There’s an immediacy to the work, an urgency, a deep understanding and a clear effort that went into crafting something that felt honest. While I don’t know if I would say this is the strongest work of 2014, I can imagine that it felt the most fresh and surprising of what we’d seen, as far as the war books go.
While I can’t really say what I think this year’s narrative was until I cover the other five books that were on the longlist, I do think it’s interesting that we’re seeing several books that cover war in different ways—obviously Redeployment and All The Light We Cannot See, but An Unnecessary Woman also covers war from a slightly different direction. That, along with the reflections on our past and future are really fascinating to me. I can’t wait to take a closer look at the longlist and gather my thoughts after that!
If you have any thoughts on this shortlist or 2014 books as a whole, I’d love to hear them! Hoping to get the longlist book discussion out this week, so stay tuned! As always, thanks so much for your time and for reading.
As a side note, Johnson was actually a judge for this award year—this isn’t unusual, but just a little fun fact, since he judged the year before he won.