The 2016 Tournament of Books - Day One

The 2016 Tournament of Books - Day One

Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving vs. A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Both John Irving and Anne Tyler are very successful, prolific writers and that means that like most people I’m coming into this matchup with biases. I was raised in a family that believed Irving to be one of the great–if not the greatest–living American writer. Tyler is a novelist I first read in high school because I was required to. I in fact was required to read more Anne Tyler novels than Mark Twain novels in high school. (I’ll avoid mentioning the name of my alma mater, though it deserves a lot of shame and scorn for this and other reasons). I’m not a fan of Tyler.

Now Irving’s novel is not his best, I’ll freely admit. It is an odd book, that may deal with many of his concerns, adds a few other ideas and locations and assembles them in a different way. People like to snarkily that every John Irving novel is about prep schools, wrestling and bears–which is a great argument in a classroom, but it’s not true. His work does have a lot of recurring themes, but among those themes are the terror of parenthood, the precarious and dangerous lives of children, how we become different–often very different–people as we grow, this belief in the supernatural and the power of magic.

The fact that his main character is a Mexican-American novelist will no doubt have people crying racism, but the truth is that he’s written about mysticism and religion in the past. He’s written about people with difficult childhoods who grow up to be very different kinds of adults. He’s written about people who mine their childhoods to craft fiction. Admittedly, he’s done all of these things better in other books, but the fact that he’s addressing these themes isn’t new.

In some ways the two do have something in common, both can be seen as sentimental writers. I suppose that the main difference to my mind is that Irving’s books are much darker and more complicated and so that while sentimental, they read very differently. In other words, one of my big problems with this book–and was my main problem with Tyler’s books when I read them in high school–is that they’re just too nice, to the point of being slight.

While I think that Irving’s book never quite coheres, it is the work of a writer who is trying new things, interested in new things, and wants to write about what he sees around him. Tyler is a writer who is writing about many of the same ideas and themes. Admit it, it’s a family saga, there’s a love story, it’s set in Baltimore, the characters are white–you knew all this before you even opened the Tyler book or heard what it was about.

Tyler’s book suffered in my estimation because I was reading all of the books in this year’s tournament that I hadn’t read last year in one fell swoop. As a result I read Tyler after reading Angela Flournoy’s novel, The Turner House. I found Flournoy’s novel to be one of the best of this year’s tournament, but it is a multigenerational family saga centering around a house. In Flournoy’s book however, it’s about an African-American family in Detroit from the Great Migration to 2008. As a result it’s about redlining and racism, social change, work, how the city has changed over time. It’s about the house, but it’s also about what the house represents–a lot. And not something that they’re going to give up on easily.

Tyler’s novel has none of this. The social upheavals of Baltimore since the Great Depression just aren’t in this novel. Reading these two books back to back made the Tyler novel came off like a Hallmark Channel TV movie. One reason is that most of the characters in Tyler’s large family faded together. Many of them felt very generic and have very little to do–which may be why there was so little tension and conflict. Reading Flournoy, having dealt with aging relatives and money issues and watch them play out in my family, it felt real. There were different ideas and opinions and conflicts and in Tyler’s book, I felt little tension. It felt flat and nice and dull. And not reassuring nice, but unreal nice. I’m not saying that I needed there to be a lot of fighting or yelling, but there needed to be tension around the house and what would happen and the siblings if not fighting, then at least talking over what they would do and how. Instead the mother dies, the father goes, well, I’ll move into an apartment, and none of the siblings want to move into the house and there’s no debate over selling it and so after burying mom, they all go back to their lives. It felt too neat.

I’m sure that plenty of people will read the Tyler novel and enjoy it. It’s sweet and sentimental and well-written. It was just a little too sweet and a little too pat for me. Irving’s book had a lot of rough edges, but I would much prefer an interesting failure to a dull, flat melodrama.

My Winner:  Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving.

Meanwhile, at the Tournament, the judges HATED Irving and loved Tyler.


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