The 2016 Tournament of Books - Semifinals, Day One

The 2016 Tournament of Books - Semifinals, Day One

Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson vs. The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

In many of the matchups at different rounds of the tournament, I base my decision on very simple thinking: I liked one book but I loved the other book. That's why I preferred The Turner House.

Some of that is simply a question of personal taste, of the preferences that one has for a certain genre or approach. In reading the comments throughout the Tournament-

(Here I should add that I think that the ToB comments section are possibly the only comment section on the internet worth reading, composed of passionate, opinionated readers discussing what they love - as opposed to most comments sections, which convince me that if humanity were wiped out tomorrow, it would be a net benefit for the universe)

But in reading the Tournament commentators, they typically damn The Turner House with faint praise. They describe it as traditional and well constructed. The idea being that compared to a book like Bats of the Republic, which is insane, which is conceived and structured and designed to be a unique experience, that The Turner House lacks something by simply being words on a page designed to be read in order.

Of course it's about what you want out of a book, but now that it's been a little while since I read both books, I'm not struck less by my initial thoughts but now what has stayed with me. For example I enjoyed assembling a jigsaw puzzle while on a roller coaster (or whatever awkward metaphor we're using to describe the experience of reading Bats of the Republic) and I loved the design. Hell, I probably spent as much time obsessing and looking over the design of the book as I did actually reading the book. But at a remove, the characters and much of the plot have faded. The characters were always thinly drawn and at a distance, they only way they stick in my mind is their role in the plot.

By contrast, The Turner House is a family saga involving a large Detroit-based family, but it's all about the characters and even though it's been a month since I read the book I can still remember the characters their voices. That's what is so striking about the book, that Flournoy manages to juggle so many characters, to make their voices so distinct and unique. This is a first novel but it doesn't read like it. Flournoy manages to make it look so easy and I think that's the reason for some of the understated praise because what she is able to do is so profound and so powerful, but also very simple. After all, shouldn't all novels have lots of characters, each of whom has their own voice? Shouldn't a story about a family actually act like a family and not like some idea of a family?

Of course most books don't. In her first novel Flournoy does an amazing job of capturing the characters as individuals and the family dynamics. It's easy to have a "bad kid" who everyone else has a an opinion about, to create conflict in melodramatic ways, but to find a way to make the conflict organic to the characters and the situations is something very rare.

The Turner House is a work of genius and a great novel about the United States. If you haven't read it yet, please do.

My Verdict:  The Turner House

At the Tournament:  The Turner House

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