Weekly updates and mini reviews of fiction shortlisted for the National Book Award: Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, and Domenico Starnone’s Trick.
This week I completed the Fiction and Translated Literature shortlists for the National Book Awards. While I can’t say that I loved everything that was on my reading list, I did enjoy Hanne Ørstavik’s Love and Lauren Groff’s Florida. Both authors are talented at developing complex female protagonists, and each captures the rhythms of consciousness in her own distinctive way.
I’ll discuss both shortlists and rank the titles on each over the course of the next few weeks, but for now I just want to make a note of how much more I liked the Translated Literature shortlist. Almost all of the shortlisted books in translation wowed me, whereas most of the novels and collections on the Fiction shortlist left me feeling lukewarm. Mini reviews of two titles from each shortlist are included below!
(1) Simple but clever, Domenico Starnone’s Trick dramatizes a grandfather’s flustered attempt to care of his four-year-old grandson over the course of four days. The novella swings from past to present as the grandfather, a Milan-based artist nearing the end of his career, reflects on his humble childhood in Naples and questions what he has accomplished in life, all while trying to meet the needs of his attention-seeking grandson. Meditations on art, time, and ambition are embedded within the comic main plot: the three-part story alternates between reading as frivolous and serious. The dialogue is sharp, the descriptions droll, the pacing swift, the characters well drawn. The novella is formally brilliant, though the story lacks stakes.
(2) The winner of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights reflects on what it means to embrace wandering as a way of life. A few lengthy stories about travelers and migrants comprise the bulk of the collection, but between these the author intersperses many short sketches, essays, anecdotes, and facts. I found both kinds of pieces to be hit or miss. The stories can be either stimulating and moving or drawn out and tedious; the short sections are as succinct as often as they are superficial, and many, especially those concerning anatomy, feel repetitive. Tokarczuk occasionally draws interesting parallels between the ways humans map the world, the body, and the intellect, but Flights as a whole feels scattered and underdeveloped.
(3) A meditation on writing, grief, and friendship, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend follows an unnamed woman as she comes to terms with an old friend’s suicide and struggles to take care of the dog he has left behind. The novel is narrated from the woman’s perspective, and each of its twelve chapters consists of a series of fragments addressing a wide array of subjects. The flimsy plot in fact feels merely like a jumping-off point for philosophical contemplation; the narrator discusses at length the ethics of animal ownership, sexual harassment, friendships between men and women, divorce, literary composition, pedagogy, and suicide. A pair of twists in the final two chapters adds a dash of drama to the story, but the novel mostly focuses on the narrator’s musings, which unfortunately come across as old fashioned and disjointed.
(4) Bringing together nine stories about Black masculinity, Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man examines the loneliness and endurance of Black boys and men living in American cities. The pieces gathered here focus on the male protagonist’s relationships with women, but they also look at his friendships with other men and his bond with his father. Brinkley’s prose is crisp and sharp, his sentences carefully constructed. The neatness of his prose often is at odds with the messiness of his character-focused stories, which take sudden turns and end on notes of ambiguity. The author could have more fully realized his female characters, who often appear as sketches, but his treatment of Black male interiority is nuanced and subtle.