Thursday, November 20, 2008

Matthiessen wins National Book Award

Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country, which is both a middlebrow novel dressed up (or puffed up, as the case may be) to look like something more daring and a rangy topical novel, has won the National Book Award for fiction. It was the safe choice.

Update: My guess is that Matthiessen’s novel owes its success largely to being championed by Michael Dirda in the New York Review of Books. An article by Charles McGrath in the New York Times said reassuringly that Dirda “compared passages from both versions and suggested that portions of Shadow Country were substantially rewritten.” In fact, Dirda compared just one passage from Lost Man’s River to the new version in the omnibus volume. He writes:

Throughout, the revised passage is subtly punchier, more provocative, and that flat phrase about the Negro Problem has been discarded entirely. Matthiessen’s polishing and sharpening of his original text can be seen in even the smallest of details. In Lost Man’s River the truly horrific, one-armed Crockett Junior has the words “BAD COUNTRY” scrawled in red lettering on the side of his truck. In Shadow Country this has become “BAD CUNTRY.”As a description of Matthiessen’s style, this does not exactly make me hungry for more. Punchier is a journalistic term. Provocative is a blurb, almost equivalent to the fashion industry’s flirty. (I don’t get it. Does the passage provoke thought? Violence? Hatred? Or does Dirda mean “provocative” as in the more slangy “in your face”?)

Throughout his essay “An Epic of the Everglades” in the May 15th issue, Dirda relies upon this critical style of generalizing praise, heavy on the adjectives, rather than building a slow careful case for Matthiessen’s novel. Consider his conclusion:. . . Shadow Country is altogether gripping, shocking, and brilliantly told, not just a tour de force in its stylistic range, but a great American novel, as powerful a reading experience as nearly any in our literature. This magnificent, sad masterpiece about race, history, and defeated dreams can easily stand comparison with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. Little wonder, too, that parts of the story of E. J. Watson call up comparisons with Dostoevsky, Conrad, and, inevitably, Faulkner. In every way, Shadow Country is a bravura performance, at once history, fiction, and myth—as well as the capstone to the career of one of the most admired and admirable writers of our time.Notice how he secures his conclusions. That Shadow Country is a “great American novel” is treated as established by assertion, which enables Dirda to refer to the novel casually in the next sentence as a “masterpiece.” (It is, however, a “magnificent, sad masterpiece. . . .” So that’s all right, then.)

Comparing Matthiessen’s novel to Invisible Man and All the King’s Men (thanks for reminding us who wrote them, Mr Dirda!) seems like it is an argument. Until you stop and ask yourself. What exactly do Invisible Man and All the King’s Men have in common? It’s like an SAT question, or a Netflix commercial. “Finish this series: Glass. Bacon.” “Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle!” Matthiessen does not merely resemble Ellison and Warren, however, but Dostoevsky, Conrad, and Faulkner too. Now I know exactly how he writes! The more you examine Dirda’s conclusion, the more it becomes a Thursday-night casserole of leftover advertising slogans.

That Dirda should have given the testimonial that won the National Book Award for Matthiessen is perfectly appropriate, since both the critic and the award are marketing devices of the publishing trade.

Update, II: Just occurred to me. Is any writer ever said to “call up comparisons” with, say, Ford Madox Ford, Mary Austin, or Francis de Miomandre?


Edmond Caldwell said...

The only fiction I've read by Matthiessen is Far Tortuga, which I found quite powerful. But when I tried his other books -- At Play In the Fields of Etcetera and the first volume of the trilogy (I forget the title) -- I couldn't get past the opening pages. Maybe Tortuga was a one-off?

Unknown said...

Far Tortuga should have won the best fiction award the year it was published, but it was overlooked and has been ever since. Few, if any, finer novels were written by an American in the twentieth century. Some complain that it's not clear who's speaking. With one exception when the voice is simply "crew" talking, there are always ways for the attentive reader to identify the speaker. And identification is important; there's never been a more fascinating cast of characters than one finds on this turtle boat. But this unique engagement of the serious, interested reader in the creative process is but one of its many, many strengths.