Friday, September 15, 2006

The News from Paraguay: "Continued mortgaging the country" is a problem.

We are approaching the season of some of the serious literary awards and Fosco has a confession to make: he likes the big literary prizes. There is no easier way to snag his interest in a book than to mention that it won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, or the Booker Prize. Er... I mean the Man Booker Prize. Even some of those oddly-named PEN awards can be worthy of notice.

Fosco is also immediately interested in any book that receives more than "three paws up" from Piper. Be warned: fewer than three paws up is just a waste of your time.

The reason that Fosco enjoys these awards is that he doesn't take them too seriously. It seems silly to believe that the National Book Award could really mean that the winning book was the best book of that year. What would that even mean? Rather, Fosco takes these awards as saying something like this: "We, a committee of well-educated, well-read people who pay attention to the world of letters, would like to suggest that the following book or books is probably worth your time." If you think about the awards in this way, it frees up a lot of potential anger and resentment that can then be applied elsewhere (ideally, towards the elderly).

Speaking of anger and resentment, remember all that nastiness over the 2004 National Book Award? That was the year that love-him-or-hate-him author Rick Moody was the chair of the panel and the nominees were 5 women who

  • all lived in NYC
  • had sold less than 2500 copies each
  • no one had ever heard of (and by no one, I mean: anyone who subsequently wrote a resentful criticism of Moody's choices).
In the end, I felt bad for eventual winner Lily Tuck and her novel, The News from Paraguay. After all, I imagine that she felt like she hit the lottery even to be nominated over heavy hitters like Philip Roth (considered by Fosco to be our greatest living writer). And then, to actually win the award, only to have her book remembered as "that undeserving book that Rick Moody promoted because of his own weird literary agenda." The whole thing has the flavor of a "your wish has been granted, but with an unpleasantly ironic loophole--ha ha!" and that makes me feel a bit sorry for Lily Tuck.

But, even though I felt sorry for her, I had no intention of reading the book. After all, it's about Paraguay--an afterthought of a country on an afterthought of a continent. And even worse: it's about Paraguay in the 19th Century! I would have bet a large amount of money that Paraguay didn't even exist in the 19th Century (and I would have lost...) Maybe this makes me a First-World Chauvinist (although, I have read historial novels about India, China, and Africa--so maybe my chauvinism is limited to South America).

But then, several months ago, I came across a sad sight: an entire stack of hardcover copies of The News from Paraguay (first printing!) on remainder at a bargain bookstore. No National Book Award winner should suffer this fate, no matter its shortcomings (isn't there something the National Book Foundation can do to prevent this?). I was moved to purchase a copy, just to make the pain go away. And then, last week, mainly because it was there (and it did win a National Book Award), I picked it up and read it.

And you know what? It's actually really good. Luckily, the novel doesn't require you to learn much about historical Paraguay or even to care much about Paraguay (which is good, because I wasn't going to do either). Rather, by recounting brief vignettes (kaleidoscopically, I think the reviews said) with a gently irony (reminiscent of my beloved Penelope Fitzgerald), Tuck illuminates everyday emotional life, with its mixture of venal absurdity and pitiful sincerity. It's sweet and sad and occasionally sexy and I was moved by it. Was this the best novel of 2004? I don't care--I'm just glad that I finally got around to reading it.

And as for the news from Paraguay, according to a Babel Fish translation of one of the stories in today's Ultimo Hora:
"IT IS NOT POSSIBLE TO BE CONTINUED MORTGAGING the COUNTRY", INDICATES the PRESIDENT Of the CONGRESS We rejected the orders of the Executive authority because the guarantee sufficient does not exist to administer that money, the holder of the National Congress declared. The oviedista senator Enrique González Quintana made these declarations during a meeting of leaders of large stone benches of the Senate, occasion in which the reasons were explained that motivated the decisions taken yesterday in the Legislative Power.
All I know is that I would lurve to see all those "leaders of large stone benches." Do you think they're animate? Even if not, Paraguay still probably has a better democracy than we do.

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