Handicapping the BTBA Fiction Award, Part I [Last Thoughts]
Taking place at the Bowery Poetry Club at 8:45 and lasting till the wee hours, this promises to be an incredible event—one that was recently made even more incredible when Lorin Stein of The Paris Review agreed to MC and make the announcements . . .
Although my understanding of gambling and odds-making is a bit sketchy—I’m still confused by WTF 117 minus 127 7 ov-120 means in relation to the Cubs vs. Rockies today—I thought it would be fun if I tried to summarize handicap the finalists for the 2011 BTBA. Since I already know the winners (and no, you won’t get this out of me, although YES, I will accept bribes), don’t take any of this seriously, and since this is being written from a college campus I feel like I should reiterate that GAMBLING IS BAD FOR YOUR SOUL and that buzzed driving is drunk driving.
OK, let’s have some fun:
The Literary Conference by César Aira, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions) (Why This Book Should Win)
On the one hand, I think that Aira’s Ghosts is a better overall book than The Literary Conference. Tighter, more ambitious in scope, more serious. But man, is the Literary Conference fun! There’s hidden treasure, mad scientists, Carlos Fuentes, and cloning. Of all the finalists, it’s one of the shortest and flashiest books. What’s interesting to me about Aira is how he manages to get the reader to buy into something totally batshit, thus opening up a trillion unbelievable possibilities. In Ghosts it’s the ghosts themselves, mentioned first in an offhanded way, as if ghosts at a construction site was the most natural thing possible. With The Literary Conference it’s the Macuto Line. Read that description in the opening pages and then try and draw it: I dare you. But if you buy into that little bit of linguistic trickery, the rest of the book—did I mention the clones? the massive silkworms rolling down the mountain?—is completely believable.
Based on Aira’s sneaky nature, the unceasing flow of publications, and overall readableness, I’m giving him 5-to-1 odds of taking home the trophy this year.
A Life on Paper by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin (Small Beer) (Why This Book Should Win)
Seeing that the basis for Billy Pilgrim is buried just outside my office window, Kurt Vonnegut/Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud is a bit of a hometown favorite.
That said, as every book buyer in North America has told me, short stories are a tough sell. That probably holds for committees as well as customers, so I’d put KV’s odds at a healthy 12-to-1.
Hocus Bogus by Romain Gary (writing as Émile Ajar), translated from the French by David Bellos (Yale University Press) (Why This Book Should Win)
Hoaxes are way cool. Especially hoaxes played on corporate bastards who always seem to miss the joke/learning opportunity because THEY HAVE NO SOULS. But second to send-ups of
society destroyers companies like GE are literary hoaxes. Paul Maliszewski’s Fakers is an invaluable source on this topic, and includes the brilliant little game he played with the editors of the Syracuse Business Journal. Totally worth the $24.95 cover price just for that. (Sidenote: I love that Paul got busted for his fraudulent pieces when writing about Watertown, NY, a city that I constantly mispronounce as Water-ton, as if it’s a semi-elegant resort on the lake. According to people who’ve been there, Watertown—emphasis on the “town”—is a shithole. Which is probably why Paul’s invented company—and description of downtown Watertown—was so easy to pick out as fake.)
Since Gary’s hoax was so well constructed and fascinating, and since I have a friend who recently wrote a pilot centering around a publishing hoax, and since all of the judges voted for this to make the shortlist, I’m going all in on this crafty novel and giving it 3-to-1 odds.
On Elegance While Sleeping by Emilio Lascano Tegui, translated from the Spanish by Idra Novey (Dalkey Archive) (Why This Book Should Win)
One of my favorite editorial trips ever was to Buenos Aires. Helps that I absolutely LOVE Argentine literature (Macedonio, Puig, Cortazar, Borges, Arlt, Saer, Chejfec, Piglia, Ocampo, Bioy Casares, on and on and on), but even beyond that, the city is stunning, the weather was spectacular, the people all incredibly beautiful, and the bookstores grander than life. I also bought the only suit that fits me while I was there. At a store near Cortazar Plaza. . . . Glancing over the posts I wrote from Buenos Aires makes me both want to flee Rochester for an extended summer vacation where empanadas are 3 for a $1 and Malbec is easier to come by than clean water.
It also makes me want Tugui’s book to win the BTBA. But given that Idra is on the poetry committee, I’m thinking that this won’t happen simply for political reasons, which is why I think it’s got about a 25-to-1 chance of winning. (Doesn’t help that Dalkey Archive has never once mentioned the BTBA. Not that I expect such a thing, but good god, on their News Page, they linked to a review in the _Newark Star-Ledger. Just saying.)
Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss, translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg (Archipelago) (Why This Book Should Win)
In addition to the books from Aira and Gary, I think Georg Letham is the other truly serious contender from this group. Pros: Archipelago is well-loved by everyone on the committee, it’s long, it’s classic, there’s another mad scientist involved, it’s unique, nice packaging. Cons: Very long, may seem a bit dated to the general reading public, an Archipelago author won a few years ago.
Of the ten finalists, this may be the most “classic” of all the books. And since the committee members are very well-read and love “lasting” books, I really think this could winI’m going to give this 5-to-1 odds.
Last five works of fiction tomorrow . . .