France vs. Mexico [Women's World Cup of Literature: First Round]
This match, the first of the tournament, was judged by P.T. Smith, a freelance critic. You can follow him on Twitter at @PTSmith_Vt.
Each World Cup traditionally has a Group of Death—a group where more teams are good enough to make it out, and deserve to, than the tournament structure allows. With Carmen Boullosa’s Texas: The Great Theft (trans. Samantha Schnee) going up again up against Virginie Despentes’s Apocalypse Baby (trans. Siân Reynolds), France vs. Mexico is without a doubt a Group of Death match-up. I finished both days ago, spent Sunday thinking about both, over and over, and came to no conclusion as to which was better. Even as I write this, though I am leaning one way, I’m not certain of the outcome.
Not only are both books rewarding reads—books I’ve been meaning to and was damned happy to get one final motivating push to get to—but the match-up itself is fascinating. There are ways the two are entirely different. Stylistically, Texas is lush, with prose to dwell over and descriptions to pause and appreciate. At points it gracefully drifts from realism. It is a slow book, expansive, full of anecdotes, allowing tangents to cover the history of a just introduced character. Because it inhabits as many citizens of the border towns Bruneville and Matasánchez as it can, time passes slowly, backtracking to retell events from a new angle.
Apocalypse Baby does not drift. It propels forward, hardly taking a breath. These sentences are not meant to be reread to be understood or appreciated. But this isn’t a criticism or dismissal of the prose. Writing sentences that are straightforward but exciting, that keep a book thrilling and give engaging characters depth is a skill, and Despentes is damn fine at it. Her characters’ biting and cynical jokes hit again and again. Sometimes, you just want to read a book quickly, and in the hands of someone with her skill, that doesn’t make it lesser than a book meant to be read slowly. Apocalypse Baby looks to entertain first and make you ponder its ideas or aesthetics second, whereas Texas switches those motivations. Each achieves both of these goals.
Even in the ways the books are similar, they differ. Both books have an attention-getting character who is an outlaw of sorts, someone others tell legends about. Texas has Nepomuceno, a vaquero who shoots an American sheriff hassling a local drunk and then leads his men in battle against Rangers. Apocalypse Baby has the Hyena, an aggressive beast of a woman, whether in her sexual pursuits or in her breaking down someone’s lie, and a detective who has worked as a debt collector and an information-gatherer for assorted groups and agencies. Yet, neither book spends that much time from either character’s perspective. Instead, the third-person omniscient perspective moves from person to person, letting us see vastly different consciousnesses, seeing the same events and people in new ways, ways that change your perceptions.
Where they differ in this is scope. Apocalypse Baby’s only first-person narrator gets the most pages, but the handful of other characters create a whole world: a semi-successful writer, an Arab teen, a rich French housewife. They get their own chapters, significant chunks of time. Texas’s scope is massive. Many more characters are inhabited, and they are more varied—the owner of a whorehouse, a priest’s wife, a hat shop owner, a madman preacher with a talking cross, a tree, a bullet, the dead, another rich housewife, far from home this time—and the switches happen continually, each stay brief.
In doing this, the contestants are accomplishing the same thing . . . but different again. They capture a culture in conflict and flux. The border of Mexico and the US is shifting, with the latter taking more and more, whether through economics or outright violence. Apocalypse Baby shows modern female perspectives, diverse in tone and sexual attitude, almost combating each other: the apathetic, schlubby narrator, invisible to most people; the superficial woman who knows the power of her sex appeal over men and is willing to sell it; the Hyena, absurdly confident lesbian who sexualizes every female she meets. It also lays out the frightened older culture of France, the power of the Internet, and the young, angry youth.
The fourth referee has held up the sign indicating three minutes of stoppage time, and I’ve still hardly said enough about these books. Plot? Texas: the battle for freedom in the collapsing US-Mexico border, the story of the victims, the bystanders, and the aggressors. Apocalypse Baby: two detectives, one hapless, the other a bit of a charming madwoman, hunt down missing a teen across Paris and Barcelona, a teen lost in her culture, not fitting in with any group, her loneliness and desperation, desire to please others, especially men, to live up to something, putting herself at risk.
Stoppage time passes. We’re onto overtime. This too, passes. So to the ending no one likes: shootouts. There’s something else these books share: flaws. These too are different. Texas is shaggy. It is loose and messy at times. Some pieces don’t connect as they could. It can drag. Apocalypse Baby’s ending loses itself. It changes scope, takes a turn towards a big ending that doesn’t fit with what came before. It doesn’t have what worked so well: the small-world tensions that speak to the larger world. Suddenly, too much happens, too many strings are made to tie, when really they don’t.
So here it is. Down to the fifth shooters. Texas’s flaw suits it. That messiness, those bits of boredom, they are part of what happens with ambitious books. But Apocalypse, in its commitment to the thrills, to the drive of plot, to the fun of genre, must stick the ending. At times, the book is excessive, like its outrageous orgy scene, and if any of that is a flaw, the orgy is not, then it is a flaw that suits it. A flawed ending, and it is hard to criticize without revealing, simply fails a book of Apocalypse’s style.
Texas wins in penalty shoot-outs, as Apocalypse misses its final shot. So, read Texas.
But do yourself a favor, appreciate a book that lost, that could beat many others in the tournament, fucking read Apocalypse Baby too.
Next up, Mexico’s Texas: The Great Theft will face off against either Life after Life by Kate Atkinson (England) or Delirium by Laura Restrepo (Colombia) on Saturday, June 27th. Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Hal Hlavinka and features Cote D’Ivoire’s Queen Pokou by Veronique Tadjo going up against Norway’s The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann.